Ye Olde Yankee Encyclopedia

Read Time:
3m 19sec

Edited by Burt Feintuch and David H. Watters.
Yale Univ. Press.
1,564 pp. $65

Before i tore the wrapper off The Encyclopedia of New England, I made a list of 10 subjects that I thought a reasonably well-researched encyclopedia of the region should include:

1. The first Harvard-Yale crew race, held on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire in 1852.

2. At least one of three U.S. senators: George Aiken, Margaret Chase Smith, and Claiborne Pell.

3. The reason Connecticut is called “The Nutmeg State.”

4. Marie Elizabeth Zakrzewska, founder, in 1862,  of the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Boston.

5. William Loeb, editor and publisher of New Hampshire’s Manchester Union-Leader.

6. Boston Latin School.

7. Connecticut Valley cigar wrappers.

8. Vermont’s anti-development law of 1969, Act 250.

9. The Radiation Laboratory at MIT, which helped perfect radar during World War II.

10. The 1970 Bobby Seale trial in New Haven, Connecticut.

Editors Burt Feintuch and David Watters, both English professors at the University of New Hampshire, score a solid 80 on this arbitrary test. Take away my fondness for rowing arcana—to their credit, they do include a meaty entry on the Head of the Charles regatta—and they get a 90.

Still, call me an old fuddy-duddy, but I think leaving out the Boston Latin School is worse than an oversight. Founded a year before Harvard College, Boston Latin is America’s oldest school (“Sumus primi” is its motto, to drive home the point). Its students have included Cotton Mather, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edward Everett Hale, Leonard Bernstein, and—though for some reason he goes unmentioned on Boston Latin’s Web site—Louis Farrakhan.

One could play the exclusion game endlessly (racquetball and not squash?), but there’s plenty to celebrate in this massive tome. It begins with one of the loveliest pieces of writing about New England that I’ve ever read, an elegiac foreword by the poet Donald Hall. He’s the sort of ur-New Englander who can toss off a sentence like this with real authority: “New England is empty mills, new inventions, wooden scythes . . . and contrails from Logan and Pease Air Force Base streaking the blue air above the cellar hole of a farmer who came north after the Revolution to build his land.”

What New England really is is six states, all of them pretty darned old by American standards: “the first old civilization . . . in America,” as historian Bernard De Voto wrote. Generally speaking, Feintuch and Watters don’t get suckered by the Yankee magazine, purely nostalgic vision of New England that tour bus operators sell to outlanders during fall foliage season. The six states are still very much alive and kicking, albeit subject to some disturbing population outflows, as the Encyclopedia duly notes.

Regional encyclopedias have been enjoying a miniboom, with publishers attempting to duplicate the success of The Encyclopedia of New York City (1995), which itself replicated the success of the much-praised Encyclopedia of Southern Culture (1989). The last was organized thematically rather than in dictionary fashion, and the New England editors adopt the same approach. Yes, the arrangement introduces some aleatory effects. I was delighted to find a charming and informative entry under “Weather Lore,” but I wondered why the quackish Old Farmer’s Almanac, which is mentioned in “Lore,” also warrants a separate entry. On the other hand, I’m not complaining that Richard Henry Dana Jr. appears in “Maritime New England” while Herman Melville is under “Literature.” There’s plenty of information about both of them, and of course it’s easily located with the index.

An encyclopedia has to be useful, which this one is, and it might as well be fun, too; otherwise, why risk lower back pain by hefting it off the shelf? How many editors would think to include an entry for Elm Street, a fixture of almost every New England town I’ve ever lived in? Feintuch and Watters do, and they surround it with thousands of other fascinating and informative entries.

—Alex Beam

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