New England: There She Stands
Harper’s, March 1932
In August 1927 I resigned my assistant professorship and undertook to support myself by what Ring Lardner has probably called the pen. Implicit in the change was a desire to live in some more agreeable community than the suburb of Chicago that had been my residence for five years. Since I carried my pen with me, I might live in any place on earth that pleased me. I might have gone to Montparnasse or Bloomsbury, Florence or the Riviera or Cornwall. I might, with respectable precedent, have chosen New Orleans or San Francisco. I might have selected one of the Westchester or Long Island towns in which writers are commoner than respectable men. I didn’t. To the consternation of my friends, I came to Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The choice at once expelled me from a guild to which for eight or nine years I had impeccably belonged, that of the intellectuals who have right ideas about American life. For, of course, according to those right ideas, New England was a decadent civilization. It was no longer preëminent in America. Its economic leadership had failed so long ago that hardly a legend of it remained. Its intellectual leadership had expired not quite so early perhaps but, nevertheless, long, long ago. Its spiritual energy, never lovely but once formidable, had been degraded into sheer poison, leaving New England a province of repression, tyranny, and cowardice. At the very moment of my arrival Mr. Heywood Broun announced that all New England could not muster a half-dozen first-class minds. Mr. Waldo Frank had explained that nothing was left this people except the slag of Puritanism — gloom, envy, fear, frustration. He had explored the wasteland and discovered that practically all New England women suffered from neuroses (grounded in the Denial of Life) and contemplated suicide. Mr. Eugene O’Neill had dramatized a number of Mr. Frank’s discoveries and had added incest to the Yankee heritage. In short, the guild had constructed another one of those logically invulnerable unities to the production of which it devotes its time. New England was a rubbish heap of burnt-out energies, suppressed or frustrated instincts, bankrupt culture, social decay, and individual despair.
In the month of my arrival there was a vivid confirmation of those right ideas. At Charlestown two humble Italians were executed because the ruling class did not like their political beliefs. The Sacco-Vanzetti case completed the damnation of New England: the right ideas were vindicated. Well, it helped to focus my ideas about the society to which I was returning. Six years earlier I had served on a committee which solicited funds for their defense. I believed them innocent of the crimes for which they were executed, and I held that any pretense of fairness in their trials was absurd. But several inabilities cut me off from my fraternal deplorers of this judicial murder. For one thing, I was unable to feel surprise at the miscarriage of justice — unable to recall any system of society that had prevented it or to imagine any that would prevent it. I was unable to believe that any commonwealth was or could be much better constituted than New England for the amelioration of a class struggle. I was unable to believe that any order of society would alter anything but the terms in which social injustice expressed itself.
These inabilities added considerable force to my immediate, private reasons for desiring to live in New England. The private reasons were very simple: I wanted to use the Harvard College Library. I liked the way New Englanders leave you alone. I had lived in the West, the Middle West, the South, and New York, and knew that the precarious income of a writer would assure me more comfort, quiet, and decent dignity in New England than anywhere else in America. But these personal motives were buttressed by generalization. As the great case had shown, I profoundly disbelieved in the perfectibility of Society. Societies, I believed, would not become perfect and could not be made perfect. The most to be hoped for was that, as a resolution of imponderable forces, as an incidental by-product of temperaments and interests and accidents, a way of living in society might arise that was somewhat better than certain other ways. And, because I had lived in New England before, I knew that accidental by-products of the Yankee nature had given New England an attractive kind of civilization. I did not believe in the perfect state but, like Don Marquis, I knew something about the almost-perfect state. It had somehow begun to be approximated in New England.
Two simple facts had conditioned it. For one thing, as my former union announced, leadership had departed from New England forever. That meant, among many other things, that the province was delivered from a great deal of noise and stench and common obscenity which are inseparable from leadership in America. It meant that the province was withdrawn from competition; and this implied a vast amount of relief, decency, and ease. But there was something more. In that fall of 1927 Mr. Ford Madox Ford was writing a book whose title expressed the hopefulness of hundreds of thousands of Kansans, Texans, and Californians: New York Is Not America. Maybe it isn’t; as an apprentice Yankee I am not interested. What has been important in the development of the almost-perfect state is that New England is not America. The road it chose to follow, from the beginning, diverged from the highway of American progress. By voluntary act the Yankee, whose ancestral religion was based on the depravity of human nature, refrained from a good deal that has become indispensable and coercive in America. Thus delivered and refraining, there was space for New England to develop the equilibrium whose accidents had produced a species of almost-perfect state.
So Mr. Mencken’s laboriously assembled statistics have recently made clear various superficial ways in which the burnt-out, frustrated, and neurotic province must be called the foremost civilization in These States. And as I write, Mr. Allen Tate has just explained a difference, not quite clear to me, between regionalism and sectionalism. I do not quite understand the difference, but I do make out that it’s now orthodox and even virtuous to be sectional….I am encouraged to apply for a union card. The Yankees and I seem to be in good standing again.
In New England the mills idled and passed their dividends. The four-per-cents decayed. The trust funds melted. Outside, the American empire was conceived, was born, and attained its adolescence. Its goods and capital overspread the earth. Detroit was a holy city. The abolition of poverty drew near, and the empire’s twilight flared in murky scarlet. Then it was October, 1929, and midnight….Novel paragraphs worked their way into a press that had long ignored the section it now reported. Business was sick, but New England business, we heard, wasn’t quite so sick. Panic possessed America, but New England wasn’t quite so scared. The depression wasn’t quite so bad in New England, despair wasn’t quite so black, the nightmare wasn’t quite so ghastly. What the press missed was its chance for a pretty study in comparatives. How, indeed, should hard times terrify New England? It had had hard times for sixty years – in one way or another for three hundred years. It had had to find a way to endure a perpetual depression, and had found it. It began to look as though the bankrupt nation might learn something from New England.
Some time ago I drove over December roads to the village in northern Vermont where I spend my summers. Naturally, I called on Jason, who is my neighbor there. Evergreen boughs were piled as high as the windows outside his house; the first snow was on them, and its successors would make them an insulation that would be expensive in the city. Piles of maple and birch logs had grown up in back of the shed; they would increase through early January, for they are the fuel that Jason burns all year round. Under the floor of another shed was a pit that held potatoes, cabbages, and beets. Emma, who is Jason’s wife, had filled her pantry with jars of home-grown corn, string beans, carrots, and a little fruit. She was making bread and doughnuts when I arrived. We had them for dinner, with cabbage, some of the string beans, and a rabbit stew. Jason had shot a couple of rabbits, and Emma explained how welcome they were. They didn’t get much meat, she said; the deer Jason killed a few weeks before had been a life-saver.
I stayed the night at Jason’s, slept on a feather bed, ate a breakfast which included doughnuts and pumpkin pie, and came away with a dazed realization that I had visited a household which was wholly secure. There was no strain here; no one felt apprehensive of the future. Jason lives far below “the American standard,” yet he lives in comfort and security. He is so little of an economic entity that he can hardly be classed as what the liberal journals call a “peasant”; yet more than anyone else I know, he lives what those same periodicals call “the good life.” He has lived here for fifty years and his forebears for sixty more, coming from more southerly portions of Vermont where the breed had already spent a century. During that time the same liberty, tenacity, and success have formed a continuity of some importance.
Jason owns about seventy acres of hillside, sloping down to an exquisite lake. He considers that, in view of this improvements, he would have to get two thousand dollars for the place if he were to sell it. Part of it is pasture for his horse and cow. Part of it is garden; enormous labor forces the thin soil to produce the vegetables that Emma cans. The rest is wood lot, for fuel, and sugar bush for Jason’s one marketable crop. The maples produce, in syrup and sugar, an annual yield of from one hundred and fifty to two hundred dollars — about one half of all the cash that Jason handles in a year. A few days of labor on the roads bring in a little more, and during the summer he does odd jobs for such aliens as I. His earnings and his one crop bring him perhaps four hundred dollars a year, seldom or never more, but frequently less. On such an income, less than a fifth of what Mr. Hoover’s Department of Commerce estimated to be the minimum capable of supporting an American family, Jason has brought up his children in health, comfort, and contentment.
There are thousands like Jason on the hillside farms of Vermont, New Hampshire, and western Massachusetts, and there have been for three centuries. They have never thrown themselves upon the charity of the nation. They have never assaulted Congress, demanding a place at the national trough. Wave after wave of clamor, prayer, and desperation has crossed the farmsteads of the midland, where the thinnest soil is forty feet deep and the climate will grow anything; but from this frigid north, this six-inch soil sifted among boulders, has come no screaming for relief. The breed has clung to its uplands, and solvency has been its righteousness and independence has been its pride. The uplands have kept their walls plumb, their barns painted, their farms unmortgaged. Somehow, out of nothing at all, they have taxed themselves for the invisible State. The district nurse makes her rounds. The town roads are hard. The white schoolhouse sends its products to the crossroads high school and on to the university. The inspector calls and tests the family cow; State bulletins reach the mailbox at the corner. The crippled and the superannuated are secure.
One of Mr. Mencken’s incidental revelations provides a succinct, if vulgar, summary of the statistics that verify it; if you want to be listed in Who’s Who in America your first step should be to get yourself born in Vermont, and three of the next five best birthplaces are New England States. More briefly still: here are people who have mastered the conditions of their life. With natural resources the poorest in the Union, with an economic system incapable of exploitation, in q geography and climate that make necessary for survival the very extreme of effort, they have erected their State and made it lovely. They have forfeited the wealth and advertisement and clamorous turmoil of other sections, but they have preserved freedom and security. The basis is men who must make their way as individuals, but the communism of the poor exist also. If Jason falls ill he will be cared for; if his one crop fails his neighbors will find food for his family; if he dies his widow (who will never be a pauper) will find the town putting at her disposal a means of making her way….I cannot imagine a change in the social order that would much alter this way of life. I cannot imagined a perfected state that could improve upon it.
These were hard times, I said to Jason. He agreed, ramming cheap tobacco into his corncob pipe. Yes, hard times. Nothing to do, though, but pull in your belt and hang on. Some folks thought it might be good to move ten or fifteen miles north, over the line into Canady. But on the whole, no — not for Jason. He and his pa had made a living from this place for seventy years. He couldn’t remember any times that hadn’t been hard. He went into a discussion of Congress, so much more intelligent, so much less deluded by wishfulness than those I listen to in literary speak-easies in New York. This lapsed, and he began to talk at his ease, with the undeluded humor of his breed. It is the oldest humor in America, a realism born of the granite hills, a rock-bottom wisdom. He was an un-American anomaly as 1931 drifted to its close in panic and despair — a free man, self-reliant, sure of his world, unfrightened by the future.
He has what America, in our time and most of its past, has tragically lacked — he has the sense of reality. The buffalo coat he wore when we looked at his sugar bush is in its third generation in his family, having had I do not know how many owners before it strangely reached New England from the plains. I do not know how long it is since Emma bought a union suit, but I am sure that need dictated its purchase, not fashion or advertising. Here are rag rugs she has made from garments whose usefulness was ended; here are carpets that were nailed long years on her grandmother’s floor. The pans above her sink date from no ascertainable period; she and her daughters will use them a long time yet, and no salesman will ever bring color into her kitchen. Jason has patched and varnished this rocker, and Emma has renewed its cushions innumerable times. The trademark on Jason’s wagon is that of a factory which has not existed for forty years. Jason does not know how many shafts he has made for it; he has patched the bed, bent iron for the running gear, set new tires on the wheels perhaps ten times. Now he contemplates putting the bed and shafts on the frame of an old Ford and will move his loads on rubber tires.
A squalid picture, a summary of penny-pinching poverty that degrades the human spirit? Not unless you have been victimized by what has never deluded Jason and Vermont. To this breed, goods, wares, chattels, the products of the industrial age, have been instrumentalities of living, not life itself. Goods are something which are to be used; they are not the measure of happiness and success. While America has roared through a prosperity based on a conception of goods as wealth-begetting waste, while it has pricked itself to an accelerating consumption that has progressively lowered quality, while its solvency has depended on a geometrical progression of these evils, the granite uplands have enforced a different standard on their inhabitants. Debts, these farmers know, must eventually be settled. It would be pleasant to wear silk stockings, but it is better to pay your taxes. It would be nice to substitute a new car for the 1922 model that came here at third hand, but it is better to be free of chattel mortgages. It would be nice to have steak for supper and go to Lyndonville for the movie. But at four hundred a year and with the granite knowledge that one must not live beyond one’s means – well, rabbits are good food, and from this cannily sited kitchen window sunset over the lake is good to look at.
Neatness, my guild assures us, proceeds from a most repulsive subliminal guilt. Maybe; but these white farmhouses with their scrubbed and polished interiors are very lovely. Also the peasants are the enemies of beauty in our day, but somehow their houses invariably stand where the hills pull together in natural composition and a vista carries the eye onward past the lake. Their ancestral religion wold them that the world is a battleground whereon mankind is sentences to defeat — an idea not inappropriate to the granite against which they must make their way. By the granite they have lived on for three centuries, tightening their belts and hanging on, by the sense of what is real. They are the base of the Yankee commonwealth, and America, staring apprehensively through fog that may not lift in this generation, may find their knowledge of hard things more than a little useful.
Since we do not believe in perfect states or in the beautiful simplicities, composed by right ideas, it would be silly to expect the Yankee to be a complete realist. He has ideas about himself which are almost as romantic as those the intellectuals have developed about him. He considers himself a cool, reticent person, dwelling in iron restraint, sparse of speech, intensely self-controlled; whereas he has no reserve whatever, indulges his emotions as flagrantly as a movie queen, and at every level, from the upland farms to the Beacon Street clubs, talks endlessly, shrilly, with a springflood garrulity that amazes and appalls this apprentice, who was born to the thrift of Rocky Mountain talk. He thinks that his wealthy burghers are an aristocracy, and the burghers, who share that illusion, consider their mulishness a reasoned, enlightened conservatism of great philosophical value to the State. He thinks that his bourgeoisie possesses a tradition of intelligence and a praiseworthy thirst for culture; whereas it has only a habit of joining societies and a masochistic pleasure in tormenting itself with bad music which it does not understand and worse books which it cannot approve. He thinks that he is set apart in lonely pride to guard the last pure blood in America: whereas he has absorbed and assimilated threescore immigrations in three centuries. Recognizing his social provinciality, he thinks that he is, nevertheless, an internationalist of the intellect; whereas his mind has an indurated parochialism that makes a Kansan’s or a Virginian’s seem cosmopolitan. That is what is important about his mind.
Nevertheless he is fundamentally a realist, and these illusions are harmonious in the Yankee nature. Accidental byproducts of that nature, of these qualities as well as more substantial ones, have produced the Yankee commonwealth, the almost-perfect state.
Let us begin with Cambridge’s dead end streets, which Mr. Lewis Mumford was recently commending. Mr. Mumford, who agitates for the perfected municipalities of the future, had been looking at Brattle Street, Concord Avenue, and the little streets that wander off them but end without joining them together. He believes that cities must be planned so that quiet, safety, and seclusion will be assured their inhabitants. In the automobile age, highways must be constructed for through traffic, while the streets on which people live must receive only the necessary traffic of their own cars and those which make deliveries to their houses. Our little dead end streets accomplish that purpose perfectly. They are safe and quiet and they seem to Mr. Mumford a praiseworthy anticipation of the machine age. They aren’t that, of course. Their landscaped crookedness represents the wanderings of Cambridge cows and the strife of Yankee heirs when estates were settled. They come to dead ends not because a prophet foresaw Henry Ford, but because some primordial Cambridge individualist put up a spite fence or fought a victorious court action against the condemnation of his property. Similarly, though modern highways allow locust-swarms of cars to approach Boston, its downtown streets will never experience Fifth Avenue’s paralysis. Yankee mechanics, going homeward across marshes, laid them down; a convulsion of nature could not straighten or widen them, and accident anticipated Mr. Stuart Chase’s omnipotent engineer who would plan the almost-perfect city.
I cannot praise some aspects of the Yankee city. Such ulcerous growths of industrial New England as Lowell, Lawrence, Lynn, Pawtucket, Woonsocket, and Chelsea seem the products of nightmare. To spend a day in Fall River is to realize how limited were the imaginations of poets who have described hell. It is only when one remembers Newark, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, West Philadelphia, Gary, Hammond, Akron, and South Bend that this leprosy seems tolerable. The refuse of industrialism knows no sectional boundaries and is common to all America. It could be soundly argued that the New England debris is not so awful as that elsewhere – not so hideous as upper New Jersey or so terrifying as the New South. It could be shown that the feeble efforts of society to cope with this disease are not so feeble here as elsewhere. But realism has a sounder knowledge: industrial leadership has passed form New England, and its disease will wane. Lowell will slide into the Merrimac, and the salt marsh will once more cover Lynn — or nearly so. They will recede; the unpolluted sea air will blow over them, and the Yankee nature will reclaim its own.
Consider one civic flowering of the Yankee nature on a lowly level. The Yankee has always done his major sinning in distant places. A century ago waterside dives across the world welcomed the roistering of Salem fo’c’sle hands, who in due time came back and married Prudence or Priscilla and took up a hillside farm, argued conservatively in town meeting, and joined the church. The righteous-enough have called this hypocrisy. Still, it made the hillside farms peaceful, and if we must go to New York for our conspicuous sinning to-day, Boston is thereby preserved from speak-easy life. Do not misunderstand me: the thirsty wayfarer need not suffer, and I shall be happy to supply addresses to visitors. But there is no place where you can entertain a New Yorker as he entertains you when you visit his home town. No ritual of introduction and recognition, no transformed brownstone fronts with bars and murals and ten-dollar Clos Ste. Odile and fifteen-dollar Berncasteler Riesling, no stratified social order following the geography of streets and the mechanization of amour. Boston throws its parties at home. The loss is perceptible but the gain is tremendous. Drinking retains the decency, the personality of private hospitality, which is something; and the social implications of the speak-easy do not exist, which is far more. A city in which there are practically no speak-easies. A city in which one does not eat and drink or meet one’s friends or conduct one’s love affairs at Jody’s place or Number 47. A community life conducted without reference to the obligations of speak-easy entertainment….Problems of noise and expense, of stridency and nerve-fag and disintegration, of extravagance and display and impersonality, have been solved by a Yankee trait that avoided creating them.
But take the Yankee nature at a higher level — the sense of the community. I know a Middle Westerner who, graduating from medical school with distinction, came to Boston to study under a great surgeon. He has finished his work now and is going to begin practicing. He considered Chicago but has finally determined upon New York. The rewards of distinction are highest there. Not Boston – oh, not by any means. Boston fees are ridiculously small, and Boston specialists neglect to capitalize their skill. They waste time in free clinics, in research laboratories, on commissions for the investigation of poliomyelitis or rheumatic fever or cancer or glaucoma – all highly commendable for the undistinguished, the rank and file, but very foolish for the truly great, since they may treat millionaires. My friend will be, when his chief dies, America’s leading surgeon in his specialty. So he goes to New York – and, I think, something about the Yankee commonwealth is implicit in that decision….In Chicago a member of my family required the services of a specialist. The doctor grumbled about treating the family of a college teacher, whose trade proclaimed his income, but there was something about ethics and the Hippocratic oath and so he took the case. He did his work hastily, botched the job and, after inquiring the exact figures of my income, charged me one fourth of a year’s salary and said he would write off the rest to charity. So in due time a Boston specialist had to do the job over again and spend more than a year in treatments which, because his predecessor had bungled, required close individual attention and the long, costly technique of the laboratory. His fee, though my income had quadrupled, was one fifth of the Chicago man’s and, because the case was a problem rather than a potential fee, he performed the cure. He had the obstinacy of Boston doctors, the conservative notion that medicine is a profession of healing and not an investment trust.
The Yankee doctors are citizens of an invisible state. The drug list of the Massachusetts General Hospital is about one fourth as long as that of the Presbyterian Hospital in New York; medicine has its fads as often as architecture, and the Yankee mulishness avoids fads, But the researches go on, and students come from all over the world, and somehow these obstinate physicians fail to lose their preëminence though they lag mightily behind in the possession of Rolls-Royces. Citizenship shows up in them, and New England witnesses what America has not seen for a long time — the wrath of doctors, spoken in public places, against abuses. Yankee foresight carries them into the slums, where they lose money but forestall plague and, incidentally, relieve suffering. Yankee geniality makes them friends of their patients, and we of the little bourgeoisie find that the terror of disease is allayed for us so far as may be….I smoke a cigarette with the pediatrician who, st five dollars instead of twenty-five, pays a monthly visit to my infant son. I mention group medicine, now much discussed, and he explodes. “Hell! If I find a tumor in your gut [the Yankee tang] shall I send you to Smith because he’s the best gut-opener in Boston, or shall I send you to Jones because he’s in my office?” A problem in sociology receives its Yankee dismissal, and the pediatrician departs for the East End, where he manages a foundation that promotes the respectable adoption of foundlings. It keeps him from the golf course, and his waistline thicken; but he must maintain his citizenship in the Yankee commonwealth. Or my furnace man develops a queer pain, and I send him to the head physician of a great hospital. He is kept in an observation ward, where for some weeks all the resources of the laboratory are applied. Finally an operation is performed, and he goes to a camp in Maine to recuperate. No medical man receives a cent, and the hospital fees are paid from a fund created in 1842 to care for the moral welfare of canal-boat men. He will continue to tend furnaces for a long time yet. But what, I wonder, would be done for him in a perfect state — Mr. Swope’s or Mr. Hoover’s or Comrade Stalin’s — that the almost-perfect state has failed to do?
It is this Yankee citizenship that has created, upon the granite base, the Yankee commonwealth. Our governments are corrupt — not uniquely in America or history — but somehow they govern. Racketeers exist but somehow that do not take over our municipalities. Fortunes are made from city contracts, but somehow our garbage is collected and our streets are swept. Sojourn in Philadelphia or New York and then come back to Boston — see order in place of anarchy, clean brick and stone in place of grime, washed asphalt in place of offal. Babies starve in Yankee slums ad rachitic children play around the statues of our great, but not so many nor so hopelessly. The citizens have no hope of perfection, and Mr. Hoover’s abolition of poverty found few adherents among them; but as Mr. Mencken’s figures show, they have made a start. Something toward a solution of the problem of how to,you’ve in decent cities has been here worked out….Another friend of mine, a lawyer, possesses a divided self that beautifully exhibits the Yankee commonwealth. Professionally he creates trusts for the protection of his clients’ heirs, and conscientiously forbids the trustees to invest in the securities of Massachusetts corporations. State socialism, he is sure, has fatally encroached on their profits. Then, the business day over, he enthusiastically pursues his lifelong avocation — agitating for labor and pension laws that will more drastically cut down those profits. Clearly, this is not Utopia, but it is a citizenship, and it glances toward the almost-perfect state.
Drive southeastward from the Vermont uplands toward Boston, through a countryside where the white steeples rise across the not accidental vistas of village greens. It is here that, while the empire roared away elsewhere, the Yankee learned the equilibrium of his estate. Here is the New England town, the creation of the Yankee nature, which exists as something the empire has forever passed by. There are no booms here. The huntsmen are up in Chicago, and they are already past to-day’s high-pressure drive in Kansas City, but in New England who can ever share an expectation of bonanza again?
Here are the little mills that squatted beside a waterfall and for some generations sent out their trickles of stockings and percales. Manchester and New Bedford, Lowell and Lawrence absorbed them in the end, and now these places go down in turn before the New South. So the little mills close up; shreds of belting hang from their pulleys, and bats emerge from windows that will never again be glazed. Dover is only a pleasant place which had an Indian attack once and has a handful of beautiful houses now. Orford ships no products southward, but the loveliest mall in America drowses under its elms, undisturbed when the wind brings across the Connecticut the whistles of the railroad it would not suffer to cross its borders. The last tall masts have slipped out of Salem Harbor, and Hawthorne’s ghost is more peaceful in the Custom House than ever those living ghosts were among whose dusty papers he found n initial bound with tarnished gold. Here are fifty inlets once resonant with hammers pounding good white oak, once uproarious when new vessels slipped down the ways. They are marshes now, and the high streets of Portsmouth and Newburyport remember a life once rich in the grain and wholly free of the repressions Puritans are supposed to have obeyed. And down their high streets will never come a procession of real estate men, promoters, financiers, and fly-by-nights.
America is rachitic with the disease of Bigness, but New England has built up immunity against the plague. It is impossible to imagine Concord tattooing its lowlands with white stakes, calling itself “Villa Superba: The Sunlight City of Happy Kiddies and Cheap Labor,” and loosing a thousand rabid salesmen to barter lots on a Vista Paul Revere or a Boulevard de Ye Olde Inne to its own inhabitants or suckers making the grand tour. There have been factories, of a kind, as Easthampton and Deerfield for a hundred years, but their Chambers of Commerce will never defile their approaches with billboards inviting the manufacturer of dinguses to “locate here and grow up with the livest community in God’s country.” Pomfret or Tiverton or Pittsfield will never set itself a booster’s ideal, “One Hundred Thousand by 1940.” Bigness, growth, expansion, the doubling of last year’s quota, the subdivision of this year’s swamps, the running round in circles and yelling about Progress and the Future of Zenith — from these and from their catastrophic end, New England is delivered for all time.
Here, if you have a Buick income, you do not buy a Cadillac to keep your self-respect. You buy a Chevrolet and, uniquely in America, keep it year after year without hearing that thrift is a vice, a seditious, probably Soviet-inspired assault on the national honor. The superannuation of straight-eights and the shift from transparent velvet to suède lace are not imperatives. You paint the Bulfinch front; you do not tear it down. You have your shoes pegged while the uppers remain good. You patch the highway; you do not rip it out….The town abides. No Traveler’s Rest with an arcade of self-service hot dogs and powder puffs will ever be reared on the Common. The white steeples rise at the far end, and the white houses of the little streets that lead into it are buried in syringa and forsythia, hollyhocks, Dorothy Perkinses, and the blooms of rock gardens. Soap, paint, and Yankee fanaticism have made an orderly loveliness not to be found elsewhere in America. The town is beautiful, and something more. Boys toss baseballs on the Common, infants tan themselves in safety, dogs conduct their tunneling and exploration. The Common and its tributary streets are quiet. Beneath the exterior, an efficient organization deals with the problems of the community; the townsman contributes his share but mainly he lives here, uncrowded. There is time; there is room; there is even, of a kind, peace. A society is here founded on granite. No one supposes it is perfect. It is not an experiment; it was not planned by enthusiasts or engineers or prophets of any kind. But out of the Yankee nature and the procession of blind force somehow dignity and community decency were here evolved.
The New England town, that is, has adjusted itself to the conditions of its life. It is a finished place. Concord was Concord when Newark was a pup, the song almost says; and Shirley will be Shirley when Great Neck is swallowed up. The butcher sells meat to his townsmen; he does not attempt exports to the Argentine. The turning-mill makes cupboards and cabinets for local demand; it does not expand into the gadget business, and so throws no families on the town when next year’s fashion demands gadgets of aluminum. Mr. Stuart Chase went to Mexico to find a community whose trades supported one another in something like security. He found it, but recorded his hope that some day the Mexicans would have dentists and bathtubs. In our imperfect way, we could have shown Mr. Chase his desire. The butcher’s boy grows up to be a butcher, not a merchant prince; and meanwhile his teeth are taken care of and he bathes in porcelain, though while the white tub continues to hold water he will not bathe in something mauve or green that reproduces motifs from a Medici tomb. He has no hope of unearned increment when a hundred thousand shall have come to Shirley in 1940, but he has sunlight and clean air, quiet, a kind of safety, and leisure for his friends. You will not find him in Los Angeles — and the perfect state could offer him nothing that is denied him in Shirley.
New England is a finished place. Its destiny is that of Florence, or Venice, not Milan, while the American empire careens onward toward its unpredicted end. The Yankee capitalist will continue to invest in that empire, while he can, so that the future will have its echoes from the past, and an occasional Union Stockyards, Burlington, or United Fruit will demonstrate that his qualities are his own. But he, who once banked for the nation, will never bank for it again. The Yankee manufacturer will compete less and less with the empire. He will continue those specialties for which his skills and geography best fit him, but mainly he will be a part of his section’s symbiosis. To find his market in his province, to sustain what sustains him, to desire little more, to expect even less — that is his necessity, but it implies the security of being able to look with indifference on the mirage that lures the empire on. The section becomes an economic system, a unity; it adjusts itself in terms of its own needs and powers.
The desire of growth and domination is removed from it — and with the desire is removed also their damnation. It will tranquilly, if aloofly, observe whatever America in the future does and becomes, but it is withdrawn from competition in that future. Almost alone in America, it has tradition, continuity. Not a tradition that everyone can admire, not a continuity of perfection, but something fixed and permanent in the flux of change and drift. It is the first American section to be finished, to achieve stability in the conditions of its life. It is the first old civilization, the first permanent civilization in America.
It will remain, of course, the place where America is educated, for the preëminence of its schools and colleges must increase with stability, and the place which America visits for recreation and for intangible values of finished things. It will be the elder glory of America, free of smoke and clamor, to which the tourist comes to restore his spirit by experiencing quiet, ease, white steeples, and the release that withdrawal from an empire brings. It will be the marble pillars rising above the nation’s port.
Or if not, if the world indeed faces into darkness, New England has the resources of the Yankee nature. They are not only the will to tighten one’s belt and hang on. They contain the wisdom of three centuries whose teaching was, finally, defeat. They contain the dynamics of a religion which verified experience by proclaiming that man is depraved, that his ways are evil, and that his end must be eternal loss. Religion develops into the cynicism of proved things, and the Yankee has experienced nothing but what he was taught to expect. Out of this wisdom, in his frigid climate, against the resistance of his granite fields, he built his commonwealth. It was a superb equipment for his past; it may not be a futile one for our future.