Monday, March 21, 2011

Book Club: Boston Observed

Carl Seaburg's Boston Observed is an illustrated book that was published in 1971. A majority of the illustrations are prints, which allows Seaburg to display scenes unavailable to the photographer. The book is divided into topical chapters, focusing on the harbor, military, lawyers and judges, ministers and religion and the like. You get historical text associated with illustrations, separated by inter-chapter 'interludes:' collections of short passages from contemporary letters, town records, travel diaries, etc. These include John Winthrop's journals, a passage from Dickens' American Notes, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and observations from Friedrich Engels.

Reading a book like this is like walking through a museum. In one room, you stay and linger, in another you pass through quickly. It's definitely worth a look, but as a whole not a lot that really grabs me. The illustrations are all black and white, and the printing isn't up to contemporary snuff, so maybe that fact puts me off just a little. A good library book - I just wouldn't pay for it.

As an addendum, I'll add a personal comment. Every so often through this book on Boston history, the author saw fit to insert his political opinions. Writing in the early 1970s, he drops in a "just as in past wars, so, today, in Viet Nam." I'm not sure if this sort of thing was in the air, or if he just couldn't help himself. I am surprised that his editor let it through, being entirely irrelevant to the text.

The more grating text comes here: "On March 14, 1859, a young Catholic pupil, Thomas Wall, was brutally whipped for half an hour by a bigoted Protestant teacher because he refused to read the Ten Commandments in the Protestant translation,which his father had forbid him to do. When charges were brought against the teacher, the School Committee blandly defended him. A century last such incidents would be repeated with Irish teachers whipping young Negro pupils for equally insane reasons."

Really? I went to those Boston public schools in the years referred to, and I don't remember many Irish teachers, much less half hour whippings of black students. I do, however, remember taking a few whacks of the rattan across my partially-Irish palm from Mr Clement in the sixth grade. This sort of 'make it up to make a point' editorializing is not uncommon, of course, among the 'ends justify the means' crowd. It's just a shame it was allowed to seep into this otherwise perfectly reasonable book. Bigotry in the cause of anti-bigotry is not a virtue.

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