Destination: New England

This stern landscape spawned the first titans of American literature -- and the obsessions with religion, race and guilty sex that still haunt us.

Published June 29, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

I hate to sound like one of the America-is-a-Christian-Nation gang, but even a guilt-burdened WASP has to admit that American literature, wherever it's ended up, came straight outta New England. The original Plymouth Pilgrims and Massachusetts Bay Puritans were people of the Book, who lived not only in a countryside of harsh winters and poignantly fleeting summers, but in biblical landscapes they knew only from their reading and imagining. When, after a couple of generations, a literary culture finally evolved, it produced mostly works of devotion and theology; America's first major man of letters was the Puritan divine Cotton Mather. It took until the mid-19th century for American literature to stand up on its hind legs before the world, and except for Poe, the canonical writers were New Englanders: Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, Dickinson and Melville, who'd come there by way of New York and Albany. (This revolution looks better in hindsight: "Moby-Dick" tanked when it came out -- too weird -- and Dickinson hardly published at all.)

These writers did their best to shuck off, or at least to fight, the old binary, near-Manichaean theology -- God/the devil, sin/salvation -- but they kept the Puritans' divided cast of mind. They too were drawn to darkness and covert sexuality, and tended to immerse themselves in inner worlds. And their preoccupation with religion, race and rebellion -- as well as an atavistic sense of living in a landscape that would kill you if you didn't lay in firewood and firearms -- has pretty much become the American mind-set.

Literary New England has little to do with Wallace Stevens' Connecticut ("An Ordinary Evening in New Haven" might as well be set in Xanadu) or with God knows whose Rhode Island -- John Hawkes'? Stephen King's Maine, where Evil leaps out of the shadows and rips out Innocence's innards, is a little more like it, but King lacks that good old Calvinist stoicism -- his people really seem aggrieved when their innards get ripped out. Haven't they read the Book of Job? Robert Frost did. In his bleakly witty play "A Masque of Reason," God thanks Job for "the way you helped me/ Establish once for all the principle/ There's no connection man can reason out/ Between his just deserts and what he gets."

Unlike the Puritans, Frost believes not in evil, but in shit happening, and the darkness that worries him doesn't come from any Prince thereof. "They cannot scare me with their empty spaces/ Between stars -- on stars where no human race is./ I have it in me so much nearer home/ To scare myself with my own desert places." Yet Frost's stoicism doesn't mean he has no heart. In "The Pauper Witch of Grafton" -- near the top of my list of Frost's, or anybody's, most moving poems -- an outcast old widow, once a sexy young bride, reflects on her husband: "I hope if he is where he sees me now/ He's so far off he can't see what I've come to." This earth, Frost wrote, is "the right place for love"; the Puritans would've agreed, but they would not have meant it as a compliment.

Frost was the figurative son of the garrulous, rusticating Thoreau and the gnomic miniaturist Dickinson. Hawthorne, on the other hand, was the literal great-grandson of an arch-Puritan: John Hathorne, a judge in the Salem witch trials. Hawthorne added the "w" to his name to distance himself from the old wretch, but there he was, still at the scene of the crime, living in Salem, working at the custom house and writing "The Scarlet Letter" by way of atonement and exorcism.

For generations of schoolkids, this novel -- it's a miracle it was ever assigned, given what Hester Prynne's "A" stands for -- shaped their view of Puritan New England as a dystopia of religious crankery, sexual repression and small-town hypocrisy. (Today we call this administration policy.) The secretly sinning minister's arias of self-contempt now seem laughable: "Of penitence there has been none! Else, I should long ago have thrown off these garments of mock holiness, and have shown myself to mankind as they will see me at the judgment-seat. Happy are you, Hester, that wear the scarlet letter openly upon your bosom! Mine burns in secret!" But the anguish is as real as it ever was -- maybe more, thanks to our Freudian educations. While classic New England literature, from Walden Pond to Melville's Pacific Ocean, is superficially outdoorsy, it often gives a sense of confinement: in whaling ships, in lonely farmhouses, in paranoid communities where secrecy is the only way of surviving.

"The Scarlet Letter" was published in 1850; "Moby-Dick" a year later. (Hawthorne had a friendship with the much younger Melville when they were both living in the Berkshires, Hawthorne in Lenox, Melville in Pittsfield.) Melville's novel gets out of New England early on, when the Pequod leaves Nantucket, but New England never gets out of the novel. It has both a prophetic, Old Testament grandeur (with a hint of Shakespeare) that Puritans were too self-denying to embrace, and a whole new note of underclass Yankee rebelliousness. When the autodidact Ishmael says that "a whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard," he doesn't just mean that he's a regular guy and not some Ivy League twit: He and his readers must still have associated Yale and Harvard with the old-school Puritans who established them. (Cotton Mather, the notorious defender of the witchcraft trials, got his Harvard M.A. at 18, and helped found Yale.)

The Pequod is an anti-New England: a tolerant society in which people can pray to carved wooden figures if they want, and a utopia of racial harmony and intimacy, in which eroticized male friendships get no guff, and American Indians, black Africans and tattooed islanders justly get paid more for being expert harpooners than an ordinary seaman does for merely being willing and white. No wonder Hawthorne admired Melville: his own story "Young Goodman Brown," about a witches' Sabbath in the woods -- the abode of the Indians -- connects fear of dark-skinned people with religious paranoia over who in the community might be Satan's secret servants. Melville had more grown-up things to worry about: demagogic fanatics, and an emptiness like Frost's "desert places," embodied in the whiteness of the whale.

Two essential New England novels came from an outsider: the New Yorker Edith Wharton, a well-traveled cosmopolitan who, like Melville and Hawthorne, spent time in the Berkshires. Wharton's New England has more in common with Thomas Hardy's primal, fatebound Wessex than it does with the New York of her own "Age of Innocence" and "House of Mirth." The dying hill towns in the wintry "Ethan Frome" (1911) and its companion piece "Summer" (1917) lack even the delusional dignity of New England's original settlements, whose elders saw the hand of Providence in each dead Indian. "Summer's" North Dormer and "Ethan Frome's" too-conveniently named "Starkfield" retain only insularity, guilty secrecy and guiltier sexuality; in "Summer," the heroine's first line is "How I hate everything!" And stoicism is too noble a word to characterize the grim, pointless endurance of Ethan, his wife and his lover, who've all lived in the same bleak farmhouse for years -- ever since the lover was crippled in the famous sledding accident, and (as a neighbor tells the narrator) "there was nowhere else for her to go."

Well, at least North Dormer and Starkfield aren't mini-theocracies. In these towns, religion means only a minister, half listened to, quoting ceremonial Scripture at public occasions. Here's part of a funeral scene from "Summer": "'Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of His great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear sister here departed, we therefore commit her body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust ... ' Liff's gaunt shoulders rose and bent in the lantern light as he dashed the clods of earth into the grave. 'God -- it's froze a'ready ...'" In old Plymouth, he would've been whipped for taking the Lord's name in vain. After Wharton, who could still write about secretly sinful ministers, publicly shamed sinners and censorious goodwives without being guilty of quaintness?

Today there's a convenience store on the site of Ethan's farmhouse, and the Pakistani guy who runs it doesn't feel welcome in the Starkfield Bar & Grill. North Dormer has an outlet mall to cater to the New Yorkers who are bidding up real estate beyond what the locals can afford; the Frome boys are either in trade school or fighting in Iraq. All this could have been extrapolated from old New England's racism, class structure and predatory economic system. If this sounds anachronistically p.c., the historian Nathaniel Philbrick's recently published "Mayflower" will have you talking like a commie too. Philbrick follows the Plymouth settlers and their descendants for a bit over half a century, from the Mayflower's crossing through King Philip's War, in which the colonists effectively put an end to local culture; from 60 to 80 percent of southern New England's Native population died, and the whites sold defeated Indian warriors into slavery in the West Indies. Philbrick tries to be fair to the settlers, to use a neutral term -- he even subtitles the book "A Story of Courage, Community and War" -- but he doesn't soften the ugliness, violence and fanaticism of America's origins. "Mayflower" is a work of historical rather than literary scholarship. But without intending to, it makes clear where American literature comes from. Not from the New Jerusalem -- which was a help -- but from a corner of hell that got a couple months of good weather.

By David Gates

David Gates is a staff critic for Newsweek and the author of three books of fiction, including, most recently, "Wonders of the Invisible World."

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