When I grew up in Deerfield, Massachusetts, in the 1950s, the physical remains of the remoter past seemed to be everywhere. There were many eighteenth-century homes along the main street (restored by a historical foundation and opened to the public as museum houses); a museum filled with colonial and nineteenth-century artifacts donated over the years by villagers and others from the area; a cemetery or "burial ground" with grave markers dating from the earliest settlement in the late seventeenth century; an old town well of indeterminate origins; a stone memorial dedicated to those who had died in several wars, including an early Indian massacre and the Civil War; and an academy founded in the 1790s and, though turned into a private secondary school in the 1920s, open to the town's young people, such as myself, who attended as day students.
By contrast, when I left Deerfield to enroll in the nearby state university at Amherst, the history I studied was largely national and political in orientation. Even though I had already assimilated a local past though history's physical presence, real history became something with much larger dimensions. Like many history majors of my generation, I took courses in modern history that were usually focused on nations and politics. I even became the research assistant of a professor working on American politics during the 1830s. The subject of my doctoral dissertation at Yale was of a very similar nature. I then secured a position at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and organized my own course on "U.S. History." As time passed, I sensed the inadequacy of such an approach to historical study. Was political life necessarily the most important aspect of life? Did economic, social, cultural, and intellectual life change in unison with political life? Which was cause and which was effect? Did the nation offer the most meaningful perspective from which to study the past in any case?
In 1971 I learned that the historical foundation in Deerfield had a library to house the documents collected over the years by the historical society. George Sheldon, Deerfield's nineteenth-century