(Reviewed by Mary Whipple OCT 5, 2003)Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1936, at the 300th anniversary of Harvard's founding, gave his version of Harvard history: "In the olden days, it was Increase Mather who told students that they were 'pledged to the word of no particular master,' that they should 'above all find a friend in the truth.' That became the creed of Harvard. Behind the tumult and shouting, it is still the creed of Harvard. In this day of modern witch-burning, when freedom of thought has been exiled from many lands, it is the part of Harvard and America to stand for the freedom of the human mind and to carry the torch of truth."
Author William Martin, whose Harvard-educated antiquarian Peter Fallon was a major character in his previous novel, Back Bay, here uses Fallon to reveal the more than three hundred fifty years of Harvard history and its intimate connections to the history of New England and the nation. An ancient legend says that Robert Harvard, father of John Harvard, for whom the college was named, lived in Stratford-on-Avon and was a friend of Shakespeare. Supposedly, Shakespeare gave him a hand-written manuscript of a now-lost play as a wedding present, sometime around 1605.
Author Martin uses this legend as the fulcrum around which the book turns and speculates about what might have happened to the play over the course of almost four hundred years. The turmoil of the Reformation and the Puritan excesses during the civil war in England, which occurred at that time, would have made the possession of such a "sinful" manuscript dangerous to the possessor, and Robert probably would have kept it hidden. Martin assumes that Robert gave it to his son John upon his death. Though John was a Puritan, he was a believer in the sanctity of knowledge, even knowledge with which he personally disagreed, and he protected his father's gift by bringing it with him when he came to the New World.
Just two years after the new college in Cambridge was founded, John Harvard himself died, and he bequeathed his remarkable 400-book library to the college. Since the college was devoutly Puritan and therefore anti-theatre, however, John Harvard did not leave the Shakespeare manuscript to Harvard, fearing its destruction. Instead, he left the manuscript in the charge of Isaac Wedge, a young man he had mentored. For several succeeding generations, members of the Wedge family protected the manuscript, sometimes hiding it in the library at Harvard when it was safe to do so, and sometimes removing it secretly to ensure its protection. Never, however, did they call attention to it, and none of the Harvard librarians were ever sure of its existence. In 1764, a devastating fire destroyed the library and all but one of the books from John Harvard's original library.
A dozen generations after Shakespeare gave the manuscript to Robert Harvard, one of the twentieth century Wedge heirs approaches rare book dealer Peter Fallon of Back Bay to try to confirm the existence of the manuscript and ascertain its whereabouts. As Peter Fallon begins his research into "the story of the Wedges-eleven generations from noble Isaac to a guy wearing pants the color of cranberry sauce," he shows us the major events unfolding in the history of the college, its connection to the history of the colony and New England, and ultimately the contributions of its graduates to the history of the nation itself.
Through Isaac Wedge, we see what life was like for the ten young men who studied with the infamous Nathaniel Eaton with whom "Lessons were taught in fear, learned in terror-the School of Tyrannus." Through other Wedges, we meet Rev. John Eliot who converted the Indians in South Natick in the mid-17th century; Cotton Mather, a religious zealot who began Harvard at age 11; George Burroughs, who was executed in the Salem Witch Trials; Rev. Edward Holyoke, whose son founded the Essex Institute (now the Peabody Essex Museum); Caleb Wedge, who fought in the Revolutionary War; Theodore Wedge, a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau; naturalist Louis Agassiz; and eventually Joseph Kennedy, Harry Widener, John Kenneth Galbraith, Robert Oppenheimer, and President Franklin Roosevelt.
As Peter Fallon traces the missing manuscript through history, we witness the horrors of King Philip's War and the religious excesses of the Salem Witch Trials, the ride of Charles Dawes (a different route from that of Paul Revere) to warn that the Redcoats were coming, the Great Boston Fire, the Civil War, the sinking of the Titanic, two world wars, and the opening of the college to Jews, blacks, and women.
Martin's concern is to make history lively and understandable, his characters sympathetic and often noble. He humanizes even the dour Puritans and the earliest settlers, observing the commonplaces of their lives, in one case, indicating that "she pukes like a grass-fed dog." A great deal of humor enlivens the novel. In one memorable scene, both Rev. Cotton Mather and Rev. John Wedge, use their examination of a potential witch to feel "forbidden" parts of her body, an experience they profess not to enjoy but have to repeat. A few other scenes, including one in which a Wedge goes to Europe to recover the manuscript from a thief, then has to run for his life, involve chases reminiscent of slapstick farce. The story is folksy and entertaining, despite the formidable genealogy of the Wedge family, yet Martin never demeans Harvard and its monumental contributions to American society. He emphasizes basic ideas, rather than the minutiae of history, entertaining his readers, rather than getting bogged down in complex details.
By tracing the history of the college to the present, Martin explains how Harvard has evolved to ensure that the brightest students from all walks of life will continue to have the same opportunities for intellectual growth, regardless of income level. This huge and entertaining novel is a tribute both to Harvard and to the men (and now women) it has educated and the roles they have played in American life. In Harvard Yard Martin has given us popular history at its best.
- Amazon readers rating: from 38 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Harvard Yard at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Back Bay (1979)
- Nerve Endings (1984)
- The Rising of the Moon (1987)
- Cape Cod (1991)
- Annapolis (1996)
- Citizen Washington (1999)
- Harvard Yard (November 2003)
- The Lost Constitution (May 2007)
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- Official Website for William Martin
- Class Assignment to read Citizen Washington
- Chapter Excerpt from The Lost Constitution
- Estella's review of The Lost Constitution
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About the Author:
William Martin went to Harvard where he majored in English, worked as an historical research assistant and directed theater in the evening. He graduated in 1972, and went into construction to raise money to move to Hollywood.
At the University of California, he studied motion pictures and came to realize that he should write screenplays to get into the business. After submitting two, producers suggested that he write a novel to take best of advantage of the way he writes. So he wrote an outline and got a publishing deal for $7,500. The book, Back Bay, was published in 1979 when he was twenty-nine and it became one of handful of debut novels to ever reach the New York Times bestseller list. Rather than return to Hollywood, he chose to stay in Boston and to continue to write historical fiction.
He and his wife have three children -- two sons and a daughter -- and they live in Massahusetts.