Upstate: Records and Recollections of Northern New York
by Edmund Wilson
Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 386 pp., $8.95
This book is the account of Edmund Wilson’s love affair with an old family house. The story opens with a good deal of family history and then proceeds with selections from his diary between 1950 and the present day. Such acts of piety toward the past are a natural eccentricity now that society has become mobile and anarchic, where people are uprooted, when cities, towns, and villages disintegrate and become wastelands. The more demoralized the public state of the world and society become, the more in middle age one dreams of disappearing into the small settled hide-out. “Il faut cultiver notre jardin“—if one can find a garden that is not run-down.
In the United States—it seems to my foreign eye—the thrill of not having roots runs together with the nostalgia for them, simply because it is easier than it has ever been in Europe, so far, to lose them entirely. I would guess, also, that dwelling on family roots, and the idea of cousinage, though rather platonic, is far stronger in the United States than outside it, perhaps because of colonial or immigrant memories. Except among pockets of the landed gentry in my own country, this interest in family is almost extinct. With us it becomes generalized in the boiled pudding called “tradition” and the strong snail-like feeling that “home” is inside the shell we carry about with us. It is a state of mind or heart rather than a place or people. I do not think we see home as some princesse lointaine to be recovered from the past or to be sought in the future. I know very few English people who feel a need to “go back”; and, in this respect, Americans often seem to us “older” than we are.
The whole subject is raised by Edmund Wilson’s strange affair with the Stone House at Talcottville in upstate New York—strange to me, as an outsider, in the sense of its being an adventure. Of course, Mr. Wilson’s founding quality as a traveler and critic has always been his organic sense of history. He is a man for the records. The vicissitudes of public and private life in upstate New York feed his passion for the house. History is a language for him. He is as pertinacious about Talcottville as he was with the Dead Sea Scrolls. If there are bees in a historical bonnet he loves to hear them buzz.
The Stone House in that now dying region was once a very fine place of local limestone at the end of the eighteenth century, and came to his mother in the end after some feeling between the Talcott and the Baker families. He himself spent holidays there in his boyhood. The place came into his hands in the Fifties after his mother’s death and was then a musty, ghost-ridden wreck and going to pieces at a street corner in the little town, from which most of the active population …