- Historic Sites
The Best Background
When it comes to genealogical pride, there’s nothing to equal the modest satisfaction of a slightly threadbare, socially impregnable New Englander. A canny guide to the subtle distinctions of America’s most rarefied society.
August/September 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 5
New England snobbism is based on a regional reverence for that which is old. And as John Gould once wrote, “It takes considerable art to be snobbish without appearing so.” Thus the perfection of a devastating little sign you will see as you enter or leave the old shipbuilding town of Thomaston, Maine. It reads, “Thomaston, 1605.”
Simple. No need to explain that a certain George Weymouth of England founded the town fifteen years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. In fact, if such an explanation were included, the sign would lose its effect. By becoming informational, it would no longer demonstrate that specific brand of snobbism peculiar to New England.
Since old cities are, naturally, better than new cities, Boston, being the oldest, enjoys a very special place indeed in the reality, both past and present, of New England snobbery. And while the often-told stories about Bostonians and their engagingly snobby ways and attitudes can sometimes be amusing, it remains a fact that most are true.
“My goodness,” said a Boston lady when the Boston Transcript announced it was going out of business. “Whatever shall the country do now for a newspaper?”
That same lady was known to have said, when her husband was in the Antarctic for a six-year scientific expedition, that he was “out of town.”
I remember a brief cocktail-party discussion in a house on Commonwealth Avenue on the subject of the desirability of extensive travel. “Why should I travel,” one elderly matron piped in, “when I’m already here.”
James T. Fields, a great supporter of the “Chosen City of the Universe,” as he called Boston, used to delight in telling the story of a Boston man he personally knew, who, after viewing a production of Hamlet , was expressing his wonder at the genius of William Shakespeare. Finally he was moved to the ultimate praise. “There are not a dozen men in Boston,” he said, “who could have written those plays.”
Boston really is the center of New England culture and social life. Not because culture and social life in other parts of New England are not as good. In many cases, they are. They’re just not as old . I mean, formal dinner dances in Springfield, Massachusetts, for instance, are very fine but, as the participants themselves say frankly, they’re “not Boston.” The Boston Symphony Orchestra travels to the Berkshires every summer, but when it returns to “the Hub” in the fall, Berkshire County, as writer Tim Clark says, “hangs up its tuxedo and pulls on the long underwear and overalls.”
The inclination of New Englanders to differentiate between good and bad by determining whether it’s old or new certainly fits many of our regional personality characteristics. Frugality, reluctance to change, reliance on the “tried and true,” abhorrence of all things showy or gaudy, pride in the past, a strong need for tradition and continuity—all these natural inclinations in our personalities result, not surprisingly, in our wearing slightly threadbare “old” clothes, joining old and comfortable-but-not-posh social clubs, owning old boats, attending old schools and colleges, living in old houses, and marrying into old families.
The New England stories about having to be born here in order to be native to the area are partially true. But more is required.
“I know I’ll never be considered a native here in Vermont because I wasn’t born here,” said my sister to her “native” neighbor many years ago after she had lived in Putney for fifteen years. “But my three children were all born right here in Putney, so they can certainly be called ‘Vermont natives.’ Right?”
“Well,” was the slow rejoinder, “if your cat had kittens in the oven, would you call them biscuits?”
Joseph P. Kennedy, father of the President, was frustrated by this New England ancestry fetish all his life by always being referred to in the press as “an Irishman.”
Boston is the center of New England culture and social life. Not because such things in other parts of New England are not as good. They’re just not as 6F ld.
“I was born here,” he used to say, “my children were born here. What the hell do I have to do to be an American?” Well, perhaps not quite as much as he would have had to do to be a New Englander!
Proper ancestry starts with New England’s “First Families.” According to Oliver Wendell Holmes, the requirements for a First Family were “four or more generations of gentlemen and gentlewomen; among them a member of his Majesty’s Council for the Provinces, a Governor or so, one or two Doctors of Divinity, a member of Congress not later than the time of long boots with tassels …”