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Book Reviews : Family Tale Spiced With Yankee Lore

December 14, 1987|RONALD FLORENCE

The Education of a Yankee by Judson Hale (Harper & Row: $17.95; 261 pages, illustrated)

Judson Hale, the editor of Yankee magazine and the Old Farmers Almanac, isn't quite the Yankee we suspect. Instead of terse aphorisms from a red-suspendered farmer, his autobiography is a talkative, almost gossipy account of an extraordinary family, with a cast of characters closer to "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles" or "Almost Paradise."

Generations back, there are hardscrabble farmers, sagging porches and stone walls, but Hale's parents are many millions of dollars removed from the "Ayyyup" culture. Upon graduation from Harvard, Hale's father inherited enough money to assure that he would never have to work for a living, and he never did. His mother aspired to the opera stage, and while she never made it on stage, she could always afford to invite Metropolitan Opera stars to stay at one of their Maine summer houses, where her theatrical makeup and the thundering Wagnerian arias had native tongues wagging.

The turning point for the family was the diagnosis of brain damage in Hale's older brother. At the age of 3, the boy was taken to a Rudolf Steiner school in Switzerland. His parents returned from the journey converts to Anthroposophy, and used their fortune to set up a grandiose school-laboratory-lumber-camp-farm complex in remote Maine to promote Anthroposophical teaching and research. The venture lost much of the family fortune but provided a unique education for a young man, who would witness, indeed live among, the mutual reactions and interactions of Down East natives, wealthy Bostonians, New York opera stars, and German-speaking Anthroposophists.

Hale's parents and his uncle Robb, who becomes his mentor at Yankee magazine, are the focus of this autobiography, but the deaths of his father and Robb are rendered in a curiously unmoving prose, as if this intimate memoir had to be tempered with Yankee reserve.

The memoir is also divorced from the everyday world of economics, politics, war and the other tribulations with which most families must deal.

The watershed in the lives of Hale's parents is in October, 1929, when they take his brother to Switzerland. There is no hint that the month was a watershed of a different sort for thousands of Americans, no suggestion as to what effect the collapse of the stock market had on the Hale fortunes. The Depression never seems to reach the family or their encampment, and the war impinges only because the demand for lumber postpones the demise of the Maine enterprise.

Despite its sometimes rarefied atmosphere, Hale's memoir is charming, especially for the bits of Yankee lore. When Life magazine sends a reporter to interview Robb Sagendorph, the old Yankee tosses off bits of New England wisdom about "the main business of life . . . fleecing the summer people, marrying smart women, doing about anything that comes to hand but avoiding really hard work, and of course, keeping the town taxes down." Hale delights in the leg-pulling, in his view the essence of the real Yankee, the ability to self-deprecate.

How revealing it is, then, to read in the prologue when this son of inherited wealth, accustomed to weekends in Boston and Thanksgiving in New York, is invited to a black-tie dinner in South Carolina, and takes his father's old black suit from the back of the closet. "It would do as a tuxedo," he writes, and we're charmed, because deep down he is the Yankee we expect.

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