Preserving Historic New England: Preservation, Progressivism, and the Remaking of Memory

By Batinski, Michael C. | Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Preserving Historic New England: Preservation, Progressivism, and the Remaking of Memory


Batinski, Michael C., Historical Journal of Massachusetts


Preserving Historic New England: Preservation, Progressivism and the Remaking of Memory, by James M- Lindgren. New York, 1995 (Oxford University Press, 198 Madison Avenue, New York, New York, 10016), $45.00 in Cloth.

Public historians engaged in preservation and museum work, as well as their traditionally defined academic counterparts have, as David Glassberg has recently argued, been working in their separate domains for too long ("Public History and the Study of Memory," The Public Historian, 19 [Spring, 1996], pp. 7-23). The distinctions are artificial and detrimental to both parties. Glassberg, however, may exaggerate how high those boundaries are. Certainly his study of American Historical Pageantry (1990) and Michael Kammen's on The Mystic Chords of Memory (1991), as well as the attention both books have received, gives cause for reconsideration. But if the evidence remains inconclusive, books like James Lindgren's study of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA) provide confirming evidence that the boundaries are artificial and detrimental.

Preserving Historic New England is noteworthy for what it reveals about early twentieth-century political and social history. Lindgren skillfully places SPNEA and its founder William Sumner Appleton within the times. Appleton, like many a Boston Brahmin, trembled as he witnessed his world overrun by succeeding waves of immigration from Ireland, Italy, and Eastern Europe. As Appleton and his cohorts sensed that their world was overrun by both a crass materialism and a militant radicalism, they reconstructed an image of a more stabile past inhabited by hardy Anglo-Saxons individualists who took pride in craftsmanship and planted well-ordered and harmonious communities. These men-and they were largely men, as Lindgren notes-were "remaking" a memory of New England's past out of their fears. Though many, including Appleton, suffered from "nervous collapse," they did not retreat. Instead, they developed a preservationist movement in order to impose their imagined past upon the new immigrants-in short, to Americanize these strangers according to their standard. By placing New England's preservationist movement within the larger social and political contexts of the progressive era, Lindgren contributes to a richer understanding of that age. While it is not surprising to read that New England's circle of preservationists "overlapped" with the Progressivism movement, Lindgren's story provides rich confirming details.

Ethnic, class, and cultural divisions that provoked struggles over school curricula and over parks and playgrounds erupted when preservationists sought to protect Paul Revere's house from its foreign inhabitants. While telling in rich detail the stories of the numerous struggles to preserve New England's colonial houses, Lindgren rightly concludes that "historic preservation was one battleline in a wider conflict"(83). Though he has focused on a narrow subject, he remains throughout this slim volume alert to the broader social contexts. …

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