Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Baptised in Boston

Baptized in Boston
            In my mind I now live in a small house off Warren Street in Charlestown. It has a wood paneled entryway, a gas lamp on the wide pavement outside the front door and a first floor drawing room with a bow shaped window. If the house were in England I would call it Georgian but that seems an inappropriate label for a dwelling so close to Bunker Hill.            
            If I ever disappear this is where you will find me – on the other side of England. I lost my heart to Boston in the pouring rain with Henry James safe in a polythene bag.  I ate my favorite food in the Warren Tavern and felt the compelling need for revolution. I met three Bostonians. They all said the same thing: “I like your accent.” Surely, that’s as good a place to start as any - if a tad ironic.


Following in the Footsteps of Freedom

[Apologies that the “Add a comment” feature isn’t working. I’m trying to figure out how to fix that so you can participate in the blog. Also apologies that there are fewer pictures today. It was raining so hard most of the time, and I didn't want to ruin my camera.]

In the afternoon it was still raining, so we took off in the car to Fairsted, the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site. Olmsted was the father of American landscape architecture. He designed the Emerald Necklace in Boston, Central Park in New York, and many other famous parks and gardens. Unfortunately it wasn’t open. But we were able to see the outside of his house and had a little walk around the landscaped yard, picked up an informative brochure, read it in the car, and had a good talk about the people and movements Olmsted must have been influenced by. Sarah has an uncanny knack for being able to guess such connections, and she’s usually right.

We continued on towards Boston Common and decided to brave it and walk the Freedom Trail, despite the horrendous downpour. We parked the car in the garage under the Common. As we emerged, a friendly Bostonian walked past us and said (with a grinning nod to the weather his “fair city” was blessing us with), “Welcome to Boston!” We took refuge for a brief while under the dome of the Bandstand in the middle of the Common, along with a motley crew of other drenched pedestrians. A convivial gathering of mutual understanding, even though we didn’t exchange actual words.

Founded in 1634, Boston Common is the oldest city park in the United States. Over the years it has been used for grazing “cattell” (as the sign with old spellings has it), as a “trayning field” (for British soldiers during their occupation of Boston), for public hangings (one of the most famous was Mary Dyer, one of the “Boston martyrs” – four Quakers who were put to death for their beliefs), and for public demonstrations (the largest one in Boston’s history being the Vietnam War protests in 1969 which drew 100,000 participants).

Stepping out along the red-brick-marked Freedom Trail, we saw the Massachusetts State House with its beautiful gold dome, designed by famous Bostonian architect (the first native-born American of the profession) Charles Bulfinch. Completed in 1798, it is a masterpiece of the Federal style.

Next we passed Park Street Church (1809), a historic evangelical (Conservative Congregational) church that has been associated with a number of famous pastors, evangelists, abolitionists, and musicians. On July 4, 1829, William Lloyd Garrison delivered his first major public statement against slavery here. The song “My Country, 'Tis of Thee” (aka “America”) was first sung at this church, on July 4, 1831. (You get the impression that July 4 is a significant day around here….)

Next door is the Granary Burying Ground where many famous Boston fathers (and mothers) are buried, including Samuel Adams (one of the leaders of the American Revolution), John Hancock (most prominent signer of the Declaration of Independence), Paul Revere (famous for his midnight ride to warn that the British were coming), Samuel Sewall (Salem witch trials judge, the only one who ever publicly repented of what he’d done), Phillis Wheatley (first African-American poet), Crispus Attucks (African-American victim of the Boston Massacre), and Mary Goose, whom legend has it was the original Mother Goose, though that has been debunked.

After that we passed Tremont Temple Baptist Church, the first racially integrated church in America, founded in 1838 as a “free” church. That is, unlike other churches of the day, there was no rent charged for pews – thus it was open to all, no matter what their means.

Next we took a look inside King’s Chapel, with its striking box pews. Many famous people have attended there, including George Washington, Paul Revere, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Louisa May Alcott (author of Little Women), and Oliver Wendell Holmes (a Supreme Court Justice).

We continued down School Street to the Old City Hall and the original site of Boston Latin School, the first public school in America, founded in 1635 by Benjamin Franklin (whose statue is out front). Nearby is a fun statue of a donkey with elephant-embossed footprints in front of it where you can “stand in opposition” – commemorating the animal emblems for the major American political parties.

At the end of that block is the site of Old Corner Bookstore (formerly the home of Anne Hutchinson), which was a meeting-place for authors including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Dickens, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. On the opposite corner is the Boston Irish Famine Memorial, commemorating the Irish immigrants who arrived in flight from the Great (Potato) Famine of 1845.

Across the street we went into Old South Meeting House, where the Boston Tea Party was orchestrated in 1773. It was originally a Puritan Meeting House, though it no longer has a congregation meeting in it. It is now a museum showcasing dissent and freedom of speech.

Next we went to the Old State House (unfortunately they didn’t let us in because it was almost closing time) which is adjacent to the site of the Boston Massacre.

Next stop was Faneuil Hall (a public marketplace and meeting house since 1743, and the site of several important speeches encouraging independence from Britain) and the adjacent Quincy Market, built in the 1820s as part of the same marketplace complex.

We walked past Paul Revere’s House (1680) en route to Old North Church, famous site of the hanging lanterns immortalized in Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” (“one if by land, two if by sea”). There were people in line to get inside for a fashion show featuring people in colonial costumes. We opted to take a pass, as we were getting hungry. So we hoofed it, past Copp’s Hill Burying Ground (second oldest cemetery in Boston, final resting place of many notable Bostonians, including several Mathers – Increase, his brother Samuel, and his son Cotton), over the Charles River, to Warren Tavern in Charlestown. Founded in 1780, it is “one of the most historic watering holes in America.” It was frequented by the likes of Paul Revere, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin. We had a delicious meal of homemade meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and green beans – a welcome antidote to the chill that had begun to set in after all that walking in the rain.

After dinner, we took a walk around Charlestown – along Warren Street and up Monument Ave to the Bunker Hill Monument. We were smitten by the loveliness of the architecture and the feel of the neighborhood. We could both imagine living there. Sarah would have moved right in, so I almost had to drag her along to the T (Boston's subway).

Tuesday, September 29, 2015


Today started out well with a delicious breakfast at Zaftig’s (thank you Michael Giobbe for that great recommendation), a quick stop in a bookshop to buy a copy of Henry James’ The Bostonians (you can’t come to Boston on a history tour and not read that!) and a stop at Trader Joe’s to pick up some breakfast food for the next few days. (The beautiful Longwood Inn has a gorgeous kitchen we can use.) Then we launched out on a day trip to Plymouth to learn about the Pilgrims – what really motivated their journey, what their life was like, how they interacted with the native people, etc.

We started with a tour of Mayflower II, a replica of the original ship the Pilgrims came over on in 1620. They actually first landed on Cape Cod near what is now Provincetown, but they soon moved to Plymouth and made their permanent settlement there. The original Mayflower sailed back to England and ended up in a scrap yard. Not a very illustrious ending for such a famous ship. But she was not a particularly noteworthy vessel at the time, and the name Mayflower was not even unique to her.

Next we walked through Pilgrim Memorial State Park to the pillared structure sheltering the most famous landmark in town: Plymouth Rock. It’s really quite a small rock for all its fame, and is mostly shrouded in legend. The journals of the Pilgrims made no mention of setting foot on a rock. But it sits there, with the date 1620 carved into it, the waters of Cape Cod Bay coming up around it (only at high tide), as a testament to the intrepid voyage to this “wilderness” land.

We walked further from there and saw the statue of William Bradford, the Governor of Plymouth Colony and documenter of their voyage in his journal Of Plymouth Plantation. Up a flight of steps from there is Cole’s Hill, upon which stands the imposing statue of Massasoit, the Wampanoag leader who “prevented the failure of Plymouth Colony and the almost certain starvation that the Pilgrims faced during the earliest years of the colony's establishment.” Near that is the Pilgrim Sarcophagus which marks the final resting place of those who died in the first year, which was 45 of the original 102 passengers.

As we continued on we saw some of the beautiful old houses, some dating back to the 1700s. Later we would happen to wander past a wood-framed one built in 1640, the oldest house in Plymouth. We walked through a lovely landscaped park called Brewster Gardens where we saw a statue honoring “those intrepid English women whose courage, fortitude and devotion brought a new nation into being.” All of this was alongside Town Brook, the spring-fed brook which was the water source for the Pilgrims.

Next on our itinerary was the Jenney Grist Mill, built and operated in the 1630s-1640s by Colonist John Jenney. It is a reconstruction of the original that burnt down. It is a museum today, but they still operate the mill two days a week and sell the cornmeal ground by it. It can grind 100 pounds an hour! We learned the origin of the phrase “to keep one’s nose to the grindstone”: sometimes, if the grindstones were too close together, the grain between the stones would become too fine a powder and could spontaneously combust, so the operator would need to keep his nose to the grindstone to smell if anything was burning and adjust the gap between the stones. It makes for a good story, even if it’s likely not etymologically accurate.

After a stop for lunch (I got in my first bowl of New England clam chowder!), we headed for Plimoth Plantation, a little bit south of town. On the way we had a special treat: a flock of wild turkeys crossed the road in front of us, bringing to mind the Pilgrims’ legendary first Thanksgiving. We could see that they would definitely have had an abundant supply of turkey!

Plimoth Plantation is a reconstruction of an English colonists’ village with a replica of a Wampanoag village beside it. Costumed actors role-played the colonists and Indians going about their daily activities. As we peered into their houses, we felt sort of voyeuristic. They made themselves available for us to ask questions, but they played dumb if we didn’t enter into their time period. I asked a couple of them if I could take their picture, and they had no idea what I was talking about. They pointed at my funny looking box and the woman said to the man with a quizzical look, “I think she wants us to stand next to each other?” They were all really quite charming and hospitable.

One set of them asked me what was the reason for my visit. I said I was on a pilgrimage. They said, “Oh we’re pilgrims too. What is the purpose of your pilgrimage?” I told them I was seeking to learn more about the history of America. They said, “Ah, well we’re English. I suppose you mean the voyages of the explorers and such. There was some Norse explorer 500 years ago, I hear.” I said “No, I mean the history of this place. I understand a chap called William Bradford wrote about it in his journal.” They said, “Oh yes, he lives right across the way.” (I’d met and chatted with his wife just a few minutes prior.) And they also recommended to me a book called Good News from New England written by one of their fellow colonists. I said I supposed I could find that in a library, but I didn’t imagine they had any libraries around here. They told me that Myles Standish a few doors down had a good personal library, but he wasn’t likely to lend me his private copy. I figured I wouldn’t bother telling them I could probably find a PDF of it on the Internet. They’d never met a geek before and wouldn’t know what to do with one.

The Rock

           Can you call a trip to Plymouth Rock ‘ad fontes’? Twenty-four hours ago I believed so, but now I am not so sure. If Plymouth is ‘the source’ it is certainly an elliptical one. I went in search of the beginning of America only to find that America eluded me.

           We met a tour guide on Mayflower II who had worked the deck for twenty-one years. “Too long,” he said.
           I agreed with him. He had been there too long. Within two minutes of walking aboard the American dream he disillusioned me. “If you think they came in search of freedom of religion – you’re wrong.”
           “Who were they then?” I asked.
           “Opportunists!” he said definitively.
           In spite of him I floated back in time in the Captain’s cabin, the steerage, and under the rigging in the sun. I felt like a hoax historian. My brain said, ‘It’s a fake…’ but I was there in the 17th century anyway – hook, line and sinker – ready to weep at the thought of them embarking, half-starving with the weight of the future on their shoulders. They had to be pilgrims – to make my pilgrimage worthwhile – didn’t they?

           After the Mayflower we found the real Rock. “1620” carved in stone was reassuringly unambiguous, until the tossed coins sparkled under the surface. There was something a little too ironic in the image for me. But I liked the fact that the rock had been repaired. Apparently it broke in transit whilst being moved from somewhere in Plymouth to somewhere else in Plymouth. The repair lent an endearing authenticity to the stone. If I had dropped Plymouth Rock and broken it in two, I would have found another ‘Plymouth Rock’ pretty quickly. The repair seemed an honest act to me. It was a sort of rough-hewn America that – I confess – I began to love today. By the Rock there was a quote: “It is the fact that they landed – and remained – that matters, not where they landed. Yet, it is no bad thing for a nation to be founded on a rock.” (Rose T. Briggs, 1968).
           “Amen!” I said, even though I knew this rock was broken.

           From there we moved on to Plimoth Plantation. I have spent a lot of time in museums but this place was the best! Plimoth Plantation is a large chunk of land containing two reconstructed villages – colonial to the left, and native to the right. We went left first and right second. (The gift shops mirrored the same structural layout; the main shop to the left and the native shop to the right.)
           From the two-storied meeting house we looked through the thatched village to the sea. I was enchanted. I heard their voices in my mind and smelt the wood smoke coiling up the street. I shot into every house, stuck my head in bread ovens, found the outhouses and the forge. It was perfect and brutal all at once. There were four other guests at 4.30pm. One couple had the knack of leaving their overloaded baby buggy in awkward spots for photos. It was hard to forgive the visual intrusion when every other detail was historically perfect.

           The village was completed by costumed staff with full-grown colonial beards and felt hats – the men that is. The women wore clogs, aprons, rough-spun smocks and white headgear that seemed a little too white for the indisputable grubbiness of the settlers’ lives in 1726. The costumed staff remained in character even when my boffin questions tried to lure them to 18th century enclosures, deforestation, and the expansion of the iron trade. They were persistent blighters and their scrupulous anti-presentism impressed me. Maybe they would give me a job if I found the accent and the clothes?

           I am still reading Howard Zinn, A People’s History of America (1999). Today I reached the Mexican War, Jacksonianism and the use of ‘Manifest Destiny’ as a phrase in mid-nineteenth century political rhetoric. Zinn’s systematic deconstruction of every identity-forming American Story reached a lacerating climax in the denunciation of male misogyny during the antebellum period. Here he overplayed his hand as far as I am concerned. However, I didn’t mind too much because I was sitting in a leather wingback chair in a wood-paneled room in Boston drinking a glass of Ch√Ęteauneuf-du-Pape.
           Myth or no myth, I have had an excellent day. My imagination has been stimulated in extraordinary ways. What more do I need? Only Henry James – The Bostonians. This is one of the few James works that I have never read, but how can I fail to read it here! At school I was told he was an English writer. Forty years in Britain with an Order of the Garter at the end of it does not justify the cultural theft of Henry James by the Brits. I must read him in his rightful place and react accordingly.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Introducing Boffin and Geek

           To what end do we blog?

           For those of you who are mad – or sweet – enough to follow us on our pilgrimage let me explain my part in this blog (and the potential risks involved in reading it).
           For my part the goal of this blog is to take you with us on our journey.
           Over the next four weeks Rosie and I are taking a journey through the landscape of New England with its rich history and culture. We are discovering a place – in my case for the very first time. But, this journey is also an inner pilgrimage to understand more of the American heart and mind - particularly the complex relationship that exists between political and religious history in the United States.
           I am fascinated and baffled by American culture. I’ve been stewed like a teabag in British history but my understanding of American history is limited. I have had the privilege of teaching lots of North American students over the last ten years. One of the many things I have learnt from them is our common use of the English language creates an illusion of similarity that masks profound differences between British and American perceptions of culture, society and political life. My hope in visiting the ‘source’ of so many formative moments in the making of modern America is to bridge the gap in my historical understanding but also to try and get inside the American mind as I encounter the history, life and vitality of this amazing place.

           A note on blogging:

           Those of you who know me (Sarah) will be surprised that I am venturing into the land of blogging. Where I come from the word blog and the word bog have an inseparable quality that is difficult for a woman of English sensibilities to overcome. Those of you who know Rosie will not be surprised that she is teaching me to break new ground technologically. After all, technological exploration becomes a core value after eleven years at Microsoft just as Ludditism becomes a way of life after too many years in academia. Essentially what you will find in this blog are two very different people, from two very different cultures encountering a location with a shared passion for learning.
           We will tell you about our intrepid explorations but we will also tell you an interior story of reflection and pondering. Come with us if you can – be selective if you like, either way – we invite you into a conversation about America taking place between a ‘contemplative geek’ (Rosie) and a ‘history boffin’ (Sarah). We will do our best not to lapse into the morass of post-modern narcissism in this blog by ensuring that we present our journey with you in mind.

           Reflections on Pilgrimage:

           Imagine setting off on a pilgrimage in 1098. The first act of faith would be to entrust what you leave behind to someone else’s safekeeping. This is a salutary reminder with which to begin.

           Boffin and Geek’s Reflections on America: 

           Today The Arnold Arboretum in Boston witnessed a tutorial on American politics. As we meandered between the trees I learnt about the relationships that exist between city government, state government, federal government, counties, the legislature and the constitution. And for good measure on the way back in the car Rosie added an addendum on the financing of political organisations.
           I couldn’t help asking if the Declaration of Independence was written by wealthy elites to consolidate power in the face of an overbearing colonial government and the threat of a disaffected underclass – both white and black? I’m reading Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (1999). It’s a pretty compelling book that reframes the American Revolution with a good dose of history from below. The political structures of America suggest a complex negotiation between local and central power. Local, municipal and national identities vie for space in the loyalties and affections of the people. What is hard to understand as a Brit is why on earth America only has two political parties. Does anyone know the meaning of the via media in America? Either one leans towards a centralisation of power or towards the devolution of power into individual states. This polar leaning - Republican and Democrat - seem to involve two different readings of American history that are hard to reconcile with one another. Are there any other ways of reading the Founding Fathers?


           Where better to begin than Plymouth – the Rock and the Mayflower?

We're Here!

We got off to a good start last night from Vancouver, boarding the plane just as the supermoon eclipse was coming out of totality. As our plane was a small one, we had to walk across the tarmac to get to it, so we had a nice glimpse of the eclipse, but not enough time for me to stop and photograph it as I would have wished. After a short layover in Seattle and an overnight flight we arrived in Boston, bleary-eyed but excited for our adventure. We picked up our rental car and drove to my sister’s house for a nap.
We’re taking it easy today. All we did was go for a walk in the Arnold Arboretum, a 281-acre U.S. National Historic Landmark belonging to Harvard. It was created in 1872 from lands previously owned by whaling merchant James Arnold (1781-1868) and the estate of Benjamin Bussey (1757-1842), a prosperous Boston merchant and scientific farmer who had donated his property to Harvard “for instruction in agriculture, horticulture, and related subjects.” Designed by Frederick Law Olmstead (1822-1903), the father of American landscape architecture, the Arboretum is the second largest “link” in the Emerald Necklace, a 7-mile chain of parks and waterways running from Boston Common to Franklin Park in Brookline.

At the top of Bussey Hill, I wondered what direction downtown Boston was from where we were standing, and whether we'd be able to see it. Being the geek that I am, I whipped out my phone and opened my Compass app. Sarah, being the boffin she is, wanted to test her own natural sense of direction. So she had me hold off on telling her which way was East, and she pointed out where she guessed the Charles River and Harvard would be, and downtown. I checked, and she turned out to be spot on.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Welcome to A New England Pilgrimage

Welcome to the travel blog of Sarah Williams, a historian and writer, and Rosie Perera, a photographer and New England native. We are leaving on Sept 27 for our New England history tour. We are anticipating learning a great deal and posting some of our insights about American history as well as photos and trip highlights. Here's the rough route of our journey, which will take place over the next three and a half weeks, through October 21. Google Maps limits you to a maximum of ten stops on a route, so we'll post more detailed maps of sub-sections of the trip as we go along. You can click on the map to see a larger version.