Monday, April 16, 2007

Book Review: "The Minutemen and Their World"

Sometimes I wonder how I made it through four years of college and now almost two years of grad school without being exposed to certain books at all. Robert Gross' The Minutemen and Their World is one of those. First published first in 1976, and the winner of the Bancroft Prize the following year, it was re-released in 2001 by Hill and Wang with a new foreword by Alan Taylor and an afterword by Gross.

A product of the 'new social history' movement, Minutemen goes far beyond the town-based histories of Demos, Greven and others and, as Taylor writes, melds the traditional methods of new social history with "attention to grand events, biographical detail and literary craft." This book "transcends the limitations" of earlier community-studies "by discarding their sharp distinction between the social and the political." Taylor calls Gross' book "the single most influential work in shaping my sensibility as a historian" - having read Taylor's books (and been utterly fascinated by them) I can testify to the stylistic and methodological continuities that persist in Taylor's excellent writings.

As Taylor's works do, Gross' book examines a town's role in wider events - in this case, Concord, Massachusetts in the years before, during and after the Revolution. By providing minute details about the inner workings of town politics, religion, and society for the period, Gross is able to flesh out important details about Concord and its people that might have gone unnoticed by prior historians or unremarked upon by historians more concerned with strictly parochial matters. He notes how intra-town rivalries and religious fissures occupied the townspeople through the early 1770s and kept Concord largely aloof from the pre-Revolutionary activities of other communities, and then the galvanization/unification process that occurred as conflict grew nearer.

Using demographic analysis and biographical spotlights, Gross is able to carefully draw conclusions about the town's actions and non-actions in the years leading up to 19 April 1775 when Concord found itself the site of the famous 'shot heard round the world.' He continues his analysis through the war and beyond, discussing the role of post-Revolutionary Concord and how it came to be shaped as the home of Transcendentalism in the early decades of the next century.

A meticulous study, with copious and rich footnotes that enhance the narrative without getting in its way. Gross' afterword, placing the book into its context as a product of its time was enlightening as well. A fine read, and highly recommended. I am ashamed that it had escaped my notice for so long; it has stood and will continue to withstand the passage of time.