Visiting Norman Rockwell’s New England

New York TimesNovember 9, 2013 

VT ROCKWELL FOOTSTEPS ADV03 7

The Batten Kill is a popular spot for trout fishermen in Arlington, Vt. Artist Norman Rockwell owned a home in Arlington that is now a bed-and-breakfast called the Inn on the Covered Bridge Green.

CALEB KENNA — NEW YORK TIMES

  • If you go

    Inn on the Covered Bridge Green: 3587 River Road, Arlington, Vt.; 802-375-9784 or coveredbridgegreen.com. Norman Rockwell lived in this house from 1943 to fall 1953. Inn rooms are $185 to $225, depending on date. The artist’s studio, which easily sleeps four, is $280. Rates include a hot breakfast.

I had driven for 3 1/2 hours from New York so that I could go for a walk. And here I was at last, strolling along River Road in Arlington, Vt. The quiet, unpaved street winds along the banks of the Batten Kill, which is said to be the best trout stream in Vermont. In the distance, the hills were ablaze with red and orange and offered what seemed like a quintessential New England view.

Norman Rockwell, who bought a house on this road in 1938, was not what you would call a lover of autumn foliage. His instincts as an artist were firmly figural, and he declined to paint a landscape in the 15 years in which he lived in Vermont. A native New Yorker who was born in Manhattan and began his career in the suburb of New Rochelle, N.Y., he did not farm or garden. Other Vermonters kept stables, but Rockwell harbored a trembling fear of horses.

When he moved to Arlington, he was in his mid-40s, a celebrated magazine illustrator who was looking to deepen his art. What drew him to New England was not so much the picket-fence tranquility as the larger idea of it, the reassuring we-the-people symbolism. New England was the birthplace of American democracy, and Rockwell, as it turned out, would update the communitarian ideals articulated by our country’s founders.

Today, Rockwell is associated less with Vermont than with Stockbridge, Mass., the town in the Berkshires where he settled in his later years. Stockbridge was the last place he lived, and it is the home of the Norman Rockwell Museum, which houses the bulk of his artwork and personal papers. In the course of the past decade, I spent many days there. I was writing a biography of Rockwell and contentedly sifting through his letters, datebooks and mounds of bills. Compared with most other artists, he left a very long paper trail.

I hadn’t spent much time in Vermont, but it offered biographical rewards of its own. Namely, here one can sleep in the Rockwell bedroom.

By a nice coincidence, the second home Rockwell owned in Arlington is now a bed-and-breakfast offering clean, adequate accommodations. The Inn on the Covered Bridge Green is a few miles from Main Street, in a large, white-painted Colonial house that dates to the 18th century. As country inns go, it is fairly spartan – there is no front desk and no one ever answered the phone when I called. You reserve your room on the inn’s website.

What the place lacks in traditional amenities it more than makes up for in creaky ambience and romance. On the weekend I visited, another guest had already claimed the best room: Rockwell’s former studio, a freestanding building in the yard. So my husband and I reserved a room in the house.

Although no effort has been made to restore the architecture or decorative elements to their precise appearance in the years when Rockwell lived there, the guest rooms – with their floral wallpaper and hardwood floors, their four-poster beds and quilts – evoke the vanished past. It helped that my husband and I were the only ones in the house that weekend and eager to feel haunted. In the upstairs hallway, the doors to the other rooms remained closed. The middle-age couple who own the place live in another house on the property.

Biography, as the British writer Richard Holmes observed, “is an act of deliberate psychological trespass, an invasion or encroachment of the present upon the past.” It can also be an act of literal trespass. Or so it seemed when I woke in the middle of the night and got out of bed. I was in Rockwell’s former bedroom, gazing through the same window that he had gazed from. Outside, the village green, with its white steepled church and red-painted covered bridge, gleamed in the moonlight.

What to do

In some ways, Arlington seems to have changed little in the six decades since Rockwell and his family lived here. According to the town clerk, there are now 2,317 residents, about 500 (registered) dogs, and not one traffic light. There’s not much to do at night.

Early risers, on the other hand, have options. The Wayside Country Store, an old-fashioned all-purpose emporium, starts serving breakfast at 4 a.m. A sign in the window proclaims, “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.” This is not to imply you need everything the store stocks, which, I noted, includes ammunition and maple-flavored lip balm. There is at least one great restaurant in town, Jonathon’s Table, which offers classic country fare while banishing all blandness.

To visit Arlington is to feel the need to venture beyond it. The towns around it have different personalities. If you drive 20 minutes north to Manchester Center, suddenly you’re in the midst of shop-around-the-clock consumerism, of non-iron dress shirts and slim-ankle pants, of cashmere sweaters knit in Scotland. Manchester abounds with factory outlet stores.

Truth be told, there was one nature-related activity that Rockwell enjoyed during his Vermont years. He liked to go for walks in the hills that rose steeply behind his house. He would climb through the apple orchards and disappear into the woods, often trailed by his beloved dog, Butch, a springer spaniel.

I was eager to retrace the path. On a Sunday morning, I woke early and headed out into the yard. A thick morning mist hovered on the ground and made the fields appear a little blurred, as if visible only in soft focus.

Mythic New England

In October 1953, Rockwell and his wife abruptly left Vermont. They moved to western Massachusetts, to Stockbridge. In the ’50s, Rockwell continued to paint pictures of a mythic New England, where contentment and community ties prevailed. But the national unity bred by World War II was already unraveling. The growing inclination among Americans was to define their battles in psychological terms rather than in political ones.

Over the years, their searching gave rise to yet another image of New England, one that had little in common with that of Rockwell, Robert Frost or Grandma Moses. Rather, in James Taylor’s telling, New England was a place where people had nervous breakdowns and openly bemoaned their sorrows. He sang of it in 1970 when he described “the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston,” “covered with snow,” with 10 miles behind him and 10,000 more to go.

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