BOOK TALKS

Francis Bremer: First Founders: American Puritans and Puritanism in an Atlantic World.

First FoundersFrancis J. Bremer has spent his entire career broadening our understanding of America’s colonial founders. Now, in this eminently readable collection of biographies, Bremer brings us a surprisingly varied and dynamic group of characters who continue to guide and influence America today. With its cast of magistrates, women, clergy, merchants, and Native Americans, First Founders underscores the breadth of the early American experience and the profound transatlantic roots of our country’s forebears. Bremer succeeds in bringing little-known figures out of the shadows while allowing us to appreciate better-known figures in an entirely new light.

This is a truly fascinating look at the Puritans with keenly drawn portraits and the insight that only a lifetime of scholarship can achieve. It should become the standard introduction to the field. Written in the mold of Joseph Ellis’s Founding Brothers and Gordon Wood’s Revolutionary Characters, the book will appeal to general readers, students, and scholars alike.

Francis Bremer: JOHN WINTHROP America’s Forgotten Founding Father

51lSMartL6L-1Today John Winthrop (1588-1649) is perhaps best remembered for the famous sermon in which he likened the Massachusetts Bay Colony to a “city upon a hill,” a model to the world of social and religious order. Bremer, editor of the Winthrop papers for the Massachusetts Historical Society, draws on those papers to add tremendously to our understanding of this pivotal figure, eloquently reminding us in a rich, magisterial biography how much Winthrop contributed to the founding of the colonies. Bremer studies Winthrop’s early life in exhaustive detail, chronicling how his first four decades, in England, shaped his views and actions as the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Bremer focuses on his youthful spiritual struggles, carefully recorded in a journal, including his early decision to pursue a religious vocation and his sudden, unexplained decision to give that up to marry his first wife when he was only 17. After he gained the respect of his peers as an even-handed magistrate, he was elected governor of the new Massachusetts Bay Colony, where for eight years he governed with a judicious hand, mediating in religious and political feuds, including the expulsions of Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson for their dissenting views. Bremer uses previously unavailable materials in the Winthrop archives to vividly recreate the religious and political reform movements in early 17th-century England. Bremer’s definitive biography gracefully portrays Winthrop as a man of his time, whose influence in the new colony grew out of his own struggles to establish his identity before he left England.

Eve LaPlante: Anne Hutchinson, Founding Mother, American Jezebel

In 1637, Anne Hutchinson, a forty-six-year-old midwife who was pregnant with her sixteenth child, stood before forty male judges of the Massachusetts General Court, charged with heresy and sedition. In a time when women could not vote, hold public office, or teach outside the home, the charismatic Hutchinson wielded remarkable political power. Her unconventional ideas had attracted a following of prominent citizens eager for social reform. Hutchinson defended herself brilliantly, but the judges, faced with a perceived threat to public order, banished her for behaving in a manner “not comely for [her] sex.”

51k7HCv2FZL._SY346_.jpgWritten by one of Hutchinson’s direct descendants, American Jezebel brings balance and perspective to Hutchinson’s story. It captures this American heroine’s life in all its complexity, presenting her not as a religious fanatic, a cardboard feminist, or a raging crank—as some have portrayed her—but as a flesh-and-blood wife, mother, theologian, and political leader. The book narrates her dramatic expulsion from Massachusetts, after which her judges, still threatened by her challenges, helped found Harvard College to enforce religious and social orthodoxies—making her the midwife to the nation’s first college. In exile, she settled Rhode Island, becoming the only woman to co-found an American colony.

The seeds of the American struggle for women’s and human rights can be found in the story of this one woman’s courageous life. American Jezebel illuminates the origins of our modern concepts of religious freedom, equal rights, and free speech, and showcases an extraordinary woman whose achievements are astonishing by the standards of any era.

Eve LaPlante: Discovering Abigail May Alcott

51cfCtapqZL.jpgLouisa May Alcott was one of the most successful and bestselling authors of her day, earning more than any of her male contemporaries. Her classic Little Women has been a mainstay of American literature since its release nearly 150 years ago, as Jo March and her calm, beloved “Marmee” have shaped and inspired generations of young women. Biographers have consistently attributed Louisa’s uncommon success to her father, Bronson Alcott, assuming that this outspoken idealist was the source of his daughter’s progressive thinking and remarkable independence.

But in this riveting dual biography, award-winning biographer Eve LaPlante explodes these myths, drawing from a trove of surprising new documents to show that it was Louisa’s actual “Marmee,” Abigail May Alcott, who formed the intellectual and emotional center of her world. Abigail, whose difficult life both inspired and served as a warning to her devoted daughters, pushed Louisa to excel at writing and to chase her unconventional dreams in a male-dominated world.

In Marmee & Louisa, LaPlante, Abigail’s great-niece, and Louisa’s cousin, re-creates their shared story from diaries, letters, and personal papers, some recently discovered in a family attic and many others that were thought to have been destroyed. Here at last Abigail is revealed in her full complexity—long dismissed as a quiet, self-effacing background figure, she comes to life as a fascinating writer and thinker in her own right. A politically active feminist firebrand, she was a highly opinionated, passionate, ambitious woman who fought for universal civil rights, publicly advocating for abolition, women’s suffrage, and other defining moral struggles of her era.

In this groundbreaking work, LaPlante paints an exquisitely moving and utterly convincing portrait of a woman decades ahead of her time and the fiercely independent daughter whose life was deeply entwined with her mother’s dreams of freedom. This gorgeously written story of two extraordinary women is guaranteed to transform our view of one of America’s most beloved authors.

Sarah Vowell – The Wordy Shipmates

Excerpt from Virginia Heffernan’s  New York Times Sunday Book Review of The Wordy Shipmates.

These days, we have sterling academic American historians (who can hardly be said to have overlooked the Puritans, in whose intellectual tradition the study of American history — at Harvard, notably — was originally conceived). But we are also in a golden age of popular narrative history, produced not only by David McCullough and Ron Chernow and Doris Kearns Goodwin, but by PBS and the History Channel. With all these middlebrow historians making scholarly work perfectly accessible, do we really need still more accessibility — pierced-brow history, maybe, with TV and pop-music references?

The answer would seem to be no. And yet, if nothing else, “The Wordy Shipmates” finds a way to string together excerpts from Winthrop and Williams (and John Cotton and John Underhill) that keeps you reading. My experience of the book: I kept being annoyed, and I kept reading. Most of the time that she wasn’t riffing or telling jokes, Vowell was merely quoting from a 17th-century sermon or pamphlet with the preface that what I was about to read was amazing or frightening. More often than not, she was right.

Throughout, Vowell can’t decide what tense to use: the historical present, the past, and that weird Ken Burns “would” thing (“Cotton Mather would change America forever”). But by book’s end she’s got you cornered. Just as you’re thinking, O.K., the history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony is worth retelling, but could you turn down the hipster stuff, Vowell manages to align herself squarely with the great American dissident and feminist Anne Hutchinson. Rats! Once again, Vowell gets to be the abrasive wild card. She’s annoying and uppity, and the book has made the case for being annoying and uppity. She’s won.

Vowell may not be Anne Hutchinson (hey, did you know that Hutchinson had 15 children?), but she’s a legitimate upstart. After all, having grown up a part-Cherokee Pentecostalist, she has somehow managed to become the one and only Sarah Vowell: a respected social commentator, a public radio star, the voice of Violet in “The Incredibles” and the author of five untrivial books, all while befriending (the tour-de-force acknowledgments section suggests) J. J. Abrams, Dave Eggers, Jake Gyllenhaal, Spike Jonze, Greil Marcus, David Sedaris and Zadie Smith.

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