TO see New England in all its shimmering purity, prismlike splendor, and aristocratic bearing, go to Deerfield, in north-central Massachusetts. With its famous and expensive prep school, Deerfield Academy; its white eighteenth-century frame houses; and fourteen little museums that are advertised by the least obtrusive of signs and run by soft-spoken and prosperous-looking elderly women, this austere New England town screams "good taste" and whispers "money." Indeed, I have found that most people who know about Deerfield know about it through the prep school, meaning that they have some tie to those who can spend $22,000 a year on a high school education.
But my favorite place in Deerfield is the cemetery, with graves dating back to the late 1600s, before the Founding Fathers were born, when Deerfield was the northwestern outpost of settlement in New England. The victims of a particularly gruesome Indian massacre, in 1704, are buried in mass graves -- big mounds, actually. In no other spot in the United States have I felt such an organic, oppressive sense of history as alongside these horrible mounds, whose silent screams create a link with the past that is rare on such a newly settled continent.
Forget Williamsburg and other reconstructed old towns -- they're gentle theme parks. Deerfield is the genuine article. It could almost belong to Europe, with its record of atrocities and suggestion of class distinctions. Here the process of American culture's separation from its European antecedents becomes palpable. A real travel experience should make the traveler a bit uneasy. Deerfield does that to me.
I MAY be the only person who wishes he'd gone to Harvard not for the academics but for the shopping. I don't mean bargain hunting in Harvard Square boutiques. A ritual of my trips to Boston is to spend Saturday afternoon in Cambridge with my friend Milo Miles, the pop-music critic, looking for used books and records -- or sometimes just looking at them. Exhibited on the wall of Stereo Jack's, a jazz specialty store in Porter Square, on my last visit there, for example (and priced well beyond my means), was an original pressing of Cecil Taylor's 1973 LP Indent, on Taylor's own label -- an item so rare it might as well have been one of a kind. On Milo's recommendation, I stopped in at the bookstore Wordsworth recently to buy a copy of Air Guitar, a collection of essays on popular culture by the art critic Dave Hickey. In his introduction (or "overture,"as he calls it) Hickey defends the buying and selling of art by arguing that academics -- not shopkeepers or consumers -- are the ones whose relationship to art tends to be proprietary. For Hickey, "little stores" are places where ideas and information are freely exchanged, along with merchandise; their staff members are eager to answer your questions not just to close a sale but because they love talking about what they're selling.
This perfectly describes the atmosphere in such shops as Stereo Jack's, Cheapo's (an R&B and oldies store in Central Square), and Kate's Mystery Books (as genteel an outlet for pulp fiction as one could ever imagine). There are stores like this in every city, usually clustered in former bohemian enclaves that are under siege by Starbuck's, The Gap, Tower Records, and teenagers disenchanted with suburban malls. The difference in Cambridge is the shadow cast by a great university, which virtually guarantees a more esoteric selection of goods, and also prevents a middle-aged popular-culture obsessive like myself from feeling out of place. The young hordes around Harvard Square probably mistake me for a professor, unless they think I'm a cop.
I CAN'T imagine why Merchant and Ivory, or other filmmakers mining the Gilded Age, haven't discovered the Hill-Stead Museum, whose six white columns dominate a hilltop in the studied New England perfection of Farmington, Connecticut. It's a dream of an Edwardian house -- what Edith Wharton would have built if she'd had the money. (Her own estate, The Mount, in Lenox, Massachusetts, is far more modest.) Wharton's friend Henry James visited Hill-Stead, and called the house "an exquisite palace of peace, and light and harmony." Any visitor is struck by the serenity of the rambling white Colonial Revival house -- and by the small but extraordinary collection of Impressionist paintings assembled by Alfred Atmore Pope, who made a fortune in iron. Pope chose genteel Farmington as the site for his retirement house to please his daughter and only child, Theodate, who had been a student at Miss Porter's School there.
The contents were mostly bought by Pope, but the house and its notable gardens were shaped by his daughter. As a young woman, Theodate changed her name (to her grandmother's) from the prosaic Effie she had been christened, because it seemed more serious. She was a suffragette, one of the country's first successful female architects, and a survivor of the Lusitania, on which she was sailing to a meeting of psychics. In what could not have been an easy collaboration, the fledgling architect worked with the gloried firm of McKim, Mead and White to design the house. Theodate married at forty-nine, three years after her father died, and lived at Hill-Stead until her death, in 1946. Her will stipulated that the house become a museum and that nothing be moved or lent -- or labeled.
As a teenager, I spent many hours hanging back on group tours of the house, waiting to be left alone in the drawing rooms to watch the late-afternoon sun hit the two Monet Haystacks, hung opposite each other, or to study the Degas jockeys hanging over the dining-room fireplace, or to stare at the red sash that provides almost the only color in Manet's gorgeous The Guitar Player, which is a portrait of Victorine Meurent, the model for Olympia and Déjeuner sur l'herbe. Of course I dreamt of what it would be like to live there, which must be what Theodate Riddle had in mind: by turning the house into a museum she doubtless intended to show the public her own, persuasive definition of the way to live.