Robert L. Duffus demonstrated as eloquently as any writer ever born in Vermont the hoary truism that you can take a boy out of Vermont but you cannot take Vermont out of the boy.
Born in Waterbury on 10 July 1888, Duffus left Vermont when he was eighteen years old. But his boyhood memoirs, and other literary depictions of Vermont, are enduring portraits of life in his native state. California was his chosen destination in 1906, and a journalistic career that started with the San Francisco Bulletin ended when he retired in 1962 from The New York Times after thirty-two years of writing editorials and other essays for America's foremost daily newspaper. But Vermont recurs regularly in the stream of novels, travel pieces, magazine articles, nonfiction books, and commentaries on current events he issued in sprightly prose until shortly before his death in 1972, even though he rarely got back to Vermont. 'I know a lot about it,' he once remarked, 'in my bones if not always in my head.'
As one who left Vermont for greener pastures elsewhere, he did not concur with the snide critics of Vermont who argued that Vermont exported its ablest natives while retaining those who were less intelligent or less ambitious. 'The persons who leave Vermont to seek a living elsewhere often do so because they are not bright enough to earn a living in Vermont,' he conceded. The key to success in Vermont, he added, was being smart--and smart enough to get out of bed daily at 4:30 A.M. in order to get a quick jump on the impending day. In Vermont, a diligent person has to be brighter than the dawn.
Likewise, when people compared Vermont with other sections of the United States, Duffus readily defended his native state from its detractors. 'I cheerfully concede that parts of central New York have richer soil than any in Vermont,' he wrote in Nation's Business in 1953:
In doing this however, I wish to remind my readers that the loftiest varieties of human character, unlike cabbages, do not flourish on the richest soil. The New York State character, while not bad as human character goes, is not as good as the Vermont character. It is only fair to say, of course, that few characters are.
Rob Duffus was born in Waterbury because his father, John McGlashan Duffus, a granite-cutter from Petershead, Scotland, met his mother, Helen Graves, while singing in the choir of Waterbury's Congregational Church. 'When the time came for me to be born my mother went home to her mother on a prosperous farm in Waterbury, on the Winooski River below the village, and made this my birthplace,' Duffus wrote in 1958. With the puckish humor that permeates much of his writing, he added, 'Thus I could always say that I was born on a farm, though it was not until I was earning my way through college that I learned to milk a cow.'
Williamstown was his growing-up town, however, because his father was paid fifteen dollars to work sixty hours each week in the stone-sheds that made Williamstown, like nearby Barre in the 1890s, a thriving granite center. For young Duffus, a permanent memory of his Williamstown boyhood was 'the clickety-clack of hammers on stone--a sound I have never heard outside of the granite towns, and which I will remember to my final day.'
Another memory of Williamstown was the fatal malady of silicosis among granite-cutters, an occupational disease caused by tiny particles of granite dust breathed into the lungs of workers carving quarried stone. 'When one of them couldn't work any longer,' Duffus wrote in 1941, 'they took up a collection for him, and wondered who would be next.'
Life was limited in other ways for a Williamstown youngster in the 1890s. Puritanical standards of moral behavior inhibited the community, causing it to endure 'still under John Calvin's baleful glare,' as Duffus put it. Since Williamstown had no library, the town clerk and harnessmaker, George Beckett, lent books to hungry readers. 'He was the first free circulating library I ever knew,' is how Duffus remembered Beckett. Because he was mistakenly thought to have a weak heart, young Duffus spent a lot of time in sedentary pursuits, often reading books he could borrow. Books became his passion; during his lifetime, he authored thirty-three books on a broad range of subjects.
Duffus enjoyed growing up in Williamstown. 'This was my town, my own, my people. We faced the outer world together, all of us. If we held together, and were loyal to each other, it could not harm us. If Williamstown had been an Italian city state of the time of Cellini I would have defended it with all my heart and strength against invaders from Barre, Montpelier, Chelsea, or Northfield.'
Because Williamstown had no high school at that time, Rob Duffus went in 1901 to live with his grandmother and Aunt Alice at 27 North Main Street in Waterbury. In 1905, he was one of three boys and two girls who constituted the graduating class of Waterbury High School. For the next year he worked, at six dollars per week, for Harry C. Whitehill, publisher and editor of the Waterbury Record (weekly circulation: 1,000 copies) and Stowe Journal (weekly circulation: 200 copies). These newspapers were then published on Stowe Street--Duffus dubbed it 'Waterbury's Appian Way'--in the same structure that, since 1931, has housed the broadcasting studios of radio station WDEV.
Describing himself as 'a journalistic fledgling with the moisture still damp on my pitiful wings,' Duffus said he entered 'the borderland of a great tradition' and became 'a sort of prenatal newspaper man' at the Waterbury Record. 'I don't suppose anybody ever had a broader beginning experience in journalism than I had when I worked for Mr. Whitehill.' To call a person a newspaperman, Duffus said years later, was a compliment because it was 'that noblest of occupational titles.'
A boy-of-all-tasks, Duffus swept floors, banked stoves, and ran the little job press which said 'clackety-plunk, clackety-plunk, clackety-plunk hours after hours.' (As an adult, he often looked at his fingers with amazement, still uncertain why that job press didn't mangle one or two as permanent souvenirs of his inexperience.) He also delivered newspapers and collected publishable items. 'An "item" was somebody going to Montpelier for a day, or somebody coming to Waterbury for a day from Montpelier, or a marriage, or somebody starting a new house (which didn't often happen), or somebody getting sick or getting better after being sick.' Into his nostrils drifted the seductive smell of printer's ink--'a perfume for which in half a century I was never to lose my taste.' Waterbury was his incubator: 'The town was just the place in which to study journalism. The town was full of stories.'
Many of these stories remained so vivid in his memory that more than half a century after leaving Vermont to attend Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, Duffus could recount them in two volumes of reminiscences. The first was Williamstown Branch: Impersonal Memories of a Vermont Boyhood, published by W.W. Norton in 1958; the second was The Waterbury Record: More Vermont Memories, published by Norton in 1959. Both books are classics. They convey as ably as any memoirs ever published about small-town Vermont the texture of life as the nineteenth century faded and the twentieth century dawned. Duffus was rueful in admitting his fixation with his Vermont origins. Once he disclosed, 'I long ago resolved I would never write anything in the autobiographical line if I could help it. I haven't been able to help it.'
Nor did he let nostalgia for Vermont tint his recollections with hues of romanticism. In his memoirs and in two novels he set in towns like Waterbury and Williamstown--This was Alderbury (1941) and Victory on West Hill (1942)--he bared the hypocrisy and small-minded conformity imposed by small-town moralists. A reformist bent runs though much of his writings. 'I couldn't be called a radical, but the stuffed shirts always irritate me,' he told an interviewer in 1942. 'Vermont may vote with the stuffed shirts and bigwigs,' he said of his native state when its Republican allegiance did not falter during President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal era, 'but none of these gentry had better try to patronize a single genuine Vermonter. No, sir!'
Similar distinctions emerge throughout his Vermont depictions. Town-meeting government was effective the 'we-know-best' prescriptions of the town's elite could be restrained by ordinary citizens speaking persuasively to the assembled voters. 'I listened carefully to the oratory in the Town Hall, and it wasn't much, if any, worse than some I later heard in Congress,' he noted. The selfless devotion of the local physician, Dr. Henry Janes of Waterbury, impressed him as admirable. The amateurish way in which citizens looked among themselves for resourceful people to meet community challenges had the added benefit of allowing individual talents to bloom. In Victory on West Hill, a Duffus-created character named Karl Seidler asserts, 'A man doesn't know what he can stand until he has to stand it. There's strength in us that we don't use when we're living soft.' Not surprisingly, when Duffus visited Sauk Center, Minnesota, the town Sinclair Lewis lampooned as a hopelessly provincial backwater, Duffus faulted the indictment as overdrawn.
Duffus left Vermont reluctantly. In the summer of 1905, he and two boyhood chums from Waterbury ascended Mount Mansfield, and the vivid memory of gazing down the Winooski Valley to the glittering waters of Lake Champlain, with the blue Adirondacks rising beyond the west shoreline, stuck forever in his mind's eye. 'I couldn't bear to leave Vermont if I could always be where I could see over it and beyond it in this fantastic fashion,' he recounted in The Waterbury Record. 'If the ridge of Mansfield made me love my native state, with pride and passion, the distance, cloud beyond cloud, plains beyond plains, mountains beyond mountains, all the way to the Pacific, also summoned me.'
Augmenting this boyish awe with the world beyond the visible horizons was another feeling: 'I think I felt hemmed-in. The mountains came too close into the too narrow valleys. There were mountains, also, of old memories, of dead generations, of what one was expected to be--and wasn't.' He commented often about the melancholy of Vermont, the 'tragic sternness' of his native environment, the 'almost heroic desire never to forget death' epitomized by the numerous cemeteries in Vermont. In another of his Vermont-set novels, Roads Going South (1921), Duffus may have been venting his own perceptions: 'Whether the living drove along the country roads, or were at work in the fields, or passed to and fro on the ordinary business of life along the village streets, the dead were not forgotten; their slate or granite finger-posts spoke eternally of loss, of danger, and of pain. They were the permanent residents; the others were transients. They were the town, the people.' The 'regional gods of northern New England,' as he termed them, stripped brilliant fall foliage from trees, dispatched twilight shadows at four o'clock on winter afternoons, and infused human laughter with undertones of doubt.
When he boarded the train at the Waterbury depot in August of 1906, beginning his transcontinental trip all the way to the Pacific Coast, he carried as a legacy from Vermont a persistent idealism tempered with a measured reality of the world as it is. He also had reconciled in Williamstown and Waterbury a religious skepticism with a faith in the way the universe is ordered. 'Up here in the hills,' says the village physician who serves as a pivotal character in Victory on West Hill, 'even though you had a scientific education and had to admit that dissection of the cadaver reveals no evidence of a soul, you find yourself believing in a purpose behind things that happen. You have to be careful or you become religious.'
When The New York Times published his obituary on 30 November 1972, it described Duffus as 'a tall, thoughtful, alert man; a complete Vermonter, and a complete newpaperman. He was a philosopher, a historian, and a man whose sense of humor was sometimes surprising.' The last observation may reveal more of how members of the editorial department of The New York Times were unfamiliar with the pawky humor ingrained in Duffus from his Vermont nurturing. He liked to leaven logic with whimsy. 'Some astronomers say that the sun may wind up operations in about a billion years,' he wrote in 1967, 'but I think we had better wait and see, and in the meantime do the best we can with what we have.' One reader of his editorials likened Duffus to a deli-style sandwich maker, producing columns of 'understatement served open-faced on wry.'
Duffus enrolled at Stanford with the expectation that he would become a teacher after graduation in 1910. He stayed a fifth year, earning his M.A. degree with a thesis about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. Reluctantly, he was heading towards a teaching career when Ida Tarbell, at Stanford doing historical research, read his thesis. This muckraking author who had harpooned the Standard Oil Company for its 'robber-baron' behavior in the marketplace, and herself a biographer of Lincoln, was so deeply impressed by the quality of the thesis that she insisted on meeting the young graduate student who wrote it. She told Duffus that his metier was writing, not teaching, and she helped him get hired by Fremont Older of The San Francisco Bulletin. Afte a year of shoe-leather reporting, Duffus was writing editorials for the Bulletin, continuing to do so for five years without missing a single issue.
Duffus married Leah-Louise Deane of Pasadena in 1914, and they left San Francisco for New York City in 1920. He worked first for the old New York Globe and briefly for the New York Sun before earning his income as a free-lance writer. Several articles accepted by The New York Times brought an offer in 1930 that he be listed on the full-time payroll as a contributor of special features, book reviews, and occasional editorials for The Times--'just because I'd been around so long,' Duffus remarked later. After seven years of weekly by-lines, Duffus joined the prestigious editorial boad on the tenth floor of The Times building, issuing anonymous mini-essays for the editorial pages. In 1955, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his full-time employment by The Times, he was saluted as that newspaper's most prolific author and, by common consent, one of its finest stylists. Orville Prescott in 1962 termed Duffus 'the sage of the tenth floor.'
Colleagues wondered how Duffus could write so much, often facing the pressure of deadlines, and produce first drafts that hardly required any fine-tuning before publication. Laconically, Duffus said, 'I find that writing them slowly doesn't improve them.' The secret, said John B. Oakes of The Times, was a mental discipline Duffus nurtured carefully: 'He writes editorials in his mind, paragraph by paragraph. Sometimes he types them out himself, but more frequently he dictates them. What's more, he almost never changes a word once he had the typescript in his hands--except to perform that most difficult feat for an author, cutting his own copy.' Since Duffus commuted daily from a home in the woods of Westport, Connecticut, where he and Leah-Louise reared their two daughters, Nairne Louise and Marjorie Rose, one can safely conclude he composed those mental paragraphs while riding on trains.
But another colleague, William D. Ogden, said Duffus 'was at his best in a late-afternoon or early-evening emergency when a newsbreak of importance required spontaneous, yet informed, judicious comment. Cool, imperturbable even in the midst of harassments that attend the final rush to make up the the page, he could sit down at his typewriter--or dictate to a secretary--an emergency editorial that remained unequaled in diction, clarity, and forcefulness of opinion even by editorial writers of other newspapers who waited a day or two to gather and polish their thoughts. Not infrequently it was because The Times had Bob Duffus on the tenth floor that we had an editorial, and a good one, the next day instead of the second day.'
Duffus became known as the most versatile as well as the most prolific editorial writer at The Times. At first, he specialized in New York affairs, city, and state, but World War II broadened his interests to national and international issues. After the war, he spent many hours attending sessions of the United Nations in order to write editorials affirming the vision of world peace as a practical necessity, not just as an idealized utopia. John Chamberlain, for many years the literary guru who reviewed books daily for The Times, described Duffus, who worked a few doors down the hall from Chamberlain, as 'a wise, patient, droll man who is half Vermont granite, half gentle dreamer.'
Duffus was also credited with helping The Times earn its cherished reputation as a guardian of civil liberties. William D. Ogden described Duffus as 'an ardent and eloquent defender of human rights, with a pen dipped in sympathy and, when occasion warranted, in a devouring heat of indignation.' Politically, Duffus considered himself an independent, supporting office-seekers on the basis of character and qualifications rather than party labels, but he conceded that the candidates he favored almost invariably were Democrats.
Duffus was often acting editor of The Times when Charles Merz or other superiors were absent. On these occasions, Duffus ruled with a firm but gentle hand, being tactful to the point of diffidence. People who worked with him recall quiet acts of kindness, performed with modesty and grace. One highly-placed member of The Times staff said, 'There has always been an elusive radiance about his character.'
During the years Virginia L. Close was editing the Dartmouth College Library Bulletin , she frequently composed a recurring feature titled 'Thesis Topics: Ready-Made.' In this section, she described unexploited resources available within Dartmouth's Baker Library that might induce students, and all research-minded patrons of America's largest college library, to examine inviting collections that merited careful scrutiny. Adhering to the spirit of 'Thesis Topics: Ready-Made,' it is appropriate to note that the papers of Robert Duffus occupy almost twelve linear feet of shelf space in the Department of Special Collections and University Archives at Stanford University. Equally enticing is the fact no scholar in search of a thesis subject, nor any other writer with a biography in mind, has yet focused on Duffus as a figure in American journalism and publishing. This brief essay is drawn from research in the archives of The New York Times and from a reading of the published oeuvre Duffus created in his lifetime. The Duffus holdings at Stanford are beckoning today, just as Stanford beckoned to Duffus in 1906.
Among the materials at Stanford are four scrapbooks containing clippings of editorials he wrote for The New York Times and, because these commentaries were published anonymously, it is helpful to have them collected together with authorship ascertained. Final drafts and page proofs containing his handwritten corrections for both Williamstown Branch and The Waterbury Record are available at Stanford, in addition to manuscripts he wrote for at least two unpublished books. His other writings at Stanford vary from the essays he wrote as a college undergraduate to the typescript of his commencement address at Middlebury College in 1938. There is a seven-page manuscript, 'Notes on the Duffus family,' compiled by his widow, Leah-Louise, in 1975, with much material (including letters), about Rob's older brother, William, and his younger sister, Marjorie Alice Bryan. This will interest genealogists in the Waterbury area because Duffus once remarked, 'Waterbury and its environs were dotted with persons to whom we were some sort of kin. Sometimes it took a lot of figuring to make out just what the kinship was.'
Among the many photographs in the Stanford Library are some of Williamstown and Waterbury, including a portrait of the five graduating seniors in the class of 1905 at Waterbury High School. Local historians interested in community history in Vermont, as well as students of Duffus as an editorialist and a Vermonter who never omitted Vermont from his vision of the world, could profitably do research at Stanford. Duffus is deserving of wider recognition than he has received to date.
Last Updated: 4/19/17