A Writer's Own Dream of America

Edenton, N.C., embodies the past both real and imagined.

By Jan Morris

Barker House, built in 1872

Credit: Jonathan Scheetz

Until recently an ice cream shop near my home in Wales habitually displayed in its window a large volume of the paintings of Norman Rockwell. They turned its pages every now and then to display another picture, but the content never varied much. Year after year that book exhibited to the locals an ideal state of existence: life in small-town America, where kindly countermen in drugstores served enormous sundaes to freckled boys and preternaturally healthy girls, while the adult populace peregrinated in amiable commerce in some adorably unspoiled street outside.

We all knew, of course, that it was fantasy—ice cream men were never so rubicund, those businessmen outside the window could never be so benignly purposeful, and for that matter sundaes were surely never quite so generous. But we looked at those pictures with a willing suspension of disbelief and loved to suppose that there really might be such a municipal Elysium somewhere to the west of us. And marvelous to relate, not long ago I found it—not in its Norman Rockwell, 1950s New England version, but in a style no less emblematically American.

I had never heard of Edenton, on the coast of mainland North Carolina, when, pottering around the South for a few weeks, I noticed its name on the map. I liked the paradisiac sound of it, and I liked the look of its location in Chowan County on the Albemarle Sound. The road that led me there was somewhat dispiriting. It skirted the Great Dismal Swamp and then ran 30 miles or so through fairly loveless cotton country, where scattered white cotton boles along the roadsides suggested to me so many scraps of loutish litter. It was beginning to get dark when I reached the outskirts of the town, the usual muddle of regional Americana, and my heart was sinking a little as I drove into the main street of Victorian shop fronts.