The Nature of Northampton: Henry James and Tracy Kidder

Henry James captures the air of Northampton in Roderick Hudson (1875)…

…The next day was Sunday, and Rowland proposed that they should take a long walk and that Roderick should show him the country. The young man assented gleefully, and in the morning, as Rowland at the garden gate was giving his hostess Godspeed on her way to church, he came striding along the grassy margin of the road and out-whistling the music of the church bells. It was one of those lovely days of August when you feel the complete exuberance of summer just warned and checked by autumn. “Remember the day, and take care you rob no orchards,” said Cecilia, as they separated.

The young men walked away at a steady pace, over hill and dale, through woods and fields, and at last found themselves on a grassy elevation studded with mossy rocks and red cedars. Just beneath them, in a great shining curve, flowed the goodly Connecticut. They flung themselves on the grass and tossed stones into the river; they talked like old friends… Rowland watched the shadows on Mount Holyoke, listened to the gurgle of the river, and sniffed the balsam of the pines. A gentle breeze had begun to tickle their summits, and brought the smell of the mown grass across from the elm-dotted river meadows. He sat up beside his companion and looked away at the far-spreading view. It seemed to him beautiful, and suddenly a strange feeling of prospective regret took possession of him. Something seemed to tell him that later, in a foreign land, he would remember it lovingly and penitently.

“It’s a wretched business,” he said, “this practical quarrel of ours with our own country, this everlasting impatience to get out of it. Is one’s only safety then in flight? This is an American day, an American landscape, an American atmosphere. It certainly has its merits, and some day when I am shivering with ague in classic Italy, I shall accuse myself of having slighted them.”

Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, “A Conversation with Tracy Kidder” (Fall 2002)…

Marianne Doezema: Why did you begin Home Town with some musings about the summit of Mt. Holyoke?

Tracy Kidder: …In contrast to Haiti, where almost nothing functions, where there is virtually no viable infrastructure, returning to Northampton, I thought: here’s a town that seems to be working pretty well, and I wonder why…

…I have many thoughts about the view from Mt. Holyoke. It hasn’t really changed very much, for one thing. Of course, Interstate 91 is there now and the marina, but still the main elements remain.

MD: That some things never change might be seen as a recurring theme in Home Town.

TK: In fact, continuity is one of the things I like about New England. I grew up on Long Island in the 1950s, and the place where I was raised has essentially vanished. It was bulldozed. For me it’s reassuring that my “replacement” home has changed less. In fact, we know that over the last 150 years quite dramatic changes have occurred—almost every tree was cut at one time, for example—but the landscape has returned in many respects to the way it was in the early 19th century.

MD: In terms of Mt. Holyoke itself and the historic hotel where so many tourists stayed, we owe a debt to groups of citizens who have recognized the value of the site of a national cultural icon and fought to preserve it over the years.

TK: I do believe that enduring geological features are important, though I don’t think I can be clear about exactly why. In a very basic way, a prominent landmark such as Mt. Holyoke tells you where you are. I also feel that old buildings in a town are important, too, for a variety of reasons, but landscape features like Mt. Holyoke even more so. They let you know that you’re not the first person in a place.

MD: Laura Baumeister, a Smith College student featured in your book, was wistful at one point about “an old, settled kind of beauty.”

TK: Yes, Laura was initially quite scornful of considering the Mt. Holyoke Range a real mountain range, having come from the West. But the mountains here came to be meaningful to her, as well as the old buildings. They served as reminders that these things were here before you and will be here after you’re gone. The geographic features, especially, give you a sense of your own place in the world and in time.