Call It Holy Ground
THE Ancient Landmark is still there. I can always ‘feel’ the difference as soon as my train passes from New York into Connecticut. Only One of Us, perhaps, can see how the landscape, the architecture, the vegetation, stiffen, within five minutes, into the New England shape. I have lived outside New England ever since I attained legal maturity, but, once past Port Chester, I feel my origins. I once heard of a New England woman who, returning to Boston from a stay in California, patted the North Station for joy. Similarly, I could have patted the Grand Central, any time these thirty-five years. New England is still, to me, a prison; and it does not matter in which of the Six States I am immured. Penobscot Bay does not deliver me from Provincetown, or Franconia from the Old South Church. It is all ‘home.’
I think I am not a pathologic case. I believe I am merely a tenth-generation New Englander with the tenth generation’s self-consciousness fully developed. The beauty of the New England landscape can still startle me; the ‘quality’ of the New England village street still wakes in me an approval almost religious; this is the only soil in the wide, wide world into which my roots sink without effort; and all the delicate steeples seem to say to me, ‘You may be damned in our sight, but be sure we know you to the marrow.’ (Our children, having been born elsewhere, ‘riot unscared’ over the New England hills; while I discern in the loveliest contours of these a hint of Hell.) Oh yes, spiritually speaking, I can be as nasal as any Puritan. I not only understand poor George Apley — I like him.
All my adult life I have returned to New England, first at regular, later at irregular, intervals. When I know that my sojourn will be short, I can court the pleasures of perception. There is an intellectual delight almost sensuously keen in having one’s secret knowledge confirmed at every crossroads, in deriving from every elm leaf corroboration of the nerves’ hurt. When I have been in New England for a fortnight, the rest of the world begins to seem to me somewhat despicably simple, and quite despicably normal. What (I say) is humor without grimness? What virtue can be found in serene objectivity? What man is complete and considerable whose vitals are not knotted within him? No individual is One of Us who is not hag-ridden by perfection, and driven by the hag to compromises that have, to the alien, a little look of madness.
The rest of the world has always perceived that we were ‘different,’ and has chosen this or that trait to emphasize. The phenomenon that has perhaps been most famous is the ‘New England conscience.’ No New Englander, I believe, would deny that our ‘conscience’ is a peculiar possession and recognizable at an enormous distance. The new psychiatry has little to teach us. Complexes, inhibitions, and fixations were the daily diet of our infancy, and all the secrets of sublimation were known to us before Freud was born. I once heard a French Jesuit beg his congregation to stop brooding over sins confessed and forgiven. Neither the confessional nor psychoanalysis can bring the New Englander to forgetting his sin, for the special horror of the New England conscience is remorse undying. Absolution this side Judgment Day (if, indeed, beyond) is something our temperaments cannot grasp, and even reparation cancels nothing. Every true New Englander is a haunted house.
Our shrewdness has also been matter of legend. I have often wondered about that shrewdness, having constantly seen the New Englander overreached by the alien. I fancy what is called shrewdness would prove on analysis to be a compound of other traits. An intense preoccupation with detail is native to us; and we can see, clearly, minor aspects of a bargain that are passed over by a wider vision. Partly, our shrewdness derives from a simplicity of life originally enforced by the stony soil and piously enjoined by a stonier religion. We are better, I imagine, at a horse trade than we are on the stock market. Our business ventures go best when we can see with our two eyes, touch with our two hands, all the elements of success or failure. We are not, most of us, good at guessing or gambling. Have we then no imagination? Indeed, yes; but it feeds within, behind the skin and bone. The shrewdest selectman who ever sprang from these bewitched acres must reënter, business over, his inner maze.
We have been called, also, obdurate to beauty. The barn, they say, is always built between the house and the view. If the barn always cuts off the view, it is not merely because, to our utilitarian sense, barns are more important than houses. You cannot account for us without due reference to the Old Testament and John Calvin. By them, we have always been warned against beauty — that frequent weapon of the devil —■ as we have always been discouraged from joy. Beauty was deliberately excised from religious worship, and as far as possible from daily life — for beauty is the greatest of delight-makers, and pleasure was ever suspect.
Our architecture and our planted elms, indeed, constitute our main claim to æsthetic achievement. With Wiscasset, Portsmouth, Salem, Cambridge, Newburyport, Farmington, Orford, fully in memory, I can but say that these white mansions, grouped or isolated, impress more by their negations than by their affirmations. Blast the elms and store the paintpots (there is no white paint outside New England!) and many an antique village street would be shorn of glory. It is the typical that must concern us; and I am thinking less of this or that ‘show’ place (built perhaps like the lovely Christopher Gore house, from plans made in Europe, indicating a European conception of social and domestic life) than of the four-square type which can be found in scores of places: the type approved by New Englanders in general, the type we visualize when we say ’Colonial.’ The central hall passing from front to back, with two square rooms on either side, the whole built, of clapboarded wood — that is the dwelling the mind’s eye perceives when, in New England, ‘Colonial’ is whispered.
Perhaps it is simply that I do not like these dwellings — and it is ill judging from prejudice. . . . Yet I have often stood before them, admiring perforce the solidity, the proportions, the delicate detail of fanlight and tracery, and none the less found my spirit rebelling against their informing spirit; have seen in those firm lines and square spaces a deliberate denial of social amenity and gracious living: a refusal to be gay, a refusal to be stately, a refusal to be secret, to be harmonious. Even crammed with the loot of our most romantic period, when the sea captains were the kings, they defeat the imagination by their very plan; those walls cannot stretch themselves, the mind cannot stretch them, beyond their spare and homely tradition.
Frown on beauty and forbid joy, and you will not learn to live gracefully. When I think of New England making holiday according to its own genius, I think of that peculiarly New English festival, Thanksgiving. We have managed to impose the celebration on the rest of the country, but I think no other section could have invented the Thanksgiving dinner — that stolid and patriarchal repletion. Though pious in origin, it has come to be rather a tribal than a religious feast. People still make an effort to gather kinsfolk round the board that groans with pie.
When I was a child, Fast Day still lingered (I believe it survives only in New Hampshire), but it had not the prestige of the other. Nor, for that matter (as far as our meetinghouses were concerned) had Christmas. New England, indeed, took up Christmas reluctantly — perhaps because it had papistical connotations. I dislike to think what my paternal grandmother would have felt had she heard her grandchildren singing ‘Good King Wenceslas.’ And I believe, if she had ever found candles in the front windows, she would have expected to find the Pope in the pantry and the Devil in the kitchen. She was, however, a notable Thanksgiving Day hostess, and worked hard, every year, to give that dreary feast its peculiar lustre.
Before Thanksgiving Day, we children filled the great paper bags for the Little Wanderers; on Thanksgiving Day we overate, lost our tempers, and discovered all the secret vices of relatives whom, at other times, we liked well enough. It was not in our genius to find ways of gracing the festival, and Thanksgiving was a true holiday only in that it released us, in one direction, from our accustomed temperance. On one day in the year, that is, we were allowed to commit one of the Seven Deadly Sins. (Only of course we had never heard of anything so picturesque as the Seven Deadly Sins.)
Thanksgiving may have had for our ancestors God knows what sublimating value; but in my time it had become mere oppression of sense and spirit. There must have been something essentially repellent in it, I think, to make me, at my mature age, avoid my home when Thanksgiving comes around. I go to New York to the matinée, and lunch in the station on whatever antithesis to turkey I can find. Thanksgiving is the one occasion in the year when I cannot be tribal without nausea. Powerful are the memories and associations that make me seek, on that day, the most public of places, and welcome the bleakest denials of family life. I take those memories and connotations too hard? Of course I do. Only a New Englander, probably, could preserve undimmed for a quarter of a century so impersonal a moral disgust.
Only by long exposure to the Old Testament and Calvin (I have said) have we grown to be what we are. Only that exposure, I suppose, could account for our famous reticence. That trick of understatement for which we are noted does not come, believe me, from chilled blood and slow reactions, from horny hearts matching horny hands. It comes rather from the long war waged against exuberance, from the secular distrust of anything so pleasant (perhaps) as impulse. By bridling the tongue (that ‘unruly member’) we have come near to paralyzing it. How often have I seen the New Englander longing to say what lies next his heart, and sweating over his incapacity! We communicate, if at all, as one rock to another. The tragedies of the little white houses behind the elms are, most often, tragedies of the word not said. Death goes uncomforted, love sinks discouraged, because of those terrible congenital silences. Our hearts are not atrophied; only the heart’s eloquence. Indeed, we are capable enough of salty speech when there is no question of personal feeling or of human relations. When it bursts, our reticence bursts often in sardonic phrase. I was telling the village librarian last summer that my spine had been chilled by the sight of the barn in which Almy hid for a week after killing Christy Warden (a famous murder of the nineties). She bent forward and asked eagerly, ‘Have you seen Kill-Baby Whitcher’s house? It’s the third on the left after you cross the railroad track, on the Orange road. Dashed the baby’s brains out on the doorstep — but the Whitchers went on living there until twenty years ago.’ Kill-Baby Whitcher! Zeal-of-the-Land Busybody! Page Ben Jonson. ... It was the seventeenth century that we brought with us from England, and there is much of that lusty century left in us.
There was a delightful epithet current in my mother’s childhood: ‘proudspirited.’ (I have heard her use it about Emily Dickinson’s father, who decorated the streets of Amherst when she was a litt le girl.) A great many New Englanders are proud-spirited. When Aunt H. forced Uncle B. to attend Grace Church in New York, he had to come out before the service was over because the genuflections made him ill. ‘ What does he do during prayers in church at home?’ I asked. ‘He closes his eyes.’ ‘Does n’t he bow his head when he prays?’ ‘No, never.’ ‘But why?’ I pursued. Aunt H. thought for a moment. ‘I suppose it is pride,’ she answered simply. We are literally as well as figuratively a stiffnecked race. We are not really too proud to bow down spiritually before the Lord; but we are too proud to let our neighbor see, by any gesture of our bodies, the emotion of abasement.
Our pride, as everyone knows, has given us a bad case of ancestor worship. Ancestor worship is not confined to New England, but I think it is, in New England, more savage, more primitive, than elsewhere. The ancestor worship of the South seems, in comparison, sentimental and harmless, reducing in the end to a familiar snobbishness. Southerners seem to take a childish pleasure in counting cousins like apples on the family tree; and if some of the apples are worm-eaten it gives them no grave concern. New Englanders, on the contrary, are totemistic; as if, like the Australian natives, we were born witchetty grubs or dingoes. Through long decades I have heard New Englanders discuss their relatives, living and dead; and when they do I cannot but recall the notes of anthropologists. Indisposed to recognize the conventional social classifications, we have fallen back on something more terrible: the totemism which admits no recruits, which finds a special, sacred, isolating quality in the family itself, and which makes the meanest witchetty grub or dingo somehow more important than George Washington or Abraham Lincoln — which could say ‘numen inest’ even about the family fool.
As vices are sometimes said to be virtues gone wrong, so ancestor worship has a pleasant aspect. All New Englanders, for example, are born antiquarians. Ask anyone who suddenly had to acquire a passport after the war and was sent searching his birth certificate. People born elsewhere than in New England often had to put up with affidavits from parents or old family friends; but anyone born in New England could get his birth certificate by return post. Vital statistics were kept in the smallest towns before cities like Brooklyn had heard of such things.
A few years ago some of my husband’s family went exploring in New Hampshire, looking up villages where ministerial ancestors had lived and preached. Most of their researches were successful, but Sullivan baffled them. My husband’s great-great-grandfather took up land in Sullivan after the Revolution, and in Sullivan his paternal grandmother was born. They knew that the big farm had been sold before the Civil War and that it had long since been abandoned. They were looking, in this case, only for a site. Sullivan, as I say, baffled them: a tiny green; a church of the fifties; well out of sight of the church, one house and a ‘grange’; an uninhabited, hilly scene — ‘all woods and wilderness.’ It would be vain, they said, to look for sites, and they went off to lunch in another direction.
Later my husband and I, being natural ferrets, sought out Sullivan for ourselves. We saw the green, the church, the lack of habitations, the surrounding hills, but declined to be baffled. While I sat on the church steps, watching the car, my husband departed into what Kipling would call the Ewigkeit. He was gone a long, long time — as if his grandmother’s ghost had stopped him for a wayside sermon. When he came up the road I was relieved. ‘Did you go to the house? ’ I asked. ‘ Of course I did. The post office is there. Mrs. X. is the postmistress. She showed me a map. All the cellar holes are numbered. Great-grandfather’s is 76. If we drive down towards Keene we’ll see her father-in-law working in a corn lot, and he can tell us how to get there. Stupid of the others not to inquire! She has a history of Sullivan, and we ’re all in it. I might have known. You can trust New England, every time.’
We got there. The farmer working in the lot down the Keene road turned out to be a Jewett (great-grandmother was a Jewett) and he knew a back road to a farm whence we could climb through pastures to the cellar hole on the top of an indistinguishable hill. Not more than five minutes’ scramble, at that (fending off curious cows), and the stone walls (‘wide enough to drive a team of horses abreast,’ as grandmother said in her autobiography) still, though breached, existent. It was a prince of cellar holes, and, with a little tree-felling, a prospect of the goodliest, Monadnock-way. We even found later the older cemetery with great-great-grandfather’s headstone. Woods and wilderness, indeed! You can trust New England every time. . . . She turned us into witchetty grubs, there and then, and we came away very proudspirited.
Were the New England character composed of such sorry negations, we should be unable to explain its power over the American blood stream. But there is more to it — far more — than a morbid conscience, a pinched morality, a petty shrewdness, inarticulate pride, and an incapacity for the nobler forms of pleasure. I have but been indicating some of the limitations within which our genius strives. So odd and deforming are those limitations that it is sometimes hard for the alien to recognize our peculiar strength: which is nothing more or less than a congenital belief in the dignity of the intellect. However orthodoxy may have dealt in its heyday with what it considered vagaries, New England, as an entity, has never denied the powers of the mind. Our religion, by its overstress on intellect, lost many comforting amenities, — at our worst, we turned the Almighty into a sort of super-Aristotle, — but we kept one of the greatest of virtues when we permitted (nay, expected) men to use their minds.
New England has paid many penalties for its stark intellectualism. It has been, often, the prey of half-baked pedantry, or it has clung too faithfully to the letter that killeth; but on the whole its insistence on the individual right to think has been clear, constant, and shining. Homeliness and nasality have not baulked wisdom. Thornton Wilder’s Our Town gave many grounds of offense to authentic New Englanders; but his most irritating statement, perhaps, was that Grover’s Corners knew little of books and culture, and much about birds and sunsets. The reverse is, of course, true. Birds and sunsets are the preoccupation of ‘city folks’ and summer boarders; while preoccupation with books and such culture as comes from them is native to Grover’s Corners.
Only in the Six States, indeed, are you likely to find (as I have found them) Plato on the cobbler’s shelf, or Paradise Lost in the farmhouse pantry. Behavior may be criticized, circumscribed, channeled, by our narrow ethic, but a man will never be damned for good logic. In New England, a man has the right to think. I remember, in one of my youthful explorations of the Way of Things, asking my father why lies were so wicked. ‘Because,’ he answered, ‘a lie perverts the ultimate signs of thought.’ Though he was a minister of the Gospel, he still gave the explanation that lay deepest within him: the holiness of reason.
Only once has my deliberate avoidance of New England been understood in the family circle. ‘I know what you mean,’ said a sister-in-law; ‘it Hawthornes you.’
Precisely. Those writers who, like Henry James and Edith Wharton, have persisted in comparing us with Europe and concluding that Europe was more civilized are negligible as critics of the New England scene. They merely turn us into a tragedy of manners. Howells perceived — or could render — only our external traits. Mary Wilkins, subduing all material to the limits of the Maupassant conte, foreshortened at will. Too often her issues are slight, her motivation petty. We are capable of monstrous sacrifices, but when we lay fifty years of life on some unconscionable altar it is no minor quirk of temperament that impels the gesture. Our morbidness is on the Miltonic scale. (We have always known our Milton pretty well.) It perverts eternal values, that is, in the grand manner. We do not deform ourselves over nothing. Some exaggeration of a real responsibility, of a valid moral fact, has done the original distorting. True ‘New England nuns’ may have hardened in their celibacy like moral arthritics, but they did not renounce love in the beginning for a cat or a clean doormat; and our ‘mortal queerness’ is apt to be virtue with a wry neck.
Henry James (originally so influenced by Hawthorne) should, by rights, have understood us better; for the ‘ fine shades and nice distinctions’ that so concern him are the very stuff of our mental life. Unfortunately for New England, he came to see drama more and more in terms of a highly organized social tradition — which of course left us out of account. New England was in the end, for him, only the home of an outlandish purity — even more outlandish than pure. He made provincials out of us, and provincial we are not, for we look to no centre of civilization this side the New Jerusalem. Boston may be provincial — perhaps is; but not the New England village, which learned its mundane values long ago from John Bunyan.
It has been, in fine, the peculiar doom of New England to perceive inwardly the fine shades and nice distinctions without being able to express them in subtle speech. Though we are as hypersensitive and delicately motived as any of the middle-aged heroines who pick their way tenderly through James’s latest manner, we lack their verbosity. Because we are intellectuals, above all, our actions are incurably logical — but we can never, never, even for an audience of one, state our premises or complete our syllogisms, and the style of our living is entirely elliptical. To be a New Englander is to move, mentally, in a Sacred Fount world, with the limited eloquence of a Quaker meeting. I remember characterizing (long ago) daily life in one New England household as an Elizabethan drama written by Henry James. As I think back, I see what I meant: that the least incident, because ‘felt,’ with its myriad implications, as a Henry James character would have ‘felt’ it, swelled as monstrously in the family mind as if a Renaissance drama were afoot. While the family intellect gave itself up (silently) to infinite modifying parentheses, the family temperament stalked about the same parlor in (mute) iambic pentameters. Daily, mice brought forth mountains.
It is small wonder that we have not been understood. The nervous strain of at once perceiving subtly, acting logically, feeling violently, and being totally unable to state one’s case, is greater than any uninhibited babbler can know. The sealed countenance, or semi-lunacy, is a frequent result. If we survive these inner tensions at all, it is because we are singularly tough-minded; because our religion, which forbade most aids to normality, did not forbid cerebration. Moreover, no race as logical as the New English can lack humor. Perception of incongruities is instant in us. The absurdity of his fellow men is often the only luxury a New Englander of the villages can afford — and he makes the most of it.
This New England at which I hint is not, someone will say, the New England of the Concord group or the Cambridge group, by whom we were made famous; not the New England of Emerson, Thoreau, Lowell, and Longfellow, of Prescott and Parkman. Perhaps not; but most New Englanders were conquered neither by transcendentalism nor by Europe. The autocrat of the breakfast table ate, and continues to eat, his breakfast in Boston. Whittier’s mother and aunt, making (according to Van Wyck Brooks) their waxen man, are nearer it. So is Captain Ahab, pursuing his White Whale. So is the Minister, wearing his black veil. I have said before that the seventeenth century is not dead in us. I believe the New Englander of the old stock will still find the proud-spirited Milton more sympathetic than Wordsworth; and Donne, with his white-hot metaphor and his tough intellectual core, is truer to our secret selves than The Psalm of Life or Brahma. Of our own writers only Hawthorne (I repeat) has dealt fairly with our conscience, our pride, our silence, and our inward symbolism. (For, scorners of visible ritual, we live, within, a preponderatingly symbolic life.) Only Hawthorne has realized that we are haunted houses; has recognized, behind our colorless external habit and our fiat and frugal speech, our magnificent central morbidness. I say ‘magnificent’ deliberately, for it is by our morbidness that we attain the grand style, by our departure from normality that we become considerable. Foredoomed to narrowness in our æsthetic, social, and ethical ways, we take a large liberty in the world beyond the senses. No code, no convention, no compromise, is good enough for our inquisitive, unworldly minds; and without compromise there is no golden mean, no temperance, no sanity. The madness that is sheer single-mindedness is wholly familiar to us; we have a natural proud affinity with obsessions, with the isolated motive, pure and terrible.
These may seem to be exaggerations. Many visitors to the Six States find us, no doubt, much like other people, with only ‘sectional’ differences, of speech, aspect, and manners. I offer no apologies. I have known New England all my life, as only One of Us can know it. Never once has true exploration failed to discover some secret, overemphasis that throws the temperament slightly out of true. A New Englander is not a New Englander unless he is morbid, and often his morbidness — curiously enough — is the best of him: the pearl in what would otherwise be mere oyster. Often, that is, it is his purest and subtlest perception that frets him hardest, grows diseasedly within him, and unbalances his personality.
No matter how we strive for peace, about something or other — lucky if it is a single or a small thing — each One of Us is hypersensitive beyond reason. As a group one hundred per cent ‘ repressed,’ we might seem to need psychoanalyzing. But the irony of it — as Hawthorne could have told the world — is that you cannot psychoanalyze out of existence a trauma deliberately cherished for the most moral of reasons, or straighten a man up if he has deformed himself for a pure idea. We expect to live with fixations and complexes; we are used to them; we neither understand nor admire the uninhibited and the unrepressed; and if you tell us that we should be happier without our obsessions, we reply that (in spite of the Declaration of Independence) men have no natural right to happiness. As a New England woman said to me recently, happiness is only a by-product. Our obsessions do not come from inaccurate vision — of that, we should be ashamed; rather, from seeing some fact or other, as through a spiritual microscope, too intensely and too minutely, outside normal perspectives and proportions. We are not proud of being morbid. Our morbidness is simply a necessity of our character. We accept it, as the haunted house accepts its resident ghost.
But — I come back to the point where I began — who wants to be a haunted house in a whole street of haunted houses? Who, having once breathed a freer, though less distinguished air, desires to be bounded again by those dark horizons? Who that has encountered a simpler, franker life can wish to walk again under those inhibiting, allusive elms, or feel his very soul impaled upon those Wren-like spires? Only a few days ago, getting into my train in the South Station, I felt the old surprise — surprise that I could seat myself in Boston and rise from the same seat in New York. A vehicle that takes you from New England to non-New England is out of the vehicular convention — it is more like a rocket to the moon. Outside New England, that is, the New Englander can often, for hours together, conceive himself to be as other men; whereas, at the first step across a border of the Six States, he is again ‘Hawthorned.’ The Ancient Landmark is not removed.