Richard Brown, renowned scholar of New England social history, recently gave Crisis of Community an enthusiastic review in the Winter 2014 issue of the New England Quarterly, pp. 757-59. I thank both Prof. Brown and MIT Press for permission to reproduce that review here.
A Crisis of Community: The Trials and Transformations of a New England Town, 1815–1848. By Mary Babson Fuhrer. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014. Pp. xii, 354. $39.95 cloth; $29.99 e-book.)
A Crisis of Community is a model for the best local history. In her study of Boylston, Massachusetts, a “representative” farming town in the central uplands, Mary Babson Fuhrer closely analyses the people and structural forces that shaped events as Boylston— and southern New England more broadly—shifted away from a community-centered farming economy and social order to become more cosmopolitan and more thoroughly integrated with the region and the nation. By linking a remarkable array of personal documents and public records, Fuhrer turns abstractions into vivid per- sonal stories. She illuminates how individuals and their particularities interacted with, for example, the Second Great Awakening, the developing cash economy, and the urbanization of the region. Anyone interested in how, exactly, community-oriented, insular eighteenth- century Americans became individualistic in the succeeding century— rising and falling as they pursued a wide range of aspirations—will find this engaging book instructive.
A Crisis of Community takes full advantage of the region’s unusu- ally rich recent scholarship as well as the past generation’s impressive array of books and articles. Fuhrer does not weave academic studies into the narrative explicitly, but her appreciation of such master- works as Robert Gross’s The Minutemen and Their World (1976), Ronald Formisano’s The Transformation of Political Culture (1983), Jack Larkin’s The Reshaping of Everyday Life (1988), Christopher Clark’s The Roots of Rural Capitalism (1991), and John Brooke’s The Heart of the Commonwealth (1992)—as well as a host of others—is evident and fully acknowledged in the footnotes and extensive bibliography. Though hers is a local history, Fuhrer is so fully grounded in wider scholarship that her own analysis is never merely local but always cognizant of wider phenomena.
The author’s chapter on “A Church Disassembled” is a brilliant example of her outstanding achievement. After being presented with an anecdote about the desecration of the decaying old meetinghouse, readers are brought into the complicated ideology and politics of individuals and groups that caused a once-harmonious local Christian culture to divide into bitterly hostile, warring camps. Along the way we learn how the ideas and temperaments of specific clergy and laypeople shaped the controversy. Fuhrer’s persuasive account of a group of devout women who met together and gradually backed into their decisive political roles in the evangelical drama vividly illustrates some of the ways in which women’s roles changed during the period. One development, the slander trial of a layman who publicly and repeatedly called the town’s orthodox cleric a liar, enables the author to reach deep into the interpersonal and party dimensions of the conflict. And, remarkably, we learn that formal disestablishment in 1833 opened the pathway to an era of accommodation in which, rather than battling for supremacy, inhabitants agreed to disagree. Scholars have long known that the evangelical surge of the early nineteenth century collided with a rational, liberal movement, tearing religious communities apart in the process; now we have a revealing case study embedded in a broader analysis of personal and community change and stress.
The chapter “Fields and Dreams,” which treats the various means by which a new generation found careers, is similarly illuminat- ing. Combining personal documents and official records, Fuhrer concentrates on a handful of representative cases. Readers learn how an urban apprenticeship demanded new manners and new clothing in place of rural customs and how, over a few years, a callow youth de- veloped enough knowledge and experience to set out on his own as a retailer. We learn about the upward path of mobility for farmers who sought to get ahead by “skinning” the land, thereby sacrificing long- term productivity for immediate profit. We also follow the downward path of those whose inherited landholdings were too small to provide a livelihood and who often became tenants, laborers, and craftsmen. Most women’s careers, however, seem to have changed little as mill operatives do not figure into the story. A Crisis of Community is beautifully written. Fuhrer’s prose is clear, imaginative, graceful, and appealing. Though her attachment to some of her subjects is evident, the analysis is objective and insightful. Many scholars have enriched our understanding with carefully researched town studies, but few have so successfully integrated local, regional, and national studies with social, cultural, political, and economic history.
Richard D. Brown is Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of History, Emeritus, at the University of Connecticut. His most recent book, coauthored with Doron S. Ben-Atar, is Taming Lust: Crimes against Nature in the Early Republic (2014).
The link to this issue of the New England Quarterly is http://www.mitpressjournals.org/toc/tneq/87/4