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What Does New England Matter?by Brock Clarke
I was born in New England, too Springfield, Massachusetts, in fact so it should be no wonder that I thought of myself as a New Englander too, even though my parents moved to upstate New York when I was three and I lived there for the next twenty-six years, until I moved to South Carolina, which is when and where it became convenient to start thinking of myself as an upstate New Yorker. Now I live in Ohio, and I don't know what to think of myself, don't know where to say I'm from, and maybe this is one of the reasons I wrote An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England: to find out.
We all know from books (Wharton's doomed, mopey, and tongue-tied Ethan Frome), from movies (shaky Katharine Hepburn and forgetful Henry Fonda and their loons), from television (the second, less famous Bob Newhart show with the semi-retarded yokel Vermonter brothers) what someone from New England is supposed to look and act like, so I won't bother repeating the stereotypes except to say that my grandparents didn't exactly fit any of them. I say "exactly" because my paternal grandfather did bear a superficial resemblance to that great Yankee spokesman himself, Robert Frost: he had Frost's gray hair (although Frost had more of it), he wore khaki pants, he taught American literature (including Frost himself), and he lived in the country, in a Connecticut lake house his ancestors had built, a lake house surrounded by the kind of birch trees Frost had someone swinging on in his poems, and by the stone walls he had someone mending.
My grandmother still lives in this house, so I won't tell you about her; in return for my discretion I hope she won't mind me telling you that, those superficial resemblances aside, my grandfather wasn't much like Mr. Frost, nor was his place much like Mr. Frost's place, or places (Why does a poet need so many houses, anyway? Why does anyone?). For one thing, my grandfather's house wasn't exactly in the country: Interstate 84 was a mile away, and when the wind was right, you could hear the big rigs calling to you the way the loons never did. For another, when my grandfather retired, he mostly stopped reading literature and started watching Wheel of Fortune; indeed, after a while the only thing he'd read was the morning newspaper and the road atlas, the latter only to find out where exactly the good people about to spin that wheel and pick that vowel were from. He wasn't much of a countryman, either. He loathed and distrusted hunters, and when they occasionally drunkenly shot each other in the woods near the house, he didn't exactly celebrate but he didn't exactly shed a tear, either. He was the kind of guy who expressed his dislike for people by mispronouncing their names (with the Nazis and Mafia, for instance, he shortened their long a's). You don't find that in any of Frost's poems. He died fifteen years ago, and I still miss him so much.
Then there were my mother's parents, first generation Italian Americans who lived in Springfield's south end with the other Italians until they made enough money to move out to the suburbs, where they stayed until they had enough money to buy a condo in Florida, where they stayed half-year until they got a condo on the outskirts of Springfield to replace their big house in the suburbs. My grandfather was a lawyer, by all accounts a talented one, although I never saw him try a case or really ever heard him talk about one. I liked to watch boxing with him and then listen to him talk about the boxers we'd just watched. My grandmother was a graceful woman who liked to kid with you up to a point, and who wore gigantic rings on her increasingly arthritic fingers. She called her husband Stutz because of a car he once drove apparently a car named Stutz that no longer exists, maybe because of the name. Her name was Helen, and she was rumored to be a terrific cook, and sometimes she would even cook something to prove the rumors correct. They were the least voluble, most private Italians ever less voluble and more private than my Yankee grandparents, who had, supposedly, been genetically and regionally engineered to be taciturn and private.
As a kid, I wondered why my Italian grandparents never talked about the neighborhood they'd left twenty, thirty, forty years earlier, even though it was barely five miles away; they never talked about why they left it, whether it was because of the usual reasons or maybe due to some unusual ones I hadn't yet thought of. I might never have seen the neighborhood if my grandfather hadn't died in 1997 and the funeral home where we had his wake hadn't been in the same neighborhood most everyone else had fled forty years earlier. My grandmother died in 2005 and her wake was at the same funeral home, so I got to go back again, to see the Red Rose Pizzeria, the nearby Student Prince German restaurant with its many steins, the Puerto Rican and Dominican markets and hair salons that hadn't been there when my grandparents had left and that I would never have seen if their wakes hadn't been held in the old funeral home back in the old neighborhood. I miss them both so much, too, the way you do when you wish you had gotten to know someone better before it was too late.
And when you miss people, when you want to know more about them, you write a book about them, or you write a book about how nobody has written a book about them. Because what did archetypical New Englander/Vermonter Ethan Frome (a character and a book I loathe) have to do with Springfield's South End and the Italians who lived there and then moved away and never wanted to look back? What did the brutish and tormented New Hampshirean Wade Whitehouse in Russell Banks's Affliction (a character and book I love) have to do with my grandfather and his obsession with Wheel of Fortune and Rand McNally? What did that crazy genius Emily Dickinson, the Belle of Amherst, have to do with the kids who went to college there, the Birkenstocked and fleeced Volvo drivers who mulched their lilies down the street from her house, where she barely lived and died? What did anything I had ever known and seen or cared about New England have to do with Henry David Thoreau, the guy who built a cabin in the woods so he could write a memoir about it, inspiring thousands of other would-be memoirists to do something so that they, too, could write a book about it?
And what did any of this the family and places I somewhat knew and loved, and the books that might have been about them but weren't have to do with me, who was born in the place but had never really lived there? What did New England matter to me? What did it matter to anyone? Should it matter to anyone? And what if it shouldn't have mattered, but still did? What do you do with people and places like this, people and places you love, people and places that disappear before they were ever properly written about, people and places that are still around but have seen better days? Maybe you do nothing. Or, maybe, you write a book about them, to bring them back, if only for a little while before, in the book, you start burning the homes of the people who didn't write about them; you write a book about them with the hopes that they, and you, might see better days again. That's my hope. I wish us all well.
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Brock Clarke is the author of The Ordinary White Boy, What We Won't Do, and Carrying the Torch. He has twice been a finalist for a National Magazine Award in fiction. His work has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, OneStory, the Believer, the Georgia Review, and the Southern Review; in the Pushcart Prize and New Stories from the South anthologies; and on NPR's "Selected Shorts." He teaches creative writing at the University of Cincinnati.