The Recovery of New England


I FIND myself genuinely puzzled by the terms, express or implied, of the proposals before us. Something called New England undergoes a mysterious process called withering within an arc of time left indefinite. Against what total span of years this are is to be measured is left dark, and no statement is made about the standards of fact or value which are to determine judgment.

Let me begin with “New England.” If this be taken to mean New England as a physical region, one observes that, unlike European nations and a few American states, the region has lost no territory. What it was it is. Its natural resources — never great are, allowing for normal wear and tear, about what they were. The original forest was cut down, but national, state, and municipal reserves are restoring silviculture. New England lakes and streams are mostly unharmed. There are no dust bowls, no sizable areas of erosion. If there are cellar holes in Vermont and New Hampshire, the decay of agriculture is not of the order of magnitude of ghost towns in Nevada, where, when the ore gave out, an economy died. New England agriculture now concentrates on tobacco in the Connecticut Valley or on truck gardening, on potatoes in Aroostook County, on milk for Boston or New York. The useless farm relapses to nature. But ever since Starr King wrote his book The White Hilla, nature in New England has proved increasingly attractive to summer and winter tourists, with interesting results on New England life.

Reading the biographies of New Englanders active before 1850, one expects to find in them a chronicle of family ill-health (tuberculosis among the Emersons is a case in point); but the drive for exercise — which, by the by, stemmed largely from New England in the fifties and sixties— has improved health as the tourist use of outdoors has made outdoor values respectable.

Of course one can complain that water power is wasted, harbors are empty, and railroads, instead of being primary, are frequently primitive; but the offset to these is a remarkable system of highways that annually brings in more millions of dollars than ever did the Cunarders or the clipper ships.

If the term “New England” be taken demographically, one notes that the region supports about the number of inhabitants one would expect — if that statement means anything. Some parts of New England lose population, others gain, but the result is a kind of equilibrium. If by “New England “ one means the so-called Yankee, Puritan, or Brahmin stock, this has obviously declined in numbers. If you are Bishop Oxnam, you will thereupon lament the breakdown of Protestantism. But if you are Archbishop Cushing, you will rejoice that after a long night of Yankee heresy, New England now sees the daybreaking of faith as millions of Catholies go to Mass. Incidentally, I think Archbishop Cushing could claim with some justice that charitable institutions like hospitals, orphanages, and similar agencies are more efficiently administered by the Catholic Church than were the amateurish charities of Emerson’s time.

But let us go back to demography. If you are Oliver Wendell Holmes, you might lament the passing of the Brahmin caste as the “quality “ are swallowed up by the “equably,”and “New England “ withers away. But does it ? The two senators from Massachusetts are named bodge and Saltonstall, the president of Yale is named Seymour, the president of Harvard is named Conant, the editor of the Atlantic Monthly is named Weeks. Perhaps these un-Celtic names are the last few stars lingering before universal darkness covers all, but I doubt it. When you are talking about people in New England, everything depends upon the people you are talking about. Who or what is a New Englander?

I must leave to economic historians the withering of New England industry, finance, and investment, but if a mere amateur may be heard, I suggest that the prosperity of the 1840’s and the 1850’s was a boom-and-bust prosperity, that the financial economy of the region was in real danger of collapse between 185.“ and 1861, and that it was saved mainly by the Civil War with its unprecedented demand for shoes, clothing, munitions, weapons, and transportation. ’The New England business thinking of the mid-century, far from being cautious as tradition has it was dominated by Colonel Beriah Sellars. Never were investments more reckless, profits more unpredictable, or stocks, notably railroad stocks, more watery.

I suggest that the spendthrift trust, to which the subsequent lack of New England vigor has been traced, was a necessary reaction to these times, and that, instead of throttling New England by denying it a transcontinental railroad terminating in Boston, it may have preserved Boston as an investment center. I further suggest that instead of lamenting the southward flight of textile mills and the pull of the wool market westward, it would also be wise to count the producers of costume jewelry, silver, precision tools, typewriters, and other wares manufactured along the line of the New Haven Railroad.

It took New England a long time to recover from the financial spree of the eighteen forties and fifties, and I suggest that we have since witnessed, not so much withering as recovery and readjustment, as New England slowly assumes its more modest, but securer, place in the economy of a continental nation. I also suggest that until we have had a series of studies, which we do not now have, of the history of New England investment capital from 1850 on, we cannot truly say whether the charge of investment timidity is true. It may be, despite the fa Mure of Lee, Higginson and others, plain good sense.


BUT I am not an economic historian. In the field in which I have a mild degree of competence — namely, that of artistic and intellectual history— I am unable to agree that there was any essential withering of New England intellectual energy after the Civil War. Even Van Wyck Brooks, author of New England: Indian Summer, dedicates his final chapters to the exceeding liveliness of New England values in the twentieth century. The difficulty is that in refuting the assumption t hat intellect and imagination declined in the region after the Civil War, I am likely to sound more like the Chamber of Commerce than like a scholar.

Briefly, the notion of a decline in the New England intellect results from a romantic overvaluation of the days of the transcendentalists, who were all young people in the 1840 s. But if transcendentalism was a meritorious reading of the universe as immaterial ideality, the editor of the Christian Science Monitor can say with justice that the practical flowering of New England ideality came only recently with the creation of the Mother Church in Boston.

As for famous names, I suggest that Willard Gibbs is more than an offset for Agassiz; that William Janies was not only a more influential person but a shrewder thinker than Emerson; that Charles W. Eliot was quite equal to Horace Mann; that Emily Dickinson was published forty years after the death of Margaret Fuller; that the totality of fiction by and about New England after the Civil War— William Dean Howells, Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Robert Grant, Elizabeth Stuart Ward, Arlo Bates, and the rest — is richer and more impressive than the totality of fiction before it, even including Hawthorne; that Charles Eliot Norton was a more influential person in the world of art than was Washington Allston; that the scholarship of William Whilney of Yale surpassed that of Cornelius C. Felton at Harvard; that the Reverend Phillips Brooks reached quite as large an audience as did the Reverend Theodore Parker; that the ideas of William Graham Sumner carried as much weight as did those of Henry David Thoreau; that the influence of Langdell and Holmes on the law probably outweighs that of Mr. .Justice Story and Chief Justice Shaw; that the contributions of New England or about New England to the modern theater far exceed the contribution of New England to the Victorian stage; that the nation has seldom seen a concentration of philosophic brilliance comparable to that in the Harvard Yard of the nineties and later when Royce, James, Santayana, Palmer, and their disciples were teaching; and that a bomb dropped on the Charles River today would wipe out one of the two or three greatest concentrations of research brains on the globe.

In the single matter of education, when one thinks of Harvard, Yale, M.I.T., Boston Eniversity, Boston College. Brown, Dart mouth, Wilhams, Amherst, Middlebury, Radcliffe, Smith, Wellesley, Vassar. Mount Holyoke, Bowdoin, Colby—the list is endless and should include five state universities and the famous New England preparatory schools _all created or modernized during the supposed intellectual decline of the region. I find it difficult to talk about a withering of intellectual energy.

I note further that when Elizabeth Peabody was alive and studying art, she had to content herself with steel engravings, plaster casts, and oil copies, whereas, were she alive today, she could visit distinguished museums of art in Boston, New Haven, Andover, Hartford, Worcester, and other centers. The Boston Symphony Orchestra is the creation of New England’s Indian summer; Detroit, a city not under the suspicion of withering, cannot maintain one. New England has become one of the great centers of scientific research, one of the great library centers, and one of the great centers of medical education, and I confess I cannot equate this with a withering process.

The region has problems to solve of grave import, including religious and racial tensions, social adjustments, and economic balance. I do not see that its imaginative and intellectual vigor is threatened. I suggest that we have been witnessing for the last severity or eighty years a problem of creating, adjusting to, and maintaining in New England a more or less stable economy. The region is in one sense patently divided against itself. But I do not regard this as withering. My conclusion is that the place of New England in a continental nation is necessarily less significant than the place it had a hundred years ago, but this, I repeat, is a process of adjustment.