Philip Zea. Useful Improvements, Innumerable Temptations: Pursuing Refinement in Rural New England, 1750–1850. Deerfield, Mass.: Historic Deerfield, 1998. 91 pp.; numerous color illus., index. $30.00.

Published on the occasion of the opening of the Flynt Center of Early New England Life at Historic Deerfield to accompany its inaugural exhibition, this publication takes the form of an exhibition catalogue. It asks us to brood about not only the objects on view but also this genre with which decorative arts scholars, collectors, and museum visitors are so familiar. It seeks primarily to inform readers concerning a specific assemblage of objects, but, rather than situate them within the standard models of cause-and-effect or change-over-time, or good-better-best, it presents them through the interpretive lens of Richard L. Bushman’s The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (1992) with a view to describing a chapter in the social history of one community in western Massachusetts. It brings, in other words, an ample collection of individual objects assembled over time with disparate intentions together with insights gleaned from diaries, letters, and account books, drawn together by a single “strong” interpretive thread. In doing so it renovates our view of the objects under analysis and tinkers with the catalogue genre, yet retains intact the central civics lesson of Historic Deerfield as an institution.

The task Philip Zea has taken on is the explication of a portion of the “reserve collection,” that is, the collection of objects not used in the re-created room and house formats for which Historic Deerfield and its sister institutions are well known, things now displayed in this special facility “for the exhibition, storage, and management” of objects pruned in recent years by curatorial reinterpretation from “the overcrowded museum houses” (p. 7). All are linked by manufacture, trade, ownership, or use to the Deerfield region. Although the text is not explicit, we infer that these desks, chairs, snuffboxes, and teapots were accumulated during the last half century to animate previous ideological and interpretive frameworks. In the 1950s objects such as the ceremonial sword, mahogany desks, and mourning hatchment included here were associated with individuals (usually owners) of political merit; they gave concrete evidence of “enduring American values that were formed in frontier towns like Deerfield” (p. 8). In the 1970s and 1980s, these objects were collected, exhibited, and reinterpreted to embody the ingenuity and achievement of individuals (usually artisans) in designing and fabricating objects admired primarily for their aesthetic merit. Zea’s text enlists them in a third enterprise, that of enacting a theatrical metaphor in a psychosocial model of colonial behavior. Because the collection was a “given,” there is no accounting here for material culture of little interest to previous generations of curators, collectors, and antiquarians, such as objects known to have existed in great numbers but that have not survived (common, ordinary, ephemeral things like barrels, treenware, and leather aprons); objects not collected because they were greatly modified by subsequent generations or damaged by use; objects undomestic in scale (as carts, fences, a harness); objects judged unhandsome; or objects made by Native Americans. The exclusion of these categories of objects from consideration and the focus on objects made for rural elites—that is, on objects treasured, heirloomed, and marketed—makes it easier for the author to argue, as he does, that pre-Revolutionary objects should be read as “refined” and as evidence of (misguided) strivings toward performative “refinement” on the part of society at large. Although the text includes the standard kinds of information and interpretation that reflect the concerns of earlier generations of scholars—such as the maker’s and original owner’s names, the succession of custodianship over time, materials, fabrication method, precise date of origin, relative date within a stylistic teleology, evaluation of aesthetic success, donor’s name—it primarily measures each object’s location on a “refinement” scale and identifies it as symptomatic of theatrical status concerns that characterized that social collective Zea calls “the age of refinement” (p. 35).

What was eighteenth-century “refinement”? In this context it is not a term of approbation but rather one associated with a cluster of sister snarl terms including “ostentatious,” “genteel,” “effete,” “trappings,” “pretense,” “affectation,” and “manipulation” (pp. 12, 51–52). We learn that “refinement was performed in public” (p. 11), that it was a kind of psychosocial disease that “transformed its practitioners into anxious performers” who “distinguished themselves mostly by their aloofness and concern with appearances” (pp. 12, 15). Those infected by it were most obviously “the leadership of Massachusetts,” but it also trickled down to “the Middling Sort” of tradespeople who labored “to emulate the . . . elite . . . [since] [t]heir [ultimate] aim was to join the Mansion People” (pp. 16–17). Refinement appears to be opposed here to labor on the one hand and “failure” on the other; it is, above all, “aligned with the acquisition of goods” (pp. 19, 22–23).

What Zea does here is wed the concerns of decorative arts scholars and audiences with the revisionist thematic concern of a noted social historian. This attentiveness to the work of card-carrying historians is all to the good. The project would have benefited, however, by a more eclectic pool of models, incorporating, for instance, the more organic, geographically precise, systematic, and tightly argued analysis that Laurel T. Ulrich has given us of life, craft, and social human ecology on the other side of rural New England, in coastal Maine.

One of the difficulties with a one-size-fits-all approach to a discussion of one hundred-plus objects under one Bushmanian rubric, a single variegated but unnuanced term, is a notable flatness in the text, a reiterated sameness in all the objects and people under discussion: we are told of “a refined landscape” (p. 18), “refined woodwork” (p. 18), “refined alcohol” (p. 61), “refined silk dresses” (p. 19), “refined [architectural] detail” (p. 43), “refined” housewives (p. 19), “refined oil” from whales (p. 32). The word “refined” is applied indiscriminately to people, places, and things until we feel that even the author has tired of his enthusiasm. An earlier generation might have used the term “sophisticated” with equal enthusiasm and opposite intention.

From an interpretive standpoint, what is lost in this reductive view of all phenomena to one term, one cause, one personality defect is an acknowledgment of consciousness and authenticity on the part of individuals. Zea’s humans appear to be all appearance and no substance; they revolve in a morality play as pasteboard exempla of hollowness, shadows of beings for whom things, covetousness, ambition, and shallow identification between objects and selves need reiterative underlining. A man’s “ownership of productive land and a reputation as a skilled craftsman were status symbols” (p. 37); “a woman’s pocket [container] was an extension of her self-worth, pride” (p. 28); “Elijah Boardman saw himself and his estate as inseparable” (p. 43). Not only is this interpretation of “self” profoundly secular (and, one might argue, twentieth-century) but it appears to reserve for the writer and his collaborating reader the rights to authentic selfhood, virtuous motivation, and human dignity. It also appears to draw conclusions about human motivation on scanty evidence about things we, in fact, cannot know. How do we know, for instance, that Elijah Boardman felt “inseparable” from his real estate? And if he did, was he more “inseparable” than his contemporary yeomen or than tract-house homebuyers today? What, in fact, constitutes “inseparableness”?

Pre-Revolutionary Euro-Americans, in this model, were superficial beings floating in a sea of objects, here termed “refinement’s props,” which constituted their identities (p. 69). This is a profoundly antifunctional and curiously immaterial view of objects. Not only are none of these “actors” (makers, vendors, buyers, users) possessed of selfhood, but none of these sideboards, meatskewers, and plates were constructed for actual use; rather, in Zea’s narrative, everything participates in a system of signs in which all the signifiers mean the same thing. Clocks, for instance, were “valued as status symbols because of their expense, automation, and standing as the first domestic machine” (p. 66). That they might also have participated functionally in new models of business and old systems of domestic patriarchy is of no interest here. Even a peculiar patent washing machine was valued, we are told, “more as a status symbol than as a laborsaving device” (p. 54). Zea’s tale paints a picture of Deerfield as a kind of eighteenth-century version of The Truman Show in which actors and props mimic and perform something that looks like daily life but is, in fact, a performative sham.

Consistent with the immaterial drift of Zea’s larger thesis is his provocative and insightful suggestion that the end product of this theatricality and artifice was the most immaterial, unrecoverable, and unknowable product of culture: conversation. Endowed with agency and even trumping the mime rhetorics of objects, “polite conversation was the principal vehicle of refinement” (p. 62). If this is the case, the fact might well subvert Zea’s thesis; suddenly his anxious, self-conscious, self-involved enactors bend their energies to the project of exchange. Whether of ideas, of materials, of life partners, or of linguistic play, the business of exchange is the central glue of culture and the key factor in change. This volume would have taken on a rather different coloration if Zea had pursued the more dynamic, socially diverse model of human interaction, creativity, and culture-construction inherent in this concept of exchange rather than the more static model of scripted theatricality foregrounded here.

The sameness of meaning for the uniformly “refined” objects and the sameness of the social context, in which all the players were simultaneously actors and audience for each other, would have broken down had Zea (or his object assemblage) included the non-European western Massachusetts population and their implements. One of the most curious aspects of this text is the near-complete omission of this other culture out there on the “frontier.” When Zea alludes to what formerly has been referred to as “The Massacre” and to other acts of Native American defensive aggression, he syntactically erases the Indians altogether and presents these events in agentless, passive structures as in “Williams had been taken to Canada,” and “families were attacked. . . . Several of them were killed. . . . Eunice Allen was dealt a fractured skull” (pp. 16, 39). Perhaps there were no Native Americans in the Deerfield area in the eighteenth century (just bands of marauding Canadian Indians), but that seems unlikely. In urban Newport, Rhode Island, reiterative legislation and apprenticeship contracts point to their troubling presence in the city; and in rural Connecticut the proto-ethnographer Ezra Stiles ruefully counted the movement of Native Americans from wigwams to milled lumber “English” houses. In one of the former he recorded the dissonant presence of a cabriole-legged tea table. Consideration of such hybrid people and “refinements” in the Deerfield area would have added three-dimensionality and complexity to a model that seems often too thin.

By focusing so exclusively on the “Mansion People” and on their presumed leisure rather than on their productive acts and lives or on their position within a complex interdependent and sometimes strained social organism, Zea has unwittingly renovated and reinstated aspects of the blindered elitism of 1890s, 1930s, and 1950s antiquarianism. The absence of artisan-centric perspectives of the 1970s (in which scholars positioned the object within a web of labor, knowledge-production, fabrication expertise, trade, cultural hybridity, and vernacular aesthetic theory) and of the social organism models of the 1980s (in which historians positioned the individual within a complex social economy in which no single class or population could be privileged above or survive without the others) gives this slim volume a definitively 1990s air of a work generated out of an ambient culture of empty consumption and consuming appearances. Despite its fundamental cheeky critique of the “Mansion People,” their motivations, and the object rhetorics in which he positions them, Zea’s analysis is complicit with a rather old-fashioned top-down view of social relations. He grants elites active and effective “leadership,” gives them the bulk of his attention, and sees nonelites as positioned only in an emulative or victim relationship to that power (p. 17). “Middling Sort” people only seek to join the “Mansion People,” and rural designers “ape” Boston forms, displaying “bad judgment” in doing so (p. 25). The only game in town here is “refinement”; everyone plays, and everyone is the worse for it.

What remains curiously unclear at the core of Zea’s text is the nature of “refinement” as a phenomenon—is it a force of nature or of culture? It seems through most of this work to be as pervasive as gravity, affecting alike refinement-achievers and refinement-wannabes; it feels like a hard-wired aspect of human nature. And yet Zea also seems to believe that “refinement” is a period-specific failing, a misorienting by-product of colonialism, social hierarchy, and monarchy, something that happily melts into something more benign with the achievement of democracy in the post-Revolutionary period. Like a transmutation of “bad cholesterol” into “good cholesterol,” refinement apparently acquired a positive coloration by the time “the refinement of rural New England was completed in the mid-nineteenth century” (p. 45). “Democracy,” Zea concludes, “turned the key in refinement’s door to unlock the wealth of New England’s resources for everyone’s benefit. . . . They used knowledge, more than wealth, to apply a new kind of refinement, based on self-improvement rather than self-aggrandizement, to transform their communities . . . into a picturesque garden with beautiful plantings, sidewalks, and painted houses” (p. 81). In this idyllic vision of rural wholeness based in the bounty and aestheticization of nature, gracefully yielding up her wealth to democratic extractive industries, we feel the familiar Deerfield.

Situated here between the misguided theatrical “refinement” of pre-democratic colonialism (and awkward Native Americans) on the one hand, and an understood but unmentioned future of rapacious plunder of the continent, immigration, and urbanization on the other, the halcyon moment of Deerfield still positions itself as a beacon for Americans, metonymic perfection of the best we have been and should be. It is still a conservative political text, a social model, a civics lesson in physical form. Although no longer overtly expressing cold war ideology, Deerfield here claims centrality for itself as the paradigmatic America (or the paradigmatic American suburb): a community of equals presumably void of social hierarchy, displaying in its “‘70 . . . houses, mostly white’” true “‘good taste’” and “‘wealth . . . honestly obtained’” as a journalist put it in 1830, a journalist Zea permits to have the last word.

Margaretta M. Lovell
University of California, Berkeley