[Source-Wikimedia Commons-public domain]
Reading Gary Nash’s Urban Crucible made me think about the importance of urban history–specifically the importance of seaport towns–for understanding demographic and social change in the eighteenth century. As a lit scholar, I was simply unaware the significance of these towns, until I read this paragraph from the Preface [Abridged Version]:
What I think this book captures is a large-scale social process whose origins can be traced in these little Northern ports (New York, Philadelphia, and Boston), which were admittedly tiny in comparison with the great urban centers of other continents. It is perhaps the size of these North American towns that allows us to recognize a process taking place all over the world.
According to Nash, this transformative process radiates outward to dissolve and recast social structures and relations throughout North America by the time of the American Revolution. Nash wants to discover the origin of both class consciousness and modern capitalism in these towns and their history. His extraordinary facility with his sources helps him make this argument persuasively, by matching traditional historical sources like pamphlets and newspapers with economic and demographic evidence. (And I’m glad to see that social historians still agree with me on this, even if they’ve been studying the book for a lot longer than I have)
After reading this opening, my first question was whether these kinds of forces were shaping England, or Europe, as well? What kinds of comparisons could we make between British and colonial seaports? And how might literary history have been shaped by this particular dimension of urban history? I can just barely discern it in Equiano’s accounts of London and Philadelphia, but where else might we be able to find it? Wycherley’s Plain Dealer? Somewhere in Mandeville? Defoe? Or is every important town in 18th century writing a seaport, anyway?