Looking to September

Though it’s the height of summer, here at the offices of NEQ we’re wrapping up our September issue. As Editor Linda Smith Rhoads illustrates in the editorial that will preface the issue, it is filled with essays that uncover forgotten New England artifacts, events, and personalities, making it the perfect accompaniment to those darkening, memory-evoking autumn nights. We hope this glimpse of our upcoming issue will help our readers look forward to the fall as much as we are!

Editorial

I think of the current number of The New England Quarterly as our Lost and Found issue. You will learn about maps being misplaced, accomplishments being forgotten, events being effaced from landscapes, books being found but their import being lost, borrowings overtaking originality, and intentions vanishing in the return to tradition. Our authors recover what has gone missing.

Paul Cohen traces the fates of seven copies of Abel Buell’s 1784 map of the United States. If history has a price, $2 million has captured the attention of bibliographers, collectors, and librarians, who in the earlier part of the previous century dismembered, sold off, miscataloged, and mistreated the first map of the United States created by a U.S. citizen. Indeed, one copy of Buell’s map was had for a paltry 86¢ in 1915. Cohen’s tale is as thrilling as it is cautionary, a story of shifting institutional priorities, economic realities, and the perils of insufficient recordkeeping. It is also a remembrance of one restless and hapless early American genius.

Craig Brown, Victor Mastone, and Christopher Maio have patiently and systematically recovered and retraced the progress of the Battle of Chelsea Creek, a provincial offensive that predates the Battle of Bunker Hill. Unlike Lexington and Concord or Bunker Hill, no memorial signifies that here our ancestors held their ground to defend American liberties. Conducted under the cover of night, the maneuver had few eyewitnesses. The plaques that once dotted the battlefield have been stolen, and the terrain on which it lay has been consumed by the urban sprawl of Boston’s East End, Chelsea, and Revere. But with the aid of current technology and a return to the extant record, the “forgotten” battle has been returned to its rightful place in the chronology of the American Revolution.

In July 1766, John Adams noted in his diary that his clerk had brought a “curious Volume” to his attention, a “Collection of Pamphlets published in the memorable Year 1640,” from which he recorded twenty-nine titles. The particular book Adams held in his hands has been lost, but the individual pamphlets he listed form a bridge from his revolutionary moment (the Stamp Act Crisis still fresh in his mind) to events that prompted New England’s puritan emigrants to flee their native land. Detailing objections to ministerial corruption, church government, and ecclesiastical conformity, the pamphlets, Michelle Orihel observes, offer an occasion for reflecting on how the puritan experience of tyranny may have shaped eighteenth-century colonial opposition to British imperial authority, especially in New England.

In August 1758, Benjamin Mecom, Benjamin Franklin’s nephew, published “A Letter from Father Abraham.” Despite the family connection, editors and authors have been reluctant to attribute the publication definitively to Franklin. Kevin Slack has carefully reconstructed the piece, including its extensive borrowings, to give readers the fullest possible criteria on which to base their decision. And finally, Laurie Hochstetler outlines changing matrimonial practices in pre-Revolutionary Massachusetts, concluding, surprisingly, that a return to Anglican traditions actually signaled colonial solidarity and a reinvigorated Puritan piety, a subtle social rebuke of the Crown and its church.

§

We learned this week that our longtime editor Edmund S. Morgan has died at the age of ninety-seven. Serving on the editorial board since 1948 and as an erstwhile judge for the Walter Muir Whitehill Contest, he has dispensed his wisdom with grace and a fervent desire to encourage the rising generation of historians. Through a remarkable chain of influence, he has mentored a number of our editors and authors, who have gone on, in turn, to mentor others. We mourn his loss and celebrate his life. An In Memoriam will appear in our December 2013 issue.

Anna and I would like to thank Stephanie Rojas, who offered invaluable support this summer as NEQ’s first editorial intern.

 —Linda Smith Rhoads

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Summering in Newport

“Newport represented the escape from duty into an atmosphere of unmitigated holiday-making.” – Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence

Summer is officially here! In Gilded Age America, the start of the summer season was the cue for the wealthiest and most famous families from New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and the South to flock to Newport, Rhode Island. The seaside city, located on Aquidneck Island, already had a rich history by the mid-nineteenth century. It had been home to a thriving Native settlement, served as a refuge for Anne Hutchinson and her followers—banished from Boston for their religious beliefs—and flourished as a leading and busy seaport. The British army’s occupation of Newport during the Revolutionary War devastated the city, but it soon rebuilt as a summer resort, appealing to visitors with its untouched landscapes and colonial architecture.

Newport is today often best known for its “summer cottages”—or ostentatious mansions commissioned by America’s elite during the Gilded Age—such as Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s The Breakers, an Italian Renaissance-inspired villa with seventy rooms designed by Richard Morris Hunt. However, many artists, writers, and thinkers also gathered in the City by the Sea. The James family—including theologian and writer Henry James Sr., novelist Henry James Jr., philosopher and psychologist William James, and diarist Alice James—lived in Newport on several occasions, while radical abolitionist and writer Thomas Wentworth Higginson and his wife settled in the city after his Civil War service. Novelist Edith Wharton, born into an old New York family, summered as a child and young woman at Pen Craig, and she later bought her own Newport home, Land’s End, and enlisted architect and decorator Ogden Codman Jr. to help her remodel it. Both Henry James and Edith Wharton depicted Newport life in several of their novels and short stories, often turning a critical eye on its competitive and coded social life. Thanks to extensive preservation, many of Newport’s mansions and homes still stand, waiting to transport visitors back to the city’s golden era. Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence or Henry James’s “The Sense of Newport” provide an equally evocative glimpse into Newport’s intricate social world.

The New England Quarterly has published extensively on all periods of Newport history. To learn about Williams James, his cousin Minny Temple, and their time in Newport, read Alfred Habegger’s New Light on William James and Minny Temple, which appeared in our March 1987 issue. If you’re interested in finding out more about the experience of African Americans—as much a part of the city’s history as the Gilded Age elite—see Exercising Their Right: African American Voter Turnout in Antebellum Newport, Rhode Island, by Richard C. Rohrs, from the September 2011 issue. And to step back into Revolutionary Newport, read T. Cole Jones’s “Displaying the Ensigns of Harmony”: The French Army in Newport, Rhode Island, 1780–1781, from the September 2012 issue.

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Happy Birthday, Frederick Law Olmsted!

It is fitting that this year in much of the United States, Arbor Day falls on 26 April, the 191st birthday of renowned landscape architect and conservationist Frederick Law Olmsted. Born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1822 to a successful merchant, Olmsted tried out a number of occupations (ship boy with the China trade, gentleman farmer, New York Times reporter, travel writer, editor) in his youth. Those various experiences served him well in his future work, when he would advocate for equality and the power of aesthetics to improve civilization. Then in 1858, he won (along with partner Calvert Vaux) a design competition to redevelop Central Park, a commission that launched his career as America’s first landscape architect

Olmsted and Vaux went on to design many parks and landscapes across the nation, including Prospect Park in Brooklyn, South Park in Chicago, Boston’s Emerald Necklace, Belle Isle in Detroit, and the grounds of Stanford University. Drawing upon his design principles and his values, Olmsted strove to create green spaces that, no matter how densely cities grew up around them, would provide natural retreats for residents. He also fought to make his parks accessible centers of democracy where people of all sorts could coexists. His vision extended as well to America’s wilderness. As a leader of the burgeoning conservation movement, he helped establish the first national park in Yosemite Valley, California, set up Niagara Reservation, and articulated the mission of nature preservation (“to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein . . . and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations”). In 1882 he moved his firm from New York City to Brookline, Massachusetts, where it operated until 1979, when the grounds and collections became part of the National Park Service. Olmsted died in 1902 in Belmont, Massachusetts.

Today, Olmsted’s legacy is part of the larger conservation movement. Arbor Day, founded in 1872 in Nebraska by tree-advocate J. Sterling Morton, likewise holds a prominent place with environmentalists. It is not surprising, therefore, that Olmsted societies across the nation celebrate Arbor Day by sprucing up their parks and that the Arbor Day Foundation annually presents the Frederick Law Olmsted Award to a person dedicated to trees and conservation. This year (in addition to planting a tree, of course), celebrate Olmsted’s birthday/Arbor Day by keeping his spirit alive. For those in the Boston area, join the Emerald Necklace Conservancy’s cleanup of the Muddy River or attend their discussion Climate Change: What Would Olmsted Do? On Sunday, roam through the Arnold Arboretum with the National Park Service’s Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site. Or help advocate for the preservation of Olmsted’s parks and landscapes by becoming a member of the National Association for Olmsted Parks.

To learn more about Olmsted and his ideals, read George L. Scheper’s “The Reformist Vision of Frederick Law Olmsted and the Poetics of Park Design” from our September 1989 issue and Andrew Menard’s “The Enlarged Freedom of Frederick Law Olmsted,” published in September 2010. But be sure to access them online so you’ll save a tree!

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Patriots’ Day

On the evening of 18 April 1775, about nine hundred British troops marched from Boston toward Concord, where they had been ordered to destroy military supplies held by the Massachusetts militia. Boston silversmith and patriot Paul Revere set forth on his famous midnight ride while “the Moon shone bright,” alerting the countryside to the Redcoats’ movements and ensuring that the rebels were prepared to greet them. As dawn approached on the morning of 19 April, the King’s troops, led by Major John Pitcairn, advanced onto Lexington Green and found themselves confronted with a group of about eighty minutemen. Lexington’s John Robbins testified,

“[O]n the green or common, and I being in the front rank, there suddenly appeared a number of the King’s troops, about a thousand, as I thought, at the distance of about sixty or seventy yards from us, huzzaing, and on a quick pace towards us, with three officers in their front on horse back, and on full gallop towards us, the foremost of which cried, throw down your arms, ye villains, ye rebels.”

At that moment, “the shot heard round the world” was fired.  Exactly who did so remains a mystery, but the British quickly responded, killing eight and wounding ten more. The rebels scattered to the woods, and the Regulars marched onward to Concord. One man recalled,

“[A]bout an hour after sunrise, we assembled on a hill near the meeting-house in Concord aforesaid, in consequence of an information that a number of regular troops had killed six of our countrymen at Lexington, and were on their march to said Concord.”

The foes faced off at the North Bridge. Now, it was the Redcoats who retreated, beaten back by the ever-growing forces from the countryside. By the time they reached Boston, the British had lost about 20 percent of their men. The Revolutionary War had begun.

In 1894, Governor Frederic Greenhalge declared 19 April Patriots’ Day to celebrate the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Three years later, in 1897, Boston commemorated the Regulars’ plodding retreat toward safety by hosting its first marathon. This year on Patriots’ Day (observed Monday, 15 April), have the best of both worlds: watch (or maybe even run) the marathon, then immerse yourself in the worlds of Lexington and Concord by streaming our Patriots’ Day podcast. Let three experts guide you through the eighteenth-century towns on the eve of the Revolution. What better way to celebrate the day than to lace up your running shoes in the morning and to relax afterwards by taking a walk in the shoes of a minuteman?

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Cracking the Code of Roger Williams

A historian uses a wide array of techniques to open up the secrets of a primary, archival source,  including exploring when, why, and for whom the document was created, questioning possible bias or the point of view of the writer, and even analyzing handwriting and paper. However, sometimes the very tool needed to even begin such research falls outside of the historian’s toolbox, and he or she must turn to another discipline to supply the missing method.  That is exactly what happened when then-director of the John Carter Brown library (and NEQ board member) Ted Widmer turned to a group of Brown University undergraduates to crack the strange code found in the margins of a leather-bound book once belonging to Roger Williams, theologian and founder of Rhode Island.  One undergraduate’s specialty, mathematics, provided the method for solving this mystery and revealing original, unknown writings by Williams.

As Slate Magazine details, Williams’s book has been in Brown’s possession since 1817, but it wasn’t until 2011 that a group of undergraduates tried their hand at translating the obscure characters once a computer failed to do the job.  That group included senior math major Lucas Mason-Brown, who diligently applied statistical analysis along with historical research to Williams’s invented language. Over the course of a year, he succeeded in breaking the code and unveiling an expression of Williams’s beliefs in religious freedom, including his questioning of the morality of forcing conversion on Native Americans.

Working with an archival source—seeing and smelling the original paper and ink with which someone long ago once wrote—bridges the past with the present, making history immediate and alive.  The act of cracking Williams’s code has also bridged disciplines that are usually on different sides of academia, math and history.  Roger Williams would no doubt be amazed to know that, nearly three hundred and thirty years after his death, an undergraduate mathematician would find the key to unlocking his code.

To learn more about Roger Williams, his banishment from Massachusetts Bay Colony, and his admirable support of Native American autonomy, read Jonathan Beecher Field’s Whitehill Prize-winning essay, A Key for the Gate: Roger Williams, Parliament, and Providence, from our September 2007 issue.

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Celebrate “a little madness in the spring” with Emily Dickinson

Poet Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) mined the landscape (or, as she put it, “robbed the woods”[1]) surrounding her Amherst, Massachusetts, home for symbols and metaphors.  Her intense relationship with the natural world necessarily included the seasons.  Spring, for Dickinson, is a precious time (“A Light exists in spring / Not present on the Year / At any other period”), made all the more so for its elusiveness (“Without the Formula of sound / It passes away and we stay — A quality of loss / Affecting our Content[2]). But, for the month or two of its brief visit, the spring brings both rejoicing (the bluebird “shouts for joy to nobody / but his seraphic self![3]) and religious communion (“None stir abroad / Without a cordial interview / with God”[4]).

It is fitting that a celebration of Emily Dickinson’s work will take place in the season that held such meaning for her.  On 13 April, the University of Buffalo will celebrate National Poetry Month with a fourteen-hour marathon reading of all 1,789 of Dickinson’s poems.

If making the trek to Buffalo is out of the question, Dickinson fans can explore her life and works by reading some of our past essays on the poet. In The Incidental Dickinson from our September 1999 issue, Mary Loeffelholz provides insight into the editorial challenges of and approaches to collecting and analyzing Dickinson’s work. Susan VanZanten, in the September 2012 piece “Bridges Often Go”: Emily Dickinson’s Bridge Poems, looks at Dickinson’s use of the image of the bridge in her work.


Amherst College has recently digitized its collection of Emily Dickinson’s works and papers. The links to Dickinson’s original handwritten poems are provided when available (log in as “guest”).

Title: F1356, l. 1

[1] F57, l. 1 

[2] F962, ll. 1–3, 15–18

[3] F1484, 15–16

[4] F948, 6–8

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