The Transformation of Virginia ~ by Rhys Isaac

I finally finished The Transformation of Virginia by Rhys Isaac.  Whew!  (I started this back in October, 2019 – put it down, picked it up, started again, and just kept going as long as I could on each sitting. I first only had the Kindle, but when I saw it didn’t have the graphics I got the paperback, too.  But I can’t read paperback font as it’s too small so I used that for the gorgeous line drawings. (Yes, it was worth it.)

The Transformation of Virginia by Rhys Isaac
1982 /
Kindle / paperback
Rating: 10 – US history


This is a really unorganized review! I very much enjoyed/appreciated the book -it took me a long time to read it because it’s not easy going and parts were just downright fascinating. I can’t quite believe I finished the whole thing.

Fwiw:  Issac was “a Distinguished Visiting Professor of Early American History at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. So he won the Pulitzer Prize in History even as a citizen of Australia – a first.

The narrative details the major societal changes in a small section of Virginia between 1740 and 1790.  Isaac calls it an “ethnographic-dramaturgic” narrative. Much of the text is straight from the diaries and letters and sermons and other primary source material and then reading that closely for actual meaning at the time.

Critics over the years have found fault with the “dramaturgic” element of Isaac’s ideas.  And there have been other issues as well. How widespread these critical ideas were is unknown by me. Dramaturgic is often used in sociology – not much in history (only the Melbourne group?)   See

“…Isaac’s treatment of causality in Virginia history remains The Transformation of Virginia’s central weakness, one which stems both from his focus on dramaturgy as the interpretive key to history and from his implicitly progressive narrative framework.”

It works from very local events to a larger stage and never does more than mention the American War of Independence.  The Great Awakening (1740s) is covered far more thoroughly. Nevertheless, the “transformation” of Virginia society is definitely shown in ways which were new to me.  The War of Independence was indeed a Revolution in many ways and as others have shown, it didn’t start with the Boston Tea Party or the Battle of Lexington and Concord. (Thinking of Fred Anderson’s books on the French and Indian War which I have yet to read.)  
What happened, according to Isaac, is that the Chesapeake area of Virginia (at least) went from a hierarchical communitarian society (Virginia to 1740 or so) to a more individualistic communitarian society (1790 or so).  

The methodology is hugely important so there’s a big section at the end of the book which goes through that ad nauseam. I’m not sure I fully understand the details of Isaac’s so-called anthropological or ethnological-drama approach, but I have an almost working knowledge about it because Inga Clendinnen used it with her a couple of her books, “Dancing with Strangers: Europeans and Australians at First Contact “ and “Aztecs: An Interpretation” and I “got it” at that simpler level.  (What were those First Fleeters thinking about the Australians?) 

Basically it’s social history at the level of a close reading of primary source material – I think.

And this is kind of weird, where Isaac’s book deals with the 2nd half of the 18th century,  Clendinnen’s book deals with 1788 (give or take a couple years) – smack in the middle of it.  But that’s when the documentation they worked from became abundant.  They used a close reading of an abundant supply of 1st person primary sources such as diaries and journals and speeches and letters and sermons and an occasional newspaper article.  A goodly portion of the narratives from the books of Clendinnen and Isaac consist of passages from those types of documents.   He gives credit to Clendinnen as well as Greg Denning for working with him in  the use and development of these methods but admits that ethnographic history took off without him. (See the Preface to the Paperback/Kindle edition)  

At this point the ethnographic/dramaturgical method which seemed to be so highly regarded back in 1998 (see the Preface)  has not produced a lot of results in the study of history (better in ethnography), but it was never a very big movement anyway (4, or maybe 5, historians working out of La Trobe University – Melbourne).  This is where the criticism in the review at comes from. Social history of all kinds has made huge inroads since the 1970s.


This entry was posted in 2023 Fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s