Parachuting Perspectives

Every day this summer, I have seen relatively large groups of tourists right next door at Hamilton Hall, and heard their tour guides telling them stories—the same old stories every day, which of course are new to these tourists, but not so to me. I think there is a proclivity for historical narratives in Salem, established in large part by the Witch Trials which are understood best through the prism of personal relationships. Local history is necessarily an exercise in “truffle-hunting” to use the analogy of the French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, who famously divided all historians into camps of truffle-hunters, searching every little detail out in the archives, and parachutists, who summarized all those details into the big picture, exposing trends and patterns. But both truffle-hunters and parachutists aim to discover, not just tread over the same territory again and again. There’s a tendency to tread over familiar ground in Salem, but the Salem story looks different if it is viewed as only part of a much larger picture. In my academic work, I always try to balance the anecdotal and the general, but blogging definitely favors the former—so every once in a while I take a deep dive into some texts hoping to broaden my frame of reference: after all, I started this blog not only to indulge my curiosity about Salem’s history, but also to learn some American history, which I last “studied” as a teenager!  This summer, I have been slowly working through a pile of recently-published books which offer wider, comparative perspectives on colonial history: most offer the perspective of an Anglo-Atlantic world, in which Salem played a role, but not always a large one. These parachuting perspectives are not from very high up (as the Atlantic World was hardly exclusively Anglo, after all), but just high enough so we can see some things that are not apparent on the ground.


Sean D. Moore’s Slavery and the Making of Early American Libraries is an astonishing book, forging connections between the histories of the slave trade and the book trade over a century, and drawing upon the records of the Salem Athenaeum. The impact of the slave trade is multi-dimensional, and here we see its cultural impact, from both transatlantic and local perspectives.


book collage

Building Collage 2

Atlantic history can be very tangible as these recent offerings in the robust field of Anglo-American material cultural demonstrate. I picked up Zara Anishanslin’s extraordinary Portrait of a Woman in Silk earlier this year when I wanted to find some context for the portraits of the silken-garbed Lynde ladies of Salem; the collection of essays in A Material World include two with a Salem focus: by Emily Murphy, Curator at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, and Patricia Johnston, formerly my colleague at Salem State and now at Holy Cross. Even more expansive views of the material Atlantic world, in terms of topics, time, and places, are Building the British Atlantic World, an anthology edited by Daniel Maudlin and Bernard L. Herman, and Robert DuPlessis’s The Material Atlantic.


Books Inn Civility

Well obviously Inn Civility is one of the best titles ever! I haven’t read this book yet, but anyone with only the slightest knowledge of the American Revolution (such as myself) knows that taverns played a key role, and I’ve always been fascinated with Salem’s many taverns, so I’m looking forward to delving in.


Books winship-m_hot-protestants

Another great title, but more importantly a much-needed transatlantic history of Puritanism (I see that David Hall has another Atlantic history of Puritanism coming out in the fall, but Winship was first). I’m going to use this book in my Reformation courses, and I wish everyone in Salem would read it, because the general view of Puritanism here is strictly simplistic and stereotypical. In our secular society, it’s not easy (or particularly pleasant) to get into the mind of a Puritan, but you’ve got to try if you want to understand seventeenth-century Salem society.


Climate change


And finally, views that are somewhat removed—though elemental– and closer at hand: climate and comparative history. Environmental history has always been an underlying theme in my teaching, as the “Medieval Warm Period” and “Little Ice Age” are key factors in medieval and early modern European history: I haven’t read any American environmental history so thought I would start with Anya Zilberstein’s A Temperate Empire. And Mark Peterson’s City-State of Boston has been by my bedside ever since it came out for a very parochial reason: everyone knows that Boston’s rise is Salem’s fall.

18 responses to “Parachuting Perspectives

  • Paul Reiners

    I will have to read Winship’s book on the Puritans. They’re my favorite group of people (except for maybe the Beatles.) The “A Very Short Introduction” series has some good (parachute) books on American history:

    * “Puritanism” by Francis J. Bremer
    * “Colonial America” by Alan Taylor
    * “The American Revolution” by Robert J. Allison

    Another good recent book is “Behold, America” by Sarah Churchwell.

    • daseger

      Thanks for the suggestions—I have several of those “Very Short Introduction” books and I really admire their authors’ abilities to capture such complex topics succinctly.

  • Timothy Stevens

    I always love finding new books to read. This is an interstesting selection of books some I already have on my wishlist (My ever expanding wishlist that if I was to buy everything on it would cost me thousands.) but some I haven’t actually seen before such as Inn Civility and Hot Proestants but they seem like they would be some fun reads.

    Now I just have to wait till I get a house with an actual library where I could put my books. I been relying largely on ebooks as my small bookshelf is readyto burst with the books I already have in it but the larger my ebook collection grows the more I wish I bought the physical book to have instead.

  • dccarletonjr

    A great reading list, Donna!

    The interpretation of Salem’s social, (material-) cultural, and economic history can only benefit from being approached in the context of this kind of scholarship.

    I also feel that there is a real problem of “Salem exceptionalism” when it comes to its history as a port/commercial center. Salem is often treated as being “sui generis” when it fact it shared a lot in common with other secondary New England ports like Providence, Portsmouth, and Newburyport, including involvement in the “Indies” trades.

    Finally, re: good “big picture” studies of Puritanism, I think that Francis Bremer’s concise (283 pp) The Puritan Experiment: New England Society from Bradford to Edwards is excellent! (FYI I now see that he has a fairly new (2012) book out, First Founders: American Puritans and Puritanism in an Atlantic World, which is probably also well worth a look based on the fine quality of his earlier work.)

    • daseger

      Oh here you are as well! 2nd vote for Bremer. I don’t know the American historiography enough to comment on Salem exceptionalism; but from the popular history scene I observe every day that certainly seems to be the case!

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    Thanks for ferreting out those great finds on the early American experience. Just think of how many years of scholarship went into each one. I am definitely going to read INN CIVILITY and SLAVERY AND THE MAKING OF EARLY AMERICAN LIBRARIES.

    For another perspective I am suggesting AN EMPIRE ON THE EDGE, How Britain Came to Fight America by Nick Bunker. Describes events leading up to the American Revolution from the other side of the pond – Lord North, Edmund Burke and all…

  • Laura

    I always love your book posts. I always end up adding at least one of them to my librry. I think this time it will be Hot Protestants, Inn Civility, and the Material Atlantic.

  • Brian Bixby

    You’ve got books on transatlantic Puritans. I was just off to see a 1 hour documentary on transatlantic Pilgrims, “Pilgrim Home,” connecting an English house, Scrooby Manor, to the Plymouth Pilgrims through William Brewster. It was playing at the Rhode Island International Film Festival this week. (Full disclosure: the English director is an acquaintance.)

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