Poor us, or maybe not


You’ve seen the “Poor Martha” bumper sticker. It’s one of those many-edged expressions. It says, I know what’s been going on, and I think it’s appalling, don’t you? It says, There’s no going back. It says, I’m saddened by what’s happened. It says, and this is most important but carefully veiled, You, not I, caused the mess.

So, the question is, when would you say that Martha’s decline began?

Larry Mercier of Edgartown stopped by the other day with a curiosity. It was the November 4, 1920 edition of the Martha’s Vineyard Herald, published in Oak Bluffs every Thursday by Elmer E. Landers. Larry collects such things and entertains, and perhaps consoles, himself by reading the old news from the good old days. For instance, if you’re inclined to regret the way things have changed, you’ll be struck dumbly nostalgic by the auto dealer Walter H. Renear’s advertisement for Ford trucks and cars. The headline is “Reduction in Prices of Ford Products,” and Mr. Renear offered touring cars for $440 (with self-starter, $510) or a runabout for $395 (with self-starter, $465). Certainly things have gone downhill (or uphill, maybe) since then.

If you like your news romantic, flirty, and fictional, newspapering has definitely taken a turn for the worst since November 1920, when the Martha’s Vineyard Herald’s front page featured an installment of Peter Kyne’s serialized novel, “The Valley of the Giants.” Our hero, Bryce, has finally declared his love for Shirley, who has welcomed his courtship, although some difficult issues appear to lie ahead for them.

“‘Oh, my love!” he cried happily. “I hadn’t dared dream of such happiness until today. You were so unattainable — the obstacles between us were so many and so great ….”‘

“He took her adorable little nose in his great thumb and forefinger and tweaked it gently.”

I suppose that’s the way they did it in the good old days — the 1920s equivalent of hooking up.

Coming soon in the Herald, a large, illustrated advertisement announced, the next serial will be “The Man Who Wasn’t Himself” by Robert Ames Bennet. “Psychic! Baffling! Mysterious! Amusing!” is what the promotional advertisement says of the coming amusement. Three of these four adjectives might very easily be applied to what we call news from Washington D.C. these days.

But, in fact, there was actual news-news in the Herald too. Page two includes — but does not feature in an imposing way — a small story, with tables, reporting the Island’s vote in the 1920 presidential election, and also the vote for Massachusetts governor, lieutenant governor, and treasurer. The headline says, “Harding and Coolidge — Republicans Win in Practically Every Section.”

The story goes on: “Returns from the election show a sweeping Republican victory, Harding and Coolidge being elected by a large majority, and the Republicans have made decided gains to both houses of Congress. Election day passed off very quietly in the several towns of Martha’s Vineyard, owing to the fact that there were no local contests for any of the offices, the Republican candidates having a clear field, yet a fairly heavy vote was polled.” Apparently, the Republican majority of Vineyard voters at the time intended that there should be no suggestion to Democrat-minded neighbors that such inclinations might be indulged.

Perhaps Mr. Landers’ run-on sentences were owing to the Republican enthusiasm of the editor, who knows? But the six-town vote was 1,016 for Harding and 154 for Cox. Even West Tisbury went nearly five to one for the Republican ticket. The Island’s decline cannot have been in progress then.

The Republican Party predominated on the Island until about 1973, when the estimable and grandly persuasive Democrat, Gerry E. Studds, replaced Hastings Keith, a Brockton native, state senator, and insurance salesman. Mr. Studds, who died in 2006, represented the Vineyard until 1997, when he was succeeded by William Delahunt, who has represented us since but is not running for reelection this year.

A very dim and dwindling few date the beginning of the Vineyard’s decline to the departure of Mr. Keith, who died in 2005. A great many more believe the slide began with the drowning death of 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne on Chappaquiddick in a car operated by the late Senator Edward Kennedy. Others say it was the adoption of zoning laws in several Island towns in the early 1970s. Their argument was that zoning alerted people to how they might transform their rocky, sandy soil into lovely green cash, and that zoning was a suburban tool that chopped up open land into rectangular parcels, easy to sell but environmentally unnatural.

Or, the decline may have begun in earnest with introduction in Congress of the Nantucket Sound Islands Trust legislation, which may have been an act of atonement by Senator Kennedy for his deadly driving, but was regarded here as an assault on all free living Vineyarders. Others point to 1974, when the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s enabling legislation was passed by the state legislature and signed delightedly into law by Republican governor Francis W. Sargent, who regarded what was known as the “state bill” as an antidote to the Kennedy bill. Take that, senator.

But, in the wake of this week’s primaries and with November 2 just ahead, maybe you’re one of the very few, smiling vacantly and whistling off-key, who thinks things aren’t so very bad, that Martha’s not so pitiable after all, but that maybe we’d be better off if the newspapers had more of Bryce and Shirley and less of Sarah and Barack. It’s a very personal decision.