Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Book Review: Imagining Boston: A Literary Landscape

In Imagining Boston, author Shaun O'Connell provides a survey of the best known authors who came from Boston, spent time in Boston, or lived anywhere in the general vicinity while they did their writing. Which means that the connection to Boston in the writing is sometimes rather tangential. Then again, books by Bostonians about Boston would make a quick read. The usual suspects of the first half of the 19th Century are here - Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, etc. If the book stopped there, it would have covered material already mined over many times. Luckily, we get authors of 20th Century cultural history references, like Martin Green, Dennis P. Ryan and Gary Willis, and autobiography from Theodore H. While and Charles Angoff. And new to me, the edited diaries of the lunatic Arthur C. Inman. For that reference alone, this book was worth reading.

Imagining Boston

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Once Upon A Time On Dover Street

I've had an eye out for Boston-themed poetry for a while now, and just came upon a keeper in the 1936 anthology Best Loved Poems of the American People, edited by Hazel Kellerman, editor of the Queries and Answers page of the New York Times Book Review for 15 years. Ms Kellerman received inquiries for favorite poems over the years, and collected them in this volume.

When I saw Dover street in the first line of this poem, I knew I had to look. The name of the poet was not familiar to me, but many if not most of the poems in the collection were not written by 'name' poets, and would never be anthologized today. In fact, the book is full of the kind of verse one would expect from the popular culture of the time - inspirational, patriotic, motherhood, humor, etc. It was when I looked up the author's name that things got interesting.

James Norman Hall was born in Iowa in 1887, and graduated from Grinnell College in 1910. He then moved to Boston to get a Master's degree in writing at Harvard. In England at the start of World War I, Hall enlisted in Lord Kitchener's Volunteers. Returning to the States (and Boston), he wrote his first book, Kitchener's Mob, the first pro-British book of the war. After returning to the war and winning the Croix de Guerre, the returned to the United States. In 1920, Hall moved to Tahiti, and with his writing partner, Charles Nordhoff, wrote many books, including Mutiny on the Bounty. Who knew? I'm one of the many people who saw the movie but never read the book.

At some point during his time in Boston, Hall wrote the following poem. A bit of a clunker, no doubt, but I think the plain-spoken language fits the topic.

Eat And Walk
James Norman Hall

There's a three-penny lunch on Dover street
With a cardboard sign in the window: Eat.
Three steps down to the basement room,
Two gas jets in a sea of gloom;
Four-square counter, stove in the center,
Heavy odor of food as you enter;
A kettle of soup as large as a vat,
Potatoes, cabbage, morsels of fat.
Bubbling up in a savory smoke -
Food for the Gods when the Gods are broke.
A wreaked divinity serving it up,
A hunk of bread and a steaming cup;
Three penny each, or two for a nickel,
An extra cent for a relish of pickle.
Slopping it up, no time for the graces -
Why should they come, these men with faces
Gaunt with hunger, battered with weather
In walking the streets for days together?
No delicate sipping, no leisurely talk -
The rule of the place is Eat and Walk.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Link Time: Irish Boston History & Heritage

I just found another Boston history blog that's definitely worth a look: Irish Boston History and Heritage. My own Boston Irish history only goes back one generation - my father's family spent time in East Cambridge before moving across the river.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Book Review: Witches, Rakes and Rogues

If you're interested in Boston's Colonial Era naughtiness, this is the book for you. Salem didn't have all the witches, and adultery, illegitimacy and divorce were not unknown to Boston's Puritans. Mix in swindlers, thieves and fraudsters, and the City on a Hill looks a little less upright. The book does suffer from a lack of documentation - we are going back three hundred years and more. This leaves some of the stories a bit thin. Not what I'd call a thrilling read, but interesting in a mild way.

Witches, Rakes and Rogues

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Book Review: Boston's Cycling Craze, 1880-1900

I read a book on the history of the bicycle last year, and wanted to get into greater detail about cycling in the United States, and especially here in Massachusetts. The title of this book made it seem exactly what I was looking for. Unfortunately, I didn't catch the sub-title: A Story of Race, Sport, and Society. Actually,  with chapters about the bi-racial Kittie Knox, and chapter headings like Women's Cycling Clubs and the Movement to Oust Women from a Boston Club, Ethnic Cycling Stories, and African American Cyclists, this book would be more accurately titled A Progressive Whiggish History of Boston Cycling. And yes, I must confess that when I see the word 'gendered' in print, my sixty year old eyes roll back in my head. I'd love to know what Umberto Eco would do with the semiotics of such language. But that's just me.

If your interest in local history consists of reaching into the past to support your own political/ideological beliefs, and said beliefs are of the left-progressive color, then you should enjoy this book. It seems well documented, although it's not particularly systematic in its approach. That being said, history by anecdote is quite popular these days, so give it a try.

If, after I find a good book on the cycling craze of the late 19th century with a focus on Massachusetts, I want to look further into the subject, I'll come back to this book. The problem I have with it is no doubt the fault of the editor or marketing manager, not the author. The main title is simply deceptive, and led me to disappointment.

Boston's Cycling Craze, 1880-1900 

Friday, February 13, 2015

Book Review: King Philip's War

During some recent reading, I was reminded that I had little or no knowledge of the period and events known as King Philip's War, so I with this book to correct my ignorance. The book is structured into three sections. The first is a concise history of the events leading up to and including the war itself. Second is a guide to locations where various events occurred. The third gives excerpts from contemporary descriptions of the events, written by those who were there.

The closest Indian raids got to Boston were attacks on Braintree, Hingham and Sudbury. So why review this book on a Boston-centric blog? Both because Boston men fought in various militias, and because Indians were brought to Boston and executed on Boston Common. And as a final surprise to me, the author states that men mustered and trained on the Dedham Plain - that being the same site in today's Readville where the famous black 54th Regiment trained for the Civil War.

Although King Philip's War didn't reach Boston otherwise, it did scare the bejesus out of residents of Boston, Roxbury and other surrounding communities, and its outcome ended the need to deal with the native peoples in the area permanently. Recommended for those who want to know about the history of Massachusetts beyond the Tea Party and Paul Revere.

King Philip's War

Friday, January 30, 2015

Book Review: Between Two Worlds How the English Became Americans

My grasp on early Boston history is probably representative of that of many people: the Puritans arrive in 1630, and then the Tea Party happens. I've often wanted to take the time to increase my knowledge on the subject, and this book gave me the opportunity to do so. The author covers New England, Virginia and the British Caribbean islands, but New England gets the greater amount of content.

Malcolm Gaskill emphasizes the connections between New England and Old England - the religious and political controversies shared across the Atlantic. And in New England, the conflict between English and Natives is well laid out. And finally, at the end of the time period covered, the Salem Witch Trials are put into context.

This book gets one of my rare 'Buy' recommendations - it's one for the bookshelf.

Between Two Worlds

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Book Review: The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America's First Subway

A book about the building of Boston's subway? Sounds cool. Unfortunately, this book isn't the one we've been waiting for. When three of five praising blurbs on the back cover are from Boston Globe colleagues, you have reason to be skeptical. And sure enough, this book does not pay off it's title.

The 'race' - between New York and Boston to build the first subway in the country - turns out never to have happened. Both cities saw the benefits of getting streetcars off their gridlocked roads. The author does try to connect the two efforts by virtue of the efforts of the Whitney brothers, one in each city. Except that they seem to have had little contact during the relevant period. And more importantly because Henry - Boston's Whitney - ended up retiring from his West End Railway Company before Boston build it's subway.

There is a photo section in this book, but you can see much more today on the Internet with a few keystrokes. I was surprised by the absence of streetcar line maps - one would have made the need for a subway clearer in one view.

I get the sense that this book started as an effort to write about the opening of Boston's first subway, and got extended to the New York/Boston thing by an editor wanting a larger possible market for sales. As the author points out, there are already books about the New York system, so it's a shame that this effort didn't end up Boston-centric.

If you know nothing of the building of Boston's subway, or at least the opening of the first section, which is all that's covered here, this book is worth a look. I'd get it at the library.

The Race Underground