Class is a shifty thing on Martha’s Vineyard. It’s a shifty thing in a lot of places, but is anyone still claiming that the U.S. is a classless society?
Class grabbed me as an issue long before I knew what it was. Many Sundays when I was growing up, my family went to my paternal grandmother’s house for dinner. Outside, the house had an imposing brick façade, its elegant door flanked by columns looking out over lawn and field to the main road. Inside, accessed by a narrow stairway from the big country kitchen, were servants’ quarters, with a bath and two very small bedrooms. The house I grew up in and the houses of my friends looked nothing like this.
My grandmother was no cook. Sunday and holiday dinners were prepared and served by Jessie, wearing a white uniform. I never had to ask for more water or another roll; they just appeared. Hanging out with Jessie in the kitchen was more fun than hanging out with the adults. Sometimes Jessie’s husband, Frank, would be there too. He was in the merchant marine and was the first guy I ever saw with tattoos.
My grandmother didn’t have much maternal instinct either. Jessie had pretty much raised my father and his two brothers, living much of the time in the servants’ quarters. If any of my friends’ parents had been raised by a housekeeper-nanny, I didn’t know it. In the more formal era of the 1950s and early ’60s, Jessie was also the only adult I was allowed — expected, even — to call by her first name.
Sorting all this out took years. My own upbringing was middle/upper-middle class in most ways, but it made a difference that both sides of my family had been sliding downward from the WASP gentry, New England on my father’s side, Virginia on my mother’s. When I started studying U.S. history, quite a few of the names belonged to my ancestors. U.S. history was my history — until the women’s liberation movement called my attention to the absence of women, and I started identifying with others who had also been left out.
I came to the Vineyard in 1985 from the highly politicized women’s (read: lesbian, feminist, and often lesbian-feminist) community of Washington, D.C. Years before the word “intersectional” was coined, we read and talked a lot about the interactions of sex, race, class, sexuality, age, and disability. On the Vineyard at the time hardly anyone was talking about any of it, so I started looking for clues.
Class, I knew by then, was not just a matter of money, though money did count, nor of what one did for a living. As an ice-breaker question “What do you do?” was frowned upon. The carpenter might have a Harvard degree, the line cook might front a rock band, the cleaning lady might be famous for her quilts. People seemed quite proud that “we” didn’t pigeonhole people by their occupation.
Summer people tended to be richer and more professionally accomplished than year-rounders, but that distinction got downright blurry once you realized that plenty of longtime year-rounders were the offspring of summer people, often working as, well, carpenters, line cooks, and cleaning ladies. That was my story too, after all.
Race made a difference too. The island’s African-American summer community dates back to before the First World War, but as an occasional summer visitor in the late 1960s and most of the ’70s I knew nothing about it. My introduction was Dorothy West’s 1948 novel The Living Is Easy, which was reprinted by the Feminist Press during my D.C. days. To my astonishment, this Dorothy West turned out to be the same Dorothy West who wrote the Oak Bluffs column for the Vineyard Gazette.
I’d loved my job as book buyer for D.C.’s feminist bookstore, so once my savings started to run out, I applied for a job at Bunch of Grapes bookstore and was offered one, but it paid considerably less than my D.C. job and didn’t include health insurance. I’m pretty frugal, but I was going to need a car if I stayed on the Vineyard and I couldn’t see pulling that off at what the bookstore was paying.
Eventually I wound up at the Martha’s Vineyard Times, which paid better than the bookstore but where hardly anyone on the editorial or production side was living on what the paper paid: most of them had access to another source of income through spouse and/or family. I learned to pay attention to who could afford to do what jobs and under what conditions.
When I moved to the Vineyard, it was to work on a novel I’d started a couple years before, working title Coming Around, about — wait for it — a 30-something woman who chucks her publishing job to move to the Vineyard and manage a small horse farm. I quickly realized that I didn’t know half enough about the Vineyard to set a novel on it. What I wrote was poetry, and press releases for a local theater group, and reviews and features for the Martha’s Vineyard Times.
When I finally did get down to working on what became The Mud of the Place, I’d been living here, listening and observing year-round island life, for about 12 years. I was more than half convinced that I’d never be able to complete anything more than 40 pages long, but I surprised myself. I’m still pretty pleased with it, not least because it pays attention to the economic challenges of living here, and the variety of people who manage to make it work, at least for a while.