By Robert Wolf
Decorah, IA, USA
Mammon ruled New Canaan in the days of my youth, even on Sundays as the smug bourgeois entered the three churches on what the town called “God’s acre.” My father, who had said, “God was for weak people” (or words to that effect) was a Sunday school teacher, a role he played, I suppose, in part because it solidified his image of a solid citizen.
Atheist though he probably was, there was more than a touch of Presbyterian in father’s character. John Knox, the founder of the Presbyterian Church, was a Calvinist. Calvin taught, and his followers believed, that wealth was a sign of God’s grace. For my father, wealth was a sign of virtue, proof that one had worked hard and persevered. I think for father the greatest of all virtues were hard work and perseverance. Work not only secured wealth, but provided security and well-being for the family. Honest dealing was a close second to work and perseverance. I am not sure what, if any, virtues followed work, honest dealing, and perseverance.
I believe that most of the men in New Canaan and like towns thought as father did. They may have been Catholic, or Episcopalian, or Methodist, or any other Protestant sect, but they were Americans and had inherited the Puritan—which is to say Calvinist— belief in wealth as proof of virtue.
Like the New Canaanites, early Calvinists worked hard but unlike New Canaanites their hard work was linked to their sense of vocation and duty to God. Lurking behind this may have been the idea that man as maker was imitating God the Maker, and therefore as a maker, man was godly. But with the growth of science and technology in the West came the gradual death of God, and so the Calvinist belief in work as a duty to God collapsed. For Europeans and Americans, nothing could possibly any longer connect virtue to God since God was dead.
Older Home in New Canaan
Six decades after the materialists of the sixties have passed on, their successors, the hyper-materialists, have abandoned two of their predecessor’s cardinal virtues. Perseverance remains, but financial speculation has replaced hard, useful work and, for the speculators who amassed fortunes by collapsing the housing market and sending hundreds of thousands onto the streets, honest dealing is a positive impediment to success.
When all boundaries are lifted, when all restrictions, all sense of shame, all sense of doing wrong have vaporized, then people think that the life of every human being has always been as theirs, as if all men and women have always cheated each other, lied, and fought for themselves only.
The tumultuous sixties, peppered with assassinations of American leaders, of a senseless war, of cities in flame, even now by comparison the sixties seem innocent. Certainly I, a privileged youth, was innocent of much.
Luckily, in sixth grade I discovered my calling as a writer. In time the sense of vocation deepened and later, in late middle age, the vocation became a duty. The money never came, but the sense of doing what I was meant to do overcame the pain of not having money.
My revulsion with New Canaan with its emphasis on hard-headedness pushed me into other places. Books and imagination and dreaming had no place in New Canaan. And if hard work, perseverance and honest dealing were the only virtues, then imagination and inquiry and learning for the sake of knowing meant little or nothing. What power could imagination and the need to know have in the face of those who ran America, those who had no use for imagination or of knowing for the sake of knowing? What could a sonnet be worth? Of what value was a watercolor? What strength can a piece of paper splashed with color have against a 100-ton locomotive or the imponderable weight of a skyscraper? Imagination was dead before the force of action.
My strong desire to know about other ways of living pulled me elsewhere. My mind’s lens saw much but judged little, not morally and certainly not in terms of whether he has money and is therefore is to be respected or he is poor and therefore of little worth.
Neither dirt, nor primitive conditions, nor poverty repulsed me. Rather, driven by a desire to become a part of this life or that, I traveled. The early hitchhiking trips and sojourns of my youth showed me new ways of living, therefore ways I must learn and enter, new ways of being.