Between Two Worlds: A book review by Bob Morris

Between Two WorldsBetween Two Worlds: How the English Became Americans
Malcolm Gaskill
Basic Books/A Member of the Perseus Book Group (2014)

A unique process of natural selection in the New World that led to independence from the Old World

It is probably impossible for anyone living today, especially in one of the original thirteen colonies, to understand and appreciate – fully and completely – how difficult it was for most people early in the 17th century to leave their homes in the Old World and embark on a perilous voyage to a New World. Once there, only a few would survive for more than a year or two. Many never made it across the perilous Atlantic. These are the ingredients for what could be an epic account, written by a Homer, As clearly indicated in Between Two Worlds, Malcolm Gaskill is a world-class raconteur as well as a distinguished scholar whose primary interest is in early modern history. In this his latest work, he focuses primarily on the difficult process by which “the English became Americans” or, to be more accurate, emigrants modified European models to accommodate the realities of their colonial communities, especially in Virginia and then Massachusetts.

In his superb review of Between Two Worlds for The Wall Street Journal (26 January 26, 2015), “When Boston Was the Frontier,” Alan Taylor observes, “More than a century ago, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner asserted that the colonial frontier turned European emigrants into American democrats. Having crossed the Atlantic, colonists plunged into a wild world of dense forests and savage people. In braving the dangers and seizing new opportunities, the newcomers gradually shed their European heritage, which valued cohesion, tradition and hierarchy. These newly made Americans would come to cherish individualism, innovation, equal legal rights, and the unequal economic results of geographic and social mobility. With his Frontier Thesis, Turner codified a long-standing version of American self-explanation that went back at least to the 18th century, when John Hector St. John de Crèvecouer — in his Letters From an American Farmer — famously asked: ‘What, then, is the American, this new man?’”

“Migration to a strange land inevitably changes people, but ‘American exceptionalism’ insists upon a stark, indeed a complete, transformation in which Americans became the utter inversion of Europeans. Shades of gray will not do. In his lively Between Two Worlds: How the English Became Americans, Malcolm Gaskill seeks to qualify, but not forsake, the exceptionalist story by applying a shiny coat of ambiguity and contradiction.

“On the one hand, he says, ‘settlers balked at compromise because their environment did not compromise, and it had changed them.’ On the other hand, ‘more than has been recognized…American ‘innovation’ used English models. Those models included the pursuit of ‘prosperity and liberty for some’ by requiring ‘others to be poor, subordinated, dispossessed, and shackled.’ Indians died, and African-Americans worked so that some Englishmen could get rich (but others remain poor) in a new land of inequality. Mr. Gaskill stops well short of denunciation by dwelling on the ‘courage—the quintessence of adventure’ in those striving and conquering immigrants.”

[To read Taylor’s complete review, please click here.]

In Rachel Trethewey’s review of Between Two Worlds for The Independent (27 November 2014), she observes, “In this epic which takes us from Newfoundland to the Caribbean, New England back to England, Gaskill tells the story of the early settlers in America from a new perspective. He argues that rather than embracing fresh identities, English migrants tried to preserve Englishness. Disputes and social problems were exported from the old world to the new. The colonists tried to recreate an imagined England from the past; landowners wanted feudal estates, farmers small-holdings and Puritans the early church. However, the experience of surviving in the wilderness changed them and discovering the new world also turned out to be a journey of self-discovery.

“In the 17th century, 350,000 English people crossed the Atlantic to America. Few realised what they were letting themselves in for. They had to be brave to survive; facing extreme weather and threats from native Indians, many of the first settlements failed. By 1610 Jamestown was in ruins. Faced with starvation, some even turned to cannibalism. Equally challenging were relationships among the colonists. In New England Puritans had crossed the Atlantic to escape religious persecution. However, rather than creating their Biblical vision of a New Jerusalem they replicated the intolerance of the old world. The persecuted had become the persecutors.”

I agree with Trethewey: “Gaskill has written a work of extraordinary scholarship. It captures the spirit of adventure and courage of the first settlers but it also shows how high ideals were transformed by the harsh realities of life. Rather than the masque of 1613 which promoted an idyllic version, a more accurate representation was provided by Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Performed two years earlier, its exploration of exile, discovery and identity reflected what it was really like to cross frontiers.”

[To read her complete review, please click here.]

Here are three other key points:

First, Gaskill gives a human face to settlements with names such as such as Jamestown in Virginia (1607) and Plymouth (1620) in Massachusetts. Over time, the nomenclature of “New England” and elsewhere was increasingly derived from native rather than European sources.

Next, many of those who emigrated to the New World exchanged a “known devil” of socio-economic and religious oppression for an “unknown devil” of what they hoped to be greater freedom and opportunity…and for thousands of emigrants, that proved to be a deadly choice.

Finally, long before Abraham Maslow formulated his concept of “hierarchy of human needs,” emigrants to the New World struggled to survive, then become secure (i.e. stable) before they could begin to think about self-fulfillment (or as Maslow characterized it, “self-actualization”). Gaskill provides a brilliant context, a frame-of-reference, for what in some ways resembles a process of natural selection throughout the 17th and well into the 18th centuries as, yes, “English became Americans” in the New World. Of greater interest and significance to me is that the fact those who survived in the New World – over time – developed an insatiable need for independence that would not be denied.

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