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Most of us learn about friendship from our families, just as we learn about everything else worth knowing from our families. Mine is an old New England family, farmers and preachers and doctors and lawyers, and tradesmen, not many in commerce. Nobody up to my generation was ever rich, nobody particularly poor, so there was comparatively little arrogance and comparatively little envy.

New Englanders were historically family-loyal, but not clan-loyal. Harriet Beecher Stowe thought that of all the English ideas her ancestors brought with them, that not even democracy was able to “obliterate, was that of family. Family feeling, family pride, family hope and fear and desire” were what made New England. My Grandmothers Willson and Fuller, two ladies who could not be more unlike each other, both said, often—no debate—”family first.”

Traditional New Englanders were “town-born” and thus attentive to their neighborhoods and local associations, and more often than not rather interested in the affairs of the comity. This made them good neighbors but not always good friends. They might have to stand up in the Congregation and accuse the person next door of some breach of individual or community morality, which called for a certain reserve. As the half-savage neighbor in Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” says, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Frost also wrote (in “A Considerable Speck”),

I have none of the tenderer-than-thou

Collectivist regimenting love

With which the modern world is being swept.

Until well into the 20th century even Massachusetts (certainly the rest of New England) would have been a red state, and a large part of that would have been due to the need to be neither “too far out nor too far in.” Frost wrote in “Build Soil,” “Don’t join too many gangs.”

The story of Jonathan and David was never very popular in traditional New England, even as attached to the Bible as those hardy folks were. They preferred the dutiful reserve they found in Joseph (that is Mary’s Joseph); there has been a Joseph in my family every generation since 1634. Mrs. Stowe often said that the underlying foundation of New England life was a “profound, unutterable, and therefore unuttered, melancholy, which regarded human existence itself as a ghastly risk,” which is not an attitude conducive to forming loving friendships outside the family, nor to being sentimental about larger collectives.

My father (the last of the old time country doctors) and mother were loving and open and without guile, but had few friends. Willsons are a friendly bunch, but neither I, nor my brothers, nor my sister have had many friends. This Yankee trait still gets transmitted long after the culture (and the cult) that nurtured it has withered. Sometimes I admire the rituals of friendship that certain Southerners cultivate (they, after all, invented fraternities); more often, not. Grandma(s) said, “family first.”

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6 replies to this post
  1. Brittany,
    This is a truly good response and a loving way to help the cult. The tents of Abraham were always open on all four sides to welcome visitors. My New England ancestors (and all my own family) have open doors, even if we are sometimes reserved. My cousin Jim's ancestral house just burned down, and if you read Anne Bradstreet's "On the Burning of Our House" you will know what something like that does to a family. The ancestral home of Russell Kirk burned. And of course the reason that Russell could later on do a Christ-like hospitality was that he had Annette and the girls.

  2. Some of us in New England still embody these traits–esp. folks outside Boston and the enclaves of the more recent immigrants–i.e. the Irish down to the Jamaicans. But even those folks have picked up something of the reserve. (Some of those who vote blue don't even mean it.) If you are going to be a pastor in New England (as I am) you must learn our ways–we don't change. There are a lot of guys coming up from the south to start churches up here. Two things happen–first, they learn things truly are different here. If they can't handle it they go back. And second, those that stick around learn to like it. There is something liberating to actually having to like a person before you say you do. (Southern hospitality–a smile, and firm handshake, and a knife in the back.)

  3. Don't take the "knife in the back" comment too seriously, southern friends. That is just my Yankee incredulity leaking out. 😉

  4. Seems to me you are saying (and all the commenters above are echoing) this idea – that paying attention to yourself is helpful to family, friends, neighbors, etc. Did I get that right?

    Also, I have quote by G. Washington to offer (one which I follow) "True friendship is a plant of slow growth and must withstand the shocks of adversity before it is entitled to the appellation."

  5. C.R., My brother lives in Hingham, and even in that now modernized part of NE there is still much of the old flavor. Thanks for reviving this thread. Dan Starr, it is good of you to add the very, very reserved Washington to the mix. He never did think too highly of the Yankees, though. Also, I might just slightly reverse one aspect of your summary of my thoughts. "Paying attention to family is helpful to yourself, friends,etc."

  6. John,

    You seem like a thoughtful man, reading my comment and replying to it is much appreciated. I hope you will email me privately at so we can continue our conversation about this. I will also say that Washington is a big hero of mine but I didn't know anything about his antipathy to Yankees. As my own parents were from "back east" I find this odd that he would do so. They were the "salt of the earth."

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