Saturday, August 29, 2009

At Long Last, I Finished!

In my previous post, I was whining about how long it was taking me to read The Health of the Country: How American Settlers Understood Themselves and Their Land by Conevery Bolton Valencius. Instead of quitting, I decided to persevere, and I finally finished it today at lunch.

So what did I get from the book for my efforts? Here's a partial list of key points I want to remember:

  • People in the 19th century had a worldview that lumped their physical bodies and their environments together as governed by the same basic processes. For example, a body had "humors" that flowed through it, and land had "air" that flowed above and even from it. A particular body might have bilous humors, and a particular section of land might have miasma. Too much of either was likely to produce illness. To be healthy, bodies and land had to be in "balance."

  • White American settlers spoke of the land they were moving to as being "new," with no consideration that other cultures had lived on that land for perhaps centuries, and that the land had current inhabitants. The only settlement that mattered was that of white Americans. Very ethnocentric.

  • White people of the 19th century held to the scientific "truth" that certain types of people belonged in certain types of land. That theory was used to explain why white people who moved to the Mississippi Valley or the South suffered and so often died from "ague," while black slaves seemed immune to the disease or to suffer only a mild case. Whites, said the theory, belonged in cooler climates (like northern Europe); blacks belonged in hot, sunny, tropical areas (like Africa). The theory was used to justify the institution of slavery - white people simply were not suited for the difficult labor and exposure to the sun and humidity that it took to work a plantation. Blacks, on the other hand, were perfectly suited for such conditions. Very (conveniently) racist.

  • New settlers to an area had to go through a period of "seasoning" before they were fully acclimated to their new home. This seasoning usually consisted of recurring periods of fever and shaking (most likely malaria). If a person made it through the seasoning, he/she was proud of the fact and wore their newly sallow complexion as sort of a badge that he/she was not a novice anymore. Yet there was also a degree of ambivalence about having one's skin darkened by the sun or by disease; many people took that as a sign of the "degradation" of the white race (to become more like the black race).

  • Bleeding was a commonly used remedy for all sorts of illness, as was lancing (for boils or "risings"). These remedies were seen as allowing the bad matter in the body (whether too much blood, bad humors, or pus) to escape and to bring the body back into balance. Valencius draws the parallel to the cultivation of the land. As with bleeding, she says, plows cut into the surface of the land, releasing miasmas. Although it was a painful, wrenching process - for both the land and the person doing the cultivation - it was necessary to bring the land into a condition of being useful and "healthful" and productive.

  • There were a lot of sources of miasmas - standing or stagnant water, rotting trees or other vegetation, cold winds, low-lying land, freshly-plowed dirt. "Miasma" was sort of a catch-all term for any conditions people had a hunch were unhealthful but didn't have the scientific knowledge to describe.

  • "Medical geography" was big. People would do detailed observations of the land, its weather, its vegetation, its people, and/or the patterns of health and illness over a period of time. These observations were frequently published by reputable journals in the Eastern cities, giving backcountry doctors and wannabe scientists a chance to connect with the academic world.

  • As I was reading on section that talked about the stereotypes of the ways in which the Southern climate influenced Southern character, I thought I saw maybe another seed of the Civil War beginning to grow. Medical students from the South and the Mississippi Valley were consistently treated as ignorant and lazy by their Northern counterparts and teachers in the "elite" medical schools along the East Coast. As a result, Southerners began to argue that Northern medicine and its practitioners simply couldn't understand the diseases and environmental conditions in the South; that gave the Southerners a chance to feel superior about something. It reminded me of the way nationalism often begins - "We are different, and you just don't understand us. We have to do for ourselves to have it done right."


  • There were more interesting bits (including some pretty wild planting practices meant to ensure the fertility of the land!). I have two main disappointments. First, Valencius doesn't mention the interaction of white settlers and Indians all that much. She is much more interested in the contradictions between how free white settlers and black slaves viewed the "health of the country." Secondly, I felt she focused almost exclusively on those contradictions in the second half of the book. Not everyone in early Missouri and Arkansas was a slave owner; it would have been interesting to see more about how the people who were doing their own cultivation viewed their relationship with the land.

    Anyway, I'm done now. The chapter on race motivated me to read Richard Peck's The River Between Us next (young adult - won't take long); then it's on to a book I promised to read earlier this summer - more historical fiction about the Civil War, A Difference of Opinion by Nancy Dane.

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