2007 Theses Doctoral
Customary Practice: The Colonial Transformation of European Concepts of Collective Identity, 1580-1724
My aim in this project is to demonstrate how the reconfiguration of custom in the writings of Michel de Montaigne and Francis Bacon opened up a new discourse of collective identity that found its most developed expression in the writings of the French and English people who first colonized North America. Among the authors whose work I examine are Marc Lescarbot, Thomas Morton, Anne Bradstreet, Marie de l'Incarnation, Pierre Esprit-Radisson, and Mary Rowlandson. Their texts, I argue, radically reconceptualize identity, making it something that one performs rather than something one simply is. In charting custom's development I reveal how its radical potential was neutralized by the emerging opposition between nature and culture, illuminating the central role that the nascent concept of the nuclear family played in this transition. My dissertation thus closes with the work of the "American" authors Cotton Mather and Joseph-FranÃ§ois Lafitau, who refined the meaning of custom to the brink of irrelevance at the turn of the eighteenth century, transforming it from the source of one's sense of communal belonging to a mere index of how far a given community had fallen from the state of grace. An epilogue on the Letters of an American Farmer by Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur demonstrates the aftermath of this transformation and gesture towards the afterlife of custom as a critical term.
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