Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Report from the north country

Home, after a vacation (by car, mainly on secondary two-lane roads) to the Hudson River Valley, western Vermont, and the northwest corner of Massachusetts (Williamstown and the Berkshires).

I won't try to describe it all, but a few observations might be interesting.

This is an unusual, perhaps unique, part of the country. It isn't "New England" -- most of New England isn't New England, having lost its Yankee roots to industrialization, waves of immigration, and big corporations. But the area I visited is recognizably historic and traditional.

Lots of small towns, many of which seem to be thriving. Of course I don't know, just from driving through, what life is like for their residents. Probably the Great Recession has taken a bite out of their lives, as it has of most people's. But I was impressed, and not a little surprised, at the enterprise and civic pride on view. Some towns that I recalled as decrepit from my last visit decades ago, such as Glens Falls, N.Y., now look pretty spiffy.


The architectural heritage is amazing. Some villages (we're talking about ones far from the interstate highways) seem hardly to have changed in a hundred years. Colonial and Victorian buildings, both residential and public, line the streets. Even more heartening, they aren't crumbling, but are lovingly restored and used. People live in them and do business in them.

As if that weren't enough, most of these towns are towns in the original sense. In most of today's America, what looks like a town on the map, a little dot, actually turns out to be a highway strip of cheap-jack modern construction and malls on either side of a decayed old center. I saw little of that. Instead, old-fashioned clusters of houses near enough to each other to provide a sense of neighborliness but separated enough for privacy. I'm probably idealizing, and the reality may be different, but in appearance they are the traditional core of what we once were as a nation.


Churches: a fantastic variety of styles, from typical white wooden miniatures to grand edifices of stone and brick. Lots of Victorian gingerbread detailing and stained glass. I couldn't tell if they still have much in the way of congregations, but they look like they are still a functioning part of the community. (For once, I think the much misused word "community" might actually apply.)

If you're wondering about the politics of the area, which at least in Vermont have the reputation of being ultra-liberal, I didn't see much evidence one way or another. There were far fewer Obama bumper stickers than in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, although that might be only because everyone knows everyone else is an Obama backer and it isn't necessary to proclaim it.


Of course there are signs of political correctness. The Shelburne Museum in Vermont, dedicated to Americana, had a special exhibition of "crazy quilts." Dating from the latter part of the 19th century, women stitched them together from lots of mismatched patterns in random configurations, delightfully playful. The descriptions on the wall were mostly informative and, presumably, historically accurate. But one annoying sentence "explained" that these offbeat creations were a reaction against the rigid and conformist lives women had to endure.

Must everything worthwhile now be defined as an act of rebellion? Did the women who made crazy quilts actually say or think, "I'm going to make a quilt to throw off oppression and gender roles, by golly"? To imply that they did seems to me patronizing. Maybe they made them that way just for pleasure, with no ideological message.


Similarly, in an exhibition of 19th and early 20th century toys, a display case showed children's savings banks. Some were ingeniously mechanical, involving humans or animals tossing pennies into slots. The label acknowledged that they were cleverly designed, but -- I'm quoting from memory, but I think this comes pretty close -- "unfortunately, some of these devices made fun of political and racial minorities."

Huh? Since when is it taboo to make fun of political factions? That's supposed to be one of the glories of our system. You know, free speech. As to racism in kids' banks, perhaps so, but nothing in the display seemed to bear out the statement. There was a bank with three black baseball players, a pitcher, a batter, and a catcher: if the batter missed a penny tossed by the pitcher, the coin went into the catcher's First National Tummy Bank.

I could see nothing demeaning about it. The players were not caricatures. They could just as well have been white. The curator apparently just assumed that if a toy featured black figures, it was bigotry.


But on the whole, I came away from my travels with a feeling of having seen something of the American soul that is rapidly vanishing elsewhere, neat old towns that still have a well-functioning center. Current politics aside, it is no exaggeration to say that this is a conservative part of the country. Conservatism isn't just about the size of government; it involves a connection with a past that is still part of the present, expressed in physical surroundings as well as tradition. By that measure, the mid- to upper Hudson Valley and adjacent parts of Vermont and Massachusetts are surprisingly conservative.



Anonymous said...

A delightful read, this blogpost. And welcome back from vacations, Mr. Darby.

zazie said...

Reading your post, I felt there ; how do you manage to conjure those pictures, or do I mean images?
Thanks anyway, and welcome back of course.