A Place Called Paradise: Culture and Community in Northampton, Massachusetts, 1654–2004

A Place Called Paradise: Culture & Community In Northampton, Massachusetts, 1654-2004. Edited by Kerry W. Buckley. Historic Northampton's Museum and Education Center, published in association with the University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst and Boston, 2004; $39.95; 523 pages.

FROM THE DUST JACKET: In 1790, President Timothy Dwight of Yale offered this description of Northampton, a town situated on the banks of the Connecticut River in western Massachusetts: "The inhabitants of this valley possess a common character," he remarked. "Even the beauty of the scenery, scarcely found in the same degree elsewhere, becomes a source of pride as well as enjoyment." For Dwight, the appeal of the place lay in its proportions, which epitomized 18th-century ideas about the proper balance between the natural world and the built environment. Northampton evoked equally powerful visions in others. To minister Jonathan Edwards it was a stage for the enactment of God's drama of saving grace and redemption, while to Swedish soprano Jenny Lind it was simply a "paradise." During the 1920s Northampton became Main Street USA -- a reassuring backdrop for the presidency of the city's former mayor, Calvin Coolidge. But for Smith College professor Newton Arvin, it was the dark side of small-town America that surfaced during the early decades of the Cold War. From witchcraft trials to Shays's Rebellion, from Sojourner Truth and the utopian abolitionists to Sylvester Graham and diet reform, many of the main currents of American life have flowed through this New England river town.

To commemorate the 350th anniversary of the founding of Northampton, A Place Called Paradise brings together a broad range of writing on the city's rich heritage. Edited with an introduction by Kerry W. Buckley, the volume includes essays by John Demos, Christopher Clark, Nell Irvin Painter, David W. Blight, and other distinguished scholars who have found this region fertile ground for research. Together their writings not only chronicle the history of a place but illustrate, in microcosm, the dynamics at work in the larger sweep of America's past.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: "This is local history at its best. These insightful and readable essays explore central themes of American history as they played out in a single remarkable community. Since its founding 350 years ago, Northampton has seen it all -- 17th-century witchcraft trials; 18th-century revivalism and revolution; 19th-century Romanticism, reform, and commerce; 20th-century feminism and Cold War homophobia. The next best thing to living in Northampton is reading this wonderful volume." -- Paul S. Boyer, editor, The Oxford Companion to United States History.

"Historic Northampton deserves high praise for bringing together such a fine collection of essays. What a smart way to celebrate a 350th anniversary! Serious history is the best kind of monument." -- Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Phillips Professor of Early American History, Harvard University

"A Place Called Paradise is a wonderful introduction to the historical life of Northampton, Massachusetts, one of the most extraordinary places in the Atlantic world, and a place which has inspired some of the most outstanding historical writing of the past decades." -- Emma Rothschild, University of Cambridge and Harvard University

ABOUT THE EDITOR: Kerry W. Buckley is executive director of Historic Northampton. He is author of Mechanical Man: John B. Watson and the Beginnings of Behaviorism and coeditor of Letters from an American Utopia: The Stetson Family and the Northampton Association, 1843-1847.

AN INTERVIEW WITH KERRY W. BUCKLEY: I am a Southern Californian whose grandparents came here in 1903. They must assuredly have called this place Paradise. Three-quarters of a century later, I would uproot and move east where I have spent 17 years in Northampton. When I went to New England, my uncle, in what was then Czechoslovakia, found Northampton on a map of the U.S.A. and wrote to us that it seemed to be the furthest possible spot from San Diego. True, it was far away and a foreign territory to me when I arrived there in 1988, but as I got to know the Connecticut River Valley, I found that I had exchanged one paradise for another.

I asked Mr. Buckley, "Why is Northampton called 'Paradise?' This may seem all too obvious to you, but I've asked several people out here and they don't seem to know."

"Well, actually, it's not. The usual story is that Jenny Lind called it Paradise. 'This place is paradise,' she said. She sang here a couple of times and returned here for her honeymoon. Now, whether that was the reason she called it paradise or not, I have no idea. But that's how the name came to be -- at least that's the usual story. But there also happen to be geographical paradises in Northampton. Paradise Pond is part of the Mill River, which runs by Smith College. There's also a place near Florence [a part of Northampton, named for Florence, Italy, due to its silk mills] called Paradise, a picnicking spot along the Mill River. The area around here has been called 'Paradise' since the early 19th Century, but the Jenny Lind story is still a good point of departure."

"I've heard the area called 'the Pioneer Valley,' but notice that throughout the book the region is spoken of as 'the Connecticut River Valley.'"

"Right, but 'the Pioneer Valley' is a totally made-up term. It was cooked up in the 1940s as a public relations gimmick, a branding opportunity. Pioneer Valley has nothing to do with anything except public relations."

"Well, Connecticut River Valley is a beautiful name and a beautiful place."

"Certainly one of the points I want to make in the book, and I think the origin of the title Pioneer Valley, which I think is unfortunate, is that the Connecticut River Valley really was the first frontier -- at least of European settlement. After the Pilgrims and Puritans settled the coast of Massachusetts, there was a wave of migration from England in the 1630s, and there began a trickle of settlers up the Connecticut River. The Dutch, who came up to Hartford, were here first and they were mostly interested in trading. The first settlements at Springfield and then at Northampton were basically trading posts. They were company towns owned by William Pynchon, who founded Springfield. The population skipped the interior of New England, which remained unsettled, and moved up the Connecticut River Valley. The area from Deerfield and Mount Hermon and Northfield, down to Old Saybrook became the last outpost of European civilization. That's one way to see it in terms of 'the Pioneer Valley.'"

"In terms of pioneering, Northampton is credited with a lot of 'firsts.' The Academy of Music was the first municipal theater in the country, where Sarah Bernhardt and others came from Europe to perform. Too, women's basketball had its start at Smith College, and Smith has recently established the first women's engineering program in the country."

"Yes," said Mr. Buckley, "and Northampton's baseball team, the Florence Eagles, won the first World Series."

"You're kidding!"

"No, they beat the Army of the Potomac in 1865. Actually, Northampton had a professional baseball team right up to the 1930s and the Depression. They would play Boston and win 31-0. Those were the rip-roaring days of barnstorming baseball."

"Our readers would be interested in knowing what it was like to live in Northampton 350 years ago."

"Imagine that, at least at first, there was a trading relationship between the Europeans and the Native Americans. As long as the Native Americans had fur and food to trade, the relationships were actually fairly even and fairly balanced. Except, I mustn't forget to mention that the Europeans carried smallpox and basically decimated the Connecticut River Valley in the 1630s, which made it possible for the Europeans to settle there. The Native Americans remain to this day, however. They didn't disappear at the end of the smallpox epidemic or at the end of King Philip's War. [King Philip was a Wampanoag leader who in 1675 started a rebellion against English settlement that resulted in a retaliatory massacre a year later of 400 Native refugees.]"

"Yes, that corroborates what Margaret Bruchac, Abenaki, writes in her essay, 'Native Presence in Nonotuck and Northampton,' where she dispels four erroneous myths created about the local Native Peoples; i.e., that the area was only wilderness before colonial settlement, that non-farming Native sites were temporary and nomadic, that the Algonkian peoples were inferior to their Iroquoian neighbors, and that local Indians had abandoned these lands.

"Isn't 'Nonotuck' Northampton's original name, an Indian word for 'in the middle of the river?'"

"Yes, and in those early days, you see an agrarian community, a transferal of rural England to the banks of the Connecticut River. You begin to have artisans like blacksmiths and joiners, who also farmed for a living. The land was very fertile and so there was certainly something that drew people to live here, but it was still a Puritan society. There were century laws regulating dress and behavior, and the eyes of the community were always on one. Things like hard thoughts and jealousies could land you in trouble. Joseph Parsons was himself accused of things like 'lascivious carriage [to some women of Northampton]' and use of inappropriate language.

"So if you want to think about a society, a faith-based society, you might want to look at Puritan New England where witches were burned and people were thrown in jail for their attitudes and the clothes that they wore. There was a kind of thought police or behavior police that existed during that time.

"In terms of what daily life was like, you get a real sense of it from John Demos's chapter on the Goody [short for Goodwife] Parsons witchcraft trial. If you ignore the sensational aspects of it, it's about gossip, according to Demos. It's about the declining fortunes of one family and the rising fortunes of another, and the fact that a woman from a good family in England who found her fortunes plummeting, looked at a woman from much humbler circumstances in England, not only marry well but be extremely productive in terms of having children, and all the kinds of things that symbolized prosperity."

"I found the essay by Kevin Sweeney on 'the river gods' fascinating. Can you tell our readers who they were?"

"This essay," said Mr. Buckley, "is describing patterns of ownership and social patterns in a colonial era. Reinforced by all the values of a colonial society, it was all very hierarchical so that those who became powerful in the community passed that power along to their children and shared it with their families. These were the large landowners, who had connections with the royal authorities. They were the magistrates, the ministers, the captains of the militia, and sometimes also the merchants. They were all interrelated. They controlled society from top to bottom -- family connections, court connections, that's how you got your jobs, your appointments and this kind of thing. The river gods epitomized that kind of colonial society. When the Revolution occurred, the world turned upside down because those who lost power were precisely those river gods, the landed squirearchy. You have the story of one of them, Israel Williams, being thrust into the smokehouse and basically nearly suffocated overnight.

"Interestingly enough, after the Revolution you have nostalgia about it, looking back at the river gods as a kind of easier way of life where a man's word was his bond and where a debtor wasn't pressed to the wall if he were a few years late on paying back his workload to the squire. In the new society after the Revolution, if you couldn't pay your taxes in cash you lost your farm, which led to Shays's Rebellion. So there are two sides of a divide there. The river gods reflect the colonial way of life, for better or for worse."

"In speaking of the American Revolution, I think that all those currently reading 1776 by David McCullough and those interested in the Civil War would enjoy the essays 'Revolution in the Neighborhood' by Gregory H. Nobles and David W. Blight's 'When This Cruel War Is Over,' for they bring the larger realities right home to Northampton and its surrounding towns and countryside."

"The point I wanted to make about so-called 'local history' is, paraphrasing Tip O'Neill, that all history is local. I'm convinced that one way to get at the bigpicture issues is to cast down your bucket locally and look at historical experience through the lens of your community. There are all kinds of stories that people can find to illustrate these larger issues. I mean that even in a fairly recent statehood like California, there's a history going back thousands of years.

"On our website, www.historic-northampton.org, we are experimenting with developing each of the essays in this book, unraveling the layers of primary sources. For example, if you click on 'windows in time,' you'll go to the Goody Parsons witchcraft trial website. There you'll find all the primary documents from the 17th Century relating to the trials and their transcripts. You'll find some context on the trials, the stories, and the background. It's a kind of virtual exhibit.

"But then if you take it one step further, there's also a place where teachers can get curriculum materials for the appropriate grade levels, 3, 7, and 10. They can take the case studies as windows into the 17th Century. I would like to see all 21 chapters of the book have that kind of layering as well."

"The essay 'The Communitarian Moment' discusses the Quaker influence in the mid-1800s and the Northampton Association of Education and Industry that brought together Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, George Benson, and others working for peace and for the abolition of slavery."

"The Northampton Association of Education and Industry was really unusual, which is an understatement. It embodied concepts and attitudes far ahead of its time in terms of gender equality, racial equality, and religious toleration, all of those things in the Constitution, equality of educational opportunity and of wealth. It was a commune organized around silk production and around a silk mill. Chris Clark, in his essay, says it was 'the road not taken in the industrial process.'

"I think we have to remember that when we look back in history with the benefit of hindsight, it looks like the inevitable history train moving down the tracks with the agrarian community, industrialization, and postindustrialization. Well, there are so many possibilities and so many branches and so many forks in the road. The process of industrialization could have taken many forms. It didn't have to take the form of capital and wage earner. It could have taken the form that it took in the Northampton Association, which was cooperative ownership, but that road didn't work for a number of reasons -- not just economic but due to events out of their control, the national economy. The Northampton Association of Education and Industry was certainly an attempt to subvert the cotton-based slave economy of the South by producing through collaborative work a superior product that could make a dent in the southern economy."

"In 'Love Across the Color Line,' Kathy Piess, through letters recently found in a black silk stocking hidden under some floorboards, pieces together the love affair between Alice Hanley, an Irish-Catholic coachman's daughter, and Channing Lewis, an African-American who came north to Springfield, Massachusetts, after Reconstruction."

"That essay suggests that the color line was not as sharply drawn as we might have thought around the turn of the century or in the late 1890s when Plessy v. Ferguson was enacted and segregation was established in the South. In other words, if you established segregation laws it may have been because those racial boundaries were more commonly crossed than we think about now, raising the eyebrows of the elites who wanted to maintain control."

"Piess writes, 'I believe that Northampton at the turn of the century and now up to a hundred years ago, gained a reputation as a center for social reform and women's education and was a vigorous manufacturing base and commercial hub for surrounding agricultural areas.' Do you think, a hundred years later, that these descriptions are still apt?"

"Yes they are. Smith College was part of the avant-garde in terms of women's education and women's opportunity. You also had things like the 'Home Culture Club' in Northampton and the gothic 'Female Academy,' which had a fairly rigorous curriculum for women back in the 1830s. Also, there was Sojourner Truth, an African-American and a woman with a voice, which was extremely unusual in the 1840s because the Garrisonians and the American Anti-Slavery Society split over women holding office and speaking in public.

"There was a ferment of reform taking place in Northampton. You can certainly go back to the Revolution or to Shays's Rebellion to see that radical politics had taken root and that questioning of authority was not something that was unheard of. But in the 1820s and 1830s you had something called the Second Great Awakening, which was a religious revival. What it did was to change people's ideas about reality, and the Second Great Awakening emphasized a sort of spiritual perfection, that one could, by taking action or by withdrawing from the world, perfect one's self and become more holy or more righteous. And that began to translate. Well, if you could perfect yourself, what about society? What about perfecting your neighbor? What about reforming social institutions? So you begin to have things like prison reform, mental health reform, and dietary reform."

"Yes, and few probably know that that dietary reform was promulgated by Northampton's Sylvester Graham of the graham cracker."

"All of these things, this idea of reform, this idea of perfectibility, and the idea of progress with a capital P, held that by taking action you could actually improve the community, the nation, the quality of life for your generation and for posterity. That was a radical notion, particularly if you consider the previous view, that of the Puritans, that human beings are depraved and the best you can do is hope for grace, just get along with your daily life, and not have much hope for the future. Or, consider the time before the American Revolution. If there were an ideal place, well it was in the past, it was classical Rome and Greece, and we'd all fallen from grace. We got kicked out of the Garden of Eden, but the American Revolution and even the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution began to say, 'Yet you can form a more perfect union, you can improve society.' So the Second Great Awakening was going along with that. We sometimes forget that our whole notion of progress and the idea of reform had its roots right there."

"One of Northampton's residents was President Calvin Coolidge, and your own essay, 'The Man Nobody Knew,' shows the commidification of the presidency and the role of advertising and the mass media in electoral politics. Is there a relation between then and now?"

"Absolutely. It was quite relevant to the last election. You know, political scientists don't always have a long memory. They look at the Kennedy debates or other kinds of presidential mythmaking of the last 30 years. The interesting thing about Coolidge is that if he's an image at all in our minds, a sort of icon, we know the sourpuss, quiet New Englander. Advertiser Bruce Barton took those images, polished them, and created this man of character, and it was all smoke and mirrors. Coolidge's candidacy was as carefully scripted as George Bush's ever was. Barton wrote his speeches. He ghostwrote a lot of his articles. He coached Coolidge on using the radio, developed negative advertising, and staged pseudo-events. Dwight Morrow, a partner in J.P. Morgan and one of Coolidge's fellow Amherst College alums, brought Barton in, paid him, and bankrolled the campaign. The kind of deep-pocket, big-money contributors able to buy advertising drove the presidential candidacy and the administration. It bypassed the old party structure, the ward workers, the party bosses, and the people on the ground, making an endrun around them. What made it possible was the real shift in 20th-century mass media. The interesting thing to me in this is the 'personality politics,' that shifts the debate away from the issues in order to talk about character and personality. There's a negative value to that and that's why they always will do it."

"You mentioned Amherst College, and Helen Horowitz has an essay on Smith College. What effects do you think the Five Colleges [University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Mount Holyoke, Hampshire, Smith, and Amherst] have had on the town of Northampton and the surrounding Connecticut River Valley?"

"They've certainly had a tremendous effect just in terms of the faculty that they have brought. They have created a critical mass, not only of students but also of those whose work has national and international stature, and that certainly contributes to the quality of discourse in the community and the kinds of services that support those sensibilities. That has been important since the 1870s and, of course, Amherst has been around longer than that. Northampton, where Smith is, is more than a college town, but certainly without Smith it would have had a different story."

"Basil Hall's accounts of Northampton in 1829 apparently prompted many people to travel to the Connecticut River Valley. I think that your book will also inspire people to visit. Can you tell us what they might see and what it is like to live in Northampton today?"

"Interestingly enough, Northampton was one of the first tourist destinations in the country. The view from Mount Holyoke was a 'must-see' for travelers. And on the subject of traveling, if you remember Samuel Johnson and his trip to the Hebrides with James Boswell, you know that almost nobody traveled in the 18th Century. Travel was harsh and nature was to be avoided. The best thing to do was to live in cities. In fact, people on the seacoast built their windows away from the sea. They didn't want a view.

"You begin, after the Industrial Revolution, to have those who find nature to be romantic and wild nature to be kind of thrilling. You see it in literature, in the words of Jane Austen. And in America the same thing happened. For those who could afford to travel, and when travel became more possible through improved roads, the top of Mount Holyoke became a destination. It was the perfect balance between wild nature and civilization. It was the middle landscape. People like Thomas Cole and Basil Hall went up there and then told people what to see, what to expect. They described the view. Thomas Cole painted it, and people learned how to look at nature, through the artist's representation.

"The visitor today, from the top of Mount Holyoke, would see little unchanged. You'd see the valley. You'd see the river and you'd see I-91 coursing through the valley. I've seen Northampton undergo a number of transitions. I think the attractive thing about Northampton is that it has maintained the village atmosphere that everyone dreams about. It's not fake. It's not a museum. It's a real place and it still works like a village. If you look at American history, around the turn of the last century, not the 21st but the 20th Century, you begin to see little pockets of artists and intellectuals grouping together in little areas of urban places, little bohemias. Greenwich Village is one. They were trying to re-create the connection at the personal level of the small country village they had left, as quickly as they could. I think of Northampton like that. It has that kind of sensibility, and over the years it has drawn writers, artisans, poets, those who wanted to live out their lives on a scale, a human scale.

"The setting of natural beauty is also important. Jonathan Edwards as a minister has his own reputation of hurling lightning bolts, but he had a real appreciation of nature. He would write about it and he would actually go out into the meadows to watch lightning play on the mountains."

"Yes, Ronald Story's essay, 'Jonathan Edwards and the Gospel of Love,' does bring out Edwards's often overlooked writings on nature and beauty and love, in contrast to his image as the stern Puritan."

"Exactly. Yes, I think that that's a good way to frame it. We have a lot of people who come into Northampton who are very interested in Jonathan Edwards and almost to a one -- I won't say to a one -- they are preachers and they're drawn to Edwards. I finally figured it out. It's because they are drawn to his bravura performance of the preacher. That's something they aspire to, having that preaching facility. That's what they like about him. They're interested in the pulpit repertoire, but a studied examination of Edwards's thought and writings and who he was over a career and a lifetime tells quite a different story."

"Yes, as Story points out, the wall sculpture at First Churches on Main Street, where Edwards preached, shows not only the shadowy judging eyes of Edwards, but the warm, loving hand as well, reflecting the preacher of not only 'Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,' but also of 'Heaven Is a World of Love.' Edwards concluded one of his 'charity sermons' with '...as heaven is a world of love, so the way to heaven is the way of love.'

"After Edwards was dismissed from Northampton, he spent the rest of his life preaching to the Native Americans in Stop Ridge."

"I know you have Native artifacts in the Historic Northampton museum. Can you tell our readers in San Diego what they might find in your museum, or something of your current projects?"

"Our permanent exhibit is the title of the book 'A Place Called Paradise,' and it's a chronological history of Northampton, telling the story through artifacts, documents, costumes, and textiles. A current exhibit, 'The Class Act on Main Street,' features the democratization of silk through women's fashion from the 1830s to the early 1900s. Silk was a very exotic fabric, but as it began to be manufactured locally and marketed, it became accessible to ordinary people to wear every day. In October, we'll have an exhibit on the Round Hill School, established by George Bancroft and Joseph Cogswell, as a groundbreaking departure in American education in the 1820s. It was the first school to offer physical education, to offer a sort of modern curriculum. So we're interested in that."

"These 21 essays invite the reader into many cultural realms, each with its locus in a town on the east side of paradise. For this recent 350th celebration, you thank Professor Neal Salisbury and the Smith College History Department for their collaboration in bringing scholars to lecture about Northampton. Are you planning a sequel? It's probably none too soon to begin work on the next anniversary celebration."

"That's right. As they say, every generation rewrites history and that's not because the facts change but because we all have different questions. Every generation has different questions to ask, you know. The questions will change."

"I'm curious how long you've lived in Northampton."

"I've only been here since 1972. It's very funny. I found out that I'm actually descended from one of the protagonists in the Mary Parsons witchcraft trial, which is very interesting, although my father came from Michigan. Anyway, that's a different story."

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