Who and what made New England the nation’s intellectual and literary center is apparent in this expansive collection of writings by the abiding masters and luminaries of the day.
To illustrate the nuances of the “hope and disillusion, confidence and self-doubt” that inform the New England mind, Delbanco (The Real American Dream, 1999, etc.) divides the selections into several sections. In each, writers explore the attitudes and characteristics that came to define the region: an ideal of justice, an intolerance of newcomers, and a “proprietary intimacy” with the land. Delbanco offers John Winthrop and Samuel Danforth as exemplars of the self-approbation behind “The Founding Idea.” In the “Education” chapter, John McPhee describes the career of a Yankee schoolmaster, and an account is given of Harvard president Charles Eliot’s restructuring of the American university. The New Englander’s discontent with worldly imperfection is illustrated (in the “Dissident Dreamers” chapter) by the spectacle of John Quincy Adams arguing the Amistad case before the Supreme Court, and by A. Bartlett Giamatti’s unquenchable faith in the Boston Red Sox. The collection contains some old chestnuts (such as Emerson’s “Nature”), but it also has some real treats (such as the radio comedian Fred Allen’s hilarious defense of his local paper, The Cape Codder). The abundance and sureness of the writing is comforting, as it intimates a limitlessness of New England creativity—but the paucity of contemporary contributions may suggest otherwise. The few living writers excerpted (e.g., John Updike, Geoffrey Wolff), compared to the feast of authors from the past, gives the collection an elegiac feel—and raises the question of whether today’s mobile society can establish a regional literary heritage.
For now, then, no matter. Read this for the writers—Alcott, O’Connor, Frost, Jewett—and if you tire of them, read 20 others. This is a smorgasbord; we are unlikely to see its kind again soon. (9 halftones, not seen)