Turmarion sent in a link to a good interview with the novelist John Irving. In it, he talks with his interviewer, a New Englander like him, about how unfriendly their homeland is. Excerpt:
Irving: It’s true. And it’s my line, god damnit — it’s not in the novel, but it’s my line.
I lived five years in the Midwest, and I loved it. The people were so nice. The people were so open. There’s an enormous uptightness in the part of the world we both come from, and for sure it’s reflected in not just Owen Meany but in most of my novels with a New England setting.
There’s a judgmental strain here. Politically, you can love it. I mean, especially in the case of the last election — even New Hampshire was a blue state. How about that? Who would have figured that New Hampshire would ever be a Democraticstate?Who would have figured that New Hampshire would ever be a Democratic state? What a surprise. But there’s a level of suspicion, nastiness toward foreigners, whatever, which is so bizarre given that the principal industry of New England is tourism.
Dave: I spent a lot of time in Maine when I was young…
Irving: Me, too. I grew up in New Hampshire, but I spent every summer in Maine.
Dave: Where were you?
Irving: Boothbay Harbor; Georgetown; Damariscotta — midcoast.
Dave: I’ve always thought it’s something about being tucked up in the corner of the country. To leave, you have to pass through New York City, which is a nightmare by car; the alternative is to drive hundreds of miles through upstate New York and not get anywhere fast.
I lived in Maine the winter before I moved here. We were in a small town, among people who were native to the area. The majority hadn’t made the three-hour trip to Boston in years and years
If you don’t live in a tourist town, which is to say on the coast or a lake, you might not see “immigrants” for years at a time.
Irving: I agree. But there’s also the Puritan thing here, the sense that we’re not a part of the rest of the country, we’re apart from it, we’re special. And in some ways, politically, that may be admirable, but in other ways the sense of privileged isolation, I don’t know how healthy that is.
Portland [Oregon] has always struck me as a place where young people who were bored with wherever they came from go.
Dave: That’s fair.
Irving: Do you think?
Dave: It’s how I got here, at least in part.
Irving: But New England is a place where old people from New York and Boston go to retire.
Dave: Or their families have been living there for generations. Or they come for college, stay into their twenties, then go somewhere else to settle down.
Irving: Something like that.
In my case, my family is here. My roots are here. I live here. But do I love it? No, I don’t. I find a lot of fault in it. But then, hey, that’s what I’m supposed to do: I’m a writer. Anyplace that I’m familiar with, if I don’t find fault with it, I’m brain-dead.
Just so you know, Irving hates America too, as he goes on to say. That aside, what interests me about this is Irving’s diagnosis of New England culture. I have never lived in New England, though I once vacationed in Vermont, and thought it some of the most beautiful country I’d ever been in. I have a romantic notion of flinty Yankees, an idea innocent of actual experience of them. A Southern friend taught for a few years in a New England college, and got so worn down by the cold — the weather, but mostly the coldness of the people — that he quit and moved back down South.
Anyway, I notice that we have more than a few New Englanders who read this blog. Is Irving (who lives in Vermont) right about New England culture? If so, what’s your theory of why things are the way they are there?
More broadly, for people who live elsewhere, how would you characterize the people in your part of the world? I know we’re speaking in broad generalities here, but so what? In the South, people are, in general, really polite and friendly. Why? All I can figure is that it’s too hot to be an ass, at least consistently. That, and the legacy of a culture of formal courtesy still instructs. Folks who move here from other parts of the US are sometimes unnerved by the formalities (e.g., young people addressing old people as “sir” and “ma’am” — but I love love love that, and the world doesn’t feel right when people fail to do that). In my experience traveling, Californians are as friendly as Southerners, but they lack the formality that establishes a necessary bit of distance between oneself and others. In other words, I like the friendliness of Californians, but they are often too casual for my sensibility. I remember the first time I went to L.A., and decided that I couldn’t imagine why these people didn’t just float out into the ether. There seemed to be no gravity there, only sunshine and niceness. Which might be better than New Hampshire in February, but still, I would very much be a displaced person if I had to live in California.