The New England Village

Article excerpt

The New England Village. By Joseph S. Wood. Baltimore, Md., 1997 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2715 N. Charles St., Baltimore, Md., 21218). $39.95.

Professional historians are natural iconoclasts: they like to stake their claims to the real past by exposing the chauvinism of popularizers who prettify and simplify a romantic past that never was. Colonial America, and in particular Puritan New England, offers wonderful opportunities for scholars to set the record straight. Puritans are at the center of more mythmaking - both positive and negative - than any other peoples in American history with the possible exception of antebellum southerners. And the professors have taken delight in taking aim at these myths: we have stripped the black garb off Puritans and dressed them in russet and blue; we pried a brooding Adam off their shoulders; we no longer praise or blame them for inventing capitalism; and we have even given them a healthy appetite for beer and sex. Now Joseph S. Wood wants to throw Puritans out of their large homes clustered around the village green and scatter them across the countryside. "The common New England village landscape is burdened by an invented tradition, both popular and scholarly," Wood argues: it "rarely existed in nucleated or compact form" (p.2). What? The Puritan village was a fraud perpetrated by both patriots and professors? What will we discover next? Maybe Puritans secretly admired the Pope?

Wood is right, of course: Puritans were Englishmen and like the rest of their land-hungry countrymen they proved unable to resist the lure of rich salt marshes, champion meadow, and productive pastures. They jettisoned the Puritan village remarkably quickly and moved to isolated farmsteads to enjoy and exploit the bounty of what to them was indeed a new world. After 1675, almost all of New England's new communities were settled as rural towns -- a term and concept that would confound other Englishmen-and almost all of these rural towns had centers consisting of little more than a meeting house, militia training field, tavern, and perhaps a small store. The "white villages" of clapboard beauty and postcard fame, Wood believes, emerged in the Federal Period as retail service centers whose residents and boosters projected them fraudulently back into the seventeenth century. Moreover, he indicts twentieth-century historians for endorsing this invented tradition and giving it their stamp of authenticity.

If Wood did not so frequently restate his thesis and so pugnaciously overstate most of his argument, he would have written a splendid book. In his introduction and in each of the subsequent seven chapters, he hammers away mercilessly at the mythology of the village. He also unfairly downplays the importance of the period before 1675 when nucleated settlement was indeed the dominant pattern. Nor have professional historians been quite as easily fooled by Puritan rhetoric or nineteenthcentury boosterism as Wood thinks they have. The most popular book used in recent university history courses on local life in New England has been Kenneth Lockridge's A New England Town: The First Hundred Years (1970), which emphasized the dispersion process. …