Belmont Historical Society Program on Wit & Wisdom of Earlier Times

BELMONT — Whatever did New England villagers do on long winter evenings before cable, satellite and the internet?

On Friday, September 20 at 7 p.m., humanities scholar Jo Radner will be the Belmont Historical Society guest presenter at the Corner Meeting House in Belmont, and will provide some surprising answers to that question in her presentation entitled, "Wit and Wisdom: Humor in 19th Century New England".

Radner has been studying wintertime amusements in rural nineteenth-century Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. It is not surprising that our ancestors warmed up those long, cold evenings with social entertainments from music and dancing to charades, sewing circles, and neighborhood suppers. "What I didn't expect, though," says Radner, "was that so many village traditions were aimed at what people called 'mental improvement' – ways of training their minds" Adults eagerly attended "writing schools" for penmanship lessons provided by itinerant teachers, "singing schools" to improve their choral singing, and even "spelling schools," which were like adult spelling bees.

In the decades before and after the Civil War, however, the most distinctive events created by northern New England villagers were the weekly "lyceums," for which they would prepare formal debates on current or philosophical topics. These farmers and their sons and daughters would also compose and read aloud homegrown, handwritten literary "newspapers." Sometimes serious, sometimes sentimental but mostly very funny, these "papers" revealed the hopes, fears, humor and surprisingly daring behavior of our rural ancestors.

"I first came across a lyceum paper in my great-grandmother's attic in Fryeburg," Radner says. "I didn't know what it was, at first: an odd collection of jokes, parodies, poems, and whatnot. I discovered that I had dug up a major, forgotten tradition." Since that time, Radner has discovered hundreds of these 19th-century community papers in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. "They give us the voices of ordinary people, teasing each other, worried about the future, dealing with real-life challenges."

Before returning to her family home in western Maine as a writer, storyteller, and oral historian, Jo Radner was a professor at American University in Washington, DC, teaching literature, American studies, folklore, women's studies, Celtic studies, and storytelling. She has published books and articles in all those fields, and is now writing a book titled "Performing the Paper: Rural Self-Improvement in Northern New England." She is past president of the American Folklore Society and the National Storytelling Network.

This program is open to the public and free of charge and the building is handicapped accessible. Funding for the program was provided by the Humanities-To-Go Program of the New Hampshire Humanities Council.

For additional information, please contact Christine Fogg at 524-8268.