Bolton on Buckley, 'A Place Called Paradise: Culture and Community in Northampton, Massachusetts, 1654-2004'

Kerry W. Buckley, ed.
Roger Bolton

Kerry W. Buckley, ed. A Place Called Paradise: Culture and Community in Northampton, Massachusetts, 1654-2004. Northampton: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004. ix + 523 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-55849-485-5.

Reviewed by Roger Bolton (Department of Economics and Center for Environmental Studies, Williams College) Published on H-NewEngland (January, 2007)

Paradise or No, NoHo Has a History Past 1963

Kerry Buckley has put together an anthology of pieces on the history of Northampton, Massachusetts and the surrounding region. That it covers the region around the city is important, for the history of the region as a whole--broadly defined as the Connecticut River Valley in Massachusetts and the hill towns on either side of the Valley--is just as interesting as the city of Northampton, and even if one is interested primarily in the city itself one must take account of what happened in those other places, as more than one piece in the anthology makes abundantly clear.

All but two of the twenty pieces are reprinted, sometimes abridged, from previously published sources--chapters in authors' longer books, chapters from edited collections, scholarly journal articles, and one New Yorker profile. The nineteen authors include some well-known academic historians, including John Putnam Demos, Nell Irvin Painter, Gregory H. Nobles, and Christopher Clark. But Tracy Kidder is not present except in a paragraph in Buckley's introduction (Kidder wrote a bestselling book, Home Town [1999], about Northampton, though it's not his home town). Most essays bear the stamp of the professional historian, including copious footnotes from a large number of sources. The temporal span is from the period when Native Americans were dominant in the region up to the 1960s. The start of the span is quite appropriate, but I think the end is not, for to end a history anthology--especially one with "2004" in the title!--with a profile of a college professor who died in 1963 is to exclude some of the most interesting parts of the history of this particular place. I return to this point below.

A quick summary of the contents: The essays are arranged in roughly chronological order. The subjects include: the Native American and very early colonial periods (Peter Thomas and Margaret Bruchac); witchcraft trials (Demos); the "River Gods," the appellation given to a set of dominant families in the eighteenth century (Kevin Sweeney; one of the Williamses left an estate used to found my own college, well to the west of the Valley); Jonathan Edwards and his legacy (Ronald Story); gender, artisanal needlework, and women tailors in the later eighteenth century (by Marla Miller, whose title--"The View through the Eye of a Needle"--is the best in the collection); the coming of the Revolution and how it was fast or slow in different towns in the region (Nobles); Shays's Rebellion ("The Revolution That Failed," by Leonard Richards, who also dwells on the great geographical variation even in so small a region); and an essay on rural capitalism by Christopher Clark, who is also concerned with Shays's Rebellion.

Moving into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the subjects are landscape painting and literature (Martha Hoppin and Jill Hodnicki); a Northampton example of the communitarian movement (Clark again); letters from a Civil War soldier (by David Blight, who has edited a collection of the letters); architecture and campus planning at Smith College and what they reveal about changing attitudes on the education of women (Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz); and the romance between a white woman and an African American man, based on the woman's letters written early in the twentieth century but found only recently (Kathy Peiss). And, as one might expect, there is a string of pieces that, along with the earlier one on Jonathan Edwards, are about some of the famous Americans who spent time in Northampton or nearby. Nell Painter describes Sojourner Truth's long period of residence in Northampton, including her time in the very community that Clark describes in detail (it dissolved after only four and a half years, "having uplifted only a tiny part of its world," as Painter puts it [p. 355]). Stephen Nissenbaum writes about Sylvester Graham, the famous health reformer, and Buckley on the image-making, by ad man Bruce Barton (a graduate of nearby Amherst College) and others, of Calvin Coolidge (once Northampton's mayor, he kept a house there even while President, and died in it). Dean Flower has a piece on Henry James. The final essay is a profile of a Smith College professor, on whom more appears below.

I have lived in the neighboring region of the Berkshires for over 40 years, and once worked some months in Northampton, and I have long appreciated the Northampton region as an especially appealing combination of natural and settled landscapes (a point made by Hoppin). Yet I learned a great deal from this book, and thoroughly enjoyed doing so. Many of the essays are genuinely interesting, even absorbing in many spots, and I recommend the book to anyone who has an interest in the region generally (or Massachusetts, since some authors take pains to make connections between the region and the seat of government in Boston), or in one of the specific subjects I've mentioned in the previous paragraphs. In some cases, a reader may well decide to turn to the book that is the source of one of these authors' essays.

One thing I learned is a lot of economic history, because many authors, fortunately in my opinion, feel the need to describe and analyze at length the relevant economic history even when their primary subject is a single person or a political event. Marla Miller's essay is an especially fine combination of economic history, social history, and biography.

In a book that deals consciously with the larger region around Northampton, I missed any extended discussion of Holyoke, a city only ten miles away (closer than Springfield, which gets a lot of attention in the book), and which has a fascinating history: founded later than Northampton, it boomed in the nineteenth century as an industrial city ("Paper City") and surpassed Northampton in population, then suffered tremendous decline in the twentieth, though it is still the larger of the two cities; it was an early planned city; it now has one of the highest proportions of Puerto Ricans of any American city outside Puerto Rico itself. Conspicuously lacking in the anthology are items on more recent history. Only one chapter has much of anything after Calvin Coolidge, and that one is Barry Werth's New Yorker article on Smith College English professor Newton Arvin, who became a public figure beyond the academic realm (where he had been a prominent literary biographer since 1929) in the 1960s and died in 1963 (an active homosexual, he was arrested in Northampton in 1960 for possessing "obscene pictures" and for "lewdness"). Had I been the editor, I would have looked for authors on the continued growth of the University of Massachusetts campus in Amherst and on the much increased population of gays and lesbians in Northampton, which has become widely known as "NoHo" (or "Noho") and "Lesbianville, U.S.A." (see any number of web sites). On the latter topic, it would have been interesting to have an exploration of the region as a notable example of geographer Wilbur Zelinsky's "voluntary region."[1]

It is not as if a shortage of space forced Buckley to stop so long ago. Two of the long essays partially overlap in basic facts, and an editor could have substantially shortened quite a good many of even the most interesting and valuable essays without doing appreciable harm, in order to make room for more pieces on up-to-date topics.

Also missing are decent maps. There are only two. One, hard to read and of unstated date, is of the city and its immediate environs, and is on the inside of both front and back covers. The other is a tiny one from 1677 that shows only the Connecticut River and the locations of four towns. Readers will long for maps showing the physical relief of the larger region, since the contrast between Valley towns and hill towns is at times very relevant, and some essays mention prominent topographical features like Mount Holyoke (for example, Hoppin's). They will long also for maps showing the locations of Amherst, Colrain, Deerfield, Hadley, Hatfield, Pelham, Ware, Wendell, Westfield, Wilbraham, and Williamsburg, to mention towns that are major players in the essays on the Revolution and Shays's Rebellion. Hadley, by the way, is where a Williams was penned in a smokehouse overnight because he was not on the right side of the coming American Revolution (both Nobles and Clark mention the incident [pp. 149, 212], though it is not clear whether it really was a "smokehouse"--a small structure used to smoke-cure meat--or simply an ordinary house with a clogged chimney).[2]

On the other hand, the illustrations are an attractive feature. There are many photographs--of artifacts, people (sometimes ordinary photos, sometimes painted portraits and sculptures), landscape paintings, and buildings, and Buckley has placed them nicely so as to complement the texts of the essays. His short introductions to the essays are also very helpful.

All in all, then, the book is useful to many readers, though I am not sure how interesting it really is to typical residents of Northampton, especially given that it does not deal with the period since the early 1960s.


[1]. Wilbur Zelinsky, The Cultural Geography of the United States (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1973), 134-139.

[2]. An editor might have used one or both of the two serviceable maps in the book that is the source of Nobles's essay: Gregory H. Nobles, Divisions throughout the Whole: Politics and Society in Hampshire County, Massachusetts, 1740-1775 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983), ii, 108.

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Citation: Roger Bolton. Review of Buckley, Kerry W., ed., A Place Called Paradise: Culture and Community in Northampton, Massachusetts, 1654-2004. H-NewEngland, H-Net Reviews. January, 2007. URL:

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