by Arnold Goldman

I am not given to the slow form of suicide known as "living in the past," an affliction, a kind of madness that prompts its victims not only to impossibilize themselves but negate the age which proves too much for them. (Elliot Paul, Understanding the French, New York: Random House, 1954, 1955, 56)

Linden on the Saugus Branch is distinguished from many stories of a lost America by Paul’s placing the town and not his boyhood self at the centre. It is a rich evocation of a turn-of-the-century small-town world, but different from earlier American works with apparently comparable focus, from turn-of-the-century "local color" fiction to Sherwood Anderson’s 1918 Winesburg, Ohio and beyond. In being a disregarded, unremarkable, forgotten place, ignored by those who see American life in terms of "typical" village, town, or city profiles, Paul’s Linden is also a precursor of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegon, but a town on a "branch" line, not one wholly left behind by the pace of change. Linden - the town in the book, or the book - is none of these and all of them. It is an entity, constituted by but superior to the hundreds of individual lives of its inhabitants, so many of them named (if pseudynomously) and memorialised by Paul, and it functions over all as a force for good, whatever the individual miseries and even catastrophes, and including the social refusal typified by the founding of the Linden Improvement Association to keep out the Jews and Italians:

[Mario Bacigalupo] observed American customs, which never ceased to astonish him by their restraint, and tried, in his own home, to combine the best elements of New England celebrations with those of Italian fiestas. How many times I have wished that the willingness to acquire treasures of tradition and goodfellowship had been mutual, between the immigrants and the earlier settlers. Because while Mario’s Christmas and New Year’s were amplified and enriched by quite a few New England customs, ... Deacon [Clapp’s] household [the socially senior "American" family in Linden] learned nothing.

Throughout Linden Paul stresses his religious skepticism, even as a youth, but his New England community is a version of William James’s contemporary account (1900) of the deity - lower-case d - neither omnipotent nor omniscient, capable, when His agents let him down, of "losing one," though striving for the best.1

The author’s younger self is not (yet) the agitated participant- observer of earlier "serious" fictions, more of an age with the Tarkingtonian boys of an even earlier children’s literature. (Faulkner would cross similar lines in Intruder in the Dust.) To advance his narrative, Paul manages to involve young Elliot, perhaps a little against the odds, since he is at pains to stress that his "nervous" mother, left with three children when her husband went mad and died (Elliot does not yet know this), was anxious to keep him away from just that "excitement" which she may feel brought out the demons in her late husband. Elliot is inquisitive, however, and otherwise would not have known about what transpired in Linden--and in many instances he could not have, but Paul does not wish to make that too obvious too often.

In the "nervous" young schoolteacher Alice Townsend, who faints (and worse) when she sees her name peed into the freshly-fallen snow, there is a prefiguration of Paul’s own "crisis" in Linden. "Hysteria" is Alice’s reaction to a life which has gotten to be too much for her, with an overbearing widowed mother, an undiagnosed mad sister, and a job she cannot handle which is a daily torture. The tram-driver’s thus making public, sexually-implicit fun of her is too much for her. Alice’s story, which begins Linden and threads its way in and out of the book’s entire length, is a displaced justification of why Elliot, at a certain (and precocious) age will have to leave his fatherless home, where he and his mother’s "nerves" react upon each other, for an equally unconventional life.

Now, at fifty-six, Paul is obliquely justifying himself as he describes what there was to be gained by coming from such a background, what he took with him from it, and how he took as much as anyone who stayed behind. For it is he, the "wanderer," who has drawn a lifetime’s sustenance from his background and

remained faithful to it, while those who remained have dispersed:

Most of the men and women who lived in Linden fifty years ago are now [1947] elsewhere.... What is known as "Greater Boston" has leaked out over the area; broad traffic arteries have spread tentacles this way and that.
  It has occurred to me that while the Americans I then knew in Linden have scattered to the four winds, that band of [Linden] Gypsies, those who then were children, are probably together somewhere right now. What is permanence? Which of us are nomads?

Young Elliot and Paul the author identify themselves with the encamped gypsies, who are more faithful than "the Americans" to the spirit the town once possessed.

How far that panorama of mists and dark slopes and dimply lighted window shades and moving shapes and lanterns seems from today, which has its police cars and motorcycles with sirens, two-way radio telephones, to say nothing of modern psychology, psychiatry, psychoanalysis, neurologists, alienists, and all the Gospels and Apostles of St. Sigmund Freud.

At this point in the book the whole town is out looking for the missing Alice Townsend, who has hidden herself when her mother and sister try to force her to reject Ruth Coffee, the outsider who has stepped in to nurse her, and whom Alice’s sister later night attacks with a knife. The intellectual old maid Mary Stoddard (Paul had used her in his first novel), who acts as Elliot’s "unnervous" mother tells him, "Dr. Worcester [of the Massachusetts General] said, and I have also noticed, that when one member of a family is cracked, some other member is the one who breaks down’.... I thought about that a long time, and have often thought about it since." "[W]hile Alice is so nervous, it is bad for her to have two other nervous people around her all the time," Miss Stoddard says, phrasing matters for the ears of a boy, yet with truth.2

"Linden’s" solution - as elaborated by young Doctor Moody, by the man-like Ruth Coffee, and by Miss Stoddard - is for Alice to live "unconventionally" with Ruth. (The relationship between Alice and Ruth may owe a little to that Paul saw between Alice Toklas and the recently deceased Gertrude Stein, "a dear friend of my Paris days.")3

It is through a concerted effort of individuals, but with the support or countenance of many who might have rejected the "odd couple" in favour of the more conventional but withering "family" of widow and daughters, that Alice’s residence with Ruth Coffee is engineered, to the flowering and happiness of both. On the other hand, however "contented" people once were, "I do not suggest "going back" to those conditions. That is foolish and impossible, and not even desirable. Recapturing the contentment, striving for it, recognizing that it is most important is another matter. That we must do." Life in Linden at the turn of the century was not static, with some modernising change somewhere in the indistinct, unspecified future. It was changing even then:

In winter, all the boys would go to Pickle Pond to watch when the Clarke brothers cut the ice, with large two-man saws, and hoisted it into the ice house, by block and tackle up the chute.... And they were the last of the Clarkes to live as Clarkes always had. For even while they were toiling and collapsing, trenchering, guzzling, and carrying loads on their backs that would stagger a mule, twentieth-century practical science, at which their countrymen were most adept, was making them obsolete, like the coopers, the blacksmiths, the livery stable proprietors, the bicycle dealers, the whalers, the motor men, and other good men and true who were likewise unaware of what was happening.

In this midst of this moment not of stasis but of static and dynamic society intermixed, Paul’s story is ultimately one of mutual, organic assistance.4


1 Elliot Paul, Linden on the Saugus Branch (New York: Random House, 1946), 219; see also "thus was lost much education," 253.
2 Ibid., 103, 375, 134-5, 247, 243.
3 Ibid., 392. It is also a kind of amends for the destructive lesbian relationship he had put into his 1930 novel The Amazon.
4 Ibid., 164, 320-1.

This analysis of Linden on the Saugus Branch is taken from Arnold Goldman's biography-in-progress of Elliot Paul. Arnold Goldman 2001.

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