The White Issue: Memoirs of a Xenophobic Boyhood
May 18, 1993
I recently met a Southern novelist who asked me where I came from. When I told him he said, “Why, that’s as close to Tupelo, Mississippi, as you can get, isn’t it?” I loved him for saying it, since most people I meet in New York think of New Hampshire as “New England” in the generic Yankee sense of saltbox houses and Mayflower pedigrees, part of a homogenous bloc of nominally liberal states overblessed with vacation lakes and ski colonies. Contrary to this sunny leisure vision, New Hampshire has always been the slum of New England.
You would have to go back to the time of Carnegie and Morgan and J.D. Rockefeller to puzzle out the demographic of the textile belt where I grew up. When my mother’s grandparents worked in the Amoskeag and Lawrence mills, the life expectancy of a textile worker was 22 years shorter than that of a textile mill owner; there were thousands of job-related deaths every year and many thousands more job-related injuries, all of them uncompensated; children of 12 were shoved into the factories, where no laws protected them from the myriad biohazards produced by “free enterprise.” These children often died within two or three years of starting work. Thirty-six out of 100 adult workers died before the age of 25.
The towns along the New Hampshire–Massachusetts border were thickly settled by the poorest arrivals from Ellis Island, who filtered northward through the industrial plants of New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania: Greeks, Italians, Germans, Poles, Irish, Lithuanians, Portuguese. Jay Gould, the Vanderbilts, the Morgans, and the Rockefellers lured them from their European ghettos with newspaper propaganda, advertising the U.S. of A. as a gilded land of limitless opportunity — which for Gould, Vanderbilt, Morgan, and Rockefeller it was. The people who owned the country (including the sprawling corporation known as the U.S. Government) obtained slave labor from abroad with the poor tired-and-huddled-masses con, and this worked out rather more cheaply for them than actual slavery in the South had for the plantation owners, if we think in terms of investment-to-profit ratios. The suckers even paid their own passage.
My people on my mother’s side came down from Canada a decade after the Civil War, first to Augusta, Maine, where they “lived like gypsies,” according to one great aunt, and then to Lowell, Salisbury, Lawrence, and Haverhill in Massachusetts. The newspapers of the day, owned by the Morgan empire, encouraged huge families — with the staggering infant mortality rate and early death in the mills, many births ensured an unflagging work force — and so did the Catholic church; my maternal grandparents knocked out something like a kid a year, and though several of them died, seven made it to adulthood. My mother’s first language was French. It wasn’t until the early ’30s that the children became fluent in English.
The pretensions of my father’s parents, who thought they were gentry because they were WASPs and had actually farmed in Vermont before moving to Lowell (where, far from working in the mills, they published an advertising register, something like a hardcover newspaper; they transported this business to Coles Grove, New Hampshire, where they retired on their profits), gave me my first vague notion of class and ethnic distinctions: they might never have said so, but the Edwardses thought my mother’s tight-knit, wage-earning siblings vulgarly clannish, poorly educated, and, unforgivably, given to strong drink of a Saturday night — a typically Canuck, RC set of defects my father had avoided with his first wife, Florence.
Though Florence had attempted, on three occasions, to stab my father to death with a pair of upholstery shears, she was pure Anglo-Saxon on both sides, like them, and had given him two perfect male children before being carted off to the asylum.
In actual fact, my father’s mother was Welsh, his father Scottish — in a distant sense, at least, products of colonialism, like my mother’s family. (That my father’s mother was half Jewish is an abiding article of faith in my mother’s family; I have never been able to verify or disprove this, but Welsh Jews are rare indeed.) It was a question of the degree of dilution, I suppose, or distance from the “mother country”: the Edwardses considered themselves “English,” in a way that the Robitailles could never be, simply, French.
The ethnic suet of Coles Grove never produced anything like the racism of Tupelo, Mississippi, though it was similarly stocked with rednecks. There were no lynchings of Italians by Swedes, no luncheon-counter rebuffs to the one Jew and two Lebanese sisters who lived there, no separate water fountains and toilets for French Canadians. There were, less dramatically, in the absence of African or Asian Americans, all manner of ethnic stereotypes, “discrimination” in the sense that a store owner always extended credit to a WASP but seldom to a Portuguese, and, in advance of the current prejudice against gays, phobias about “behavior” ascribed to one or another group. Sometimes these followed religious lines: the Baptists were tightfisted, the Episcopalians jumped-up, the Congregationalists too loose and conciliatory in their affections, the Adventists smarmy and deranged at the same time, and so on. As Catholics — my mother’s side; my father and his father were atheists, his mother nominally Baptist — we were, of course, the only people who could enter the Kingdom of Heaven. It was better not to make friends with Protestant children, since they were all going to Hell or Purgatory for eternity, and we wouldn’t see them again in the afterlife.
Did we perceive ourselves as “white”? Yes and no: the early civil rights movement scarcely penetrated our consciousness, though once it did, with TV coverage of Little Rock, it became part and parcel of the subversion perpetrated by the Red Communists. We were not encouraged in any feelings about Negroes, for or against, but their sudden visibility in the shadow play of televised world events meant that the natural order of things was being disrupted by foreigners. The anticommunist hysteria of the McCarthy era colored every waking and sleeping moment of our lives. In the ’50s, I think, racial violence in the South reinforced our sense of superiority to the white minions of the Confederacy; the North-South polarity was even invoked in the early ’60s to explain the racist Boston politician Louise Day Hicks. She was, my father explained, “shanty Irish from down there,” and therefore more ignorant, incredible though it might seem, than the Canucks who lived in Pinardville across the railroad tracks.
A fairly distant branch of my mother’s family (Patnaudes or Dammes, I can’t remember which) had been involved in labor organizing, was said to be “pinkish” if not downright red, and because they lived over the border “the Massachusetts people,” with their educated airs and progressive ideas, merged with Massachusetts itself into a slick, socialist menace. In fact, we gloated over their racial problems, as if they were getting what they deserved from the Negroes, whom we had been clever enough to keep out of New Hampshire. As the bedroom suburbs of Boston spilled over into Windham and Derry and Salem in the late ’50s, people who had lived in Coles Grove since the ’20s cultivated an intense resentment of virtually anyone from Massachusetts; they were coming to Coles Grove to avoid sales tax, to take advantage of the low property tax, to register their cars for at least 10 dollars less than it cost in Haverhill or Lowell. Never mind that we had moved there from Lowell ourselves a few decades earlier. That was different. True, several of my aunts, uncles, and cousins worked at the GE and Raytheon plants around Lawrence, commuting in the other direction. But the Massachusetts people, who reaped the tax advantage, expected something for nothing. They were taking over the town, voting their own people into Town Hall, burdening the local schools with their snotty brats.
While my WASP grandparents kept their own counsel and seldom expressed a political thought (they lived, my mother opined, in the previous century), the factory workers on my mother’s side — and my father, who at that time was part owner of a lumber mill — identified with Joseph McCarthy, an obvious alcoholic with the logical prowess of a seventh grader. Beneath the masochistic niceness with which their social skills began and ended, they shared his insensible xenophobia, a natural extension of their own mistrust of other families. The miserable, flailing, nihilistic rhetoric of McCarthy comfortingly resembled the drunken midnight ravings of my Uncle Norman, whose throat had been ravaged by several cancer operations; he couldn’t be fitted for false teeth, and railed incomprehensibly through his gums at things he saw on TV. Joseph McCarthy was like a member of the family, a more lovably trashy anticommunist than Herbert Philbrick, supposed communist cell infiltrator for the FBI (and a big snob, whose “I Led Three Lives” variety store was a 10-minute drive from our house).
Uncle Norman had fought the weasely Japs in the Pacific War, on horrible islands where there was no fresh water or food, and assured us time and again that “death meant nothing to them.” This was also true of the Communist Chinese, though not of the Chinese living on Formosa for some reason, nor was it for that matter true of Eddie Lee, who owned the junkyard that had once been the Robert Frost Homestead.
Around 1958, two books began circulating in the town; for a book to circulate, it had to be really something, like Peyton Place. None Dare Call It Treason informed us of the worldwide communist menace, virtually untouched by HUAC and the martyred Joe McCarthy, its domestic tendrils planted deep among the heathen, restive Negroes and (who else?) the Jews; Deliver Us From Evil, by Dr. Tom Dooley, described the hideous martyrdom endured by Christian missionaries in Red China and (where else?) Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
My family was fascinated by stupidity, half convinced of its own stupidity, and abjectly complicit with stupid things that were plainly over the top. We knew perfectly well there were no missile silos planted around Exeter, but avidly phoned the local Minuteman line to hear a recording that said there were. We relished the crackpot fulminations of Captain Gay, the local head of the Masons, who passed his days regaling the Family Drug lunch counter with vivid tales of Mandingo types ravishing white ladies in shopping mall parking lots. We thrilled to Tom Dooley’s descriptions of satanic Chinese communists driving nails through the skulls of Maryknolls. We knew better, but our own provisional, fraught, crawling-into-the-middle-class status rendered our knowing better somehow questionable: did we really have the right to formulate our own opinions, when other people’s were so much stronger? We had never traveled, never seen anything except the mills, the factories, the shopping centers, the rocky landscape where you couldn’t grow a thing in bulk besides potatoes. What the fuck did we know?
I really believe that people in Coles Grove were barely aware of themselves as “white people” until the demographic shifted in the late ’60s, and African Americans in small numbers, Asians in slightly larger ones, moved into the border towns. By the time they arrived, mass media had instilled a better-than-tolerant if not effusively welcoming attitude among us. It’s hard to say, really. I never heard the word “nigger” used in my childhood, except by distant white trash relatives when they were drunk; I’m not sure that means anything more than the fact that difficult and alien subjects were considered unspeakable in my family. We were, I think, the most emotionally constipated family that ever existed.
True, “kike” was sometimes applied to George Cohn when he left the room, as in, “The thing I like about George is, he’s not a kike.” But I don’t think the person talking really knew what “kike” meant; it was just something excitingly off-color to say. “Chink” was considered a natural, rather than derisory, description of Eddie Lee, whom we liked because he always bought my brother’s secondhand cars after he totaled them.
We were only white when somebody wasn’t, European only in the presence of non-Europeans, Northern in contrast to Mediterraneans. But I suppose that’s the white thing: never having to define what you are, while other people scramble to define themselves in relationship to you. Yet whites among themselves (and blacks among themselves, Asians ditto, etc.) invariably find something besides race to detest in each other, ethnicity or sexual preference or whatever. I am convinced that my mother’s horror over my first sexual passion, for a Portuguese friend of my brother’s named Eugene Dutra, had almost as much to do with his class and nationality as with my being queer. The Dutras had an old Ford up on cinder blocks in their front yard, they lived on the bad side of the railroad tracks, and Eugene was… well, a dangerously sexual presence, a fact registered by everybody but mentioned by no one (except me, in what I thought was my private diary). He looked different and that made him sexy, and suspect.
We were a timorous and gentle family, as a matter of fact, and we were taught not to hate anybody. At the same time, there were people it was better not to trust, people we and our parents and our grandparents had been fed half-developed, silly notions about, and these notions accounted, basically, for everyone on earth outside our family. A sense of deep inferiority had been bred into us as part of the immigrant experience, and we were hardly pushy about our whiteness: there was no one around to be pushy about it with, for one thing. And for another, the town was owned by people named Adams and Newell and Shepard, had been owned by them since 1721. There wasn’t a chance in hell that Quebec gypsies and dirt farmers from Brattleboro would ever be as white as they were. ■