The state of New England studies today might best be characterized by a phrase commonly encountered in nostalgic depictions of old New England: “genteel decline.” After several decades of expansion, academic programs founded in the 1980s and 1990s at institutions across New England are now facing cutbacks and retrenchment. But interest in New England’s culture and landscape has deep roots in the region. Periodic outbreaks of enthusiasm for the idea of a distinctive “New England way” still leave a lingering impression.
The academic study of American regions and regionalism seems always to have responded to a regularly rising and falling popular interest. And perhaps a little ironically, that enthusiasm has usually seized more or less the entire nation at once, rather than just one distinctive region. The late nineteenth-century explosion of “local color” literature offers one example. Mary Wilkins Freeman, Elisabeth Stuart Phelps, and Sarah Orne Jewett, among others, depicted the isolation and stillness of late nineteenth-century backcountry New England in terms that seemed to be made up of equal parts love and loss. One might imagine their short stories and sketches to be unique and personal responses to the depopulation and economic decline of rural New England’s farms and seacoast villages. But their tales were matched by an equal outpouring of local color writing from the South, Appalachia, the Midwest, and the West, in “colors” ranging from the grim rural realism of Hamlin Garland to the quaint Tennessee dialect tales of Mary Noailles Murfree. Much of this literature was published, moreover, not in distinctive regional magazines, but in that hip new cosmopolitan journal, the Atlantic Monthly.1
In the 1930s, similarly, a resurgent regionalism arose from all corners of the nation as a response to the perceived crisis of urban, centralized, industrial [End Page 25] America. This new regionalism found its earliest expression in I’ll Take My Stand (1930), a joint effort of twelve writers affiliated with Vanderbilt University that attempted to position the South as the defender of rural agrarian values against the impending shipwreck of urban eastern industrialism. Art historians might say, however, that this wave of regionalism was best expressed in the distinctive styles of midwestern painters Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry.
In New England, the Great Depression generated its own reassertion of regional values, although it took a rather long and winding path. In the early years of the twentieth century, New England’s image had taken a beating. Modern writers chipped away at the region’s once-admired cultural legacy. From Edith Wharton’s bleak Ethan Frome (1911) to Eugene O’Neill’s steamy Desire Under the Elms (1924), New England tales had been set in harsh and bitter landscapes, where characters were crushed beneath a legacy that repressed all natural instincts. Even children’s books like Rebecca of Sunny-brook Farm (1903) and Pollyanna (1913) portrayed rural New Englanders as rigid, tightlipped, and joyless. In the popular press, New England was typically viewed as politically conservative, socially backward, and economically stagnant.
It took the shock of the Great Depression to awaken a new sort of popular admiration for New England. In a March 1932 Harper’s Magazine column titled “New England: There She Stands,” historian Bernard DeVoto issued the first direct challenge. DeVoto began with a mock acknowledgement of what “everyone knew”—that New England was a “rubbish heap of burnt-out energies, suppressed or frustrated instincts, bankrupt culture, social decay, and individual despair.” Nevertheless, he admitted, he had recently encountered something altogether different in the region. In these dark Depression days, at a time when “panic possessed America,” he announced, “New England wasn’t quite so scared. The depression wasn’t quite so bad in New England[;] despair wasn’t quite so black.” All those years of decline had evidently made New Englanders strong. Getting by in hard times had become as much a part of the region as its rocky soil: “By the granite they have lived on for three centuries, tightening their belts and hanging on.”2
DeVoto’s essay was just the beginning. During the Depression years, rural New England was newly idealized—not now as a...