LECTURES On Nineteenth-Century New England

talks can be presented at any length from 30 to 60 minutes, and for audiences ranging from community groups to student colloquia and scholarly conferences.

Mirthful and Pleasing: Handwritten Literary Newspapers in 19th-Century Rural New England.

This talk introduces the forgotten, but once widespread tradition of handwritten literary newspapers. Rural New Englanders in the nineteenth century often created their own original literary pieces—sometimes funny, sometimes serious, sometimes sentimental—and performed them aloud for their neighbors in public gatherings. Jo Radner has been studying the homegrown literary newspapers composed in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and western Massachusetts, and talks about what they reveal about the hopes, the fears, the funnybones, and the surprisingly daring behavior of rural ancestors.

Mrs. Editress v. the Back-Store Court of Law: Witty Words in Rural Maine

Women and men in 19th-century Maine farming communities participated enthusiastically in homegrown events that called for verbal wit and performance: debating clubs, lyceums, writing and spelling schools, programs of the Grange and other fraternal orders, informal gatherings for communal work at home or for gossip in the local store. Although most such public institutions were dominated by men, one widespread Maine tradition—the local literary “newspaper” read aloud—was controlled by women.

This talk contrasts the humor of the “papers” with that in the typical back room of the village store, where the daily social gathering of men around the woodstove used elaborate verbal wit to resist (as one writer put it) “female influence.” This is a lively and engaging look at the negotiation of power between women and men in 19th-century rural Maine.

Speaking Our Way to Improvement: Eloquence in Northern New England Villages

One of the most common institutions in nineteenth-century rural New England was the village debating society, or lyceum, "got up" for "mutual improvement" in the wintertime. A typical lyceum program presented a kaleidoscope of speech occasions—debates, declamations, recitations, dialogues, essays, lectures, mock trials, critics-reports, and oral performances of handwritten literary newspapers—all in the interest of developing the participants= "nobler and higher qualities."

The communal ideals of American oratorical culture had long-lasting resonance in small northern New England farm villages. Obsolete elsewhere by the time of the Civil War, community debating societies continued throughout the century in the far northeast, expressing conservative resistance to the increasing emphasis on individualism, competition, and professionalism in Victorian America. Paying particular attention to gender differences, this talk examines why, even as most of the country was abandoning neoclassical ideas of oratory and oral expression, New England villagers maintained the belief that (as one contemporary put it) speaking well in public "will fit us for all stations of life which men and women are called to fill."

“The People of Poverty Hollow”: Resistance to Public Stereotypes in Postbellum Northern New England Villages

In the decades after the Civil War, the popular stereotype of the New England village changed from rural utopia—the quintessence of ethical, religious, industrious, and intellectual community—to a scene of dissipation, depopulation, and despair. Magazine authors and popular fiction writers projected to the nation an image of deep pessimism and moral and economic decay in the rural northeast. Youth, growth, excitement belonged to the frontier, to the new industrial cities; it became a commonplace that rural New England--especially in the northern farm villages of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont—had become a dispirited backwater.

The actual inhabitants of these villages, however, did not share the general view; in fact, they developed and maintained local literary traditions that resisted the popular images with energy and wry wit. In handwritten "newspapers," composed by village neighbors and read aloud at weekly winter gatherings, rural men and women made it clear that they were not depressed, backwater bumpkins, but active and responsible citizens of the nation whose mission was to "foster. . .those influences which make men better. . . , so that the reputation that we have had of being a friendly and social people may never depart from us."