The New Englander
( Originally Published 1919 )
The stranger to New England will naturally, be desirous to see and study the `typical New Englander,' for the reputation of that interesting character has gone all over the land. He will have heard sung the praises of the New Englander, his character, his conscience, and his God. But as the type, though perhaps not so rare as the Simon-pure Yankee dialect of the "Biglow Papers," may be difficult to discover and identify, a few `pointers' may not be amiss.
The New England character has been the theme of orators and essayists. Dr. Holmes himself, High Priest of Bostonian Brahmins, ascribed it to a diet of codfish and the influence of the east wind. The same stock which the New England climate and diet has toughened to make the New Englander, has in the enervating shelter of the Blue Ridge degenerated into the poor white `cracker' of the southern mountains.
Who has not heard of the New England conscience? It has been even more exploited and advertised than Cotuit oysters or Duxbury clams. It is a matter of pride, an assumption of superior moral standards, perhaps an atavistic survival of the Puritan joy of martyrdom and love of `mortifying the flesh.'
Providence is the strong support of the New Englander,—his Hope, his Faith, in ages past. However nefarious the scheme, it is for the special protection of Providence he prays. A capital city has been named in gratitude to this local god.
New England thrift, which flourishes so prodigally in this climate, proves less thrifty when transplanted to more generous climes. It is in part a pinching of the penny in hand and in part seeing two pennies where there was but one before. "Take care of the pence," said Ben Franklin, "and the pounds will take care of themselves." New England thrift has not changed from the time of the wooden nutmeg and the sawdust ham. The New England farmer has not changed his spots although he has learned to take summer boarders and swap horses for second-hand Fords.
The New Englander is an individualist; in his vigorous virility, a Radical. The first New Englanders became New Englanders because they were insurgents and couldn't get along comfortably in old England. In his pride of descent, after some generations of prosperity, the New Englander stiffens into a Conservative, developing a hard, calcareous, and spiny shell, as does the crab after molting.
An individualist in religion, the New Englander has evolved Congregationalism, Unitarianism, Christian Science, the Holy Ghost and Us Society, and a host of other heterogeneous heterodoxies which once established have a tendency to develop through institutionalism to `stand-patism.'
Matthew Arnold described the life of New England as "unfeeling," but what did he mean by that, and how could he tell? He also asserted that there was nothing picturesque in this part of America, both of which remarks give little evidence of "sweetness and light."
The New Englanders have been considered, however, by other Americans and by Europeans, too, as provincial,—an aspersion they are inclined to resent.
New England is not to blame for all its characteristics. Some of them are a heritage. The New England breakfast of apple pie and cheese is native to Norfolk and Suffolk Counties in old England, as is also the Maine dialect pronunciation "road" and "stun" (stone). When some one remonstrated with Emerson for living in what has been called the pie-belt and following its custom, he opened his blue eyes in wonder and exclaimed, "Why, what is pie for if not to eat?"
An enthusiastic Middle Western school master, writing home of his first trip to Boston, said he could feel the literary atmosphere the moment he stepped off the train at the Back Bay Station. The Bostonian would probably have noted only that the atmosphere was chill and smoky. Much of this sort of thing passes for 'literary atmosphere.' Throughout the country Boston is best known for its baked beans, as is Vermont for its maple sugar or the South for its beaten biscuit.
As for the accusation that the New Englander exploits a line of goods known as `culture,'—that is to confuse New England with Cambridge, Mass., or New Haven, Conn; which is again to confuse those towns with Harvard and Yale Colleges; which is again to confuse the majority of their students with a small minority.
New England is a manufacturing community with a large foreign population. Cambridge and New Haven are industrial towns whose factory populace crave no more in the `movies' than the people of any town in the Middle West.
To know the New Englander of today, one must know Fall River as well as Boston,—the Finnish community of Fitchburg as well as the old families of Salem, Jew as well as Gentile,-politician as well as Puritan. One can't sense New England as a whole in a Back Bay drawing-room or get its local flavor from the windows of a railway train.
Once a New Englander, always a New Englander. Even travel abroad or residence elsewhere may modify his austerity or stimulate his imagination but never radically alter his spirit. Though a generation transplanted, still he remains a New Englander in spirit. He sojourns in Europe, in the West, in California, in more salubrious climes, but in due time the yearning for her rock-ribbed hills and dales brings him home. New England has thousands of citizens today who, having either made or failed to make their fortunes in the West or elsewhere, have returned to dwell in their New England home village.