Brooklyn, N.Y.—Michael Rawson is a realist. When Harvard University Press submitted his first book, Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston, to the Pulitzer Prize board, the assistant professor of history considered it unlikely that a first-time author would win the prestigious award with an environmental history of the capital of Massachusetts.
On April 18, the odds were in his favor when the board shortlisted Rawson’s book, calling it “an impressive selection of case studies that reveal how Boston helped shape the remarkable growth of American cities in the 19th century.” Since then, Rawson has received further acclaim, becoming one of three recipients of the Feliks Gross Endowment Award for Outstanding Research from the CUNY Academy for the Humanities and Sciences and a finalist for the Julia Ward Howe Book Award by the Boston Authors Club.
Environmental history is a relatively new field that developed alongside growing environmental concerns. For historians, it is a way to examine the past by investigating how natural surroundings affected historical events.
As a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Rawson decided to explore how a locale grows because of — and often despite — its natural environment. He became particularly interested in examining the framework nature creates for urban development and how that framework shapes urban growth.
In finding just the right location to study his theme, he says, “I was looking for a community that urbanized early in American history,” where he could scrutinize the changes that occurred over the course of several centuries. Boston fit the mold. It also happened to be where he grew up and could readily identify the different environmental elements that influenced its growth.
As Rawson points out, the first major transformation in Boston’s environmental development after the Revolutionary War involved the cows that grazed on pastureland in the middle of the city. By the early 19th century, the cows and their owners smacked up against a burgeoning genteel class who wished for a more manicured pastoral English garden setting outside their windows and in the midst of their town. With the banishment of the cows — and the poor who relied on their milk and tended to them — Boston Common was soon transformed into the first urban park.
What else affected Boston’s growth? Like many quickly developing cities in the 19th century, the most pressing issues were finding new fresh water sources for a spreading population; dredging its harbor to increase economic growth; managing the process of industrialization; and accommodating shiploads of immigrants, specifically Irish, who required somewhere to live in the dense cityscape. By the early 20th century, according to Rawson, Boston had become a modern metropolis and had “helped to define what that meant from an environmental perspective.”
In Eden on the Charles, Rawson gracefully weaves together all the drama that carried Boston from its country beginnings to a thriving urban center. It’s a bracingly alive journey he takes us on — so much so that a reader has no doubt why the Pulitzer board recognized a gem.