books about new england
December 4, 2019 7:14 AM   Subscribe

I've gotten to the "Know Your Enemy" phase of my New Hampshire residence, and I'm looking for some books to read so that I can better understand my unpleasant neighbors.

I lived most of my life in the Midwest, which I loved. I have a good background in Midwestern history from school, and there are several good books I've read as an adult to fine-tune that. I have my Midwestern stuff down. I know why pretty much everything is the way it is there.

I moved to New England a few years ago, and, well, I don't know why anything is the way it is here. The street grid that looks like it was drawn by a blind person having a stroke? There's a popular saying that the streets used to be "cow paths". OK, well, you may have heard that we have cows in the Midwest as well. But we also have city planners whose IQs are greater than those of the cows. "We just paved a bunch of cow paths" is an amusing story, but it can't be the real reason, can it? And why do all the towns in each state have the same name? Salem, Burlington, Manchester, Bedford... am I talking about New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, or all of the above? I get that they're all English names, but colonists in the rest of the thirteen colonies got creative with their place names - Philadelphia, Charlotte, etc. Why did New England colonists all decide to pick their town names from the same ten-item list? Why is your pizza terrible? Why is there only one floor plan for every house in the region? Why does everyone just accept that Dunkin Donuts is good?

There's clearly a well-defined culture here, but it's as foreign to me as if I were in Kyrgyzstan or Botswana. But if there's one thing I have learned about New England residents, it's that they love New England. So someone has to have written a book about it. I want to read that book.

Some restrictions:

-It must be comprehensive. I would like an overview of the whole six-state region, not just one state, and especially not just Boston, which in many ways is atypical of the rest of the region. I'd also like something fairly temporally comprehensive; a more modern focus is OK, but I would at least like to glance back to the original European colonization, as that still seems to occupy a prominent place in the culture.

-I don't mind academic history (I was a history major and I still read academic history for fun sometimes), but I don't have access to an academic library, so it would have to be available from a public library or general-audience bookstore. Also, if you can sense my tone, I'm probably looking for something a little more playful and lighthearted than academic history typically is.

-It should be fairly objective, or at least not boosterish. I am already surrounded by people telling me that New England is the greatest place on Earth; I don't need to read it as well.

Some books I've read and liked that helped me understand other places, as kind of a guide to what I'm looking for, include "Great Plains" by Ian Frazier, "Boom Town" by Sam Anderson (Oklahoma City), "The Pine Barrens" by John McPhee (New Jersey), "The Almost Nearly Perfect People" by Michael Booth (Nordic countries), and "Island People" by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro (the Caribbean). Something like that would be great.
posted by kevinbelt to Media & Arts (40 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Albion's Seed might be useful -- one of the parts is a focus on British immigration to New England and the specific regional and cultural characteristics of the immigrants.
posted by LizardBreath at 7:26 AM on December 4, 2019 [6 favorites]

We Have Always Lived in the Castle
posted by an octopus IRL at 7:31 AM on December 4, 2019 [19 favorites]

Why does everyone just accept that Dunkin Donuts is good?

Asking the important questions.

The main reason is that they were "here first". We had Dunkin Donuts on every street corner long before Starbucks or Krispy Kreme tried to spread their empires in our direction. In fact I remember the Krispy Kreme that only lasted a few months over in Medford.
It's comfortable and familiar. Any other chain feels foreign, and when we travel to other geographical areas, seeing a Dunks is a sign of home.
posted by jozxyqk at 7:33 AM on December 4, 2019 [10 favorites]

The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell, could be a good start.

You see grids anywhere you get out of the initial colonial settlement: the Northwest Territory, even middle/upper Manhattan. It seems like by the third generation of colonists they’d already realized that there needed to be a damn plan going forward.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 7:34 AM on December 4, 2019 [7 favorites]

I moved to the midwest from the east coast and I laughed out loud reading your post, having experienced the same thing in reverse.
I actually suggest you read or re-read Walden by Henry David Thoreau. You'll get a deeper understanding of the region and maybe be charmed.
Extra tip: You'll be happier if you don't expect people to smile as much as they do here. :)
posted by nantucket at 7:46 AM on December 4, 2019 [13 favorites]

Yeah, the grid thing is just settled before/after some point in the late 18th century, isn't it? There was a year when rational layout occurred to people as desirable, but anything settled before that is a mess.
posted by LizardBreath at 7:47 AM on December 4, 2019 [6 favorites]

I am a displaced Minnesotan, and I feel your pain. Gross generalizations follow:

I can't think of a book that covers it neatly. Perhaps it might help to understand the mindset of colonists and their descendants? They were people, mostly from England, who were isolated and wary -- and many of them were religious migrants who were trying to practice their HARD CORE (a.k.a. "Puritan") Christianity without getting hassled, so their communities necessarily looked inward. They re-used (old-)England place names because they were familiar and comforting. Settlements were far enough apart that duplication didn't cause problems.

Today we live in a much more-connected world, and the population density here is higher than it was in colonial times, so the namespace collisions are just more glaring.

There's a second element: many New Englanders continue to be parochial and proud of their homeplaces, so they agree with the "Office Space" diallogue:
Samir : You know, there's nothing wrong with that name.
Michael Bolton : There *was* nothing wrong with it... until I was about twelve years old and that no-talent ass clown became famous and started winning Grammys.
Samir : Hmm... well, why don't you just go by Mike instead of Michael?
Michael Bolton : No way! Why should I change? He's the one who sucks.
It really boils down to, "If it works and it's stupid then it ain't stupid" with a dash of "We've always done it that way" thrown in.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:52 AM on December 4, 2019 [7 favorites]

I haven't read this yet but it might be relevant to your questions of floor plans -- or what floor plan are you talking about? The only place in New England I see the same house design is in more modern developments.

Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn
posted by theredpen at 7:53 AM on December 4, 2019 [4 favorites]

Huffty Puffy: You see grids anywhere you get out of the initial colonial settlement:... It seems like by the third generation of colonists they’d already realized that there needed to be a damn plan going forward.

Or as I like to tell my in-laws: "You see, anyone with initiative, drive, curiosity, and self-determination realized around 1750 that there was a whole continent out there, and left New England to see what fortune held for them."
posted by wenestvedt at 7:54 AM on December 4, 2019 [3 favorites]

Sorry to threadsit, but I have amateur thoughts about the history of grid plans, specifically that Philly is the OG grid city and the line of demarcation. Places settled ("settled") before or contemporaneous with Philly were messy, and then when people traveled to Philly and back, they brought the Philly grid back with them because it made sense.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:56 AM on December 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

The grid thing is a combination of topography and time. Roads that were laid out before 1785, basically most of the East Coast, would have followed paths of least resistance (parallel to rivers, around hills/mountains/any steep slopes, Native American trails, etc. The Land Ordinance Act of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 allowed for the systematic surveying and mapping of lands (generally west of the Ohio River). You can read a lot more history at the Public Land Survey System website.
posted by plastic_animals at 7:59 AM on December 4, 2019 [20 favorites]

Why is your pizza terrible?

Because most pizza is, regionally-speaking. The nearest consistently good pizza is going to be Boston and even then there will be lots of bad pizza places. Having grown up in Rhode Island I didn't realize how spoiled I was.

That said, there are good pizza places in Dover and Portsmouth and I am guessing places I used to live in NH (Concord, Manchester) have decent ones now as well. You just have to find them.

Are we a stoic people in general? Sure, but that doesn't mean inherently bad or can't be talked to. Some of the tone of this post comes across as "This place is different from where I used to live and thus bad." And it also suggests every place in the US is some homogenous zone where everyone is the same. Not sure how to help with that.
posted by yerfatma at 8:02 AM on December 4, 2019 [5 favorites]

[Friendly nudge -- OP asked for books.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 8:03 AM on December 4, 2019 [5 favorites]

Paul Sloan (last-minute edit: I might have that name wrong, am checking) has a bunch of good (and beautifully-illustrated) books about how things were were done in New England back in the day (the colonial or pre-colonial day). They're purely historical but can inform you about how and why things persisted in they way they did -- for example, why Cape Cod style houses look the way they do, or stone walls.

I don't know how tangential this will be to the request, but back issues of Yankee Magazine might also be good resources. Skip past most of the stuff involving buying houses and renovating houses and flipping houses and basically living the quaintest old-fashioned life with modern amenities in million-dollar houses, and there is usually an article with some historical insight and frequently with some grimdark contrast to the gentrification mania.
posted by ardgedee at 8:16 AM on December 4, 2019 [6 favorites]

Sorry! ERIC! ERIC Sloane.
posted by ardgedee at 8:22 AM on December 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

Also, Bill Bryson lived in Hanover, New Hampshire, for about a decade after having grown up in the Midwest. I think he lives in Hampshire in England now. All his stuff is good; I’m trying to remember if he was the one who wrote about all the farmers moving to the Midwest where the soil is actually good and the fields aren’t all full of rocks, but I don’t know which book it is.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 8:24 AM on December 4, 2019 [5 favorites]

I think you might be find A Landscape History of New England of interest, as well as the aforementioend Big House, Little House, Back House Barn. I also really love the suggestion to try Yankee magazine, particularly the Life in the Kingdom series.

This is a Jstor link, but The Origins of New England Culture seems to indiciate that Albion's Seed (linked above) is exactly what you're looking for, at least from a culture standpoint.

The Culture of New England wikipedia page might also give you some pointers to authors who meet your need (although that page is very srongly the white culture of New England).

And, yeah, your midwestern grid cities are a direct result of the Homestead Acts, as I'm sure you know. The Homestead Acts were specifically designed to encourage organized settlement. There was no such organization in colonial New England.

Finally, I'll just leave this here for you to read. It is a thoughful conversation comparing the forces that shaped Hilliard, OH and Attleboro, MA, between two (acadmeic) residents of those communities.
posted by anastasiav at 8:38 AM on December 4, 2019 [4 favorites]

Albion's Seed is one of those books which ways overplays an interesting thesis. Just as a caveat--it's definitely the sort of thing you're looking for. (City names are, in fact, different in part because of differing subcultures or ideologies amongst the owners or the settlers of the non-NE colonies.)

Also, don't get too high and mighty about Midwestern city planning. Detroit doesn't have a grid.
posted by praemunire at 9:21 AM on December 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

These probably lean too far out of your criteria, but I'll suggest them anyway - I've been slowly reading through the works of Haydn Pearson and you might find them interesting. Pearson was the son of a rural New Hampshire pastor and was a columnist and memoirist; he wrote extensively about growing up in New England in the late 1800s and early 1900s, with a heavy focus on local foods. He can be a little long-winded and sentimental (in an "onion on the belt" sort of way) but I've found them interesting to help understand some of the history of the local culture.

None of his books are in print, but they're common on used book sites and I believe you can get most of them print-on-demand.
posted by backseatpilot at 9:50 AM on December 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

Not a book and somewhat dated, but you might think about listening to Bert & I as compared to Prairie Home Companion.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:54 AM on December 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

A book always suggested to me is Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England which talks about very early New England development from Native Americans to colonizers including the fuzzy/messy in=between times.

In terms of social, I also suggest keeping up with the New England Historical Society's Topics section which has a lot of anecadata presented in a fairly lively way. I'll see if I can find a good book about the land granting process which really has the answers to some of your "why is the LAND the way it is?" question.
posted by jessamyn at 10:16 AM on December 4, 2019 [6 favorites]

Reading the Forested Landscape by Tom Wessels is an interesting look at how the landscape has changed and how you can see the history in what is there now. If you've ever been puzzled by a stone wall in the middle of the woods, this book is for you. And if this book does it for you, check out his follow-up, Forest Forensics.

And as a former Connecticutioner, I have to plug New Haven pizza as the best pizza. I do enjoy other types of pizza on occasion, but nothing beats New Haven-style pizza.
posted by carrioncomfort at 10:40 AM on December 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

American Nations, by Colin Woodward.
posted by pintapicasso at 11:07 AM on December 4, 2019

Also, are you talking about a cape cod house? My understanding for why it's so popular is because it has a central chimney and low ceilings throughout to conserve heat. Also a steep roof for new england snowfall.
posted by pintapicasso at 11:11 AM on December 4, 2019

It's a long journal article instead of a book but you might find Culture and Place: English Sub-Cultural Regions in New England in the Seventeenth Century by Martyn Bowden, Connecticut History Review, v35, pp. 68-146 (1994) interesting. The link is to JSTOR where the article is available for $14 but you can probably get it via Interlibrary loan.
posted by plastic_animals at 12:52 PM on December 4, 2019

Not a book, but you might be interested in this longform article, "Growing Up in Maine's Cancer Valley," to get a more recent history of Maine's mill towns.

The Maine Memory Network also has a ton of stuff.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 3:03 PM on December 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

The street grid can't be the real reason, can it? I grew up where you did. I look at maps and laugh. New England is full of granite mountains; roads adapt to geography. Grids are easy on flatland.
And why do all the towns in each state have the same name? Salem, Burlington, Manchester, Bedford... Confirmation bias. One of the most popular town names is Springfield. In Ohio, it's accurate, the water table is high. Portland, OR is named after Portland, ME. People left home for economics, but they missed their homes so they named new towns accordingly.
Why is your pizza terrible? I miss Cassano's, but most people think it's weird. Great pizza exists in New England. Maine has a TownName House of Pizza in a bunch of towns, all started by Greeks. Not always the best pizza, but if they have gyros, they'll be good.
Why is there only one floor plan for every house in the region? I haven't experienced this, but architecture has a vernacular, and Cape Cod houses are typical of regional architecture.
Why does everyone just accept that Dunkin Donuts is good? I don't care for dark roast and I like coffee to be fresh, hot, prepped as requested. That's Dunkin. I don't think I have ever gotten coffee that's been on the burner too long. It's not the best, but it's good and it's reliable.

Read some dark gloomy Robert Frost. I think you have to be a bit austere to deal with cold, snow, darkness and rocky soil.
posted by theora55 at 3:07 PM on December 4, 2019 [3 favorites]

Why does everyone just accept that Dunkin Donuts is good?

The Dunkin Donuts itself is good. Not the coffee or donuts or the execrable food.

It's like Tim Hortons in Canada. They are an egalitarian universal meeting space combined with a cultural touchstone. The food and coffee are just excuses to be there.
posted by srboisvert at 3:40 PM on December 4, 2019 [6 favorites]

The Beans of Egypt Maine by Caroline Chute

A Stranger In The Kingdom by Howard Frank Mosher
posted by SassyMcSassin at 4:16 PM on December 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

Carolyn Chute, e.g. "The Beans of Egypt, Maine"
posted by mmiddle at 4:42 PM on December 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

Seconding the confirmation bias on town names. 25 states have a Burlington; three of those states have two Burlingtons each, and none of them are in New England (Ohio, Oregon, and Wisconsin). 29 states have a Salem; Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Missouri, Texas, West Virginia, and Wisconsin all have multiple Salems. Etc.
posted by current resident at 5:17 PM on December 4, 2019

Guys, with all due respect, I know that there’s more than one architectural style. I know that not all pizza sucks. I know that not every town is named Burlington or Salem. These were facetious remarks. Pointing out that exaggerations are not strictly true doesn’t help me understand the region any better. The mods have already nudged once. I’m not super picky that responses have to be actual books (the PLSS link was fascinating, for example), but I would like something more than just “you’re wrong, there are totally two floor plans”.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:19 PM on December 4, 2019 [3 favorites]

Also fiction. This is not going to cheer you up about New England or "explain" it, but it will bring you closer to the raw searing soul of broken macho working class New England: Affliction by Russell Banks, (really tons of things by Russell Banks); the movie version of Affliction was also amazing.
In this vein, also Andre Dubus's short stories or the movie made from one, In the Bedroom.
posted by nantucket at 8:39 PM on December 4, 2019 [3 favorites]

I loved your description of your issue with New England. Are you a budding comic novelist by chance? Maybe the book you’re looking for will be the one you write yourself ;-)
posted by cartoonella at 2:50 AM on December 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

This New Englander seconds the idea that you should write the book. This question is hilarious!

I love RI because it has seasons, but not tornadoes or earthquakes, and rarely bad blizzards and hurricanes; there are no venomous snakes or spiders; the ocean is always within an hour's drive; quahogs.
posted by Ruki at 5:57 AM on December 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

The character of early New England was very much influenced by the Congregational Church. This protestant church was built on independent, self-governing churches, very much in contrast to the trans-national Roman Catholic church and the national Church of England. It was pretty much the government during the 1600s, and was state-supported (no matter what the 1st Amendment says) up to about 1820. The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell gives a flavor, but that only carries you up to about 1700. The Congregational Church was a good match for the small, self-serving towns and subsistence farming of early New England.

Early New England was also highly dependent on rivers/streams for transportation and water power.

My wife suggest reading the poems of, and a biography of, Robert Frost.

Dunkin Donuts was the winner in the marketplace over Bess Eaton. I do find their current dominance of the marketplace pretty oppressive though.
posted by SemiSalt at 6:27 AM on December 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

Little Women is very New England and a delight.
posted by emd3737 at 7:39 AM on December 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

Also, as someone who has lived here for all of my forty years, I think of New England as a perpetual Thanksgiving dinner. Boston is the jockish older brother who is the family's Golden Boy and whose siblings will never forget how obnoxious he can be. Western Massachusetts is bookish and doesn't come out much. Vermont is the hippie cousin. New Hampshire is the drunk uncle who sometimes shouts conspiracy theories at the table, but we forgive him because he keeps the booze flowing. Maine is the taciturn grandpa who'd rather be out on the lobster boat. Rhode Island is the little sister and an unapologetic VSCO girl. Connecticut is the middle sister who "married up" and spends every other Christmas with her in-laws as the Tri-State Area. The rest of the family spends a lot of time talking behind Connecticut's back about how she thinks she's too good for us now and did you see how she wore those Gucci shoes with the Yankees logo on them for Easter? And Grandma is Florida, home of the New England snowbirds, and honorary New England state during the winter months.
posted by Ruki at 1:39 PM on December 5, 2019 [14 favorites]

I don't know anything about New England, I'm just here to tell you that every library, even your podunk public library, can access the miracle that is interlibrary loan. So if someone does recommend something that sounds on point and it's only available in hard copy in some obscure university library in godknowswhere, you can still get it! I have read some really obscure stuff this way. Hope you find what you're looking for!
posted by fingersandtoes at 4:00 PM on December 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

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