J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, June 23, 2006

A Travel Guide that will lead kids astray, part 3

Today I resume my ranting on the flaws in A Travel Guide to Colonial Boston, started this date and continued that one. But this is my last posting on this topic. I promise.

You may notice that I’ve not mentioned the author’s name. Having worked in publishing, I’m not sure the author bears full responsibility for the book's problems. This Travel Guide is being sold as part of a series, and the author doesn't hold the copyright. So in the spirit of "work for hire" contracts, I assign all responsibility to Lucent Books.

(Full disclosure: Lucent is an imprint of Thomson-Gale, and I wrote a couple of entries in the Thomson-Gale encyclopedia Americans at War. ["Highly recommended."—Choice] I'd urge everyone to rush out and buy many copies for my sake, except for those darn "work for hire" contracts. So consider buying this $415 four-volume specialized reference work purely for your enjoyment. End of commercial.)

It's easy to suspect that this book was originally supposed to present a pre-Revolutionary perspective, but then was shifted to 1793 without enough time for the author to redo all his research. That would make sense of the title: this Guide to Colonial Boston is actually set in the post-colonial Federal period. A lot of the facts are accurate before the war, but not after:

  • The book gives a population figure of "sixteen thousand residents," which would be right for 1765, but the 1790 census counted over 18,000 Bostonians.
  • The text uses many outdated street names, such as King Street (changed to State Street in 1776, for obvious reasons) and Cornhill (changed to Washington Street in 1788, as the City Record blog points out).
  • Page 56 says the town has a yearly oration on the anniversary of the Massacre. Boston switched its annual oration to Independence Day in 1783—and since the book is tied to the Independence Day celebration, that’s relevant.
  • Harvard ranked students by their families' social status as described on page 92—but only until 1769.
  • Page 80 advises the putative readers of 1793, "get your hands on one of the city’s two excellent newspapers: the Boston News-Letter and the Gazette and Country Journal." The pro-Crown Boston News-Letter ceased publication in March 1776, when its proprietress left with the British military. The Boston Gazette was still publishing in 1793, but without the Country Journal appendage. In that year the Columbian Centinel and Independent Chronicle dominated the market, and the Massachusetts Mercury had just debuted. Early American newspapers are very well documented. In fact, they are documents!
On the other hand, the book also includes plenty of anachronisms from well after 1793. Page 71 quotes Daniel Webster, who was eleven years old in that year. Page 52 quotes John Adams “in his journal,” but the words come from a letter Adams wrote during his retirement; Adams's journal has been online and searchable for years, thanks to the Massachusetts Historical Society. Page 34 says, "Pick up a map of Boston at one of the city’s bookstores; a good one to try is the Corner Book Store, approximately located at the corner of School and Cornhill Streets." But you might have to wait since, as this webpage on that shop explains, no one sold books there until 1832.

(Where to buy the best maps of Boston in 1788? Samuel Gore's paint shop off Court Street. He had imported copies of the exquisite map of the besieged city by Henry Pelham. End of commercial.)

Another reason to lay the onus on the publisher is that the art offers as many errors as the text. Most illustrations are engravings from a mishmash of periods—standard fare for these sorts of books. But even the new art contains obvious inaccuracies. The publisher commissioned the picture of the Old State House on page 53, which shows a spiral staircase at the building's center. Go to that museum today (Really: go. End of commercial.), and you'll find an exhibit about how that staircase is not an accurate restoration and what the State House probably looked like in the 1700s.

There's another illustration error that even the publisher isn't responsible for. Page 35 shows an engraving of Boston which you can find in the Giraudon collection of prints, as the publisher did. This image was created by Franz Xavier Habermann in the late 1700s and printed in Germany for people curious about the new U.S. of A. The picture is a fraud. Habermann was never in Boston. But the Germans he sold his print to didn't know that. And neither did Lucent Books.

(You can buy an accurate, American image of Boston's Old State House in the federal period at Travel-Posters.info. End of commercial. I have to start charging for these.)

A little Googling wouldn't have caught Habermann's 200-year-old fraud, but it could have caught most of the other problems I've listed. In fact, anyone with even basic knowledge of the start of the Revolution should have spotted the errors in this sentence from page 89:
The large elm on the northwest corner of the Common [in Cambridge] is the very place where George Washington mustered his troops prior to marching into Boston a few days before the Battle of Bunker Hill.
The Battle of Bunker Hill was 17 June 1775. Washington arrived in Cambridge on 3 July 1775. He marched his troops into Boston in March 1776. (Furthermore, The “Washington elm” did not stand in the northwest corner of the Common, and Cambridge acknowledges there’s no evidence predating the 1830s that Washington mustered troops under it.)

Nobody working for Lucent Books—no editors, production staff, freelancers, reviewers, salespeople—caught those mistakes. And now this Travel Guide to Colonial Boston is in school libraries, looking to young readers like an authoritative source. That's why the publisher bears the responsibility for it.

(Thanks to M. T. Anderson for alerting me to that choice sentence on page 89, and to this book as a whole. Not that he'd necessarily be proud of what I've made of it.)

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