Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Book Review: "Clio's Consort"

[Yes, I'm still catching up on reviews from last week. This one, then Tristram Shandy and I'm up to date].

Jeremy Belknap's may not be a household name (at least not in most households). But his role in American history is an important one, and his role in the formation of the Massachusetts Historical Society is a very important one. Former MHS director Louis Leonard Tucker's Clio's Consort: Jeremy Belknap and the Founding of the Massachusetts Historical Society (1990) offers not only a useful biographical sketch of Belknap, but also a close examination of his values as a historian and an in-depth treatment of the beginnings of the MHS and Belknap's preeminent role in the establishment of the Society in 1791 (as the first historical society in the Americas).

Tucker succinctly captures Belknap's historical mentality, his view that "history must not only be based upon the most authoritative primary sources but also be factually accurate, as consistent with truth as was humanly possible" (xii). Trained as a minister, Belknap's true love, or as he called it, his "hobby horse" (an overt nod to Sterne), was American history. He published a three-volume history of New Hampshire hailed by 20th-century critics for its uncharacteristic nature as a "modernist," "secular," "objective" history when such things were even less common than they are today. His highest phrase of praise for others was "accurate and indefatigable," adjectives which he certainly sought to cultivate in his own writings and efforts.

Concerned with the loss of contemporary historical materials and conscious of the need for an institution to house, preserve and publish such things, Belknap and several friends in Boston organized the Massachusetts Historical Society from the ground up in the early 1790s, basing the institution around a broad collecting policy that included the acquisition of books, manuscripts, pamphlets, broadsides, &c. that would be useful for scholars then and in the future. Belknap also envisioned a vibrant publications program to make manuscript collections more widely available in printed form, plus a facility to allow scholars free and open access to the Society's holdings; these two traditions continue at the MHS today.

When you work at a place with such a long-standing record of service, it's important, I think, to periodically go back and delve into the roots of the organization - if for no other reason than to remind yourself of the original mission and the folks who got things off the ground. Belknap does deserve more recognition than he gets, and Tucker's book is a good step in the right direction.