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Elizabeth Porter Phelps's life began in 1747 and spanned three wars, a major uprising, and the emergence of a nation. She spent all but her first five years at Forty Acres, her family's handsome Massachusetts home, which still stands proudly today. It was there that she grew up, married, raised children, and kept busy as the mistress of a working farm and wife of a prominent leader in the community. And all the while, she never stopped writing and recording her life in hundreds of diary entries and letters.
It is our great fortune that the invaluable collection of these papers ultimately found its way, two hundred years later, into the loving hands of scholar Elizabeth Pendergast Carlisle, who has gracefully woven them into Earthbound and Heavenbent. Together, Phelps's writings and Carlisle's narrative describe in riveting detail the daily rigors of eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century farming, sewing, and cooking; the intimate truths of the Phelpses' personal, family, and community life; and the events, local and farther afield, that were shaping America. Ultimately, Carlisle's account, peppered with these treasured diary entries and letters, provides the reader with the full arc of Elizabeth Porter Phelps's life from childhood to death against the dramatic background of familiar history: the French and Indian Wars, the American Revolution, Shays Rebellion, the War of 1812.
With her thorough knowledge, research, and insight and with twenty black-and-white photos of the house and its furnishings Elizabeth Pendergast Carlisle has resurrected a rich and fascinating world and brought the Phelps family story back to vibrant life. In the tradition of the bestseller A Midwife's Tale, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's look at eighteenth-century New England social history, Earthbound and Heavenbent makes American history vivid and accessible through the intimate details of a real woman's life.
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Earthbound and HeavenbentElizabeth Porter Phelps and Life at Forty Acres (1747-1817)
By Elizabeth Pendergast Carlisle
ScribnerCopyright © 2004 Elizabeth Pendergast Carlisle
All right reserved.
Close to the Connecticut River and set back from the road that runs north out of Hadley, Massachusetts, stands a house called Forty Acres. Built in 1752, it is a graceful blend of Georgian and Federal architecture. Lilacs and mock orange grow close to the foundations, tall shade trees shadow the roof, meadows slide gently down to the river. An eighteenth-century vision stands realized, a dream of shelter for succeeding generations, of seasoned elegance and growing prosperity emerging from a productive farm.
Born in 1747, Elizabeth Porter Phelps spent all but her first five years at Forty Acres. Her remarkable life spanned three wars, a major uprising, and the emergence of a nation. During that time, alterations to the house reflect aesthetic and practical changes in the occupants' lives. Rooms in the house, spared from overzealous restoration, retain traces of the family members who lived within its walls.
Another record exists in the wealth of family papers preserved and passed from generation to generation. Diaries and letters re-create the ordinary and extraordinary; they make audible individual voices. They put flesh on the bones of history. Phelps's papers create for us a vivid picture of a brief time when people were united by mutual needs, a common religion, and a belief in the existence of a "promised land." This belief tied them to their land and to the close-knit community that they created. It was a succoring community, its foundation the seventeenth-century covenant in which the inhabitants promised to watch over one another.
In many ways, the world described by Elizabeth Phelps has disappeared, but as we explore that world, we find ourselves on surprisingly familiar ground: lives disrupted, in some cases extinguished by war, threatened by rampant epidemics, destructive natural catastrophes; people overworked, men torn between public and private aspirations, women yearning after food for the spirit; marriages unsettled by lack of communication, depression, financial loss, prolonged absence, anxiety for children's welfare.
One cannot gain an accurate sense of what it was like to live in eighteenth-century New England without recognizing the ways in which Calvinism continued to influence people's thinking, particularly among farming communities. Though the single-minded Calvinism of seventeenth-century Puritans does not characterize the religion of all eighteenth-century New Englanders, its enduring strength can be seen in the multiple revivals that occurred well into the nineteenth century. Millennial dreams were nourished from meetinghouse pulpits. The dissensions that arose in the late eighteenth century within the Congregational Church kept theological debate alive among clergy and laity alike.
Whether the inhabitants of early New England were pious believers or not, everyday life was suffused with signs of the divine intention. Responding to that intention demanded both an active and a contemplative life, one in which love of one's neighbor was demonstrated through acts of kindness, and the love and fear of God through meditation and prayer. For the devout to fulfill both demands produced inner conflict. Writing was a way in which Elizabeth Phelps could explore this dichotomy in her own life.
The contents of a house -- beds, tables, chests of drawers -- can be bequeathed from one generation to another. But what about ideas, principles, creeds; can a house nurture and preserve a family legacy based on these intangibles? Can those convictions be passed from generation to generation like teapots and shawls? Elizabeth Phelps's story provides one answer to these questions.
Copyright © 2004 by Elizabeth Carlisle
Excerpted from Earthbound and Heavenbent by Elizabeth Pendergast Carlisle Copyright © 2004 by Elizabeth Pendergast Carlisle. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsContents
I. A Foundation Laid
II. Pleasures of the Pen
III. Crossing the Threshold
IV. Conflict and Loss
V. A Tumultuous Time
VI. Fostering Heirs
VII. Some New Sorrows
VIII. "This Great Cathedral of a House"
IX. Once Again the Pleasures of a Pen
X. Binding the Ties
XI. Seeking the Celestial City
XII. The Valley of the Shadow
XIII. Ends and Beginnings