The Real New England
Editing an encyclopedia, two UNH professors reveal a fascinating and complex region

More than a decade ago, two UNH professors set out to do something no one else had ever dared attempt. They set out to define New England—to tell the story of an entire region. The project they envisioned was massive. It would encompass the past, the present and the future. It would explore people and places, traditions and technology. It would shatter a few myths. It would be called The Encyclopedia of New England.

Thirteen years and 1.6 million words later, Burt Feintuch and David Watters have compiled a book that celebrates and documents New England's unique regional history and culture—and proves the tourist brochures wrong. There's more to New England, it turns out, than maple syrup and fall foliage, stone walls and pastoral landscapes, historic houses and Mayflower descendents. "Perhaps," says Feintuch, chuckling, "we should consider the encyclopedia an act of resistance." Not that the two are curmudgeons, really. But the image of "ye olde New England" just isn't accurate, they argue. "The old Norman Rockwell image endures," says Watters, "but it's more complicated than that. There's a very different story to be told."

MILLING ABOUT: Encyclopedia editors David Watters, left, and Burt Feintuch at the old mills in Newmarket, N.H. At one time, there were more looms there than anywhere else on earth.

The encyclopedia tells this new—and complicated—story in a series of 1,300 entries organized into 22 sections covering topics from politics and religion to folklife and ideas. The entries and essays are quite diverse in their approaches, notes Watters. "They provide different ways to think about various subjects. And when you put them all together, you enter into a wonderful conversation about what New England means."

Early on, at least one publisher expressed interest in producing the encyclopedia as a multi-volume reference series. "Something that would cost around $300," says Feintuch. But Watters and Feintuch were convinced that the encyclopedia should be a single-volume coffee-table book that people—not just libraries—would buy and use. It also had to be scholarly. When Yale University Press agreed to take on the project, the editors knew they'd found the right home for the book. "The press carries with it a reputation for fine scholarship and accuracy," says Watters.

Weathervane maker Alfred Blais at work on a novelty weathervane in Lewiston, Maine, 1974.

Just weeks before the fall release of the book that has consumed their lives for so long, Watters and Feintuch still can't quite believe that it's over. Only months earlier, they were working late into the night checking hundreds of facts. They reviewed name spellings and birth dates, places and descriptions. They made last-minute calls to reference librarians, e-mailed contributors and "googled" their way through a list of minute details. And even then, it still wasn't quite over. "I remember the very last panicked e-mail," says Watters. The editors at Yale had found a few final discrepancies. They needed answers by the next morning. Watters dropped everything to track down the missing information.

The monument to Samuel Adams in Boston during renovation to adjacent Faneuil Hall, 1975.

For years it's been this way. In the midst of careers already filled with teaching, research and public service, Watters and Feintuch have repeatedly dropped everything to bring to fruition a project they believe has been long overdue. "If 'region' is a state of mind," says Feintuch, "New England is arguably America's first and most enduring example." Yet there was nothing on our national bookshelf to attest to this fact, to celebrate and define a region many consider the heart and spiritual soul of the country. And so Watters and Feintuch plunged in. Along the way, the project became a labor of love. Research, family time, sleep—all these things were put aside in the effort to fill the gap in the nation's bookshelf.

"It's been part of our annual report for years," notes Feintuch, director of UNH's Center for the Humanities. "Each year, we'd say it was getting closer." This year, finally, the editors will include in their report the word they have long hoped to write: Done. The Encyclopedia of New England is on sale at last, a hefty, hard-bound volume at an affordable price ($65 in bookstores, less online), just as its editors first envisioned. And everyone who cracks the cover becomes part of the conversation about what New England is and why it matters.

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