Between common and professional

Here’s one of my all-time favorite teachers, writing about the strong (and slightly counterintuitive) role of tradition in the novel and world-changing reshaping of the North American landscape by European colonists.

Agriculturalists have long distrusted miners, millers, and other proponents of manufacturing; in a land where once nine of every ten people worked in agriculture, it is not surprising that much of our national heritage subtly emphasizes the good life of husbandry and the beauty and rightness of space shaped for farming. Equally significant in American culture is the tension between common and professional builders; while well-read men who understood the new theories of geography, mercantile capitalism, representative government, and innovative design sometimes directed colonization, people much less literate and far more traditional actually shaped the land. Very few cartographers and surveyors and spatial theorists migrated to the New World; men like William Penn were as rare as his finely drawn plan for Philadelphia, and even he did not stay to watch his plan take form.

from Common Landscape of America, 1580–1845, by John R. Stilgoe (Yale University Press, 1983)

Originally published at

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