Invisible New England

The Real New England?

A Let's Talk About It series developed by Victoria Bonebakker

This traditional view of New England and New Englanders includes much that is factual—aspects of it can be seen by anyone who lives or travels in the region today. But what this picture leaves out is perhaps even more revealing than what it includes.
  • The Living is Easy, by Dorothy West, is about the life of a middle class black family in Boston, inspired by West’s own experiences and her observations about social class in the black community in the early 20th century.
  • The Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout, tells the story of Jim and Bob Burgess, who escaped from their Maine hometown of Shirley Falls for New York City, only to later return to the landscape of their childhood where the long-buried tensions that have shaped and shadowed their relationship begin to surface in unexpected ways that will change them forever.
  • River Talk, by C.B. Anderson, introduces an unforgettable array of characters. A woman reconsiders her decision to join a fundamentalist compound and enter a polygamous marriage; a Somali refugee takes a job at the local mill to support her family; a college student attempts to right her world through the lens of mathematics; an Iraq War vet struggles to regain his compromised relationships.
  • All Souls: A Family Story from Southie, by Michael Patrick MacDonald. This memoir takes us into the projects of South Boston in the 1970s and 1980s, where poverty, drugs and violence besiege a predominantly Irish Catholic community.
  • The Lobster Kings, by Alexi Zentner, tells the story of the Kings family has lived on Loosewood Island for three hundred years. Now, Woody Kings, the leader of the island’s lobster fishing community and the family patriarch, teeters on the throne, and Cordelia, the oldest of Woody’s three daughters, stands to inherit the crown.

 

The words “New England” often conjure up an image of neat houses clustered picturesquely around a village green, or a town dominated by a white, steepled church set against rolling hills. In this traditional view, New England is pastoral, small-scale, and well ordered. Its inhabitants, in keeping with its name, are of Anglo-Saxon stock. Taciturn, frugal, and hardworking, the typical Yankee is thought to have a staunch character molded by tilling a hard and rocky soil or battling an uncertain sea.  New England represents personal fortitude in individuals and harmonious order in the community.

This traditional view of New England and New Englanders includes much that is factual—aspects of it can be seen by anyone who lives or travels in the region today. But what this picture leaves out is perhaps even more revealing than what it includes. For example, it suggests a homogeneous community, not the polyglot and religiously diverse population created by successive waves of immigration from continental Europe and Ireland.  In fact, New England in the late 19th century had the most ethnically diverse population in the country.  And the pastoral image belies the extensive industrialization of the Northeast, with its accompanying periods of growth and decline and social disruption that this created.

How did this gap between perception and reality come about? First, the stereotypical conception of New England is dominated by our ideas about the colonial period, although in fact the popular image of the New England town was largely created during the early nineteenth century, and then “dressed up” by the later Colonial Revival movement.  The Colonial Revival, primarily an architectural and interior design movement, was also a culturally significant form of resistance to the new populations and to the industrialization that was viewed as a threat to the “true” New England. The movement answered a need for symbols that affirmed the roots of New England in the colonial era when it was populated by white, English speaking, Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

Another factor in the creation of the idealized New England was the dominant role played by New England writers and educators. In the 19th century it was New Englanders who were the leading historians, novelists and journalists, and New Englanders who created American education and defined its content, In the 20th and 21st centuries, tourism has actively reinforced this version of New England, and the back-to-the-land movement has contributed as well. Again, there is some truth in the stereotype: as we know in Maine, there are lighthouses and white church steeples, and hardy fishermen and woodsmen. But we also know that many of our New England friends and neighbors are as likely to have French or Italian or Irish names as they are to have English, and that a “frappe” and an “Italian” are mainstays of New England vernacular food.  We also know that trailers in the woods are as “New England” as white clapboard houses.

The novels and memoir that make up this series, Invisible New England: The Real New England? take us into this more complicated and richer reality, and offer parts of the story that are often missing from the narrative of the New England created by Hawthorne, Melville, Alcott, Jewett, White, or Frost. Even though these authors’ New England definitely had its dark side, it is a determinedly white Anglo-Saxon, Protestant New England. This series brings us accounts of Catholic immigrants – Irish, Italian, and French Canadian – of transplanted black Southerners, and of Mainers scrambling to put together a living in a poor coastal community, that is neither harmonious nor ordered, and where a traditional way of life is challenged by a seemingly hostile world. Family and tradition are important in every one of these narratives, as are class and the challenges of change. Of course no one work is neither intended to nor can it tell the whole story of either New England or the particular group or time it describes. The Italian stone workers depicted in Like Lesser Gods obviously do not represent the Italian-American experience any more than the Southies of Michael Patrick MacDonald’s memoir represent all Irish-Americans. Taken together, however, this series may serve to remind us that the richly textured population of New England constitutes the real New England.