I moved to Boston in July 2011 and I’ve loved every minute of it. It’s a beautiful city and for a history buff it really does feel like I am a kid in a candy store. That said, I’ve lived two lives since arriving here and I am now wondering if it is time to give in and embrace this thing called the American Revolution. Over the past year I’ve halfheartedly explored a few potential Civil War research projects that are centered here in Boston. They include a regimental history of the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and a Civil War biography of Governor John Andrew. Both are projects that would, no doubt, be interesting to explore and I have no doubt they would be embraced by both scholarly and popular audiences.
The problem is that beyond a few trips to the archives I can’t seem to maintain my excitement level. I walk to the archives or wander through the city and I am distracted by a very different history. Downtown Boston is defined by the sights/sites and sounds of the American Revolution. There is no escaping this and since I have always viewed history as a way to connect to my surroundings I want to know more. This includes not only the physical landscape, but the community of people who are involved in its interpretation and maintenance.
Luckily, I am not approaching this history unarmed. While a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Maryland I wrote my M.A. thesis in philosophy of history. I focused specifically on what it means for two historical interpretations of the same event to be conflicting as opposed to conciliatory. My case study was the historiography of the American Revolution. During the research phase I took a graduate-level seminar on the Revolution with Ronald Hoffman. We pretty much covered the major schools of interpretation and since then I’ve managed to stay on top of more recent studies.
So, what to write about? Most of you won’t be surprised by this, but what I am most interested in are the bricks that make up Boston’s Freedom Trail. Begun in the 1950s, the Freedom Trail frames Boston’s Revolutionary history in a profound way. The path steers thousands of visitors each year through the winding streets determining what they see and hear. There is no one organization responsible for the trail and because it is physically laid out the trail is contested space. As a result, there are ongoing disputes about what sites and stories ought to be included.
Such a topic would give me the opportunity to explore issues related to tourism, public history, and historical memory and all in my own backyard. I haven’t thought much about the scope of the project, but I would want to write something that blends a scholarly narrative with the playfulness of Tony Horowitz’s Confederates in the Attic. I’ve only just begun to do some background reading on the subject so whether I carry through or not has yet to be determined. What do you think?