I was raised in the that mindset in Connecticut and went to college in Massachusetts, spending much of my time in New England immersed in the mindset up until I was 30 years old when I left for California. I still have that New Englander part inside me and I have grown out of much of it.
In my last months in Connecticut my mother would say: “You’re going all the way to Massachusetts? Its so far.” About 100 miles in 90 minutes. The distances are often greater in California and the times longer than 90 minutes but don’t seem as far or take as long because of the expansiveness of the landscape and that so many think nothing of it.
When I arrived and settled into living under the anvil of the oppressive heat of California’s Central Valley near Stockton I remember looking out over the expanse of lettuce and string beans to Mt Diablo maybe forty miles away and feeling ‘the call’ of the mountain. I felt the expansiveness of the landscape and the joy of the sky so big and so wondrous.
My experience of having been (and still being) a New Englander comes from my parents and grandparents and growing up in the 1950s and 1960s and so I can only speak generationally (from my generation). While there are changes from the X generation and the millennials some of the characteristics of the New England persona may still apply, but I don’t know.
I know that many of my friends and clients who reside in New England have overcome many of the downsides of the New England persona, but its still there. I’ve seen it in a relative and in myself.
Bullet points of The New England Persona:
* Stiff Upper-Lip – meaning the poker face, never show your true emotions, especially sadness and /or grief.
* Skin-Flint – meaning thrifty. Actually meaning getting rock-bottom prices for goods and services. I told a relative that I had a sliding scale for services rendered. They sniggered at me and asked: “Why would anybody pay more when they could ‘get away-with paying the lowest price.’?” I answered: “Because they have the ability to pay” and “because they think their worth it.”
* Fiercely independent or self-sufficient – not asking for help, doing everything for oneself.
* Privacy – there is an insular quality to families and a distrust of those that ask too many questions. This is evident in the dry Down East Maine humor – someone asks for directions and the answer is: “You can’t get there from here. You have to go back to and then…”
* Tradition – is very important even if it is invisible and tradition is parochial within communities. Some homes and institutions were established in the 1600s giving a rich heritage and foundation in the past, and this lends to a conservative stance in all areas not just political – though there are many political liberals in New England. When I see a company that was established in 1955 I smile and think of institutions in New England established in the 1700 and 1800s. Its snobbish, I know.
My father and mother were typical New England Yankees, conservative, parochial, fiercely independent and traditionalists. My father’s liberalism came from letting me do what I wanted – explore the world the way I wanted and to learn what I wanted to learn they ways in which I wanted to learn them. He taught me to think – to reason for myself, expecting me to think like he did and when I didn’t he tried to crush me with both his intellect and his fists. Eventually through a long and uneasy truce he began to respect my stance.
Growing up surrounded by reductionistic logic and Republican dogma I rebelled and evolved into the compassion person I am today with a Progressive Political vision.
There are those who are either unaware or vaguely aware of their woundedness and who choose not to work on these hurts. They sometimes live in the past steeped in tradition isolated from others surrounding themselves with an emotional collar of curmudgeonliness, irritation and anger in their refusal to see change. Others are aware of the wound and cannot forgive themselves – such as Lee Chandler, the main character from the film Manchester-By-The-Sea is a defeated man with a hole in his heart. He is a typical man of New England – wounded and unable or unwilling to heal – living his life out as a silent victim. If my father were alive today he would be living out his New England persona victim as a perpetrator- holding others hostage from a mindset in the past.
My relative – as I have observed has emotionally refused to acknowledge that they world has changed and lives in a tradition of the past that is restrictive, confined and steeped in a nostalgic romanticization of a past that never really existed originally. Coupled with advancing years there is an insular quality to it as well.
Its a wonder that I have seen the damage caused by the New England persona and have escaped its clutches. Perhaps it has been my relentless search for the truth.
Manchester-By-The-Sea: Context for the film –The story and Casey Affleck’s performance were Oscar performances no doubt. I told a friend that his character Lee Chandler was like many people I have known from New England. She spoke to the character of New England in Vermont and New Hampshire.