Westborough Local History Pastimes – February 19, 2021

Three BIG Questions

Unless we live in a large city, like Chicago or New York City, we tend to think about local history in small ways. The term “local” itself minimizes the apparent significance of the field through its implicit geographical comparison to larger histories, such as national or world histories. Yet, in a local history newsletter, no less, I am going to wax philosophical and encourage you to think big, really big. But don’t worry, I will circle back to local history eventually.

I have come to believe that we, as human beings, should be trying to answer three big questions throughout the course of our lives: 1) What does it mean to live a good life?; 2) How can we fully experience what it means to be human?; and 3) What is the meaning of life? I told you I was going big!

All three questions interrelate—although their subtle differences demand that each be tackled separately—and answers to one provides building blocks for answering the others. I am not going to pretend that I hold the key to answering them; besides, my answers will be different from yours, and the ones you develop will necessarily be deeply personal, unique, and subject to constant revision. Rather, I am more interested in arguing the value of asking each question and raising various ways to consider them.

In a society that increasingly demands quantifiable outcomes to justify our use of time and money on a given activity, the arts and humanities, with their more qualifiable outcomes, have become embattled fields over recent decades. Every year, arts and humanities organizations that rely on government funding must spend more and more of their valuable time justifying the value of their very existence, let alone maintaining the level of their budget lines (heaven forbid that they ask for an increase!). Humanities fields in universities are squeezed and eliminated, as students are encouraged to pursue more “practical” and high-paying majors, as though learning to live a quality life in the fullest sense of the term does not have any practical application. (By the way, studies have shown that while science and technology majors make more money right out of college, humanities majors out-earn them over time, because the latter are more likely to move into management positions later in life.)

And if my two chosen fields, English and history, think they have it bad, consider philosophy, which seems to remain the butt of everyone’s disciplinary joke. Yet, the fundamental questions about life that I pose above are taken directly from philosophy, and it turns out that these seemingly basic questions are extremely complicated to answer. Lucky for us, people way smarter than you and I (and most of humanity) have thought long and deeply about them and can provide guidance.

Why are these questions so important? Well, let’s look at the consequences of our recent neglect of the arts and humanities. We have technology companies founded by CEOs who may be brilliant with computers, but who generally failed to graduate from college and were never exposed to the arts and humanities in any deep and meaningful way. Is it any surprise that these CEOs now flounder while trying to make decisions about their companies and products, decisions that profoundly affect our society and the way we relate to one another? (I’m looking directly at you, Mark Zuckerberg—but he is not the only one.) We have influential people who manipulate history to justify their preconceived belief system rather than follow the facts to their logical, and sometimes contradictory, conclusions—and, perhaps worse, have people who actually believe them. And we have people who read and interpret art with the goal of dividing society, rather than see art as an ultimately safe space to explore new ideas and visions for our society, which we are then free to accept or reject.

I will address each of these three questions over the next three newsletters and in the process try to connect them to local history. I obviously will not have the space, nor the intellectual command, to consider the intricacies of each one in the way that philosophers have over millennia. The reading list below already suggests as much. But my ultimate goal is to help you consider your life in ways that can enhance and enrich your experience here on earth, which is the ultimate aim of the arts and humanities.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Next time: What does it mean to live a good life?

Suggested Reading

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Eli Whitney has been on the minds of a lot of people in Westborough, given the recent controversy about whether the cotton gin should be removed from the Town’s logo because of its connection with slavery. Now is your chance to learn more about him through the Westborough Historical Society.

This Monday, February 22, 2021 at 7:00 p.m. on Zoom, Cary Mulrain, former WHS president, will present “Eli Whitney, Father of American Mass Production. Westborough’s Eli Whitney (1765-1825) perfected the cotton gin to remove seeds from short-stem cotton and inadvertently increased the demand for slave labor on Southern plantations. He then went on to apply mass production to the manufacture of guns at the Whitney Arms Company in Hartford, CT.

Join Zoom Meeting
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Meeting ID: 864 5136 6489
Passcode: 072932

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Meeting ID: 864 5136 6489
Passcode: 072932

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My mom was recently reading David McCullough’s The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West and came across a reference to Westborough in it. It turns out the wife of one of the book’s protagonists, Rufus Putnam, was Persis Rice (1737-1820), who was born and lived in Westborough before their marriage. You can learn more about her here: https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Rice-2942.

Persis was a direct descendant of Thomas and Mary (King) Rice, the parents of four boys who were abducted by a group of Native Americans in 1704 and taken from Westborough to Canada to live with them. You can read what Rev. Ebenezer Parkman, our town’s first minister wrote about the episode (although Parkman was only a boy and did not live in Westborough at the time): https://archive.org/details/storyofriceboysc00park.

Thanks, Mom, for alerting us to our town’s reference in McCullough’s book!

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Westborough Local History Pastimes – February 5, 2021

Amanda Gorman recites her inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” during the 59th Presidential Inauguration ceremony in Washington, Jan. 20, 2021. (DOD Photo)
Walt Whitman, age 35, from the frontispiece to “Leaves of Grass,” 1854.

Becoming America

There is nothing more American than to talk about who we are and what we want to be. People from other, older parts of the world do not experience the constant identity crisis that we do. After all, they live in cultures that have had the chance to coalesce over a much longer period of time. But Americans are always in search of the new, and attempts to pin down and define who we are always seems to disintegrate in the face of historical and cultural contradictions, which then starts the cycle of trying to define who we are all over again.

The American concern over who we are and what we want to be is partly the result of the unique history of where we live. When Europeans started to move to the Americas and inhabit the “New World,” they saw a land that offered new and endless opportunities (although, as we well know, this liberatory move also involved displacing and subjugating the people who lived here before them and set up one of America’s long-standing and defining contradictions). As a consequence, those of us who live in the Americas—and when I say “the Americas” I include both North and South due to our shared historical development and common cultural outlook—we focus more of our attention and efforts on creating the future than on preserving the past, and we work hard to realize our vision for what we believe will be a better society for us and for future generations. America and Americans, in short, are always in the process of Becoming.

Amanda Gorman captured the essence of these reflections in a much more articulate way in her electrifying poem, “The Hill We Climb,” which she read at the Presidential Inauguration Ceremonies on January 20, 2021. Gorman and her poem justifiably became the talk of the Inauguration, and there is no shortage of available commentary and analysis of her poem on the web and in the media. But as I listen to and read her words, the spirit of Walt Whitman flashes over me, especially his poem, “I Hear America Singing” (1860) from Leaves of Grass:

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,

Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,

The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,

The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,

The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,

The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,

The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,

The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,

Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,

The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,

Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

Whitman’s poem lacks the verbal pyrotechnics that Gorman commands in hers, but both show how our shared sense of possibility can lead to unity. Whitman’s poem singles out the “songs” that each worker creates during the course of plying his or her trade. While all of them are hard at work trying to improve the lives of them, their families, and, consequently, of America, each one of them is unique and special, with “Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else.” At night, the young ones abandon their daily differences to congregate and join together in “strong melodious songs.” But for the poet, the “varied carols I hear” of all of their work during the day come together to create the true song of America.

The work of being American is never finished, as much as we may want to reach that end goal and revel in our finished product. Our economic system values the latter, but our democratic system demands the former. This contradiction is also a part of what makes us who we are. We justifiably get frustrated when we seemingly fail to realize our individual political goals and desires over and over again. That’s the time, however, when we need to step back and recognize that even though we are all singing different songs, that the cacophony that we are creating is America and is the sound of our Becoming.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Suggested Resources

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“Westboro, July 4, 1899” – Westoborough residents gathered in front of the Old Capt. John Maynard Home. The flag says, “Welcome Comrades.”
Demonstrating on the Rotary, 2018 (Photograph by Brandin Tumeinski)

Along with poetry, photographs have the power to help us visualize the Becoming of America. The Westborough Digital Repository has two collections that, when put side-by-side, illustrate the Becoming of America at our local level here in Westborough.

The Historical Photographs of Westborough collection covers Westborough’s early history and the Photographer-in-Residence collection of photographs by Brandin Tumeinski give a more recent look at Westborough becoming what it is today. Take some time to browse through both collections and think about where we have come, what we are now, and what we can be in the future.

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In a past newsletter, I discussed the importance of building historical timelines in our mind while learning about history (although we also want to be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking that history is merely a set of dates and events!). Here are two more websites that can help us build our historical timelines, one more worldly and one more local.

  • The Museum of the World from the British Museum – This collaboration between the British Museum and the Google Arts and Culture Lab allows you to explore items from the museum’s collection and connect cultures and ideas through an interactive timeline. Click the “Launch Experiment” button to get started and enter a 3-D world of culture, time, and place (unfortunately, the website only works on desktop computers).
  • MassMoments a project of MassHumanities – This interactive timeline provides both a daily “This day in Massachusetts history” entry and a way to explore Massachusetts history chronologically through the years. You can also sign up to have Daily eMoments delivered every day to your e-mail address.

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Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Local History Pastimes newsletter? Then subscribe by e-mail and have the newsletter and other notices from the Westborough Center for History and Culture at the Westborough Public Library delivered directly to your e-mail inbox: https://www.westboroughcenter.org/subscribe-to-updates/.