Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943


Rhys Issac: The Curtain Lifts

I found them. Surviving through many moves, the two mimeographed seminar papers dating from the fall of 1977 are still in my office on a bookshelf. Rhys Isaac presented “Ethnographic Method—An Action Approach” at Johns Hopkins University’s Atlantic History and Culture Seminar on a Tuesday in mid-October and two days later “Learning and Authority: Speech, Writing and the Forms of Power” in the history department’s Seminar Room in Gilman Hall. In the former I starred key methodological texts cited in the endnotes. My marginalia covers all the available white space on some of the pages of the latter. Sloughing off many other copies of articles and papers over the years, I have preserved these.

Even now when I look at them, they evoke the excitement of the 1970s. Social historians were importing innovative methods from cultural anthropology, ethnography, sociology of knowledge. Works by Clifford Geertz, Walter Ong, Thomas Kuhn, Peter Berger, and Thomas Luckman became history graduate students’ handbooks. But Rhys Isaac was the historian who opened a door into the early American past, showing us dynamic new readings of power relations and face-to-face encounters between colonial Virginians of different classes and races. He taught us to read written texts for the dramaturgy of oral performances embedded in them.

Those of us familiar with Rhys’s 1973, 1974, and 1976 William and Mary Quarterly articles eagerly awaited and quickly consumed The Transformation of Virginia (1982), a magisterial, book-length summation of his research and writings of the preceding decade. The vibrancy and immediacy of those articles, though, were the stimulus to many in my generation of historians who sought to understand the milieu of common life in America’s past. By grasping the remarkableness in the ordinary, he inspired us to achieve, as he did so brilliantly himself, “a glimpse of worlds of meaning that we shall never know save through momentary intimations.” Through his life’s work: “for an instant the curtain lifts” (“Learning and Authority,” p.1).

Fredrika J. Teute,
Omohundro Institute