A Grand Scheme

 

In 18th-century New England, these men looked outward

 

opalIn the isolated, self-sufficient world of 18th-century rural New England, where most people didn’t travel beyond a day’s horseback ride from home, ambition—“the desire for the grand intangibles to be found in the wide expanses of space and time: fame, glory, distinction”—was a liability, observes Assistant Professor of History Jason Opal. What use were such desires to families concerned with maintaining stability on the farm, to people who understood themselves in relation to their neighbors?

But as turnpikes replaced poor local roads and bridges spanned the ferry crossings, as academies brought education to the backcountry and villages cropped up throughout the countryside, rural New Englanders were forced to renegotiate their own sense of themselves in relation to the world. Now they were regarded by outsiders, and their children were inevitably exposed to new possibilities.

As Opal persuasively argues in Beyond the Farm, for the young men coming of age in post-Colonial New England, especially those who couldn’t foresee inheriting much land or who had no penchant for farming, the opening of the countryside gave them greater opportunities to forge their souls and their livelihoods in the wider world. It planted the idea of ambition—what we now think of as a salient characteristic of the American identity—in their minds. Opal draws on the autobiographies of six restless Yankee men to richly explore the distinct nature of ambition in preindustrial America. It fostered, he suggests, not only personal quests but the needs of the emerging nation by turning isolated, independent people into citizens of the Republic.

The young men whose lives Opal traces eventually established themselves in education, ministry, and the trades, but none had an easy passage. They couldn’t gracefully free themselves from their families and communities, and the world beyond, which was still shaping itself after the struggle for independence, proved bewildering to negotiate. Their progress was marked by dramatic changes in fortune, and there was always failure. But, as Opal observes, no matter the struggle, their ambition was informed by a generosity of spirit, and several eventually taught and ministered in remote places that were not so different from the ones they’d left. For these men ambition had not yet acquired the ruthless quality that would characterize it in the industrial age: “They had all left home and found society, left family and discovered themselves…,” Opal writes. “But no matter how amazed they were at their own passage, they could have never guessed that the nation they reflected would reinvent them once again, as ‘self-made’ men within a society to which they owed nothing.”

In Beyond the Farm, Opal not only fully explores the nuances of ambition during this period, he does justice to the complexities of rural life in post-Revolutionary America, to the nature of its households and families in all their turmoil and anxiety.
--Jane Brox '78


As Good As Your Word

For Robert B. Parker's Wild West Heroes, honor is all.

parkerThe sequel to Parker’s Appaloosa (published in 2005 and soon to be a movie starring Viggo Mortensen, Ed Harris, and Renee Zellweger), Resolution follows the lives of former lawmen Everett Hitch and Virgil Cole, who are holed up in Resolution, an Old West town made up mostly of saloons and brothels. Hitch and Cole are hired guns with hearts, if not of gold, then certainly of copper from the nearby mines. When the mine owner hires his own gunmen to take over the town from Hitch’s and Cole’s saloon-owner employer, a showdown is inevitable.

Though the plot is familiar, this is a Western delivered in Parker’s trademark style, with staccato dialog and nary a word out of place.
“How ’bout you,” Stark said. “You a lawman?”
“Used to be,” I said.
“What are you now?” Stark said.
“I keep the peace in Wolfson’s saloon,” I said.
“Wolfson send you up here?”
“Nope.”
“So why you up here talking to me?” Stark said.
“Curious by nature,” I said.

The tone suggests Parker’s iconic Spenser novels, as though the laconic Boston private eye were beamed back a century and 2,500 miles west. But Resolution is a very Western tale of a violent time in a lonely outpost. There are gunfights galore and bodies sprawl on the wagon-rutted streets. In such a place, Parker tells us, all that men like Hitch and Cole have is their own code of honor, and if they break it, they’re as lost as the drifters who meander the vast and empty plains.

--Gerry Boyle '78

 
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