January 9, 2012

Originally published Feb. 11, 1988, in The Washington Post Style section

New Hampshire is a fraud.

Which is to say that behind that idyll of white-steepled, sleigh-belled, town-meeting, republican-with-a-small-R America lurks a much realer and hidden New Hampshire — the souvenir hustlers, backwoods cranks, motorcycle racing fans, out-of-state writers, dour French Canadians and tax-dodging Massachusetts suburbanites who have conspired as New Hampshire has conspired for two centuries to create an illusion of noble, upright, granite-charactered sentinels of liberty out of little more than a self-conscious collection of bad (if beautiful) land, summer people, second-growth woods full of junked cars and decaying aristocracy, lakes howling with speedboats, state liquor stores that are open on Sundays and the most vicious state newspaper in America — the Manchester Union Leader, which recently greeted the birthday of Martin Luther King by describing him as a Communist dupe.

They sell the rest of the country maple syrup, lottery tickets and Yankee sagacity the way Indians on reservations sell moccasins, bingo and environmental wisdom. They never shut up about how closemouthed they are. They beat you rich and they beat you poor. They do this by taking a Calvinist pride in the riches from the high-tech boom in the southern part of the state, and then asssuming the smugness of Thoreau in defending the poverty of the swamp Yankees and shack people living back in the woods with yards full of mean dogs and broken snowmobiles. They exhibit the ethics of Switzerland and the shrugging shabbiness of New Jersey.

Or as Emerson wrote: “The God who made New Hampshire taunted the lofty land with little men.”

The question is not who they think they are, to be holding us hostage every four years with their presidential primary. Instead, who do we think they are, to let them get away with it, this white, tight and right smidgen of a place, this myth-mongering bastion of no-tax/no-spend conservatives with no minorities to speak of and a total of .43 percent of the American people? As Thomas Jefferson said, after New Hampshire town meetings had attacked his Embargo Act, “The organization of this little selfish minority enabled it to overrule the union.”

By now it’s a tradition, and New Hampshirites are quick to point out that since 1952 no one has won the White House without winning their primary first. But would we have paid as much attention back then if Eisenhower had won a first primary that was held in Nevada? In Alabama? Would Reagan’s primary landslide in 1980 have counted as much in Utah?

It’s possible, but this would imply that two centuries of self-promotion by New Hampshirites have counted for nothing, and that television reporters stand in front of all those white-painted Grange halls and covered bridges for nothing — even if the bridge is merely the fake one that the Wayfarer Sheraton, the media madhouse just outside Manchester, put up so that there’d be a view outside its restaurant. It would imply that the New Hampshire of a billion Christmas cards holds no place in the American mind, along with the Jeffersonian vision of yeoman New Hampshire farmers like Jabez Stone in Stephen Vincent Benet’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” or the small-town America that Thornton Wilder has summed up for a million audiences in his play set in the mythical Grover’s Corners, N.H., and called “Our Town.”

In Dublin, N.H., Judson Hale, editor of Yankee magazine, says: “The image really helps.” As early as 1964, when Henry Cabot Lodge won the primary as a write-in, beating Rockefeller and Goldwater, Yankee was noting with pleasure that “the eyes of the nation — the lens of television — and the voice of the press all focused on New Hampshire’s Big Town Meeting Day.”

Yankee sells a million copies a month, 65 percent of them to people who don’t live in New England. It’s a $ 22-million-a-year business that also includes The Old Farmer’s Almanac and Alaska magazine.

Why publish Alaska in Dublin, N.H.?

“Alaska is a region people dream about, just like New England,” Hale says. “They say, one of these days I’m going to get a cabin out in the woods, just as they say about New England that they’re going to get a little house with a picket fence by the town green.”

At Dartmouth College in Hanover, historian Jere Daniell calls the dream “coffeetable New England,” and says that “the fascination with New Hampshire’s primary is one of the products of a political transformation that began in the 1930s when rural New England was reromanticized — hat’s when Yankee magazine was founded and a show called ‘Town Meeting of the Air’ went on the radio.”

The image, Daniell says, got another boost in the 1960s, “with the anti-Vietnam movement and people opting for the pure life in rural New England. Now we’ve got the immigrants from Taxachusetts. It used to be the Rhode Island types who came up here with their snowmobiles. Now it’s the cross-country skiing types. Every town has to have a green now, whether they originally had one or not. If you’ve got a church with no steeple, you have to put a steeple on it.”

The dream of New England hangs over the New Hampshire hills like an anesthetic gas, easing the pains of New Hampshire’s tackiness, erasing the phone wires, the mini-golf courses, the sense of chronic opportunism that lurks behind the white clapboard purity of all those houses with dates over the doors instead of street numbers. You don’t have to look very hard, though, to see the uneasy compromise of land and people that is New Hampshire. It begins before you even touch ground. From the air, at primary time, the hills of New Hampshire look like the forehead of Frankenstein’s monster, held together with a jagged stitchery of stone walls built over the centuries to divide the fields into the peaceable kingdom we hark back to in 19th-century prints of the Currier & Ives school.

Now those walls are hidden by the woods that returned when the farmers finally got all the Indians killed in time for farming to collapse. In 1850, half the state was cleared. Then the railroads brought in cheaper food from the better land to the west, and the mills pulled the young people off the farms and into towns like Manchester, and the more enterprising New Hampshirites left for points west. By the end of the century, “the racier, the more adventurous, the less stable, the more exciting and excitable, had left,” says Evan Hill in his book “The Primary State.” And New Hampshire was on its way to being four-fifths woods.

In 1889 the state’s Department of Agriculture published a booklet entitled “Price List of Abandoned Farms in New Hampshire.” In 1891, a woman named Kate Sanborn wrote a book called “Adopting an Abandoned Farm,” which she followed with an even more successful sequel called “Abandoning an Adopted Farm.”

Was she any relation to Frank B. Sanborn, who published the classic “New Hampshire — An Epitome of Popular Government” in 1904? In a discussion of New Hampshire’s first settlers, he evokes the free spirits you find living back in those woods in their trailers and plywood shacks, the “worthy nonconformists, chiefly of the yeoman and tradesman classes, while along with such, or as a godless fringe to the pious garment, came a host of the shiftless, ne’er-do-well, or positively vicious kind, who naturally found in a new country some relief from the restraints and some respite from the fruitless toil of the fatherland.” These traits were not confined to the lower classes, according to Sanborn. “The samples of gentry that came over were often of the last-named sort, undisciplined or trained in self-indulgence.”

The laureate of this sylvan depravity is Keene’s Ernest Hebert, who is finishing a five-novel cycle set in southwest New Hampshire. Driving on back roads to Keene from Hanover, home of Dartmouth College (motto: Vox Clamantis in Deserto — A Voice Crying in the Wilderness), Hebert says: “There may be more woods here now than there have ever been. The forest is transforming itself back to what it was when the white man arrived, and maybe before that — the Indians had a sort of slash-and-burn agriculture. The nature of the landscape says a lot about the people who live here. It’s a messy forest, and as a result, people have messy yards.”

He has turned off the main road to illustrate his point that the candidates and the media never see what are known as the swamp Yankees. Just now, in a town called Sullivan, he is pointing out the tar-paper-and-plastic shanties with coonskins nailed to the sides. Wood smoke pumps into the air. Inhabitants stalk with ancient resignation through yards full of truck axles and boats full of snow. There is junk everywhere. There is an atmosphere that reminds you New Hampshirites drink more beer and distilled spirits per person than people in any other state. As Hebert writes in “The Dogs of March” of an unemployed millworker named Howard Elman: “Birches, a score of junk cars, a swing on a limb of a giant maple, a bathtub in the garden, a gray barn, a house sided with fading purple asphalt shingles, a washing machine riddled with bullet holes — to Howard, these things were all equal in beauty. He saw no ugliness on his property. As nature felled weak trees and scattered fallen leaves, so Howard Elman dispensed with machines that would not work. To his eye, his yard and field beyond were one.”

Woods and squalor: In a debate in New England Monthly over the merits of the two states, Vermonter Richard Ketchum wrote that “New Hampshire is the one that looks like a summer camp that’s closed for the winter, the one where you drive for hours through dark pine and spruce forests without glimpse of man or beast, the one where you can’t tell if it’s night or raining or if you’re just lost in the woods.”

The odd thing about the debate was that the praise of New Hampshire by poet Donald Hall made it sound worse than Ketchum’s damns. Hall wrote: “New Hampshire, my New Hampshire, is inhabited by real people who drive pickup trucks with gun racks and NRA bumper stickers ... Beginning in June, Vermont drones with the sound of string quartets, while over here, motorcycle gangs converge on Loudon. (The rest of the year in New Hampshire it’s the same noise, now performed by chain saws and snowmobiles.) ... In New Hampshire, the state supper is beans and franks, and every recipe begins with salt pork, Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, and Miracle Whip.”

Escape from the woods, and you find yourself back in the uneasy land of three-lane highways covered with sand and bordered with soft ice-cream stands and mini-storage warehouses (hallmarks of transient populations); portable signboards advertising Liv Bait 4 Sale; spiffy, neo-colonial shopping centers with gilt-lettered signs offering The Bear Facts, the Ped’ling Fool, Hair It Is; endless construction sites (there’s so much building going on in New Hampshire that one television station was advertising backhoes on the 11 o’clock news); and the palimpsest of 300 years of history — streams that run black in the piney gloom next to highways that run under railroads that lead to rivers that once floated logs past the mills now bearing the generic name of FOR LEASE, and of course those stone walls that wander out of the snowy woods like lost old people. In Europe, the history blends. Here, it looks raw and mechanical. Rising above all of it are the white steeples of the churches erected despite the reply of one crowd resisting an early Puritan evangelist: “Parson, we came hither to fish.”

Boston’s Robert Lowell has written:

In this small town where everything

is known, I see His vanishing

emblems, His white spire and flag-

pole sticking out above the fog,

like old white china doorknobs, sad,

slight, useless things to calm the mad.

Nowadays, the churches also contend with the nature worship (from behind Thermopane windows) of the investment counselors, management consultants and high-techies who like the fact that living in New Hampshire entitles them to toys with moral implications: wood stoves, four-wheel-drive trucks, cross-country skis. These people constitute Nouvelle Hampshire, and they are one reason the state rose from 25th to eighth in personal income per capita in this country between 1980 and 1985. They also provoke Ernest Hebert to say that if Grace Metalious were writing her small-town New Hampshire novel again she’d title it “Pate’ Place.” New Hampshire now has restaurants with names like Foodish Thoughts, Henry David’s (A Restaurant) and Strawberry Court, where, complained the restaurant critic for New England Monthly, “our brace of quail cried out for pommes frites.” Unlike the natives, Hebert adds, the newcomers believe that wintering in New Hampshire confers virtue. In short, they believe in the myth.

It’s a tradition, though, for out-of-staters to define what New Hampshire is. And why not? Like the state itself, the concept of “native” is an elusive reality — half the people who live there were born somewhere else.

Early on it was artists such as Thomas (”Voyage of Life”) Cole, who arrived in the White Mountains in 1827 and called them “emblems of nature’s purity.”

In 1855 George Shattuck, a Boston physician with a summer place outside of Concord, N.H., gave the land for the founding of St. Paul’s School, one of the elite boarding schools that is meant by phrases such as “old boy network” or “St. Grottlesex.”

Says its rector, the Rev. Charles Clark: “Shattuck believed his children were the first to grow up with no direct association with the frontier. He thought this was wrong. So he gave his summer estate for the founding of the school. He said the woods and hills, the rocks and rills, they are all teachers.”

The high WASPery of St. Paul’s also evokes what historian John Higham has called “the image of America that Anglo-Saxon intellectuals cherished. The tradition of racial nationalism had always proclaimed orderly self-government as the chief glory of the Anglo-Saxons -- an inherited capacity so unique that the future of human freedom surely rested in their hands.” That New Hampshire is 98.8 percent white links it in some minds with the tradition of English freedoms, and resonates in the darkest caverns of an America that still defines moral and political attributes in terms of race or national ancestry.

In 1899 the state government instituted Old Home Week, a sort of homecoming to celebrate the rural values that had been lost not just in New Hampshire but in America. Also, the idea was to give tourists and summer people more romance to believe in and spend money on.

Soon, the air fairly creaked with self-consciousness. Nowadays New Hampshirites are even self-conscious about being self-conscious — witness a history published in cooperation with the New Hampshire Historical Society that admits that “the state is somewhat culturally self-conscious, in the manner of New England states generally.” Bookstores have hefty stocks of books about New Hampshire, the picture books that show nothing of the snowmobiling gun nuts, the books with titles like “How to Talk Yankee,” and of course the collections of Yankee jokes.

“Lived in this town all your life?”

“Not yet.”

Or: “Do you think you could vote for this candidate, Mrs. Smith?”

“Don’t know — I’ve only met him three times.”

Even Robert Frost, a Californian who became the state poet, acknowledged self-consciousness as a basic theme of the New Hampshire mind when he concluded his “New Hampshire” by saying:

I choose to be a plain New Hampshire farmer

With an income in cash of say a thousand

(From say a publisher in New York City).

It’s restful to arrive at a decision,

And restful just to think about New Hampshire.

At present I am living in Vermont.

At present, too, an important chunk of our future is determined every four years by a state that holds a mere four of the 538 votes cast for president in the Electoral College. Liberals wisecrack that it is a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to have a handicapped child there — adding that the license plates reading “Live Free or Die” should read “Live Free and Die” instead. Taxes in New Hampshire were 8.23 percent of personal income in 1986, compared with a national average of 11.37, thanks to the fact that there is neither sales nor income tax. Teachers’ salaries are lower than in 45 other states. New Hampshire ranks last in its distribution of food stamps. Both of its representatives and both of its senators are Republican, and New Hampshire’s Washington delegation has seen to it that their state gets a consistently smaller share of federal spending than its share of the population would seem to entitle it to.

Its state government is a running joke, inside the state and out, with a governor who serves two-year terms and a legislature of 424 people — “The fourth or fifth biggest in the world,” New Hampshirites like to boast, pointing out with pride that it is also one of the weakest, because of the dominance of the town-meeting system in running the state. One prominent former governor, Meldrim Thomson, wanted to arm his National Guard with nuclear weapons, and he flew the flag at half-staff at Easter. In a classic paradox, New Hampshire voted for Thomson but has driven the Seabrook nuclear power station to bankruptcy with environmental protests. As for rural virtue, less than one percent of the state’s income is from farming, and it is the fourth most industrialized state in the union. As for sympathy with the victims of a changing economy, New Hampshire fights it out with Massachusetts for the nation’s lowest unemployment rate.

The state’s Democratic Party is so lifeless that in 1986 it had to dredge up a former governor of Massachusetts, Endicott Peabody, to run the required doomed race for the U.S. Senate against Warren Rudman. Since the labor strife of the 1920s and ‘30s that ended with the owners of the textile mills cashing in and taking their factories south, there has been little in the way of labor kingmakers to focus New Hampshire politics. There is no powerful bishop or veterans’ lobby or television station or major-league team to rally around.

Not only is it a state where poorly funded little men and underdogs can do well because politicking is done “retail” there — handshakes and doorbell-ringing — but it is also a state where actual losers are declared winners. Does the endless legend-vending of New Hampshire inspire the media to its interpretations of primary results? The afterglow left by some of them has no more basis in fact than a lot of what we believe about the state they occurred in. For instance, one seems to recall that George McGovern beat Edmund Muskie after the famous speech when Muskie stood in front of the Manchester Union Leader and was reported as crying and emotionally distraught as he blasted publisher William Loeb as a “gutless coward.” In fact, Muskie blew past McGovern, with 43.9 percent of the total vote to McGovern’s 35.2. Most careful observers of politics are aware that Eugene McCarthy did not actually beat Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 primary that damaged Johnson so badly, but who remembers that Johnson won that election by a hefty 7 percent as a write-in?

New Hampshire may be prudent and civil — it ranks 5th in motor vehicle registrations per capita, but only 31st in accidents — but who do these people think they are, that they can get such a grip on the American body politic? Long live the image of this nostalgia-ridden wasteland, even though the reality is dead.

The thing is, the image has the power to attract the sort of people who can make it real. Hence a high-techie like Dean Kamen, the son of a Long Island comic-book artist, who has bought mill after gutted, window-smashed mill along the Amoskeag River in Manchester, sandblasted them down to yuppie bare-brick, then filled them with machinery, doctors, lawyers, even a museum, a helicopter company, a climate-control company, a medical equipment company, a check clearing company, a dance studio, a lot of which he owns and runs himself.

Couldn’t he have done this back on Long Island?

Bearded, bejeaned, denim-shirted and 36, he says: “The people I hire, the kind of work I do, up here you have access to people who can do things that are odd, and you’re not smothered in paperwork. New Hampshire, unlike most of the country, is small enough that the nature of the bureaucracy is that you can find the person responsible. Forty miles south of here is the most socialistic environment in the United States, but here is one of the most conservative. Why? I don’t know. But it’s one of the reasons I came here.”

Now he has bought North Dumpling Island, part of New York State in Fisher’s Island Sound, between Connecticut and Long Island. He is attempting to secede. He is writing his own constitution, which begins: “I, the person ...” He is printing his own money, the unit being dumplings (at one cent per dumpling), and one bill being in the denomination of pi. “I wanted to have one unit of currency denominated with an irrational number,” he explains, handing over a stack of bills, some bearing his picture.

How Yankee, how cranky, how New Hampshire can you get?

But this is the new New Hampshire, malltown from milltown, creeping Massachusettsism. New Hampshirites complain now that the old New Hampshire can only be found north of the White Mountains, up empty roads past paint-peeling houses, the Old Man of the Mountains (possibly the least inspiring famous rock formation in America) and through Franconia Notch, past the birches and pines and maples that mix together in forests that are somehow lush and spare at the same time, up past towns so little and isolated that gift shops advertise on the radio. “Don’t forget Valentine’s Day.”

Up there are towns like Littleton, with the solidity of, say, the 1950s, before television and self-consciousness had a chance to melt everything into air, and into interchangeable monuments to consumerism like the Pheasant Lane Mall down in Nashua, by the Massachusetts line. There’s a slow, heavy ease to Littleton, shoe factories and an abrasive mill, and a joint called the Coffee Pot with vinyl booths and three old guys nursing cups of coffee at a Formica counter.

“Babbitt’s been here,” says Red Thompson, a retired postal worker. “Pete du Pont’s been here. We had George Bush just down the street the other day.”

“It’s changed,” says Floyd Ramsey, a retired schoolteacher. “People here are starting to drive like people from the city, they pull out in front of you like Massachusetts people, when they’ve only got a block to drive.”

The third old guy says nothing. He rubs five days worth of beard, he bares a small number of teeth, none of which oppose each other. A relic of the closed lumber mills? Of some backwoods trailer life? A casualty of all the changes that have made the noble, Emerson-reading Yankee farmer merely a thing of legend?

Then he starts to talk, this codger of 74, whose name is Norman Danneman, and you realize you’ve been had. “You have a limited geographic area with X number of people in it,” he says, “and when you get an increase in X, you get congestion, you get a change in behavior.”

Is this some kind of joke he plays on the out-of-state journalists who come through every four years? Playing the toothless old New Hampshire coot who can talk like an MIT sociologist? Beat you rich, beat you poor, beat you smart, beat you dumb. And they know they’re doing it.

Continue reading
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Lifestyle

lifestyle

style

Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters