Thursday, August 20, 2009

Book Review: "Errands Into the Metropolis"

Errands into the Metropolis: New England Dissidents in Revolutionary London by Jonathan Beecher Field (Dartmouth University Press, 2009) is a fascinating and tightly-focused study of a particular culture of print: that of New England dissidents (specifically those connected with the Rhode Island settlements) publishing works in London in the mid-17th century. Field argues that these dissidents (including Rogers Williams, Samuel Gorton and others) "availed themselves of specific discursive opportunities produced by a historically distinct combination of political, cultural and technological circumstances" (p. 5).

Field argues that the Rhode Island dissidents were as successful as they were partly because the distance required for the mediation of disputes (between them and their counterparts in the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies) allowed them to level the playing field: "to a degree, rhetorical ability in print could outweigh overmatched political power" (p. 5). Persuasive written accounts of feuds could win out, Field suggests, and did in a remarkable number of Rhode-Island-related cases. While some of this might have been a case of 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend,' I think Field's onto something, and his argument worked for me.

Through close readings of certain dissident texts, including Williams' Key Into the Language of America, John Clarke's Ill Newes from New England and others, Field argues that the dissidents did more to shape their appeals to the ears and minds of their British readers, and deployed the goal of toleration as a pragmatic tactic, rather than some idealistic goal.

A very succinct and finely-honed work, which is interesting from first page to last, both for its depictions of mid-17th century publishing practices and techniques, and for its intriguing argument. Recommended.

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