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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com Boston Globe Online / Sunday Magazine Nov. 7, 1999

New(er) England

Let the rest of the nation suffer an identity crisis. We kow who we are.

By David M. Shribman

It is the first American region, the signature American region, maybe now, as the millennium approaches, even the last remaining American region.

Its images are so clear, so recognizable, that their mere mention - passing words in the breeze of a phrase - is sufficient to place them: Clapboard houses stained to look black. A village square all in green. The firehouse in brick that's red. The mountain shoulders in their wintry white. The autumn leaves of crimson, and brown, and russet.

But it's not only the physical landscape and architecture that define it. It's the mental landscape of the place and the intellectual architecture of its people that make it forever identifiable, forever evocative, forever distinct.

The world knows it as New England, a place as colorful in its history, its folklore, its myth, and its mindset as in its seasons.
THE COUNTRY has become a nation of ambiguities. It's impossible to know where the Middle Atlantic ends and the South begins, or where the South ends and the West begins. But we all know where New England begins and ends.

For while much of America is painted in a dull wash, the colors of New England remain vivid and distinct. It was always different from the rest of the country. Today, it's more different than ever. And it is still defying demographics and the odds, still hanging on to a strong regional identity in a time of cultural homogenization, becoming even more like itself even as it changes utterly.

The United States is increasingly a nation of ambiguities. New England is increasingly a region of sharp lines. Today, it's impossible to know where the Middle Atlantic ends and the South begins, or where the South ends and the West begins. We all know where New England begins and ends. The South sometimes means the 11 states of the Old Confederacy, but sometimes it doesn't. We know that New England means six states, and only six. The West used to begin in Worcester, or at Fort Ticonderoga. No longer. The West used to begin in Ohio, or at Omaha. They're both firmly in the Midwest now. It wasn't until the middle of the last century that the West was established in our mind. For centuries, the West moved. New England has always been right here. It hasn't moved an inch.

BEFORE THERE WAS A UNITED STATES THERE WAS A NEW ENGLAND. There is a New England now, and there will be one in the next millennium, when even more Latin Americans, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and Africans join the French Canadians, Irish, English, and Eastern Europeans who settled here earlier. It's that kind of place, and not only because, as the geologists tell us, it is anchored in rock. It is anchored, too, in our intellect and in our imagination, and in the intellect and imagination of the American people.

New England has granite walls, and it had them long before Robert Frost noticed them. It has towns, and it has had them since 1635. It has autumns unlike any other, and it has had them since before it was settled by Europeans. It has schools of distinction, founded by men and women of distinction, and it has had them since before there was a Constitution or even a Declaration of Independence.

It was planted in the least fertile corner of the nation by pioneers with the most fertile minds. It is devout in faith, stern in emotion, rigid in manners, expansive in vision, intimate in nature. ''We still live in small units where personal relations ... are the rule of daily life,'' Dorothy Canfield Fisher wrote in the ''WPA Guide to Vermont,'' published in 1937. That's still true as 2000 beckons.

When the Children's Rights Council this summer came out with its ranking of the best states to raise a child, five New England states, led by Maine and followed by Massachusetts, took the top five slots, and the remaining New England state, Rhode Island, placed 12th, ahead of 38 states and the District of Columbia. The latest US News and World Report rankings, the ratings that college administrators love to deride but cannot afford to ignore, placed six of the 10 best national liberal-arts colleges and five of the 15 best national universities right here, in New England.

At the end of the 20th century, New England has a congressman, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is officially listed as an independent, and a governor, Angus King of Maine, who also is an independent. The only surviving American sermon from the 17th century is from New England, a place its inhabitants had come to regard as God's chosen region. In the middle of the 19th century, the word ''conscience'' in the phrase ''New England Conscience'' was always spelled with an uppercase C. In our minds, if not in our manuscripts, it still is, often to the distaste of others. The first map drawn, cut, and printed in America was of New England, and if you look at it today, with its parallel vertical lines marking the boundaries claimed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony, you will think that the region, independent in geography as well as in spirit, is about to break away into the sea. Sometimes it feels that way still.

''It's different here. It's a matter of attitude,'' says Judson Hale Sr., the editor of Yankee Magazine and only the 12th editor of ''The Old Farmer's Almanac,'' which has been published in New England since 1792. ''Here we are, more unto ourselves, self-sufficient, independent, scornful of the trappings, distrustful of phoniness.''

All true. But New England is more than a daguerreotype. It is a flash on a computer screen, too. New England isn't as hidebound, or as unbending, or as antiquarian, or as white, as it used to be, which is one of the reasons it is so remarkable that, in the contradiction that defines the region's complexity, New England is still so much the way it used to be.

''The small region where the country's early heroes and nameless yeomen lived was invested with immense psychic gravity and weight, as if to stabilize a nation undergoing uncontrolled geographic, demographic, and commercial expansion,'' writes Elizabeth Broun, director of the National Museum of American Art, which mounted an exhibition on New England Art in Washington earlier this year. ''New England was like a buttress supporting a dizzying arch being extended across the continent.''

Now it's more than that. It's thoroughly modern, and thoroughly wired, and thoroughly edgy, too. Because one of the great New England constants - the greatest constant, when you think about it - is change. No one came here from England, Scotland, or Holland in the frigid boats of the 17th century fearful of change; the very journey was change itself. No one came here in the 19th century, from Ireland or Italy or Poland or Russia, to replicate the status quo. No one comes here now, from poor and remote lands, to stay the same. New England was the first tourist attraction, and it is one of the forgotten but significant facts that one of the reasons other Americans from around the country came here in the 19th century - along with Mount Washington and Cape Ann and Cape Cod - was because they wanted to see what change was like.

They came here and saw new ideas and reform. They heard the word ''progress'' on every lip. The great irony is that industrialization made it possible for the New England town and countryside to seem so appealing; industry drained people off the farms. And from the start, the region offered the sort of lifestyle - a word you would never hear in the 1920s, one that you cannot avoid at the end of the 1990s - that appealed to the new thinkers and the new pioneers. The sort that appeals to the new thinkers and the new pioneers still.

Indeed, the way New England looks (and the parallel, the way New England thinks) is probably the most misunderstood thing about New England.

Because New England - where the jagged view of the White Mountains and the Green Mountains are a comforting constant, where the crisp lakes of the North Country are a familiar frigid - is probably more different now than it ever has been. It has become more regional in the last several decades even as its outlook has become more national, more international. It is even possible to argue that New England looks more like New England - more like the images of apple farms and white church steeples - than it did even 30 years ago. New England fell in love with its image, cultivated so lovingly in Yankee and in the state magazines like Down East, Vermont Life, and the old New Hampshire Profiles, and then set out to remake itself in its image.

''In 1860, New England was more urbanized and more industrialized than any other section of the country,'' says Stephen Nissenbaum, a University of Massachusetts at Amherst historian. ''It didn't look like a bunch of small towns then. It looked a lot like old England. But in response to that, New England began to look like New England. All at once New England decided to become something different: quaint and pastoral. Nobody would have had an interest before that period in making the region seem old-fashioned, a place that people would go on vacation to visit because it looked nostalgic.''

And yet with these unique crosscurrents - the past and the future flowing together - there is great continuity in New England. That's because the element that has always governed New England life - more than the terrain, which made it harsh; more than the ports, which made it profitable; more than the great expanses of hilly inland meadows and rugged coastal inlets, which made it picturesque - has been the life of the mind.

New England reinvented itself many times, first as Puritan New England, then as Yankee New England, then again during the Revolutionary period and in the transcendental period and in the industrial period, and finally in Irish and immigrant New England. ''Every one of these regional constructions is an intellectual phenomenon,'' says David Hackett Fischer, a Brandeis University historian. ''Its ethnic composition and its religions have been radically transformed - every county in New England but one in Vermont and five in Maine has a Catholic plurality now, for example - and yet it remains New England.''

The proof: Census data released this fall showed that, for example, the population of Hispanics in Massachusetts is significantly larger than that of blacks for the first time and that the population of Asians and Pacific Islanders in Massachusetts grew by 51 percent in the 1990s. And yet with all the new New Englanders, who have been flowing into the region for decades, the town is still the preeminent governmental unit here. The town meeting is still the preeminent form of government, and the prevailing metaphor, for the region. If you doubt that, go to Marblehead or to Wayland, where the populations have changed but the old ways still live, year after year.

New England tends to its own intellectual garden, and the runoff has always reached far into the heart of the country. Dona Brown, whose pathfinding 1995 Inventing New England has helped historians rethink the history of the region, writes: ''New England's countryside was imagined as a kind of underground cultural aquifer that fed the nation's springs of political courage, personal independence, and old-fashioned virtue.'' The aquifer is still full, still fresh.

New England. A region for all seasons. But especially for this one, the autumn. The New England autumn.

''We have the most beautiful falls together,'' says Deborah Arneson, an unsuccessful 1992 gubernatorial candidate in New Hampshire. ''That sounds ridiculous, but nowhere else in the world are there falls like this. Don't underestimate the importance of maple trees.''

The maple trees set our spirits free. They also, like so much else about the region, set us apart.

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