Great thoughts: the Vermont Story

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(Host) Great thoughts and philosophies from Vermonters have shaped our state and sometimes influenced the nation. Commentator Frank Bryan explores Earl Newton’s history of the state.

(Bryan) In 1948, the Vermont Historical Society and its director Earl Newton gave Vermont a precious gift: the gift of memory. I discovered Earl Newton’s history, The Vermont Story, in the Newbury Town Central School, along with the other 4-6 graders sitting in 25 little desks bolted to the floor.

On soft winter days, when our work was done, I and so many other kids like me all over Vermont sat at our desks turning the pages of that glorious volume. It is a complete history of serious scholarship, but it is written so well even fifth graders can understand most of it.

It’s not a pictorial history, but there are pictures: pictures of Ethan Allen and the cannons of Ticonderoga. But there are also pictures of farms, churches, quarries, machine tools, authors and actors and playwrights – and the work of the sculptor’s chisel, including Vermonter Hiram Power’s famous nude, The Greek Slave, which (as I remember) was on page 215.

Newton’s book was the first complete history of Vermont. It brilliantly bridged the gap between serious scholarship and popular consumption. Newton wanted us to know about ourselves.

With introductory essays by Dorothy Canfield Fisher and Allen Nevins, The Vermont Story is a beautiful book. Its colors are rich, its format varied and exciting, its prose compelling. Moreover, it is physically – as a book – so technically well crafted it’s a metaphor for the message it imparts, a message that came at just the right time. For Vermont was on the threshold of a whole new life.

That message is this: The Vermont story is a story of how a people living in one of the physically most isolated and difficult environments in America fashioned a progressive and technically astute culture. From agriculture to the arts, Earl Newton reminded the generation of Vermonters that was about to preside over the greatest population influx to the state since the turn of the 18th century that life close to the earth, lived out in small communities of human scale, is not only beautiful, it is smart. What a perfect idea.

This is Frank Bryan from Starksboro.

Frank Bryan is a writer and teaches political science at the University of Vermont. Learn more about the Great Thoughts of Vermont series and share your comments with other listeners.

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