From New York Into New England

Author: William Dean Howells

There is, of course, almost a world's difference between England and the Continent anywhere; but I do not recall just now any transition between Continental countries which involves a more distinct change in the superficial aspect of things than the passage from the Middle States into New England. It is all American, but American of diverse ideals; and you are hardly over the border before you are sensible of diverse effects, which are the more apparent to you the more American you are. If you want the contrast at its sharpest you had better leave New York on a Sound boat; for then you sleep out of the Middle State civilization and wake into the civilization of New England, which seems to give its stamp to nature herself. As to man, he takes it whether native or alien; and if he is foreign-born it marks him another Irishman, Italian, Canadian, Jew, or negro from his brother in any other part of the United States.

When you have a theory of any kind, proofs of it are apt to seek you out, and I, who am rather fond of my faith in New England's influence of this sort, had as pretty an instance of it the day after my arrival as I could wish. A colored brother of Massachusetts birth, as black as a man can well be, and of a merely anthropoidal profile, was driving me along shore in search of a sea-side hotel when we came upon a weak-minded young chicken in the road. The natural expectation is that any chicken in these circumstances will wait for your vehicle, and then fly up before it with a loud screech; but this chicken may have been overcome by the heat (it was a land breeze and it drew like the breath of a furnace over the hay-cocks and the clover), or it may have mistimed the wheel, which passed over its head and left it to flop a moment in the dust and then fall still. The poor little tragedy was sufficiently distressful to me, but I bore it well, compared with my driver. He could hardly stop lamenting it; and when presently we met a young farmer, he pulled up. "You goin' past Jim Marden's?" "Yes." "Well, I wish you'd tell him I just run over a chicken of his, and I killed it, I guess. I guess it was a pretty big one." "Oh no," I put in, "it was only a broiler. What do you think it was worth?" I took out some money, and the farmer noted the largest coin in my hand; "About half a dollar, I guess." On this I put it all back in my pocket, and then he said, "Well, if a chicken don't know enough to get out of the road, I guess you ain't to blame." I expressed that this was my own view of the case, and we drove on. When we parted I gave the half-dollar to my driver, and begged him not to let the owner of the chicken come on me for damages; and though he chuckled his pleasure in the joke, I could see that he was still unhappy, and I have no doubt that he has that pullet on his conscience yet, unless he has paid for it. He was of a race which elsewhere has so immemorially plundered hen-roosts that chickens are as free to it as the air it breathes, without any conceivable taint of private ownership. But the spirit of New England had so deeply entered into him that the imbecile broiler of another, slain by pure accident and by its own contributory negligence, was saddening him, while I was off in my train without a pang for the owner and with only an agreeable pathos for the pullet.

The instance is perhaps extreme; and, at any rate, it has carried me in a psychological direction away from the simpler differences which I meant to note in New England. They were evident as soon as our train began to run from the steamboat landing into the country, and they have intensified, if they have not multiplied, themselves as I have penetrated deeper and deeper into the beautiful region. The land is poorer than the land to the southward—one sees that at once; the soil is thin, and often so thickly burdened with granite bowlders that it could never have borne any other crop since the first Puritans, or Pilgrims, cut away the primeval woods and betrayed its hopeless sterility to the light. But wherever you come to a farm-house, whether standing alone or in one of the village groups that New England farm-houses have always liked to gather themselves into, it is of a neatness that brings despair, and of a repair that ought to bring shame to the beholder from more easy-going conditions. Everything is kept up with a strenuous virtue that imparts an air of self-respect to the landscape, which the bleaching and blackening stone walls, wandering over the hill-slopes, divide into wood lots of white birch and pine, stony pastures, and little patches of potatoes and corn. The mowing-lands alone are rich; and if the New England year is in the glory of the latest June, the breath of the clover blows honey—sweet into the car windows, and the fragrance of the new-cut hay rises hot from the heavy swaths that seem to smoke in the sun.

We have struck a hot spell, one of those torrid mood of continental weather which we have telegraphed us ahead to heighten our suffering by anticipation. But the farmsteads and village houses are safe in the shade of their sheltering trees amid the fluctuation of the grass that grows so tall about them that the June roses have to strain upward to get themselves free of it. Behind each dwelling is a billowy mass of orchard, and before it the Gothic archway of the elms stretches above the quiet street. There is no tree in the world so full of sentiment as the American elm, and it is nowhere so graceful as in these New England villages, which are themselves, I think, the prettiest and wholesomest of mortal sojourns. By a happy instinct, their wooden houses are all painted white, to a marble effect that suits our meridional sky, and the contrast of their dark-green shutters is deliciously refreshing. There was an evil hour, the terrible moment of the aesthetic revival now happily past, when white walls and green blinds were thought in bad taste, and the village houses were often tinged a dreary ground color, or a doleful olive, or a gloomy red, but now they have returned to their earlier love. Not the first love; that was a pale buff with white trim; but I doubt if it were good for all kinds of village houses; the eye rather demands the white. The pale buff does very well for large colonial mansions, like Lowell's or Longfellow's in Cambridge; but when you come, say, to see the great square houses built in Portsmouth, New Hampshire; early in this century, and painted white, you find that white, after all, is the thing for our climate, even in the towns.

In such a village as my colored brother drove me through on the way to the beach it was of an absolute fitness; and I wish I could convey a due sense of the exquisite keeping of the place. Each white house was more or less closely belted in with a white fence, of panels or pickets; the grassy door-yards glowed with flowers, and often a climbing rose embowered the door-way with its bloom. Away backward or sidewise stretched the woodshed from the dwelling to the barn, and shut the whole under one cover; the turf grew to the wheel-tracks of the road-way, over which the elms rose and drooped; and from one end of the village to the other you could not, as the saying is, find a stone to throw at a dog. I know Holland; I have seen the wives of Scheveningen scrubbing up for Sunday to the very middle of their brick streets, but I doubt if Dutch cleanliness goes so far without, or comes from so deep a scruple within, as the cleanliness of New England. I felt so keenly the feminine quality of its motive as I passed through that village, that I think if I had dropped so much as a piece of paper in the street I must have knocked at the first door and begged the lady of the house (who would have opened it in person after wiping her hands from her work, taking off her apron, and giving a glance at herself in the mirror and at me through the window blind) to report me to the selectmen in the interest of good morals.

I did not know at once quite how to reconcile the present foulness of the New England capital with the fairness of the New England country; and I am still somewhat embarrassed to own that after New York (even under the relaxing rule of Tammany) Boston seemed very dirty when we arrived there. At best I was never more than a naturalized Bostonian; but it used to give me great pleasure—so penetratingly does the place qualify even the sojourning Westerner—to think of the defect of New York in the virtue that is next to godliness; and now I had to hang my head for shame at the mortifying contrast of the Boston streets to the well-swept asphalt which I had left frying in the New York sun the afternoon before. Later, however, when I began to meet the sort of Boston faces I remembered so well—good, just, pure, but set and severe, with their look of challenge, of interrogation, almost of reproof—they not only ignored the disgraceful untidiness of the streets, but they convinced me of a state of transition which would leave the place swept and garnished behind it; and comforted me against the litter of the winding thoroughfares and narrow lanes, where the dust had blown up against the brick walls, and seemed permanently to have smutched and discolored them.

In New York you see the American face as Europe characterizes it; in Boston you see it as it characterizes Europe; and it is in Boston that you can best imagine the strenuous grapple of the native forces which all alien things must yield to till they take the American cast. It is almost dismaying, that physiognomy, before it familiarizes itself anew; and in the brief first moment while it is yet objective, you ransack your conscience for any sins you may have committed in your absence from it and make ready to do penance for them. I felt almost as if I had brought the dirty streets with me, and were guilty of having left them lying about, so impossible were they with reference to the Boston face.

It is a face that expresses care, even to the point of anxiety, and it looked into the window of our carriage with the serious eyes of our elderly hackman to make perfectly sure of our destination before we drove away from the station. It was a little rigorous with us, as requiring us to have a clear mind; but it was not unfriendly, not unkind, and it was patient from long experience. In New York there are no elderly hackmen; but in Boston they abound, and I cannot believe they would be capable of bad faith with travellers. In fact, I doubt if this class is anywhere as predatory as it is painted; but in Boston it appears to have the public honor in its keeping. I do not mean that it was less mature, less self- respectful in Portsmouth, where we were next to arrive; more so it could not be; an equal sense of safety, of ease, began with it in both places, and all through New England it is of native birth, while in New York it is composed of men of many nations, with a weight in numbers towards the Celtic strain. The prevalence of the native in New England helps you sensibly to realize from the first moment that here you are in America as the first Americans imagined and meant it; and nowhere in New England is the original tradition more purely kept than in the beautiful old seaport of New Hampshire. In fact, without being quite prepared to defend a thesis to this effect, I believe that Portsmouth is preeminently American, and in this it differs from Newburyport and from Salem, which have suffered from different causes an equal commercial decline, and, though among the earliest of the great Puritan towns after Boston, are now largely made up of aliens in race and religion; these are actually the majority, I believe, in Newburyport.

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  • Reviewed by 1  on  December 28th, 2013


  • Reviewed by 1  on  December 28th, 2013


  • Reviewed by -1'  on  December 28th, 2013


  • Reviewed by 1  on  December 28th, 2013


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