A Matter Of State

PrintPrintEmailEmail

The seemingly interminable 2004 presidential campaign is well behind us now, but I’m still not willing to let it go yet. I want to hear an apology from someone about the most egregious smear to emerge from the campaign. I’m not talking about the Swift Boat Veterans, or “flip-flopping,” or anything perpetrated by Michael Moore. What I mean is the decision to transform my old home state into an epithet.

I didn’t have the privilege of being born in Massachusetts, but I did grow up there, and I never thought I would hear one of our 13 original states used as an insult during a presidential debate (though it did take some punches during the 1988 Dukakis campaign). Yet there was President Bush, throughout his third go-round with Sen. John Kerry, telling us that “only a senator from Massachusetts” could believe this or that. The charge that Mr. Kerry was from Massachusetts was repeated again and again throughout the election, the implication being that simply hailing from such a bizarre, addled, liberal place ought to be enough to disqualify anyone from the Presidency.

Well, as George Washington Plunkitt once said, “Politics, it ain’t beanbag.” But I thought that if no one else is going to, I might write a few words myself in defense of Massachusetts.

I thought of pointing out that Massachusetts is not nearly as “liberal” as Mr. Bush would have it, either in the traditional meaning of that word or as the pejorative that assorted right-wingers have tried to make it. The state is currently working on its fourth straight Republican governor, and a Utah Mormon at that. It was also one of the first states to launch a tax revolt, back in the 1970s. Of course, a much earlier Massachusetts tax revolt produced results that even Karl Rove might appreciate.

I considered writing about that Revlutionary heritage. About how many of the fathers of our freedom came from Massachusetts: Samuel Adams and James Otis, and John Hancock and Paul Revere. Of how the first battles of our War for Independence were fought by those gun-toting yeoman farmers on Lexington Green and Concord Bridge, or of how Massachusetts was not only the cradle of liberty but the birthplace of Presidents from all parties: the Adamses, Kennedy, and our forty-first President, George H. W. Bush (paging Dr. Freud).

I thought of tracing my state’s ancient history of tolerance and open-minded ness. Of mentioning how Massachusetts was the first state to elect a black U.S. senator after Reconstruction, Edward Brooke—another Republican!—and how it was Massachusetts that raised the first black regiment in the Civil War, the gallant 54th, so magnificently commemorated by the famous Saint-Gaudens sculpture on the Boston Common.

To be sure, tolerance was not exactly at a premium in 2004, as voters in one state after another chose to preserve the sanctity of marriage. Massachusetts was much excoriated for not engaging in this curious intellectual exercise. But in fact, as a rash of studies after the election showed, the Bay State is a veritable paragon of “moralvalues”—with the lowest divorce rate, practically the lowest percentage of suicides, and the highest percentage of individuals with bachelor’s degrees in the country.

I even considered waxing rhapsodic about the sheer beauty of the place. The winding cobblestoned streets on Boston’s Beacon Hill, America’s original “shining city on a hill”; the beaches and cranberry bogs of Cape Cod; the rolling hills and fields of the west of the state. But who doesn’t think his home state is beautiful? And who really knows his whole state— even if it’s the size of Rhode Island.

Instead, I thought I would tell you something about the specific corner of Massachusetts where I grew up—where I’m coming from, so to speak. It’s a small town called Rockport, up on Cape Ann, which it shares with the old fishing port of Gloucester. A stretch of rocky coastline and deep woods about 40 miles north of Boston, which I feel is about as fine a place as there is in this world.

It is a small place, as I mentioned. No more than 8,000 permanent residents now and only 5,000 when I was growing up. There were 58 students in my high school graduating class, and we didn’t even bother to put locks on our lockers. There’s still not a single traffic light in the town, or a drink to be bought. Back in the 1850s, a 75-year-old seamstress with the incomparable name of Hannah Jumper led 200 fellow townswomen on a “liquor raid,” taking hatchets to the alcohol supply in local homes and shops decades before Carry Nation got the idea. Rockport has been dry ever since.

I have to admit, too, that the town is about as chock-a-block with churches as any “red state” community: Congregational, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, Lutheran, Unitarian. I was brought up mostly in the Pigeon Cove Chapel, an Evangelical church that billed itself as “a friendly little chapel by the sea.” There used to be even more places of worship, but these were Scandinavian-language churches that went out of business and were converted into private residences as their congregations learned English. For years men from all over Scandinavia—and from Italy and Ireland—came here to cut the granite that became part of the base of the Statue of Liberty, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the Holland Tunnel, and the Philadelphia Public Library—among many other public structures and streets throughout the United States. The granite cutters were an irascible, independent-minded lot, as might be expected of men who spent much of their time blasting out 40-ton slabs of rock from the hillsides. A wonderful old picture survives of some of them, mad as hornets, on their way down to Granite Pier to throw a company official there into the water. The granite quarries they dug are closed now, but they make invaluable swimming holes. I believe I could still feel my way blindfolded up the ridges of Pine Pit to the bluffs we used to spend a whole summer’s day diving from.

Cape Ann is an old place, by American standards, and a considerable amount of history runs through it, or at least has touched on it. Champlain stopped here, as did John Smith, and being a place full of Scandinavians, we like to think a few Vikings did too. Emerson and Thoreau, T. S. Eliot and Charles Olson have written of its beauties, and Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper, Childe Hassam and Fitz Hugh Lane have painted it. A local tool works, recently closed, built some of the parts that went into Lindbergh’s plane The Spirit of St. Louis . Some of the nation’s earliest art and literary colonies were founded here, and there is even an old red fishing shack known as Motif No. 1 that is supposed to be the most painted building in America, though none of us understands why exactly.

The first permanent settlers arrived in 1690, and their family names—Tarr and Poole and Babson—are still represented in town. There was even an accused witch, the wife of John Proctor, of The Crucible fame, who fled the hysteria down in Salem. Her house still stands, next to a pond where I caught my first frog and where we used to skate in the winter. Ghostly rumors about the place abounded, and we boys probably drove the people who lived there crazy peering in their windows for signs of supernatural goings-on.

It has been a fortunate place, my old hometown, largely free of the ravages of war or natural disaster. During the War of 1812 the British frigate Nymphe did show up to fight what must surely rank as one of the more ludicrous skirmishes in American history. Marines from the Nymphe managed to capture the town’s entire redoubtable garrison of “Seafencibles” while they slept and then tried to storm the beaches. A cannonball from one of their barges even hit the steeple in the Congregational “Old Sloop” Church. No mean shot, but the recoil from the blast also blew their boat apart, and the invaders were captured by townspeople armed with muskets, pistols, and home-made slingshots. After what must have been a red-faced truce and an exchange of prisoners, the Nymphe sailed off again, with no loss of life and the less said all around the better.

But men have gone from here to fight far more serious action in every one of our wars. We honor their memory every Memorial Day with a procession to the town graveyards, then down to cast a wreath on the water. The Fourth of July “Horribles” parade—a sort of charivari sponsored by the town’s volunteer fire department—is always headed by the Rockport Legion band, led by my old junior high school teacher and baseball coach, George Ramsden, in a long red nightshirt and a plumber’s helper. The parade always concludes with a bonfire down by the beach and a concert from the gazebo outside the Legion hall.

I could go on, but I’m aware that this sort of reminiscence might make my old hometown sound like a modern version of Our Town , and I don’t mean to idealize it. Things change, and Rockport has its problems and limitations just like anyplace else. It has never been as diverse as many American places, certainly not as much as the Manhattan block where I’ve lived for the past quarter-century and which I also love dearly.

That is, I suppose, the point. America is a country that was founded on a principle, but most of us know some part of it we are uncommonly attached to. As I understand it, there are even some people who are very fond of Texas.

I never like it when people call the South “redneck country,” or when news commentators flippantly refer to our great industrial heartland as “the rust belt.” I think if we really are to pull together as a nation, we need to restore at least a basic respect for how we all live and where we come from. An apology would be a good start, but I’m not holding my breath. As an old New Englander I know the worth of the place I come from and that its values and its character will endure long after the noise of another campaign has receded.