Monday, April 25, 2011

Book Club: A New England Boyhood

Edward Everett Hale statue, Public Garden (photo by Mr Ducke, Flickr).

Somewhere in my online digging, I found the book A New England Girlhood, by Lucy Larcom. It is an autobiography that gives us a window into life in 19th Century Massachusetts. After the success of New England Girlhood, minister, philanthropist and author Edward Everett Hale was asked to pen a similar book, and he complied with A New England Boyhood.

Unlike Larcom, who had grown up on the north shore, and worked in the Merrimack river mills, Hale was the son of a Boston newspaper publisher and railroad advocate/entrepreneur. On his father's side he was related to Revolutionary War figure Nathan Hale, and on his mother's to Edward Everett, a leading politician and orator of mid-19th Century Massachusetts. As a side note, it was Everett who gave the two hour speech at Gettysburg that preceded Lincoln's two minute address.

I wouldn't read this book from front to back, but it's nice to browse and pick out the interesting bits. In Hale's childhood - the 1830s - there were still yards with gardens in what is now the downtown commercial district. His description of boys playing on Boston Common, the signs hanging from the taverns, and Papanti the famous dance master are the kind of eclectic memories that give a taste for life in antebellum Boston as seen through a boy's eyes. Don't expect a systematic exposition of Boston life - this is one old man's memories, and those of an exceptional man at that.

While you are at it, it would be worth your while to look into Hale's adult career as well, if only in the summary version. He was one of the great men of his age - the author of A Man Without a Country, among many other books - and a leading voice for philanthropy and social causes. Many of the post-Civil War social institutions founded in Boston were based on his writings, and his statue stands in the Public Garden with good reason. Today, his name is little more than vaguely familiar to most, but he deserved his reputation as one of the great men of his age.

A New England Boyhood - free download, Google Books.

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