History by the Numbers: A Gomes Prize Ceremony conversation between 2017 recipient Tamara Thornton and MHS President Catherine Allgor
In 2016, the MHS founded the Peter J. Gomes Memorial Book Prize, awarded annually for the best book on the history of Massachusetts. The prize honors the memory of the Reverend Professor Gomes, a Harvard scholar and a respected and beloved Fellow of the Massachusetts Historical Society for almost thirty-five years. Peter Gomes believed in the transformative power of engaging with the past, and held an especial fondness for the history of his native state. He extolled the role of the imagination in creating a better world.
About two centuries earlier, another Massachusetts native himself set out to create a better world. His name was Nathaniel Bowditch, and above all he believed in the power of numbers. Thus it’s only fitting that the 2017 Gomes Book Prize was awarded to historian Tamara Plakins Thornton for her biography, Nathaniel Bowditch and the Power of Numbers: How a Nineteenth-Century Man of Business, Science, and the Sea Changed American Life. Thornton brings to life the Atlantic-facing maritime world of Bowditch’s hometown, the bustling port of Salem. She also reveals Bowditch’s role in creating the numbered and sorted bureaucratic society familiar to us today, from creating navigational tables, to organizing the collections of Salem’s East India Marine Society—now the Peabody Essex Museum—and the Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Company, to introducing a numerical grading system at Harvard. As Thornton demonstrates, Bowditch took his faith in numbers and transformed the world.
Thornton joined us at the Society on Thursday, Jan. 25, to receive the 2017 prize. Like any good historian, she came in early to spend the day in our reading room, diving into the research for her next project. (Not to mention using collections well numbered and sorted! Our library staff would make Bowditch proud.) Come evening, after Ellis Hall had been transformed for the award ceremony, she received her award check and a certificate beautifully framed and matted with century-old French endpaper. She then took to the stage to commence a conversation on what it means to be a historian and a biographer.
Who better to join Thornton in this conversation than our new president, Catherine Allgor, another historian cum biographer? Allgor’s biography of Dolley Madison followed her work Parlor Politics, on the founding women of the early republic, much as Thornton’s biography of Bowditch followed her monographs on handwriting and the making of country life by the nineteenth-century Boston elite.
Fortunately for those too far away—or too cold!—to attend the program, the conversation was filmed and is now available for you to watch online. Allgor and Thornton spoke about transitioning from writing monographs to writing biographies, and the advantages they had in having already written books that made them familiar with their subject’s world: in Dolley Madison’s case, it was Washington D.C. and all its politicking; for Nathanial Bowditch, it was the surprisingly cosmopolitan city of Salem. More specifically, Bowditch lived in a world of merchants and shipping, where—instead of the Latin and Greek needed for Harvard—young men bound for occupations as clerks and navigators learned math and penmanship. Of course, Thornton and Allgor continued, writing biography also means considering the role of inborn personality and temperament in relation to the influence of the subject’s era.
MHS President Catherine Allgor and Gomes Prize recipient Tamara Thornton, in conversation.
Thornton and Allgor also discussed their efforts to find points of familiarity with their subjects while keeping in mind that the past remains a foreign country. Allgor enjoyed taking a fresh look at Washington politics in its infancy through Dolley Madison, and considering how the politics we know today are contingent on so many nineteenth-century choices that people such as Madison made. Thornton described the uncategorized society that Bowditch transformed, with numbers and forms, into the world we live in today.
And, of course, the two biographers discussed Bowditch’s love of numbers. He was inspired by the rules and regularity of the solar system, and sought to recreate that wherever he could. He saw the world, Thornton said, in “pluses and minuses.” He loved the certainty of numbers. If you were incorrect, inaccurate, immoral, wrong: all of these things were the same to him.
There is more to be heard on the video, about finding sources and excluding them, about Bowditch’s views on the places he sailed to around the world, and about strange and unexpected discoveries in the archives! But I will keep this entry short enough to fit on one of Bowditch’s blank forms, and merely suggest that you watch the video, then pick up Tamara Thornton’s award-winning book and take your own trip to Nathaniel Bowditch’s ordered world.
If you’ve published a book on Massachusetts history copyrighted in 2017, we invite you to submit your work for consideration to receive this year’s Gomes Prize, and we look forward to telling all of you what the 2018 competition brings!
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