Norwood, chapter 1

June 25, 2015

NORWOOD;

OR,

VILLAGE LIFE IN NEW ENGLAND.


CHAPTER I.

INTRODUCTION.

Since the introduction of railways, thousands of curious travellers
every summer have thronged New England, have seen its
manufacturing villages, and admired its general thrift. But those
who know its scenery only by the river-valleys, know little of it;
and those who have seen its people only in cities, are little
acquainted with New-England character

Men speak of Yankee character, as if there was but one type
which pervaded New England. It is true, that there are some few
marks which New-England men have in common. But the differences
are greater than the likenesses. Nowhere else in the nation
are men so differentiated. The loose structure of Southern society
gave to its citizens an appearance of greater personal freedom; and
in the Great Western States various causes have produced far more
freedom of manners, and more frankness and spontaneous geniality.
Yet it will be found that neither in the South, nor in the West, is
there so large a proportion of the population which is original,
contrasted, and individualized in taste, manners and opinions, as in
New England. If we should employ a scientific method, and speak
of a Western genus, and a Southern genus, and a Middle State
genus, then it will be found, that none, nor all, are so rich in species,
as the genus New England.

The scenery of New England is picturesque rather than grand.
Scarcely any other excursion could be planned which would so
well fill a summer vacation, as one which, winding leisurely up
through the western portions of Connecticut, of Massachusetts, and
of Vermont, reached a climax at St. Albans, on the eastern shore
of Lake Champlain; a place in the midst of greater variety of
scenic beauty than any other that I remember in America. On the
east rise the successive masses of the White Mountains, seemingly
close at hand; on the west is Lake Champlain, swarming with
green islands, and beyond its waters, westward, rise the Adirondacs,
not in chains or single peaks, but in vast broods, a prmiscuous
multitude of forest-clothed mountains. On the north is scooped
out in mighty lines the valley of the St. Lawrence; and, in clear
days, the eye may spy the faint glimmer of Montreal.

Such a ride from New Haven to St. Albans, from Long Island
Sound to Lake Champlain, can scarcely be matched for the charms
of its scenery, the number and beauty of its villages, for the general
intelligence and culture of its people, for the universal thrift
following universal industry, and for crisp originalities of character.

The maritime population of New England is very unlike all the
rest. the foreign element has greatly modified society. Commerce
and manufacturing have worn away many of the primitive
New England traits; and the wealth and refinement of the cities
have to some extent overlaid the peculiar New England element
by a cosmopolitan gilding. The remote neighborhoods and hill-towns
yet retain the manners, morals, institutions, customs and
religion of the fathers. The interior villages of New England are
her brood-combs.

Our simple story of domestic life will take us to a point
intermediate between the rugged simplicity of mountain towns and the
easier life of the cities.

A traveller going north from Springfield, in Massachusetts, soon
perceives before him an abrupt barrier, running east and west,
which, if compared with the country on either side, might be called
mountainous. the two westernmost summits are Mount Tom and
Mount Holyoke. By a narrow passage between them comes
through the Connecticut River. Passing between these hill-mountains,
we enter a great valley or basin, some twelve miles
wide and thirty long, which one might easily imagine to have been
once a lake; the Pelham hills on the east, sugar-loaf on the north,
and the Holyoke range on the south, forming barriers on three
sides, while its waters on the west were stayed by the slopes of
those hills which, in the middle of western Massachusetts, are all
that remain of the famous Green Mountains.

Look with my eyes, good reader, upon the town of Norwood,
that, refusing to go down upon the fat bottom-lands of the
Connecticut, daintily perches itself upon the irregular slopes west, and
looks over upon that transcendent valley from under its beautiful
shade trees, and you will say that no fairer village glistens in the
sunlight, or nestles under arching elms! It is a wonder that
Norwood was ever allowed to venture so near to the low grounds of
the Connecticut; for it was early settled, nor far from thirty years
after the Pilgrims’ landing. How the temptation to build upon
the top of the highest hill was resisted, we know not.

Did the New England settler alight upon hill-tops, like a
sentinel, or a hawk upon the topmost bough, to spy danger at its first
appearing? Or had he some unconscious sense of the poetic beauty
of the scriptural city set upon a hill—some Jerusalem, lifted up,
and seen from afar, in all its beauty? Or was he willing to face
the sturdy winds of New-England hill-tops, rather than to take the
risk of malaria in the softer air of her valleys? Whatever the
reason, the chosen spot in early days seems to have been a high
and broad-backed hill, where the summer came last, and departed
earliest; where, while it lingered, it was purest and sweetest;
where winter was most austere, and its winds roared among the
trees, and shook the framed houses with such awful grandeur, that
children needed nothing more to awaken in their imagination the
great Coming Judgment, and the final consuming storms, when the
earth should be shaken and should pass away!

Norwood, a town of five thousand inhabitants, like hundreds
of other New England towns, had in a general and indistinct way
an upper, middle and lower class. A wholesome jealousy of their
rights, and a suspicion among the poor that wealth and strength
always breed danger to the weak, made the upper class—who were
ranked so by their wealth, by their superior culture, and by the
antiquity of their families in town—politically weaker than any
other.

The middle class comprised the great body of the people,
all dependent upon their skill and activity for a living, and all
striving to amass property enough to leave their families at their
death in independent circumstances.

The lower class of a New England village is chiefly composed
of the hangers-on—those who are ignorant and imbecile, and
especially those who, for want of moral health, have sunk, like
sediment, to the bottom. Perhaps nowhere in the world can be found
more unlovely wickedness—a malignant, bitter, tenacious hatred
of good—than in New England. The good are very good, and the
bad are very bad. The high moral tone of public sentiment, in
many New-England towns, and its penetrating and almost
inquisitorial character, either powerfully determines men to do good, or
chafes and embitters them. This is especially true when, in certain
cases, good men are so thoroughly intent upon public morality that
the private individual has scarcely any choice left. Under such a
pressure some men act in open wickedness out of spite, and some
secretly; and the bottom of society wages clandestine war with
the top.

But, fortunately for Norwood, the public sentiment, though
strong and high in moral tone, had been by peculiar influences so
tempered with kindness, that, far less than in surrounding places,
was there a class of fierce castaways at the bottom.

The main street of Norwood was irregular, steadily seeking
higher ground to its extreme western limit. It would have had
no claims to beauty had it not been rich in the peculiar glory of
New England—its Elm-trees! No town can fail of beauty, though
its walks were gutters, and its houses hovels, if venerable trees
make magnificent colonnades along its streets. Of all trees, no
other unites, in the same degree, majesty and beauty, grace and
grandeur, as in the American Elm! Known from north to south,
through a range of twelve hundred miles, and from the Atlantic
to the head waters of the rivers which flow into the western side
of the Mississippi, yet, in New England, the elm is found in its
greatest size and beauty, fully justifying the Michaux’s commendation
of it to European cultivators, as “the most magnificent vegetable
of the Temperate Zone.” Though a lover of moisture and richness,
the elm does not flourish so well upon pure vegetable soils as
on intervale lands, stronger in mineral ingredients than river
meadows.

Single spots, finer than any in New England, there may be in
other lands; but such a series of villages over such a breadth of
country, amidst so much beauty of scenery, enriched, though
with charming and inexpensive simplicity, with so much beauty of
garden, yard, and dwelling, cannot elsewhere be found upon the
globe. No man has seen America, who has not become familiar
with the villages of New England and the farms of the Northwestern
States. Yet every one will confess that a large part of
this scenic beauty of New England is contributed by trees,—and
particularly by the elm. The Elms of New England! They are as
much a part of her beauty as the columns of the Parthenon were
the glory of its architecture.

Their towering trunks, whose massiveness well symbolizes
Puritan inflexibility; their over-arching tops, facile, wind-borne
and elastic, hint the endless plasticity and adaptableness of this
people;—and both united, form a type of all true manhood, broad
at the root, firm in the trunk, and yielding at the top, yet returning
again, after every impulse, into position and symmetry. What
if they were sheered away from village and farm house? Who
would know the land? Farm-houses that now stop the tourist
and the artist, would stand forth bare and homely; and villages
that coquette with beauty through green leaves, would shine
white and ghastly as sepulchres. Let any one imagine Conway or
Lancaster without elms! Or Hadley, Hatfield, Northampton, or
Springfield! New Haven without elms would be like Jupiter
without a beard, or a lion shaved of his mane!

And so, reader, as one loves to approach a mansion through an
avenue of elms, we have led you through a short discourse of
trees, to our homely story.

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