It’s a Wonderful Life

Home Town

by Tracy Kidder
Random House, 349 pp., $25.95

The city of Northampton, Massachusetts (pop. 30,000), a county seat in the Connecticut River valley, is located ninety miles west of Boston, three hours north of Manhattan. Until fairly recently it was best known as the home of Smith College. Two decades ago the National Enquirer and the news weeklies brought the city fresh notice by declaring it to be friendly to homosexuals (the Enquirer called it “Lesbianville, USA”). To cultural historians, Northampton has meaning because Jonathan Edwards preached fire and brimstone here (until his parishioners cast him out, in 1750); activists are aware of the place because the two most recent generations of feminists have been led by women—Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem—who graduated from Smith. Casual visitors notice the density of ethnic eateries, “boutiques,” young people on the streets (three other colleges and one university are located in the immediate vicinity), and preceptorial bumper stickers (PERFORM SENSELESS ACTS OF BEAUTY. MY KARMA ATE MY DOGMA, etc.).

The city is the setting and subject of Home Town, by Tracy Kidder—the fourth work of nonfiction that this writer has situated in Northampton or neighboring towns (Leeds, Holyoke, Amherst). The three other works—Old Friends (1993), Among Schoolchildren (1989), and House (1985)—deal respectively with life in a nursing home, in an elementary school classroom, and on a construction job. The Soul of a New Machine (1981), the book that earned Kidder his first fame, reported on the design and building, by Data General, of a fast new computer, and is set at corporate headquarters near Boston.

With an exception or two, these books have received smooth rides from reviewers, commercial success, and prizes (The Soul of a New Machine won a Pulitzer for nonfiction). Like the earlier works, the new one has cultural interest, owing to links with New England’s (and the nation’s) self-mythologizing past and doggedly vain present. At a moment when the star of the Northeast—“The Spirit of America,” as Bay State license plates call it—isn’t rising, the old regional myths of special identity and superiority undergo local resuscitation, and prove serviceable to the broader society.


As spokesperson for these myths, Tracy Kidder, Andover- and Harvard-educated, is unassuming and retiring—no flamboyance, no reminders of the super-hyped reportage of the Sixties. He presents himself as a diffident student-apprentice, eager to learn and troubled about intruding; a typical “Acknowledgments” section thanks dozens for “letting me into their lives, for putting up with me, for teaching me.”

Autobiographical snippets reveal the writer has down-to-earth recreational tastes (carpentry and computer games); his statements of general views reveal a positive thinker, preoccupied with good conduct, and self-secure:

Many people find it easy to imagine unseen webs of malevolent conspiracy in the world, and they are not always wrong. But there is also an innocence that conspires to hold humanity together, and it is made of people who can never fully know the good that they have done.

The central problem of life at [a nursing home] is, after all, only the universal problem of separateness: the original punishment, the ultimate vulnerability, the enemy of meaning.

If civilization implies more than TVs and dishwashers, more than artistic achievement and wise rules, it implies just this, a place with a life that shelters individual lives, a place that allows people to become better than they might otherwise be—better, in a sense, than they are.

In keeping with sentiments of this sort, Kidder country is a quiet place, inhospitable to celebrity, investigations of civic wrongdoing, noisy eccentrics, polemical politics, anger at hierarchy and injustice. Kidder describes what people do and how they relate to others in their work as computer designers, home builders, architects, teachers, cops. And he holds the focus steady on people he admires—whose thought and action, he feels, radiate goodness. He’s willing to “hang around”—his phrase—for months or even years, waiting for a real-life, suspenseful narrative pattern to emerge.

But suspense is incidental. What counts in his often shapely narratives is the continuous unfolding of the major characters’ qualities—self-reliance, reverence for craft, concern for others, generosity, faithfulness, and absence of greed. The writer’s readiness to subordinate himself—the sustained authorial self-effacement that’s integral to his themes—chimes with his characters’ lack of presumption and creates an impression of a coherent and harmonious human world. In The Soul of a New Machine, Tom West, the computer engineer who heads up a successful crash program to build a wizard computer, keeps his team motivated to the end despite ill-judged harassment from above. And he is fiercely modest: he won’t seek or accept public credit for his accomplishment. Jim Locke, ascetic carpenter-craftsman-contractor in House, is dedicated to an uncompromising “pursuit of quality” that’s almost totally oblivious of the bottom line. Lou and Joe, seniors thrust together by a nursing home in Old Friends, repeatedly—and touchingly—put personal interest aside to care for each other and for their neighbors in the home. Lou has “great sympathetic capacity”; Joe tirelessly serves his fellow residents: “[Joe] had entered a little society founded merely on illness, and, accepting it for what it was, realizing it was all there was for him, he had joined it and improved it.”

Many of the most carefully controlled scenes in these books invite readers to live with presumed virtue as it experiences guilt. In Among Schoolchildren, a gifted elementary schoolteacher named Chris Zajac is obliged, because of the disruptive behavior of a black fifth-grader, to consent to a disciplinary committee’s decision to pack the youngster off to a special class for the unruly—a probable life sentence of loserdom. Kidder tracks Zajac’s loving concern for the lad and her subsequent self-arraignment—her over-conscientious distress that defects of hers as a teacher could be responsible for her pupil’s fate. On the last day of school, months after his banishment, the boy looks in the doorway at his former teacher and old class:

In the midst of [her] reverie, sudden, untoward motion on the perimeter, that sense of something out of place, made Chris turn her head, and there in the opened doorway to the playground stood the familiar figure of Clarence. Brown-skinned and wiry with huge eyes. The knees of his jeans had holes in them. He wore a dirty white T-shirt. He stood there, dismounted, holding on to the handlebars of a ten-speed bike, and gazed in at the children with his mouth slightly ajar.

Hi, Clarence!” said Chris. “How are you?”

He looked at her and smiled. Those dimples! And he looked so small! In her mind, he had grown much larger. Could this have been the most difficult student of her career? He was only four and a half feet tall.

Come on in!” she said to him.

Clarence, she noticed, still stuttered sometimes at the starts of sentences. “Nuh nuh no I can’t. Gotta go someplace.” But he lingered in the doorway, and his mouth came ajar again as he gazed at his old classmates. They were all looking back at Clarence now.

Oh,” she thought. “I feel bad for him.”

Don’t you want to come in and talk to any of them?” asked Chris. It would be sweet and fitting for him to pass the last of this afternoon with them, as if perhaps he’d never been sent away….

[She] sat in her chair, turned toward him. She smiled at him. Probably he wanted to join them, but was feeling shy. Maybe she could coax him. “Don’t you want to come on in?” said Chris again.

No,” said Clarence. “Not today.” He smiled at her, and again he went back to gazing at the children while Chris gazed at him.

Oh, well,” said Chris offhandedly. But she had to try once more. “Sure you don’t want to come in?”

No. Bye,” he said.

He turned away and sped off on his bike, so quickly she hardly saw him go. It was like the time, months ago, when Clarence was supposed to stay after school, and she turned her back for only a few seconds and turned around again to find that he had vanished. The doorway was empty. She turned back to face the room.

Determination to do well by the pupil in greatest need, shame at the thought one may have quit too early, longing for speech sufficiently kind to purge the momentary sense of oneself as uncaring—all are sharply lighted in this portrait of a teacher’s virtue. Less vivid in Among Schoolchildren is the complex of forces that limit the potency of teachers working in overcrowded, underfinanced classrooms. But Kidder’s subject is Chris Zajac, not the “problems of urban education”; in this book as elsewhere his effort is to construct situations as stages on which personal conduct, good and bad, can be experienced and assessed without distraction. Detaching teachers, architects, carpenters, nurses, and engineers from the workings of civic finance or of the banking, housing, computer, and “nonprofit” aging-care industries, his books erase the conditions of moral performance. The understanding is that, whether or not minority ghettoes are expanding in Holyoke, Massachusetts, a teacher’s individual goodness creates a world of its own.


Home Town’s dominating figure of rectitude doesn’t stand alone but shares the stage with a multitude of others of comparable “secularized virtue.” Kidder attempts to examine—as he hasn’t hitherto—the role of external influences, especially that of the past, in shaping the moral examples under scrutiny. And there’s one other difference from the earlier works: the book’s subject shifts quite early from figures of rectitude to the sanctified place that their character and actions bring into being: Northampton, Massachusetts. With that shift the tone turns celebratory, literary interest declines, and cultural interest expands.

At the start Tommy O’Connor, home-grown police-sergeant hero, is Home Town’s prime representative of uprightness. The man is self-deprecating: praised for saving an injured child’s life, he tells his commenders he’s tried and failed twenty times before at mouth-to-mouth resuscitation (“Hey, now I’m one for twenty-one!”). He upholds the policing system without self-righteousness: when friends or former classmates ask him to fix tickets for traffic violations, he pays their fines himself. He’s patient and sympathetic with the suicidal, with drunks and druggies, even with a relatively bigtime drug dealer whom he sends up for forty-five years. His commitment to his wife, Jean, is absolute, as is his commitment to his widowed father (the son plows the father’s driveway when it snows, cooks dinner and eats—with his wife—at his father’s house most nights, dreams of taping the old man’s stories so he can pass them along to his own children when they arrive).

And this policeman is racked, like Chris the schoolteacher, by wrongheaded guilt that nevertheless does him credit. When another police officer charged with abusing his own daughter confesses his heinous crime to O’Connor, the latter, obedient to his professional obligation, passes the confession along to a local prosecutor specializing in rape cases. Torment follows. O’Connor can’t stop reproaching himself—he imagines in his nightmares being called on to lock up his friend. Did he have to tell the prosecutor what the officer-friend admitted in confidence? Self-doubt, pity for the convicted child molester, outrage at the crime itself conjoin with O’Connor’s self-mockery and humorous impiety to fill out a portrait of likable rectitude.

Similar portraits abound in the book. Not just O’Connor playfully skidding his cruiser in the midnight snow but the police chief as well incarnates likable rectitude. Also the mayor, who is “incorruptible…shy, big-hearted, thoroughly competent, imaginative, and garrulous.” Also a presiding judge, who is incorruptible and “didn’t like sending people to jail, because he didn’t like jails.” Also funny, charming Frankie, a drug dealer-police informer who cooperates with cops partly for money, partly out of feeling for Sergeant O’Connor and for the greater social good (“If they only knew, wouldn’t every citizen of Hamp applaud Frankie’s work on their behalf?”). Also the representative of studentdom, a scholar who, after wrestling with “the fading doctrines of the deconstructionists,” decides their ideas aren’t “right,” and stays up all night in ecstasy reading Paradise Lost (“The poem’s majestic, oceanic music carried her so far off that when she lifted her eyes from the book, she was startled to find herself in her apartment”). Also the academic administrator—a kind heart who regularly goes extra miles on behalf of the weak who are threatened with flunking out.

Before the end, indeed, figures of virtue are multiplying intolerably in Home Town, like luxe mail-order catalogs in an upscale zip. There’s “the person who planted pansies in the scraggly ground beside a pair of public steps,” and “the youthful anarchists who retrieved the stolen plaque from the front steps of the First Church,” and “the man who goes out early in the morning and tears down the posters illegally attached to light poles, mailboxes, and other public property.” There are the sensitive Northampton motorists compulsively forcing the right of way on pedestrians and hesitating “to honk at another driver, perhaps thinking, ‘I might know that idiot’s wife.”’ Thoughtful Northampton shopkeepers who “didn’t cover their windows with steel grates after hours…left things outside that could easily have been defaced—flower boxes by the sidewalks, canvas awnings over storefronts.” Shy, benign Northampton rich, plus the local, self-abnegating upper middle class:

Wealthy people here tended to live on remote hilltops, far away from inquiring eyes, or else discreetly, in houses with plain exteriors but interiors that contained kitchens good enough for restaurants, and private libraries, and art collections of great worth. The wealthy of Northampton drove good cars but not the very best. They didn’t have live-in servants, though some maintained the equivalents of staffs, in caterers, cleaners, gardeners. One tier below, there was a much larger prosperous class, the upper middle by local standards—academics, business owners, various professionals. Many people had given up a little something to live here, forsaking their chances to maximize profits.

Bashful rich, gracious motorists, kindly drug dealers—all are as they are, the writer explains, because of the saving hand of the past. And that explanation exacerbates the book’s developing problems. Kidder is creditably wary of certain mystical accounts of Northampton’s past and present—he smiles gently at a Christian lay preacher who tells his flock that from time immemorial “an angel guarded Northampton from ‘the malice power,’ the evil influences that wanted to migrate up the river valley, from the cities to the south and into Northampton’s streets.” But sane skepticism deserts him elsewhere, as when he gushes about aristo lineage (the gift of background). Jean O’Connor, the detective sergeant’s wife, is a person of distinction because she’s “descended on both sides from some of the first English settlers of the Connecticut valley” (her “face had an heirloom quality,” her “eyes had what seemed like an ancestral steadiness”).

Worse, this writer believes in the impact, on present character and behavior, of mid-nineteenth-century egalitarians, abolitionists, and revolutionaries—men and women who tried “to establish an ideal place inside Northampton,” and had to settle for less, namely a century and a half of living, radical influence:

They dreamed of sexual, racial, and economic equality, and they wanted to show the world that a society built on such principles could thrive materially as well as spiritually…. The utopian community had contributed to a continuing tradition here, a tradition of secularized virtue that fed on dreams of ideal places.

Through the moral agency of Smith College (an “ideal place within a place”), the effects of yesteryear’s utopianism pulse through the decades into contemporary veins “like [the effects] of distant ancestry.” The continuing tradition puffs nothing up, to be sure—no person, no place. Kidder’s miniaturizing rhetoric enfolds city and citizenry alike in caressing diminutives that celebrate “little acts of courage and kindness and simple competence” performed by “little people” of the kind, Sergeant O’Connor believes, big city doctors don’t care about. All remains in human scale—the “little airfield in the Meadows,” the “little council chamber” for the city councillors, “little mountain ranges,” “a little island” floating out in the middle of a pond.

Can design govern in a place so little? It governs here. “No committee had sat down and arranged the watches of the town,” the author writes, “and yet they functioned as if by grand design, so that one’s doing this allowed the other’s doing that, even if the one didn’t know or didn’t like the other, even if neither the one nor the other was civic-minded.”

Pure panegyric prepares the way for this “grand design”—floods of flattery. Northampton resembles “Plato’s ideal city-state” (it has “thirty thousand souls”). Northampton resembles the ten similar-sized cities Leonardo da Vinci had in mind to build in order “to relieve the squalor and congestion of Renaissance Milan.” Northampton also resembles the famous garden cities invented in the late nineteenth century by Ebenezer Howard. (The “perfect garden city,” Kidder explains, “was neither quite a city nor a country town. It combined the best of both. It wasn’t an American-style suburb, but a truly self-sufficient place, with farms and rural scenery, urban entertainment and variety. Northampton had become a place rather like that, where many people went for weeks without leaving because they found some of everything they needed and wanted here.”) Northampton’s downtown resembles the “ideal urban neighborhood” Jane Jacobs extolled. “It was used at almost every hour, and this ensured not just liveliness and profit but also the constant presence of ‘eyes on the street.”’

Caution: Paradise City is good not because it’s secure but secure because it’s good. “Regionally renowned for its peacefulness and safety,” it is above all “a moral place,” hence capable of bringing off great deeds. On his penultimate page, Tracy Kidder takes testimony from a young black resident concerning one great deed:

Often when he passed other black people downtown, ones he didn’t know, [the young black] smiled at them and they smiled back, little smiles that seemed to say, “Isn’t this place weird?” and, “What are you doing here?” And yet he had begun to feel something like a booster’s pride. This past winter he’d attended a lecture by two famous black intellectuals, delivered at Smith. He’d listened with mounting anger. “White man bad. Black man good.” That, he thought, was the lecturers’ central message. He felt offended, not personally, but on behalf of his fellow townsfolk. “How dare you talk that way here,” he’d wanted to say. “These are some of the nicest white people you’ll ever meet.”

Race is no problem in the moral place. The nicest whites have licked it cold.


The question of whether a small college town in western New England is paradise received some play in the news, arts, and letters columns of the local daily paper (the Hampshire Gazette) soon after Home Town appeared. An editorial columnist saluted the book—on the paper’s front page above the fold—as the first recognizable portrait of the town he lived in (a welcome change from the badmouthing of Northampton in the news weeklies and the National Enquirer). The Gazette’s back pages ran a trashing review by a sharp-witted city writer, Tzivia Gover; Gover called Home Town a “sophisticated version” of the kids’ world chronicled in PBS’s Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Letters went back and forth, for a while, on whether Home Town was fiction or “documentary,” and at summer picnics people who had read the book were called on to stand and deliver.

I was among them—no authority on the city but a resident of neighboring towns for several decades and acquainted with some Northampton townsfolk and institutions. The matter of interest wasn’t whether I or any other local thought Home Town was “right” about Northampton. My opinion of the city’s hospital (high) or of the citizenry (low: this moral place allowed its public high school to sink to a condition of decrepitude before a frantic bumper-sticker campaign persuaded it to finance renovations); my judgment of Smith College (mixed: Smith is the least provincial of the five local institutions of higher learning but is also the only one lately afflicted with declining standards); my judgment of local “tolerance” (mixed: Northampton seems safer than many other places for homosexuals, but a friend who’s homosexual was badly beaten on the town’s streets not long ago)—all this is beside the point.

The matter of interest about Home Town is, simply, how could a man who has lived in a town gull himself into such preposterous claims for it? What renders a talented journalist suscep-tible to this degree of extravagance? The author’s earlier books, true, betray strong leanings toward hero worship and affiliated sentimentalities. And, true again, the country’s pop past is seductively chockablock with big paydays for small-town mush (Norman Rockwell, the Reader’s Digest, Capra, Saroyan, Wilder, Keillor, others beyond counting). But such answers face away from what’s central.

The case is that there’s no mystery about the origin of works like the one at hand. Home Town draws on a perfectly conventional mythology of national integrity that’s often localized, but rarely to any purpose except to roll the whole. The miscellaneous bits from which the present hallowing of New England is fabricated (Pilgrims, Puritans, Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere, City on the Hill, Underground Railway, Massachusetts alone for McGovern, etc.) are easy to identify. And it’s worth noting that New England nationalism, cultural imperialism, and sense of sectional superiority have closest to their core, as a brilliant recent study of the region’s myth-making demonstrates, the “erasure by whites of the historical experience of local enslavement.”*

But the point of moment is that Kidder’s Northampton descends neither from the secularized virtue of yesteryear’s local utopians nor from their self-inflating claims to purity and nobility, nor from the visions of their heroes, such as Emerson. (The self-congratulating author of “Self-Reliance,” arguing for confiscating Southerners’ property after the Civil War: “You at once open the whole South to the enterprise & genius of new men of all nations & extend New England from Canada to the Gulf, et to the Pacific.”) This ideal, light-bringing place—this paradise of ordinary broken parking meters and ordinary public meetings about banning barroom smoking that end in shouts of “Nazi! Fascist!”—was born in national fantasy: the dream that the virtues of the virgin land remain intact, available for consultation, pick up your pass at the gatehouse.

The map tells the story. Such a tiny, tiny section of the land, way off there on the upper right, barely enough of it to make one state much less six…. Size isn’t it, though, you understand. Probity counts. Probity radiates and elevates. It’s the national moral energy source. Probity keeps sending out waves to all four corners, bringing us back to our best selves, showing us the way that sometimes we seem for a second, just for a bit, to have lost. As long as it’s intact, as long as we can hear those little morally cleansing beeps—

Our national bedtime story. Begat by virtue, surviving through virtue, flourishing and earning the right, by reason of an inviolable innocence, to correct the world: this is our bailiwick and base—the pure Spirit of America become every Yank’s hometown.

  1. *

    Joanna Pope Melish, Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780-1860 (Cornell University Press, 1998), p. 3.