Connecticut as Borderland

Anne is from New York City (Stuyvesant Town, on the Lower East Side). I was born in Hartford and raised in Massachusetts. My parents were both raised in East Hartford. When, after living in DC for ten years and with a new baby, we had the opportunity to come to Connecticut in 2010, it seemed like easy way to stay in touch with family to the north and south. For me personally, Connecticut is a borderland. It has been for centuries.

There is a great scholarly literature on borders and boundaries and the ways in which these function — geographically, culturally, politically, mathematically. In Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late 20th Century, for example, anthropologist James Clifford described the ways in which culture is as much a product of movement across borders and between places and as it is a product of place. Thomas Gieryn has shown how scientists engage in “boundary work,” the work of defining and policing disciplinary and professional boundaries. Mathematics, physics, meteorology, and other natural sciences describe “boundary conditions” in the differential equations they use to model everything from the resilience of building materials to climate change. Humanists and social scientists study how minortized groups negotiate socially constructed boundaries of race, gender, and class.

Connecticut is a borderland in so many of these ways. It takes its name from the river, which divides all New England. The Connecticut River is the central feature of the New England states, more than the mountains on our western and northern borders, and (at least for the past century and a half as the economy of New England has moved away from fishing and the Atlantic trade) even more than the eastern seaboard. It dictates the flow of people and goods across the region. Look at a highway or railroad map and you’ll see that they mirror the north-south orientation of the River: with the exception of the Mass Pike, a relatively new road, there are very few east-west roads in New England. Just try driving from Hartford to Providence, a distance of only 60 miles between two state capitals, and you’ll find that the two cities are linked only by secondary roads. It can take hours, and during that time you’ll realize how much the River divides the Massachusetts bay side of New England from the Hudson River side. You’ll see the same thing if you plan a ski trip in Northern New England. Boston people ski in New Hampshire along the north-south I-93 corridor. New York people ski in Vermont along the I-91 corridor. The Connecticut River forms the boundary between those very similar yet very different states. Long ago New Hampshire and New York even fought a war for control of Vermont, leaving it an independent republic for four years at the time of the Revolution. (It was actually named “New Connecticut” for a time.)

But Connecticut has been a borderland for much longer than that. East of the river was the ancestral territory of the Algonquin speaking Pequot, Mohegan, and Nipmuck peoples who lived along Long Island Sound and the Atlantic coast. West of the river was the borderland territory of the Tunxis and related peoples that separated those Algonquin speaking peoples from the Mohawks and other Hudson River and Great Lakes-centered Iriquois speaking peoples. With European colonization the English and Dutch settled on the same boundary. Hartford started as a far eastern outpost of the Dutch Hudson River colonies only to be usurped by English colonists from Boston. Their journey was made famous by Frederic Edwin Church in his painting, “Reverend Thomas Hooker and Company Journeying through the Wilderness in 1636 from Plymouth to Hartford.” That he labeled what is now one of the most densely populated regions of the United States a “wilderness” suggests just how much of a divide the colonists perceived in land between Massachusetts Bay and the Hudson River Valley.

Frederick Edwin Church, Hooker and Company Journeying through the Wilderness from Plymouth to Hartford, in 1636 (original at the Wadsworth Atheneum)

Connecticut itself was founded as three separate English colonies, two focused on the East (Connecticut, centered around Hartford, and Saybrook at the mouth of the river) and one focused on the West (New Haven). For the first century of its statehood, Connecticut had two state capitals, Hartford and New Haven, and its legislature split time between the two. Indeed anyone who has lived here knows that Connecticut still has this feeling of a borderland, a place where two cultures meet, where differences are negotiated and where bargains between them are made. People in Fairfield County take the train to New York. People in Hartford drive to work. The Northeast of the state is populated with rabid Red Sox fans. The Southwest, Yankees. My own town of West Hartford sits smack on the border, and sports allegiances vary house to house — this time of year you’ll see a Giants flag flying from one front porch, a Patriots flag from the next. (My own household is likewise evenly split: My younger son and I are Pats fans. My wife and older son are Giants fans. Thank goodness she likes the Mets and not the Yankees.)

Source: Ben Blatt, Finding the True Border Between Yankee and Red Sox Nation Using Facebook Data, Harvard Sports Analysis Collective

Connecticut’s place in the broader cultural imagination also reflects its liminal status. In film, Connecticut is usually portrayed as a place of ambivalence, detachment, and opacity (viz. The Ice Storm and The Stepford Wives). Connecticut’s greatest legends are about people who can’t be pinned down: the Leatherman and Nutmegger.

People from the rest of New England often doubt that we’re part of New England at all, and people from New York generally move to Fairfield County suburbs and Litchfield County farms as a form of “escape.” Like other borderlands: Turkey, Tijuana, Tibet, we are both and neither. We are both New York and New England, but we are also neither, which is probably why there’s so little state patriotism here. We are not meant to be a people, but rather a buffer and trading zone between two much stronger peoples. (Another time, I’ll write about how Connecticut people love to hate Connecticut, something not unrelated to the state’s status as a borderland.)

As I get older I realize that I have always personally felt this way: both and neither. In high school I was both a jock and a nerd, but also neither. Now at work, I’m drawn both to solitary scholarly pursuits and collaborative administrative ones, even though they’re often mutually incompatible and unrewarded. Like Connecticut, I am a borderland, and it suits me just fine.

Briefly Noted for March 14, 2008

Finally! From our talented Polish colleagues at Historia i Media comes Feeds, a much needed new resource that uses Google Reader to aggregate and filter RSS streams from digital historians around the world. “One Feed to rule them all, One Feed to find them, One Feed to bring them all and in the darkness bind them?”

“NASCAR Women’s History Month”. Outsports Jock Talk says it may not be an oxymoron for long.

Ole-Magnus Saxegard, a student at the University of Technology in Sydney, presents “A History of Evil”, a short animated film examining the changing place of “evil” in the western tradition. Its subject and message are somewhat muddled—Cerberus and Frankenstein are depictions of evil, the guillotine is a tool against/of evil, and early modern witches were both objects and subjects of evil—but “A History of Evil” is hugely compelling and very well crafted. Posted only on January 30, 2008, it has already been viewed 1,101,882 times.

Schill, Scorpions, and Louis Gossett Jr.

We all know the Mitchell Report has been digging into ball players’ pasts. So, it seems, has Boston Magazine. In particular, they have found a few embarrassing skeletons in Curt Schilling’s closet. For sure, there’s nothing in the signed 1986 minor league program found by the magazine as offensive as performance enhancing drugs. But the young Schilling’s fondness for Scorpions, Iron Eagle, and Miami Vice comes pretty close.

Curt Schilling Rocks Like a Hurricane.

Thanks, Ken.

"Boomers" and History

I can’t tell you how tired I am of reading about baby boomers and their impending retirements. The self-indulgence of aging newspaper, magazine, and television news editors in running story after story about just how interesting and important their generation has been is very nearly unbearable. Newsweek is case in point. Its 50-something editors’ self-congratulatory “Boomer Files” series has me very close to canceling my subscription.

I did, however, notice something in a recent story from the “Boomer Files” that could be of interest to Found History readers. For Celeb Boomers: 3 Things to Do Before Death, Newsweek asked a dozen or so famous boomers for a list of three things they want to do with the rest of their lives. It turns out several of them want to spend their golden years doing something historical. Here’s a sample:

  • P. J. O’Rourke, Satirist, 59 – “It’d be nice to have more time to fool around with old cars.”
  • Mark Morris, Choreographer, 50 – “Visit New York’s Morgan Library.”
  • Camille Paglia, Intellectual, 59 – “I’d like to go on an archaeological dig in North Africa or Turkey.”
  • Cal Ripken Jr., Baseball Player, 46 – “I have a real zest to learn. I’d like to bone up on my history and business reading.”
  • Bill O’Reilly, Fox News Host, 56 – “Build a collection of American historical documents. I have a letter from George Washington. You get to know people from them.”
  • Patti Smith, Musician/Poet, 60 – “Read the Bible, Torah and Qur’an.”
  • Ted Nugent, Musician, 58 – “Make sure every American remembers the Alamo and acts accordingly.”
  • Keith Olbermann, TV Host, 47 – “I want to find the proof version of the 1967 Topps Baseball card, No. 487, Tommie Reynolds, which I did not buy at an auction in 1989 because bidding went to about a tenth of what I’d pay for it now. This seems kind of arcane, but this card has haunted me since I was eight years old—the proof version misspells his name “Tommy,” so the final version of the card reads “Tom” with two spaces after it. This design inconsistency bothered me the day I first saw it. I just blew it at that auction.”

Kind of interesting. But interesting enough to renew what started as a gift subscription? Probably not.

What Not to Wear

A couple weeks ago I recklessly hypothesized that European sports fans are more likely than their North American counterparts to conceptualize history in terms of best and worst. Not surprisingly, it turns out this is a completely bogus conjecture, and to prove I’m not afraid to admit my mistakes, I’d like to point you two counterexamples. Both are American, and both provide a look sport’s great fashion faux pas. So here they are: Sport’s Illustrated’s “Fashion Mis-Statements” and Fox Sports’ “Top 10 Worst Sports Uniforms”. Appropriate choices, I think, for a post pointing out my own misstep.

Formula Un

I said in the introductory post to this series that it’s difficult for a blog like this one to draw any firm conclusions. I stand by that statement, but patterns do emerge. Over the past week or so of scouring the web for “best ever” and “top N” lists, I have started to see two trends. First, sports enthusiasts are especially prone to conceptualizing history in this way. Second, European sports enthusiasts may be even more partial to the form. My last two posts are good cases in point.

In the interest of good research, however, I shouldn’t simply trust my gut. Therefore, over the next couple of days, I’m going to try to disprove at least my second thesis by paying special attention to the sports pages to see how many “best ever” stories are posted about the NFL, NBA, MLB, NCAA, and (for Canadians) the NHL. In the meantime, Found History readers should enjoy AutoMotoPortal’s Greatest Drivers Ever: The Best of Formula 1—yet another tops of all time list for the EuroSport set.

High Rollers

InsideEdge, a British sports betting website, has published a list of the “top 25 most outrageous gambles of all time.” Most of these big bets come from the world of sports (especially cricket and soccer), but Nick Lesson’s disastrous turn at Baring Brothers also makes the list, as does Michael Jackson’s move from Motown to Epic.