February 1993

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Warren Hunting Smith

The Quintessential Genevan


Bill Kauffman

"To be merely queer is no achievement, but to be brilliantly individualistic is a fine art which Geneva brought to perfection." So declares Warren Hunting Smith in The Misses Elliot of Geneva, a delightful novel first published in 1940 and now reintroduced to Upstaters in the Crooked Lake Review.

I chatted with Mr. Smith recently in the summer house behind the grand brick Victorian in which he was raised on the family property on Castle Street in Geneva. Next door is the house in which his father was born; down Castle Street a ways is the observatory his granduncle constructed for William R. "Sky" Brooks, the Phelps village photographer who became the most prolific comet discoverer (he found 27) in astronomical history.

Mr. Smith led a professional double life: he was both an editor of the Yale Edition of the Horace Walpole correspondence and a chronicler of old Geneva. Half his time was spent in Georgian England, the other half in the genteel Geneva of the prewar era. Never the twain shall meet? Not quite, The Pulteneys, who laid out Geneva, were denounced by Walpole.

Mr. Smith is the only man I've ever met whose favorite contemporary American novelist is Louis Auchincloss—"the one who deals with the world I'm familiar with." That world is running down with the century; the WASP ascendency has passed. For better or worse, there are now more practicing Muslims in these United States than practicing Episcopalians.

To those of us who do not remember the America of the WASPs, Warren Hunting Smith has vouchsafed two wonderful books, one a history of his hometown, the other an affectionate satirical novel resurrecting the old Episcopal Geneva of impecunious razor-tongued lady aristocrats.

The history is An Elegant but Salubrious Village, a title borrowed from the early 19th century travel writer Elkanah Watson's verdict on Geneva. A local house, W. F. Humphrey, published the book in 1934, when Smith was but 28 years of age. It is saucy and impudent, very much a young man's work, and a thoroughgoing delight. With nonchalant superciliousness, young Smith honors his own tribe, particularly the established families of South Main Street—"a citadel of culture in a commercial nation, a haven of leisure in a bustling world, an oasis of Southerners in a land of Yankees"—while dismissing "the uglier parts of Geneva"—for instance, the Methodist church.

Smith acknowledges his callowness in the preface to An Elegant but Salubrious Village: "A book of this sort should preferably be written by some mellow old gentleman, full of those memories which younger people can acquire only with painful research. Unfortunately, no such old gentleman has shown any literary interest in Geneva, so I have ventured to usurp the vacant place… In fifty years more, perhaps, I shall be able to write a really thorough account of Geneva."

More thorough, perhaps, but surely not more entertaining. Mr. Smith writes as a witty young snob: "The very name 'Geneva, New York' is a sort of protective coloring, suggesting provincialism of the worst sort. We feel, when we hear it, as we do when we hear of someone named George Washington Schwartz or Michelangelo Snooks; it is as much a surprise to find real charm in this town with the pretentious foreign name as it would be to discover that Mr. Schwartz is really descended from the Washington family, or that Mr. Snooks is actually one of the Buonarroti."

Smith is properly proud of his hometown, which is "no cramped and provincial assembly of village lawyers and doctors." He doffs his hat westward to Canandaigua, the seat of Ontario County, only to give it the back of his hand. "Geneva," he writes, "unlike Canandaigua, never became a hotbed of lawyers. Indeed the distinctive Geneva profession, if any, has been that of doing nothing at all."

Well, not exactly nothing. True, the "old Geneva families…soiled their hands very little with business," but they had an enviable surety about them. The city's apotheosis is the gray-haired lady stepping down Main Street, head held high despite her threadbare clothes: "There is no fluttering hesitation in her manner, no false pretenses, no striving to keep up appearances. She knows that her family rank, her breeding, and her sharp tongue entitle her to a position from which she can look down on mere millionaires with disdain. She greets her friends cheerfully; puts incompetent shop-girls in their places ('I can see no excuse for stupidity!') and as she goes on her way, we realize that we have seen one of Geneva's choicest institutions—the Indigent Gentlewoman."

Indeed, the Indigent Gentlewoman rivalled Horace Walpole as the steady flame in Smith's professional life. Born into a city overrun with piquant old ladies, he has ever been under their spell. In the preface to his doctoral dissertation, Architecture in English Fiction (Yale University Press, 1934), Smith thanked "those dear sentimental ladies of eighteenth-century fiction, with whom I have 'kept company' for three pleasant years."

He soon found suitable replacements closer to home. For while at New Haven, Smith began work on what was to be his only published novel, The Misses Elliot of Geneva.

The Misses Elliot are "Primrose and Candida, names which had a somewhat virginal sound, appropriate to the one hundred and sixty-five years of celibacy which their two lives represented." They live near South Main Street, and from their cottage they hurl thunderbolts at "foreigners, Democrats, High Churchmen, and companies that didn't pay dividends." (And, as with all old ladies of whatever station, the "little bandits" whose doting aunts they most certainly are not.)

"There was something Olympian about their wrath," Smith writes; "they didn't scowl and sputter like cross old women, nor did they raise their voices to a cackle; they merely stood in majesty, filling the air with crackling sparks of invective." And woe unto them who cross Primrose and Candida's path. The sisters possess adamantine wills: they are given to walking out of Trinity Episcopalian church when they detect papist heresies. Stricken with scarlet fever, they ignore the quarantine and make their daily rounds, sending horrified friends scattering to safehouses.

Although Mr. Smith spent vacations and spare moments at the Castle Street house, he was domiciled in New Haven. A friend in that city read The Misses Elliot and passed the manuscript to an editor at Farrar & Rinehart, which purchased it on the recommendation of poet Stephen Vincent Benet, who wrote, "This is a genre piece but with a certain universal application. It hasn't any particular plot—it's just the story of two old-maid sisters and through them of a certain kind of individualistic American small-city society, independent, crotchety, brisk and always speaking its mind. It's slight, but I found it delightful."

Farrar & Rinehart brought the book out—in two printings—in 1940. Reviews were kind. In the New York Times Louise Maunsell Field called The Misses Elliot "very entertaining" and "gently humorous."

Yet because many of the characters—including the eponyms—had obvious real-life models, "it distressed some of the older inhabitants," Mr. Smith recalls.

"My family were not very enthusiastic. My father thought that it was a rather unkind book. They were preparing for a certain amount of flack. One old friend of the family said, 'I wonder why when somebody has written a very good book about Geneva he should turn around and write one that is most objectionable.'"

"I had one indignant letter from a nephew of the original Misses Elliot who said I held his aunts up to ridicule. Whereas one of his cousins told him, 'I don't think you have any right to write that. Cousin Virginia was just a hellion. She deserved everything she got.'" Mr. Smith—calling him "Warren," even on the homeliest page, seems an impertinence—laughs heartily.

"They were to some extent composites," the author says of his tart heroines, "but I didn't have to exaggerate their prejudices, which were very intense and very vocal. I merely sharpened their utterances."

The indignant Genevans were wrong, and Mr. Benet was right; this charming book is, in its irreverent way, deeply respectful of the sisters Elliot and their hometown. It's also chockablock with bons mots, e.g., "every old lady had to have either an old beau in the cemetery or a new one in the parlor, and preferably several of each."

Though the tone is light throughout, we know we are witnessing the last magnificent specimens of a dying breed. "They felt that the United States of America was, in a spiritual sense, almost their own property, just as they felt that Geneva almost belonged to them."

Edmund Wilson wrote of much the same feeling in his autumn elegies Upstate and The Cold War and the Income Tax. The country really did, once, belong to those old WASPs, but it does no more, and all the former owners have left is their sting.

I have ancestors who chauffeured a couple of the great and not-so-great Upstate families, and from this end of the stick Mr. Smith's grand dames can look like withered cheapskates who put on ridiculous airs. Still it's hard not to be a bit elegiac. Primrose is dead and Wal-Mart sits athwart Geneva, and who is to say that progress is always benign?

Mr. Smith tried the novel again. He speaks warmly of one tale of a lady who believed that "the way to make a nursing home special was to have a centenarian as one of the inmates. The one she finally ended up with was an elderly black cook who had worked for one of the local families. I had a lot of fun with that but it didn't go over with the publisher, so I did nothing more about it."

* * *

Popular historian Carl Carmer pronounced Geneva "the most distinctive of upstate cities." Located above Seneca lake, it was once known as the Charleston of the North. It had a southern feel, dotted by porticoed Greek Revival mansions built by the city's early aristocratic families, transplants from Maryland and Virginia.

The vigilance of local citizens, Mr. Smith among them, kept Geneva from the ruinous fate of so may small Upstate cities. The idiotic "slum clearance" program, which destroyed historic townhouses and brick tenements teeming with life and tranferred slum dwellers to impersonal public housing concentration camps, swung the wrecker's ball in Geneva, but most of the city's notable commercial buildings and residences were saved.

My Batavia's midcentury decline can in some ways be traced to the sons and daughters of the established families, who fled for greener pastures and took with them a bedrock of civic responsibility. The same was true, to some extent, of Geneva, but the old ladies stayed (because they had nowhere else to go?) and it is due largely to stubborn pride that Geneva is still…well, Geneva.

"Poverty is a blessing to old Geneva ladies, though they themselves don't seem to think so," Smith wrote in The Misses Elliot. "It keeps them rooted to their native soil when other people are losing their local flavor abroad. It makes them keep the old-fashioned clothes and antique ornaments which seem almost a part of them. It gives them the chance to perform the little acts of grace which only poor old ladies know that other poor old ladies need."

Smith devoutly hoped in 1931 that "Geneva, with her unusual residential attractions, will never be transformed into that hideous monster, an American industrial center," and it wasn't, but his country's involvement in the Second World War just one decade later almost claimed Geneva as a municipal casualty. The Sampson naval training station, 12 miles to the city's south, loosed 45,000 young men on the old maids' paradise. The result was hardly edenic: Geneva went honky-tonk. Which would have been fine, if all it gave Geneva was a spicy fillip. Alas, the government remodelled many of the fine old homes into makeshift barracks, and the city took on ramshackle airs. Rochester newspaperman Arch Merrill, returning after an absence of 26 years, wrote, "I hardly recognized the old town. It was like seeing your dignified maiden aunt toss aside her prayer book and pince nez and swing into a strip tease."

Perhaps it is best that Primrose and Candida never lived to see that.

* * *

Mr. Smith is a kindly man and a gracious employer, say his nurses. And he is—as we all are—very much a product of his upbringing. I ask him if he shares the Elliots' prejudices. "Having grown up in that atmosphere, to some extent I can't help sharing it, but I'm much more open-minded than I think my parents were. I remember my father being quite distressed to hear that I was taking out in New Haven a girl with some foreign name." I love the way he says foreign; like John Houseman hissing "the ehn it" in those classic Smith Barney commercials.

I ask him if the old families still dominate Geneva politics. No, he says, the current officials "are not the well-known people at all; they are apt to be shopkeepers and dealers and people like that."

He smilingly recalls Mr. Chew, the leading banker of bygone years. "He said, 'Geneva is a city of homes and a few stores and that's enough. We don't want factories, they bring foreigners, and we don't like that.' The Chamber of Commerce would disapprove of him heartily." Mr. Smith chuckles, in a tone that suggests he's not paid his Chamber dues in many a year.

Mr. Smith wrote in The Misses Elliot of old Genevans: "They didn't have much money, but in Geneva that doesn't matter." Indeed, the novel, and An Elegant but Salubrious Village, drip with disdain for parvenus. But while the social wall between the old families and the new money still exists, the barrier is crumbling. "I remember there were people who moved down to Main Street who owned a sauerkraut factory and were very much looked down upon by the families around them. But I think nowadays anybody with a good deal of money, if, shall we say, civic-minded, would be accepted."

Did he ever dabble in politics? He is aghast, "Oh no, I never had anything to do with politics. Somebody suggested once that since I had independent means I ought to go into politics because I would be above the more ambitious average politicians, but of course a retiring scholar like me would be the worst person to try anything like that!"

* * *

While working on the Walpole edition Mr. Smith published Hobart and William Smith: The History of Two Colleges (Hobart and William Smith, 1972). His connection to the latter, a girls' school, is familial: granduncle William Smith, one of three brothers who founded a prosperous tree nursery in 1846, endowed the college that bears his name with a gift of half a million dollars in 1908. (I was taken aback when I found not a single Horace Walpole reference in Hobart and William Smith.)

William Smith comes off as a vivid eccentric in his grandnephew's account. He was a bachelor, a spiritualist, and a man sometimes called a misogynist who nevertheless was befriended by the daughter of fervid abolitionist Gerrit Smith (he who bought John Brown's guns) and was encouraged by her to found a college for women.

William was no dabbler in spiritualism; he was a true believer. He visited the colony at Lily Dale, where no one ever dies, and his descendant still possesses a notebook of William's "filled with letters beginning 'Dear Mr. Smith,' and signed by such names as Socrates, Julius Caesar, and 'your loving aunt, Sally Coleman.'" He toyed with establishing a spiritualist school before settling on William Smith College.

"Oh yes, I remember Uncle William," says Mr. Smith. "I'm probably the last person who can remember him since he didn't circulate in Geneva society and wasn't interested in children."

"One reason Uncle William never put up a gravestone to his mother was that since he was corresponding with her through the spirit world, he wasn't particularly interested in her mortal remains." (Mr. Smith, no spiritualist, put up a tombstone in the old Washington Street Cemetery a couple of years ago.)

Warren Hunting Smith retains a tie with Hobart and William Smith; indeed, the new library bears his name. The school itself, however, while the city's largest employer, is less and less a part of the life of Geneva. "The people of the college have little interest in civic affairs," concedes Mr. Smith.

(Besides Warren Hunting Smith, two other estimable New York writers have Hobart connections: Phelps's Bellamy Partridge of Country Lawyer fame and the late Frederick Exley, author of A Fan's Notes, who fled the cold for the University of Southern California, only to return to drink himself to death amidst his beloved Thousand Islands.)

I launch into one of my favorite routines, about how Mr. Smith's was the last generation of Upstate men of letters. I read the roll call: Walter D. Edmonds, Henry W. Clune, Carl Carmer, Samuel Hopkins Adams. Do you feel any kinship with them, I burble.

"No, none whatever I should say."

Well, did you ever read them?

"No, I never read them."

This is not unexpected: Smith is a Genevan through and through, less so an Upstater. As a regional writer he is best classed with William Kennedy, whose Albany, like Geneva, contrasts starkly with its purlieus.

I ask him what I always ask eminent old writers: do you ever go back and read your stuff?

"No I seldom read them. Sometimes favorite passages. I'm sometimes delighted to find that I wrote as well as I did." He does not say this immodestly, just as a matter of fact.

He may not communicate with the dead, but Mr. Smith is given to an admirable filiopietism. He edited the letters of his cousin Adele Mali (Geneva Historical Society, 1979) on the centennial of her birth, and he seems the sort who always knows what the nieces and nephews are up to.

The homestead is now more a museum than a home, filled as it is with the furniture and artwork and gewgaws of a century and a half of Smiths. The family divested itself of the nursery business in the 1950s. Mr. Smith wrapped up the Walpole edition in 1982 with a five volume index—"without a computer," he notes with pride.

Warren Hunting Smith turned 87 in October. He admits to "excellent" general health, though a series of ailments has confined him largely to chair and bed. "My walking is pretty shaky, and it takes two people to hoist me to my feet," he says, but he still perambulates about the flowery family grounds.

And he paints. His most recent book, Gentle Enthusiasts in Art (Geneva Historical Society, 1986), honored the Sunday painters and amateur artists and sketching parties of his youth. In the Misses Elliots' day Geneva had been "a town where nearly everyone could at least sketch," and Mr. Smith, for one, does to this day.

He also still attends, when he can, Trinity Church, worshiphouse of the Elliots, towering Gothic redoubt of old Episcopal Geneva. When all is ashes and embers, Trinity Church will no doubt be left standing.

Only one close relative, a nephew, lives in Geneva. (There are cousins.) Most of the old ladies have fulfilled the prophecies of the actuaries, The Misses Elliots' "many-gabled cottage" was torn down long ago. "The site is an access area now to a college property," says Mr. Smith; "it has a walk across it and some ornamental planting." Better than a parking lot.

In a series of sketches titled Originals Abroad (Yale University Press, 1952), Smith wrote that his subjects "were not important people, to their contemporaries or to us; their lives were not exemplary. They were not the builders of the British Empire but merely citizens who went forth as witnesses to the infinite variety of the national individuality and character; Britain's reputation for vigor and originality came from the careers of just such spirited (if wayward) characters as these."

So, too, for Geneva. Whatever her current fortunes—and this bosky lakeside city of residences looks pretty damn good to a child of Upstate's Dresden—Geneva, at its acme, its brilliantly individualistic golden age, is preserved for us in the works of Warren Hunting Smith.

In a region in which "she's different" is the supreme put-down, Mr. Smith is our witty champion of idiosyncrasy. "Even the obscurest Genevans are somehow distinguished, and know how to live like individuals and not like a flock of sheep," he wrote six decades ago. In word and deed, Warren Hunting Smith is the quintessential Genevan.

© 1993, Bill Kauffman
Bill Kauffman of Genesee County is author of the novel Every Man A KIng (Soho Press / Farrar,
Straus & Giroux). This article is excerpted from a book-in-progress about Upstate literature.
Chapter I of The Misses Elliot of Geneva
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