As I expected, I got a bit of flak for my last article from people who do not want to believe that American life in the 1950s was far more vibrantly social than it is now, and that the basis of that sociality was the strength of the family. I was not saying that the 1950s were ideal—no time is. I was not saying that there were no fissures showing up in the walls. There were, and I said as much. And people always want to believe well about themselves, so you cannot trust them entirely when they look in the mirror and like what they see. That goes for us, too.
Nevertheless, you can tell a lot about a people by looking at what they take for granted—things that are “by the way”—their pastimes, their folkways, their songs, their humor, where they go when they have nothing to do, how they greet their neighbors, and so forth. If you really want to get to know a person, these are the kinds of things you will attend to. As with persons, so with a people.
So I am looking at an article from the September 27, 1943 edition of Life magazine, called “Letter from Home.” The author, John Field, has chosen Warner, a small town in New Hampshire, as his source, because “what is happening in Warner is typical of what is happening in the hometown of almost every American soldier, sailor and marine.” As it happens, Warner is the town where we live, so I can easily compare what the author saw with what I see now.
Warner, says Field, had 1,100 inhabitants, of whom “110 are boys in the armed services,” an average percentage for New England towns, “but to Warner it means the sacrifice, at least temporarily, of the best young men in the community.” We still have the word “community” today, but do we really have the thing, whole and alive? Even if Field paints the colors a little brighter than the light of common day, he names too many specifics for us to assume that he is not portraying what did once take place in Warner. The boys “miss the sounds and smells of Warner in the spring, the Saturday night dances at the Town Hall, the gossip at Wheeler’s drug store, the Simonds Free High School winter carnival, the hay in the barns, the good fishing of April, the June fields henna and gold with the hawkweed and buttercup, the long lonely walks home over the hard-packed snow under the winter stars.”
Almost all of that is gone. There are no more dances at the Town Hall. Field had been to one. The boys and girls and men and women of Warner did square dancing, fox trots, and waltzes. The music came not from phonographs, but from “Myron Colby and his three-piece orchestra,” playing “Timber Salvage Reel,” “The Portland Fancy,” “When I Grow Too Old to Dream,” while “150 townspeople of all ages and sizes made the floor of the hall bounce.” Those included an 11-year-old boy named Jackson Hunt who, “tapping and jiggling like a little elf, kept tune to the music and swung girls twice his size off their feet.” There’s a photo of him doing that. He’s dressed in a white shirt and tie and gray slacks, while the girl, 10 years his senior, wearing a long print dress, looks down and beams with indulgent pleasure.
That picture, now, may as well come from another planet, though my mother and father, 15 years later and in Pennsylvania, went to such regular dances all the time. When the dance broke up just before midnight, Field says, people went home, and they “were not surprised to see the lights still shining in Dr. Putnam’s office across the street.” He’s a busy man, the only doctor in town. He tried to enlist in the Navy, but he was refused, “being told that it was his wartime duty to stay here in Warner.”
Warner at that time had a box factory employing 70 men full-time (gone) and a crutch factory (also gone), but most of the work was in farming (mostly gone), and everybody had vegetable gardens, and everybody went fishing and hunting, sometimes in groups, sometimes by themselves. One of the three town casualties of the war was Roy Sanborn, “reported missing in action on Bataan,” and not listed as a Japanese prisoner of war. But his mother was sure he was still alive, because Roy was “a farmer and the son of a farmer,” who “used to take long hunting trips back up into the hills, living off the land for days. He knew where the deer and the muskrat were and where the big fish hid in the mountain streams.” Alas, she was wrong. Warner still has a fish and game club, but I have often walked by the riverside below town and never seen a single person with a rod and line. The Warner women who sent regular newsletters, called Home Fires, to the boys abroad would tell them about the fishing and shooting. It was in the community’s blood.
One of the boys wrote back: “Hearing that Ben Sawyer caught 15 trout sure builds up that yearning to get back to New Hampshire. I’ll be glad to see all the seasons in Warner again and to live in a peaceful atmosphere without fear of attack, travel among familiar landscapes, go when and where you wish—after the war. I’m pretty busy but impatient for the war to end, and I’m always longing to see home again.” A cultural archaeologist, digging up such a letter, would have to date it before 1970, not only for what it says, but for the grace of the language.
The letter writer, John Mills, would not see home again. “He was killed in action on a minesweeper, presumably in the Mediterranean,” writes Field. But he was well known and liked, “tall, good-looking and exceptionally talented in music. The town knew him also as one of its best actors”—now there is a sentence that cannot now be written, because it assumes that the little village made a regular habit of staging plays, and that in fact was so. The young man sang in the choir, worked in the office of a hospital to earn money to go back to college, became an electrician in the Navy, and finally he “met a very pretty French girl” and wrote to his mother to send him his French books from high school.
Things seem always to have been going on, not as put-ons for tourism, but in the ordinary course of human life. A few of the businesses in town were places where people met to chat. That included the barber shop, the drug store, where you could have an ice cream and soda, and the garage, a “hangout for village men,” and in fact there’s a photograph of five men sitting on benches outside the doors, caught looking aside and laughing at somebody coming their way while one of the owners gives a customer a fill-up. What do the men talk about? Things the townspeople did together:
the Red Cross sewing meetings, the war work of the Rebeccas, the Grange, and the D. A. R. How 132 people contributed blood last month to the Blood Bank, and how the Warner aircraft observation post on the Bradford Road opposite the house with the beautiful gladiolas, has never been left unmanned for a single moment since Pearl Harbor . . . About the harvest supper last fall under a harvest moon . . . The rubber salvage campaign and the 19,300 pounds contributed by Warner . . .
And on and on it goes: ice skating, a corn roast and hayride put on by the Congregationalist minister, “sleighing parties on Burnt Hill,” all now things of the past.
The article is not all sweetness. It ends with an account of the suicide of an old hunter and trapper, a loner, who told his neighbor that if he saw a light in his kitchen in the middle of the night, he should come over, “because something would have happened.” It worried the neighbor, until finally his wife saw the light and they went to the man’s house and found his body stiff and cold. But even the suicide was sociable. The man had drawn a line and an arrow in front of his house, pointing toward a stone wall, where his good neighbor found, evidently as a present, “a rusty tin can in which was $522 in bills.” Even that unhappy old man was not entirely alone.
My point is one that C. S. Lewis made in The Weight of Glory: all economic and political and sexual and educational efforts are in vain if they do not help to preserve and multiply such places as Warner was, and the things that its people did—talking together, walking at night under the stars, dancing, falling in love and getting married and having children who swarm over the fields and streets when school is not going on, singing in choirs, worshiping God. Much of the withering of church life in our time is but an instance of the withering of all community life—an instance, or perhaps its root.
In the meantime, perhaps “Letter from Home” is a letter to us, who have wandered into a far country, not to fight but to give ourselves up to vanity.