New book explores Vermont history

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(Host) Commentator Tom Slayton has a review of “Freedom and Unity,” the Vermont Historical Society’s new one-volume history of Vermont.

(Slayton) Amazing as it may seem, until recently there was no thorough, comprehensive one-volume history of Vermont. No real in-depth history of the state had been published for more than a half-century.

But the Vermont Historical Society has just remedied that situation with the recent publication of “Freedom and Unity, A History of Vermont,” by Michael Sherman, Gene Sessions, and Jeffrey Potash.

It is a substantial volume in every way. Some 730 pages in length, the hardcover version of this book weighs in at 4 pounds and an ounce. That’s a lot of history, and the book seems to cover it all, from prehistoric times right down to World War II, and the astonishing growth and development that have come to Vermont since the 1950s.

A particular highlight is the long chapter, “The Reconfiguration of Vermont,” on the changes to Vermont’s economy and society following the Civil War. That chapter is actually an extended essay on the question of whether Vermont actually declined as much as is commonly supposed in the late 19th century. The conclusion? It didn’t.

Vermont’s political history is a dominant theme throughout Freedom & Unity, and the book’s treatment of the Hoff years and the dramatic rise of the Democratic Party in a state long known for stern Republican politics is especially interesting.

In any book of this length on a subject rife with sparring interpretations, there are bound to be some disagreements. The book’s brusque treatment of the role of the Green Mountain Club and the importance of the Long Trail and outdoor recreation generally is disappointing, though it does give an ample and sensitive account of the importance of Joseph Battell’s pioneering work in mountain and forest conservation. The book’s organization is at times confusing, and its political track is easier to follow than its acoount of social, economic or cultural matters.

But generally its treatment of cultural issues is handled carefully and well.

Is it because of Vermont’s dramatic beginnings that nostalgia, the yearning for a golden past, emerges so often in our literature and art? The authors write that Thomas Waterman Wood’s sentimental genre paintings of 19th century rural scenes represent “a vision [of a simpler world] that seemed to be disappearing under the burden of technological change and the more complex interactions of an urban society.”

Virtually the same words would easily apply to similar sentiments frequently expressed in the Vermont of today.

And that is part of the purpose of a good complex work of history like “Freedom and Unity” – to remind us of episodes and feelings so important they come up for us, time and time again.

This careful, complex look at Vermont’s past will certainly become the definitive reference history on the Green Mountain State for years to come. The fact that most of it is fascinating reading is a delightful bonus.

Tom Slayton is editor of Vermont Life magazine.

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