THE EDUCATION OF A YANKEE An American Memoir By Judson Hale Harper & Row. 261 pp. $17.95
WHEN ROBERT FROST was 39, he wrote a friend in Plymouth, N.H., that he planned to buy a farm in northern New England, settle down "and get Yankier and Yankier." Which he did. Over the next 45 years he grew to be the very personification of New England, the ultimate Yankee.
Who bears that title now? Well, my candidate is Judson Hale of Dublin, N.H. He's got the right ancestors, the right job, the right taste for understated humor. He knows a vast number of New England anecdotes, many of which appear in this book.
Take the ancestors. They weren't just born in New England, they might have been designed by the Puritan god to confirm every stereotype that other people have about New Englanders. Wealthy Grandpop Hale, for example, habitually refolded used paper napkins and saved them to use again. He also had his chauffeur make all gasoline purchases early on cool mornings. Gasoline expands as the temperature rises, and Grandpop believed that by afternoon each gallon would have swollen by half a pint or so. How frugal can you get?
Or take the job. Hale has spent his adult life working for Yankee magazine (which was founded by one of his uncles). For the last 17 years he has been the editor. And understatement? That sets the tone for the whole book, in more ways than one.
Hale is a different kind of Yankee from Frost, to be sure. Frost was, or pretended to be, a rural native, a son of the soil. Not Hale. He springs from the aristocratic New England of good prep schools and yachts and trust funds. One set of grandparents lived in Louisburg Square in Boston, the other set in the largest house in West Newton, Mass. When his father decided that he would buy a farm, he settled on 12,000 acres in Vanceboro, Maine, and wound up employing nearly everybody in town. The effect was dramatic. "It was as if someone trucked in a couple tons of ten-dollar bills and told everyone to go get 'em," a native of Vanceboro later recalled.
It's true that in spending the last 30 years working for Yankee and living in relatively plebeian Dublin, Hale has moved away (though not far) from the aristocratic mode and aligned himself (though not all the way) with the Frost model. It is the resulting dichotomy that gives this book its somewhat peculiar interest.
On the one hand, much of the book is stories -- and well-told ones -- about running a magazine that exists to project a homely and yet romantic New England image. But an earlier section is about growing up as the son of the squire of Vanceboro. Every section dwells on his often disastrously eccentric relatives, and most of them include some disastrous behavior of his own. This is a book cast in the confessional mode, like the later poems of that other quintessential Yankee, Robert Lowell. But it's disaster treated lightly.
IT USED to be that well-bred WASPs kept their emotions under tight control, and their skeletons firmly in the closet. In this book Hale breaks exactly halfway with the old pattern. No skeleton is closeted: not his father's suicide, nor Grandpop's mistress, nor "poor Aunt Jane's" lobotomy. Not the harrowing story of Roger Drake Hale Jr., the older brother to whom the book is ambiguously dedicated. Not his own numerous problems caused by failing to reach puberty until age 18.
All these stories are told pretty much as if they were humorous vignettes in Yankee. That is, with emotions firmly repressed, the depths sealed off. The effect is most striking as Hale describes his brother's life. His brother was brain-damaged at birth, and from the age of four has been living in a home for the retarded in Switzerland. Closeted, you might say. Closeted for 57 years now.
It's obvious that both parents went through great agony over their son (with whom the mother faithfully spent part of each year). But except in two or three passages, agony is missing from the account here. Hale tells about "Drakie-boy" as he might about any other remote disaster, something so far away and long ago that the pain has evaporated. He seems almost heartless. He isn't, of course. He's just trying to be stiff-upper-lipped and completely open at the same time. Not easy.
There are about three different books struggling for existence in The Education of a Yankee. One is the tragic idyll of Sunrise Farm in Vanceboro, Maine -- tragic in that the farm failed utterly and destroyed Hale's father in the process. One is the much cheerier success story of Yankee magazine. And the third is the account, as honest as Hale can make it, of a privileged, eccentric and often suffering bunch of Yankees. The first two come out pretty well. As to the third, Faulkner would have done it better. Or Frost.
Noel Perrin teaches literature at Dartmouth and farms in Vermont.