“To be merely queer is no achievement, but to be brilliantly individualistic is a fine art which Geneva brought to perfection,” wrote Warren Hunting Smith, who died last November at the age of 93.
Mr. Smith lived something of a double life. He was an editor of the Yale Edition of the Horace Walpole correspondence, but he was also the resident man of letters in his hometown of Geneva, New York.
The Smith family had made its fortune in the nurser)’ business, which is to say in the cultivation of trees and shrubs, not in the provision of stranger-supervised daycare for the squalling spawn of yuppies, the latter being the nursery business that made failed Republican presidential candidate Lamar Alexander a rich man.
The family was not quite salt of the earth. Smith’s uncle, William, a misogynistic bachelor who founded the women’s college that bears his name, was a spiritualist who bequeathed to nephew Warren a notebook containing letters “beginning ‘Dear Mr. Smith’ and signed by such names as Socrates, Julius Caesar, and ‘your loving aunt, Sally Coleman.'”
Nonetheless, Warren grew up with ground beneath his feet and the knowledge that Geneva was his. At the age of 25, he published a history of his small city, conceding, “A book of this sort should preferably be written by some mellow old gentleman, full of those memories which younger people can acquire only with painful research. Unfortunately, no such old gentleman has shown any literary interest in Geneva, so I have ventured to usurp the vacant place.”
The book, which he titled An Elegant but Salubrious Village, is an outrageous exercise in snobbery, though in the good cause of his hometown. He writes:
The very name ‘Geneva, New York’ is a sort of protective coloring, suggesting provincialism of the worst sort. We feel, when we hear it, as we do when we hear of someone named George Washington Schwartz or Michelangelo Snooks; it is as much a surprise to find real charm in this town with the pretentious foreign name as it would be to discover that Mr. Schwartz is really descended from the Washington family, or that Mr. Snooks is actually one of the Buonarroti.
Whether he wrote of English travelers (Originals Abroad) or Sunday painters (Gentle Enthusiasts in Art), Mr. Smith’s subject was always individuality. His only novel, the delightful The Misses Elliot of Geneva (1940), sketched two ancient Episcopalian sisters with “one hundred and sixty-five years of celibacy” between them. They hated “foreigners, Democrats, High Churchmen, and companies that don’t pay dividends,” and we understand, by novel’s end, that sisters Primrose and Candida are the last magnificent specimens of a dying breed.
Death spared the Misses Elliot the pain of viewing the grotesque consequences of World War II and the ensuing Permanent War. Their Geneva was decimated when 45,000 transients bunked at the nearby Sampson naval training center. The stately old porticoed homes were remodeled into apartments; wooden barracks were thrown up to catch the “human avalanche.” Local historian Arch Merrill wrote, “a blue tide surged into Geneva every night. The city virtually became a roaring Navy camp and the blare of the juke boxes in the 20 night spots all but drowned out the thunder of the organ of Trinity Church and the voices of the traditional past.”
The city prospered, became meretricious. Rouged and slinky, she had a fat purse for several years: Sampson made Geneva a Goliath. But Uncle Sam tired of this particular whore, and in 1956 he moved on. Geneva never quite recovered, though today Primrose and Candida’s house is only an arthritic jog from Wal-Mart.
The Misses Elliot of Geneva was praised by Stephen Vincent Benet, who saw in the haughty old maids “a certain kind of individualistic American small-city society, independent, crotchety, brisk and always speaking its mind.” The sisters, wrote Mr. Smith, “felt that the United States of America was, in a spiritual sense, almost their own property, just as they felt that Geneva almost belonged to them.” This is the proprietary patriotism that one finds in Edmund Wilson and Gore Vidal, for instance, or in those “love-cracked” New England spinsters whose campaigns in the 1950’s to save the tall oak tree from the highway wideners or to preserve the home of their town’s third-rate poet earned condescending, faintly sneering, notice from Life magazine. (When was the last time an American high school was named for a poet? Can you imagine the citizens of Centerville dedicating Adrienne Rich High?)
Mr. Smith was what once was known as a confirmed bachelor. He did not use a computer. He did not watch Friends; he had friends. Until the end, he painted every Sunday—the hills and grapy vales of his Finger Lakes. (Shortly before his death, he sent me a photograph of himself, bespectacled. In his old man’s scratch, he scrawled, “I don’t need glasses, except when out sketching landscapes.”)
I met Warren Hunting Smith when he was 86 years old: He was the only person I’d ever known whose favorite novelist was Louis Auchincloss. In the abstract, I was an anti-Smith, for I am a leveller who has always regarded the old families as effete and useless, producing their withered lines of druggie sons and wan daughters, breeding like incestuous dogs and bragging about their thieving ancestors on the wedding page of the New York Times. (“When people put a lot on what their folks used to do, it always means they haven’t got gimp enough left to do anything themselves,” as Grandma Savage says in Booth Tarkington’s The Midlander.)
My grandfather Baker was a handyman on the estate of the Woodwards, self-styled aristocrats of our county—old man Woodward, a patent-medicine salesman, paid a penniless local inventor $450 for the formula to what became Jell-O. The paternalistic Woodwards paid for my mother’s birth, for which I am grateful, but I never could figure out how one could grow snooty over a fortune based on those inedible jigglers for sale in hospital cafeterias. Then again, I’m told that the most insufferably pompous member of the House of Representatives is Wisconsin Rep. James Sensenbrenner, heir to the Kotex fortune. The ways of superciliousness are mysterious.
My Sicilian great-uncle toiled for the Wadsworths, land barons of Western New York, a.k.a. the ones who stole all this land from the Indians. Old man Wadsworth once fired a hired hand for having the audacity to purchase a Model-T; when his niece reproved him, he called her “a goddamn Bolshevik.” The purpose of this dancing on the limbs of the family tree is to say that my sympathies are and always have been with the black scullion hidden in the kitchen and spitting in the soup.
Yet I have learned that the old families are essential to Benet’s “individualistic American small-city society.” Given that Money calls the shots in this country, their place has been taken not by honest workmen or staunch merchants but by absentee-owned megastores whose names are never found on the list of sponsors of the historical society, the hospital guild, the friends of the library, the concert band, the minor-league baseball team, or the community groups that give a place its accent. In most such cities today, all that remains of the old industrialists are . . . their remains.
Individualistic Warren Hunting Smiths are produced by long years of residence in one place. They are not minted in colleges, for as the Kansan Wes Jackson writes, schools offer “only one major: upward mobility.” Or outward mobility. Leave-taking. (Of the school his uncle endowed, Warren Hunting Smith said, “The people of the college have no interest in civic affairs.”)
The departure of Smiths may set in motion a series of events that ends in collapse, as ruderal Wal-Marts sprout like poison mushrooms in the ruins. In my own small city, Batavia, New York, the sons and daughters of what we might call the Booth Tarkington class left, en masse, after World War II, often taking up residence in soulless suburbs far from the city whose stores and factories bore their family names. So that political power would not devolve to the workers in those factories, the Republican middle-class abolished the mayoralty and foisted upon us a city-manager system, which for 40 years has imported credentialed transients who oversaw a Dresden-like urban renewal program that devastated the city and dispirited the citizens. But at least we were saved from a Polack machinist or Dago baker as mayor.
Today, when the middle-class deserters who abandoned ship return for a look-see, stooped and graying, their own children and grandchildren further scattered, without any mooring sturdier than a telephone cord, they walk our barren Main Street and mutter about how our shabby town has lost all its character (I thought adversity built character) and how we have gone to hell. Yes, and whose fault is that, Mr. Assistant Vice President? I hope you like your $400,000 house in Littleton.
Warren Hunting Smith understood that his old maids were individualistic instead of merely queer because they had not the curse of wealth. Genteel poverty kept the sisters at home, “rooted to their native soil when other people are losing their local flavor abroad.” It is all very easy the rootless to strike their poses of “individualism” in distant cities, where the mass of self-proclaimed individualists exhibit all the diversity of a convention of performance artists. Only an anonymous person has to “make a name for himself,” but that name is written in disappearing ink.
As a picture needs background, so does a person, at least if she wishes to be something beyond merely queer. For instance, the lector in a small Catholic church nearby is a lesbian so butch she makes Janet Reno look like Donna Reed. Yet because she is native, and the people in the congregation have seen her grow up, have lived with her through funerals and snowstorms and baseball games, she is accepted as a full and irreplaceable part of the community. Were she an outsider, she and her girlfriend would draw disapproving stares. Tough. Immobility should have its privileges, too.
In An Elegant But Salubrious Village, Mr. Smith concluded, “Even the obscurest Genevans are somehow distinguished, and know how to live like individuals and not like a flock of sheep.” Do we?
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