From New York Into New England by William Dean Howells

Story type: Essay

There is, of course, almost a world’s difference between England and the Continent anywhere; but I do not recall just now any transition between Continental countries which involves a more distinct change in the superficial aspect of things than the passage from the Middle States into New England. It is all American, but American of diverse ideals; and you are hardly over the border before you are sensible of diverse effects, which are the more apparent to you the more American you are. If you want the contrast at its sharpest you had better leave New York on a Sound boat; for then you sleep out of the Middle State civilization and wake into the civilization of New England, which seems to give its stamp to nature herself. As to man, he takes it whether native or alien; and if he is foreign-born it marks him another Irishman, Italian, Canadian, Jew, or negro from his brother in any other part of the United States.


When you have a theory of any kind, proofs of it are apt to seek you out, and I, who am rather fond of my faith in New England’s influence of this sort, had as pretty an instance of it the day after my arrival as I could wish. A colored brother of Massachusetts birth, as black as a man can well be, and of a merely anthropoidal profile, was driving me along shore in search of a sea-side hotel when we came upon a weak-minded young chicken in the road. The natural expectation is that any chicken in these circumstances will wait for your vehicle, and then fly up before it with a loud screech; but this chicken may have been overcome by the heat (it was a land breeze and it drew like the breath of a furnace over the hay-cocks and the clover), or it may have mistimed the wheel, which passed over its head and left it to flop a moment in the dust and then fall still. The poor little tragedy was sufficiently distressful to me, but I bore it well, compared with my driver. He could hardly stop lamenting it; and when presently we met a young farmer, he pulled up. “You goin’ past Jim Marden’s?” “Yes.” “Well, I wish you’d tell him I just run over a chicken of his, and I killed it, I guess. I guess it was a pretty big one.” “Oh no,” I put in, “it was only a broiler. What do you think it was worth?” I took out some money, and the farmer noted the largest coin in my hand; “About half a dollar, I guess.” On this I put it all back in my pocket, and then he said, “Well, if a chicken don’t know enough to get out of the road, I guess you ain’t to blame.” I expressed that this was my own view of the case, and we drove on. When we parted I gave the half-dollar to my driver, and begged him not to let the owner of the chicken come on me for damages; and though he chuckled his pleasure in the joke, I could see that he was still unhappy, and I have no doubt that he has that pullet on his conscience yet, unless he has paid for it. He was of a race which elsewhere has so immemorially plundered hen-roosts that chickens are as free to it as the air it breathes, without any conceivable taint of private ownership. But the spirit of New England had so deeply entered into him that the imbecile broiler of another, slain by pure accident and by its own contributory negligence, was saddening him, while I was off in my train without a pang for the owner and with only an agreeable pathos for the pullet.

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The instance is perhaps extreme; and, at any rate, it has carried me in a psychological direction away from the simpler differences which I meant to note in New England. They were evident as soon as our train began to run from the steamboat landing into the country, and they have intensified, if they have not multiplied, themselves as I have penetrated deeper and deeper into the beautiful region. The land is poorer than the land to the southward–one sees that at once; the soil is thin, and often so thickly burdened with granite bowlders that it could never have borne any other crop since the first Puritans, or Pilgrims, cut away the primeval woods and betrayed its hopeless sterility to the light. But wherever you come to a farm-house, whether standing alone or in one of the village groups that New England farm-houses have always liked to gather themselves into, it is of a neatness that brings despair, and of a repair that ought to bring shame to the beholder from more easy-going conditions. Everything is kept up with a strenuous virtue that imparts an air of self-respect to the landscape, which the bleaching and blackening stone walls, wandering over the hill-slopes, divide into wood lots of white birch and pine, stony pastures, and little patches of potatoes and corn. The mowing-lands alone are rich; and if the New England year is in the glory of the latest June, the breath of the clover blows honey–sweet into the car windows, and the fragrance of the new-cut hay rises hot from the heavy swaths that seem to smoke in the sun.

We have struck a hot spell, one of those torrid mood of continental weather which we have telegraphed us ahead to heighten our suffering by anticipation. But the farmsteads and village houses are safe in the shade of their sheltering trees amid the fluctuation of the grass that grows so tall about them that the June roses have to strain upward to get themselves free of it. Behind each dwelling is a billowy mass of orchard, and before it the Gothic archway of the elms stretches above the quiet street. There is no tree in the world so full of sentiment as the American elm, and it is nowhere so graceful as in these New England villages, which are themselves, I think, the prettiest and wholesomest of mortal sojourns. By a happy instinct, their wooden houses are all painted white, to a marble effect that suits our meridional sky, and the contrast of their dark-green shutters is deliciously refreshing. There was an evil hour, the terrible moment of the aesthetic revival now happily past, when white walls and green blinds were thought in bad taste, and the village houses were often tinged a dreary ground color, or a doleful olive, or a gloomy red, but now they have returned to their earlier love. Not the first love; that was a pale buff with white trim; but I doubt if it were good for all kinds of village houses; the eye rather demands the white. The pale buff does very well for large colonial mansions, like Lowell’s or Longfellow’s in Cambridge; but when you come, say, to see the great square houses built in Portsmouth, New Hampshire; early in this century, and painted white, you find that white, after all, is the thing for our climate, even in the towns.

In such a village as my colored brother drove me through on the way to the beach it was of an absolute fitness; and I wish I could convey a due sense of the exquisite keeping of the place. Each white house was more or less closely belted in with a white fence, of panels or pickets; the grassy door-yards glowed with flowers, and often a climbing rose embowered the door-way with its bloom. Away backward or sidewise stretched the woodshed from the dwelling to the barn, and shut the whole under one cover; the turf grew to the wheel-tracks of the road-way, over which the elms rose and drooped; and from one end of the village to the other you could not, as the saying is, find a stone to throw at a dog. I know Holland; I have seen the wives of Scheveningen scrubbing up for Sunday to the very middle of their brick streets, but I doubt if Dutch cleanliness goes so far without, or comes from so deep a scruple within, as the cleanliness of New England. I felt so keenly the feminine quality of its motive as I passed through that village, that I think if I had dropped so much as a piece of paper in the street I must have knocked at the first door and begged the lady of the house (who would have opened it in person after wiping her hands from her work, taking off her apron, and giving a glance at herself in the mirror and at me through the window blind) to report me to the selectmen in the interest of good morals.

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I did not know at once quite how to reconcile the present foulness of the New England capital with the fairness of the New England country; and I am still somewhat embarrassed to own that after New York (even under the relaxing rule of Tammany) Boston seemed very dirty when we arrived there. At best I was never more than a naturalized Bostonian; but it used to give me great pleasure–so penetratingly does the place qualify even the sojourning Westerner–to think of the defect of New York in the virtue that is next to godliness; and now I had to hang my head for shame at the mortifying contrast of the Boston streets to the well-swept asphalt which I had left frying in the New York sun the afternoon before. Later, however, when I began to meet the sort of Boston faces I remembered so well–good, just, pure, but set and severe, with their look of challenge, of interrogation, almost of reproof–they not only ignored the disgraceful untidiness of the streets, but they convinced me of a state of transition which would leave the place swept and garnished behind it; and comforted me against the litter of the winding thoroughfares and narrow lanes, where the dust had blown up against the brick walls, and seemed permanently to have smutched and discolored them.

In New York you see the American face as Europe characterizes it; in Boston you see it as it characterizes Europe; and it is in Boston that you can best imagine the strenuous grapple of the native forces which all alien things must yield to till they take the American cast. It is almost dismaying, that physiognomy, before it familiarizes itself anew; and in the brief first moment while it is yet objective, you ransack your conscience for any sins you may have committed in your absence from it and make ready to do penance for them. I felt almost as if I had brought the dirty streets with me, and were guilty of having left them lying about, so impossible were they with reference to the Boston face.

It is a face that expresses care, even to the point of anxiety, and it looked into the window of our carriage with the serious eyes of our elderly hackman to make perfectly sure of our destination before we drove away from the station. It was a little rigorous with us, as requiring us to have a clear mind; but it was not unfriendly, not unkind, and it was patient from long experience. In New York there are no elderly hackmen; but in Boston they abound, and I cannot believe they would be capable of bad faith with travellers. In fact, I doubt if this class is anywhere as predatory as it is painted; but in Boston it appears to have the public honor in its keeping. I do not mean that it was less mature, less self- respectful in Portsmouth, where we were next to arrive; more so it could not be; an equal sense of safety, of ease, began with it in both places, and all through New England it is of native birth, while in New York it is composed of men of many nations, with a weight in numbers towards the Celtic strain. The prevalence of the native in New England helps you sensibly to realize from the first moment that here you are in America as the first Americans imagined and meant it; and nowhere in New England is the original tradition more purely kept than in the beautiful old seaport of New Hampshire. In fact, without being quite prepared to defend a thesis to this effect, I believe that Portsmouth is preeminently American, and in this it differs from Newburyport and from Salem, which have suffered from different causes an equal commercial decline, and, though among the earliest of the great Puritan towns after Boston, are now largely made up of aliens in race and religion; these are actually the majority, I believe, in Newburyport.

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The adversity of Portsmouth began early in the century, but before that time she had prospered so greatly that her merchant princes were able to build themselves wooden palaces with white walls and green shutters, of a grandeur and beauty unmatched elsewhere in the country. I do not know what architect had his way with them, though his name is richly worth remembrance, but they let him make them habitations of such graceful proportion and of such delicate ornament that they have become shrines of pious pilgrimage with the young architects of our day who hope to house our well-to-do people fitly in country or suburbs. The decoration is oftenest spent on a porch or portal, or a frieze of peculiar refinement; or perhaps it feels its way to the carven casements or to the delicate iron-work of the transoms; the rest is a simplicity and a faultless propriety of form in the stately mansions which stand under the arching elms, with their gardens sloping, or dropping by easy terraces behind them to the river, or to the borders of other pleasances. They are all of wood, except for the granite foundations and doorsteps, but the stout edifices rarely sway out of the true line given them, and they look as if they might keep it yet another century.

Between them, in the sun-shotten shade, lie the quiet streets, whose gravelled stretch is probably never cleaned because it never needs cleaning. Even the business streets, and the quaint square which gives the most American of towns an air so foreign and Old Worldly, look as if the wind and rain alone cared for them; but they are not foul, and the narrower avenues, where the smaller houses of gray, unpainted wood crowd each other, flush upon the pavements, towards the water–side, are doubtless unvisited by the hoe or broom, and must be kept clean by a New England conscience against getting them untidy.

When you get to the river-side there is one stretch of narrow, high- shouldered warehouses which recall Holland, especially in a few with their gables broken in steps, after the Dutch fashion. These, with their mouldering piers and grass-grown wharves, have their pathos, and the whole place embodies in its architecture an interesting record of the past, from the time when the homesick exiles huddled close to the water’s edge till the period of post-colonial prosperity, when proud merchants and opulent captains set their vast square houses each in its handsome space of gardened ground.

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My adjectives might mislead as to size, but they could not as to beauty, and I seek in vain for those that can duly impart the peculiar charm of the town. Portsmouth still awaits her novelist; he will find a rich field when he comes; and I hope he will come of the right sex, for it needs some minute and subtle feminine skill, like that of Jane Austen, to express a fit sense of its life in the past. Of its life in the present I know nothing. I could only go by those delightful, silent houses, and sigh my longing soul into their dim interiors. When now and then a young shape in summer silk, or a group of young shapes in diaphanous muslin, fluttered out of them, I was no wiser; and doubtless my elderly fancy would have been unable to deal with what went on in them. Some girl of those flitting through the warm, odorous twilight must become the creative historian of the place; I can at least imagine a Jane Austen now growing up in Portsmouth.


If Miss Jewett were of a little longer breath than she has yet shown herself in fiction, I might say the Jane Austen of Portsmouth was already with us, and had merely not yet begun to deal with its precious material. One day when we crossed the Piscataqua from New Hampshire into Maine, and took the trolley-line for a run along through the lovely coast country, we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of her own people, who are a little different sort of New-Englanders from those of Miss Wilkins. They began to flock into the car, young maidens and old, mothers and grandmothers, and nice boys and girls, with a very, very few farmer youth of marriageable age, and more rustic and seafaring elders long past it, all in the Sunday best which they had worn to the graduation exercises at the High School, where we took them mostly up. The womenkind were in a nervous twitter of talk and laughter, and the men tolerantly gay beyond their wont, “passing the time of day” with one another, and helping the more tumultuous sex to get settled in the overcrowded open car. They courteously made room for one another, and let the children stand between their knees, or took them in their laps, with that unfailing American kindness which I am prouder of than the American valor in battle, observing in all that American decorum which is no bad thing either. We had chanced upon the high and mighty occasion of the neighborhood year, when people might well have been a little off their balance, but there was not a boisterous note in the subdued affair. As we passed the school-house door, three dear, pretty maids in white gowns and white slippers stood on the steps and gently smiled upon our company. One could see that they were inwardly glowing and thrilling with the excitement of their graduation, but were controlling their emotions to a calm worthy of the august event, so that no one might ever have it to say that they had appeared silly.

The car swept on, and stopped to set down passengers at their doors or gates, where they severally left it, with an easy air as of private ownership, into some sense of which the trolley promptly flatters people along its obliging lines. One comfortable matron, in a cinnamon silk, was just such a figure as that in the Miss Wilkins’s story where the bridegroom fails to come on the wedding-day; but, as I say, they made me think more of Miss Jewett’s people. The shore folk and the Down-Easters are specifically hers; and these were just such as might have belonged in ‘The Country of the Pointed Firs’, or ‘Sister Wisby’s Courtship’, or ‘Dulham Ladies’, or ‘An Autumn Ramble’, or twenty other entrancing tales. Sometimes one of them would try her front door, and then, with a bridling toss of the head, express that she had forgotten locking it, and slip round to the kitchen; but most of the ladies made their way back at once between the roses and syringas of their grassy door-yards, which were as neat and prim as their own persons, or the best chamber in their white- walled, green-shuttered, story-and-a-half house, and as perfectly kept as the very kitchen itself.

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The trolley-line had been opened only since the last September, but in an effect of familiar use it was as if it had always been there, and it climbed and crooked and clambered about with the easy freedom of the country road which it followed. It is a land of low hills, broken by frequent reaches of the sea, and it is most amusing, most amazing, to see how frankly the trolley-car takes and overcomes its difficulties. It scrambles up and down the little steeps like a cat, and whisks round a sharp and sudden curve with a feline screech, broadening into a loud caterwaul as it darts over the estuaries on its trestles. Its course does not lack excitement, and I suppose it does not lack danger; but as yet there have been no accidents, and it is not so disfiguring as one would think. The landscape has already accepted it, and is making the best of it; and to the country people it is an inestimable convenience. It passes everybody’s front door or back door, and the farmers can get themselves or their produce (for it runs an express car) into Portsmouth in an hour, twice an hour, all day long. In summer the cars are open, with transverse seats, and stout curtains that quite shut out a squall of wind or rain. In winter the cars are closed, and heated by electricity. The young motorman whom I spoke with, while we waited on a siding to let a car from the opposite direction get by, told me that he was caught out in a blizzard last Winter, and passed the night in a snowdrift. “But the cah was so wa’m, I neva suff’ed a mite.”

“Well,” I summarized, “it must be a great advantage to all the people along the line.”

“Well, you wouldn’t ‘a’ thought so, from the kick they made.”

“I suppose the cottagers”–the summer colony–“didn’t like the noise.”

“Oh yes; that’s what I mean. The’s whe’ the kick was. The natives like it. I guess the summa folks ‘ll like it, too.”

He looked round at me with enjoyment of his joke in his eye, for we both understood that the summer folks could not help themselves, and must bow to the will of the majority.

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