In 1790, President Timothy Dwight of Yale offered this description of Northampton, a town situated on the banks of the Connecticut River in western Massachusetts: "The inhabitants of this valley possess a common character," he remarked. "Even the beauty of the scenery, scarcely found in the same degree elsewhere, becomes a source of pride as well as enjoyment." For Dwight, the appeal of the place lay in its proportions, which epitomized eighteenth-century ideas about the proper balance between the natural world and the built environment.
Northampton evoked equally powerful visions in others. To minister Jonathan Edwards it was a stage for the enactment of God's drama of saving grace and redemption, while to Swedish soprano Jenny Lind it was simply a "paradise." During the 1920s Northampton became Main Street USA—a reassuring backdrop for the presidency of the city's former mayor, Calvin Coolidge. But for Smith College professor Newton Arvin, it was the dark side of small-town America that surfaced during the early decades of the Cold War. From witchcraft trials to Shays' Rebellion, from Sojourner Truth and the utopian abolitionists to Sylvester Graham and diet reform, many of the main currents of American life have flowed through this New England river town.
To commemorate the 350th anniversary of the founding of Northampton, A Place Called Paradise brings together a broad range of writing on the city's rich heritage. Edited with an introduction by Kerry W. Buckley, the volume includes essays by John Demos, Christopher Clark, Nell Irvin Painter, David W. Blight, and other distinguished scholars who have found this region fertile ground for research. Together their writings not only chronicle the history of a place but illustrate, in microcosm, the dynamics at work in the larger sweep of America's past.