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Book Review: American Passage

By (January 23, 2015) No Comment

American Passage:american passage cover

The Communications Frontier in Early New England

by Katherine Grandjean

Harvard University Press, 2015

Wellesley history professor Katherine Grandjean’s debut American Passage explores an era of American history that American history books tend to skip: the decades between the spotlight-event New World hoopla of Plymouth Rock and, say, the opening of the French and Indian War in 1754 – the earliest formative years of the New England colonies, in other words, when relatively tiny enclaves of disoriented English settlers lived in fortified hamlets surrounded by forbidding forests, abundant wild animals, and centuries-old native cultures, most of whom had already rightly figured out that these settlers represented very, very bad news. Those beleaguered settlers thus naturally felt an intense desire to stay in touch with each other, even as their towns, villages, and farmsteads spread out into the wilderness.

That wilderness was vast and terrifying, and Grandjean – with refreshing bookish enthusiasm and clear, excellent prose – takes readers right into the mind frames of the people who had to face it:

A better measure of how ordinary New Englanders approached the landscape, perhaps, lies in early descriptions of the region – verbal maps, of sorts. Visual maps they did not have; what they had, instead, were words. Visitors and colonists alike penned elaborate ‘topographical descriptions’ that ranged widely over New England’s many hamlets, guiding their readers as if by hand. In about 1650 the Reverend John Eliot wrote one such “breife topographicall description” that covered the waterfront, literally. Plodding through every English town then settled, Eliot offered up distances between each and described their positions along each compass point: “[N]orth-northeast from charlstowne .3 myles lyeth Malden,” reads one passage, “… and .4 myles further on the same poynt lyeth Reading, where Mr Hoph is Pastor, – Northeast from Charlstowne about .7 myles lyeth lynn. which is upon the Sea cost within the Bay, there the great Iron workes are.” Sweeping from Massachusetts Bay southward on Long Island Sound, Eliot went on, in like fashion, for pages.

“This amounts to a rather dry read,” Grandjean diplomatically observes about Eliot’s account, but the same can’t at any point be said about her own book, which brims with revisionist, light-shining energy at every point in its story of scattered groups of English settlers trying to forge avenues of reliable communication where before had existed only an intricate criss-crossing of riverbeds and game trails. Even the roads themselves, the very concept of which is now so second nature to the inhabitants of New England, were once unknown countries, as Grandjean expertly points out:

To modern readers, the word “road” suggests a conduit – a route followed, a way from one place to another. Roads are neither here nor there; instead, they simply connect. They merely cross the space between one’s starting place and one’s destination. English men and women themselves often thought this way (which may be why, in English tradition, suicides were sometimes buried, unceremoniously, at cross roads).

“Early America was a busy tangle of travelers, couriers, sailors, and riders – a mess of motion,” Grandjean reminds her readers, but: “Missing from most maps, it seems, are the very footprints of early American history.” American Passage is a vigorous and intensely readable milestone in correcting that oversight. Historically-minded readers shouldn’t miss it, and for New Englanders, so enamored of complaining about their roundabouts and rotaries, it should be required reading.