August 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 5
It was the afternoon of America.
As the Nineteenth Century turned slowly into its final quarter, the life most New Englanders knew was that of the small town or the farm. In their land of long winters, the most precious time was summer when the smells, the sounds, and silences of nature were all the more acute for being crowded into so brief a span. All the world had an early-morning freshness, school was out, and ahead of every child there stretched the limitless vista of summer.
Beneath the shading elms and maples of Main Street were white houses in perverse alignment and behind them big, comfortable yards sprinkled with apple trees and honeysuckle, weathered sheds, and squeaky rope swings that lifted a child high above the vegetable patch to command, for an instant, the hills and woods beyond. Out in the meadows, insects droned their course from daisy to black-eyed Susan and boys tramped through tall grass toward still, secret pools where the big trout lay. Here and on the hilltops, where little ginghamed girls swung through forgotten clearings, looking for blueberries, only the faroff note of the dinner horn was a link with reality.
This was a world of wagons and green apples, of lemonade in tall, cool, earthenware crocks, of chicken sounds and cowbells, and dogs who wandered into church to scratch and be snickered at. There was time to laze on the warm earth, smelling the grass smell, wondering if a real agate marble was worth the trade of a jackknile with a broken blade or if the blackberry pie was for supper.
Not far from this world, but not for a moment part of it, were the resorts and hotels, the porticoed watering places of summer people. From all parts of America decorative visitors (locked to the Berkshires, the White Mountains, and to the sandy bluffs of Long Branch, New Jersey. At Newport charioteers and riders made their dignified rounds on Ocean Drive. Overdressed picnickers picked their way gingerly along the beach, and hoopskirted young ladies blessed croquet lawns with plashes of color. A few hardier souls chose the wilderness still existing in parts of New England and the Adirondacks, but most settled for places like Saratoga, where a man could tilt his chair back and sit all day on the Grand Union Hotel’s endless piazza, watching the parade of parasoled elegance. Between rocker and hammock, the sensible click of knitting needles vied with fancies of Ben Hur and Marjorie Daw, then faded into thoughts of the evening Masquerade and Promenade Concert.
Just over the horizon of this good, comfortable life was a new century, a turning point; and as the time of their youth slipped by, people began to realize that what they had witnessed was irretrievably gone. Getting on in the world seemed, in America, to mean getting out of a world they had known and loved. There was no going back—but as if to prove that the memories of that other life could be relied upon, there was a man named Winslow Homer who had seen all these things and had set them down as they were.