Jonathan Fisher of Blue Hill, Maine: Commerce, Culture, and Community on the Eastern Frontier (review)
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Keywords

Jonathan Fisher, Painting, Material culture, Maine, Architecture

Jonathan Fisher of Blue Hill, Maine: Commerce, Culture, and Community on the Eastern Frontier. By Kevin D. Murphy. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2010. Pp. xiv +288. 13 color plates, 67 b/w illustrations. $49.95.)

Jonathan Fisher (1768–1847), a Congregational minister and leading citizen of Blue Hill, Maine, during the early national period, has long drawn the attention of historians (a scholarly biography appeared in 1948) and art historians, thanks to his prolific writing and even rarer distinction as a painter. Fisher was also a surveyor, architect, farmer, furniture maker, and hat and textile producer. Kevin Murphy, working at the intersection of literary biography and material culture studies, takes all these pursuits into meaningful account, providing economic and social contextualization for Fisher’s intellectual and material output. In the process, he recovers the web of familial and community relationships that at once motivated and facilitated Fisher’s endeavors. Exploring the parson’s incentive for engaging in so many activities—above all, maintenance of social authority and economic security—the author makes clear that Fisher did not do so alone.

The fulcrum of Murphy’s study is the house that Fisher designed and built beginning in 1796, when the Harvard graduate took the pulpit in Blue Hill’s Congregational church, which he held during forty years of eroding denominational authority. Successive chapters address Fisher’s planning process for his house; the home as space of production, theological negotiation, and pedagogy; and as a place of display for his most exceptional creation, the large painting A Morning View of Bluehill Village, Sept. 1824, in which the minister’s residence occupies a key position at the compositional vanishing point. While the approach works better for [End Page 515] some chapters than others in which the connection becomes attenuated, it nevertheless presents a compelling framework for Murphy’s broadly inclusive “material biographical” account (27).

Fisher’s move to this eastern outpost from established parts of Massachusetts afforded him the opportunity to shape a town and to profit from that process. Isolation from urban centers did not constrain the ambitious parson, who labored tirelessly to affirm his elite standing within the community. At Harvard, Fisher had studied mathematics and associated representational systems, which he put to immediate use in Blue Hill, as Murphy shows in Chapter 1. Fisher undertook surveying and mapping to benefit town proprietors and himself, and he set out to build (and thereafter frequently modify) a house for his growing family, boarders, and visitors, at times more than a dozen residents. He followed processes wholly unnecessary by customary standards, making detailed designs and perspective studies that established him as the local architectural authority, at a time when the profession of architecture barely existed in the United States.

In a second chapter on production in the Fisher homestead, Murphy surveys the family’s diverse activities and output, goods grown and made both for private consumption and for market. In line with other studies that challenge romanticized notions of self-reliant New Englanders, Murphy highlights collectivity and, especially, the role of women in the household economy. Strikingly, this involved not only female family members but also visitors, set to work braiding hats during social calls. Fisher exempted no one, not even himself, from this traditionally female occupation, customarily performed as outwork. The Fishers, moreover, performed all aspects of hat making and, during a time of increasing mechanization, wove textiles for sale. Murphy’s attention to the “spatial consequences of home production” (105) breathes life into the old cliché (as he himself notes) of the early American rural home as a “beehive.” Readers gain a vivid sense of how crowded a productive household like that of the Fishers would have been.

Fisher afforded himself the luxury of a private study, an addition to the house that accommodated his intellectual work and teaching, benefitting him economically and boosting his status in Blue Hill. At least that was the idea. Deeply conservative, Calvinist, and Federalist, Fisher found himself increasingly at odds with his community, especially Baptists, and with nineteenth-century egalitarian ideals—though he provided [End Page 516] his daughters, given extended...


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