A Forgotten Founder's Fatherhood

Race, nature, and patriarchy meet in Rhys Isaac's biography of early American diarist Landon Carter.

Paving-stone-sized, hardbound books devoted to particular founding fathers of the American republic have inexhaustibly flooded bookstores over the last two years. Rhys Isaac's Landon Carter's Uneasy Kingdom is the joker in the pack. We call them "founding fathers," yet we don't think about the fatherly ways in which they worried about their own parenting skills and the future of both their actual and metaphorical offspring. They could be, and often were, very proud of their national fatherhood, but they often were apprehensive when contemplating their offspring's future. As Isaac beautifully reveals, no one expressed this uneasy mixture of pride and worry as well as Landon Carter of Virginia.

It is a measure of Isaac's achievement that after you read Landon Carter's Uneasy Kingdom you wonder why you have never before heard of the old gentleman. Jack Greene published a meticulous edition of his diaries in the 1960s and wrote a slim biography of Carter as its introduction. Yet neither Greene nor all of us who have pored through the green-bound volumes have taken Landon seriously as a person. We instead troll his diary for social customs, cultural ideas, and anecdotes of his unbounded rage to fill our dissertations.

In our ceaseless search for good material, we never read the diary as the vast sprawling literary masterwork that Isaac convinces us it is: a great gift of America to English literature. Here are Carter's frequent, furious rages against his son; his agrarian obsession with weather; his meticulous chronicle of his equally obsessive doctoring of the sick; his cryptic comments on some nonsense encountered in Herodotus ("Whiptwang! A lie to be sure!" the planter wrote).

Isaac often lets us read Carter directly, setting ...

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