New England mores tried and true

by Royal Ford

Bill Morrissey, working boats on a distant coast and homesick for New England, picked up a barroom telephone one night and dialed an operator in New Hampshire. Later, he wrote a song about that spasm of Louisiana loneliness, how he'd called "Just to hear the operator . . . talk the way I used to."

The New England singer-songwriter's tale of longing for home speaks to ties that bind Americans to this region -- Americans who, in the words of Jud Hale, editor of Yankee magazine, "love New England because most of them have a connection to it -- even some folks who've never lived here."

It is a phenomenon that defies what's happening in other parts of the country. While forces of politics, economics and popular culture, of migration and immigration lead various states and entire regions to redefine themselves, New England's image as a region with a common identity remains rock solid.

Although New England also wrestles with these pressures, its character is still tied to ideas of self-reliance, independence, and the grass-roots power of town meetings. As a place of white church steeples and village greens -- an image promoted by Yankee and other regional magazines and by companies such as L.L. Bean -- many Americans look to the region as a symbol of what "home" should be. It may be a nostalgic image, but it binds the region.

New England's durability as a region owes much to its six-state geography, its continuing role as a gateway to America, and its plethora of good colleges and universities, drawing students from around the country. The image is bolstered by the evolution of the stereotypical Yankee from a crusty and tightlipped skinflint to a crusty but affable dispenser of wise humor, say academics, entertainers, government officials and writers.

Interviews with New Englanders new and old suggest that these elements and others have helped hold the region together during more than a decade of great change.

New England's economic structure was shaken by the rise and fall of high-tech companies that spread from Route 128 in the 1980s, and it is still recovering from the collapse of the Massachusetts Miracle. The fishing industry -- a principal part of the region's image -- is deteriorating.

More immigrants have settled here since 1980 than during any time since the turn of the century. And in politics, party identification has given way to independence as great -- and in some cases more pronouced -- than anywhere in the country.

Yet New England has been dealing with such issues for 260 years. The region lost an industrial base -- textiles, granite, shoes -- and came back from it. The people who first came by boat -- English and Scots -- and ruled a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant domain gave way to new immigrants -- Irish, Italians, Portuguese, French-Canadians, Jews, Poles, blacks from the South and down from New Brunswick.

By 1900, says Jere Daniell, a history professor at Dartmouth College, "New England was the least WASPish region of the country." And descendants of New Englanders had spread across the country.

"The history of America reads right to left, and we're right at the tap root," says Tim Sample, the Maine humorist. "We're a kind of constant."

And it may be just this constancy that has kept New England's image so cleanly etched. An emerging new South tries to define itself; California struggles mightily and bitterly with diversity brought on by immigration; Florida worries about refugees coming by boat to settle. Yet in New England, Asians and Hispanics continue a smooth historic influx.

"I am proud to say I am a New Englander. I do not think I could identify like this with some other place," said Dang Pham, the deputy assistant secretary for bilingual education in the US Department of Education. Pham, who came to Boston in 1973, is the former head of resettlement at the Massachusetts Office of Refugees and Immigrants.

"It's not that there are no problems," he said. "It's just that New England deals with the issue rather than question how you have come here or why you have come here.

"There would never be a Proposition 187 here," he said, referring to the successful California ballot initiative denying health and education services to illegal immigrants and their children.

"There's been all kinds of waves, French-Canadian to Irish to Latino," says Morrissey. "And it's still very New England."

To be sure, an image of a tolerant New England is not shared universally. Despite New England's key role in the antislavery movement, the region has generally not seemed a beacon of liberty for black Americans. When the rest of the country looks to New England with nostalgia, many think of a population as white as all those clapboard houses.

Malcolm X, who spent formative years in Boston, once said, "We didn't land on Plymouth Rock -- that rock landed on us."

And Gerald E. Talbot, the first and only black person to serve in Maine's Legislature, says that when people think of New Englanders, "they think of anybody else but a black person.

"It's like we're not a part of this history, like we've been erased," Talbot says. "It's like we're not here."

For others, assimilation continues. "You can be a New Englander whether or not you were born here," says Hale.

And many were not: the 1990 census showed that 15 percent of New Englanders were born in a foreign country. Only 44 percent of New Hampshire's residents were born in that state; for Maine, it was 63 percent; Vermont, 59; Rhode Island 63; Connecticut 57; and Massachusetts, 68. While these figures do not account for movement from state to state within the region, they do show a place in flux.

Yet it is still a place that can call its sports teams -- Patriots, Red Sox, Celtics -- "New England's" teams in a way that, say, the Phoenix Cardinals could not be called "The Southwest's" team.

"Ask somebody to define the South, or the West, and you get a theory," says Hale, whose Yankee magazine sells 60 percent of its 720,000 monthly copies outside New England.

This fall, a book called the "Rating Guide to Life in America's Fifty States" placed four New England states in the top five: Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Maine was 12 and Rhode Island 19th.

Part of the image, of course, is the loveable Yankee, a little eccentric but somehow wise.

It wasn't always this way.

Daniell quotes Paul Frey as writing of Yankees, in 1837, that they were "mean and selfish in their deception . . . dishonest whenever they can get anything for it."

"The image of the Yankee as we know it today is a fairly recent phenomenon," says Daniell.

The image began to change around 1930, he says, "owing to New Yorkers and Bostonians -- mostly New Yorkers" who began to move into Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire. Among them were the poet Robert Frost and lesser lights who wrote travel pieces that painted a Yankee land full of wonderful villages.

"Vermont made a conscious decision to promote this image," says Daniell, adding that in the late 1950s he looked up the word "Yankee" in the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature and it said, "See Vermonter."

Eventually the image expanded and farmers and seafarers across the region were included in what became a sociological surf and turf for marketers. Today, the eccentric wealthy -- dressed down and driving old cars -- are included.

Hale explains that determining who is a real Yankee depends on perspective. To Europeans, all Americans are Yankees, he says. To southerners, it is anybody from the north. In the north, you have to be from New England. In New England, it can break down further: A Yankee eats apple pie with cheese on it for breakfast. But that subset cuts a finer line: A Yankee eats that apple pie with a knife.

"We're everywhere," Sample says with a thick Maine accent. "Outnumbered but not outsmarted."

Donald Hall, the New Hampshire poet and author, writes in an essay called "Reasons for Hating Vermont," that "Taylor Rental outside Burlington hires Yankees out for parties, each guaranteed to know three hundred amusing rural anecdotes."

And it is humor -- in which people look for a dollop of truth -- that helps sell the image. It is an image promoted in regional humor of the sort that Sample takes nationwide on tour.

"I call it wisdom with a flip to it," Sample says. It is humor that makes people from away feel good about New England, its only modern counterpart Garrison Keillor's tales from Lake Wobegon, which made people feel somehow better about Minnesota.

"If I stand up and say, `I'm gonna do an hour of Utah humor,' " Sample says, "they just don't get it. Maine, they do."

It can be a self-deprecating humor, or, as Hale says, a humor that can take you down a notch and keep your feet a little more firmly rooted -- and that too is part of the image and the people of New England.

Morrissey recalls going one day down to the dump in Bristol, N.H., and announcing to a buddy named George he had not seen in some time that his singing career had just gotten a boost.

"I said, `Hey, George, I'm going to play Carnegie Hall,' " Morrissey recalls.

"How many nights?" George responded.

"Our humor is about hard times. It's about survival," says Sample. "And you know, people get something out of that."

"This is a very, very strong region," conludes Hale. "Not better, not worse. Just different."