New England and New York greatly influenced Hopper, so my experiences and interviews there were important to understanding his life and works. They were also important to my life and work because the region was his home and home to so many of his paintings and towns where they hung. I was starting to learn more about Hopper, his paintings, and people's feelings about them.
I had interviewed everyone from street people to college professors. (Hell, I did that in one town.) Many agreed that isolation could be found in Hopper's paintings and in their hometowns. "This Hopper does make you feel like our city," a Boston museum guard confessed. "It's very depressing. All his paintings are very depressing. That's what I like about them."
My painter friend Julia mused about all the paintings in the Whitney's gallery devoted solely to Hopper, "You get a sensation of being alone. … In Early Sunday Morning, you would know all of the shop owners. … I grew up in this place, but I wonder: will the next generation have the same response?"
In Boston, a thin, red-haired, older woman, barked, "[Hopper's paintings] could be Anywhere USA."
But an earnest, red-bearded young park ranger along the African-American Heritage Trail in Boston hesitated. "I think a lot of people look at Hopper's paintings and feel isolated for reasons having nothing to do with Hopper's motivation for painting."
A dashing young actor who lived in Manhattan but had stopped into Hopper's birthplace in Nyack, New York, agreed. "People tend to want to attach certain events in Hopper's life to the ideas in his paintings," he warned. "But when something becomes universal, it really has to stand on its own."
Though they may quibble whether Hopper portrayed isolation, whether such isolation existed in their towns, and whether that isolation was negative, they nonetheless loved looking at Hopper's paintings. Some enjoyed viewing them for the loneliness they saw in them. But many commented on Hopper's artistry—whether they appreciated it or not.
In New Haven, one of my host's male artist friends carped, "There's something that seems 'unearned' by Hopper. … I think Hopper found a formula for something that worked and then stuck with it. A friend of mine owns a couple of Hopper watercolors. In those, I see Hopper doing more interesting stuff than in his oils."
But most liked his oils. As the Whitney security guard confided, "When we had the big show of Hoppers, we had like a half a millions [sic] people come here for that. This guy [Hopper] he gets visitors from all over the world."
Even a gruff street character in New Haven turned out to be a huge Hopper fan. "[Hopper's paintings here] are really great. You're going to love them," he guaranteed.
The dour Canadian woman at the museum front desk in Manchester, New Hampshire, appreciated that, "You don't have to work hard to understand what he's after."
The woman who showed me the Hoppers in MOMA's storage crooned, "I certainly love him as a painter. He's so much a part of our training, as American artists. He's part of the pantheon. These are like flash cards. I really think that's something nice about Hopper: his paintings have an internal scale based on a certain kind of looking."
The ranger in Boston had posited, "What's great about Hopper's paintings is what they don't have: no glass in the windows, no cars, no trash. You could eat off of that street. In his one of people fully dressed in suits, , they're just baking! It's a harsh, awful light. There's no atmosphere. It's like those pictures of Buzz Aldrin on the moon, just direct shadow."
But when it came to discussing isolation outside of the paintings, most people initially denied that they or their town mates were isolated. Maybe it was defensiveness. No one likes to associate their home with negative attributes. And most people viewed isolation (especially Hopperesque isolation) as negative. But after a while, people usually admitted to that they were isolated in some way. And even when they didn't, I often saw ways in which they were isolated.
Geography was one form of isolation. Hopper's home and subject, New York City, had a big-city anonymity that made people feel isolated—perhaps most so there, in the nation's biggest city. In New York's Whitney Museum, a stocky, energetic young man spat, "New York is kind of a lonely place, despite being around people constantly." The young Manhattan actor I had met at Hopper's birthplace realized, "I've experienced that my whole life: being around so many people but being alone."
The man behind MOMA's store counter said Hopper's paintings did capture New York as he had experienced it over the course of his 50-plus-year life and that he had often found himself alone like the woman in Automat. He also spent all day looking at reproductions of Hopper paintings, so maybe the images merged with his memories. Or maybe his recollections matched the images. Hopper's paintings are like memories we had forgotten, like stumbling on a forgotten snapshot in our keepsakes box that brings welling back up the emotions of the moment.
In the second-largest city I visited, Boston, Ted Kennedy's double on the boat from Charlestown Navy Yard told me everyone wanted to move there when they saw what a great town it was. But many there felt that the "great" city was filled with mean, isolated people. The park ranger had complained, "We are isolated in the United States, and Boston is one of the worst places for it. I sympathize with people who come here and talk about how mean, how downright mean, Bostonians can be." Deborah, an acquaintance of mine who moved cross-country from Chicago to Boston noted, "Everyone in Boston is in their own little world." Perhaps Hopper's beautiful but slightly creepy renderings of American scenes are perfect depictions of our duplicity about whether our communities are isolated or not, for better or for worse.
People in Brooklyn, a large populous New York City borough, muttered that the town was too big to summarize as isolated or not. A friend who lived there e-mailed, "I don't think Brooklyn is a lonely place at all. … it's one of the most diverse places on the planet. There are a lot of neat neighborhoods. Then again, just because it's crowded doesn't mean there isn't plenty of loneliness." The fact that Brooklyn had different enclaves that each had a unique flavor implied that certain people might be drawn to one or the other (and, by inference, feel isolated in one or the other).
Ironically, unlike big-city denizens, people in the smallest towns, the most geographically isolated, felt least isolated. A museum employee in Williamstown, Massachusetts, joked that the town was the exact opposite of Hopper's world : "Besides the obvious (i.e., there is no city to gaze out at), it's pretty hard to remain an isolated, anonymous person in Williamstown. If the world is separated by six degrees of separation, here it's more like three! This is, as I'm sure you've guessed, both a blessing and an annoyance." A Williams College student there told me, "Your neighbor knows your every move." Yet the town seemed ideally geographically isolated out in the Berkshire Mountains. The Clark Art Museum was placed there during the Cold War so that the works would be safe from a nuclear explosion because Williamstown was equidistant from New York City and Washington, DC.
An Andover, Massachusetts, resident who had graduated from my prep school protested that Andover (like Williamstown), "doesn’t have that urban isolation of Hopper [because it's a] commuting suburb of Boston."
In Purchase, New York, in Manhattan's wealthy suburban Westchester County, I didn't find many locals who felt isolated--but then, I didn’t find many locals. A more nowhere place than Terre Haute, Purchase was home only to two institutions (one State, one private): the commuter college SUNY-Purchase and the corporation Pepsico. No one lived there—"except the volunteer fireman" gibed a SUNY-Purchase student.
Westchester's Armonk was not even a town but legally a "hamlet" that was also home mostly to corporate headquarters. But Armonk's nowhere was about to be wiped out by housing developments. On the outskirts of town, at one of the last remaining farms, the owner's wife cackled, "There's a lot of new, stock market money here. I don't know who's making it, but they're making it." And after my visit, they used it to buy her farm and make it a subdivision of homes.
Like the buyers of those homes, many people were using geographic dislocation (moving) to find or avoid isolation. The period in which I researched the book was one of the hottest real estate markets in U.S. history. Maria who hosted me in Nyack, believed, "[D]islocation [is] the American dream, in an odd way." My friend Chris, who joined me in visiting the Hopper in Manchester, had overcome isolation by moving to Hanover, New Hampshire. He complained that his former town (DC suburb Alexandria, Virginia) "was a 'planned' suburb, but felt more like a 'contrived' community. … People there buy half-million-dollar homes put up overnight on a tiny bit of land, then have to move further out ten years later to afford what they had ten years earlier."
Some came to a certain town to find others who were like-minded. A town's reputation became a self-fulfilling prophecy for a community definition. The woman at Hopper's Nyack birth home insisted, "We moved [here] because we wanted more of a feeling of community." So did the woman living there in Carson McCullers's old house: "We moved here because it is Main Street."
Montclair, New Jersey, residents proudly told me that the town was unique in that its racial mix all got along. People like my fellow prep school alum moved there because it was known as a place for interracial couples like in his marriage. But it seemed to me that if you lauded the town's races getting along, you were assuming that isolation was a given when races coexist or reside in the same town. That alum admitted that there was still friction in Montclair, but "At least it's out in the open."
Others, like the natives of Armonk, New York, weren't moving of their own free will to find a certain community; they were being driven out by real estate speculation. Economic refugees, they were about to be overrun by houses for the wealthy. The few people that lived there were changing from the farmer and fireman/short order cook I met to the "stock market money people" the farmer eventually sold to. The line cook said that the new residents, "all want to be left alone, which is isolated. They want the peace and quiet of the country. … gotta get away from the hustle and bustle."
In New Haven, real estate flight from the city had helped to fuel the inner core's demise. Yale is one of the few remaining institutions in the former industrial capital's dying downtown. Though New Haven's wealthiest resident, Yale pays no taxes to the city, damning that town to ruin. My host Joe's co-op apartment building was going bankrupt. "Nothing downtown can hold its value," he groaned.
The Brooklyn boroughs' constant change in character was often due to real estate turnover driving people out of their neighborhoods and/or importing outsiders. It was summed up by a woman, who said people, "Buy a house and it's gone back and forth again. … Downgrade and then turn around and upgrade."
Some transplants didn’t like what they found when they moved to a city. An older woman who had retired to Manchester from New York City rolled her eyes, "I grew up in Manhattan, so you can imagine what it's like to be in Manchester. To me, it's small town in every way." Her coworker was no happier, but for the entirely opposite reason. "This is like New York City for me," giggled a fresh-faced nursing student who had moved to Manchester, New Hampshire, from a small rural town in the state. "That's just not me because I'm a country bumpkin." She was living the pattern many have seen in Hopper's subjects: a country person overwhelmed after moving to the city.
The Canadian woman at the museum front desk in Manchester, lamented, "There is a much higher individualistic attitude here [than in Canada]. … Hopper does capture the isolation, and I think that isolation has become more pronounced. I think it's pretty awful."
Another font of isolation was wealth, education, power, and class. These interrelated tangibles that dictate social pecking order were subsumed in one phrase by brilliant French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu when he coined the term "cultural capitol". Cultural capital is what he called having the kind of knowledge and experiences that the wealthy have and therefore relate to and respect. Money alone is not cultural capitol. Few who win the lottery become wheeler dealers; they have the money but not the connections or the same experiential vocabulary as the dominant class.
Many of the towns that I visited with Hoppers were dominated by educational institutions, and education is part of cultural capital. One cannot be self-sufficient without proper schooling. No one is born knowing everything. But the knowledge, skills and views that one learns ally one with a certain class. Certain people appreciate those who know how to leverage stocks, while others admire those who can pick locks. The key is to have the kind of knowledge and experiences that you can parlay into other kinds of wealth and power. And wealth and power created a ruling class, especially noticeable in New England. A prep school classmate, Meg, said, "That Old Boston Brahmin (associated with exclusivity and pretense, because after all they did come over on the Mayflower, lest you forget) is definitely very much alive and kicking even today."
In New Haven, cultural capital was a source of isolation that the locals described as "town and gown." An Eli (Yale student) studying "Security Studies" admitted, "I don't know a lot about New Haven, and that might be a good sign that we at Yale are set apart and isolated. And Yale is, what, the fourth richest university in the entire world? They could do a lot more for the city's economy." Her boyfriend agreed. "Socioeconomically: the haves and have-nots are separated. The best of the best and worst of the worst, right next to each other, crossing paths down the street. But one is just so far away from the other." And a gruff street character groused that he had lost his job because Yale employees didn’t want to lose theirs. "If you step outside the [campus] area, it's a ghetto."
In Williamstown, most residents were connected to Williams College the biggest resident in this tiny village. "There's a big rift between the college and town," a Williams College student said. "The college owns most of the prime property in town. Now, the college wants to build a multimillion-dollar performing arts center, and the residents are fighting it tooth and nail. It's kind of interesting because, like we said, some of the residents are Williams teachers. So they're in a tough situation."
Northampton, Massachusetts, is home to many students from the five local colleges: temporary residents geographically isolated from their homes. In Andover, I was told, "Philips Academy defines the social life here." And the posh prep school there was a way for the wealthy to determine who was let "in" to the inner circle and who was left out. Boston was a bigger, more diverse place than most college towns, but still had a sizeable student population. Deborah, noted, "Most of my roommates have come from elsewhere for school and stayed." A fiftyish woman, prim yet square-shouldered as a football player, who was in fact a banker, but couched her answer in terms of academia, theorizing, "If I was an instructor, I would point out to students that this is more of an example of the inner world of the painter: alone, isolated, and desperate. I don't think of the people of Boston like that."
The studio where Hopper had lived was now part of an educational institution: New York University. The studio was in theory open to the public, but a trollish teacher who seemed the very spirit of Jo Hopper's short feistiness, tossed me out nonetheless. I guess she didn't feel isolated enough. Or maybe she was trying to impress me by pulling the trump card of her cultural capitol, the "power" conferred upon her by being associated with a large educational institution. If so, that failed because I got invited backstage at New York City's prestigious Museum of Modern Art.
But New England and New York's emphasis on culture and schooling created a bond that overcame the inclination toward estrangement. Those who had similar educators shared a language with each other. And I was fortunate enough to have received such an education through my prep school. In Nyack, Maria, Grey, and Leslie welcomed me into their home because they connected to the idea of my project and responded to my question in a Socratic dialog around their fireplace. "What you are doing has very few precedents," Grey complimented me, "'anthropological art criticism.'"
In New York, cultural capitol has more currency than in most towns; thus, celebrity and art can be added to the components of cultural capitol here. Artists are outsiders invited in because they create objects that can be transformed into money. Artists had been known to be able to pay for meals in the finest restaurants by just leaving a drawing. In The Whitney, I had a brush with a modern artist: standing next to Annie Liebovitz in the lobby. But I respected her right to isolation even though she was a celebrity. Celebrity invites people to violate your isolation; they feel they know you through your works and name in the papers, but you don’t really know each other.
Many of those who have cultural capital don’t want to share it. And that might be related to the region's (and country's) worship of the DIY ethic. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Don’t accept any handouts. Of course, that frees you from offering any either. This also might explain the residents' notorious gruffness.
At New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the stubby Slavic security guard who steered me to the correct gallery after I had been given wrong directions at the front desk sneered, "Do me favor; go back to front desk and tell woman she is donkey." This un-neighborliness attitude might explain New Yorkers' feeling that they are isolated; they can't count on the "kindness of strangers."
The Yalie's beetle-browed boyfriend discerned that "Even if you have good relationships, people who love you, you still can be feeling isolated from what goes on around you. They don't know who you are. Lots of people, you figure they're happy if they smile. But they're hiding their minds."
In Armonk, where corporations were headquartered, the locals were warm, while the corporation that held the Hopper and had invited me to see it resorted to asking me not to talk it or about them. In Purchase, the whole town had been divided between two large institutions: a corporation and a state-run institution. Money had bought each half of the town. There was no room for residents.
In Andover, the guy who had graduated from my prep school was the only one to answer my question. Unless you count a woman who patronized me with, "You're only as isolated as you want to be," then waved me off. The grammar of her sentence seemed passive-aggressively damning, given my experience in town. I couldn't get a quote from book store employees or workers in city hall (where, ironically, they all listen to each other in the open Town Meeting. And I couldn't get close enough to even try to get a quote at the local coffee shop. In Andover people were isolated. But they liked it that way.
In Northampton, Massachusetts, I found people unwilling to talk, especially the Smith girls. I suppose it's not every day that a guy approaches you asking your feelings. But it shows a suspiciousness that I think is American and due to various ethnic groups not having a common set of cultural nonverbal communication signals. Most Americans arrived from somewhere else, isolated from their original homelands and cultures. A Swede who moved next to a Greek might remain isolated from fear of not knowing what cultural expectations his neighbor had.
A man did say that the locals in Northampton were mostly well off. This might also lead to an isolation typically American and related to my point above. We seem to fear others because it means we will have to share. Again, this is ironic: we all came from somewhere else, and all wealth we have is off of lands seized from Native American tribes.
In a way, this region, which was the country's oldest, was also isolated by its history. Connecting with the past perhaps results in disconnecting from the present to some degree. It was a NEW England. The English thought of it as theirs, and now the locals consider it theirs. There is a possessiveness, a fierceness to the individuals and the mentality of the place. Like the New Hampshire flag warns, "Don’t Tread on Me." The region that spawned the war of Independence is now waging the War of Isolation.
A lifetime resident said that the Internet companies were new Boston and old Boston didn't relate. "But that's new," she objected. "It's not, I think, the way Bostonians think of Boston. If there is an isolated community, I would think of that as being it. They're new."
Manchester still called itself the Mill City and seemed to think of itself as that. But the shoe mills are now inhabited by cottage industries. I visited the town with a friend who embodied that change from manufacturing, a college buddy who consulted in "System Dynamics," which analyzes how elements of a situation affect each other to produce a result. Ideas are the new shoes.
Just as people in Boston were duplicitous about what kind of town it was, I also saw there the paradoxes of the Freedom Trail's myths versus the reality of U.S. history. In Brooklyn, a large populous New York City borough, was too big and shifting to define itself by its past or even cop to an identity in the present. Three older women in Brooklyn jeered, "There used to be a downtown. I wouldn't go back there any more now; you'd be shocked."
The people in Boston were called by my friend who moved there from Chicago "very very. Whatever they are," she warned, "they are intensely." Boston was peopled by those whose self-identities were like theatrical roles into which a Method actor throws himself or like Hopper characters. I saw that intensity, the ferociousness of New Englanders. A Ted Kennedy clone who I met on a boat tried to send me away, "I wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole," he said of Boston, and then admitted, "That's just what we tell visitors because everyone who comes to Boston wants to live here."
Maybe Hopper and/or his paintings reflected this regional attitude of alienation. As Maria observed in Nyack, "Hopper had everything he wanted, yet the paintings don't depict even marginal happiness."
Due to New England's population density (and its locals' attitudes), isolation might be a welcome respite from the crush of humanity. And this was Hopper's home. He often said (and some critics have read his paintings this way) that not only was depressing isolation not what he intended to portray but that isolation might be a welcome thing and not depressing at all. When he and Jo were walking along a ridge on Cape Cod viewing a gorgeous sunset late in the fall and late in their lives, she commented that this must be what heaven is like. Hopper thought about it. "Better," he muttered, "No people."
So people in New England said that they did not feel isolated like the people in Hopper's paintings--if you read his isolation as negative or depressing, as most people do. But how honest were people being with me? Anonymity allowed responders to be more honest, but it prevented me from fact-checking whether they actually believed their answers.
My personal interpretation that Hopper was trying to get at the isolation of an inner life versus the outer community was offered only by a couple of people, like the Yalie's boyfriend. Maybe I was one of only a handful of people to interpret Hopperesque isolation (or isolation in general?) as relating to internal life. If so, that made me feel more isolated than ever.