The Transformation of Virginia 1740-1790. Chapel Hill: Published for
the Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg VA, by University
of North Carolina Press, 1982.
Through a series of
essays, Isaac traces the changing views of religious and political thought,
and therefore, the meaning of life in the latter half of 18th century Virginia.
Using historical sources such as diaries, 18th century newspapers, religious
papers and legal statutes, Isaac reconstructs the colonial Virginian mentality.
He does so methodically. Beginning with Robert Beverly’s written perception
of the 1705 Virginian landscape (that being though bountiful, Virginia should
be improved upon), Isaac contrasts this to the 1724 account by Hugh Jones.
(Here the landscape is seen as working colony, complete with homes, churches,
and courthouses and institutionalized English law.) Claiming that a society
“leaves marks of use upon the terrain (or living space) it occupies” which display
relations of the society to the environment, as well as the distribution and
control of access to resources and social relations , Isaac deciphers these
marks to reveal the perceptions of the common folk, the slaves, and the Virginian
gentry. He describes the various Virginians’ houses, buildings, religious
ceremonies, taverns and even cockfights, often as they relate to the perceived
environment and to each other. In the latter half of the book, Isaac describes
the political revolutionary uprising as viewed in Virginia. Along with
this uprising, the evangelical Methodist and then Baptist movements furthered
altered the society’s “terrain” and Isaac conveys the changes mainly through
altered building plans and new perceptions of space. A final chapter discusses
his systematic method of analysis-- that of an ethnographic historian.
Relating his main concern, "Action," to “understanding life as it was experienced
by ‘actors’ on past ‘stages,’” he stresses that the aim of analysis of any researcher
is to display a “persuasive reconstruction of the experiences of past actors.”
In other words, it is to give an “effective performance” . [J. Hembree]