One Day in Boston
Written in 1943
THANKSGIVING IS the time to visit Boston. A bleak, rainy Thanksgiving which will have enough of New England’s chill in it to recall that first year of 1620-21, when so many of the Pilgrims died from the sting of winter. A drizzly, misty Thanksgiving, when vision is half obscured by haze. That is as it should be in Boston. For Boston is not largely of the present—of things seen. It is tradition, accretion—things felt and remembered. But a Thanksgiving, nonetheless, in which the spirit of the season radiates from the holiday displays of the shops on Fremont Street, and is caught up in the laughter of the last-minute shopping throngs slopping along under their umbrellas past the Public Gardens. For this is the spirit which gave rise to the first Thanksgiving. This is Boston as it should be.
My Interstate Express performed, in simple reality, that miracle which is attributed to the Magic Carpet of fiction. I had entered the train at Chicago—that lusty, full-bosomed, corn-fed damsel by the lakefront. Then a quick trip across Ohio. Then night. And tunnels under a city. Without a link or connection with the rest of commonplace America, I stepped out to meet an old lady—a regal gentlewoman whose face bore the delicate wrinkles of three hundred years. Traceried, crow’s-feet wrinkles they were—patterns like Boston streets that only long time could effect. A kind gentlewoman, whose spirit breathed of the fantasies of Mother Goose and the childhood tales of Longfellow. But a woman with steel in her soul—put there by forebears like Hancock and Samuel Adams and a group of rebellious hotheads who dumped tea into a midnight harbor. Note that throw of the lady’s head; the blood of a Paul Revere could breed disdain like that.
I stepped out into the streets of Boston.
Summer Street meandered from the station and in its leisurely wandering soon became Winter Street. Casual, unorthodox—just like that. None of the checkerboard regularity which is Chicago’s pride. Boston is that way—above any necessity for logic or explanation. Fall Street or Spring Street didn’t intervene; Summer simply changed into Winter, and led on to the Boston Common.
There along Fremont Street, nestled with a church on one side and an office buildings on the other, was the Granary Burial Grounds. I walked through. The mist was nearly a rain now, so I turned my overcoat collar up as I stopped to read the stones. Franklin’s parents buried here. Several signers of the Declaration of Independence. Hancock. Samuel Adams. Nearly a dozen governors of the Commonwealth. And John Treat Paine. And Mother Goose and Paul Revere. Besides pillars of the church galore.
The markers were of sandstone. Some were crumbling. Others had crumbled. But when the stones are all decayed, that city of the prairies—Chicago–will still be standing to mark what these citizens of Boston began. And down in San Antonio, Texas, the Alamo will still be stirring worship to its heroes—heroes whose exploits were the echoes of the deeds of these early citizens of Massachusetts. History is the only real perpetual motion. It never stops. Children of Spanish-named San Diego read the tales of Mother Goose, who lies in the Granary Burial Ground. And Aimee Semple McPherson chalked up a new victory for religious showmanship because these forefathers decreed that America should be religiously free.
Yet really America is not old. The story of Paul Revere has undergone the stages from uncertain reality to the warm reverence of a myth or folk tale. Yet Paul Revere was buried in the Granary Cemetery upon his death in 1850. Only 93 years ago! Within the memory of living men and women. The cemetery itself is three hundred years old. But, even so, Boston seems aged only because the rest of America is so disgustingly young. To a child, a man of 20 seems grown. To a dwarf, a child seems a giant.
I left the Burial Ground and walked up along the Commons toward the State House. That State House was where Calvin Coolidge really became president. For that is where he issued the order to quell the Boston police strike, which made him famous. Coolidge was a down-east Yankee for you. As New England as baked beans. And to some people, just as indigestible. But to me he is a symbol. Of course he wasn’t a man—I mean with real flesh-and-blood warmth and heartbeats.
But he stood for something; he stood for the hard life that the Pilgrims went through to found this place. To them, waste meant death, and was a sin. Coolidge was that way; he was like the depleted farms and the granite hills of his own Vermont. Lucky for America that the Latins and the Spanish came along to put fire and warmth in our blood. Lucky we have New Orleans and St. Louis in our system of statehood. But lucky, too, that we have Vermont and Massachusetts. Coolidge is as vital in the recipe of our nationhood as Mayor LaGuardia or apple pie or the Pennsylvania Dutch. It takes all kinds to make America.
Taking a narrow street leading from the rear door of the State House, I followed down to Louisburg Square. I spent 15 minutes in Louisburg Square, but in that small bundle of time I achieved a spiritual review of much of America’s literature. And all of England’s, which is the basis of our own. I was able to do this because of the other 15-minute intervals which I had spent there on past visits. And because of the love of the place and its traditions which had grown up within me.
I feel that I have mastered Louisburg Square. Because when I go there now I can close my eyes and see men and women of ideas trooping out of this little quadrangle and marching to every corner of our land.
Louisburg Square is a bit of old London tucked away in the heart of Boston. It is but a block from the thick of traffic but as quiet as a mews near Earl’s Court. When I walked before the century-old doorways, shaded by trees in the parkway, it was thrilling to say, “Here William Dean Howell lived when he was editor of the Atlantic; here was the last home in Boston of Louisa Alcott—the house where her father died; and here Jenny Lind was married.” It is hallowed ground. For me, this place seems to have become like the tomb of the unknown soldier. It is a symbol of the literary life of America.
I close my eyes and see the cairn of rocks out by Walden Pond where Thoreau had his hut. I think of the times when I was a kid in grammar school, learning the rhythmic poems of Longfellow and feeling that the ambition of my life would be to visit his birthplace up in Portland, Maine. I dream backward to vision the Windermere Lakes of England and the village where Wordsworth wrote. Because there is—there must be—affinity between those English writers and these writers of Boston town.
Then I see myself standing at night looking into brightly lighted shop windows filled with book-of-the-hour selections. Hundreds of titles. Thousands of books. Millions of words. Great presses running day and night to turn them out. Books done in splashy jackets to catch the eye if not the mind. Books with catchy names; books with predigested summaries on the flaps. Books—millions of them—enough every day to pave the entire square, bastard offsprings of these simple writers who printed in editions of a thousand here in Boston. But some of all these newer books will live, just as the books of the Bostonians have lived. To me, Louisburg Square is the symbol of the literary America. Branching from this little square tucked away back of the State House in Boston run—symbolicallyMain Street and Peach Tree Street and the Lincoln Highway. As I leave it and open my eyes to find my way down to the shop which sells blueberry pies, I think every person who wants to understand American literature should visit Louisburg Square.
Continuing my explorations, I began poking into the backs of the churches in this area. It is old England just as old England was before the war—and may never be again. Here were the same quiet back courtyards of the Earl’s Court district in London; the squares with cobbled entrances, the quaint basement shops along Charles Street such as there were in Kensington across the sea. A weird thought occurred to me—perhaps all of the English originals of these things will have been destroyed by this war now raging there. Then Londoners will have to visit Boston to show their little English heirs what their city used to be like. New England will have
become the real England. The king is dead; long live the king.
The Commons and the Public Gardens were dreary spots. Haze had changed to mist and mist had changed to heavy rain. The stuff was coming down in bucketfuls now, so I circled the Gardens quickly, then found a low bridge over a narrows in the lake, where I could take shelter. There I stood free of the downpour, free to gaze out of my refuge onto a surface of water which was being knifed a thousand times a minute by the cold pellets from the sky above. While I waited, there was time to think.
I thought of six years ago—in summer—when our little daughter Barbara had been four and her sister Adrienne was still in Helen’s womb. Helen and I had stood by this very same bridge then and summoned one of the Swan Boats in from the lake. On that evening, as we rode the Swan Boat, Barbara’s excited laughter had tinkled across the water and mingled with the laughter of other children, then rippled into the lake like the lights which had rippled on the water from the shore. Time has made a revolution. Now, when at home, I read to Adrienne from a book which tells all about these Swan Boats in the Public Gardens of Boston. And Barbara is an angel in heaven. Almost wherever I go in America, Barbara has been. Her spirit danced with the sunbeams among the cactus of Arizona as my train rolled by; she seemed to walk silently beside me, as she had once done, with Helen and me, among the ruins of the Alamo. She had run happily along the lakefront at Chicago, had lit the world’s largest light bulb in Cleveland near where I lectured, had piled rocks on the cairn of Thoreau. I can never be really lonely wherever I go in America.
Boston has outlined its Public Gardens with the statues of her heroes. There, through the rain, toward Fremont Street, I could see the massive likeness of Wendell Phillips. Facing it, across the street, was the brilliant crimson front of a Kresge store. Farther down, the statue of another hero was confronted with the brilliant blue of a Greyhound station. The clock does not stand still even in Boston. Time marches on.
And so the day marched on, and night came. But the lights stayed out. This was 1943. Wartime in Boston. The street lamps were blacked over. Lighted signs were extinguished. People poked along in the darkness and in the rain. The dim-out!
But a dim-out on the streets only. Behind drawn curtains, in the houses on Louisburg Square, the lamps were burning bright. Behind the blackout shutters of the Public Library, the young Emersons and Howells and Hawthornes had their noses in their books. And their souls as well. And along the dimly-lit aisles of Trinity Church, modern pilgrims stopped to say a prayer at the shrine of Phillips Brooks.
The lights of Hancock and Adams and Emerson and Brooks are hard to dim. The little old lady of Boston has been through wars before—many of them. Gingerly she shook the mist and rain from her umbrella and went through the darkened doors into the strong-lighted interior of South Station. The last I saw of her she was at the wicket, telling the gateman that she was waiting to board the train to visit her niece in Chicago—a buxom damsel who lived by the lake front there. And her ticket, I noticed, had a transfer to Los Angeles via the Santa Fe, with stopovers at Kansas City and Albuquerque. I could see she liked to travel; within her somewhere was the vision of Thoreau and the blood of Paul Revere.