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New London: "The town worn and dull"

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published 12/08/2013 12:00 AM
Updated 12/08/2013 12:08 AM

Allegra di Bonaventura begins a chapter of her book, "For Adam's Sake," with a description of New London in 1700 as a booming coastal town, with several inns, a mill, a new meetinghouse and an increasing number of wharves to serve ships in the growing West Indies trade.

The steady traffic in and out of the port gave New London "some measure of worldliness," di Bonaventura wrote.

But then the hammer falls, and she describes what might, even back then, have been called the curse of New London, one the city often seems to be still fighting.

"Amid the changes and the hubbub, however, general prosperity seemed to elude the rough-edged little community," she wrote.

"Outsiders deemed the town worn and dull; insiders felt themselves perpetually on the verge of the next big break that never came."

Ouch. Even today, that rings so familiar it hurts.

"For Adam's Sake" is a remarkable book, one to be commended for its careful depiction of life in Colonial New England, even if you are not especially interested in New London.

But it is set in New London, and it is an extraordinary historical account of the city's formative period.

The author is scheduled to discuss the book and answer questions from 2 to 4 p.m. today at the Waterford Public Library. The session is sponsored by Monte Cristo Bookshop of New London, and - note to Christmas shoppers - copies of the book will be available for sale.

The author, assistant dean at the graduate school of Arts & Sciences at Yale University, began work on the book 15 years ago, when she started research on the diary kept by Joshua Hempstead, a widowed shipwright whose English-born father was among New London's first citizens.

Hempstead, whose home still stands today, carefully documented daily life in the Colonial city with fastidious entries in his diary, notations about everything from the corn crop to the weather.

In her research, di Bonaventura noticed the frequent references to a person named Adam.

"At first glance, he might have easily been mistaken for a relative, a neighbor or simply one of the many hired workers Joshua employed during his lifetime," di Bonaventura wrote earlier this year in the Chronicle of Higher Education, about her research.

In fact, Adam was Joshua's slave, whom he purchased in 1727, struggling to keep up with his business and farming and the care of his children after the death of his wife.

The two spent nearly three decades together working alongside each other and sharing the cramped quarters of what we now know as the Hempstead house. Adam was listed in town records as a free man soon after Hempstead died, at the age of 80.

"For Adam's Sake" was named for the Hempstead slave, after di Bonaventura decided to redirect her research to look more closely at this example of New England slavery, so unlike the institutional slavery of the South.

The result is a captivating book, which a reviewer for the Wall Street Journal this year praised as "an astonishing, worms-eye" view of the early Commonwealth.

"Ms. Di Bonaventura has given us an incomparably vivid panorama of Colonial New England Society and as enthralling a portrait of family life there as we are likely to have," Kirk Davis Swinehart wrote in the Journal.

For New London readers, the descriptions of the city are fascinating, even at their least flattering.

"To the pedigreed elite of Boston or New York, even the town's betters appeared as country people and lazy fellows," di Bonaventura wrote. "Within the scruffy little port, the harborside district at Bream Cove where the Hempsteads lived remained a particularly unpolished working neighborhood, its graying buildings weather-worn, its air steeped with pitch from the Coit shipyards and with stink from the Truman tanning yards."

Indeed, everyone must have felt like they were on the verge of the next big break that never came.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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