In his new book on the history of New England eccentrics, University of Massachusetts folklore professor and Lyme resident Stephen Gencarella set out a few ground rules for who was to be included. One such rule was that no living eccentrics were to be profiled in the collection, Wicked Weird & Wily Yankees: A Celebration of New England’s Eccentrics and Misfits, published last month by Globe Pequot Press. Gencarella made the decision, he writes in the introduction, “as the term may be used to disparage people and harm their livelihood.”
This decision in some ways cuts right to the heart of Gencarella’s project and his method. Just as much as the book is a catalogue of eccentric individuals throughout New England history, the book is about how we think of such characters and the stories we tell about them. How do we treat eccentrics in our midst? What does that say about us as a society? These are the questions asked by folklorists. Rather than a popular history, Gencarella’s book approaches its topic from the point of view of the creation of eccentrics through storytelling, rather than the fact of their existence.
Gencarella, who is also resident folklorist at Essex’s Connecticut River Museum, introduces his book by quoting pioneering Works Progress Administration-era folklorist Benjamin Botkin. “In its insistence on the sacred right of the individual to be a character, New England may have bred eccentrics rather than heroes,” Botkin writes. According to Gencarella, the contrast between the two, eccentrics and heroes, is central to his project. “In folklore,” he says, “hero stories are usually about the restoration of order. … I wanted to give some attention to people who inject some chaos back into the mix.”
While the book tackles eccentrics from across New England, Connecticut readers will find much here that arises within our borders. There is the Leather Man, the legendary wanderer who walked a 365-mile loop between the Connecticut and Hudson rivers, sleeping in the woods and clad all in leather. Gencarella takes us through contemporary newspaper reports of radical hospitality and of townsfolk — today we might call them “normies” — encountering him with a gentle fascination. Along with a fellow wanderer — known as the Old Darned Man, who walked his circuit around the northeast corner of Connecticut and western Rhode Island — the two men stand as models for “every situation that calls for the respect of individuals as they travel their own path at their own pace.”
There are also the Smith sisters, Julia and Abby of Glastonbury, famed antislavery crusaders and early suffragists, whose “appearance of eccentricity was the result of their living lives of principle,” Gencarella writes.
The Smith sisters were two of the early characters who drew him into the topic. “The way that eccentrics disrupt the idea of the normal inevitably means the idea of the normal shifts,” he says. Let the book be a lesson, then, for any youngster derided as a weirdo or an oddball. Weirdos and oddballs are courageous by definition. “I do think that eccentricity is a gift, a gift that we miss when it is present amongst us,” Gencarella says.
The royalties from the book will go to Connecticut youth education programs, so that we might not miss or deride eccentrics in their early years. By virtue of his training in folklore, Gencarella is encouraging readers who have their own tales of New England eccentrics to reach out to him at email@example.com.