The Way of Improvement Leads Home traces the short but
fascinating life of Philip Vickers Fithian, one of the most
prolific diarists in early America. Born to Presbyterian
grain-growers in rural New Jersey, he was never quite satisfied
with the agricultural life he seemed destined to inherit. Fithian
longed for something more-to improve himself in a revolutionary
world that was making upward mobility possible. While Fithian is
best known for the diary that he wrote in 1773-74 while working as
a tutor at Nomini Hall, the Virginia plantation of Robert Carter,
this first full biography moves beyond his experience in the Old
Dominion to examine his inner life, his experience in the early
American backcountry, his love affair with Elizabeth Beatty, and
his role as a Revolutionary War chaplain.
From the villages of New Jersey, Fithian was able to participate
indirectly in the eighteenth-century republic of letters-a
transatlantic intellectual community sustained through sociability,
print, and the pursuit of mutual improvement. The republic of
letters was above all else a rational republic, with little
tolerance for those unable to rid themselves of parochial passions.
Participation required a commitment to self-improvement that
demanded a belief in the Enlightenment values of human potential
and social progress. Although Fithian was deeply committed to these
values, he constantly struggled to reconcile his quest for a
cosmopolitan life with his love of home. As John Fea argues, it was
the people, the religious culture, and the very landscape of his
"native sod" that continued to hold Fithian's affections and
enabled him to live a life worthy of a man of letters.
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