Summer-House Lit, Part 2
Why can't journalists resist the trap?
My previous column ("Summer-House, Lit, Part 1") may have led some readers to believe that I harbor resentment against people who own summer houses. Nothing could be further from the truth. Some of my best friends own summer houses, and every summer I sponge off them as often as I decently can. There is nothing inherently wrong with owning a vacation home by the sea or on a lake. Indeed, the world could use more such people, if only to provide more summer-homeless people like me more pastoral settings in which to be guests.
The offense against which I rail is not owning a summer house, but being clod enough to write about said summer house for a broad reading public that, in most instances, summers at the same address where it winters, springs, and falls. In the dog days of summer, as the thermometer climbs above 95 degrees Fahrenheit, most people who do not dwell in summer houses would rather not hear about the bliss of those who do. You'd think this would be self-evident, but apparently it isn't.
Well-mannered journalists who would rather die than write about how much money they've accumulated in the stock market never hesitate to bore readers silly about the glories of their vacation hideaways. A common misconception is that one's summer house provides an escape from the relentless materialism of urban life (as if they were giving away houses on Block Island free of charge). Any egalitarian sentiments a summer-er may harbor are channeled into class resentment against a whole group of other summer-ers who represent the true elite. The squire who inherits his summer home feels morally superior to the arriviste who buys one because, well, it's not as though he's this rich person who slapped down a fat wad of cash. Meanwhile, the arriviste who buys his summer home feels morally superior to the squire who inherits one because, well, it's not as though he's some pampered aristocrat. He earned the money that bought this sylvan retreat!
Summer-house literature has many mansions. I will attempt to catalog a few, starting with misdemeanors and working my way up to felonies.
The casual mention. Slate's David Edelstein, reviewing Skeleton Key and The 40 Year-Old Virgin, datelined his Aug. 25 blog dispatch, "Truro, Mass.," by way of explaining that he saw the two films under review in one of the country's last surviving drive-ins. (Have I ever visited the Wellfleet Drive-In Theater? None of your goddamned business!) Similarly, Joseph Nocera, in his Saturday business column in the New York Times, informed us Aug. 27 that every summer he spends "a month or more" at a house on a lake in Quebec's Laurentian mountains by way of explaining why his column is all about Canada. To mitigate their sins, both writers make vague gestures of democratic self-effacement. Edelstein discourages envy by pointing out that the popcorn is soggy and artificial-tasting; Nocera states forthrightly what he knows you're going to think, i.e., "I'm a lucky guy." I count both writers as friends and enormously gifted journalists. Still, I must cry foul. Edelstein and Nocera could easily have written their columns without letting slip where they were written from.
The faux parody. How can I be called elitist when I'm making fun of the pampered denizens of my summer community, including myself? For years Russell Baker assumed this stance in his New York Times humor column, and the Washington Post's Art Buchwald continues to assume it in his. (Yes, Buchwald still writes his column. No, it hasn't been funny for some time.) The satire, of course, falls well short of savage, and usually involves a fair amount of name-dropping. In a Sept. 1999 column, for instance, Baker had a little fun with the fact that New York had just named the playwright John Guare a "living human treasure." Guare happened to be a friend of his, he explained; they met "in a cheese-shop door in Nantucket." In an April 12 column, Buchwald cackled about a statue of a female dancer that he bought years ago, dubbed "Our Lady of [Jane] Fonda," and installed in his backyard in Martha's Vineyard. He did this to rib his late wife, who led a bunch of older women in an exercise class there. One of the women in the class was Eppie Lederer (Ann Landers). Eppie later wrote about it in her column, but Jane Fonda didn't mention it in her recent autobiography. The statue is still there. There was no point to this column.
The summer home as refuge from racism. In Finding Martha's Vineyard: African Americans at Home on an Island, a portrait of the black summer community in Oak Bluffs, Jill Nelson says she cherished her childhood on the Vineyard because
There was no need to be the exemplary Negro here, or to show white people that we were as good or better than they were, to conduct ourselves as ambassadors for integration and racial harmony. For the months of summer the weight of being race representative—and all the political, emotional, and psychic burdens that come with demanding that an individual represent a nonexistent monolith—was lifted….Here, it was enough that you simply be yourself.
This is not privilege. This is something that is owed every African American! But of course, if every African American had a house in Oak Bluffs, the Flying Horses Carousel would probably collapse under the weight of all those children. Consequently, admittance is limited to those who can afford to pay.
The summer home as crucible of WASP dysfunction. In The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home, George Howe Colt reveals the family secrets tucked under the gables. I don't know the specifics, because I can't bring myself to read this book.
The summer community as "the real America." Here we begin to enter the realm of outright delusion. Every summer David Broder assesses the national mood from his summer place on Beaver Island, Mich., in part, I suspect, to demonstrate that even when he's on vacation he's admirably incapable of enjoying himself. Since not much happens on Beaver Island—that's pretty much the point of Beaver Island—these "microcosm" columns are always mind-bendingly dull. (Writing in Washington's City Paper, my Slate colleague Jack Shafer once characterized Broder's Beaver Island dispatches as merging "the cosmic and common in a stupefying slop of prose.") This year Broder carped about a fence put up near the ferry in the name of homeland security, and went on in a tone that I think was intended to be wry and curmudgeonly about how this related, or didn't relate, to a recent mishap with a drawbridge. At least I think that's what Broder was writing about. Every time I try to read this column to the end my eyeballs lose their focus.
The summer home as reason to write hack freelance pieces about the summer home—somebody's gotta pay the mortgage on this baby! I refer you to "Nantucket On My Mind" by David Halberstam in the July 1999 Town and Country. He probably figured nobody whose opinion mattered to him would ever see it. But in the age of Nexis, you can never hide.
The summer community as city on a hill. If there's a hell for people who write about their summer houses, I'd like to enroll Ellen Goodman. Goodman used her sleepy Maine retreat this Aug. 14 to lecture the benighted souls who live life at too fast a pace:
I arrive at the island post office carrying an artifact from another age. It's a square envelope, handwritten, with a return address that can be found on a map….
We suffer from the illusion, says [former Microsoft techie Linda] Stone, that we can expand our personal bandwidth, connecting to more and more. Instead, we end up overstimulated, overwhelmed and, she adds, unfulfilled. Continuous partial attention inevitably feels like a lack of full attention….
It is not just my trip to the mailbox that has brought this to mind. I come here each summer to stop hurrying. My island is no Brigadoon: WiFi is on the way, and some people roam the island with their cell phones looking for a hot spot. But I exchange the Internet for the country road.
If only those silly welfare moms and Army soldiers in Iraq and flood victims waiting to be rescued atop their houses in New Orleans would buy themselves some little dacha on the coast of Maine, they'd be much, much happier. But they'll never learn, will they?
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.