The Myth of New England

By Nissenbaum, Stephen | Humanities, July/August 1999 | Go to article overview

The Myth of New England


Nissenbaum, Stephen, Humanities


NEW ENGLAND would seem to be the perfect American region. Its history is long, and mostly it is proud. As early as 1614, even before the place was settled by Puritans, Captain John Smith gave New England its name, and his term quickly took hold. For two centuries the boundaries of New England have been quite clearly defined: six contiguous states, five of them among the smallest in the notion. (Try to define the boundaries of "the South," or "the West," or any other region of the United States, and such precision withers away.) Even in terms of scale, New England is the tidiest of regions, conveying a sense of intimate villages and farms nestled among cragless hills, populated perhaps by America's "hobbits."

For a long time New England was the quintessential region of the United States. The term Yankee might refer to a New Englander, but, depending on one's perspective, it might also refer to a Northerner or simply to an American. As recently as 1938, Thornton Wilder was able to use the imaginary New Hampshire community of Grover's Corners as a symbol of the heart of the nation, giving it the universalized title Our Town.

But that has changed. It is difficult now to think of New England as America's heartland. Within the past few decades New England seems to have been replaced by a less precise entity known as "Middle America." And Grover's Corners may have been replaced by another small town, imagined with a profound nostalgia distanced by an undercurrent of sophisticated irony: Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegon.

Meanwhile, within New England itself the pastoral heart of the region has been moving steadily north. In the eighteenth century "New England" was clearly moored in Connecticut, the "land of steady habits." By the mid-nineteenth century, it had shifted to Massachusetts. Sometime early in the present century, it began to migrate still further north, into Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. But now that Connecticut is little more than a suburb of New York (the Connecticut Yankee being no more), and Massachusetts is a center of high-tech and academic culture, those rural northern areas have become the last true bastion of the Yankee spirit-in effect, "New England's New England."

Well before small-town Yankee New England came to lose its imaginative hold as the spiritual heart of America, New England culture in a broader sense had become inextricably linked to the national culture. Even today students may study William Faulkner or William Gilmore Simms as Southern writers, or Willa Cather as a Midwesterner; but when it comes to Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Dickinson, they are studying American literature. These New England writers defined the national cultural tradition.

It was a New England version of American history, for example, that penetrated the schools for the better part of the century after the Civil War. When I was in high school, in the 1 950s, the U.S. history textbook was written by a man named David Muzzey. I hadn't thought about that book in decades until I heard Michael Kammen mention that Muzzey came directly out of the culture of the abolitionist movement (he was born in 1870) and that his textbook was a New England-centered interpretation of U.S. history. Even Southern high schools were obliged to use Muzzey, for lack of "Southern" textbooks on the high school market. That is as powerful an example as I can imagine of New England's enduring cultural authority.

The history of old-time rural New England itself has recently come into question, and the face of the preindustrial New England village is in the process of being reevaluated. Early New England is coming to seem a newly unfamiliar place: less orderly and consensual than we used to think, more raw and "Elizabethan."

The idea of a centrally arranged New England village, with its collection of neat white houses facing a central "common," or "green," is one that is dear to both the American public and academic historians. …

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