The Tyranny of the Clock

How the rhythms of the day—even time itself—used to vary from place to place.

Hyperactive moderns, running late and never quite catching up to their schedules, are apt to fret that there is simply not enough time in the day. Howard Mansfield would argue that there is too much time—too much consciousness of time, anyway, and too much uniformity in the way we think about it. “Throw out your clocks,” he advises in “Turn & Jump,” a series of essays on the cleavage of time and place.

Like Thoreau, Mr. Mansfield is a keen observer and, in his neck of New Hampshire, a granitic critic of the rushed life. In early New England, he notes, mechanical clocks did not tock away the minutes in unison. Each place kept its own time, pegged to the transit of the sun across the sky. The idea that Boston, on the coast, and Springfield, 90 miles inland, shared the time of day would have struck New Englanders as preposterous.

But a mere yellow star proved no match for the Pullman car. In pursuit of the horological grail of being “on time,” the railroads introduced standard time zones in 1883. Time, formerly a “local possession,” was nationalized by industry and then the government, and though mossbacks fretted that standard time was a “compulsory lie,” a nation synchronized its watches.

The title of “Turn & Jump” is borrowed from vaudeville, whose nomadic performers jumped from town to town for their turn on stage. Vaudeville might seem about as New England-y as tacos and antelopes, but the father of variety theater was Benjamin Franklin Keith, a New Hampshire orphan who joined the circus, ran a freak show and never looked back. In 1883, the year time was standardized, Keith conceived “continuous vaudeville.” Imagine a meringue pie smashing a human face—forever.

Keith charged a dime a head and let people stay in his Boston theater from daybreak till nightfall. The show was always “in full swing,” though to discourage the most slothful seatwarmers, Keith used “chasers”—acts poised just this side of tedium, not so bad that the audience would flee but not so good that anyone would want to sit through them a second time. (An “inept sculptor” became “the best chaser in vaudeville.”) The Continuous, as the show was named, obeyed no sun and no season. Continuous vaudeville, paceless and placeless, kept “uniform time.”

The interplay of place and memory takes the stage when Mr. Mansfield visits Swanzey, N.H., where every year since 1939 local thespians, including a team of oxen, have revived native son Denman Thompson’s play “The Old Homestead.” Thompson was the toast of Manhattan in 1887, and for the next 25 years on the road he dispensed homely wisdom in the character of kindly Uncle Josh, a rural sage.

Urban audiences once flocked to “The Old Homestead” to remember the farms and hamlets they had left behind; they laughed at such stock characters as the “cranky bachelor farmers” vying for the hand of an old maid, and they wept when the prodigal son, a drunkard, returned to the farm’s homely embrace. They listened avidly to this “sermon against restlessness”—and then they returned to their lives of bustle and hurry, of clocks relentlessly ticking down their time.

“Regret is the literature of progress,” Mr. Mansfield aphorizes. “The Old Homestead” was a way of calling expatriates back to a time and place of discursive yarns, porch sitting and chores “measured by the task, not by the hour.” And yet Uncle Josh himself, Denman Thompson, turned and jumped from city to city along the railways that had done so much to disrupt so many old homesteads.

Mr. Mansfield’s pièce de résistance is a respectful re-creation of the career of Clarence Derby, who for 62 years, from 1917 to 1979, labored lovingly in his family’s department store in Peterborough, N.H., selling everything from cabbage and candy to dynamite in what Clarence called “a nice friendly store that had most everything the ordinary person would want.”

Clarence left to the town library a seven-volume record of his store—a collage of invoices, photos, receipts and commentary in which the word “enjoy” recurs. He enjoyed his business, he enjoyed his customers (who were also his neighbors), he enjoyed everything, it seems, but the “Niagara of paperwork” required by the New Deal’s Office of Price Administration.

Yet Derby’s department store was no nostalgic mise-en-scène frozen in time. Clarence remodeled frequently, spent liberally on corny advertisements and added “modern” lines (televisions, furniture) while dropping others (grocery and—eventually—dynamite).

Clarence retired, his sons squabbled, the store was sold and, like most small-town family-owned department stores, Derby’s died shy of the 21st century. “Derby’s was an American clock and the clock struck midnight,” writes Mr. Mansfield. But the author does not indulge in the soothing fantasy that Derby’s had simply run its course. “We choose strangers,” he says. “We choose mobility over community.” The clock struck midnight for Derby’s because the people of Peterborough let it.

Mr. Mansfield’s chapters on the legacy of waterpower and the landscape echoes of King Philip’s War—”the history we don’t want to remember,” he says, referring to the “short, ferocious” war between colonists and Indians in the 17th century—are less successful, spurring the reader to the bookish equivalent of clock-watching: page-number checking.

“Turn & Jump” ends in a New Hampshire cemetery on a drizzly October day. Years, months and the creeping hands of the clock no longer matter here. “Time collapses in an old graveyard,” says Mr. Mansfield. All of us—whether our wrists are encircled by a Timex, a Rolex or a hospital ID—will learn this soon enough. As for Mr. Mansfield, he operates on Hancock, N.H., time. It’s not the same as your time or my time, and that’s OK. In fact, that’s the point.

Mr. Kauffman’s books include “Dispatches From the Muckdog Gazette” (Holt) and the recently released “Bye Bye, Miss American Empire” (Chelsea Green).


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