- Two Carpenters: Architecture and Building in Early New England, 1799-1859
Book reviewers find themselves assessing publications with many different characteristics— and now, courtesy of digital technology, in many more formats. Still, with respect to content and contribution, reviewers usually situate their assessments along a generally understood continuum. "Gradient" may be a better word. At the lowest end are those works that address a worthy topic but do so in an inadequate way. In such cases, the task of evaluation is to elucidate the problems as well as the potential without brutality. At the top of the scale are those studies about which the reviewer thinks: "Damn, I wish I'd written that!" Surely this is the highest praise possible that one practitioner can bestow upon the work of another.
Before about 1985, many publications in the field of vernacular architecture—as in other areas of material culture studies—that clustered near the worthy-but-inadequate end of the gradient did so because of the paucity of precedents. How were scholars of so many previously unexamined aspects of buildings and landscapes to transform a series of observations made in the archives or in the field into Something Worth Knowing? Not only were precedents difficult to come by, but with a few exceptions—James Deetz, Dell Upton, and J. B. Jackson among them— those who wrote explicitly about methodology and theory too often cast their discussion in such a way as to mystify rather than elucidate. Small wonder that a great deal of the most enduring work published during these years was descriptive in nature—the best of it meticulous, informative, and rich in detail.
During the past three decades, however, vernacular architecture studies has grown so admirably in depth and breadth that the dilemmas of precedence, method, and thematic or theoretical positioning no longer exist. What today makes publications of worthy topics inadequately managed has much more to do with economic and institutional imperatives. Manifest, particularly in many first books, is the haste necessary to hammer a monograph into publishable shape on a schedule that aligns with tenure or promotion review.
Situated at the highest end of the gradient—among those scholarly books whose achievement a reviewer might well envy—is J. Ritchie Garrison's Two Carpenters: Architecture and Building in Early New England—although in this case the exclamation "Damn, I wish I'd written that!" would be in vain. Only Garrison himself could have written this book. A professor at the University of Delaware as well as the director of the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture, Garrison is also the author of Landscape and Material Life in Franklin County, Massachusetts, 1770-1860, which first appeared in 1991 and was reissued with a new introduction in 2003. It is this earlier study from which Two Carpenters has emerged, more focused in subject and more confidently grounded in the larger social and economic implications of the material.
The author struck gold when, during work on his earlier book, he found a set of family papers—those of the Stearns family—that pertained in large part to the construction of a set of standing structures. To this remarkable [End Page 117] confluence of surviving evidence he has summoned a constellation of contemporary material gleaned from sources as varied as local and regional records relating to population and wealth, published builders' directories, journals, newspaper advertisements, and treatises on the management of a successful household and the proper conduct of servants.
From such varied materials, Garrison has woven a finely textured mesh of narrative and significance. Moreover, taking cues from such inventive intersections of evidence as Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale, Bernard L. Herman's The Stolen House, and Alan Taylor's William Cooper's Town, Garrison has coaxed his sources to life and set them in a context of time as well as space. He has recovered agency—intentions, choices, habits, and innovations. The residents of Northfield...