Imagine, if you will, that you had the ability to travel back to somewhere in time, a time of your choosing. Where would you go and what would you do? What would be your purpose if going and how long would you wish to stay? It is like writing a historical novel, conjuring up some sort of magic spirit of the times and immersing oneself into that good past. For myself, there are so many possibilities, how could I choose? For myself, the eighteenth century holds more fascination than anything prior. Well, to be a Greek, a citizen of Athens in 400 BC might be exciting. Socrates, Plato, and the Peloponnesian Wars and all that. Wouldn’t that be a hoot? Of course the luxury of hanging around with Socrates would mean the need for a certain amount of wealth. No one gives away his knowledge unless it is for a purpose. Conquering Asia Minor is for the rugged individualist, not the intellectual and one must pick a suitable character if one is to become a Greek os a city state. Rome holds little fascination for me, I am not entranced with all things Roman and I suppose I never will. Of course there would be what we might consider hardships such as no indoor toilets or running water. But think of it, no iPads or television or radio or anything electronic. Think of the quiet at night and the ability to see more stars than ever before. Yes, it would be a very different way of living.
I should avoid Europe prior to the seventeenth century at the earliest. Too much religion and the consequences of free thinking. Scotland might be interesting at the turn of the eighteenth century. The Scottish enlightenment had just started and opened up a new world of learning. One might have corresponded with Hume or one of the other philosophers of the time. and one would need a bit of fortune to indulge such habits. Few were lucky to have enough family wealth to afford even a passable education. Letters of introduction might be needed to borrow books from a private library since there were no public libraries available. Most individuals were born as serfs to the land even then. One might, if one had the brawn, raise himself by dent of armed service. There was always need of men at arms who had the brawn and courage to stand in the breech. But such men usually lacked the intellect for acquiring culture and learning, that characteristic for advancement beyond mere footman at arms. My own ancestors lacked the right to place Mac in front of our name, so we are the perpetual outsiders in the clan. We have no claim to any real status other than membership in the clan. But we fought well in 1745 under the bonnie prince. For that, we were banished for close to one hundred years. Some of us went to France, the rest went to the New World, even as far south as Mexico.
Well, what about that period of Jane Austin? Just a few years later. Yes, just before the “industrial Revolution”, as it were. One needed both money and social position to become socially acceptable. One of the two might do, but it was fraught with difficulty. No, Miss Austin’s world was one of great privilege and one might do better immigrating to the new world. Although those who did were often held in contempt for failure to maintain their stations in England but were pitied since they were viewed as having given up the civilization of England. Sweden was a possible destination where the arts and culture flourished to some degree. France, on the other hand was too dangerous, the upsweep or revolution and political repression made life uncertain. No, France would have to wait until the 1850s, when the political situation was more stable. A great deal was happening until the fin de scile, the end of the century. Upward economic mobility was a greater possibility for the smart, the clever, the hard working individual. Only England would have offered a better situation, unless we consider the New World.
Ah, the new world, but where to start? If one is a native, then forget the whole idea. No, one would need to be European, maybe second or third generation if in South America. North America was a little more open as societies go. In 1724 my branch of the Scottish clan arrived in Boston to start new lives. Those that left after 1745 were those who had managed to avoid capture and death and had to take whatever passage they could make. Maybe they came to the America, maybe they found themselves in Europe or even Africa. If one was am emigre one took one’s chances. Day labor was a poor man’s lot, often on farms. the only other option for a poor man was to head inland towards the edge of the wilderness, only twenty miles or so inland. Land was paid either in specie or blood if one wanted a homestead. Head further south to Virginia and over the Cumberland Gap where one didn’t need specie, only the willingness to face the deadly odds of winning what one could make with his two bare hands. We are no longer in the continental world of Austin and Balzac. No, this is the land of Cooper and Hawthorne. A rugged land, an honest land, one that wrings the sweat from one’s brow as he tames this wild country and sends his roots down deep. For all us modern day folk, this life is as far away as Mars or Pluto (the planet, not disney’s dog) for we shall never see its like again. Imagine, you bring what culture you owned and used it to create a distinctive culture, even from those folk on the coast. You set your own fashion trends, determine what art is and is not. Your literature is the Bible and what few volumes published in Philadelphia make it through the gap. Books are heavy and costly to transport long distances. They are luxury real estate for the pioneer. Even a man of knowledge was a luxury unless he had a strong arm and a sharp eye. This was the real living on the edge, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty five days a year, unlike the modern thrill seeker who can take an extend brake from death defying feats. Compared to the pioneer, the modern day thrill seeker is a mere poser.
What about the antebellum south? Which one, that leftover gentile English society of class distinctions based on inherited wealth and position, or that of the hardscrabble farmer beholden to his betters? The norther society found that manufacture and in particular industrialization provided a wider base of democracy, at least until the robber barons created a new society based on business positions and wealth. Yes, the civil war was romantic but deadly. More men died of their wounds both on and off the battlefield. Amputation was often the most prescribe operating procedure and a great many never survived that operation. Disease proved as deadly as a miniball. No, sometimes the bragging rights are not worth the cost. Better to spend the 1860s in San Francisco. Well, the earthquake did make a mess of things. Monterrey would have been an interesting spot during that same time period.
What about other parts of the world? I’ve been to the far east and really didn’t find much that I liked. India would be okay but not really to my liking. China might be acceptable but it was always to unstable for my taste. And Africa, well, maybe as a Boer prior to Cecil Rhodes engineered takeover of that dutch community. The true Rhodes Scholars were the Boers who suffered from his treachery during that Boer War. There never has been much love lost between the dutch and the British ever since Philip acquired the ships for the Armada from the Dutch builders and the two countries carried on industrial warfare over woolen goods. No, I shall always require a time period and position in society where I can be within reach of a decent library and sufficient time to read and study. But if I am to be plopped down somewhere, then perhaps the early American frontier would be a fitting place.