A couple of months ago I went to visit my college for reasons that had everything to do with this blog. My plan was to visit the English department library – a place that I associate with peace and stateliness and growth and wisdom and the kind of long stretches of time that are hard to find anywhere outside of a college campus. I planned to read there for a while and let my thoughts wander and take pictures and then write about the fact that when I think of Purgatory (secular Purgatory, that is, as we define it on this blog) as a place of endless reading, a part of my mind always places that reading right there, in Sanborn Library, in New Hampshire, on a temperate October day with yellow leaves blowing past the window.
But as you may have noticed, I never posted such an entry. I did visit Sanborn Library, and I did take pictures, and I did sit and think, and I even found a bulletin board display right outside the library featuring Louise Erdrich reminiscing about exactly the same things I had wanted to write about:
Did I feel trumped? Maybe a little. But that’s not why I didn’t write the post I had planned to write.
I did sit down and write after I got home from that trip, but the thoughts that came were not about Sanborn Library or about Purgatory or even about books – although books were mentioned. I finished this post and saved it in the “Drafts” section of WordPress as “Part II” of my Hanover Post. The post about Sanborn Library was supposed to be Part I. But then I got busy packing boxes and shipping things and saying goodbye to people and feeling bad about all the friends I didn’t get to say goodbye to and driving across Pennsylvania and Kentucky and Alabama and Texas and… you get the idea, right? I never wrote Part I, and eventually I came to accept that maybe my affection for the English department library at my college really isn’t that interesting after all.
So here you go… Part II without Part I, in honor of the fact that sometimes life is messy like that:
When I told one of my high school math teachers that I was going to Dartmouth, he said, “I assume you know that Dartmouth is not in Hanover, but that Hanover is in Dartmouth,” suggesting that I would be put off by my college’s remoteness. In fact, I chose Dartmouth partially for this reason. I remember feeling as if we drove for hours and hours through the woods to get there when I visited. (In reality, we drove there from New Haven, CT on a major interstate highway, but it was an interstate highway with only two lanes in each direction – a phenomenon I had seen only once in my life until that time, on the rural stretches of I-5 in California, which I had assumed to be an anomaly.) My math teacher’s comment was true at the time, when Hanover consisted of the equivalent of about three city blocks of commercial real estate extending in only one direction from the college: several restaurants (some excellent), the college bookstore, two coffee shops, and any number of college T-shirt and sweatshirt vendors. Concessions to the world of franchise businesses back in 1994 included a Gap, a Subway, and a Ben & Jerry’s. The movie theatre held only one screen. On the odd occasion when a college student needed a grocery store, there were two – a Grand Union and the upscale Hanover Co-op – both on the outer fringes of town, which is to say that each was about half a mile from the heart of campus. If you needed to buy underwear, you were screwed.
When I was a student, it was relatively common to walk through Hanover on a weekend morning and see almost no one. Students rarely left the dorms before noon, and at the time it always seemed to me that Hanover was the realm of students. When I babysat for local families, the parents were always off to restaurants or events in Norwich or Lebanon or White River Junction. Even though the restaurants in Hanover were quite good, I always assumed that they were the semi-private domain of students and professors, and the rest of the world seemed to agree. The town followed the rhythms of the college, pulsing with activity on Friday and Saturday nights and on weekday afternoons, and emptying out in what to me was a comforting solitude when the majority of the students were asleep. There were always empty tables in the coffee shops. It was never hard to find a parking place. Beyond the few blocks of stores and restaurants south of campus, and beyond the medical school to the north, the athletic fields to the east, and the Connecticut River to the west, narrow roads extended in each direction, aiming as far as most students were concerned into the very bowels of the Great North Woods. When I was eighteen, my mental conception of Hanover looked a lot like those medieval world maps with huge warning signs in the middle of the oceans that say Beyond this point there be monsters.
But something has happened in the last fifteen years – something that I can only call “urban renewal” – an extremely strange term to use with regard to Hanover, New Hampshire. I didn’t take pictures of the images that troubled me about the new Hanover. I didn’t know where to start, I guess, and I knew that to people who do not know the old Hanover, any photos I posted would make Hanover look like a picturesque small New England town – which to an objective eye I suppose it still is. To me, though, the Hanover of 2012 looks as if someone wrote a blank check to the architects who designed this place and specified that the motif to aim for was New-England-mill-town-meets-Epcot’s-World-Showcase. To me, the relationship between today’s Hanover and the town where I went to college is the same as the relationship between Epcot’s Fake France and Fake Russia and Fake China and these real countries. And it saddens me. I sort of hate it. It’s beautiful and plastic and at nine o’clock on a Sunday morning there wasn’t a parking space in sight.
It happens that on the day I visited there was a half-marathon in progress. It was one of those races that aimed to be a spectator event, with a kids’ fun run and a 5K to draw people who weren’t game for the half-marathon, plus one of those inflatable moon bounce contraptions and food vendors. When I saw the moon bounce set up on the Dartmouth green, there was a brief moment when the ghost of Daniel Webster possessed me, just long enough to shudder a little bit, and then went away again, leaving me alone with his nausea and outrage. It didn’t help that this was one of those races to which people wear their Halloween costumes. In fact, there seemed to be an unofficial Batman theme: though costumes of all kinds were represented, a large group of people – both racers and spectators – seemed to have gotten together to race and observe the race dressed up as various incarnations of Batman, Robin, the Joker, the Riddler, and Catwoman.
There has always been a strong vein of perpetual nostalgia among Dartmouth alumni – a vein that I usually try to resist. All colleges feature a core of alumni that refuses to grow up, alumni who appear at Homecoming and reunions and nose around in the dorms looking for the places where they carved their initials. But at Dartmouth this tendency to romanticize the past has always seemed a little more sinister to me than it does at other colleges. When I was a student, there were still alumni and current students who lived their lives in constant outrage at the college’s decision to admit women (in 1972!) and – even more so – at its 1974 decision for reasons of sensitivity to ban the use of “the Indian” as the college’s unofficial mascot. Independent organizations funded with alumni money handed out free “Indian” T-shirts at freshman orientation; the same money funded an off-campus student publication that mocked and derided women, Native Americans, any cause deemed liberal, and any academic course or department created later than about 1920. There is a fight song at Dartmouth that is banned for the way it glorifies the college’s founder “taming the Indians” by giving them alcohol; this unofficial student newspaper published the lyrics to this song at every opportunity. A mural on campus that depicts this same event sits behind locked doors; this newspaper constantly lobbies the college to keep this mural open and on display in a prominent location. As a Dartmouth student, it was hard not to associate nostalgia with an obstinate racism and misogyny and with a refusal to accept constructive change, and I have always wanted to separate myself firmly from the flavor of nostalgia most associated with my college.
But places – like books – are mirrors. I look at this campus and this town and I don’t see it for what it is – what I see instead is myself during the years when this place was the center of my universe. The most selfish and solipsistic parts of my subconscious – the parts that, to be honest, can almost sympathize with the army of nasty old men (and a few nasty young men) who wish their college could stay as misogynistic and racist as they were when they were students there, if only to justify to themselves how little they have changed since they were twenty-two – expect this place to remain forever a museum of my late adolescence and early adulthood. And wearing a Batman costume in someone else’s museum is the height of rudeness, wouldn’t you say?
I can be a jealous lover of places.
A balance of some kind was tipped in me when I discovered that since I was a student there Hanover has opened its doors to not one but TWO Starbucks locations. I have known for a long time that Barnes and Noble now has a near-monopoly on college and university bookstores and that the Starbucks café that comes part and parcel with every Barnes and Noble location is now ubiquitous in college bookstores – and this is fine. I approve of both Barnes and Noble and of Starbucks and frequent both businesses often, and I respect the fact that in taking over college bookstores Barnes and Noble has allowed these stores to retain the quirkiness and eclecticism that has always made college bookstores worth visiting. I more or less assumed that there would be a Starbucks in the Dartmouth bookstore, and it didn’t even occur to me to be bothered by this change. But then I discovered that there is another Starbucks in Hanover, right across the street from the one in the bookstore. And the idea of TWO Starbucks locations in Hanover is ludicrous – ludicrous in ways I find it hard to explain to anyone who was never a Dartmouth undergraduate. I feel about the two Starbucks locations in Hanover the same way I felt when they opened a huge GAP on the corner of Haight and Ashbury in San Francisco and then ran an extensive ad campaign featuring Timothy Leary in chinos and a white button-down. It’s not bad; there’s nothing wrong with it – it’s just incongruous and misplaced, and, underneath my initial annoyance, I find it a little funny. As if this town – this northeast equivalent of Independence, Missouri; this outpost at the southern edge of the bear-infested wilderness – is accepting a sad but mundane reality, acknowledging with a sigh that there really isn’t much wilderness in the world anymore. I wonder how many Starbucks locations it will take before the college abandons its Latin motto Vox clamantis in deserto (“a voice crying in the wilderness”) in acknowledgement of the fact that it has finally become ridiculous. And I wonder if I would ever have fallen in love with this place if it looked like this when I first saw it at seventeen – if my mother and I had had to fight not only each other on that long-ago college tour but also crowds of marathon runners wearing pointed ears.
But my visit wasn’t a total loss. I did eventually find a place to park, and I had lunch here–
– and found that it had changed not at all. Even the menu was the same –
as was the employees’ attitude of benign neglect that makes this café one of the few places where one can drink coffee and read more or less forever. I read Middlemarch here for a while, feeling the strange sense of déjà vu that made me suspect that I had read Middlemarch here before – but a long time ago, in a self that is now a museum piece.
And then something really nice happened: I went to the bookstore I bought a book by a former classmate:
– a pleasure that I recommend highly as one of the great perks of getting older. I’m lucky enough to have experienced this pleasure many times, as many of my friends are eloquent and prolific. Growing up, we are taught to anticipate the joys of booze and sex and babies, but no one ever prepared me for the deep satisfaction of seeing concrete evidence that the words and ideas of someone who once did the same homework assignments as I did – who sat in the rain through the same four-hour graduation – have been deemed worthy of permanence.
Hey kids – when your childhood friends write books, always buy them. It makes the taxes and the back pain worth it. It makes you feel okay about the fact that the world keeps changing.