2. Nativism weds localism

These online columns,  always  sourced but never burdened with what poet David McCord used to call foot and note disease,  and never peer reviewed,  are the latest iteration of DSTs column on WGBH,  Boston’s PBS outlet,  for Christopher Lydon’s Ten O’Clock News.  The column moved in the the 1990s to the Boston Phoenix (as Skyline,  so named by editor Peter Kadzis)  and today appears on the BBH website,  modeled after the George Mason University Center for History and New Media blogs.  CONTENTS THIS BLOG-  What’s in a Name?  —  The UN Search for the Capital of the World  —  Southie  (or is it Cambridge?)  is my home town  —  Localist worldviews 

The mother city of a great civilization should not be surprised to get hate mail.  Why Boston,  which is —  never mind being America’s intelectual capital  —  the nations fourth largest economy  (exceeded only by New York,  Los Angeles and Chicago)  and the 23rd largest in the world according to The New York Times  (larger than Sweden’s)  —  should receive the worst of that hate mail from its own  “Boston-phobic”  suburbs is hard to explain.  (The term  “Boston-phobic”,  by the way,  is not mine,  but city planner James O’Connell’s.)

Certainly the heart of  the problem is the animosity between what  nearly three quarters of a century ago Martin Wagner called  —  to repeat the so pregnant archaeological term  —  “the mother city of Greater Boston”  (the City of Boston)   and its long-standing suburbs and satelite states and cities.

It is,  historically,  a problem of many years.  At a time when  “the cities of New York and Chicago”,  for instance,  in A.  F.  Weber’s only half jesting comment of 1898,  were about to  “go to war to decide which shall annex Texas”,  Boston was still trying vainly to annex Cambridge,  about the issue of which the Times can be forgiven its optimism, for in a very real sense the history of city and suburb in Boston is no more complicated than anywhere else.  Take Cambridge,  for instance.  Just as Harvard College was founded in Boston in the 1600s as one of its first priorities,  so the Puritan capital,  Harvard professor John Coolidge has written,  “created” a   suitably removed  and cloistered township for it that would become Boston’s  “academic suburb”,  as Henry James called it.  That  things rapidly became somewhat more complicated,  however,  is  indicated by the fact that Quincy,  another close in satelite of ancient stature,  suffered its whole meaning to be summed up by perhaps America’s greatest historian still,  Henry Adams,   a hundred or so years ago in his Education,  as about  “resistance to Boston” .

My own view is that this has mostly to do with with what T.  S.  Eliot called  “the Boston doubt”;  really the supreme marker of a center of civilization :  while on the one hand it will be preety sure of itself,  on the other its vitaity  —  its virility,  indeed  —  is such that it needs to breed,  to nurture and even to thrive upon more critics than admirers,  both in some sense lovers;  “visitors”   in the old academical sense;  examiners.

Boston has rejoiced in many: George Santayana and Robert Lowell as famously as Adams and Eliot.  But their testimony often confuses more people than it enlightens,  a confusion some have claimed to see in the tensions they imagine in the subtitle of this site, for example,  of which I am founder    —  “Boston -Centric Global Studies”.  (I sometimes wonder if my colleague and mentor in this,  MIT professor Mark Jarzombek,  he of  “Global architecture”,  is not the only other person who gets it.)  Similarly,  with  last months blog on Nativism.  Doubtless too with  this months on localism.  Yet both  habits must be revised I believe if we are to effectively redefine Bostonian.


Bostonians were Bostoners first.  I suppose I should have known this,  but didn’t actually untill research in an earlier period than I am used to turned up this nomenclature in a state paper of 1677 wherein the King’s Council in London,  addressing the matter of  “the Government of New England”,  lamented various   “misdemeanors of the Bostoners”.  Not for the last time I thought,  and then thought too that was just the sort of thing   —  Bostoners  —  that Elliott Perkins would have known.

Lest I be misunderstood I should say here that though my work has been more often than not compared by critics to that of Samuel Eliot Morison,  master of narrative history,  my uber historian,  in fact,  is Bernard Bailyn,  he of  “Atlantuc history”  and  “analysis and interpretation”,  himself famously an examiner of the American Revolution.  I did,  however,  know Morison slightly,  when he was a very old man and I was a very young one,  and because I particularly liked his autobiographical  One Boy’s Boston,  I am going to follow his example here and pick up now another boy’s tale from last time,  where we left young Douglass at Harvard blissfully being taught and mentored by the likes of Willard van Quine,  Wilbur  “Kitch”  Jordan and,  yes,  Elliott Perkins.

Head Tutor of Harvard’s History Department,  Perkins never wrote anything.  But he had tremendous style as mentor and tutor.  Style which disclosed substance.  Once,  for instance,  according to the Keller’s,  asked to report on what contributons to knowledge his department had made  during a year in which he was chair,  he replied.  “Nobody made any,  certainly not the chairman”. Bless the man,  he taught me how to tie a bow tie.

I never go up Hawthorne Street in Cambridge,  where  he and his wife Mary moved after he retired as Master of Lowell House,  or pass the Somerset Club on Beacon Street,  that I don’t see Perkins in his chair,  drink always in hand,  lamenting the passing of the British servant,  one of his favorite themes,  or  protesting  the fact that a professor’s loyalty by my day —  I am Class of 1972  —  was more likely to be to his field much more than to his faculty.  But though he certainly had nativist tendencies,  “Perk”  was no localist.  He cared,  indeed,  too much for Harvard for that.  And Boston too.  He made it perfectly clear to me he had no problem with President Conant’s national and international “outsider”  faculty searches;  only with the necessity for  them in the first place!   For Perkins was no  “stage Brahmin”  (a lovely phrase I owe to John Moffit)  always harking back to some golden age.  Cold Roast Boston did not suffer the mediocre was his point of view.  Another of his favorite themes was what to do with  “lightweights” in the History Department.

Perkins was one of my rewards for choosing Boston and Harvard.  Another was his Senior Tutor at Lowell House, Walter Muir Whitehill, later Director of the Boston Athenaeum when that institution still believed in its mission.  Equally cosmopolitan in his outlook,  Walter had studied Spanish Romanesque scupture at the Courtauld Institute in London,  in which subject he earned his doctorate under Kingsley Porter.  He and his wife Jane continued my mentoring lunches at their picturesque home in North Andover, or in Walter’s case at the Club of Odd Volumes on Beacon Hill,  where he also saw to it that I met David McCord.


It was George Ursul,  a Roumanian-Canadian historian whose protege I like to think I was at Emerson College,  who introduced me to Perkins,  who helped me transfer to Harvard,  at a dinner party at the Beacon Hill house he shared with Dean Robert Pierce,  the Director  (before there were CEO’s!)  of the New England Historic Genealogical Society.  Pierce himself it was who introduced me to my chief architectural mentor,  Daniel Coolidge,  a leading Preservationist who promptly made a modernist of me,   and with whom I co-directed the restoration of the Boston Public Library in the 1980s.  I recall once after a meeting having Dan and BPL Board president Kevin Moloney,  a Boston lawyer who lived in Jamacia Plain, back to my house on Jones Hill in Dorchester for a late supper,  and how excited Dan was.  I discovered why at table when he announced that although he was raised in Belmont and lived on Beacon Hill he was a descendant of the Thomas Jones who had settled Jones Hill in the 1600s.  In fact,  his middle name was Jones.  Dan had, by the way,  known my publisher uncle,  Harrison Hale Schaff,  who though he lived in Dorchester,  kept up the family place in Southborough too.

Now let’s see:  Dorchester,  Beacon Hill,  North Andover,  Belmont,  Jamacia Plain, Southborough. . .  And  for me that was not the half of it.  Add Cambridge, where my father’s family  lived;  Marshfield, where before my parents divorce our summer home was located;  Wellesley, where after it my first boarding school was;  Brookline, where I regularly visited my psychiatrist,  and the Back Bay,  where my mother ended up running New England’s first ECT clinic for a Beacon Street physician,  David Landau,  and where I went to school first at Kingsley,  then Newman and finally Emerson College, and you may begin to get the picture.

Bostonians,  all of us,  whether from Roumania (Ursul) or Oregon (McCord).  And,  whether we lived or worked or played in wherever from North Andover to  Southborough to Jamacia Plain to Marshfield.  And away at the so very anti-American  (but pro-Boston)  diplomatic school I went to in Canada,  I was the kid,  not from Marshfield or Cambridge or Back Bay,  but from Boston


If  New York Times-speak is your standard,  however,  very few of us were Bostonians.  In that lingua franca,  “Cambridge, MA.”  is Harvard generally or MIT;  “Waltham, MA.” is Brandeis University;  “Newton, MA.”  is Boston College;  “Medford, MA.”  is Tufts University,  and because Boston University and Harvard Medical and Business Schools  are among the few major schools actually based within the official city limits of the core city,  these are the only ones whose by-line is “Boston”  —  no state added;  that’s also according to the Times’s stylebook.

If this was a  warplan  the strategy  of  “divide and conquer”  could not be clearer,  and as economists tell  us constantly something like that goes on all the time between cities and states,   so too would be the fact that Boston was not winning.  In fact,  in more than one such contest Boston has lost the game  in the discourse  in which this terminology  is controlling.  In  1945,  for instance,  in the competition  for the United Nations World Headquarters,  which was at first conceived as standing on its own,  close to but somewhat apart from a major city;  a program that seemed tailor-made for Boston,   of all the leading cities considered the one,  historically,  with perhaps the most “nearby” to offer.

Global Boston at once seized the day.  “The prospect that the capital of the world might be cited in their region energized New Englanders”,  according to historian Charlene Mires,  and Global Boston spokesmen in their London presentations included the president of MIT,  the editor of The Christian Science Monitor and the Dean of Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Diplomacy.  In a radio address given before leaving for London,  Massachusetts’ governor argued:  yes,  of course,  that  “the very names of Boston and of Massachusetts are symbolic of Man’s quest for liberty based on law and for peace based on justice . . . .the basic ideals of the United Nations”,  but the lobbying groups presentation to the UN Site Selection Committee,  however,  invoked not only Boston’s globalist but also its localist sensibility, emphasizing  a  “celebrat[ion of] Greater Boston as a region of 152 separate communities,  each boasting its own historical and political traditions.”

Nor,  it would seem,  was  this pitch without effect.  “By a rapid process of elimination . . . the UN”,  according to Mires,  “set its sights on New England and the upper-mid-Atlantic . . . . specifically,  the organization would search for a  big site within sixty miles of  Boston or eighty miles of New York”.

All Boston’s 100 plus cities and towns,  however,  soon got bogged down in controversary about various and sundry pros and cons of the matter.  New York,  on the other hand,  entirely unified in its pitch from the beginning,  moved decisively at the end as well and abruptly won the day,  New Yorkers tipping the scales in their favor by  “present[ing] an unexpected but expedient solution”  in the Rockefeller family’s offer of an 8.5 million dollar site in Manhattan.  In a matter of days the prolonged search for a new capital of the world slipped right out of Boston’s grasp and achieved a finale that left much to be desired for the UN,  never mind Bostonians.  Miers points out that Boston benefited in that the search did indeed highlight anew in the post-World War II era  “a revealing record of the region’s position in the world”.   But the lack of a  “coherent unity of feeling”  on the part of Bostonians had been what lost the day.  Presumably that too was widely revealing.

Small matter to many.  Local Boston did not want the UN anyway;  any more than Cambridge in later years would want the Kennedy Library or South Boston the New England Patriots footbal stadium.  No more,  of course,  did local New York,  which never ceases still to complain of the traffic great events at  the UN  generates.  But notice the psychology of the thing.  It is endowments like the United Nations,  or the Kennedy Library,  that make great cities —  not a lack of traffic!  Notice too that by 1940,  after  decades of political warfare and stalemate between Yankee and Irish  Boston,  imagining Boston as the capital of the world —  which in the post Civil  Brahmin ascendency  was a  commonplace —  was rather a stretch. 


An interesting comparison to my family musings at the start of this blog are Marion Schlessinger  Cannon’s  memoirs,  Snatched from Oblivion,  wherin she recounts charmingly her and her siblings upbringing in a house her mother and father shared with two maiden aunts,  career women,  and assorted maids.

All the adults in this household except the stay-at-home wife and mother so inevitable before World War II,  were holders of big leadership jobs in Downtown Boston hospitals,  medical schools  and department stores,  near to which in inner city neighborhoods also lived the servants who commuted daily to the Cannon House.  However,  despite that fact and the additional fact that the happiest childhood memories of the children centered on Downtown Boston movie palaces every Saturday (replaced in adulthood by the weekly concerts of the Boston Symphony Orchestra) on the back cover of Snatched from Oblivion  it is not at all described as a Boston memoir. Because they all went home to sleep every night in Cambridge,  it is called “a Cambridge memoir”.

It is a perfect anecdotal example of  what James O’Connell,  he of  “Boston-phobic  suburbs”,  calls the Boston region’s  “intense localism”;  whereby Bostonians  —  though of course these readers of the Times might not have called themselves that  —  “work,  shop and seek entertainment in Boston,  [yet] conceive of themselves as  ‘living’ in Belmont,  Wellesley or Norwood”.

Or South Boston!   Make no mistake about the fact that the snobbery of  patrician Old  Cambridge —  seen lately,  for example,  when Harvard Law  School protested a proposed move from Harvard’s Cambridge to Allston campus,  as if the Business School was not a fit neighbor  —    is more than matched by the reverse snobbery of working  class South Boston.  Thomas O’Connor,  a native of  “Southie”,  but also a very good historian,  could not help but notice this in his history of this area,  where he observed  “a neighborhood disposition that was already definitely parochial and often xenophobic.”  Yet the power of the spell was clear in the publisher’s choice of title for O’Connor’s book, South Boston: the History of My Hometown,  inspired doubtless by a popular song of that name.  Yet while Dorchester,  which South Boston was originally a part of,  was indeed a town once —  famously so as the site of the first town meeting in New England —  South Boston never achieved township status.  Like Cameot,  however —  or Cambridge —  it achieved somehow the illusion  it sought and that was enough.  Just as all Harvard Law Schools great figures were Boston Brahmins,  so were all South Boston’s historically important leaders all players on the city-wide Boston stage,  but never matter,  “Southie”  (or is it Cambridge?)  is my home town.

This was an important part of the background to the furious violence which the nation saw erupt in South Boston over the Bussing crisis that arose in the Desegregation wars.  But few noticed that the fracas that erripted decades later over the attempt to locate a football stadium on the South Boston waterfront was repeatedly compared by all observers as equally as intense as the busing wars.  “This epic battle  over the future of Boston’s waterfront cut straight to the core of . . . the politics of parochialism”,  The Boston Globe trumpeted,  “pitting one clan against another and the love of a good fight.”

Those who detect anti-Irish overtones in that report would do well to recall that the Boston Brahmins of Cambridge’s Tory Row  (led by a sister of the then Bank of Boston CEO)  were hardly less intense and obdurate in their opposition to the Kennedy Library,  and for many of the same reasons.  Traffic again.


New England localism does not quite approach what Mario Blaser calls  “the genocidal localism” of Kosovo or Indonesia,  but Joel Kotkin,  significntly in The City: A Global History,  is not wrong to claim that  “localism…[is] a an historic American tradition that sees society’s smaller units as vital and the proper focus of most people’s lives.”  Equally significant  is the title of Harry Stout’s The New England Soul,  where he points to its origin in the  “militantly localistic”  basis of the polity of the Congregational Church.

Larger claims come to the fore in an eloquent essay of literary historian Shaun O’Connell,  who quotes Robert Frost,  for example, on place  —  real place,  not last week’s “country of the mind”  —  and plunges right to the heart of he subject in his discussin of the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne himself.

Much more than Poe,  I think,  Hawthorne is Boston’s Dostoevsky.  Hawthorne,  indeed,  on a snowy dark late winter afternoon on Boston’s narrow twisty downtown streets can still be felt and in  just the same way one imagines the Russian still haunting the canals of his capital,  the Hawthorne of St.  Petersburg.  Henry James found Hawthorne  “intensely local”,  and   O’Connell tells us  Hawthorne cared very little even for  “momentous world events”,  his  “narrowing sense of place”  making him indifferent even to Lincoln’s insistance on preserving th Union in the Civil War.  Hawthorne took the attitude that whatever the war’s outcome,  New England would remain  “preety much the same sort of place as heretofore”;  he felt,  O’Connell says,  that   “New England might be a nation by  itself.”

No surprise there. In his deed of gift for the Lowell Institute  John Lowell referred to New England quite matter of factly as  “my nation”.   As much a nation as Germany,  and far older,  Harvard president Charles Eliot lectured Prince Henry of Prussia,  the brother of the German Kaiser,  in Boston on a state visit in 1902.  Eliot’s particular point was the glory of the Massachusetts constitution,  still the oldest in the world in use,  and which he all but told the prince was not only older than the German Empire but would likely survive the reign of the Imperial dynasty.  Which,  of course,  it has.  Eliot,  one has to say,  would not have “lost” Boston  the United Nations!

And Hawthorne?  Wrong,  surely,  in that Boston without the Abolitionists would not at all be the same place as hitherto.  And the localist perspective?  Long before Saul Steinberg’s notorious New Yorker cover of 1976 of the world as seen from Ninth Avenue,  there was his probable inspiration,  the maps of  Boston and New York  by Daniel  K.  Wallingford.  Needless to say New York does not stand out on Boston’s map;  nor Boston on New York’s,  and the view of the rest of the world puts one in mind of the old Beacon Street rejoinder to being introduced to someone from Ohio:  “in Boston we pronounce it Iowa.”

Perhaps that’s why the Boston map makes up the front endpieces of Cleveland Amory’s The Proper Bostonians,  which is an excellent lead in to next weeks blog:  Movable Boundaries.


S  O  U  R  C  E  S

Adams, Henry. THE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS (Penguin) 1995

Amory,Cleveland. THE PROPER BOSTONIANS (Parnassus 1984 ed)

[Bostoners]  “Concerning Misdemeanors of the Bostoners” in EDWARD RANDOLPH l676-1705 (Colonia Society of Massachusetts) 1898

Blazer, Mario, et al.IN THE WAY OF DEVELOPMENT (2004)

Cannon, Elizabeth S. SNATCHED FROM OBLIVION  Little, Brown) 1997

[Cambridge annexation] “Boston’s Annexation Schemes”, NEW YORK TIMES  (27 March 1892)

Eliot, Charles W.  “Welcome to Proince Henry of Prussia”, Boston, 6 March 1902, in O’Neill, J. M.  MODERN SHORT SPEECHES  (Century)  1923

Keller, Morton and Phyliss. MAKING HARVARD MODERN (Oxford) 2001

Kotin, Joel.  THE CITY A  GLOBAL HISTORY (Modern Library) 2001

Mires,Charene.  “The Lure of New England and the Search for the Capital of the World”, NEW ENGLAND QUARTERLY  (March 2006)

O”Connell, James. “Thinking Like a Regio” in GOVERNING GREATER BOSTON (Harvard/Rappaport)  2002

O’Connell, Shaun.  “Important Places”  (unpub. MS)  2005

O’Connor, Thomas.  SOUTH BOSTON MY HOME TOWN (Northeastern) 1988

[South Boston] Charles Sennet, Tina Cassidy “How Kraft” BOSTON GLOBE (23 Feb 1987)

Stout, Harry.THE NEW ENGLAND SOUL (Oxford) 2000

Wagner, Martin. “American versus German City Planning” in JOURNAL OF PUBLIC UTILITY ECONOMICS (Nov. 1946)

Weber, A. F. “Suburban Annexations” NORTH AMERICAN REVIEW (May 1898)





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