PERSPECTIVE: Celebrating the Bland but Influential People of Connecticut

by Christopher Hoffman Being from Connecticut is like being from Canada: nobody cares. The very idea of the place leaves people disoriented. Perhaps no other state in the Union is as colorless. Say Maine, and people think of lobsters and fishermen in long yellow slickers. Say California, and they think of giant redwoods and Hollywood. Say New Jersey, they think of toxic waste and eight-lane turnpikes. Say Connecticut, and people think . . . insurance?

On my last trip overseas, I offered to buy the Australians and Europeans I met a beer if they could tell me exactly where Connecticut is in the United States. In five months of travel, I never had to buy a single can or bottle of beer. Even Americans are confounded by Connecticut.

When you admit to being from Connecticut, people's faces go blank, and you can see them furiously rushing through the files in their minds trying to come up with something to say about the state. Texas (Boy, it's hot down there, huh?), Florida (Ever seen an alligator up close?), or even Iowa (Man, there's nothing out there!) are all easy. But Connecticut? Finally it hits them, the one thing about Connecticut that they know for certain: ''Everybody's rich back there, aren't they.''

In a democratic society like the United States, one does not like to be connected with anything that smacks even vaguely of inherited wealth or privilege. I immediately explain to people that most of that wealth is concentrated in the ''panhandle'' (Texas, Oklahoma, and Idaho all have panhandles. Why not Connecticut?), and that the rest of the state is filled with regular-guy, working-class towns. I usually get the feeling that they don't believe me.

What exactly are the people of Connecticut really like? They are solid, calculating, sober and, above all, practical. Extremes are very much frowned upon in the Nutmeg State. Nothing about us, after all, is extreme. The land is pretty, but nothing to knock your socks off. The winters are cold, but not too cold. The summers are hot, but not too hot. We have no floods, no earthquakes, no tornados, no truly dangerous snakes; only the occasional hurricane.

Most of all, though, Nutmeggers are tinkers, inventors and suppliers. We do not make history. We provide other people with whatever they need to make history. During the Revolution, Connecticut provided the Continental Army with so much material that George Washington nicknamed the state the Provisions State.

Charles Goodyear vulcanized rubber for the first time in Shelton in 1939, thereby making the future industrial use of rubber possible. Samuel Colt invented the Colt Peacemaker, gun that won the West, in Hartford. Igor Sikorsky, one of the fathers of the modern helicopter, set up his plant in Stratford.

By far the most famous of the Yankee inventors is Eli Whitney. Whitney put the first assembly line into production making muskets in Hamden in 1798. He also invented the cotton gin, thereby extending the life of slavery another 60 years. Nobody's perfect.

Politically, Connecticut Yankees are not leaders. But that does not necessarily mean that they are followers. Men burning with righteous passion from New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia wrote the Constitution, but it was the delegation from Connecticut that saved it.

The convention was deadlocked over how the individual states would be represented in the legislative branch of the Federal Government. The big states wanted representation based on population while the small states wanted each state to have an equal number of representatives regardless of size. The dispute threatened to break up the convention.

In stepped Roger Sherman and the Connecticut delegation. Level-headed, sober and practical, they proposed a compromise that would create a bicameral legislature in which each state would have two members regardless of size in one house and representation would be based on population in the other. The idea became known as the Connecticut Compromise. It carried the day and saved the Constitutional Convention.

This type of thinking continues to dominate Connecticut politics and government. Connecticut is often cited as one of the ''bellwether'' states of the union, but this is a little deceiving. True, Connecticut is decidedly more liberal than most other states, but it actually practices a very conservative form of liberalism.

We believe in trying new things, but only if they have worked somewhere else first. We would never be ones to experiment wildly because that would not be prudent, and we are above all prudent. We let other states (especially Massachusetts) start things. We watch, and, if it works and we like it, we try it. Right now, I am certain that our political leaders have a critical eye turned toward the state-wide health insurance plan being tried in Massachusetts. If it proves successful, I am sure that we will become ''one of the first in the nation'' to adopt a similar plan.

Many writers have lived in Connecticut, but only one has been a Connecticut Yankee to the core: Wallace Stevens. Stevens moved to Hartford in 1916 after taking a job with an insurance company. From that time until his death, he lived an odd double life, rising to become vice president of the company while composing some of the finest verse of his generation. His poetry was somber and sedate, much like his life, and much like the state in which he lived. He was a far cry from his well-known contemporary, the mighty Hemingway (an Illinois boy) who traveled the world, regularly shed and took on wives, shot big game in Africa and fished for huge marlin off the Florida Keys.

Actually, the two men did meet once under unusual circumstances. While Stevens was vacationing in Key West in 1936 (and far from the level-headed influence of Connecticut), he appeared at Hemingway's house wanting to fight. Stevens was a portly, graying, 56-year-old man at the time. Hemingway was 20 years younger and near the height of his pugilistic powers.

''Papa'' decked Stevens in the first round. Stevens went back to Hartford and continued to produce poetry to ever-increasing acclaim right up to his death at the age of 75. Hemingway drank away his health and his talent, and then blew his brains out with a shotgun when he was 61. Was Stevens a wimp? Maybe. But then again, look at how he ended up (happy, healthy, creative virtually to the end) compared with the macho-man Hemingway (physically and mentally ill, unable to write). Maybe it isn't so bad being a wimp after all.

Still, I cannot help but wonder what kind of a man Hemingway would have been if he had been born in Wethersfield instead of Oak Park. Perhaps Connecticut's calming influence would also have caused him to go into the insurance business. In that case, he might have called his first book ''The Premium Also Rises.''


A somewhat lengthier version of this opinion piece was published in The New York Times nearly three decades ago, on September 4, 1988. How much about Connecticut has changed?  

Christopher Hoffman has gone on to a career as a news reporter, communications director and writer in Connecticut, working for the State Attorney General and New Haven Public Schools, and writing for the Hartford Courant, New Haven Register, Connecticut Magazine, Yale Medicine Magazine and the Columbia Journalism Review.  He is currently a freelance reporter and writer, and can be contacted at Abridged and published here with permission of the author.