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 …