The weight of history in 'Manchester-by-the-Sea'

The Old Burial Ground in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass. (Photo by John Phelan)

The Old Burial Ground in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass. (Photo by John Phelan)

Adapted from Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary’’ in

Some readers may have seen the recently released movie Manchester-by-the-Sea, a devastating family tragedy, but with comic moments, too, and all suffused with a haunting New England atmosphere. I have seen few movies that present a sharper view of the often bleak beauty of New England’s coast and towns or of the anxieties and occasional joys of America’s lower-middle class, New England sub-species.

The film is mostly set in the eponymous Massachusetts town on Greater Boston’s North Shore. 

While the official name is the same as in the movie, when I was growing up in Cohasset, across Massachusetts Bay from the town, we only called it “Manchester.’’ I mostly remember the capacious gray-shingled summer places along the town’s rocky headlands and the big Federal Style and Greek Revival houses inland a bit. \

Many of the grandest places in Greater Boston are on the North Shore. That’s where a lot of Boston Brahmins repaired to in the summer; some moved there year-round after they winterized their summer places (when they weren’t in Aiken, S.C., Palm Beach, etc., in the winter). Perhaps because the North Shore ports of Salem and Newburyport had many of the China Trade types who became Boston’s aristocracy, it denizens tended to look down on the South Shore, although Cohasset and Duxbury had/have certain old-money pretensions.  So there were social links between the two shores, such as annual sailsbetween the Cohasset and Manchester Yacht Clubs. But someone from Cohasset approaching the shore of Manchester quickly knows he/she is entering more-monied waters than those back home .

The South Shore’s mostly sandy and shallow harbors, as opposed to the deeper rock-rimmed ones north of Boston, made  them unattractive for ocean-going ships in the China Trade.  Instead, the local big money often came from the shoe business and such things as rope-making. Not as romantic as trading with China!


Manchester has economically struggling people too, and the movie is mostly about them. Like many, perhaps most  Americans now, they are downwardly mobile. Too many of them medicate their anxieties, which can move into despair, with booze, opiates and cocaine.


Thoreau wrote that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’’. The characters in Manchester-by-the Sea are not always quiet but they are usually stoical in their suffering from their own mistakes and others’ outrages inflicted on them. But they can still summon up some dark  comedy and savor the absurd.

As the movie’s characters walk or drive through Manchester and neighboring towns, you get a sense of the weight of the region’s long history and of the cheeriness of its sunny days alternating with the gloom of its cold, gray and mean winter days darkened by proximity to a hostile ocean. Toward the end of the movie, you even get a sense of the uplift from winter finally succumbing to spring, when the ground has thawed out enough to permit the burial of one of the movie’s characters.

The movie obliquely recalls the regional history that pressed in on Nathaniel Hawthorne (from Salem) in The House of Seven Gables and The Scarlet Letter and William Faulkner’s line “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”  New England and the South have a heavy thing on common: the weight of the most complicated histories of any American region except, perhaps, New York City.

One thinks of Faulkner’s  novel Absalom, Absalom!  in which the Harvard roommate of the Mississippian Quentin Compson says: : “Tell about the South. What's it like there? What do they do there? Why do they live there? Why do they live at all?"  You might ask the same question in mid-winter of New Englanders.

In Manchester-by-the Sea, the pertinent past is mostly in the lifetime of the main characters but you can feel the pressure of earlier time, too. And the film might remind us that most of those we encounter have potent psychic pain we know nothing about. If we did, we might pay attention to the old line: “To understand all is to forgive all,’’ though empathy can sometimes be over-rated.


The tort museum and other N.E. small-town thrills

Inside the American Museum of Tort Law, in an old bank building in Winsted, Conn.

Inside the American Museum of Tort Law, in an old bank building in Winsted, Conn.

From Robert Whitcomb's Nov. 3 "Digital Diary'' column in GoLocal24.

In Winsted, Conn., there’s a new  temple to one of America’s best known characteristics – its litigiousness. In that small city in the Litchfield Hills, famous consumer litigator Ralph Nader has founded the American Museum of Tort Law, which involves cases of wrongful injury. Winsted is Mr. Nader's hometown and he has been very loyal to it.

In the museum are such exhibits as the dangerous Chevrolet Corvair, which Mr. Nader helped drive off the road (see his book Unsafe at Any Speed), unsafe toys and the Dalkon Shield IUD.

The museum shows how tort law evolved within English Common Law and American law up to the present, including (to me) such silly cases as that brought against McDonald’s after someone scalded herself with its hot coffee. And the plan is to build a replica of a courtroom.

As the pyramids were tributes to pharaohs, so the museum, in a beautiful old bank building, will be to the 82-year-old Mr. Nader.

By the way, Winsted, a small former factory city  in the Litchfield Hills, is famous for having the buildings on one side of its Main Street swept away in 1955 by the surging Mad River in torrential rains produced by Hurricane Diane, giving the downtown a slightly surreal quality,  which the tort museum will intensify.


In other Nutmeg State news, 1,300 fans of a TV show called Gilmore Girls  last month descended on the town of Washington, which is supposed to have inspired the improbably quaint and pretty town called “Stars Hollow’’ in the show.  Steven Kurutz, of The New York Times, noted: {T}hey {the fans} wanted to do the impossible: to experience in a waking life  a dream town built on a studio backlot.’’

I know Washington, Conn., having gone to school in nearby Watertown, Conn. It’s very pretty, but of course not nearly as Norman Rockwellian as the TV show. Will the new publicity about Washington cause it to be overrun for a long stretch to come? No. There are even prettier towns in Connecticut.

The story reminded me of the invasion of Cohasset, Mass., on the ocean about 45 minutes east southeast of Boston, when some of the movie The Witches of Eastwick, based on the eponymous Updike novel, was shot  in the ’80s after the folks in the also lovely town of Little Compton, R.I., decided that they didn’t want a Hollywood invasion. I grew up in Cohasset and can testify that there was a full quota of bad and sad behavior there by the then Greatest Generation’s young to middle aged adults – adultery, alcoholism, suicide. The cuteness of Cohasset wasn’t enough to ward off evil spirits. It’sa good place for witches.

Finally, the Gilmore Girls case reminds me of how nice Providence looked in the NBC show of the same name back in the ‘90s. Indeed,  virtually perfect.

My wife and I have a friend, Vicki Mercer,  M.D., a pediatrician and former TV scriptwriter who was the adviser on medicine for the show, which revolved around a young and attractive female doctor prospering in the “Providence Renaissance’’. Vicki took us to the studio in Los Angeles where the interior scenes, including of the physician’s house, were shot. Somewhat eerily, I discovered that the outside shot of the doctor’s house was of  the house of a late aunt and uncle of mine on the East Side of Providence.

The show would have been more interesting if it had included more scenes  of the tougher aspects of Providence but the producers were, after all, pushing escapism, not education.

Village to summer place to rich suburb

surf "Surf, Cohasset {Mass.}, by MAURICE PRENDERGAST, painted around 1900, by which time the small town -- really a village --  had become a much-loved summer place for the affluent of nearby Boston and the shoe-manufacturing area in and around Brockton to the south. The Old Colony Railroad made it very easy to get to.

It has a rather famous drive on Jerusalem Road along the top of low bluffs overlooking Massachusetts Bay. That road becomes Atlantic Avenue, which ends at the town's beautiful if overcrowded harbor, dominated by a mansion that used to be owned by the family that controlled Dow Jones & Co.

The main drawback of  Cohasset as a summer place is that the water is quite cold -- struggling to get to the mid 60s in the middle of summer -- and so is uninviting to swim in. And, of course, real estate is astronomically expensive. It has become one of America's richest suburbs.

The trains disappeared after the late '50's for decades, but now are back.  The Fidelity and bio-tech executives can thus pleasantly read their copies of Barron's  to and from work in downtown Boston.

Spoiled swimmers


"In the Pool'', by JANIS WISNIEWSKI, at Lexington Arts (Mass.) and Crafts Society.

It's now time for New England's brief outdoor swimming-pool season. Especially along the coasts, swimming pools were rare in the region until just a few decades ago. The idea was that it was more character-building and physically healthier to swim in the sea, and that pools were both too showy and too expensive for "prudent'' New Englanders. ("Prudent'' is a favorite and much parodied word used by George H.W. Bush, originally from Greenwich, Conn.)

But unfortunately, other than on  the south-facing costs of Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, where the prevailing southwest wind pushes warm surface water toward the coast, and eddies of the Gulf Stream sometimes make an appearance, the coastal waters of New England are painfully cold for swimming. The Labrador Current rules.

When I was a kid, there were only two swimming pools in the coastal town (Cohasset, Mass.) we lived in. They were owned by two sisters who owned most of the stock of Dow Jones & Co. People tried to be very nice to them to get invitations.

But the influx of new money since about 1980 from the likes of Fidelity fund managers and biotech moguls had led to a proliferation of swimming pools in the town such that parts now look like Beverly Hills. Of course, the season is short for outdoor p00ls around here, even those with very powerful heaters. So some of these folks (as in the Hamptons) put in indoor ones, too, in their Gilded Age II mansions.