The numbers and a portrait

As I learn about Worcester there are the hard figures .  Then the stories make the facts breathe and dance.  Here’s another point where they intersect:

A former history teacher loaned me this book on the cultural history of the US and said the section on New England would help me.  Part of the author’s thesis is that the regional culture of New England has specific roots in initial wave of immigrants that originated primarily in East Anglia (a certain portion of England) around the 1630’s.   Here are two pieces that stood out to me:

“The emigrants who came to Massachusetts in the great migration became the breeding stock for America’s Yankee population.  They multiplied at a rapid rate, doubling every generation for two centuries.  Their numbers increased to 100,000 by 1700, to at least one million by 1800, six million by 1900, and more than sixteen million by 1988 – all descended from 21,000 English emigrants who came to Massachusetts in the period  from 1629-1640.”

On depravity, one of the central Puritan ideas vitally important to the culture of New England:

“The Puritans believed that evil was a palpable presence in the world, and that the universe  was a scene of cosmic struggle between darkness and light.  They lived in an age of atrocities without equal until the twentieth century.  But no evil ever surprised them or threatened to undermine their faith.  One historian remarks that ‘it is impossible to conceive of a disillusioned Puritan.’ They believed as an article of faith that there was no horror which mortal man was incapable of committing.  The dark thread of this doctrine ran through the fabric of New England’s culture for many generations.”

Today I visited the boyhood home of Stanley Kunitz who was born in Worcester (1905) and became one of the leading poets of his time.  I’m just learning about his life and interacting with his work.  I was running a few minutes late for the tour of the home and entered hearing of the hours he spent alone reading, walking through the woods, playing with words.  In his reading he came across Dante and the images of hell haunted him.  He feared that he would die in his sleep and was afraid of the night.
As we transitioned from one part of the house to the attic stairs, picking up memories along the way, the following poem was read…


My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
that spring
when I was waiting to be born.
She locked his name
in her deepest cabinet
and would not let him out,
though I could hear him thumping.
When I came down from the attic
with the pastel portrait in my hand
of a long-lipped stranger
with a brave moustache
and deep brown level eyes,
she ripped it into shreds
without a single word
and slapped me hard.
In my sixty-fourth year
I can feel my cheek
still burning.

The immediacy of the pain was startling as we stood at the bottom of those stairs.  I think about the Puritans belief in human depravity, “a palpable evil in this world.”
A man drinks carbonic acid in Elm Park, taking his life.  A wife is filled with sorrow and anger.  A son grows up with longing, questions, and his own fears.

So the 21,000 English settlers and their deeply held beliefs about the nature of humanity roll through my mind as the dark thread is woven through another life.

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