To understand The Long-Lost Friend, we have to understand the context in which it appeared: early-nineteenth century Pennsylvania. I’ve been particularly interested in how medicine was practiced in that setting.
When the Pennsylvania Dutch (or Germans) came over to this country, they were already a self-sufficient lot. Their arrival in the New World only brought these tendencies out more. The local government generously offered new settlers hundreds of acres each, and Penn’s good relations with the Indians meant that the land was relatively secure. As such, families could live considerable distances from each other, leading them to rely more upon their own expertise when family members or animals became ill.
Linguistic isolation was another important factor among the Pennsylvania Dutch. Doctors were few and far between outside the major cities, and the understandable preference among the German immigrants for practitioners who could speak their language narrowed the field even more. Medical care often became a function of what medical practitioners, midwives, herbalists, pharmacists, folk healers, patent remedies, books, and folk wisdom happened to be at hand.
Nonetheless, these people were well-educated, the result of Protestant doctrine that the Bible should be read for oneself. Most could read, and they often prized books among their family collections. Some English-speaking observers complained about their love of books of crafty peasants and robbers, proving that complaints about taste in reading are by no means modern. Overall, this population was both isolated, geographically and linguistically, and literate, leaving them open to such works as The Long-Lost Friend to help them through their everyday troubles.
One curious note I’ve been considering: though Hohman’s intent was to make the book’s knowledge available to all who needed it, it paradoxically seems to have enhanced the network of local healers who people called upon in times of trouble instead…