Where I Come From

By Kevin Baker

Our seemingly interminable presidential campaign is safely behind us now, but I’m not willing to let it go just yet—at least not until I hear an apology from someone about the most egregious smear to emerge from the campaign. I’m not talking about the notorious “Swift Boat Veteran” lies, or “flip-flopping,” or anything perpetrated by Michael Moore. What I mean is the decision to transform my old home state into an epithet.

I didn’t have the privilege of being born in Massachusetts but I did grow up there, and I never thought I would hear one of our thirteen original states used as an insult during a presidential debate. Yet there was President Bush, throughout his third go-round with Senator John Kerry, telling us that “only a senator from Massachusetts,” or “someone from Massachusetts,” could believe this or that. The charge that Mr. Kerry was from Massachusetts was repeated again and again throughout the election—the implication being that no more need be said; that simply hailing from such a bizarre, addled, liberal place as Massachusetts ought to be enough to disqualify anyone from the presidency right then and there.

Well, as George Washington Plunkitt once said, “Politics, it ain’t beanbag.” But I thought that if no one else is going to, I might write a few words myself in defense of Massachusetts.

I had thought of pointing out that Massachusetts is not nearly as “liberal” as Mr. Bush would have it—either by the traditional meaning of that word, or the perjorative that assorted right-wingers have tried to make it. The state is currently working on its fourth straight, Republican governor—and a Utah Mormon, at that. It was also one of the first states to launch a tax revolt back in the 1970s. Of course, a much earlier Massachusetts tax revolt produced results that even Karl Rove might appreciate.

I considered writing about that revolutionary heritage. About how many of the fathers of our freedom hailed from Massachusetts, Samuel Adams and James Otis, and John Hancock and Paul Revere. Of how the first battles of our war for independence were fought by those gun-toting, yeoman farmers on Lexington Green, and Concord Bridge, or of how Massachusetts was not only the cradle of liberty, but the birthplace of presidents from all parties: John and John Quincy Adams, and John Kennedy—and our forty-first president, George H. W. Bush (paging Dr. Freud).

I had thought of tracing my state’s ancient history of tolerance, and open-mindedness. Of mentioning how Massachusetts was the first state to elect a black, U.S. senator after Reconstruction, Edward Brooke—another Republican!—and how it was Massachusetts that raised the first black regiment in the Civil War, the gallant 54th, so well commemorated by Saint-Gaudens’s famous sculpture on the Boston Common.

To be sure, tolerance was not exactly at a premium in 2004, as voters in one state after another chose to preserve the sanctity of marriage—for themselves. Massachusetts was much excoriated for not engaging in this curious intellectual exercise. But in fact, as a rash of studies after the election showed, the Bay State is a veritable paragon of “moral values”—with the lowest divorce rate, the lowest percentage of suicides, and the highest percentage of individuals with bachelor degrees in the country (Okay, okay, it also has the second-highest percentage of New Yorker readers. Nobody’s perfect.)

I even considered waxing rhapsodic about the sheer beauty of the place. The winding, cobblestoned streets on Boston’s Beacon Hill—America’s original, “shining city on a hill”—or the beaches and cranberry bogs of Cape Cod; the rolling hills and fields of the western half of the state. But who doesn’t think their home state is a beautiful place? And who really knows their whole state—even if it’s the size of Delaware, or Rhode Island?

Instead, I thought I would tell you something about the specific corner of Massachusetts where I grew up—where I’m coming from, so to speak. It’s a small town called Rockport, up on Cape Ann, which it shares with the old fishing port of Gloucester. A stretch of rocky coastline and deep woods that is located about forty miles north of Boston, and which I feel is about as fine a place as there is in this world.

It is a small place, as I mentioned. No more than seven thousand permanent residents now, and only five thousand when I was growing up. There were fifty-eight students in my high school graduating class, and we didn’t even bother to put locks on our lockers. There’s still not a single traffic light in the whole town, nor a drink to be bought. Back in 1854, a 31-year-old seamstress with the incomparable name of Hannah Jumper led three hundred of her fellow townswomen on a “liquor raid” against the local grog shops, chopping them up with hatchets decades before Carrie Nation got the same idea. Rockport has been a dry town ever since.

I have to admit, too, that the town is about as choc-a-bloc with churches as any “red-state” community—Congregational, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Unitarian, Christian Science. I was brought up mostly in the Pigeon Cove Chapel, an Evangelical church which billed itself as “A friendly little chapel by the sea.” There used to be even more places of worship, but these were Scandinavian-language churches that went out of business and were converted into private residences as their congregations learned English. For years, men from all over Scandinavia—and from Italy, and Ireland—came here to cut the granite that became part of the base of the Statue of Liberty, and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point; the Holland Tunnel, and the Philadelphia Public Library—among many other public structures and streets throughout the United States. The granite-cutters were an irascible, independent minded lot, as might be expected of men who spent much of their time blasting out forty-ton slabs of granite from the hillsides. A wonderful old picture survives of some of them, mad as hornets, on their way down to Granite Pier to throw a company official there into the water. The granite quarries they dug are closed now, but they make invaluable swimming holes, especially as ocean swimming in northern New England is a sometime thing. I believe I could still feel my way blindfolded up the ridges of Pine Pit, to the bluffs we used to spend a whole summer’s day diving from.

Cape Ann is an old place, by American standards, and a considerable amount of history runs through it—or at least has touched upon it. Champlain stopped here, and John Smith, and being a town full of Scandinavians, we like to think a few Vikings did, too. Emerson and Thoreau, T.S. Eliot and Charles Olsen have written of its beauties, and Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper, Childe Hassam and Fitzhugh Lane have painted it. A local tool works, recently closed, built some of the parts that went into Lindbergh’s plane, The Spirit of St. Louis. Some of the nation’s earliest art and literary colonies were founded here, and there is even an old, red fishing shack known as “Motif No. 1” that is supposed to be the most painted building in America, though none of us understand why, exactly.

The first permanent settlers arrived in 1690, and their family names—Tarrs and Pooles and Babsons—are still well-represented in town. There was even an accused witch, the wife of John Proctor, of Crucible fame, who fled the hysteria down in Salem. Her house still stands, next to a pond where I caught my first frog, and where we used to skate in the winter. Ghosty rumors about the place abounded, and we boys probably drove the people who lived there crazy, peering in their windows for signs of any supernatural goings-on.

It has been a fortunate place, my old hometown, largely free of the ravages of war, or natural disaster. During the War of 1812, the British frigate Nymphe did show up to fight what must surely rank as one of the more ludicrous skirmishes in American history. Marines from the Nymphe managed to capture the town’s entire, redoubtable garrison of “Seafencibles” while they slept, then tried to storm the beaches. A cannonball from one of their barges actually managed to hit the steeple in the Congregational “Old Sloop” Church. No mean shot—but the recoil from the blast also blew their boat apart, and the invaders were captured by townspeople armed with muskets, pistols, and homemade slingshots fashioned from their stockings. After what must have been a red-faced truce, and exchange of prisoners, the Nymphe sailed off again, with no loss of life and the less said all around the better.

More seriously, men have gone from here to fight in all our wars. We honor their memory every Memorial Day with a solemn procession to the town graveyards, then down to lay a wreath on the water. The march is always headed by the American Legion band, led by my old junior high school teacher and baseball coach, George Ramsden. On the Fourth of July, he dons a long red nightshirt and a plumber’s helper, and leads the same band, similarly attired, in the “Horribles” parade—another New England tradition; a sort of charivari, sponsored by the town’s volunteer fire department. The parade always concludes with a bonfire down by the beach, and a concert from the gazebo outside the Legion hall.

I could go on, but I’m aware that these sorts of reminiscences make my old hometown sound like a modern version of Our Town, and I don’t mean to idealize it. Things change, and Rockport has its problems and limitations, just like anyplace else. It has never been as diverse as many American places—certainly not as much as the Manhattan block where I’ve lived for the past quarter-century, and which I also love dearly.

That is, I suppose, the point. America is a country that was founded on a principle, but most of us know some part of it we are uncommonly attached to. As I understand it, there are even some people who are very fond of Texas.

I never like it when people call the South “redneck country,” or when news commentators flippantly refer to our great, industrial heartland as “the Rust Belt.” I think if we really are to pull together as a nation, we need to restore at least a basic respect for how we all live, and where we come from. An apology would be a good start, but I’m not holding my breath. As an old New Englander, I know the worth of the place I come from, and that its values and its character will endure, long after the noise of another campaign has receded.