Duo Dickinson and Steve Culpepper didn’t want to write a basic history of New England. Instead they decided to co-write a “tapestry” of the people, places and homes they find interesting and that make this region of the country unique.
A Home Called New England: A Celebration of Hearth and History (Globe Pequot Press) tells us about the “peculiar people” who settled here but used their Yankee ingenuity to thrive.
We all know about P.T. Barnum, now even more in the public eye because of the hit movie The Greatest Showman. But Culpepper and Dickinson tell us in a four-page spread that Barnum wasn’t just a circus promoter; he fought for voting rights for blacks after the Civil War. (It’s also true he made plenty of money touring with a “161-year-old” black woman named Joice Heth.) Barnum also was mayor of Bridgeport and went to prison for defaming a local deacon in Barnum’s newspaper, the Herald of Freedom.
Dickinson and Culpepper are not so admiring of Elihu Yale, whose rather modest contribution was enough to have Yale College named in his honor. The authors describe him as a “self-enriching Londoner” who “tossed some (32) books and a pot of loot across the Atlantic” in 1713. They write: “His greedy, over-the-top side dealing (or more likely double-dealing) got him fired from the East India Company” in England. He spent more time there than in New England.
Dickinson particularly enjoyed researching the colorful life of Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who is famed for co-designing New York’s Central Park, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and many other iconic public places. But he had to turn down Yale’s offer to come there at 18 because of sumac poisoning of his eyes, so he became a self-described “vagabond” and “dabbler.”
“For about 20 years of his young life he was mostly a failure!” Dickinson says. “Then he got that Central Park commission and after that he got all the other commissions. He was just an amazing dude.”
Dickinson, who was raised in suburban New York, and Culpepper, from Louisiana, talked about their affection for New England when we got together at New Haven’s Institute Library. This was a fitting site for our topic; it was founded in 1826 and is one of America’s oldest private-membership libraries. Its old fixtures exude the past.
A Madison-based architect, Dickinson freely admits, “We’re not historians.” Nor are they native New Englanders. “But it’s because we’ve been in this region for just 30 or 40 years that we appreciate it on a different level.”
“We see it with different eyes,” says Culpepper, who has done newspaper and book publishing. He now lives in New Haven near historic Wooster Square, an easy walk from the library.
Dickinson, who has traveled widely across America for his architectural projects, says, “New England is incredibly rich in what it offers, but people who live here don’t know how great it is. A woman from Texas told me: ‘I love New England! There’s so much visually and culturally. History is present everywhere, all the time. That’s not true in other places.’ ”
Indeed, motorists routinely cruise past the Henry Whitfield House near the Guilford Green without realizing what they’ve got there: the oldest house in Connecticut and New England’s oldest stone house. The beautiful structure, built in 1639, graces the cover of A Home Called New England. The authors write that it was periodically restored, became the state’s first museum in 1868 and continues to operate today as a window into our past.
Culpepper and Dickinson also showcase more modern historic treasures, such as the Merritt Parkway, another gem we often take for granted as we hurry to our next destination. They write that “what made the Merritt so special in its day was its parklike beauty” and “a moving slideshow of architecture” with one-of-a-kind decorated bridges. Although the parkway was built in the 1930s, most of the original bridges are still in place.
The book offers many evocative photos, sometimes (as in the case of the two-page Merritt treatment) not leaving much room for detailed information.
“It’s unconventional,” Dickinson acknowledges of the book’s approach. “It’s not a guidebook, it’s not a history. It’s a tapestry, a scrapbook or catalog of history.”
The authors realized from the start that a more comprehensive history would have required hundreds or even thousands of pages. (Their book has 295.) But Culpepper says, “It shows the scope of human history in this little corner of the world. The idea was to show what life was like, how people lived from the beginning of time in North America.”
And so they devote chapter one, “Before the Ships Arrived,” to Native Americans and their culture. Maps and diagrams as well as photos help tell their story.
Dickinson said that too often books about New England “start with the Pilgrims. But it did not start with the Pilgrims!”
In their introduction, the authors write that their “scrapbook” offers “a tour of then and now in this cold, frequently standoffish, somewhat distant and memory-prone northeastern neck of the United States.” Asked if they meant the people or the weather are cold, Culpepper says, “It’s a cold climate.” But Dickinson adds, “There’s a natural sort of diffidence.”
During his travels in other regions, Dickinson says, people always say to him, “Y’all in New England are just weird. At a party or dinner, the first thing you ask is: ‘What do you do?’ We ask: ‘How are you?’ ”
Dickinson laughs and says, “Our Calvinist work ethic is palpable.”
This article appeared in the March 2018 issue of Connecticut Magazine.
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