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The best books on New England

recommended by Mark Peterson

Interview by Eve Gerber

New England: it's the northeastern-most region of the United States, encompasses six states, is slightly larger than England itself, and half of it is rural, remote Maine. Yale Professor Mark Peterson introduces us to the rich history of New England, going back to its Puritan roots and the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

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Mark Peterson

Mark Peterson is a Professor of History at Yale University, specializing in early North America and the Atlantic world. After earning his Ph.D. in History at Harvard University, he taught at the University of Iowa and at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was Chair of the History Department. He is the author most recently of The City-State of Boston: The Rise and Fall of an Atlantic Power, 1630-1865, and also of The Price of Redemption: The Spiritual Economy of Puritan New England.

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You’ve chosen five books on New England. What distinguishes New England from the rest of the United States, and why is it considered such an important part of the American puzzle?

New England, unlike the rest of the United States and other parts of the world that were colonized by European powers, is a realized idea. The people who, from a European perspective, were its founders had envisioned that New England would continue a tradition in Christian history, and also political history, by becoming a plantation for Christianity in the “new world,” which would function as an autonomous republic.

New England was created by colonists who fanned out from that initial Massachusetts Bay colony. The colonists who were granted the charter for Massachusetts Bay were given small tracts of land. They created new colonies that were pulled together through the forces of economics and culture. So, the vision that shaped the beginnings of Massachusetts was stamped on the region as a whole. New England developed a consistency and coherence that much of the rest of the United States lacks.

Your book The City-State of Boston traces the roots of New England to its founders’ experimental vision.

Other colonies were experiments, too. Maryland was meant to be a refuge for Catholics who were hounded under English law, and Pennsylvania was meant to be a Quaker experiment. But compared to Massachusetts and the New England region it developed, those experiments didn’t succeed. Not many Catholics went to Maryland; not enough English Quakers went to Pennsylvania.

Yet the Massachusetts Bay Corporation proved capable of moving tens of thousands of Puritans across the sea—Puritans who built political, religious, and economic structures that allowed the colony to stay true to its founding vision for a very long time. Although it was not the only experimental colony attempted, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was the one that succeeded to the greatest extent in fulfilling its founding goals—and those ideas indelibly marked New England.

“The more I studied the origin of colonial Boston, the clearer it became that New England was modeled on, and very similar to, city-states that developed in the Ancient Mediterranean region and early modern Europe”

The more I studied the origin of colonial Boston and the region around it, the clearer it became that New England was modeled on, and very similar to, city-states that developed in the Ancient Mediterranean region and early modern Europe. We are so accustomed to the United States’ status as a large nation-state that it’s difficult to imagine anything different. And so, historians often work from that perspective. The City-State is an attempt to step outside of the shadow that the United States casts backwards. The book follows how Boston, as an autonomous city-state, became the powerful economic, political and cultural force it was in the seventeenth century and shaped the New England region that sprouted around it.

The American Revolution is the traditional stopping point in many colonial histories. The City State explores what the autonomy of New England meant once the United States was formed, and Bostonians’ experiences in adapting to the entity created by the united colonies. Ultimately, the new political and economic forces that emerged during the early years of the United States undermined the autonomy and the cultural cohesion that Boston built in the colonial period, in ways that were surprising and dismaying to New Englanders themselves.

When approaching Boston, the glowing golden dome of the Massachusetts State Capitol stands out at the top of Beacon Hill. The image of a ‘city on a hill’ has been deployed politically for generations. How does your work demystify it?

President John F Kennedy was the first politician to use the ‘city on a hill’ image. President Ronald Reagan picked it up again in the 1980s. There’s no evidence that anybody in colonial Boston or New England read or heard Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop use that phrase. So, that image becomes important to the United States sense of its past only in the modern era. The ‘city on a hill’ is a backwards projection onto Boston’s history.

My book examines the metaphors and symbols that the colonists themselves used. I find the most powerful image to be the one that many of the colonists deployed: the image of the apostles spreading Christianity abroad. That image is in many sermons and texts from the founding era. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts’s seal depicts a stylized version of an American Indian saying ‘come over and help us.’ That phrase is a direct quotation from the Acts of the Apostles, in which Paul plants the Christian Church in the city of Philippi, after a Macedonian appears to him in a dream, saying, ‘come over and help us.’

Seen repeatedly in founding documents, that image did shape the way that some early colonists thought about missionary work. So, I try to correct the record by bringing authentic concepts from the colonial period to the forefront of the founding story.

Let’s begin with the Perry Miller, known as Puritanism’s greatest historian; he received a posthumous Pulitzer. Tell me about The New England Mind.

The New England Mind is a work of profound scholarship. For much of the nineteenth century, the Puritans who founded New England were dismissed by their descendants as a retrograde people; so much so that the word ‘puritan’ was a term of abuse. Miller, a professor at Harvard, showed that the Puritan founders were actually an incredibly learned group who led the Reformation and were at the forefront of seventeenth-century scientific thought. Miller rehabilitated the Puritans and in so doing, transformed the twentieth-century understanding of America’s origins.

The New England Mind is a sprawling, two-volume work; no one is going to take it to the beach. But if anyone is interested in exploring the modern foundations of how we understand New England, it’s indispensable reading.

In your book The Price of Redemption, you argue that the puritan imprint continued to shape the region well into the eighteenth century.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony’s success was built on Puritan colonists’ ability to develop a thriving economy. To sustain a religious culture, including learned clergymen and cultured congregants, Puritans needed wealth.

The cost of shipping during the Age of Sail was so high that Puritans could only profit from voyages that carried high-value commodities. But New England’s climate and conditions didn’t yield any commodity that remained in sustained demand. Colonists had to find a place to sell what they could produce, simple farm products and salted meats. And they had to find a place where merchants could then buy goods someone in London would want. This is where the West Indies came in; sugar plantations needed food for slaves, plus barrels and wood products.

“The Massachusetts Bay Colony’s success was built on Puritan colonists’ ability to develop a thriving economy”

To sustain this trade, merchants needed some form of currency. So, from the very beginning, Boston merchants became creative. At first, they adopted wampum, which they wrongly believed was Indian money. Then, they melted down Spanish silver and started coining New England’s own money. No other colony did this; it was most likely illegal. It was the beginning of experimental finance. That’s the way Boston became a financial center.

Voltaire and George Washington also recommended your next book choice on New England: Phillis Wheatley Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, first published in 1773.

I admire Phillis Wheatley’s poetry and her personal journey. Enslaved at a young age in West Africa, she came to Boston and was sold, at roughly seven, to a family headed by John Wheatley. Wheatley’s wife, Susanna, recognized she was remarkably smart and so encouraged her studies. By the time Phillis was an adolescent, she was writing remarkable poetry.

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To read Wheatley is to understand the world she lived in. She wrote many odes, the great poetic genre of the period. She also wrote topical poems. Although young, she was an astute observer.

In her poetry and in her person, Wheatley adopted New England ideals. Although born in Africa and enslaved as a child, she used her talent and education to write her way to fame and freedom. She speaks as the voice of New England about “our liberties” being preserved, in a poem addressed to the Earl of Dartmouth.

Wheatley’s work reminds me that I once thought abolition was a New England export. Wrong?

Yes and no. The abolitionist movement did take root in New England starting in the late 1820s, but it had roots in other places as well. So, ‘export’ is not the word I would use.

The City-State of Boston tells the story of how radical Bostonians, starting with David Walker in 1829, pushed for immediate abolition. But it also explains that many Bostonians’ fortunes were tied to the cotton economy. It’s certainly the case that Boston became a magnet for escaped slaves and free blacks. Abolition is a complicated, transatlantic thing which Boston played a significant part in, but Boston didn’t export abolitionism the way Virginia exported tobacco.

A book about a Maine midwife who attended the birth of 814 New Englanders is next. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, the historian who wrote A Midwife’s Tale, is perhaps best known for her statement that “well-behaved women seldom make history.” Even though this book won the historian’s trifecta—a Pulitzer, Bancroft and Dunning—tell us about it.

Laurel, who taught at New Hampshire and then at Harvard, wrote this brilliant picture of rural New England life, set from the 1780s to the 1820 or so based on the diary of a midwife named Martha Ballard. It took virtuosic interpretive work to tease meaning out of the cryptic writings in this diary. She managed to assemble what coastal Maine was like in this time period. You get a stunning portrait of what it was like to live in that time and place.

It’s a beautifully written book, a literary gem. It follows Martha through her life and each chapter moves around the calendar. The first chapter will be, say, September in one year and then the next one will be October of another year; on and on around the calendar. One of the things you imbibe by reading it is the way seasons shaped life. You learn the different chores, delights and diseases that came at different times of the year.

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There’s a tendency to view the pastoral past as simple; A Midwife’s Tale also reveals the complexity and challenges of rural economic life. Not only is Martha Ballard a midwife, she’s also engaged in cloth production and food production. Her husband is a farmer who also runs timber mills. The book helps us appreciate the tremendous stock of knowledge that New Englanders, like the Ballards, had, and the complexity of their communities. So, anyone who is interested in books about New England ought to read A Midwife’s Tale.

What does A Midwife’s Tale tell us about the power of patriarchy in shaping New England?

That’s complicated. The world that Ulrich wrote about is patriarchic. Males, by law and by custom, were heads of the household. Females, whether as wives or as daughters, were under the authority of husbands or fathers. Women weren’t able to vote or hold property in their names until far later. Yet, at the same time, the partnership that Martha had with her husband entailed codependence. Both husband and wife were engaged in the household-based economy.

Domestic life in the northeast changed quite dramatically soon after the end of Ulrich’s story. Due largely to the growth of the New England textile industry, starting in the eighteen teens, we see a separation of women’s work and men’s work. The normative division becomes men work in offices, shops, and factories, while women’s work becomes confined to the home. That wasn’t true in the time of Martha Ballard. Even though she was living under a patriarchal legal and political structure, as a midwife, as a weaver, she was in engaged in the community. So, it’s an interesting question that you asked.

A Gothic novel is your next choice. What does Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables tells us about New England?

The House of the Seven Gables is a deeply psychological novel set during the 1840s in Salem. It’s the story of the Pyncheons, an old New England family loosely modelled on Hawthorne’s own, and it’s a story of the place they build and occupy. The house itself is a character; a cursed character because the ancestor who built it essentially stole the land the house stands on by accusing the rightful owners of witchcraft. Like much of Hawthorne’s work, it’s a meditation on the way in which the past and the present intertwine in New England, and I believe it’s Hawthorne at his best.

“It’s Hawthorne at his best”

Hawthorne is at times wrongly characterized as stuck in New England’s colonial past. Although you’re right to say its focus is inward, it is also attuned to contemporary. Recall that one of the most important characters is a daguerreotypist, an expert in the new art of photography. And, in the most dramatic part of the plot, the railroad offers a way to essentially escape the past. So, Hawthorne mediates back and forth between his present and the past.

Although I can see the case that New Englanders are attached to their historical roots, I can also see that characterization could be applied as aptly to Southerners or others. Can you make the case that New Englanders are uniquely tied to the past?

You’re right; many people are tied to their past. But I try to demonstrate in The City-State of Boston that there is something about the compact size of New England and the centrality of so many places in it to the national narrative that makes New Englanders self-conscious about their past.

Would it be correct to say guilt goads the New England mind? The House of Seven Gables, you note, is cursed by the original sin of its builder. Are New Englanders haunted by the colonial period?

The original sin part is important. In House of Seven Gables witchcraft persecution is the original sin. In a story called “Young Goodman Brown” Hawthorne confronts the extreme violence between New England Puritans and indigenous people head-on. Puritan colonists believed in the concept of original sin; that’s important to understanding New England and to New England’s understanding of its past.

Henry Thoreau’s Walden is your last selection.

In Walden, Thoreau addresses himself to an imagined audience of New England readers. Walden can be seen as a meditation on the question of whether people in general, but New Englanders in particular, are awake and aware of their own experience.

Walden is not about wilderness—it’s a commentary on New England at the height of its transformation by human hands”

Thoreau can be thorny to read, but Walden is a tremendously important work in the history of environmental thinking and in the history of understanding our relationship with nature. There is a misconception that Walden is a paean to the natural world; it’s not. Thoreau is living in Concord, a town that has been colonized and farmed and altered by human beings for more than 200 years before he built his cabin. Although he lives in proximity to a pond, the railroad also ran nearby. Walden is not about wilderness—it’s a commentary on New England at the height of its transformation by human hands.

Another misconception about Walden is that it’s a cri de coeur against conformity. Is nonconformity an important strain of New England’s history or culture?

On the one hand, of course the colonists were nonconformists; they were dissenters who would not conform to the dictates of The Church of England. On the other, partially because of the high levels of homogeneity in that colonization project, the Puritan founders of the New England colonies marginalized and even exiled outsiders. The way churches developed in the area is called “the New England way.” A culture that has a “way” is a culture that is expecting people to conform. So, there is tension between the nonconformist roots of New England and the calcification that set in when New England ways became custom.

That is one of the things that Thoreau is trying to wake people up to.

New Englander-by-choice Mark Twain wrote home to his native Missouri in 1871: “There is no section in America half so good to live in as splendid old New England and there is no city on this continent so lovely and loveable as Boston.” What so impressed him then?

He had seen a lot of states, by 1871, and had just returned from his famed European tour. Compared to much of the rest of the United States, the civility of New England towns, the schools, the churches, and the aid societies, the structures of New England towns, the tidy town greens and their radiating roads, all of these things we’re done much better in New England. People think of Twain as a frontier writer, but he was often very disparaging of how things were done on the frontier. So, I’m guessing that assessment might have a lot to do with his preference for New England ways.

Interview by Eve Gerber

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Mark Peterson

Mark Peterson is a Professor of History at Yale University, specializing in early North America and the Atlantic world. After earning his Ph.D. in History at Harvard University, he taught at the University of Iowa and at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was Chair of the History Department. He is the author most recently of The City-State of Boston: The Rise and Fall of an Atlantic Power, 1630-1865, and also of The Price of Redemption: The Spiritual Economy of Puritan New England.