Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Beyond the Farm: National Ambitions in Rural New England

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Beyond the Farm: National Ambitions in Rural New England

Article excerpt

Beyond the Farm: National Ambitions in Rural New England. By J. M. Opal. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. 280 pages. $39.95 (hardcover).

From shortly after the American Revolution into the 1 820s, nationalism, an enlightenment concept, began to replace the historical parochialism shared by the overwhelming rural majority of Americans. The new national focus did not emerge overnight, nor did it become universal. Instead, contends J.M. Opal, the new ideas came first to a small and daring number of not really exceptional, but somehow different, individuals who overcame traditional reticence and dislike for ambition and at least attempted to rise in the world.

Beyond the Form: National Ambition inRuralNew England is a collective biography of six individuals who heeded the call to become more than their peers, to make something better of themselves, to exercise, if not fulfill, their ambition. What they attempted was daring because ambition was traditionally to be avoided as a sinful, dangerous, and altogether inappropriate emotion in a rural environment. There, the family - not the individual - was dominant, and the family interests were local, not national.

The book discusses the emergence of turnpikes and the rise of crossroads towns, leading to the creation of town centers, which replaced a scattering of farmsteads with perhaps a church and general store in their midst. The creation of a central business district shifted the focus of life from the homestead to the broader world. Outsiders rather than locals tended to be turnpike developers. Their turnpikes brought access to the cities, exposing new ideas to those who dared to leave home. This was also the time when academies appeared and colleges changed, leaving the old New England educational system behind.

Opal's biography of the six men begins with an understanding of their parents and their parents' world. He tracks the six through childhood to their forays into the broader society. His intention is to show how one set of values began giving way to another, how those men espousing the new had to struggle against not only their family and community but against themselves. …

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