Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Good Will Hunting and The Evolution of the Market Economy in the Southern Colonies

I started my Colonial America course today by showing my students the classic Cambridge bar scene from the movie "Good Will Hunting." (I was surprised that only about a third of the fifteen students in the course had actually seen the movie!).

Many of you, I hope, recall the scene where working-class genius Will Hunting (Matt Damon) matches wits with a first-year Harvard graduate student in a historiographical debate on early American economic history. Watch the clip here:

After showing the students the clip, I told them that by the end of the semester they would all know exactly what Will Hunting and the Harvard graduate student were talking about. Let's hope!

A few comments on the video:

The mention of "Vickers" is a reference to Daniel Vickers's Farmers and Fishermen: Two Centuries of Work in Essex County, Massachusetts, 1630-1850. I do not have my copy of Farmers and Fishermen handy, but I wonder if anyone knows if Vickers does indeed argue on p.98 that Gordon Wood "drastically underestimates the impact of social distinctions predicated upon wealth, especially inherited wealth"? If you have the time, click on the Amazon page for Farmers and Fisherman (above). Nearly every customer comment is a quotation from or reference to this scene in "Good Will Hunting." I don't know Vickers, but John Murrin once told me that he thinks I present a legitimate challenge to him in the category of "tallest early American historian in North America."

"Lemon" is a reference to geographer James Lemon's, The Best Poor Man's Country: Early Southeastern Pennsylvania. The writers of "Good Will Hunting" did their homework here. Indeed, Lemon does argue that the economies of Virginia and Pennsylvania were "entrepreneurial way back in 1740." (Actually, Lemon argues that Pennsylvania was capitalist well before 1740).

The late John Patrick Diggins argued that the mention of Gordon Wood was a reference to his The Radicalism of the American Revolution, but Wood's wikipedia page notes that the entire scene is "based mainly on an obscure 1994 New York Review of Books article by Wood that discussed James T. Lemon's writings and on a subsequent letter to the editor by Lemon rather than on Wood's more well-known writings." I remember reading this New York Review of Books essay for my doctoral comprehensive exams. It is a masterful overview of the debate over whether or not the colonies were driven by a market economy or an agrarian economy. The "Good Will Hunting" scene could easily have been based on this historiographical overview.

For what it's worth...