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Plain Living and High Thinking

with 6 comments

So–the book on faith healing was short, and I finished it yesterday morning, which ended up giving me a sort of paralysis right before I had to go off and teach.  I had no idea what I wanted to read next, and I knew I was going to end up picking something in haste and then deciding–when I was stranded somewhere with nothing else to read–that it wasn’t what I wanted at all.

At any rate, I managed to negotiate all this, helped by the fact that my classes had almost no students in them–we were the only school in the area holding class on Good Friday–and I finally settled on John Henry Newman’s The Idea of the University.

It’s one of those things.  You’d have thought I’d have read it four times over by now, but I’ve never read it before at all, and it starts out distinguishing Education from Training, too.

I mean, really.

But for some reason, it got me going on something else.

I’ve spoken on this forum before of Plain Living and High Thinking, and I’ve done it with the automatic assumption that the phrase would be immediately familiar to almost everybody.  It is, after all, the epitome of New England-ness.  Okay, that’s not a word.  But you know what I mean.  It is, in my mind, a description of what it means to be a New Englander, and, maybe because I grew up around so many examples of the breed, I always thought its meaning was self evident.

Then Robert wrote me an e-mail saying that he had always assumed I meant people who worked at humble jobs in order to pursue the life of the life, but that he’d come across the phrase in Chesterton, and Chesterton used it to mean…well, I suppose you’d call them hippies, these days.

I’d never heard that particular use of the term at all, but I put it down to the fact that Chesterton was talking about England, not New England, and New England has had very distinct ideas about England ever since those first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord.

Or maybe before.

But let me go back to Plain Living and High Thinking, New England version, because it’s something I’ve always found enormously attractive as a philosophy of life.

And yes, I do realize that its attraction to me is something of an accident.  I’m an upper middle class educated professional woman FROM New England, so of course this is the sort of thing I like.

But I do like it.  And I think it has intrinsic merit.

First, it’s not necessary to work humble jobs to engage in Plain Living and High Thinkng.  Most of the people I knew who lived that way when I was growing up were probably very well off.  It just wasn’t obvious that they were very well off.

The issue wasn’t money, but what you did–and didn’t–do with it.  You didn’t buy “designer” things, for instance.  You never bought anything with a visible label.  A PLHT rich person buys store brands and generic medicines and has no problem shopping in Wal-Mart–there’s something just wrong about spending more money for something than is absolutely needful.

They have Fords and not Mercedes, sweaters their grandmothers knitted, and underwear in some plain generic variety they picked up on a sale rack.

On the other hand, quality counts, so a PLHT person would have “good” things, the sort of things that last forever.  But never anything…obvious.

The great maxim for PLHT people was the little poem nearly every girl of my mother’s generation was required to embroider into the sampler her mother made her do to make sure she knew how to sew:

Use it up
Wear it out
Make it do
Or do without.

One of the reasons a lot of PLHT families had money in the bank is that they virtually never spent any of it.

Which brings us to point two–PLHT people do their own work, and they do it on a schedule that would make most people cry.  They get up early in the morning.  They sweep up, make breakfast, and pack the kids off to school.

If they do have help, it’s one woman who comes in to do heavy stuff like vacuuming or rugs.  They do not have the sort of help that serves at table, even if they’re very very rich–unless they’re also very, very old, and it’s assumed that they aren’t capable of getting up and doing for themselves. 

Of course, a lot of these women wouldn’t admit they were no longer able to do for themselves until they were so blind and feeble they started falling out of bed and not being able to find the bedroom door–but that was a cross for their children and grandchildren to bear, and they insist on being “independent” no matter what.

If there’s a young son in the house, he’ll be the one who does the lawn mowing, even if he’s got a trust fund somewhere worth $40 million.  Their daughters wash up after dinner.  They go out and walk their own walls in the spring and they shovel their own snow in the winter.  

The two biggest sins in the PLHT world are “laziness” and “display.”

Third, they’re connected to their place.  A lot of them have been connected for a couple of centuries, but there are PLHT people who are “new” from the last generation or two.  It’s a matter of commitment to the idea rather than longevity per se.

They go to their town meeting and they participate.  Sometimes, too much.  They run for local office.  They volunteer for the local food bank and at the local library.  They run food drives and fund raisers.  If there’s a local Meals on Wheels, they volunteer for it.  If there’s a local Literacy Volunteers of America, they work for that, too. 

Their children go to the local public schools at least through the eighth or ninth grade. Richer PLHT people, or PLHT people whose families go very far back in  America, sometimes send their children to boarding or prep schools, but if they do it tends to be a matter of tradition.  Great-great-grandfather started the place and grandmother gave the library, so it’s a matter of sticking with the family.

Richer PLHT people sometimes have daughters who have “debuts,” but they’re not the kind of “debuts” you’re used to hearing about.  A bunch of her parents friends invited to have lunch or tea on a Saturday afternoon–that kind of thing.  No getting in a band or having champagne or dancing or anything like that.

There’s a famous story about a PLHT Boston debutante from the Fifties who invited her best friend over to pick out her coming out dress–and the two girls sat down on the sofa and went through the Sears catalogue.

Fourth, they are intensely commited to Ideas.  Whether they’re good at them or not is a question for another time and place, but they are committed to them.  They read lots of history, and in the old days they used to read a lot of published sermons.  They’ve read the Bible, often several times, since in the old days it was a common practice for PLHT people to keep a copy of the Bible on their bedside table so that they could read a chapter every night before going to bed.

They were the stalwarts of the old Congregationalist Church, and some of them still go there.  But it’s become such a center for newfangledness these days, and newfangledness is a kind of “display,” so—.

They’ve read Aristotle and Plato, Cicero and Tacitus, and the collected works of McCauley and Gibbon, but not much in the way of fiction, which they consider “frivolous.”   “Frivolousness” is the third of the deadly sins after “laziness” and “display.”   

They always vote, and they always know the issues and the candidates.  They make a point of it.

Every one of them now living has already returned his census form. 

They follow all the rules of the road when they drive.  They carefully insure their houses and cars.  If they don’t have health insurance, they still go to the doctor and pay him up front for everything. 

They may or may not have credit cards, but they never run a balance.  And if they have mortgages, they have the shortest term mortgages they can get and pay them off as soon as it’s feasible. 

They rarely eat out–it’s expensive, and the food isn’t good for you.  They don’t belong to country clubs–it’s expensive, and just a lot of people indulging in a lot of “display.”  If they own a television at all, they either don’t get cable, or they get the lowest tier.  Their television sets are never in their living rooms, and they only have one, tucked away in a back room somewhere. 

They eat dinner together every night, with no electronics blaring in the background. The dinner table talk runs to political issues, religious issues, or making sure the kids know something besides the names of the latest Pop Tarts.

They have gardens out back that they work religiously and in which they grow the most marvelous vegetables.  Then they pick the vegetables and boil them into mush.  You really do not want to eat their cooking.

These days, they tend to contrast their way of life with “New York,” but at the start of the country, the big comparison was with Virginia–and all those proflgate, slave-owning planters who liked to drink too much, gamble too much, and spend too much money.

They were the first people in America to oppose slavery, and many of them went to extraordinary lengths to cut their ties to it, often jettisoning significant amounts of money they felt was tainted by the practice. 

They were, in fact, very much like my father–who was the son of Greek immigrants–and very little like my mother, who has the kind of pedigree that would seem to make her heir to this kind of thing.

And, like I said, I find this kind of thing attractive–except for the cooking, which is deplorable.

But I do think it beats the buy-everything-designer-labeled, throw-cash-around-and-show-how-much-you-can-spend ethic of the present age. 

I’ve got to go buy chocolate bunnies.

Written by janeh

April 3rd, 2010 at 6:53 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Plain Living and High Thinking'

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  1. Very clear, thank you. Much of the life you describe–the consumption side, at least–is not unknown in the Midwest, and may be more common nationally than one thinks.
    A few years ago, a luxury car maker did some work on the consumption habits of American millionaires, whom they felt were their likely customers. They found out that the motor vehicle most commonly owned by an American millionaire was a Ford F-105 (F-150? Pick-up truck, anyway.) and concentrated on selling to people with recent high incomes instead.
    I hit something in Chesterton last night about the perils of long words. He wrote that using words of one or two syllables to say something tended to lay bare meaning. If you started describing “conspicuous consumption” that way, the words would be very familiar–and those PLHT families would recognize them from their Bibles. It beats building a house the size of my entire block, anyway.


    3 Apr 10 at 7:56 am

  2. That sounds a lot like my father, who was born and raised in Maine (although I’m never quite sure if Maine counts as ‘New England’ – and like my mother, who was born and raised in Newfoundland from a family with no New England connections at all until she married an American.

    There are some differences. No one in any branch of my family ever managed to accumulate any significant amount of money, although almost everyone past early childhood managed to be self-supporting. I don’t suppose most of them even knew what a Congregationalist is – until the present generation, one side was Anglican (Episcopalian) and the other Methodist, which is kind of a distant cousin of Anglicanism, I suppose. My mother always felt that her Methodist mother-in-law rather looked down on Episcopalians. But you studied and worked hard, although perhaps with not quite the same emphasis on ideas or exposure to the classics, spent money carefully, never ‘showed off’ (which I guess is a form of display), voted and volunteered in the community…it’s a good way of life, although I don’t follow it entirely these days, and neither do my cousins.


    3 Apr 10 at 8:17 am

  3. Yes, Maine is part of New England.

    Really, really, really part of New England.

    And it occured to me that we had a PLHT on the SCOTUS for a while, in the person of David Souter, who lived in the same house that had been in his family for over two hundred years–until just a couple of years ago, when he had to buy another one because, although he never had much in the way of furniture, he had managed to reach the point where there were so many books, he couldn’t fit him and them in the same place.

    He kept the original house to keep the books in, too.


    3 Apr 10 at 8:24 am

  4. Then there is the inability of a PLHT to throw anything out that might still be useful for something. My NH father died with a 2-story barn, 2 sheds, and the 3rd floor of his house stuffed with things which “might come in handy”. If we stopped in on our way to the hardware store in town to buy a hinge or a bolt, he’d insist that we wait until he had located the desired item in his stash. After 30 or 40 minutes, he always emerged triumphantly from the back of the barn, carrying something which was close enough to what we were looking for that we had to abandon the idea of buying a new whatever at the store.

    If I told him I had managed to throw out something from my own piles of clutter, his inevitable response was “Willful Waste Makes Woeful Want!!” I am sure he must have learned that gem of guilt-producing wisdom from his grandmother or great-grandmother, both NH women.

    The downside of this learned frugality is that I am a hopeless hoarder and clutterholic (with a shelf full of books on how to reform).


    3 Apr 10 at 1:01 pm

  5. One long-deceased Newfoundland woman used to say ‘keep a thing seven years, and you’ll find a use for it’, but at least she had a deadline – not that she used it.

    I’m slowly moving in the opposite direction, partly under the influence of having helped a relative who got the saving and collecting genes move, and am working on the principle that if I don’t actually use something, it goes out – given away, discarded, even sometimes sold. I’m working on applying this to books and music cassettes which are verging on the archaic now.

    I can be extremely frugal about some things, but I have never mastered overall frugality; there’s always something I fritter money away on, quite contrary to the tenets of the PLHT lifestyle.


    5 Apr 10 at 1:07 pm

  6. One long-deceased Newfoundland woman used to say ‘keep a thing seven years, and you’ll find a use for it’, but at least she had a deadline – but I suspect that she didn’t actually throw things out after no use turned up for seven years.

    I’m slowly moving in the opposite direction, partly under the influence of having helped a relative who got the saving and collecting genes move, and am working on the principle that if I don’t actually use something, it goes out – given away, discarded, even sometimes sold. I’m working on applying this to books and music cassettes which are verging on the archaic now.

    I can be extremely frugal about some things, but I have never mastered overall frugality; there’s always something I fritter money away on, quite contrary to the tenets of the PLHT lifestyle.


    5 Apr 10 at 1:11 pm

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