I am going to share this post with my students. It is a great example of how a scholar wrestles with presentism. Here is a taste:
While living in New York, Edwards enjoyed contemplating the afterlife as a place of “perfect holiness, humility and love.” He expressed frustration that, in the present world, “the inward ardor of my soul, seemed to be hindered and pent up, and could not freely flame out as it would.” Heaven, in contrast, would be “a world of love.” He nurtured these thoughts during long hours in the countryside on the shore of the Hudson River, where he would retreat into solitude. But that didn’t mean he resented Manhattan. When he left New York in April 1723, sailing for Connecticut, Edwards gazed sorrowfully backward at the disappearing city, consoling himself with the knowledge that his New York friends would meet him again in heaven.
When I read that account, I want to interpret it according to modern experiences of city life—and according to other historical accounts of rural youth arriving in great cities. I also want to read Edwards into a long literary tradition, alongside other rural-to-urban arrivals like Dick Whittington and Sister Carrie. Edwards’s account looks like a familiar story of uprooting, noise, news, invisible social barriers, and new spiritual horizons. But I think there’s a problem with my impulse. When Jonathan Edwards arrived in New York City in 1722, the population was probably under 10,000.
Why might that be a problem? Well, what got me thinking about this was a review of the sociologist Robert Wuthnow’s Small-Town America. Wuthnow, apparently, defines a small town as including up to 25,000 people. Whether or not that’s a reasonable criterion today, it makes me wonder how valid it is to talk about an early American big city of 10,000 people. How reasonable can it be, in other words, to assume that a city of 10,000 in the 1720s shares key social features with a city of ten million today—but not with a modern small town of 10,000?
In other words, when we talk about a city in early America and a city in modern America, are we discussing the same thing?