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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Sunday, June 10, 2012

The New Chronicles of Old Boston

Yesterday I shared the first half of an interview with Charles Bahne, long-time chronicler of Boston and author of The Complete Guide to Boston’s Freedom Trail. Charlie has a new book this spring, published by Museyon Guides, so our conversation turned to that.

In brief, what are the eighteenth-century stories in Chronicles of Old Boston?

My editor and I strove for a mix of famous and obscure, Patriot and Loyalist. And my editor, Heather Corcoran, was really big on scandal and intrigue, sex and crime.

Paul Revere’s ride and the Tea Party were obvious choices. But I put a twist on the story of the Tea Party by making Governor Thomas Hutchinson the most important personage in that chapter. His intransigence was a major reason why the tea was dumped. And I think one reason for his stubbornness was that his family had a significant financial stake in the landing of the tea.

The case of Dr. Benjamin Church was perfect for the scandal, intrigue, and sex angle. And I included John Hancock because he’s been neglected by recent historians. We all know about his big signature on the Declaration of Independence, but not much else about him has been in the popular media recently.

Henry Knox and Dorchester Heights is an important story that’s been largely forgotten in recent years. Likewise, everyone in Boston (and every visitor) now knows about Faneuil Hall, but few know who Peter Faneuil was. Lastly, the story of the Boston Massacre is another one that’s widely mentioned, but whose details are largely unknown.

So that’s seven chapters—nearly a quarter of the book—dealing with the eighteenth century: Peter Faneuil, John Hancock, the Boston Massacre, the Tea Party, Paul Revere, Benjamin Church, and Henry Knox.

Chronicles of Old Boston talks about considerably more than the Revolution. What’s the full scope of the book? How did you decide what stories to include?

The book begins with John Winthrop and ends with John F. Kennedy, that is, 1630 to 1960. I ended the text with JFK’s famous speech quoting Governor Winthrop, when Kennedy was departing Boston to be sworn in as President. I thought that closing the circle in that manner was a nice concluding touch.

Thirteen chapters are devoted to the nineteenth century, which is appropriate because that was the city’s biggest era of expansion. There are two chapters on the seventeenth century, and seven on the twentieth century.

It was very easy to come up with my first list of potential chapters; many of them were subjects that I’d done research on already, or that I’d been intrigued by in the past. The hard part was winnowing that list down to something that would fit in the book. Those decisions were made jointly by Heather and myself. Sometimes the decision was made for us because I couldn’t find good sources of material to write about. Others got left on the cutting room floor due to lack of space.

Imagine that you’re preparing a revised edition of Chronicles of Old Boston twenty years from now. What Boston saga from your own lifetime would you include with the rest?

As I noted earlier, my editor wanted to include a lot of crime and scandal. She was pushing hard to include a chapter on Whitey Bulger. I’m glad I said no on that one because—as we know now—the material would have been outdated before the book could have been published. But in 20 or 25 years, Whitey would definitely be my first choice of chapters to add.

And by then the crimefighters may have solved the mystery of the Gardner Museum theft. Who knows? Maybe that involves Whitey, too.

Before I conclude, John, I want to offer my thanks to you, both for this interview (and for the opportunity to plug the book) and for making the book possible in the first place. If you recall, you’d provided my name to the publisher when they were looking for a possible author. I really appreciate that.

I also want to thank Heather Corcoran, my editor. It really was a joy to work with her. She’s taken my rough manuscript and turned it into a really wonderful book. And she was responsible for overseeing all the photos, maps, and other layout aspects.

And thank you, Charlie!

Chronicles of Old Boston will be launched at a free event at Old South Meeting House on Wednesday, 13 June, at 6:00. Here’s your chance to meet Charlie, ask your Boston history questions, and pick up an autographed copy of his book!


Dyer's Hand said...

Thanks for these wonderful interviews. I'm happy to discover this wonderful historian. Anything lately from him?

J. L. Bell said...

Since this book, Charles Bahne has published a couple of updates of The Complete Guide to Boston's Freedom Trail, and that book is now in full color.