A Nineteenth-Century Epideictic
S. Michael Halloran
In the late 1940s, my parents used to take me on long Sunday afternoon drives through the western New England countryside. The route I recall best is Route 2 in Massachusetts, especially the stretch running east from North Adams, up Hoosic Mountain, and down through the Pioneer Valley toward Northampton. There were frequent stops at scenic overlooks, many of them with high viewing towers, pedestal-mounted binoculars that cost a dime to use, and shops featuring wooden tomahawks, silver Indian-head rings, and tom-toms made from tin cans and inner tubes. This was "the Mohawk Trail." We were following in the footsteps of Indians and pioneers.
Often we would stop for dinner at Wiggins Tavern, a "colonial- style" restaurant in the basement of the Hotel Northampton, and then inspect the buggies, blacksmith shop, and old-fashioned outhouse on display behind the hotel, and buy penny candy and copies of James Whitcomb Riley's "The Passing of the Backhouse" at the country store. It used to puzzle me that my mother, who was otherwise loud in her condemnation of all things "vulgar," would tolerate this mildly scatological broadside. I think the antiqueness of the poem and the mode of plumbing it celebrated somehow reversed their moral polarity, transforming what otherwise would have qualified as vulgarity -- and thus, in one of my mother's favorite maxims, "amusing, but only to the vulgar" -- into a sort of homily. 1