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.'"