Diane Baker, Hope Lange, and Suzy Parker in The Best of Everything


This piece is a contribution to the STSC Symposium, a monthly set-theme collaboration between STSC writers. The topic for this issue is “Work.”


Seagram Building, Park Avenue, New York City, 1959: outside, the church bells toll nine o’clock, and a few dozen employees enter the office, busily and noisily. One hurriedly removes her walking shoes and retrieves high heels from her desk drawer. Another ungracefully adjusts her panty hose. Yet another removes her curlers. Pencils are sharpened and lunches are placed in the refrigerator. It is a women’s—I mean, girls’—space. 

In time the chatter and bustle give way to the sound of four hundred fingers tapping. There are neat, orderly rows of typewriters, each emitting an identical sound, multiplied again and again to make a noise like a cloud of cicadas. It is the sound of well-regulated labor and clearly assigned roles: individual keys clacking, each letter leading to a word, then a sentence, then a paragraph. The secretaries render the thoughts of other people in impersonal black and white. The thoughts of other people. They are the helpers, the empty vessels.⁠1

Jean Negulesco’s 1959 film The Best of Everything, based on the 1958 novel of the same name by Rona Jaffe, focuses on the experiences of several young female secretaries in the New York City publishing world.2 Jaffe took her title from an advertisement in the New York Times, a replica of which is shown in the film. But that titular “everything” will prove elusive, as the trailer for the film predicts:

In the outspoken tradition of “Peyton Place”, 20th Century-Fox brings a great best-seller to the screen . . . 

It undresses the ambitions and emotions of the girls who invade the glamour world of the big city, seeking success, love, marriage, and the best of everything . . . And who often settle for much less!3

Along with the advertisement, this text signals that a “women’s picture” will follow, and that the conflict between professional work and romantic love—between “hearth and desk”—will prove central.4 An alternative, less sensationalistic trailer might ask, “Will she type his manuscripts . . . or make him a sandwich?” 

The conspicuous use of the word “invade” may suggest something about how these girls will be received in the working world, as well as by viewers of the film. Contemporary critical responses to the novel betray the unease created by such an intrusion. For example, the New York Post advises, “Any employer reading these pages will make a mental note to check up on what the girls in his office do after lunch, and with whom.”5

“Girls”: this terminology is of course typical of the time period, and I shall adopt it in this essay in order to evoke the setting of The Best of Everything. In 1958, the employer is assumed to be a man, and by default the supervisor of any girls who happen to be frolicking about and getting up to shenanigans. Comments from the time reveal a disquiet about young professional women. For example, New York Times critic Gilbert Millstein is palpably perturbed by Jaffe’s novel. At the outset of his review, he dismisses The Best of Everything as a “pallid academic exercise.” However, he goes right on to complain about its commercial success: the novel was optioned by the producer of the popular 1957 film Peyton Place, Jerry WaldMillstein expresses apparent resentment over Jaffe’s earnings ($100,000 for the film rights and $25,000 for the paperback reprint of the novel) and gripes that the “attractive-looking girl of 26 obligingly, possibly eagerly” posed for the book’s cover at “the Forty-ninth Street side of the Time-Life Building.” (How dare this attractive-looking girl of 26 profit from her labor and be eager at the Time-Life Building to boot?!) Millstein’s “this-is-so-worthless-I-must-catalogue-every-feature-of-it-to-show-you-how-worthless-it-is” comes across like a 1950s Tweetstorm. He mocks the title (might its reference to the Times Help Wanted advertisement entail “copyright infringement”?) and condemns the story’s “verismilitude,” comparing it to a Norman Rockwell magazine cover. He sneers, “The book could easily have been called “The Five Little Peppers in Rockefeller Center, or ‘Little Women, What Now?’”6 This response to the novel displays the same fears and resentments that the author depicts in the novel. Inside and outside the covers, career girls evoke terror in the hearts of (not all) men.

It is not only critics who place female characters in a double bind. The characters do so as well. At a critical point in the film, the pressure on a girl to embrace domesticity and humility—and even to efface herself intellectually—comes to a head. A male executive, Mike (Stephen Boyd), insists to the much younger Caroline (Hope Lange), with whom he has already shared a couple of intimate moments, that it is unseemly for her to prioritize her work, for she will become a “ruthless, driving, calculating woman.” More, he claims that her commitment to her vocation is false and insincere: “Honey, you don’t give a damn about your work. All you care about is your own hot-eyed ambition.” The opposition between “caring” and  “ambition” reveals just how confining social expectations are: a compliant girl is required to “care,” which is assumed to be incompatible with professional drive. According to Mike, Caroline’s ambition allows her to hide from her grief over the end of a relationship, and her desire to succeed professionally is even incompatible with womanhood: “Now you’ve closed the door. Being a woman is too painful, so you’re not gonna be one. Men aren’t lovers; they’re competition, so let’s not join ‘em; let’s lick ‘em.”

“Get out! Can’t you see I’m busy?”
Early 20th century postcard. 

However, it is the men in the workplace who do the majority of the licking. The editor Mr. Shalimar (Brian Aherne) pinches, slaps, leers, and smirks his way through the film. Yet according to the New York Times, it is the girls who have “a nose for trouble,” and sex “seems to be all these ingénues have on their busy little minds.”7  In many commentaries from the time, the younger and lower-status girls are held responsible for what is on their superiors’ minds, and for what they do with their hands. In keeping with the conventions of the women’s picture, the male love interests from outside the company, often closer to the girls’ ages, are also unscrupulous cads. This is not merely an interpretation applied from sixty years later; it was was understood by viewers at the time and was even acknowledged by the characters. The womanizing theater director describes himself as a “heel,” and the thoughtless playboy who has duped the naïve, pregnant April (Diane Baker) into “seeing a doctor” admits, “I know what I am.” Another heel, presumably.

As above, a comparison of the ways social mores are portrayed within the story and the ways they are asserted in the discussion about the novel and the film proves fruitful. Commentaries from the time come across like dispatches from the proverbial six blind men describing the elephant. Some find the story authentic; others condemn it as tawdry; and yet others yawn, “how unstimulating.” A sensationalistic soap opera bores many a critic, and the girls are alternately lovelorn or obsessive. Unsurprisingly, reviewers of the 1950s did not distinguish between a young male peer tentatively caressing a girl’s knee on a date and a workplace superior reaching under the table to push up a subordinate’s skirt as he dangles professional advancement in front of her. The film, like the novel, is remarkable in making this distinction, and I would suggest that this accounts in large part for the jumbled responses of the late 1950s. In recent years, Jaffe’s novel has been credited for breaking ground in portraying sexual harassment. As she says,”sexual harassment . . . had no name in those days.”8 The sexualization of the relationship between male superior and female secretary was pervasive and unquestioned—the water the girls and men swam in.9

“Christopher Sholes Emancipates Women by Means of the Typewriter”
(1923, Author Unknown)10

The New York Times connects the girls’ adventures and misadventures directly to the typewriter, even invoking several inventors of the device: “Little did Messrs. Sholes, Glidden and Soulé know, when they invented an American typewriter, what a power of mischief it would bring. . . . The girls come to New York to type, and before long, one is a stretcher case, one is pregnant and the third is off to Las Vegas with a notorious lounge lizard.”11 That licentious machine, causing so much drama!

Back at the desk with the sexy IBM Selectric, her finger presses a key, which delivers a hammer to a ribbon and marks paper. Thousands of characters are impressed onto hundreds of pages. Seventy words a minute times forty girls equals piles of edited chapters, reader’s reports, and rejection letters. Thanks to the standardization granted by the machine, the page bears no trace of the individual hand. The typed text is as orderly and regular as the rows of secretaries’ desks. The individual girls are a collective serving the purpose of the corporation: they are indistinct and undifferentiated.

But what happens when a girl leaves the typing room? Again and again throughout the film, a secretary enters a private office, then closes the door, thereby silencing the typewriters. The sound design emphasizes the movement from public to private in a way the printed words on the page of the novel cannot. Early in the film, Caroline enters Miss Farrow’s (Joan Crawford) office and closes the door. The typewriter sounds disappear abruptly. This contrast suggests a difference in role and rank: it is in these quieter, more spacious rooms that the editors do their heavy thinking and prepare materials for the girls to type.12 Alone with Miss Farrow, away from the group, Caroline is subjected to a hazing ritual, as Miss Farrow gives her several tasks in rapid succession: 

“You can order me some coffee: black, no sugar. . . . No, no, no, at your desk, outside. Before you do that, would you straighten out the files? The Ts have gotten all mixed up with the Ms somehow. . . .  You can do that later. Open the mail first.” 

It’s not that Miss Farrow is respectful in the outer office; she’s merciless, but in the group environment outside Caroline has coworkers—allies who witness and empathize. When she enters Miss Farrow’s office, she is confined with her tormenter, with no witnesses on hand.

If Miss Farrow’s office proves an Ironman course for Caroline, the men’s private offices are where they play Twister. In numerous instances, a male executive invites a female subordinate into his office, suggesting that there is important work to do, only to make a move on her. The private, quiet environment is a place of sexual dominance. This is most striking when the gullible girl, April, works late with Mr. Shalimar. He offers her alcohol, asks her personal questions, and pounces. On another occasion, Caroline is called in by Mr. Shalimar. He chooses to tell her she has been promoted by saying, “You are no longer a typist here,” a cheap trick that exploits his power. In a previous scene Caroline has had to extricate herself from his grasp; this time, when she departs, Mr. Shalimar cranes his neck and leers at her body with appreciation. Throughout the course of the film, the repeated appearance and disappearance of typing sounds supports the portrayals of the individual characters, their development (or not), and the relationships between them. It is as important a sonic feature as the musical score.13

So, while The Best of Everything is understood to show conflict between romantic yearnings and professional drive, there is also a conflict between personal and professional right here in the office. Or, more accurately, between professional and unprofessional. To the girl like Caroline who aspires to perform substantive work and achieve higher rank, the door to the private office represents her potential status. But that same boundary also signifies risk for every girl, any time she is required to interact with a superior in private. It is not only that the girls have to choose between love and work, but that at work they are disturbed by influential men who behave as if they are their own living rooms, not in a workplace.14 The girls are constantly sexualized by others, whether they like it or not. The quiet and space of the executive office promise stimulation, independence, position—as well as danger and dehumanization.  

The lack of young men in the office is easy to overlook but significant. Mulling the way that professional power maps on to age difference and onto sex, I think back to a brief, atypical moment just a few minutes into the film. Caroline enters Fabian Publishing and finds it empty, save for a man delivering mail. He is closer to Caroline’s age than anyone else she later meets at work, and he is dressed more casually: a shirt and tie, but no suit jacket. His hands are busy with work. He and Caroline exchange a few words, and he informally asks, as if it’s one word, “first day first job?” When she asks how he knew, he replies, “the hat,” wishes her luck, salutes her, and exits. This easy interaction between young adult coworkers stands out, for once the office fills up and Caroline begins her first day, she never encounters another young male peer. One wonders what Caroline’s work day would be like if the men were not all older and more powerful, if the one mature woman were not repeatedly called a “witch,” and if the “lovelorn” girls were recognized as working women.15 Maybe someday. In the meantime, it’s a great hat.


[1] “Under the Isaac Pitman [shorthand] regime, the ideal typist was trained to be blind and invisible, as it were, a passive mediator who was effectively mentally absent from the task in which she was engaged. The prevailing discourse of female passivity vis-à-vis the machine becomes fully legible only in the context of such instructions to the typist to completely efface herself from her own work process.” (Martyn Lyons, The Typewriter Century: A Cultural History of Writing Practices [Studies in Book and Print Culture]. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 2021 [p. 65, Kindle Edition].)

[2] Rona Jaffe, The Best of Everything (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1958). The film was produced by Jerry Wald with a screenplay by Edith Sommer and Mann Rubin and music by Alfred Newman. The novel was written expressly to be made into a film. In her foreword to the 2005 edition of the novel, Rona Jaffe reports, “One day, I was visiting the offices of Simon & Schuster to see my college friend, Phyllis Levy, who was then secretary to the editor-in-chief, Jack Goodman. Jerry Wald, the famous Hollywood producer, happened the be there meeting with her boss.” Wald was “scouting for properties to option,” and he later agreed to produce the novel Jaffe promised to write (Rona Jaffe, The Best of Everything [New York: Penguin, 2005]). Because the novel and film were so closely associated—not to say the same—I rely on reviews of the novel as well as the film.

[3] The trailer continues: 




The contradiction between “settling” and “doing anything” to get what they want is characteristic of the ambivalent view of women in the reception of the film. The Best of Everything: Official Trailer (20th Century Fox, Klokline Cinema).

[4] I adopt the terms “hearth” and “desk” from Bosley Crowtherhoward Thompson’s film review: “Screen: Frustrations in Young Actor’s ‘Career’; Franciosa Is Star of New Film at State James Lee’s Play Is Story of ‘Disease’.” The section on The Best of Everything comes under the subheading “Office Romances.” New York Times, Oct. 9, 1959, p. 24.

[5] Review from 1958, excerpted in the front matter to the 2005 edition of Jaffe’s The Best of Everything.

[6] Gilbert Millstein, “Books of the Times,” New York Times, September 9, 1958, p. 33. Several of the 1958 reviews excerpted in the 2005 edition of the novel praise its authenticity; perhaps this is what Millstein belittles as “verismilitude.”

[7] Review of Jaffe’s novel by Martin Levin, “Three Noses for Trouble” (New York Times, Section BR, p. 38; September 7, 1958).

Martyn Lyons observes, “The Typewriter Girl caused anxiety, especially for employers. Would she cope physically with the demands of the job? Was she capable of the hard work, discipline, and concentration required? If so, would she lose her feminine qualities in the process, becoming as hard and ‘de-sexed’ as the machine to which she was invisibly bonded? And furthermore, what effect would she have on the men in the office? Would she distract or seduce them? The typewriter entered a highly eroticized environment, in which forms of sexual harassment of the typist were potentially more likely to disrupt operations than ‘distracting the men’.” (Lyons, Martyn. The Typewriter Century: A Cultural History of Writing Practices [Studies in Book and Print Culture]. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, p. 57 of Kindle Edition.)

[8] Jaffe’s recollection confirms the supposition that readers literally did not have the language for the girls’ experience at the time:  “Back then,” she writes, “people didn’t talk about not being a virgin. They didn’t talk about going out with married men. They didn’t talk about abortion. They didn’t talk about sexual harassment, which had no name in those days. But after interviewing these women [as research for the novel], I realized that all these issues were part of their lives too.” (Jaffe, Foreword to 2005 edition, viii.)

[9] Carol Burnett’s 1975 sketch “The Other Secretary” takes on the competition between secretary and wife: “You’ve been taking his dictation, haven’t you? Haven’t you?! How long has he been giving it to you?!” (Carol Burnett Show, Season 8, Episode 15.)  

[10] This image of Sholes (1819 – 1890) is included in The Story of the Typewriter: 1873-1923 (Herkimer , NY: Herkimer County Historical Society, 1923), which was published on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the invention of the typewriter. The cover of the publication displays another striking image of a goddess-like woman towering over a city and laborers holding a divine typewriter. Like other sources, this volume asserts that the typewriter offered economic advantage to women. Chapter 8, “How Women Achieved Economic Emancipation Through the Writing Machine,” notes, 

The movement that we know by the name of “feminism” is undoubtedly the most significant and important social evolution of our time. The aims and aspirations behind this great movement need not detain us. Suffice it is to say that, like all great social movements, its cause and its aim have been primarily economic. What is known as “sex-emancipation” might almost be translated to read “economic emancipation”; at any rate it could only be attained through one means, namely, equal economic opportunity, and such opportunity could never have been won by mere statute or enactment. Before the aims of “feminism” could be achieved it was necessary that women should find and make this opportunity, and they found it in the writing machine.

[11] Martin Levin, “Three Noses for Trouble.”

[12] In Rona Jaffe’s novel, the hierarchy is demonstrated explicitly, in the moment when Caroline explores the office before anyone else arrives: “She looked into several of the offices and saw that they seemed to progress in order of the occupant’s importance from small tile-floored cubicles with two desks, to larger ones with one desk, and finally to two large offices with carpet on the floor, leather lounging chairs,  and wood-paneled walls” (Jaffe, Everything, 2005 edition, p. 2).

[13] There is much more to say about sound in this film. The score includes an opening song by Alfred Newman with lyrics by Sammy Cahn and performed by Johnny Mathis, which is repeated and varied in instrumental settings throughout the film. The mix of the score, the carefully controlled typing-pool sounds, and the diegetic sounds of the city complicates the presentation of the love/labor conflict. 

The “typing track” and its alternation with silence is used cannily to show both Caroline’s ascent and the softening of Miss Farrow’s attitude. It also replicates the male/female division on another level: while the girls are subject to sexualization from their male superiors, their female superior (Miss Farrow) refers, every time she is in private with one of the secretaries, to the status of women or the relations between men and women, albeit not necessarily in a benign way. Both she and Caroline, in different ways, show the change in their relationships to male executives when the typewriters are quiet and they are in private. Both are portrayed sympathetically; neither is idealized.

[14] In Mike’s first appearance, he disrupts Caroline’s work. He enters the office, drinks from the water fountain (to treat his daily hangover, we will quickly learn), stops, and stares silently at Caroline as she undergoes her typing test. She is intruded upon as she completes the test that will determine whether or not she is hired.

[15] “In a lovelorn typing pool, ambitious Caroline (Hope Lange), innocent April (Diane Baker), and glamorous Gregg (early supermodel Suzy Parker) are all felled by the cads they love. The movie is about as sexist as you can get on both sides, to an almost absurd (and campy) level: There’s only one exception to a parade of male leads who may or may not be married and are just out to get a little action on the side.” (Gwen Inhat, The Best Of Everything Offers a Valuable Glance at Postwar Office Romance,” AV Club, July 29, 2016.)



This piece is a contribution to the STSC Symposium, a monthly set-theme collaboration between STSC writers. The topic for this upcoming issue is “Home.”

“How long are you home for?” 

The question comes from someone I have just met. It is only my second time on this remote rural island, and I am just getting my bearings, but she refers to “home” as if I have always lived here too. I am touched by her warmth, but it’s not really about me. To her, the place we are standing is the center, and everywhere else stands in relationship to it. To her, I am not “visiting”; I am not simply “here” in this spot. I am not “on a trip.” I am “home.” 

At least, this is the impression I get. But I am new here, so perhaps I am making this up. I am “from away,” as people sometimes say.1 But here does feel like a center. It’s easy to envy people’s feeling of rootedness. Being here means being away from the fancy college town where I spend most of my time. I don’t miss it.

I would not say I am “home,” ever, really, whether I am talking about here or there or someplace I left behind in the past. I feel distant from this word and seldom use it. I can’t quite pronounce the words “at home” when I refer to the fancy college town. A statement as simple as “at home, the traffic is brutal,” or, “at home, we call it ‘the shore’,” feels like a misrepresentation. I usually stop myself before I say it, and instead I name the town or the state I live in, more generically and antiseptically. I do not claim these places as my own. They are more like GPS locations with user histories.


In an online session, a woman I admire affects the accent of the region where I grew up. She is playing around, saying something like “I am having a hahd time finding the pay-pah.” It is not clear why she is doing this all of a sudden.

It’s always unsettling to hear such a cartoonish rendition of these sounds. They have significance and history to me; they bring rich and painful memories. They may seem like a costume, available to anyone to put on for fun. But these sounds can also be torn off. Long ago, I lost my accent. When I moved away, people could not understand me. In response, I learned to speak “normally.” I still get confused saying “Marlborough” though.2

This accent is often imitated, badly. Impersonators are so obsessed with leaving out the “r” that they get the vowels all wrong. 

This way of speaking has class associations, of the lower variety. Think Laura Linney in Mystic River.

Whether or not my friend means to emphasize this, I cringe when I hear the caricature, as if my schoolmates and cousins are being mocked.


Away again. On the island, they seem to delight in pronouncing the “r”—or more accurately, I delight in hearing what is ordinary to them. I linger in the garden, eating a lemon bar. I drink in all those consonants I missed growing up, and I hear them seeping into my own sentences. I wonder if it might sound like I am imitating someone else’s accent.

I call the island Brigadoon, after the magical town that seems to exist outside of time. But the thing is, real people live real lives here, every day—not just one day a century, and not for the consumption of an audience. This is not a movie.

I call the island The Land Without Latte, my tongue in my cheek, I insist. But then a café opens that does make latte, and I am disappointed. My scenery is smudged.

Back in the fancy college town, which is located in the most densely populated state, I can order sashimi or falafel, ma po tofu or tandoori chicken, kale salad or martini shrimp—or even a cheese steak from the place down the road that’s been there forever.

On the island, for amusement, I log into GrubHub, and the app reports, “Sorry, no results were found. We’ll notify you when restaurants become available in your area.”

However, on the last day of the season, a neighbor brings three lobsters, and as we are cooking them, someone else shows up and interrupts the lobsters with a bucket of crabs. 

The island also offers pie made of moose, deep-fried pepperoni, and a sort of spiced meat sandwich, with condensed milk sauce, that somehow got here from Turkey. And oatcakes. There is something called “bed lunch,” which involves neither bed nor lunch—not in my understanding of those words, anyway.

It’s easy to wax poetic about the island, but I often think, the upside is that people have to rely on one another, and the downside is that people have to rely on one another.

Sometimes, to avoid getting carried away, I silently list of all the magical elements to myself and then make myself continue on to remember, “and then there is the occasional vigilante murder.” But I do not say that to anyone else, only to myself. It’s not my story to tell. Sensational, cute headlines by reporters from cities far away were rightly criticized for being crass. It’s not a movie, though it will be soon.3

Alienation is not sophistication. Not necessarily.  Sometimes it is just alienation.


“I lived in New York!”

[Spoiler alert! This is much funnier onscreen; in fact, it is only funny onscreen. Please watch it!]

This is the character Britta on the satirical television show called Community, set in Greendale Community College in Colorado, boasting (again) about her (flimsy) Manhattan credentials. In a running gag, she repeatedly invokes a tenuous connection to the city to prove her worldliness.

But her naïveté is exposed yet again. When she brings in a baker’s dozen of what she calls “baggels,” her classmates object and correct, informing her that the word she means to say is pronounced “bagel.” Undeterred, she insists, “I lived in New York. I know what a baggel is.”

The satire is as intricate and knowing as anything performed Lincoln Center, made even more delicious by the legend that the show’s creator pronounced the word “baggel” himself, before he ever heard it spoken aloud.

Note the slipperiness of “lived in.” Not “I am from New York,” or “I spent x number of years in New York.” She grasps at a prestige that is not rightly hers.

In Sweet Home Alabama, Melanie does actually live in New York, where she has achieved great success. However, she has to return to the town where she grew up in order to take care of unfinished business. Often, female characters who go back where they came from—“home”?—are subjected to domestication or suffering: they need to be “corrected” somehow. One character has to regain the warm-heartedness she lost in the big city and stop wearing black all the time. Another comes home to fulfill a family obligation, which entails revisiting childhood trauma. Sometimes there is a twist, and the worlds get blurred, or the character solves a murder.

Roger Ebert is “tired of the premise” of Sweet Home Alabama. He asks, “Isn’t it time for the movies to reflect reality and show the Melanies of the world fleeing to New York as fast as they can?” The artifice of the rural, modest, unpretentious place—whatever the details of the plot—is ripe for revision:

The fact is that few people in Hollywood have voluntarily gone home again since William Faulkner fled to Mississippi. The screenwriters who retail the mirage of small towns are relieved to have escaped them. I await a movie where a New Yorker tries moving to a small town and finds that it just doesn’t reflect his warm-hearted big city values.4

Home, when rural or socioeconomically modest, brings up shame and cheap shoes. In The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter luxuriates in calling his  adversary, FBI Agent Clarice Starling, a “rube.” He’s superior, whether it’s due to being a psychiatrist or a murderer or both.


Here and there. Or vice versa.

“She divides her time between Hudson and New York.” 

“He divides his time between New York and Los Angeles.” 

Once, in a clothing store on the Upper West Side, I heard a customer say, “I’ll wear sleeveless upstate, but not in Manhattan.” 

I never hear anyone say, “I divide my time between Youngstown and Cleveland.” 

What does it mean to “divide time”? What else gets split up?


The island of Manhattan comprises about 23 square miles. My magical island of Brigadoon takes up about 17. They are of comparable size, geographically. 

If I were to take the population of the rural island and multiply it by 1064, it would have the same population density as Manhattan.

There is more space here. But many people clear out, sometimes because they want to escape to Seventh Avenue, like Melanie. There is a long history, though, of going to the city, or all the way out West, in order to find work where it can be had. It seems that part of being home is feeling the absence of those who have left, and wondering  whether one will need to go elsewhere in order to make a living. Knowing that the roots could be torn out at any time. Away is always here. 

There are several local songs about departure. One of them, in the words of someone who has reluctantly left, ends, “Whenever a fiddler rosins a bow, my first and last thoughts are of home.” Whenever anyone sings this song, the crowd joins in and sings along in harmony. Most everyone knows the song and the real-life story it portrays. It is startling and moving to hear such groundedness and such community. I can’t hear this song without a tear, even though I only know the stories second-hand.5


There is a housing shortage on the island—in fact, throughout the region. It is a seller’s market for the first time anyone can remember, and prices rise suddenly, taking even modest properties out of reach. People are sleeping in tents. The weather turns cold. Experts say the province needs 50,000 additional units within the next eight years. Even those who have financial means are out of luck, because the inventory is so low.

Real estate listings used to be informal and minimal, geared toward the local population who know their way around the island. Now, glossy advertisements aim to entice buyers to relocate from faraway cities, touting the beauty of the landscape to those who are not used to shoveling or mowing or washing their own electric cars. Members of the laptop class have become accustomed to working remotely, and they want to keep doing so. They want to work even more remotely, way out here in Brigadoon.

(I am a member of the laptop class.)


What would it be like to be rooted in a place that was not defined by being away from another place? 

What would it be like to end up where you started out, to stay put, even? 

What would it be like to swim in experience, rather than discover it or compare it or escape to it? To stop feeling the distance between “here” and “there”?


In classical music theory, “home” is another word for “tonic.” It is also called the “center.” These terms all describe the sounds that are shaped to seem fundamental, stable, desirable, and satisfying. However, the idea of the “center” shifts from piece to piece and over the centuries. It is not one thing, not one place, and not always secure: challenges and subversion are part of the deal. 

We can only know here if we know away. (In classical music, anyway. A lot of compelling music sticks around to explore home, or wanders without such a feeling of obligation to return to what is known.) Much—most—classical music begins “here,” on the tonic, only to move “away,” and then return “home.” But the ending is most crucial. In medieval plainchant, the “final,” the place where the devotional sung melody ends, gives the mode its identity, letting us know what other chants it claims as family. The ingredients alone are not enough; they need to be arranged through time and space in a way that we can place. 

Later idioms of classical music, more likely to be secular, introduce more movement, manipulation, and individuation. The music knows that we know the arrival is coming. A composer teases the ear, wandering and interrupting and withholding the resolution. Tension and release drive toward completion, closure, and, ultimately, silence. Home is where the music goes to die.



  1. For the last ten years, I have heard that outsiders are referred to “Come From Away,” or even “CFA,” but it is only outsiders I have heard refer to outsiders that way. “From away” does come up. The phrase “Come From Away” is in use though, as evidenced by the 2013 musical of the same name, which concerns the unplanned stopovers of dozens of planes in Gander, Newfoundland in the wake of the September 11 attacks. 
  2. MSNBC newscaster Lawrence O’Donnell reports that he grew up in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Every so often, he deliberately drops an “r,” such as when he refers to the name of former Boston Mayor “Marty Walsh.” For those of us from the area, it can feel pretentious or artificial not to pronounce certain words (names especially?) that way. On a few occasions I have heard O’Donnell’s accent emerge in a way that seems accidental. Interestingly, he has also referred to pronouncing words “wrong” in the past, although he was simply referring to delivering them in an accent. 
  3. This involves a 2013 murder case that took place in the fishing community of Petit-de-Grat, Nova Scotia. In his 2020 posthumously published book, Blood in the Water: A True Story of Revenge in the Maritimes, Silver Donald Cameron addresses the ways in which the events were sensationalized and (my words) packaged for an audience.  He writes: “The phrase ‘murder for lobster’ will stick to this case like a burr to sheepskin. It will be in headlines and stories all over the world.” (Silver Donald Cameron, Blood in the Water: A True Story of Revenge in the Maritimes, Viking/Penguin Canada, 2020). Sharon Montgomery-Dupe’s article in Saltwire discusses the sensitive issues raised by reporting on, researching, and writing about the case. In a sterling example of the Streisand Effect, this and other articles include the phrase “murder for lobster” even as they strive to combat the sensationalism.
  4. Roger Ebert, Review of “Sweet Home Alabama,” September 27, 2002.
  5. The song is “Heading for Halifax,” composed by Alistair MacDonald, probably in the 1970s.