Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Amherst Politics and Podunk

"`Where is Podunk?' we asked, failing entirely to suppress a quiver of anticipation.
"`This is Podunk now,' said the small boy.

Just one final piece on our political culture in the wake of Town Meeting.

Much of the recent debate on the floor of our venerable assembly involved the proposed village center rezoning: how to focus growth in existing built-up areas in order to prevent sprawl, but without compromising their existing look and feel. Much of the debate outside the hall involved the frustration felt by each side regarding the presumed intransigence and narrow-mindedness of the other. Some proponents of the zoning changes, for example, blamed the defeat on "naysayers" allegedly resistant to any change, many of them new to and unfamiliar with the intricacies of both town planning and the political process. Some rezoning opponents (particularly the newbies), by contrast, saw themselves as waging a heroic fight against entrenched interests, high-handed practices, and old ways of thinking.

As I was looking over my book collection last week, I recalled that one volume contained the humorous old story, "The Politician of Podunk," which involves another such tale of political ideals and frustration from nearly a century and three-quarters ago.

The average reader is familiar with the term "Podunk" as a synonym for rural backwardness, but few know where it comes from. In fact, even supposed experts have long disagreed.

In the view of many, it does not exist, though that has not stopped others from trying to find it, or at least a plausible connection between the idea and a real place.

The Oxford Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (OED) lists both an adjective and a noun corresponding to the general understanding of the term: "Of or designating an obscure or insignificant town; out-of-the-way, small-town, provincial; insignificant" "A name for a fictitious, insignificant, out-of-the-way town; a typical small town." Examples:
1846   Daily National Pilot (Buffalo, N.Y.) 13 Jan. 3a,   Messrs. Editors: I hear you ask, ‘Where in the world is Podunk?’ It is in the world, sir; and more than that, is a little world of itself. It stands ‘high up the big Pigeon’, a bright and shining light amid the surrounding darkness. I look back, sir, with pride upon the day when I located in the then unincorporated burgh of Podunk. 
1846   Daily National Pilot (Buffalo, N.Y.) 6 Mar. 2b,   Podunk is a huge town, not distinguished exactly as the geographies have it, for its ‘fertile soil, salubrious and healthy climate’, but for some of the characters that here do congregate.
But it also lists Podunk as both an adjective and a noun associated with "a North American Indian people formerly inhabiting an area around the Podunk River in Hartford County, Connecticut."

Perhaps for the latter reason, efforts to get to the bottom of the mystery focused on our own central New England. In a 1988 piece, columnist "Cecil Adams" reviewed the evidence. He explains, "In 1925 philologist G.P. Krapp noted that no Podunk was to be found in the list of American post offices" but did find a connection with Native American geographic names. In 1933, the Boston Herald declared that the place did not exist. Soon thereafter, etymologist Allen Walker Read found the term applied to meadows, ponds, and small bodies of flowing water in the Hartford and Worcester area, as well as "throughout New York State." He "opined that Podunk derived from an Algonquin Indian word meaning 'a boggy place.'"

In 1941, the Herald thereupon resumed the quest, but as Adams explains, fobbed the job off on the Worcester Telegraph, whose dramatic quest led to the prosaic conclusion that it was (in his words) "an unincorporated area about six square miles in extent containing about 100 families" "located mostly within East Brookfield, a town about 15 miles west of Worcester."

Satisfying and plausible, but there the story does not end. Perhaps the clue, like the purloined letter, was right in front of our faces. One of the leading entries in the always entertaining though not necessarily reliable (or serious) Urban Dictionary traces the popularization of the term to the 1971 film, "The French Connection," via a reference to the backwardness of Poughkeepsie. Indeed, as the OED shows, the term seems to have a New York association, but it in fact goes back to the 1840s. However, few have looked hard enough and far enough back. The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE)—a product of my  alma mater, The University of Wisconsin, I am proud to say—correctly traces the first known use to my aforementioned little story, thus reinforcing the connection with a New York location; there is in fact a real Podunk, a hamlet in the town of Ulysses.

"The Politician of Podunk" appeared in The Token and Atlantic Souvenir, a "gift book" published in Boston in 1839.

Gift books flourished in the UK and US from the early 1820s until circa 1860, and derived from the tradition of French and German literary annuals and almanacs, which arose in the second third of the eighteenth century. Containing a variety of literary pieces, usually embellished with engravings and elegantly bound, they were issued around the autumn season and intended, as the name suggests, as gifts for the Christmas and New Year holidays.

The editor of The Token was one Samuel Griswold Goodrich (1793-1860), a Massachusetts and Connecticut bookseller and publisher (later: diplomat) who also wrote under the pseudonym, "Peter Parley." (As chance would have it, some of Goodrich's papers are also housed in Amherst College Archives and Special Collections.)

At any rate, here, without further ado, is the story itself:
SOLOMON WAXTEND was a shoemaker of Podunk, a small village of New York, some forty years ago. He was an Englishman by birth, and had come over the water to mend the institutions, as well as the soles, of the country. He was a perfectly honest man, and of natural good sense; but, having taken pretty large doses of new light from the works of Tom Paine and the French Revolutionists, he became, like an inflated balloon, light-headed, and soared aloft into the unknown regions of air. Like many of his countrymen brought up under monarchical institutions, he was slow in understanding the mysteries of our political system; and, wanting the ballast of Yankee common sense, he nevertheless thought himself specially qualified to instruct the people of Podunk in every thing relating to civil liberty.

Accordingly he held forth, at first, over his lapstone, then at the bar-room, and finally at a caucus. He had some gifts, and more of the grace of assurance. He set up for a great man, became a candidate for representative, and was [110] triumphantly elected a member of the General Assembly of New York. With all the spirit of a true reformer, he set forth for Albany, to discharge the high functions of his official state. He went. He rose to make a speech. His voice failed, his knees tottered, he became silent; he sat down. The whole affair was duly reported in the papers. It was read at the alehouse in Podunk!

Solomon Waxtend came back an altered man. He went away round, ruddy, and self-sufficient; he returned lean, sullen, and subdued. He shut himself up for a month, and nothing was heard in his house by the neighbours, save the vigorous hammer upon the lapstone. At length, one evening, he appeared at the village inn. It was a sort of holiday eve, and many of his partisans were there. They looked at Solomon, as if they saw a ghost; but he had that calmness of countenance which betokens a mind made up. His late friends crowded round him; but Solomon, waving his hand, bade them sit down. Having done this, he spoke as follows.

"I trust I am duly sensible, my friends, of the honor you intended me, in sending me to the Assembly. If I have disgraced you, it has, at least, been a lesson to me. I find, that in order [111] to understand your institutions, and to cope with your Yankee people, it is necessary, like them, to live long in the country, and to study its history, and become familiar with its political system. I find that an Englishman, with his Tory notions, his hereditary love of monarchy, his loyalty, woven in with his first lessons of life, is like a 'fish out of water' in one of your democratic assemblies. I have, therefore, only one thing to say, and that will be told in the way of a story.

"Some people, digging in a sandbank by the seaside, in search of Kid's money, came to a chest, with the following inscription, —' Take me up, and I will tell you more!' This gave them fresh courage, and they continued their efforts. At length they dug up the chest, and on the bottom, they found the following inscription, —' Lay me down as I was before.'"

Having told this story, the cobler departed, leaving his hearers to apply the obvious hint conveyed by the legend.

No specific lesson for Amherst intended here.

Rather, it's just a useful reminder that the collision of ideals and desires with reality, and the mutual frustration of old hands and newcomers are nothing new.

the shoemaker as political amateur
The illustration accompanying the story:  "The Politician," by Henry Liverseege (1803-32), steel engraving by Oliver Pelton (1798-1882) of Hartford. As the record in the holdings of the American Antiquarian Society indicates, the engraving appears in several American literary annuals issued between 1839 and1853.


• The 1840 volume of The Token via Google Books

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