In Darkest New England

June 26, 2007

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In Darkest New England

I recently completed a visit to Massachusetts with two definable goals: to escort an aged friend to his 65th reunion from Harvard, and to deliver the commencement address at a high school graduation. Although I was born in New York (and consider myself a native New Yorker, of sorts), and have lived in the Los Angeles area since I was six, every trip I take to New England is, in a sense, a homecoming. My maternal grandfather, although a New York literatus for much of his working life, nevertheless taught at Harvard and died in Haverhill; although my cousins on that side were also born in New York, they live in Amherst and Greenwich, Connecticut. Dad was the third generation in the Bay State; he and all of his French-Canadian family lie in Notre Dame cemetery in Fall River, where too, presumably, shall I some day.

More important than my own ties with the region, however, are those shared by all Americans. Although Jamestown was settled earlier, it is the Puritan settlers of New England who have left the greater mark on the American soul and psyche. Rather than Jamestown, most Americans think of Plymouth Rock as our place of origin. However false chronologically this impression may be, it is nevertheless true psychologically. From the Pilgrims and Puritans comes our innate Calvinism—the Puritan work ethic, suspicion of the arts, and the need for moral crusades. Since these latter are no longer possible to pit against what was formerly considered immoral, they are aimed today at such evils as smoking, foie gras, the drowning of excess kittens—and, of course, against the active opposition to said former immoralities. Needless to say, our celebration of Thanksgiving has become a national glorification of this heritage.

It was in New England that the American Revolution began, as any trekker along Boston’s Freedom Trail knows; here too started much of our national culture: From New England Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and James Russell Lowell launched American literature. The uniquely strange nature of New England’s topography and folklore gave us H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King; perhaps only less frighteningly, the presence of half of the Ivy League Colleges and the boarding schools known collectively as “St. Grottlesex” (after St. Paul’s, Groton, and Middlesex, but including several others) have laid a heavy mark upon higher education.

In the past, these latter institutions gave tone as well as education to the wealthier segment of the descendants of the original settlers. Of course, like their Southern and Mid-Atlantic confreres, these folk are today commonly called WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants). Although this term may be considered derogatory by some, it was coined by one of the people it describes (although as a member of a religion, Catholic, and of an ethnicity, French, that are constantly ridiculed, I hope not to be insensitive in this area). At any rate, it is descriptive, and by no means without some glory attached thereto—after all, as Richard Brookhiser observes in his Way of the WASP, they did create most of our national institutions and way of life.

Among this latter is religious multiplicity, and, indeed, after the decay of explicitly doctrinal Calvinism in 18th century New England, the area gained the sort of notoriety as a breeding ground of weird sects that would later grace Southern California. Unitarianism, Shakerism, Universalism, Mormonism, Spiritualism, and Christian Science were a few of the faiths that the endlessly creative Yankee mind spawned. The New Light cult of Shadrach Ireland was positively Lovecraftian. Even today, in certain out of the way nooks and crannies, where inbreeding over centuries has created a series of Tobacco Roads North, bizarre religiosity of a sort generally associated with the Appalachians may be found.

But layered over that entire heritage is the sort of Brahmin gentility still to be found in such places as Boston’s Somerset and Union Clubs, Symphony Hall, Locke-Ober Restaurant, and, of course, Harvard University. Certainly, the latter institution is much more diverse than it was; but my visit was with the Class of 1942, the last, so one of its instructors boasted, to receive a “Real” (that is, Classics-based) Harvard education. Of the 1700 who matriculated in 1938, only 400 remain; of these about a quarter turned up. But they are still a fairly lively bunch—in a restrained, genteel way. Some of the survivors are not WASPs, to be sure (I sang a medley of Yiddish tunes with one particularly jovial couple, and my host was an habitué of Cambridge’s famed St. Paul’s Church while an undergrad). But quite a few of them were, and evinced a great interest in cultural and political topics, in that mildly non-specific way so typical of the liberal variety of WASPery.

“I’m very concerned about the way this country is going,” confided one of these to me. “Bush has lowered the level of civility in this country a thousand per cent!” he opined. “What about Clinton?” I responded. “Er…well…a man’s private affairs…”, he drifted off. Entering into the spirit of the thing, I added with a mock sneer, “Well, of course, Bush IS a Yalie.” “Yes, yes exactly!” brightened my aged interlocutor, smiling broadly.

With the class I made an outing to the Essex-Peabody museum in Salem. During our tour they asked many searching and intelligent questions, and in return offered observations based upon their own artistic pursuits. On the one hand, one could not really detect much passion in most of them; but one could envy their mental acuity.
One morning I took a visit to the Back Bay offices of HDB/Cram and Ferguson, a venerable architectural firm in the Back Bay. Its founder, Ralph Adams Cram, was a late 19th/early 20th century genius who, from his headquarters in Boston, designed churches, schools, public buildings, and homes throughout the United States, including such renowned structures as West Point’s Cadet Chapel, USC’s Doheny Library, Princeton University, and New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, to name a very few. Although using a number of styles, Cram was devoted to Gothic. Moreover, he was a fervent Anglo-Catholic and Medievalist, writing a large number of religious and political books, all seeking to apply the insights of his beloved Middle Ages to the present. Cram was also a talented writer of horror fiction (one of his tales makes its appearance in my anthology, Classic Horror Tales).

Alas, Cram’s reputation went into obscurity after World War II. Although the building Cram designed are beloved by those who actually use them, the post-War architectural industry was not interested in beautiful design. This blow was doubled when Christian churchmen followed suit in the 1960s. Cram’s memory perhaps received an even more crushing blow in the two volume biography of him by Douglass Shand-Tucci, who alleged that Cram and most of his circle were closet homosexuals who demonstrated their affectional preferences through their work. While Shand-Tucci’s avocation as a gay activist may color his opinions, his enormous tomes do include a lot of interesting information. But, as one reviewer noted, due to S-T’s writing style, reading his work “is like being smothered with a feather boa.”

His main thesis has been roundly challenged by Ethan Anthony, author of the recently published The Architecture of Ralph Adams Cram and His Office. Referring to S-T’s allegations of Cram’s gaiety, Anthony dismissively writes “I have found no evidence to support his theories.” Of course, Anthony has a dog in this particular fight: not only is he the current head of Cram’s old firm, he has steered it back into the church trade. This is not merely of interest either to fans of architecture or of Cram; it registers a movement away from the ethos of the ‘60s, at least in those of us too young to have really affected that decade. A perusal of their Web site  will show the new parishes they are currently building.

If Cram and Ferguson gave me hope for the future, dinner at The Wayside Inn in Sudbury took me comfortably back to the colonial past. Yankee Pot Roast and Indian Pudding were washed down with the Inn’s signature “Coo-Woo,” touted as the country’s first cocktail. But above all, it is the aura of the place that brings me back repeatedly. Immortalized by Longfellow as being “as ancient is this hostelry as any in the land may be,” in his Tales of a Wayside Inn (wherein he introduced such favorites as “Paul Revere’s Ride”), it is little changed from his day. To be in the bar on Wednesday nights when the Sudbury Fife and Drum Corps practice is to step back two and a half centuries, back to “the good old colony days, when we lived under the King,” as the folk song puts it. To be sure, though, Coo-Woos are not the only spirits haunting the place. Allegedly, 18th century innkeeper’s daughter Jerusha Howe makes herself known to those who rent her old lodgings in room 9.

Most New England cities and towns boast Commons—green spots in their centers that in the time of settlement were common land, just as in England before the enclosures. And like those favored parcels in the Old Country, New England’s commons were maintained, originally, for the freeholders of the town to graze their animals—indeed, Ralph Waldo Emerson was the last to graze his cattle on Boston Common.

In keeping with English custom as well, each town had a congregation of the Established Church near the common. But in colonial times, this church would be neither Catholic nor Anglican, but (save in free-thinking Rhode Island) Congregational—which was what the Puritans and Pilgrims came to call themselves. Often, the church doubled as the town hall.  In the early 19th century, however, two things disrupted this cozy arrangement. One was disestablishment: Vermont in 1807, Connecticut in 1818, New Hampshire in 1819, Maine in 1820, and Massachusetts in 1833 all broke their ties to the Congregational Church. Apart from launching the career of P.T. Barnum (one of the leading disestablishmentarianists in Connecticut), this development led to the building of separate buildings for town and parish—an action whose results can still be seen today in the similar architecture of meeting house and town hall in many of the smaller towns.

At the same time, Congregationalism itself was splitting between Trinitarians and Unitarians. Typically, a vote would be held on the Trinity at a parish meeting, thus determining eternal truth by majority rule in good democratic fashion. Where the Trinity won, the Unitarians would withdraw and erect their own building; where they lost, it was their adherents who left. So it was and is in many places in the region: a Unitarian and a Congregational church staring at each other across the Common. This too I saw in many of the towns I drove through on this trip, although there were also Federated Churches. Out migration and a declining WASP birthrate has forced many congregations to unite across denominational lines. Unitarianism, at any rate, has had an influence out of all proportion to its members, given that many of our ruling elites would subscribe to its notion that conduct is more important than creed.

One other important institution that is to be found in most New England towns is the Town Meeting. Not met with in the cities (Boston gave up its Town Meeting in 1830), it is often cited as an early example of direct democracy. Little changed since their colonial origins, in 1775 most of them dropped from the warrants ordering the sheriff to summon voters the language that had so long adorned them: “You are hereby required in his Majesty’s Name forthwith to warn all the freeholders and other Inhabitants of said town to meet at the meeting house.” Even without His Majesty’s name, however, they continue to convene under the watchful eye of the Moderator of the Town Meeting, now as in the past an important post. Under his guidance, all electors in the town vote on various measures, and elect the Board of Selectmen. These are numbered, the First Selectman acting as quasi-mayor.

If the tradition of direct democracy remains strong in New England, so too does that of the citizen soldier. Not only do several of the National Guard formations trace their lineage back to colonial militia units; several of the States maintain military establishments completely separate from Federal control—some dating back to before the Revolution. Connecticut has its various companies of Governor’s Horse Guards and Foot Guards; Rhode Island has its Newport Artillery. But most prestigious of all are Massachusetts’ National Lancers and the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company. Not only does this latter claim to be “the third oldest chartered military organization in the World, and the oldest in the Western Hemisphere,” it is socially very prominent, which counts for a lot in Boston. I myself have seen the unit’s officers, after the “June Day Parade” (an event which commences with their marching from their Faneuil Hall armory to the Granary Burying Ground to lay a wreath on the grave of the first commander, thence to St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral for a memorial service, and finally to Boston Common to elect their officers for the coming year) descend upon Locke-Ober’s bar to spend the rest of the day in revelry.

In all these units, however, the names of members deriving from early settler families are equaled or surpassed in number by names of obvious Polish, Italian, French, or Irish descent. This points up the other great fact about New England: despite its role in forging our national identity, and its continuing identity as a repository of WASP heritage, its people are mostly the descendants of foreign Catholics. In the 19th century, waves of Irish, Polish, Italian, French, Portuguese, and other foreign immigrants swept over New England, to provide cheap labor for her mines, mills, and factories. Wherever they landed in the larger centers of the region, they built beautiful churches, as grand as anything to be seen in Europe. These edifices, amazing as they are, were built with the pittances contributed at great sacrifice by near penniless immigrants.

The Irish, coming first, were swiftly recruited for the Democratic Party, the Republican being at time the stronghold of the WASPs. But soon after many of the Italians and French, especially in Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts, joined the GOP in reaction to the perceived bossiness of their English-speaking co-religionists. From 1900 to 1960, the Catholics were a powerful, if divided, force in New England. The apogee of this power was seen with the election of John F. Kennedy.

But already, there were cracks in the façade. The vestigial Jansenism among some of the Irish found a strangely sympathetic echo in what remained of New England’s Calvinism; although this intriguing combo has resulted in the mythic “Catholic guilt” so often trumpeted by “recovering” Catholics, it has done little to restrain the antics of such as the Kennedy clan and many of Boston’s clergy. Be that as it may, the dominance in the local Church and State of the Irish would tend to alienate many of the ethnic Catholics; my own family were involved tangentially in the Sentinelle affair of the 1920’s. This dispute, analogous to that which created the Polish National Catholic Church, was happily assuaged to a degree by Little Rose Ferron, the noted stigmatic whose cause for canonization has been introduced. But the larger result, despite the presence of national parishes on the scene, was to transform the Church into a force for assimilation. Ironically, the hold of the Faith on many of the ethnics was weakened as succeeding generations duly lost their language and culture.

After Vatican II, as elsewhere, allegiance to the Church slipped as the uniquely Catholic ethos was ever more dissipated. Even staunchly Irish Catholic Boston found itself in conflict with the Archdiocese as the “Southies” erupted in anger over the busing issue in the mid ‘70s. Continued hierarchical connections with such pro-abortion pols as Senator Teddy Kennedy, Congressman Tip O’Neill, and the notorious Congressman Robert Drinan, S.J., further eroded clerical moral authority. While long-time observers of the Archdiocese of Boston were uncomfortably aware of moral decay among local clergy under the reigns of William Cardinal O’Connell (1907-44) and Richard Cardinal Cushing (1944-70)—a decay those prelates have been posthumously accused of fostering —most Catholics were shocked at the revelations of clerical pedophilia that erupted in 2002.

Regardless of who was shocked, the financial damage to the Archdiocese has been enormous, resulting in sale of the Cardinal’s residence and the Archdiocesan headquarters, as well as the closing of many parishes. Of the latter, perhaps the most scandalous is the case of Holy Trinity, New England’s historic German parish. Once pastored by the celebrated Fr. F.X. Wieser, S.J. (noted for his writings on Catholic folk customs and as chaplain to the Von Trapp family), Holy Trinity was not merely the site of the first American Christmas Tree and long-time host to the Archdiocese’s Tridentine Mass community; it was also financially self-sufficient. This latter fact, however, was concealed until an independent audit revealed that the administrator had been using its funds to cover the expenses of his other parish.  The closing has been appealed to Rome, but unless the Holy See intervenes, 2007 will see the loss of yet another irreplaceable piece of New England’s Catholic heritage.

Sad as my visit there was, still worse was my trip to the Jesuit church of the Immaculate Conception in the South End. Devastated by its owners in the 1980s (the High Altar was saved only through the Boston Historical Society’s intervention), the interior has—save for that altar—been entirely denuded of permanent fixtures of a religious nature. Worse still, a photograph on the wall shows its former beauty. But even this half-life comes to an end in July, when the Jesuits will close it down. This was not the only ecclesiastical tragedy I witnessed. Holy Cross Cathedral is locked outside of Mass times, and there is no French Mass at the similarly-locked Our Lady of Victory, originally designed as the “French Cathedral” for New England (although I did gain entrance via the rectory, and it retains its beauty).

Despite all of this, however, the Redemptorist Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help (the “Mission Church”), and St. Clement’s Eucharistic Shrine (under the aegis of the Oblates of Mary the Virgin, a fairly conservative order that still gets vocations) were open, more or less un-uglified, and boasting a few laypeople each at prayer. Truly inspiring places, to be sure.

Just prior to boarding the plane, I stopped by the family plot. After praying for the repose of the souls of my family, I could not help but reflect that since we acquired that space in 1890, New England, the country, and the world had certainly changed around us, for ill, and a bit for good. Looking at all the French inscriptions on the stones at Notre Dame Cemetery, it struck me that, no matter where life has taken or takes me, New England will retain her hold on my soul, as she does on the nation. An oddly comforting—and frightening—thought.

Charles A. Coulombe is an author currently stranded in Los Angeles.

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