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Moats: Faulkner Views New England

The Vermont Historical Society
In an archive photo from the Vermont Film Bureau via the Vermont Historical Society, cars wend their way along the Ottaquechee River near West Woodstock, Vermont, in the late 1950s or early 1960s.

The other day I came across a pamphlet published by the Ford Motor Company in 1954 with little essays describing tours you could take on the roads of New England — Ford’s way of getting people out driving their cars.

What astonished me was the first essay in the collection. It was by William Faulkner, Nobel Prize-winning novelist and famous Mississippean. He was traveling with his editor, Malcolm Cowley, when they got lost on a back road in the mountains of Massachusetts.

So they stopped to ask a couple of farmers whether the road they were on went across the mountain.

“Yep,” said one of the farmers.

Cowley and Faulkner drove on, but after 50 yards or so, Cowley had another question, and he backed the car up.

“Can I get over it in this car?” Cowley said.

“Nope,” the farmer said.

To Faulkner this was highly amusing. In Mississippi, he said, if they’d stopped to ask, the farmers would have instantly made them part of the family. “Why sure, it won’t be no trouble at all; Jim here will go with you and I’ll telephone across the mountain for my nephew to meet you with his truck where you are stuck; it’ll pull you right on through and he’ll even have a mechanic waiting with a new crankcase.”

Of course, Faulkner’s Mississippi scenario assumed that everyone was white, but he didn’t get into that. Rather, he wanted to express his appreciation for the New Englander’s respect for individuality and freedom.

They respect your right to privacy by giving you what you ask for and no more. If you want to take your car over the mountain, that’s your business.

New Englanders were not made strong by the harsh environment, he said; rather they survived the harsh environment because they were tough enough to stand on their own. From their own dignity and individuality comes the New Englanders’ respect for yours.

This was William Faulkner’s view in 1954 when cultural differences between the Deep South and the Yankee North were even more pronounced than today. In 2019 it’s worth remembering there’s something to appreciate about both.

David Moats is an author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.
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