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Books: Unexpected Prizewinner

3 minute read

PURITAN VILLAGE by Sumner Chilton Powell. 215 pages. Wesleyan. $15.

The award of the Pulitzer Prize for history this month startled many historians and most publishers simply because the winning book and its author were almost unknown. In fact, Sumner Chilton Powell’s Puritan Village had almost gone unpublished: scholarly presses, including Harvard, had turned it down as “too specialized” before it was accepted by Wesleyan in Connecticut. With its $15 price tag, many bookstores had not bothered to stock it; hardly more than 1,000 copies had been sold; immediately after the Pulitzer announcement the book was almost unobtainable.

Conflicting Traditions. The book that beat out such possibilities as Oscar Handlin’s panoramic The Americans or William and Bruce Cation’s Two Roads to Sumter is a meticulous and remarkably detailed account of the early government and social organization of the town of Sudbury, Mass., founded by Puritan settlers in 1638. Generations of orators have sweepingly proclaimed the early towns of New England “a unique experiment in self-government,” while many historians have tacitly assumed that the early settlers brought with them a broadly homogeneous body of English law and administrative methods. Historian Powell’s achievement is to show just how unique the self-government of early Sudbury really was.

Not one but at least three quite distinct English traditions lay behind the Puritan settlers, Powell found. Men like Peter Noyes, a prosperous yeoman and the fourth largest landholder when he left the manor of Weyhill in southern England, brought with them centuries-old customs of open-field, cooperative farming and local government. Men like Edmund Brown, Cambridge graduate and Nonconformist minister, sprang from bustling, self-governing English boroughs and brought with them city ways and institutions. A strong minority of early Sudbury settlers like John Parmenter and Thomas Cakebread the miller were used to independently run, competitive, closed-field farming as then practiced in the east of England.

Deciphering the Records. To trace the interactions of these traditions took Powell six years. Of the 16 men who were early Sudbury’s leaders, he succeeded in tracking 13 to their original homes in England, and has re-created their lives in convincing detail. In total, he located the origins of 79% of Sudbury’s first landowners. He spent two summers in England finding and photostating—if necessary with a portable copier, wired to his car battery—the relevant 17th century church records, legal notes, manor rolls and accounts. Deciphering the Latin shorthand and illegible handwriting of the period took hundreds of hours more.

From the welter of facts, with the passion of a born antiquarian and the insights of a self-made sociologist, Powell has reconstructed the intense pulling and hauling of an early American community that was, “in a real sense, a little commonwealth,” able to create “as much of an ideal state as its leaders could conceive and find agreement on.” Such fine-grained history is certainly more for the scholar than for most general readers. Yet Powell’s style is clear, if sometimes too sugary, and the people and events can be absorbing.

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