Book Review: The Shoemaker and the Tea Party

In the nine months since I converted, kicking and screaming, from espresso to tea, I have found myself drawn to everything Tea. Teapots, tea cups, green tea, white tea, Oolong, tea web sites (from the frilliest and silliest to the most intellectual), and finally, as is fitting for one of my occupation, literature about tea. (The twelfth step, writing about tea, will be coming soon.) The literature about tea is as varied and sundry as are the different names and grades of Oolong: poetry from 1700; essays from the second World War; books from the new millenium. Browsing in Portland State University’s beautiful seven story library located on the Park Blocks in Portland, Oregon, I typed into the subject line: “books about tea.” The first one to pop up was The Shoemaker and the Tea Party.

I have always been a sucker for historical fiction. It is fascinating to read about a known historical event, like the assassination of Julius Caesar, from the point of view of the slave who helped Julius pin up his toga every morning. Was it the Boston Tea Party, and its aftermath, that sounded the death knell for tea drinking in the United States? The tea would not be paid for until delivered, and not a penny of tax could be collected on tea that was not unloaded from the ships in various harbours up and down the Atlantic seaboard. The owners of that tea could not have been happy to see tons of it staining the water of Boston Harbour. I was rubbing my hands together in delicious anticipation as I walked down the four flights of stairs to find the book. I anticipated learning about how valuable and beloved tea was to pre-Revolutionary America from the point of view of the shoemaker.

Because I am no longer a student at Portland State University, I would not be allowed to check out the book. Whatever I wanted to read would have to be read in a single sitting. I settled into a study carrel and opened the book to the introduction. Immediately, I was struck by the second part of the title . . . Memory and the American Revolution. After just a few minutes, I was disappointed. This book is not really about the Boston Tea Party, it is about the mystery of memory. George Robert Twelves Hewes, a shoemaker in Boston during the heady years just before and after the Revolutionary War, was “discovered” in 1833 – sixty years after the Boston Tea Party. Mr. Hewes was well into his tenth decade (he died in 1840, at the age of 98) when he recalled momentous events – the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party – for his biographers.

For the record, according to the author, Alfred F. Young, the Boston Tea Party was not named such until 1835. The participants of the destruction of the tea called it simply that, “the destruction of the tea.” Historians writing about the American Revolution from sixty years remove gave this patriotic act its ironic name, and celebrated Mr. George Robert Twelves Hewes as one of the last survivors.

While the book is not what I expected it to be, it is a fascinating examination of memory: the clarity of some memories over others; the amending of memory over time; the frustrations and risks of questioning memory; and the validity of memory as “history.” It is available from all the big book sellers, new and used.

Young, Alfred F. The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000.