Book review: Two Vermonts
One of the cultural markers of our state is that we keep debating, fretting and sometimes snarling over who is a "real Vermonter." It's strange when you think about it -- people in Massachusetts never worry over who is a real Bay Stater, and as far as I know there are no admission requirements for New Hampshire or Rhode Island. But the real-Vermonter debate seems to get reactivated each time some difficult or divisive issue is on the table -- civil unions, the Australian ballot, Act 250. Even the mock 1998 senatorial candidacy of Fred Tuttle came down to a legitimacy claim.
The debate runs the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous, but its underpinnings have always been hard to analyze. A new book by Paul Searls, Two Vermonts: Geography and Identity, 1865-1910, locates convincingly where and how the who-is-a-Vermonter conversation got started -- and, perhaps more importantly, why it matters. In this dense but interesting offering, Searls outlines the social, economic and cultural displacements that gave birth to the real-Vermonter conflict. He also builds a convincing catalogue of events and disagreements that seem to lay down the basic grammar of two very different impulses operating in Vermont culture.
Searls describes the development of what he calls "uphill" and "downhill" cultures that emerged after the Civil War, which in Vermont was a period of change, conflict and the disruption of traditional farming communities as people moved either down to the valleys -- for access to the railroad and the growing villages down there -- or away altogether, to seek their fortunes off the farm. This was a time when people were on the move, both culturally and geographically, all over the United States, but in Vermont these demographic migrations played out in an especially troubling and divisive way.
The downhill culture -- progressive, reform-minded and often bursting with civic do-goodism -- tended to undermine, criticize and misunderstand the complex and interdependent rural culture that persisted in the hills. Yet uphill culture, which was conservative, introverted and not very welcoming toward outside interference, held the political power in Montpelier and could deflect the downhill agitation for industrialization, centralization and cultural change. It's a complicated but compelling story, and Searls describes in detail how it resonated across 19th-century Vermont.
For example, he unwinds the story of the establishment of the University of Vermont as the State Agricultural College, and it isn't pretty. Justin Morrill, who was the great guiding light behind the land-grant system, was also on the UVM board of trustees. Probably because of this affiliation, he got the idea that the Vermont Agricultural College should be integrated into that institution, even though this put Vermont out of step with the other New England states, which all started their land-grant colleges from scratch. The university was widely understood to be a thoroughly downhill institution. "Uphill voices expressed their reservations about the plan as early as 1863," Searls says, and it's clear from events that their doubts had merit. For years, not much happened; the putative ag school had no faculty and no students; by the early 1870s the uphill feeling was that their school was "languishing in downhill hands."
The Grange and the State Board of Agriculture proved to be venues where farmers could air their suspicions and grievances: "One historian of the Vermont Grange identifies one of the two or three most discussed topics at 1870 Grange meetings as 'whether $2000 is more value to a young man than a college education,'" Searls reports. Since rural depopulation and abandoned farms were highlighting the fragility of the rural economy, this was a legitimate and urgent question.
The chief remedy of the downhill community was to call for farm modernization, new technology, and for farmers to quit slacking off -- there was a widespread downhill perception that not only was farming inefficient, but that farmers spent most of the winter sitting around doing nothing. Yet at the same time the university continued to dawdle over developing an operating College of Agriculture.
The lack of a legitimate farmers' school also provided an opportunity for posturing as "both supporters and opponents of the Agricultural College sought to define their position as that of a true Vermonter." True Vermonters, in the downhill scenario, were "ambitious, progressive, entrepreneurial, cosmopolitan, yet tempered, informed, and powered by ancient virtues." Uphill Vermont answered this stack of adjectives with the quiet mantra of "small farms, well tilled." This uphill motto pointed to agrarian values that rural people felt formed the basis of real-Vermont society.
The controversy dragged along until the late 1880s, resisting closure for more than two decades. But the ag school knot is part of a larger struggle, Searls argues, for primacy of vision for the future of the state. This disagreement is just one among many that he dissects; the book ranges broadly over the status of social services, education, immigration, emigration, the temperance movement and institutions such as the Historical Society and Old Home Week. This makes for a precise and at times engaging discussion of our endless family quarrel over values, community and authenticity.
Searls also disputes the idea that Vermonters are from pure Yankee stock, pointing out that the state was a mix of nationalities right from the beginning. But the increased in-migration of French, Irish and Italian workers during the 19th century represented both a boon to downhill industry and a threat to downhill ideas about membership in the tribe. These new residents were mostly skilled laborers, and they actually kept the state's population stable during a time when many of the supposedly real Vermonters -- those born here -- were climbing aboard the new railroads and migrating away.
So these new, presumably unreal Vermonters were sorely needed but not really welcome. Not only were there a lot of them -- in 1870, 45 percent of Burlington residents were foreign-born; in Winooski, it was more than half -- but they had an irritating habit of forming labor unions. So Searls' chapter called "Defining the Community of Vermonters" is mostly about exclusion; talk about who was a real Vermonter was predominantly about "class, race, public policy and morality," and was used to fence off the very same workers that downhill industry depended on for their real-Vermonter vigor, industry and economic progress. Uphill, where in-migration was much lower, these new residents were apparently assimilated without much friction or even comment, and were probably welcomed as the uphill population continued to decline.
Two Vermonts addresses these issues and more, and is a rewarding, even amusing, book for the patient reader. For example, we learn that one thing uphill and downhill cultures could firmly agree on was that oleomargarine, that threat to the dairy industry, should be dyed pink before being offered for sale. This may be just an interesting little factoid, but it's one worth hoarding. But be warned: The book itself is ugly. When you see it in the bookstore you will not want to buy it, since it is burdened with a dark, mystifying cover, dense type, no maps or pictures and more than a hundred pages of appendices and notes.
I hasten to add that the way a book looks is not the author's fault -- publishers sometimes do things and there is just no stopping them. Authors generally do get to negotiate the cover, though, and Searls probably should have tried harder to get something other than a poorly drawn Rowland Evans Robinson illustration of two men with strange facial hair who appear to be playing Rock, Paper, Scissors.
Another difficulty with Two Vermonts is that, for such a careful and detailed book, it's curiously incomplete. It bothered me, for example, that Searls went into many particulars about the conflict surrounding the founding of the land-grant College of Agriculture at UVM, but left out how the Vermont School of Agriculture was founded in 1910 by the legislature as an alternative to UVM. In Randolph Center, the VSA -- now Vermont Technical College -- offered a straightforward, two-year course in modern farming methods, was relatively inexpensive, and was more palatable to many uphillers than was the big, downhill school in Burlington. The chartering of VSA deserves mention because it was that rare, useful thing -- a workable compromise -- and is as much a part of the Vermont ag-school story as the huffing and puffing over the College of Agriculture in Burlington. If you begin a tale, you have a duty to end it, and 1910 is clearly within the time span Searls considers here.
It also bugged me that he says nothing about the political and social trauma that came with the 1965 reapportionment, since it was this seismic shift that ended the one-town-one-vote House of Representatives that had long allowed the uphill agenda to prevail in Montpelier. Over the course of Two Vermonts, Searls talks about the dominance of small towns over large ones and the downhill exasperation with this imbalance of power and population. I concede that 1965 is probably 55 years too late for legitimate inclusion in the text, but this is what conclusions are for, and, in his, Searls jumps ahead all the way to 1925. Why not give the reader a paragraph on an event that not only shook Vermont to its skivvies but also bears on one of the book's key themes?
A final minor quibble is that the book is chock-full of downhill texts, transcribed speeches, newspaper articles and other proclamations. The uphill voices, in comparison, seem small and muted. Again, I doubt this is the author's fault: When you write about history, you have to work with the sources available, and downhill institutions -- newspapers, civic associations, benevolent and fraternal organizations -- were probably far more numerous in the towns and large villages than they were up in the hills.
These minor flaws aside, Two Vermonts is not only a much better book than it appears on first inspection, it is also a very good book, period. It's valuable because it frames our differences, and Vermont's endless debate over who is real and who isn't, in a serious and muscular way. It shows us, among other things, that we bicker in a spirit that's in keeping with the weight of history; these are old divisions, and grounded in a past we would do well to understand. Many of the state's perennial preoccupations -- immigration, emigration, failing farmers -- still show up in today's headlines.
Two Vermonts also teaches us that any claims we make to Yankee purity are at best tenuous, and that the overwhelming whiteness of Vermont does not necessarily indicate a closed society. Perhaps most hopeful of all is that, if widely read, Two Vermonts might even promote some new, mid-hill thinking -- or at least show us where the middle of the hill could someday be.
EXCERPT FROM: Two Vermonts: Geography and Identity,1865-1910