I was walking along the Connecticut shoreline today, and saw a little dinghy on the beach. It had nice, big oar locks, the kind that give good “leverage. The oar locks on English dinghies are more shallow and give much less.
This got me thinking about English and American saddles. Same difference. English saddles do not give the same purchase that American ones do.
This means that the transition from English row boats and horses is, for someone accustomed to the American equivalent, perilous. Just when you want to “dig in, you find you can’t. With English rowboats and horses, you have to know what you’re doing.
So what happened to this technology? Presumably, the Americans started with the English original and adapted it. Why, and why so much?
One answer: immigrants. Almost certainly, the American adaptation was driven by the arrival of a stream of new comers. They may have worked in trade or service in the old country, but the American opportunity would engage them in new ways. It might oblige them take to land or sea by unfamiliar means, all of a sudden, with not much training. Horses and row boats had to be “fault tolerant.
Second, in the English case, the mastery of row boats and horses was inevitably about class. To be good a riding or rowing, this was one way to separate the sheep from the goats in a system deeply preoccupied with this distinction. (Riding would have been about distinctions of rank and rowing also about something more guild-like, but we will not worry this distinction here.)
The English planted “lie detectors everywhere: elaborate systems of food, clothing, language and interaction, containing hundreds of fine distinctions, every one of them a test of whether you were “one of them or “one of us. A Georgian place setting, on a slow night, could contain 12 implements. “Excess to requirement for some purposes, but very useful for seeing who was born to their station and who was newly arrived. Worse, these tests were to be dispatched with aplomb. To use the phrase Leora evoked in a recent comment, Castiglione’s sprezzatura was the order of the day. Knowing the code was not enough, you had to dispatch its demands with faultless grace (‘the art that concealed art).
What a vast carrying charge this was. The English were extraordinarily inventive. But, mark you, only gentlemen were in the early days trusted to be scientists. They might and did engage in every kind of technological and industrial innovation, but they were disinclined to let these innovations “ripple out to rework the social order.
How gifted the Americans. Possessed of the same inventiveness but not “saddled by the same cultural governors. Damn the rippling, just get the job done. They had just found a way to get another 20 miles a gallon from the engine of industry. The English had always had access to this “secret weapon, a small cultural change that would unleash unimagined new powers of dynamism. (And of course, in small and un-American ways they did.) But culture and practice imposed upon them oar locks and saddles was devoted to other objectives.
Walking around Connecticut, you sometimes, but only sometimes, think of that Faulkner line: here the past is not dead, it is not, in fact, past. But mostly what you see is a landscape that has been reworked with furious energy and a scant regard for preservation. The past is past and quite, quite dead. Look, you can see it there in that row boat lying on the beach.
“Can it have been merely by coincidence that the future was to belong to societies ready to break with their traditions?
Braudel, Fernand. 1973. Capitalism and Material Life, 1400-1800. translator Miriam KochanLondon: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, p. 323.
Castiglione, Baldassarre. 1967. The book of the courtier from the Italian, done into English by Sir Thomas Hoby, anno 1561, with an introduction by Walter Raleigh. New York: AMS Press.
What am I doing here in Connecticut? I obliged by the anthropological vow of silence to withhold the details, but I can say that I’ve been engaged to do a preparatory study of prison life, and my client asks, merely, that we pray for her.