Invisible New England

The Real New England?

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

The words “New England” often conjure up an image of neat houses clustered picturesquely around a village green. 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.

 

  • 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.
  • The Family, by David Plante, is an autobiographical novel about a Francophone family in a French-Canadian enclave of Providence, Rhode Island in the 1950s.
  • 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.

Session One:

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.  It also sheds light on the deep racism of a city that had been known for its support of abolitionism barely a generation earlier. This is the best-known work of novelist and short story writer, Dorothy West (1907-1998).

West’s first novel, The Living is Easy was published in 1948, shortly after she moved to her family’s house on Martha’s Vineyard, where she would spend the rest of her life.  The novel, based on West’s own experiences and the world in which she was raised, was well received critically but was not a commercial success. When the Feminist Press republished the novel in 1982, it gained renewed attention, and was recognized as an important influence on the writing of women, especially African-American women, interested in issues of female power and autonomy. West’s interest in class and social mobility links the novel to American realism in the tradition of Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser.  The Living is Easy presents an often-bleak picture of societal divisions: between black and white, black and black, white and white.  For example, Cleo, the central figure in The Living is Easy, is able to move her family “up” to a white neighborhood, only because the Boston Yankee residents are fleeing an influx of Irish.

Session Two:

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.

Session Three:

The Family, by David Plante, is an autobiographical novel about a Francophone family in a French-Canadian enclave of Providence, Rhode Island in the 1950s. We are drawn into the attempts of the family’s seven sons to negotiate their place in the larger world without cutting their roots to the closed circle of the family and its community.

The Family (1978) is the first novel in the trilogy, a fictionalized memoir of the central character’s childhood, and the author’s alter ego, Daniel Francoeur. The novel’s layered creation of nine characters – the father, mother, and seven sons – reflects the complexities of each family member’s reaction and relationship to one another, and contributes to the sense of the suffocating force that holds the family together. The Francoeurs, Catholic and originally Francophone in a Protestant and overwhelmingly Anglophone world, seek solidarity and security on the one hand, and independence and risk on the other. Each brother distinguishes himself by his response to the issue of how to create a separate, independent life in the Anglophone world while remaining loyal to the old community and the safety it provides.  Daniel has the most complex response to the Francoeur predicament, one that ties him to his paternal grandmother’s Native American culture – a sense of the presence of another, magical world beyond the claustrophobic family circle.

Session Four:

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.  It reminds us that the problems of inner-city youth are not reserved for people of color.

A national bestseller, All Souls, MacDonald’s memoir of his childhood, won an American Book Award and a New England Literary Lights Award, as well as The Myers Outstanding Book Award administered by the Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights in North America.

Southie was called by many of its residents, the “best place in the world.”  In his memoir, MacDonald reveals the irony and complexity of that belief, as he writes about the crime, drugs and violence in his neighborhood, about his mother and the love that bound his family, and about his brothers and sisters, many of whom fell prey to drugs, crime, suicide and murder. He describes his neighbors’ indigence, resilience, pride of place, and loyalty, as well as their blatant racism (the anti-busing riots in Southie made national headlines) and their code of silence around the organized crime and entrenched drug culture that was destroying their youth and their social fabric. MacDonald’s portrait of a community under intense economic and social stress strips away many stereotypes, and makes a forceful plea for understanding and justice.

Session Five:

The Wooden Nickel, by William Carpenter, is a novel about the struggles of a contemporary Maine lobsterman to survive in a world he no longer understands.  It is an explosive portrait of the Yankee fisherman in the 21st century.

Carpenter’s portrait of Lucky Lunt, a third generation lobsterman who lives in the house his grandfather built, is in turn funny, tragic, maddening and shocking.  At a loss to understand and deal with the changes that are happening all around him, whether in his own body, his family, the cultural traditions of his forebears, or the outside world, Lucky is frustrated and angry. His language, rough and inarticulate, is a perfect expression of both his fury and his confusion. Lucky is not alone in eking out a living in his hardscrabble community, yet he is isolated by his belief that the people around him do not share his sense of what is important – such things as his now anomalous wooden boat, the sound fishing practices of his father, or the tradition of hard physical work.  Lucky lashes out, but his acts of resistance, attempts at retaliation, really, only make his own situation worse.  Feeling betrayed, he becomes the betrayer, of his wife as well as his ideals, until ultimately he is threatened with the loss of literally everything. The Wooden Nickel has resonances of Moby Dick – Lucky’s blinding fury reminds us of Ahab – but his struggles with changing times, the complex of his family ties, the disparities of class and the search to find a place for himself, make Lucky’s story a fitting finale to Invisible New England, one that takes us into the real New England of the 21st century.

About the Authors:

Dorothy West (The Living is Easy)

Dorothy West (1907-1998) was a novelist, short story writer and journalist, best known for her first novel, The Living Is Easy.  West was born in Boston, where her father, a former slave, became a successful entrepreneur, and the family joined the black upper middle class. West graduated from Boston’s Girl’s Latin School, where a short story she wrote for a contest tied for second prize with one byZora Neale Hurston.  West attended Boston University before going to live with her cousin in Harlem, where she was befriended by Hurston as well as by the established writers of the Harlem Renaissance, including Richard Wright and Langston Hughes.  West later attended the Columbia University School of Journalism.

West’s second and last novel, The Wedding, was published in 1995 and became a best seller.

Mari Tomasi (Like Lesser Gods) 

Mari Tomasi (1907 – 1965) was born in Montpelier, Vermont, a second generation Italian American. She attended the local school, Wheaton College in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Burlington, Vermont.  Writing was always her primary interest, and she became city editor for the Montpelier Evening Argus and was a member of the Vermont Writers Project. Tomasi’s first novel, Deep Grow the Roots, appeared in 1940.

David Plante (The Family)

David Plante was born in 1940 in Providence, Rhode Island, the sixth of seven brothers in a Francophone family. He graduated fromBoston College in 1961, and after several years as a teacher became a full time writer.  He moved to the United Kingdom in 1966, and since then has been a writer in residence at universities there, and in the United States and Canada. He is the recipient of awards from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the British Arts Council Bursary, and was recently been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.  The author of more than 20 novels, in addition to short stories, articles and works of nonfiction, Plante is perhaps best known for his trilogy, The Francoeur Family.

Michael Patrick MacDonald (All Souls: A Family Story From Southie)

Michael Patrick MacDonald was born in South Boston in 1966.  He was raised there, one of eleven children, by a single mother in an almost all Irish South Boston housing project, an area with the highest concentration of impoverished whites in the country.  Now an activist against crime and violence, MacDonald helped to start Boston’s gun-buyback program, and founded the South Boston Vigil Group, which works with survivor families and young people in Boston’s multi-racial anti-violence movement.  He has been awarded an Anne Cox Chambers Fellowship at the MacDowell Colony, a Bellagio Center Fellowship through the Rockefeller Foundation, and residencies at Blue Mountain Center and Djerassi Artist Residency Program. MacDonald’s most recent book, Easter Rising: An Irish American Coming Up from Under (2006) is a follow-up to All Souls.

William Carpenter (The Wooden Nickel)

William Carpenter (b. 1942) teaches literature at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, which he helped to found.  He grew up in Waterville, Maine, where his father was on the faculty at Colby College, graduated from Dartmouth College and received his Ph.D from the University of Minnesota.  The Wooden Nickel is Carpenter’s second novel; the first, A Keeper of Sheep, was published in 1996.  Carpenter is also a poet, with three published collections of poetry. The Hours of Morning: Poems 1976-1979, Speaking Fire at Stones, and Rain.

 

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