Writing New England: An Anthology from the Puritans to the Present

Article excerpt

Andrew Delbanco (Ed.), Writing New England: An Anthology from the Puritans to the Present, Harvard/Belknap: Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA: 2001.

Writing New England is a literary history of New England, but not only of New England itself, but also a picture of the beginning of our American heritage. And not a history only, but through Andrew Delbanco a link of the past with the present through carefully selected writings of the well-known and the not-so-well-known. Through excerpts from the familiar and less familiar artists, both religious and secular, aesthetic and political, Delbanco selects works that are representative of the time from which they were written. Within each section of the anthology, his arrangement of the pieces addresses a topic and sets a mood that reflects the thoughts and feelings of the individual writers. As the reader moves from section to section, the works create a thread, and then a series of threads that weave their way throughout the collection, in the end creating the unique tapestry we identify as the "New England mind" -- and as Delbanco exhibits, perhaps our "national mind" as well -- a part of the American dream, not terribly far removed from the dreams of the earliest New Englanders.

Delbanco's "Introduction" is very informative and sets out his purpose very well. He also includes a chronology of New England history from the settlement in 1607 to Boston's "Big Dig" of the 1990's. The brief introductions before each section help to explain and to set the tone for the selections that follow, and help to tie the sections together, producing an almost unbroken narrative spanning three centuries. The chronological arrangement allows the reader a sense of change over time as each individual section is arranged from early works, such as John Cotton's 1630 sermon, "Christ the Fountain of Life" to later writings such as Dorothy West (1995) in "The Richer, the Poorer" in The

Examined Self. A certain continuity of spirit is achieved as the reader moves through time with each author on the particular themes, beginning with "The Founding Idea" -- featuring John Winthrop's 1630 sermon, "Model of Christian Charity" and ending with pieces by Ralph Waldo Emerson (from 1846) and Donald Hall (from 1986) in "The Abiding Sense of Place."

A brief biographical sketch of each author is also provided before each selection. This allows the reader to obtain a degree of knowledge about the selection, its author, and the place within the larger tapestry that it fulfills. From the editor's initial introduction to the sectional introductions, one learns some interesting and little-known facts, such as the unexpected death of William Bradford's wife just before their New World experiment could begin, and of Charles Summer's eloquently prepared brief that he was never able to present before the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts on behalf of a five year old African-American girl who was denied access to equal education in Boston's public schools in 1849 (223). (Delbanco goes on to add that it would be 6 more years before an act of the Massachusetts legislature would terminate school segregation, and 105 years until the landmark case of "Brown vs. …