Beacon Street Diary
The Congregational Library & Archives will be closed to the public on Thursday, August 25th for a staff training day.
If you have questions that need staff attention, please send an email or leave a voicemail and we'll get back to you as soon as we can. We apologize for any inconvenience and thank you for your patience as we work to provide you with the best service possible.
The Congregational church in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, is marking its 250th anniversary this year, and my husband and I drove up this past weekend to join the festivities. I offered greetings from the Congregational Library & Archives and gave the Sunday sermon, a twenty-minute drop in the bucket compared to the months, even years this congregation has spent on putting together a creative, thoughtful celebration.
The entire weekend up in Maine made for musing about the distance between what we see and what we don't. To anyone else my husband and I probably looked like run of the mill tourists with Massachusetts plates, checking one more destination off of our bucket list before moving on. But Boothbay Harbor is not an ordinary place for us. My husband's family has roots in the area, and we used to visit his grandma when we were first married. We kept going up there after she died and when our children were small, staying in the family cottage — a grandiose term for a Rube Goldberg cabin, rooms randomly added over the years. Back then we didn't have a lot of money to spend on vacations and so we amused ourselves in inexpensive ways, picking blueberries in the back yard, hanging out in the hammock for hours at a time, taking the dogs for a walk down to the Sheepscot River, where we'd all enjoy the smell and muck of low tide. The little splurges were memorable.
I arrived early for the Sunday service, and since I had a little extra time to roam around, I did what most nosy historians do, visit the local graveyard. The Boothbay church had been founded by Scots-Irish Presbyterians, some of whose family still lived in the area and were part of the congregation, and I thought I might spot one or two on a tombstone, maybe find a story or two to tell at coffee hour. As in most old cemeteries, Boothbay Harbor's dead were grouped into extended families of parents and children, husbands and wives. The inhabitants were right out of a Melville novel, sea captains named Uzziah and Elijah, wives named Prudence and Sarah and Priscilla.
And then there was Cinderella Smith. Gravestones are fairly sparse information-wise and hers only made he wonder further. This woman had died relatively young, before the Civil War, perhaps of one of the epidemics that took people with depressing regularity during that time. She'd also lost both her parents at an early age — her tombstone included their birth and death dates — and, even more tantalizingly, it indicated that she'd been adopted by other couple with the same last name. Though adoption was a fairly common, informal practice among families back when a head cold could turn into a fever and an infection that brought death in days, I've never seen the actual word on a nineteenth-century gravestone. Nor have I ever come across a Cinderella.
She must have come from special people, who named her for a fairy tale character and then kept her close within the family after what must have been a tragic loss. And I wouldn't doubt that a local historian or an expert on New England graveyards could piece together a lot more of the mystery than I can. But do you really want to know? Isn't it enough that almost two centuries ago, back in the days when Mainers made their living on fishing smacks and hard-scrabble farms, someone loved a little girl enough to name her Cinderella? The past loves to keep its secrets, I've found, and sometimes it's more than enough to enjoy the mystery.
The streets of Boston are alive with visitors and locals alike, taking in these few fleeting weeks of summer. Down the street, we can see tourists buying slushes and taking photos on the Boston Common, while locals sprawl out on the grass with books. Our Assistant Librarian Sara Belmonte picked out some books you might enjoy reading on the Common, or under another shady tree in your area.
Geraldine Clifford turned the personal writings of women teachers into a larger historical statement about the role women have played as teachers in the United States. The book covers the colonial era and the 19th century, and brings to light the often-overlooked voices of women.
Puritans are often portrayed as stern and rigid, but Abram C. Van Engen smashes that misconception. He contends that Puritan theological thought and practice emphasized the importance of sympathy and compassion, not buckled hats and witch burnings.
A different kind of beach read! The Atlantic Ocean serves as a backdrop for 17th century transatlantic voyages. James Oglethorpe's 1735 journey from London to Georgia is the main story, and Stephen R. Berry's book expands from there across the 18th century transatlantic world. Berry was a 2004 fellow of the New England Regional Fellowship Consortium.
Janice P. Namura's meticulously researched book tells the story of five young Japanese women sent to the U.S. by the Japanese government in the 1870s. After ten years, they return home and are faced with the task of reforming Japan's educational system. Much of the collection at the Congregational Library & Archives deals with American and Western European missionaries bringing their culture to other parts of the world, so it is particularly interesting to see the cultural exchange go the other way.
Those of you who attended our History Matters lecture this past March will recognize the name Heath W. Carter, the Valparaiso labor historian who explored the intersection of religion and labor in the 19th century. In his book Union Made, Carter reframes the rise of the Social Gospel to focus on the contributions of the labor movement of the 19th century. Anyone interested in the tension between revivalists and Social Gospel adherents will appreciate this book, as will readers who wish to view labor history through an unconventional lens.
Members of the Congregational Library & Archives can check these books out. Become a member today, and enjoy these books wherever you do your summer reading.
The Congregational Library & Archives will be closed to the public on Tuesday, July 26th for a staff training day.
If you have questions that need staff attention, please send an email or leave a voicemail and we'll get back to you as soon as we can. We apologize for any inconvenience and thank you for your patience as we prepare some exciting projects for the coming year.
This week the Congregational Library & Archives is helping to host a series of events marking the 425th anniversary of Anne Hutchinson's birth. Besides Anne, seventeenth-century Boston's famous Puritan dissenter, the list of attendees and speakers is pretty impressive. Former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, who issued a pardon in 1987 revoking the General Court's order of banishment, was present at an opening commemoration at the Hutchinson memorial on the State House Lawn last evening; afterwards, we retired to the Congregational Library & Archives for birthday cake and toasting. This morning Eve LaPlante, author of American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans, will give a talk in the library's reading room. This afternoon, three prominent historians Mary Beth Norton, Catherine Brekus, and Robert Charles Anderson, will participate in a panel on Hutchinson's life and legacy, a conversation our executive director Peggy Bendroth be moderating at the New England Historic Genealogical Society.Anne Marbury Hutchinson Foundation website for further information about schedule and tickets.) It's a tribute to an unusual and gifted woman who charted her own path — and paid the price for doing so.
Involvement in these events makes sense for the Congregational Library & Archives, as we live at the intersection of serious academic scholarship and the wider world of people who are just plain interested in history. We are committed to supporting excellent historical research in every way possible, but more than that to provide occasions for two-way conversations between academics and readers from other professions and walks of life. That's why we host "History Matters" lunches: we want to build a conversation between professional historians and people who, though they might not read through an entire academic tome footnotes and all, want to know what it's about and why it's important.
In the case of Anne Hutchinson, that intersection is tricky. Most people do not have an opportunity to learn much about the New England Puritans. Our average tourist here in Boston, for example, can go on a Duckboat and hear a spiel about Quakers being hanged or might go up to Salem and visit the "witch museum". Everything else is the American Revolution: Paul Revere and Samuel Adams, Redcoats and Tea Parties. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course, but why stop there? We'd argue that you can't really understand what happened in 1776 without first knowing something about the Puritans — not lore and stereotypes but history in all its nuance and complexity. They were, after all, the ones who laid the ground rules for participatory democracy, in churches that gave voice to ordinary church members and demanded accountability from those in power.
The Puritans were not, in other words, a monolithic group of killjoys terrified of free speech, so afraid of Anne Hutchinson that they drove her into exile. They were people — just like us — who wanted a close-knit community, motivated by a common vision of the common good. And, like us, they stumbled over the problem of dissent, the clash between individual freedom and community integrity. Back in the 1630s Anne Hutchinson paid a steep price for challenging those categories — but are we any different now? Our own debates about gay marriage and immigration are in many ways the continuation of one started in Puritan Boston long ago.
Of course, there's another mythology about the Puritans that's just as inaccurate and potentially harmful as the witch-burning stereotypes. It's the declaration that they were the source of everything good and decent about American society, the ones who established the United States as a "Christian nation". That's a disservice not only to the Native Americans who fell in the Puritans' wake but to all those other founding fathers and mothers in other colonies like, say, Virginia.
To my mind, Anne Hutchinson fits best in between all of our myths and legends about the Puritans. She was, at bottom, a woman who was willing to defy categorization, and accepted the price for doing so. Now that's a birthday worth celebrating.
Our reading room will be closed to researchers on Thursday, July 21st from 9 am to 2 pm for an event.
If you would like to join us for Founding Mothers Celebration - American Jezebel & Founding Mother with esteemed author Eve LaPlante, a few tickets are still available.
I spent last week at the Kenyon Institute, a program for writers held at Kenyon College in Ohio. This one was geared toward people interested in things spiritual — for a whole host of reasons, I soon discovered — and brought together a mix of rabbis, ministers, and priests, as well as riffraff like me, who defied easy categorization. It was a lot like summer camp, making new friends and challenging yourself to do something scary — reading your composition out loud to your writing group was every bit as nerve-wracking as jumping off a rope swing into the lake — complaining about the food and then eating way too much of it.
Over the course of the week we tried out different kinds of writing: lyrical essays, personal memoir, and even blogging and op-eds. We talked about midrash and juxtapositions, scripture and poetry. Once we opened Bibles and with our eyes closed, put our fingers on a text, Augustine style, and wrote what came to mind. (How did I end up in 2 Esdras?) Every afternoon was free for working on assignments, napping or reflecting, or in my case logging a few miles on the treadmill (it was way too hot to spend much time outside) and playing music in a quiet practice room. By the end of the week I had no problem spending an hour or more just lying on the grass, listening to birds and looking at clouds.
On the first morning I told my writing group that my goal for the week was to escape from footnotes. Historians are trained to build their ideas on those of others, which means we are very uncomfortable going for more than a paragraph without some kind of outside reference. The more the better, in fact. For us, writing is a slow, deliberate process of crafting an original thought from hours, days, years of reading what other people have written, constructing an argument with nuance and precision, absolutely faithful to the texts that those others left behind. I often think of historical writing like sculpting a block of marble into a statue, one deliberately planned chip at a time.
That means that historians don't normally just sit down and write things, any more than an astronaut would jump out of the mother ship without a tether and a decent supply of oxygen. We stay close to our sources as a matter of respect — and if we were perfectly honest, out of an abundance of personal caution.
Turned out, however, that I had no trouble leaving footnotes behind. In fact, jumping off the cliff on a rope swing was the easiest thing I did all week, fully accomplished before lunch the first day. The real problem, one I shared with the ministers and rabbis in my writing group, was much more complicated. Writing is by its nature anti-social. It requires time and distance apart. And of course, in an age of social isolation and media feeds targeted toward our personal algorithms, it's far too easy to fall into the trap of writing for and about me, me, me. Writing can be the ultimate act of self-indulgence.
In the end my most important reboot had nothing to do with footnotes. It was learning to see writing as a form of compassion, a way of engaging other people with respect, clarity, and vulnerability. That means leaving behind the preachy sermon mode — read this, it will be good for you — and, for the historian-expert in full footnote body armor, accepting the risk of exposure, being willing to be, at least for a little while, a party of one. That takes a lot more courage than most of us realize, not just to be honest and vulnerable, but, as I am learning, to fight against easy distractions, whether it's social media or the pile of oughts and shoulds clamoring from my calendar and smart phone. Somewhere out there, I keep reminding myself, are birds waiting to be listened to, and clouds waiting to be watched.
All of our online resources will be available as usual. If you have questions for the staff, please send an email or leave a voicemail, and we'll get back to you when we return to the office on Tuesday.
We hope you have a safe and happy celebration.
image of fireworks over the Charles River in Boston courtesy of Pablo Valerio via Wikimedia Commons
At the beginning of summer, we find ourselves daydreaming about summer road trips, escapes to cabins and cottages, and the afternoons when we might slip away to the beach. Others, including some of the library staff, travel to conferences and industry meetings.
One summer, over 100 years ago, a group of businessmen made a very long journey: across the Pacific Ocean from Japan to Seattle, Washington. Shortly after their arrival, they were photographed in Spokane. Their shiny top hats create a striking contrast against the rough logs of the building behind them. In the upper right-hand area of the photo, you can see the curious face of a child, straining for a glance of the visitors.
This group arrived just over fifty years after the Treaty of Amity and Commerce opened up diplomatic and commercial relations between Japan and the United States. The exchange was facilitated by Eiichi Shibusawa, a prolific Japanese entrepreneur and an advocate for stronger ties with the West.
The visitors met with President William H. Taft, J.P Morgan, and Thomas Edison among many others famous Americans of the day. They began in Seattle and traveled by train across the United States for three months, ending on the east coast. Along the way, they stopped in Spokane and posed for a group photo.
How the photograph wound up in our collection is a mystery to the library's current staff, but they speculate that it was among the papers given to us by a minister of missionary.
We have hundreds of other images in our collection, many of which can be viewed online. It's not quite like a vacation, but they can still transport you.
On a recent Thursday evening, we invited members of the Congregational Library & Archives to join us for a special evening lecture.
Dr. Peter Becker of the Harvard College Writing Program gave a lecture about slave narratives. The Congregational library & Archives has many examples of the writings of former slaves who escaped the South before the Civil War. Becker explored the slave narrative as a literary genre, and delved into its historic, social, and religious implications. He discussed how themes and tropes carried through centuries of narratives, from the first slave narrative in 1770s to contemporary works inspired by the slave narrative genre, like the films Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave. Along the historical and literary journey, Dr. Becker drew connections between slave narratives and works as divergent as Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and Toni Morrison's Beloved.penned a famous narrative (a copy of which is in our collection). She brought with her a collection of letters, including a letter of introduction written by William Lloyd Garrison to help Jones as he made his way in Canada.
The event was presented in collaboration with the National Park Service's Boston African American National Historic Site, one of our regular collaborators.
We periodically host special programs for members. Becoming a member of the Congregational Library & Archives gets you a seat at these events, and, even more importantly, helps preserve the history behind them.