Monday, May 5, 2008

Fragile Paradise: A Vermont Memoir

Chapter One: Covering the Community

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.

--Robert Frost, “Fire and Ice,” 1920

The Bennington Banner newsroom was a large, open bullpen filled with the sound of manual typewriters and competing conversations. At one end, a picture window loomed over the main drag. At the other, just this side of the door to production, Editor-in-Chief Tyler Resch worked over our copy. In the corner, a teletype cranked AP reports onto a long yellow paper roll that collected on the floor.

Each weekday I would wake up around 6:30 a.m. to get downtown, read the Albany papers, and develop photos taken the day before by the editorial staff. By eight I was checking on overnight accidents, writing up items for “Over in New York,” and printing contact sheets for review. By nine I was pumping out bylined stories on a huge manual typewriter. The finished newspaper hit the streets shortly after noon.

During my first week on the job, in December 1968, Richard Nixon was back in Washington selecting his cabinet. Vietnam peace talks were stalling in Paris and the Defense Department called up another 33,000 young men to fight the war, bringing the total to half a million troops. My beats in Southern Vermont were considerably less glamorous – District Court, local schools, and the Village Trustees. Despite my bravado during the job interview it was a daunting challenge. I had edited a magazine in college and written for the campus daily, but this was real pressure and I knew next to nothing about the local scene.

On my first night, Tyler accompanied me to a school board meeting, drew a crude diagram identifying the people around the table, and left me there to sink or swim. It was truly frightening. In the grand scheme, one story mattered little. But for the Banner’s readers, it meant more. My report would be their only way to understand what was happening in the school system. If I couldn’t explain it, I had no business calling myself a reporter.

As luck would have it, a political storm was brewing. A new high school had been built in the blush of a progressive educational era. But it was also at the hub of Bennington's pain. Its alma mater, "The Impossible Dream," turned out to be prophetic. An idealistic plan for local education was about to be bludgeoned in a repressive backlash.

Just before I started reporting, the school superintendent had resigned and a dispute developed over who would replace him as acting chief. The Elementary School Board wanted Assistant Superintendent George Sleeman. The Supervisory Union, which incorporated representatives of both the elementary and high school boards, wasn’t so sure. On the surface it looked like a minor bureaucratic fracas, a question of who could sign checks and make decisions until a permanent chief was selected. But it was actually part of a long-running culture war over the fundamental direction of education and community life.

In the 1930s, Bennington had become the scene of a revolutionary change in the arts as Martha Graham and others turned Bennington College into the epicenter of the modern dance world. The Bennington School of Dance, precursor of the American Dance Festival, was an innovative laboratory where pioneers experimented, trained students, and created early works that defined modern dance.

A generation later, the area became a nexus for modernist art activity. As the story goes, art critic Clement Greenberg met painter Helen Frankenthaler, then a Bennington College student. They were soon joined by painters like Paul Feeley and helped connect the emerging avant-garde movement based at the college with the New York art scene. By the 60s, the community was hosting a veritable artist colony. An article in Vogue updated Vermont history by calling painters like Anthony Caro, Kenneth Noland, Vincent Longo and Jules Olitski the new Green Mountain Boys.

In time the college became, a bit reluctantly, home for a small yet energetic community of idealists, intellectuals, and artists. Greenberg’s core idea was that art should be disciplined without sacrificing esthetic vitality, a concept that combined distance with enjoyment and freedom. Not far from urban centers and yet sufficiently removed, Bennington felt like an ideal place to play out this artistic vision. But the “Golden Age” was over by the time I arrived, and during a period of growing cultural backlash in the country, Bennington College preferred to keep its distance from the community, especially from residents who considered it decadent and elitist.

NEXT: Bennington’s Culture War

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