A Dead End Lane

Τhere is a “dead end” sign where I don’t remember there being one before. The road just ended. In practice, that is. Officially, the dead end is where the maintained road turns into a long-since overgrown class-4 road still drawn old maps.

Returning to the rural hilltop where I grew up always makes me think. The sodden smell of decaying leaves is comforting, even when accompanied by the dull whine and sharp bite of hundreds of insects. But for all the familiarity of the dirt roads turned into tunnels by fifty shades of green, there are subtle changes. There are more signs, for one thing. The roads have names and the turnaround for the school bus is labelled with a warning to anyone who would think to park there. There are also more houses. Big houses, brought visibly close to the road, in place of the small, frequently ramshackle habitats sitting in clearings carved from the forest.

Below the hills, other parts of town are the same way. The elementary school is still there, its doors open with just under fifty students, but so is the old general store building that has simply decayed since it was shuttered close to twenty years ago. The radar traps are new, flashing a warning to drivers who ignore the speed limit through a village that seems more than a little irritated at being ignored, but unable to do much about it.

People ask me about where I come from whenever I return from these trips. Vermont is a curiosity to them, an edenic wilderness that defies the modern world or a bastion of progressive politics epitomized by a frazzled-looking white man with a thick Brooklyn accent. (When Sanders first moved to Vermont in the 1960s it was to Stannard, a nearby town where several of my high school friends lived.) It is, after all, the birthplace of Phish and home to Bread and Puppet.

Vermont has certainly earned these reputation in recent decades, with a left-leaning congressional delegation and the early recognition of homosexual partnerships. My general read on these things is that politics in Vermont that there is a strong libertarian streak and that the intimate nature of politics in such a small state helped get the delegation repeatedly re-elected more so than their voting record, with the state historically having been a bastion of Republican politics. (Between Civil War and 1988, Vermont’s electoral votes went to a Democrat once, in 1964.) Its reputation, moreover, ignores the virulent backlash against the civil union law that went into effect in 2000, the so-called “Take Back Vermont” movement—not to mention an ugly history of bigotry that includes a small but virulent anti-Catholic strain of the KKK in the 1920s. More recently, when students proposed that Vermont adopt a Latin motto there was outcry from people who believed that “Latin” meant “Latin American”. Their mistake speaks volumes both about the makeup of the population and some of the limits to the education system, despite generally positive rankings.

These are young forests. The foundations of farmhouses and lines of stone walls are common sights when walking in the woods, serving as a reminder that the state was largely deforested in the 1800s. In some ways things haven’t changed much. From the right vantage point, the granite quarries still stick out as scars against the wooded hills and agriculture remains a significant part of the economy, even as forests have reclaimed the fields.

In truth, these things work hand in hand. Vermont’s isolation and economic challenges, particularly in the corner where I grew up, lead to poverty, but also make it an attractive destination for artists and back-to-the-earth types. The result is a population that is in flux, with a percentage of the population having been born in-state below the national average.

I haven’t lived in Vermont for more than a few months in a year since starting college in 2004 and haven’t lived there at all in a decade. I can’t remember the last time I talked to an elementary school classmate, but receive periodic updates. Some are doing well, but I more frequently hear about the ones who have struggled with drugs and the law. One died earlier this year. (I do better with people who weren’t in my specific class, as well as people from high school.) Time passes, places and people change as variations on a theme. I would like to move back to Vermont, should the opportunity present itself, but that seems like a remote possibility right now. At the same time, growing up in a rural town that had its largest population in the 1840 census informs what I do as a historian and teacher.

Writing this from my couch in Columbia, Missouri, I fear that I lost my thread. I wrote the opening sentences of this post on my phone from that wooded hilltop where I had no cell reception. All I had were a few lines, a couple of observations about the dead-end dirt road I grew up on, then and now, and a sense of omen that I couldn’t quite put my finger on about a sign. I still don’t know the conclusion, except that a launch pad is a dead end of another form.

Anecdotal History

It is easy to look at Archaic Greece or the mythic history of ancient societies and be incredulous at the role ascribed to the nomothete, whether those laws given are the product of divine fiat (Moses), or the reasoning of one wise man (Lycurgus or Solon). Even Polybius, who notes that Rome came to its ideal constitution through trial and error seems to buy the idea that Lycurgus crafted the Spartan state that, until it decomposed, required only minimal modification. It is possible to look at the gradual development of governmental systems and, for instance, how Plutarch’s biography of Lycurgus collapses a century or two of constitutional development into a single lifetime, sometime back before living memory. The one magnetic personality attracts this accreditation for the development of something, and may have been canonized at a time when the situation they are credited with is either in place or on the wane–i.e. when there is a compelling interest to explain a particular state of affairs and then perpetuated or expanded upon at later times for similar reasons.

These developments are themselves fascinating and worth studying on their own merits, but a True Story version of institutional or legal history would seem to require making the history dull by excising the characters. Anecdotes reveal something about the larger theme and are particularly prominent in biography–as Plutarch says in his life of Alexander, a quip or small act can be more revealing as to the character of the person than are the great battles.† Likewise, one of the ways to humanize a big idea is to use a person (sometimes through a series of vignettes) as a case study.

The class I TA for uses a reader does this through a pair of individuals who share a number of characteristics, but differ on one or two key issues. One of these pairs was Ellen Richards and Emma Goldman, trying to explain various approaches to the position of women in the 1910s. The short answer identifications on the last exam (who/what/where/when/how/significance) included Emma Goldman. There were some really good answers, though only a few people noted her immigrant status and fewer still discussed her anarchism and deportation. Instead, anecdotally at least, students gravitated toward her role in support of women’s rights, protections for homosexuality, and her thoughts on birth control. The most common answer given for her significance was “without E.G., we wouldn’t have birth control today.” I suspect that this was, to an extent, a cop-out answer when nothing else became immediately evident– [[we read about her so she’s important, they didn’t have x then, but we do now and she supported it, ergo…]], but I do not believe that the answer is merely the product of stress-induced, lazy test logic or an inability to grasp the nuance of historical process (though the former should not be totally dismissed, either).

A chronological timeline is misleading and barring a tardis‡ coming for you or a wealthy billionaire scientist, etc, there really only is the present, the past exists only in physical remnants and memory. The former decay, the latter are notoriously flawed. I suspect that the process by which the development of the current state of affairs–particularly where one has incomplete information–are collapsed into a single actor are completely natural. This doesn’t mean that the answer was correct in the most basic historical sense, but neither is the “modern mind” with a glut of facts and rationality immune to the perpetuation of these myths. Sure, this itself is just one anecdote, but it is still something worth thinking about instead of, say, dismissing it as a primitivism that needs to be indoctrinated away and forgotten. Each has its place and time.

† How historical anecdotes are is open to debate, however.

‡ note, I do not watch Dr. Who.