Copley Square, Scollay Square, the polarities of the Boston metropolis. The great New World agora of faith and learning, Boston’s soberly magnificent new metropolitan civic center — MIT, Harvard Medical, Trinity Church, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Boston Public Library — was, in fact, partnered in the same period by the evolution of another quite different metropolitan center: a new adult (as we would call it today) entertainment district the high profile of which has, historically, somewhat overshadowed Dover Street.
One sees this, for instance, in Tufts journalism professor Neil Millers Banned in Boston. An excellent book despite its flaws — the inventor of the term Boston Brahmin, Oliver Wendell Holmes, would certainly not have recognized Godfrey Lowell Cabot as in any sense “the ultimate Brahmin” and, far from having little taste for the work of a parish priest, Phillips Brooks rejoiced in same — Miller’s book pays much more attention to Scollay Square than to Dover Street. TS Eliot, for instance, is claimed as a patron of the ‘Old Howard’ in its burlesque days, which (though the assertion is unsourced) I can well believe. But nothing at all is said of his positive addiction to Dover Street.
The essence of the problem is that wheras Scollay Square had, so to speak, both flash and glam — its vice-ridden core was lent glamor by being hemmed in on three sides by Boston’s dominant financial and business districts and by many of the great hotels and major theaters of Boston’s rialto — Dover Street, though it had if anything much more vice, had much less flash and very little glam. Dover Street, however, was the Boston metropolises underground.
D E S C E N S U S
Am I being too melodramatic? I don’t think so. Consider the terminology of the Reverend P. E. Call, who in behalf of that Downtown Boston powerhouse of the era, the Park Street Church, led the Union Rescue Mission, better known, the Globe reported, as the “Dover Street Mission.” A talk Call gave in the New Hampshire town of Milford in 1913, “The Maze of the Underworld” was headlined in the newspaper “Milford Sees Boston Underworld”, or at least as much of it as could be “illustrated by many scenes thrown on a screen showing the slums and dives” Call was describing.
Now consider the terminology of Eliot scholar Bernard Dick in his essay “The Waste Land: ad Descensus ad Infernos.” Writes Dick: “In myth and fairy tale, the descent to the underworld was the highest form of the supernatural,” adding that one finds all the “characteristics of the descensus . . . in The Waste Land.” That the descent of Eliot began that night out on Dover Street with which I chose to begin this Eliotic mini-series here last time is perhaps suggested by the fact that Eliot himself began the prologue to The Waste Land thusly. Teiresias, the poem’s many-voiced speaker, emerges first in Eliot’s original opening , wherein Dick argues convincingly, “we also see why winter kept him warm . . . .Teiresias remembering a winter evening in Boston . . . . drinks, dinner, a show, after-theatre gin . . . a friend get[ting] lost . . . end[ing] up in a brothel, a near-arrest, a Chaplinesque cab ride . . . the glow of sunrise.”
Let us call a different witness: University of Chicago literary historian James E. Miller, whose take on Eliot at this time is more complicated still: “a 20-year old girl-shy male, a student at Harvard, and a wanderer of the streets of Boston” is how Miller sees young Eliot; who he sees also as “a man who cannot love women, who is unable to reconcile himself to his own nature. His agonized frustration is essentially sexual, but it extends to all the frustrations universally felt when cotemplating the elusive meaning of life.”
Concludes Miller pointedly: “as Prufrock has a companion to accompany him”, so does Eliot — “it is clear that in Boston Eliot went around the city (and the Gloucester Bay) with his ‘really closest’ friend, Harold Peters, from whom Eliot learned to box.” Even more pointedly Miller goes on: “In Paris, of course, Eliots closest friend was Jean Verdenal,” to whom “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is dedicated, and for whom Miller believes The Waste Land may be an elegy. Verdenal died too young for anyone to have expected him to marry. Harold Peters didn’t. Nor did he marry.
Meanwhile, there is Eliot’s own testimony about “that surealistic night on the town” (Dick’s words). Eliot, in his own terrifying terminology, was not just drinking heavily, but described himself as “boiled to the eyes.” That and the sort of “versified pornography” (Miller’s words) he had already begun to write, was the sort of sign one’s dark angel could probably be depended upon to notice.
In his book of just that title, Eliot’s Dark Angel, Ronald Schuchard notes that there was a woman even as there was a man in Eliot’s life, but that though “before . . . 1914 [Eliot] professed his love for her,” Schuchard feels “Emily Hale, whom Eliot met in Boston in 1912 . . .would not have been privy to his internal sexual drama.” Perhaps this was in part because “by 1910 Eliot had begun to feel a more visceral presence, a darker angel [than his intellectual demons] that had only begun to stir and cast its mental shadow. It would accompany him from Boston to London”, Schuchard recounts, and it seems to me that shadow seperated Eliot further and further from Peters and Verdenal and also eventually from Hale. In a brilliant passage Schuchard, who notes how often Eliot “frequented” the music halls of Dover Street, writes:
[F]rom the beginning, it was in the city, not in the country, that Eliot would stage the drama of a spiritual consciousness under sexual assault. As he explained subsequently, ‘some poets . . . turn directly to the littered streets, the squinting slums . . .and find there the center of intensity.’ The dark angel had descended on Eliot in Boston, Paris and London . . . . [in the last named of which] he would begin to transform the voices of his spiritual dreamscapes into The Waste Land.
W I L D E R N E S S
A more practical voice, clearer perhaps than hard-drinking poets-to-be under sexual assault or literary critics or historians conjuring dark angels, never mind preachers to the underworld, is now timely. And fortunately readily at hand in the person of Robert Archie Woods, one of America’s pioneering social workers, who made the South End district all but his life’s work, putting it all down in what has become a classic of its genre, The City Wilderness. More melodrama. But as historian Roderick Nash observes, like Upton Sinclair’s similar classic about Chicago, The Jungle, Woods’s title was evidence of the fact that “by the 1870s cities were frequently regarded with a hostility once reserved for wild forests.”
Thus my music-loving grandparents likely were in Symphony Hall during their residence there a block away on Huntington Avenue in 1913 when the Boston Symphony Orchestra played — for the sixth time since its world premiere in 1896 –Edward MacDowell’s Indian Suite, the thematic material of which was drawn from Iroquois, Chippewa and Atlantic Coast Indians. They surely also the year before when they had just arrived in the area, noted the placement in front of the new art museum of sculptor Cyrus Dallin’s Appeal to the Great Spirit. This figure of a Sioux chief after his defeat by the U. S. Army, admittedly somewhat romanticist in conception, remains nonetheless majisterial. Moreover, if landscape architect Charles Eliot could compare forested Waverly Oaks in Belmont in suburban Boston to the treasures of Copley Square institutions, why could not the city’s art museum nominate the Native American masters of unspoilt nature for its icon.
Why, indeed, should not my admittedly romanticist but also sincere grandfather not give my mother a Native American name? Ramona was yet more evidence, in Roderick Nash’s words, that “in regard to the primitive, American opinion was tending to reverse the flow of two and a half centuries, joining [Ramona’s author], Helen Hunt Jackson, in sympathizing with the Indian.”
It was the city that was seen by then as uncivilized: Robert Woods’s “wilderness” would become in the next generation in 1922 TS Eliot’s “waste land”, presaged in his Preludes. Meanwhile, the urban jungle’s wild beasts were easily named on Dover Street; foremost among them what absolutely fueled the area in every sense — liquor.
T H E V I E W F R O M N U M B E R 1 1 2 1
There was this to say for the less glamorous Dover Street entertainment strip: it was more picturesque than Scollay Square because it grew up in the shadow of the elaborate copper-clad Dover “El” station, station perched high in the air over the intersection of Dover and its principal cross street, on which its major theatres and halls and hotels fronted, Washington Street. So too did the Royal Dairy Lunch, my gandfathers lunchroom (one of two Wyman’s restaurants in the area, the other around the corner at 79 Dover) from the front door of which at 1121 Washington one could really take in the whole neighborhood scene, located as it was right at the foot of one of the steep turretted covered stairacses that led up from the sidewalk to the “El” station above.
Looking to the right, at the corner of Dover and Washington, stood the Hub Theatre or Grand Dime Museum, of which more later. Behind it on Dover was McCarthy’s and Foley’s saloon on the corner of Dover and tiny Fay Street, with Fay Union Hall on the floors above the bar. Looking to the left, diagonally across Washington, was St. Stepehen’s storefront rescue mission. Behind it, stretching between Florence and Decatur streets, was St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church itself. Just recently moved from Decatur in my grandfather’s day to Garland Street, the side street running off Washington nearest to the Royal Dairy Lunch on its side of the sreet, was Hale House, a Unitarian settlement house, of which also much more later on.
Looking right again, but this time not down Dover but up Washington — very much the main drag — was the Grand Opera House (neither very grand nor anything to do with opera — that will take a whole post to explain) and its sister the Grand Union Hotel. Out of sight, a block away on Shawmut Avenue, were the Morgan Chapel, the Methodist mission, the tenement where lived Mary Antin, who will also arise in this series as an important figure in the Russian Jewish community, and beyond that the South Boston Bridge to that section of the city. Filling in everywhere were numberless bars and smaller cheap hotels and pool halls and rooming houses and so on.
Detailing this whole panorama, which we will explore Eliot’s role in during the next two posts, was one purpose of Robert Woods’s book, where he got quickly to the point. First, the saloon.
Although Wood was somewhat baffled by this institution, particularly by its role in local ward politics — another subject and not mine either — he saw the larger picture clearly enough: there was, he intuited, every reason to think that “drink and poverty have a complicated reciprocal bearing on each other” well illustrated by the saloon. That institution was the result, he wrote, of “conditions that poverty furnishes and at the same time perpetuates”. What struck him, furthermore, again and again, was that “crime and drink are bound up together in somewhat the same way as poverty and drink.”
By crime he meant, above all, prostitution. “Women of the street who frequent the cheapest places and . . . wait at the doors of the meanest saloons”, he could not fail to notice; nor the role of the so-called “lover” among sex workers. “The ‘lover’ exercises something of authority and even terrorism over his mistress [the prostitute]. He compels her to contribute to his support, while he idles away much of his time in pool rooms and saloons.”
Although some there were who made bold to compare a place like Foley’s saloon with the Algonquin Club on Commonwealth Avenue, the Back Bay’s palatial social club — “the saloon is the poor man’s social club” Edward H. Pinkham wrote in 1913 in the Globe — Woods was clear in his own mind that only “gangs often use particular saloons as club rooms”, insisting that “the saloon . . . affects fully half the local families as a baleful agency.” This was especially true in the way they worked in tandem with area hotels, the large number of which he pointed to invariably as the key to Dover Street’s daily — or, rather, nightly — life.
They were, he observed, quiet enough all day. But “as evening comes they undergo a marked change . . . . Parties of men and women arrive on foot or in carriages” and as the night goes on in increasing numbers so that finally one realizes that “these hotels are, to a greater or lesser extent, places of assignation.” More than that: “from time to time these hotels,” Woods opined, “are the scene of unimaginable revels.” To such an extent was this true, he explained, “when one of them becomes too notorious it is surpressed for a time” Observed Woods wrly, “none of the leading hotels in the district has kept the same name for any considerable length of time.”
T O C A T C H O N E ‘ S E Y E
To read TS Eliot’s letters while he was an undergraduate and then a graduate student at Harvard, and, too, some of his poetry, while at the same time reading Robert Woods’s The City Wilderness (the book was published in 1898; Eliot was at Harvard from 1905 to 1914) is to understand the life of Dover Street and its role as a metropolitan center of vice very well indeed.
Woods had an eye, no doubt about it, just as one saw DC Wyman did in his encounter with ‘Mrs. Lennox’ last time here in Back Bay Station. But Woods’s eye took in the whole picture, as it were. He painted both foreground and background to Eliot’s telling detail. How it expands, for example, the poet’s ruminations in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock on the “muttering retreats / Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels” to read Woods’s matter-of-fact report of side streets off Dover where “passing along . . . [one] would hear voices behind the blinds of nearly every house, inviting one to enter.” This is all the more a revelation today when you will never read of that side of “literary” Boston in any guide to the city, these prefering to dwell on Annie Fields’s garden and meetings of the Saturday Club at the Parker House, both important, mind, but by no means the whole story.
Indeed, say I gently, it is Eliot’s that has been called the greatest English-laguage poetry of the 20th-century and to banish it from Boston is as distorting to Boston as it is to Eliot’s poetry to overlook it’s Boston resonances.
It is not only on side streets, furthermore, that comparitive readings of poet and social worker enlighten. Of the South End’s main drag, Washington Street at Dover, Woods had more than alittle to say and Eliot more than one confession to make. Wrote the social worker: “young women with something in their manner or dress calculated to attract notice . . . brush against the passers-by, and, respond with a careless laugh or pert remark . . . . [and are] quick to catch one’s eye.” And TS Eliot theirs.
Depending on your definition of vice it was also very much a two way street. “One walks about the street with one’s desires,” he wrote in a New Years letter of 1912 to Conrad Aiken, “and one’s refinement rises up like a wall whenever opportunity approaches.” He had most recently in mind the streets of London. But he was also remembering the streets of Boston when, as Richard A. Kellaway notes, Eliot added, “I should be better off, I sometimes think, if I had disposed of my virginity and shyness several years ago.” Which, according to Woods, was rather easily done on Dover Street. No wonder, in the same letter, the poet hymned “the freedom offered by the street”, a freedom he found exciting even in his timidity, and in his Sweeney Agonistes confessed “I knew a man once did a girl in / Any man might do a girl in / Any man has to, needs to, wants to, / Once in a lifetime, do a girl in.”.
Woods, more than most “do-gooders”, understood very well how such conditions “make crime easy and fascinating, and virtue hard and unattrative.” At the intersection my grandfather’s lunchroom offered such an excellent panorama of, Woods’s view was such that he might have been chatting with him as he wrote in The City Wilderness of all the,
places of amusement along Washington Street . . . . .[The] saloons, pool rooms, all-night restaurants, and all the excitements of he streets, give the fascinations of vice their full chance. When the work day is over, crowds of pleasure seekers fill the sidewalks; hotels and theatres become brilliant with lights; the hurdy-gurdy jingles merrily, and the street is changed for a time into a sort of fair, . . . . The spectacular nature of its great thoroughfare is to the district a source of incitement to vice.”
Woods was always careful to keep himself at a distance, to stay out of the picture, minimizing any judgementalism. Not so my grandfather, more usual I suspect among “do-gooders”. Lucian Groves’s most influential teacher at Boston University School of Theology in the 1900s was not a professor of theology but of sociology, a new field then, and Dr. John M. Barker was a tireless advocate of the American Anti-Saloon League. He was, in fact, a national officer — general corresponding secretary — and BU was very much a hot bed of support under his inspiration for the league. Founded in the mid-1900s, AASL has been called the first modern political pressure group. It was certainly one of the most effective, the eventual passage of the 18th ammendment to the the US constitution in 1920 credited by many historians to its skill in leading the temperence movementin those years.
Margaret Shand Groves on the other hand was distinctly a very worldly Anglican. My grandmother agreed with Phillips Brooks, Boston’s Episcopal priest-poet and saint-bishop, that drinking alcahol in moderation (particularly in her case Mumm’s champagne) was one of life’s joys. And at least once she put her foot down. Dining in Brookline with Frederick L. Walker, a banker who held their mortgages, my grandmother insisted that “Mr Walker was not a drunkard, thank you” and if offered a drink before dinner, “Lute” , as she called her husband, was going to accept it. He did. And held on to it for dear life as my mother remembered, raising it to very thin lips indeed not once.
I thought of the sermon that was undoubtedly in his mind the whole time when I read Lydall Gordon’s pointed observation that Dover Street never really satisfied TS Eliot. Nor anywhere else of that sort. Wrote Gordon of Eliot in Paris, during his year abroad in 1911: “He exhorted himself to have his fling but, as in Boston, the life he sought eluded him. In ‘the smoke that gathers blue and sinks . . . ‘ he describes [that year] a dinner in a Parisian nightclub inducing only torpor . . . .Whether it was Boston or Paris, people were the same.” To which Eliot –himself the same, of course — responded by doing in Paris just what he’d done in Boston, haunt the slums. And as the Preludes describe a Boston no one cares to remember, similarly with his Parisian Rhapsody on a Windy Night.
Woods did offer this observation in his book” “The poor man drinks in the midst of his lack”, while he thought “the rich man drinks in the midst of his surfeit”, the point being in both cases to “seek out a stimulus to life them out of their inertia’. Which is as good a definition of the lifestyle of metropolitan centers of vice as ever I’ve heard, but does not really entirely answer TS Eliot’s more complicated needs.
In this connection, however, it is perhaps significent that another activity than drinking himself regularly blind brought Eliot often to the South End, an activity that , like the “versified pornograpy” he would write life long, (Miller’s words), added an edge of violence to his experience: boxing.
Quoth Eliot biographer Peter Ackroyd: “Here we have the excitement of the timid or hesitant man watching the violence of others,” a craving that “stylizedbut aggressive sport” held out the hope of satisfying, all the more so because ( as was always Eliot’s style ) he jumped right into it, taking lessons himself “somewhere in the South End.”
In his How Boston Played, Stephen Hardy quotes a contemporary account of the sport’s enemies that it was only “loafers and drunkards, the gamblers, sports, outlaws, theieves and pimps” who encourgaed boxing, and, to be sure, that was more or less the cast of characters on Dover Street. Certainly one is not surprised to learn form another sports historian, Frank Collens, of the music hall Eliot frequented regularly that in the 1910s “the Grand Opera House at Dover and Washington Streets . . . [in] a neighborhood of] saloons, brothels, and junkyards . . . . [p]layed [drama] once a week. The rest of the week, the Opera House hosted boxing and wrestling matches”, including once champion Jack Sharkey himself.
However, in the era of John L. Sullivan’s pugilistic triumphs, when a minor Boston poet (but significent tastemaker and editor) of the day, John Boyle O’Reilly, could write a book, Ethics of Boxing and the Manly Arts, Eliot’s interest in boxing does not raise the red flag his heavy drinking does. Nor is Hardy entirely right in calling only negative witnesses. But it is very interesting that Eliot went out of his way to avoid Harvard’s gymnasium, though since as far back as in 1859 it was according to Harvard sports historians under the supervision of a professional boxing teacher — indeed, the first black to serve on Harvard’s staff — A. Molyneaux Hewlett. Indeed, untill it ceased to be an intercollegiate sport in 1929 — Hardy take note — boxing was the second most popular sport at Harvard, famously the sport of choice of Theodore Roosevelt.
Instead, Eliot sought out instruction in the manly art “at a toughish gymnasium in Boston’s South End . . . under the tutelage of a ex-pugilist with some such moniker as Steve O’Donnell.” according to Conrad Aiken, his classmate. Aiken, in fact, notes Eliot did not expect to be treated gingerly either, showing up late for dinner with Aiken one night boasting “a magnificent black eye” given him by ‘Steve’ because Eliot had inadvertantly hit his instructor “too hard.”
The South End gymnasium that made “boxing a specialty” in this era according to Bacon’s Handbook of Boston, “the Abbey” on Harrison Avenue — presided over by one ‘Patsey’ — was no longer in business in the 1900s, but one block south and five west from the Grand Opera House was City Gymnasium, a likely choice for Eliot.
And there it was — certainly if not there than somewhere between there and Foley’s — that Dover Street gifted TS Eliot with the inspirer — now imortalized in American literature — of what “Eliot himself believed [to be] the most original of his compositions” lifelong; or so at least Peter Ackroyd concludes: Sweeney, as in Sweeney Agonistes. Somewhere in those five blocks Eliot met the original of Sweeney, on the basis of whom he was to try to do something very new in the English language. (In fact, “no one had done anything quite like it before”, Ackroyd reports of this work; nor did Eliot finally succeed.) But the character — the “actor-fool” named Sweeney, whose “voice at mating time is hoarse and odd, the elephant who never forgets” — (Gordon’s words) — remains a central figure alike in Boston’s psyche and Eliot’s work, however uncomfortably. Sweeney is the fully detailed archetypal Bostonian figure that emerges as against the more general backdrop of the Preludes.
Most often Sweeney is identified — by Aiken, for instance — with Eliot’s boxing instructor at “the toughish South End gym.” But it is not that simple. When Eliot himself, in Boston in 1961, a half century later and three years before his death, was asked about it by Boston College professor Francis Sweeney, he replied that there was more than one model. That the pugilist was, indeed, one of them he implied by saying, “there were others.” Among these he singled out “the bartender of the Opera Exchange [Valerie Eliot’s belief] where he had “gathered with his friends in his Harvard student days.”
The actual men Eliot, like Aiken, never named. Eliot would only say he imagined Sweeney as “a professional pugilist, mildly successful, who then grew older and retired to keep a pub,” nicely combining boxing instructor cum bartender. I think at once of the black bellman at the Hotel Vendome, who lived in the South, End, who John Singer Sargent painted his splendid full length nude study of, Thomas McKeller. What one or more models spark in an artists or poets mind is always hard to know. But always worth trying to puzzle out.
Ackroyd, the only one of Eliot’s biographers to risk any comment on the poet’s love — life-long — of boxing (even David Chintz says that “what to make of Eliot’s enjoyment of boxing remains at this point anybody’s guess”) does interestingly link the poet’s pugilistic interests with his craving for the music hall, a subject to be explored in another posting here, but worth bringing up now because Ackroyd makes such a point of it in this connection. Indeed, he remarks pointedly that in middle age Eliot would often go to boxing matches with Wynham Lewis, the same person he went with regularly to “the London music halls, the brightly lit world . . . where sentimentality and grotesquerie, brutality and gracefulness were the predominant notes.” Ackroyd’s unusual foursome, it occurs to me, is somewhat similar to something my old friend, Betty Hughes Morries, rejoicing in 96 years now, said to me once about the curious brightness of the lighte at the intersection of Dover and Washington.
She first saw that intersection during a childhood trip to Boston in 1914, when it seemed to her so mysterious she remembered the effect decades later when as a student at Emerson College in the 1930s she did charity work in the area, teaching drama classes. The second time she figured it out. The shadow of the huge overhead “El” station, most pronounced on dark winter afternoons, especially snowy ones, meant that all the storefronts kept all their lights on all day, giving an eerie glitter to the scene. A glitter Sweeney, whether pugilist or bartender or both, would have recognized. Who else ever gave TS Eliot a black eye?
T O W A R D A N E W H I S T O R Y
If insofar as his poetry is concerned the TS Eliot of the Boston slums encompassed most famously poems like “Preludes in Roxbury” and “Caprices in North Cambridge”, Eliot’s life on the other side of the tracks, as it were — when he was not on duty in Cambridge or Back Bay — was based along with a group of his Harvard classmates in the bars and and music halls and gymnasia of the South End Dover Steet neighborhood. It was, that ‘civic center’ of metropolitan vice, a ‘soul-place, so to speak, which as we’ll see in future posts in this mini-series yielded the pre-eminent English-language poet of the last century much more even than Sweeney.
That these Bostonian aspects of Eliot’s life and work have been not just scanted but largely obscured — so often as by now to constitute a pattern if not a plot ! — in the literary history of Boston, and at just the point when the city was ceasing to be the country’s literary capital and changing its focus — to becoming the architectural capital in the wakeof Richardson and Olmsted and Charles Eliot — has prooved very distorting to scholars understanding of this period in American and broader history.
It is also a classic case of why Boston studies needs to be rescued from the provinciality of local historians. Yet if few of those have any understanding of the Atlanticist and global dimensions without which Boston’s self understanding is always flawed, it is equally important, and is what Boston-centric global studies is all about, that Atlanticist and global historians not ignore the importance of the particularity, historically, of Boston’s own perspective in both the the Atlanticist and global pictures.
With the exception of the work of colleagues Mark Jarzombek of MIT and Shaun O’Connell of the University of Massachusetts (whose new book, Voices and Visions, is due out any day now) — and the recently deceased historian Thomas Brown of U/Mass — the scholar whose work seems most poised now to make a large contribution to this new history is Mark Peterson of the University of California at Berkeley. An Atlanticist historian whose point of view has been something of an inspiation to me in what has turned out to be a common study of the Boston city-state which in company today with New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, rivals and, in fact, surpasses importantly the economy even of China , Professor Peterson’s forthcoming book will lay, I believe, a much needed new foundation for this new Boston history Bostonians and outliers alike need so very much to take up if their self-understanding is to enlarge.
Boston, as is my endless thesis here, needs a new history.
Another example, one might add, is evident in a rather smaller thing nonetheless central to this post: the trio of ‘civic centers’ it has emphasized: Copley Square, Scollay Square and Dover Street at Washington. Agora, rialto and underworld for the new metropolis, are as key to understanding such as the wonderful new metropolitan park system of landscape architect Charles Eliot, of which, however, we all hear alot more. The Olmsted park system is about to beome a world heritage site, not Copley Square, largely in consequence, for that square’s role as sparking the new metropolis has gone almost totally unrecognized.
The great New World agora of faith and learning, which presided oer the dawn of the modern American experience, is a tale untold by editors and presses more attentive to yet more recountings of the glory of the post- Federalist Athens of America ! And in no small measure that is because Copley Square was not only about what we think it was about, but what we foget it was about.
Consider sculptor Bella Pratt’s regal sculptural figues of Art and Science which preside over the square from the podium of the public library, installed interestingly at just the time when the American Academy of Arts and Sciences erected its first purpose-bullt home on Newbury Street nearby.
Yet all we talk about is the art, not the science of Copley Square, where the telephone, in fact, was first publicly demonstrated to the world, and where the first definite steps toward the computer were taken in the midst of the First World War. For example, how telling it is how much more attention is paid, historically, to the opening of the Boston Public Library in March of 1895 — an epochal event, to be sure, than to another event of exactly the same year and month on the other side of the square, where within sight of MIT, the center of scientific Copley Square, there occurred the ground-breaking ceremonies of the Boston subway. Perhaps the leading civil engineer of his day, George F. Swain, head of his department at MIT for twenty two years, was the chair of the Boston Transit Commission that “built the subway in Boston, the first in the United States,” in the words of MIT historian Samuel Prescott, who added that Swain’s also was the “decisive influence in the . . . selection of H. A. Carson [MIT} ’69, as Chief Engineer of the Commission.”
Although neither Swain nor Carson ever get anything like the attention the architects of the library receive, Charles McKim and Stanford White, the subway was at the time widely acclaimed by contemporaries as a “masterpiece of engineering” every bit as much as the Public Library was hailed as a masterpiece of architecture. But who notices? One thinks of Harvard psychologist Ellen Langors studies in the need to replace “mindlessness” with “mindfulness”: yes, and a new history! Most people assume America’s first subway began at Park Street and hardly bother about how the trolleys got underground in the first place. That, I assure you, was the greatest traffic jam in Copley Square’s history!
Indeed, for TS Eliot at Harvard the influence of the Boston Public Libraray does not loom large; wheras the Boston subway that enabled his metropolitan life in far distant neighborhoods mattered a very great deal indeed. An aspect of literary history we must defer to next time here, the point just now is that what, afterall, made agora, rialto and underworld all accessible to what Henry James called the “academic suburb” Eliot necessarily lived in, what made all these places — remade them in some cases — metropolitan in the first place, was scientific Copley Square — engineering Copley Square? — not artistic Copley Square.
To elevate Dover Street particularly to this metropolitan level will amaze many. Consider, however, Robert Woods’s assertion in The City Wildnerness that “those who come into the district to do wrong undoubtedly come first of all to the theatres, small dime museums, and other places of amusement along Washington Street.” Singling out the Grand Opera House, Eliot’s favorite, he noted that its role was not as he would have liked, “a theatre with popular prices, furnishing amusement for the people of the district.” Instead, it was, he wrote, “a high-priced theatre depending for its patronage upon the wider public of the city and suburbs.” Not of the first class, to be sure — Sarah Bernhardt when she was in Boston appeared at the fashinable playhouses of the downtown rialto that stretched down Tremont Street from Scollay Square to what was becoming the new Theatre District — but Dover Street was all the more allurring for its rough edges. Especially for TS Eliot and his friends.
The growing metropolis, furthermore, not only encompassed newly made areas like Back Bay and probed further out into the new suburbs, but overlaid new patterns on old neighborhoods like the South End; where if mass transit offered equal access by 1900 for millions to both virtue and vice, so too did it connectwork and play, places of business and places of residence.
Remember my grandmother’s search for a respectable address?
C H A N G I N G P A T T E R N S
Food in middle class areas was very much the controlling force liquor was in the slums. Like transportation networks, changing daily habits of eating underlay much more than we realize in this period.
The huge growth of respectable public restaurants, particularly street level cafes, was a key factor in the growth of the early 20th-century metropolis. It prooved fatal, for example, to the boarding and lodging house tradition of Oliver Wendell Holmes day referred to earlier here. By the time Albert Wolfe’s classic study of Boston lodging houses was published in 1906, Wolfe doubted there was “one boarding-house to a hundred lodging-houses” in Boston. Moreover, the old distinctions had given way to quite new ones, Wolfe emphasizing the “distinction between the cheap, transient lodging house and the rooming house [which was] patronized by the great middle class of clerks”, a distinction he felt lay in “the class of the patrons, the prices charged, and the method of payment.”
“The lodgers in rooming- houses pay by the week or month, those in cheap lodging-houses by the night.” There was, moreover, a huge disparity in the rent. A good rooming- house charged up to seven dollars a week; the cheap lodging-house never more than twenty five cents a day, and sometimes as little as a nickel a day, or thirty five cents weekly.
Seven dollars was a great deal of money in 1906, and that is why my grandmother, presumably, gave up ice cream, living as she was, however prominent her relations, on the salary of a clerk, for so indeed she was listed in the 1907 Street Directory, her place of employment 9 Spring Lane, DC Wyman’s flagship restaurant, a position it is safe to assume her brother-in-law gave Margaret Shand at her sister Isabelle’s urging.
Margaret Shand’s residential address is listed as at 170 Saint Botolph Street, about which a newspaper classified ad of May 21, 1914, (“Wanted – a Green girl for general housework”) tells us there was at least one servant, while another ad notes that 170 St. Botolph, offered for sale, had “14 furnished rooms and electric lights”. Along with Newbury Street St.Botolph Street was the Back Bay’s leading middle class lodging house street and certainly one where a perusal of contemporary classified ads for furnished rooms document that top dollar was expected. (As my grandmother remembered it, 170 was a boarding house, and certainly we know that there was at least one more on St. Botolph Street because a Globe ad of November 9, 1908, listed under “Board & Room”: “96 St. Botolph st Large, front, sunny rooms, superior bathroom, hot water, modern colonial house, oak floors, open parlors, breakfast in rm optional”).
Saint Botolph Street, afterall, was a crucial half block on the right side of the railroad tracks that divided the fashionable Back Bay from the barely respectable part of the South End adjoining on the other side of the tracks, which within a half hour’s walk led one into the slums.
How fashionable St Botolph St was, despite its mix not just of single family residences but also of rooming houses, is clear in the large numbers of reports in the 1900s of burglaries! (Globe: June 15, 1908 — “With the social season at an end and Back Bay folks out of town for the summer, the burglary industry is again beginning to take on new life, despite the reticience of the police department in regard to it. Within a few days, several residences on St. Botolph st have been broken into.”)
One or two years later, however, Margaret Shand moved to another rooming house, and moved in the wrong direction, further into the South End. But it was not the backward step it seemed. Rather, my grandmother’s move points up the fact that the new metropolis was a matter of boulevards as well as transit lines (often combined) and in 1894 the largest of the new boulevards, Massachusetts Avenue, was laid out over old streets in four core Boston neighborhoods of the metropolis: Old Cambridge, Cambridgeport, Back Bay and the South End, incorporating the grandest if not the largest of the residential park squares of old Boston, Chester Square of 1858.
A huge oval one and half acre fountained park (private to residents) sorrounded by splendid town houses, it then achieved new repute, if not as a town house square, then as a lodging house square. Albert Wolfe admitted in his 1906 study that those lodging houses that fronted on residential squares like Chester stood in “the preetiest places in Boston”; indeed, he wrote, “as pleasant places of abode as can be found within the main city.”
SIDEBAR | Under “Board and Rooms” Boston Globe classifieds of Sept. 11, 1911, give some idea of the range of boarding houses in the South End at the high end on the area’s residential park squares:
$2.50 11 Concord Sq. Nicely furnished parlor, h[ot] & c[old] water, piano, square room, l[ight] housekeeping.
$4.00 30 Worcester Sq. City — Rooms, all conveniences, front parlor w[ith] alcove bedroom. laundry privleges.
$6.00 [Chester Sq.] 573 Mass. av. Board and room, square room, private bath and board, square front with piano, other rooms. Phone Mrs Hilton.
No surprise, then, my grandmother’s search had led her there to no. 527 Massachusetts Avenue, a house (like no. 532, today the headquarters of the South End Historical Society) of triple parlors for the reception of guests, ten-foot high walnut sliding doors and white marble mantlepieces, all overlooking the fountained park through elegant wrought iron work. Indeed, I’m sure it was no coincidence that in 1908 my grandfather moved from Mt. Vernon Street on Beacon Hill to the same Chester Square lodging house my grandmother lived in, suggesting it was there they began their married life. The 1909 Street Directoryis also the first to note my grandfathers abandonment of his theological studies and his accomadation to my materialistic grandmother; he is lsted as “mgr” at 1121 Washington Street, one of the Wyman’s restaurants advertized in the same directory.
Suburban experiences in their early Boston years were equally park related, interestingly, including brief stays in the Empire on Olmstedian Beacon Street in Brookline and another apartment house on Columbia Road in Dorchester, one of Charles Eliot’s projects. It was not untill 1912 that they moved to Huntington Avenue. And there again there was a park, the elegant new greensward that fronted on the huge new domed Christian Science basilica.
Clearly, my grandparents loved parks. Note too, however, down the center of Beacon Street in Brookline and Columbia Road in Dorchester, and, indeed, Huntington Avenue, there ran not only a green strip and tall, leafy trees, but the always present trolley, the great metropolitan enabler.
W E T A N D D R Y
In the wake of my determination to introduce TS Eliot’s negative reading of the modern Boston metropolis as a corrective to the more positive ‘Olmstedian’ one of his grand uncle, landscape architect Charles Eliot — too striking a contast to pass up in the service of a just and also intriguing historical balance — I have several times thought midst The Gods of Copley Square that this mini-series — “Dover Street Rag” — was spiralling out of control as the road to Boston noir, announced it seems now quite a long time ago, grew yet more and more fructifying and, perhaps, more and more distracting.
Not only, however, has the Eliotic diptych held my interest, seeming, in fact, to bore like a drill more and more into the subject of the modern metropolis — scholarship on line — live scholarship — is like that ; always morphing — but, startlingly enough, the Eliotic digression has ended up yielding what may be the answer as to what was the controlling factor above all else in the 1870s Boston annexionist controversary that launched this whole series in the first place.
Have you seen it coming? I didn’t, though at least I may claim to have recognized it promptly upon arrival! The theme that has carried us through the Bacchante battle into Eliot’s early poetry and will persist right through into Boston noir is — liquor. The fact is, Dover Street, like Scollay Square, terrified Brookline; and not just Brookline; but every one of what Charles Eliot called — remember? — the “Boston towns.” In an era when everyone was caught up in the hysterics of the temperence movement that may very well have been the deciding factor.
That argument surfaces so late in the day here because it is urged most convincingly in Dius’s study on public drinking in Chicago and Boston. Of Boston that scholar writes: “the liquor issue prooved to be the major obstacle [after] the state enacted a town option law in 1881 — seven years, note, after what turned out to be the last of the 19th-century annexations to the city of Boston –which gave each town the right to vote itself dry or not.” And it hardly surprises that “saloonless suburbs routinely resisted annexation.” Soon the city of Boston was “surrounded by dry suburbia . . . . [S]uburban prohibitionists quickly used the law to create a solid band of no-license towns . . . . Quincy, Malden, Newton, and Sommerville joined the ranks almost immediately,” Duis recounts.
The most famous fight, however, was with Cambridge, whose attempt at independence from the core city has always been as absurd as Brooklines at first glance. As rump a municipality as the core city of the growing metropolis, its much vaunted sense of political independence may well, historically, turn on arguments about alcahol ! As Dius noted, “this suburb resembled Evanston” — recall this is a comparative study of Chicago and Boston — for both Cambridge and Evanston were “college towns bordering on major cities, ” but Boston and what Henry James called its “academic suburb” lacked the “several miles of open countryside [that] seperated Evanston from Chicago, while [the city of] Boston’s social problems easily spilled over the Charles River.” In 1886 the municipality of Cambridge went dry and stayed that way for nearly a half century, untll 1920.
The liquor issue also destroyed attempts to create regional governments, including Sylvester Baxter’s scheme of 1891″, Dius adds: “suburban temperence groups were instrumental in killing the plan. One dry voiced the common fear: ‘[with annexation] we should have a rum shop on every corner.” Just like Dover Street.
The suburbs before Eliot’s poetry laid bare the dark side of metropolis, heard the Dover Street Rag only too clearly! And it drowned out, perhaps, most everything else. Certainly, if parks tended to bring the newly evolving metropolis together, liquor ripped that still tender metropolitan movement apart. And in this as in so much else, landscape architect and poet, who as we saw had no argument and, indeed, much sympathy, ended up on opposite sides.
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A C K N O W L E D G E M E N T S
I am chiefly indebted this time to Patrick McMahon for insisting that I was not paying enough attention in this series to the repeated attempts to introduce local prohibition in the 1880-1920 period in Greater Boston. Not only am I not much interested in local history, I am not anything like so ardent a lover of food and drink as so many, and while I agree life would be much less pleasant without a glass (or two) of wine with one;s daily meal, I tend not to think in those terms. The resources of the Boston Public Library Microtext Department as usual supplied the rest. Finally, I have to say that this TS Eliot / Charles Eliot diptych is becoming too pressing: the need for Keith Morgan’s biography of this important landscape architect and metropolitan visionary has never been clearer.
S O U R C E S
Aiken, Conrad. “King Bolo and Others” in TS ELIOT: A SYMPOSIUM, ed R. March and Tamibimutta (London,) 1947.
[Anti-Saloon League]. BOSTON GLOBE (April 13, 1905)
Ackroyd, Peter. TS ELIOT: A LIFE (Simon & Schuster) 1984
BACON’S DICTIONARY OF BOSTON, Ellis, George E. ed., “Boxing”(Houghton, Mifflin) 1886.
[Boxing, Harvard] “Former Boxing Coach”, HARVARD CRIMSON (Oct. 2, 1985)
[Boxing, Harvard] Hindert, Patrick, Rasmussen, Mark R. “Intramural Murals” (March 4, 1969). See also Hewlett.
Call, P. E. “The Maze of the Underworld” (“Milford Sees Boston Underworld”) BOSTON GLOBE (Nov. 10, 1913). See also “Union Rescue Mission Work”, BOSTON GLOBE (Feb. 4, 1895).
[Carson, H. L. ] “The Boston Subway” in YOUTH’S COMPANION (March 28, 2895). The BPL was opened on 11 March 1895. See also George F. Swain.
Chintz, David. “TS Elot and the Cultural Divide” PMLA (March 1995)
Cullen, Frank C. VAUDEVILLE OLD AND NEW (Psychology Press) 2007
Dick, Bernard F. “The Waste Land: ad Descensus ad Infernos” in MODERN CRITICAL INTERPRETATIONS: T. S. ELIOT, ed. Harold Bloom. (Chelsea House) 1986
Dius, Perry. THE SALOON: PUBLIC DRINKING IN CHICAGO AND BOSTON (Univ. of Illinois Press) 1995
Eliot, Valerie, ed. THE WASTE LAND: A FACSIMILE AND TRANSCRIPT OF THE ORIGINAL DRAFS> (Harcourt) 1971
Gordon, Lydall .TS ELIOT: AN IMPERFECT LIFE (Norton) 1998
[Groves, L. S. ] 1908-1914 Boston Street Directory;
Hardy, Stephen. HOW BOSTON PLAYED (Northeastern) 1982
[Hewlett, A. Molyneau]. www.president.harvard.edu james walker.
Jackson, Helen Hunt. RAMONA (Nabu ed) 2001
Jarzombek, Mark. — see Ching, David.
Kellaway, Richard “conrad Aiken and TS Eliot” at, www.members.netbistro.com james walker.
[MacDowells, Edward] Johnson, H. Earle, “List of works performed by the BSO” in SYMPHONY HALL, BOSTON (Little Brown) 1950
[MacDowells, Edward] Tawra, Nicholas. FROM PSALM TO SYMPHONY (New England) 2001
Miller, James E. TS ELIOT: THE MAKING OF AN AMERICAN POET (Penn. State Press) 2005
Miller, Neil. BANNEDIN BOSTON (Beacon) 2010
Morgan, Keith N. Introduction to [Charles W. Eliot] CHARLES ELIOT: LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT (Univ. of Massachusetts) 1999
Morris, B. Hughes. Personal interview (Oct 27, 2010)
Nash, Roderick. “The American Cult of the Primitive” in AMERICAN QUARTERLY (Autumn 1961)
O’Connell, Shaun. VOICES AND VISIONS (University of Massachusetts Press) 2010
O’Reilly, John Boyle. ETHICS OF BOXING AND MANLY SPORT (Ticknor) 1888
Peterson, Mark. THE CITY-STATE OF BOSTON: THE RISE AND FALL OF AN ATLANTIC WORLD 1630-1865 (work in progress)
Pinkham, Edward H. “The Saloon”. THE BOSTON GLOBE (Dec 28, 1913)
[St Botolph st ads] are all identified in the text as from the Boston Globe, date specified.
[Swain, George F. ] Prescott, Samuel C. WHEN MIT WAS ‘BOSTON TECH’ (Tech Pres) 1954
Schuchuard, Ronald. ELIOT’s DARK ANGEL (Oxford) 2001
Southam, B. C. A GUIDE TO THE SELECTED POEMS OF TS ELIOT (Houghton Mifflin) 1996
[Shand, Margaret] 1907-1918 Boston Street Directory.
Sweeney, Francis SJ. “Bard Watching” BOSTON COLLEGE MAGAZINE (Winter 2001)
Wood, Robert A. THE CITY WILDERNESS (Houghton) 1898
Wolfe, Albert. THE LODGING HOUSE PROBLEM IN BOSTON (Houghton) 1906.