In memory of Donald Hall

Yesterday, I was moving books around in the glass cabinets, and I took out Seasons at Eagle Pond, flipped through it briefly, and replaced it on a different shelf. Later that afternoon I found out that Donald Hall had died at 89. Nothing and nobody stays on one shelf forever.

Hall was raised in affluent suburban Connecticut, educated at prep school in Exeter and then Harvard and Oxford, but in spite of all this he became a spokesperson for rural New Hampshire. His mother’s parents were hill farmers in the shadow of Ragged Mountain, and he eventually ended up in Wilmot himself, never able to escape the spell which childhood summers riding on a hay wagon had cast over him. The world of Hall’s young summers, the world of his aging grandparents, was the closing scene in the roughly century-long story of vanishing New Hampshire farm communities, set amongst depopulating towns and fields growing back into brambles and then pole forests. Keenly aware of the beauty of this obsolescent world, and moved by its tragedy, Hall’s best writing was composed in an elegiacal register. Unlike some rural writers who are nothing but keening sentimentalists, however, Hall recognized the absurdities of this kind of writing—not only his own status as a suburban boy whose practical skills were unsuited for farming, but also the perils of portraying the past as a golden age. There are tones of crankiness in Hall’s work, but he was always self-aware enough to avoid becoming a crank.

I discovered Hall at a time when I was at college and trying to figure out what it meant to be from New Hampshire. The state was both more and less important to me than to Hall: unlike him, I actually did grow up here and not in (shudder) Connecticut, but also unlike him, my family’s connection to the state is barely half a century long, without a single hay wagon ever making an appearance. Although I didn’t think much about New Hampshire while I was living there as a child, in college it suddenly become a bit strange: near enough not be exotic, but far enough from the centers of exaggerated Ivy League affluence that it felt provincial and unfashionable. Vermont was celebrated by countless New York City evacuees who scribbled out descriptions of cows from the writing rooms of their million-dollar converted barns, Maine had a reputation for maritime ruggedness and its famous downeast culture, but New Hampshire was harder to love, with its exurban sprawl crawling up the Merrimack Valley and its notorious conservative bent, all of which Hall comically memorialized in his essay “Reasons for Hating Vermont.”

Why do we care so much about the places we’re from? New Hampshire, this arbitrary boundary scrawled out by London proprietors in the 17th century, within which precisely nobody in my family lived before the 1950s, and which I myself only became a resident of at age three—why should I bother to think about it at all? And why should a Connecticut-born writer come to say that his celebrated poetry was about three subjects, “love, death, and New Hampshire“?

I do not believe it is possible to answer this question about place without some appeal to the question of class, a subject with Hall himself broached in his 1985 essay “Notes on Class and Culture in Rural New Hampshire.” Hall pointed to the mobility and uprootedness which characterized the “massclass,” a group “largely composed of people who live where they live because that’s where the job is.” By contrast, the people who stubbornly stuck to the dying towns of upcountry New England did so out of various mixtures of desperation, limited ambitions, and genuine reluctance to leave a place that they cared about. As a consequence, these two different class-place formations also experienced a different arc of temporality: the balance between past and future hung heavier towards the former in places like Wilmot.

For Hall writing in 1985, this feeling of the weight of the past could seem like a wise injunction against the superficial accelerationist fantasy of consumer capitalism. Today, however, there is no mention of nostalgic place politics that does not immediately conjure up a far uglier fantasy: the racialized antimodernism of Trumpism. Hall could see some of this coming; after all, New Hampshire was New England’s conservative simmering-pot from way back, and Hall reserved particular contempt for the worthless Union Leader. “The noble lie that masks evil,” he wrote, “is Proud Independence,” and this sense of independence was very often characterized by a geographic fealty to locality over distant power.

For this reason, I have always felt some self-suspicion towards caring about New Hampshire, which is, after all, one of the least diverse states in the whole country. How can we care about little things without becoming little-minded? Here again Hall offers us some clues, for his writing, much as it may have been about New Hampshire, was more than anything about feeling, and this is a principle which is truly placeless.