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Boston: Cradle of Liberty!

By (January 21, 2016) No Comment

boston cradle of libertyOur book on this glorious day is Boston: Cradle of Liberty, a slim hardcover gem from 1965 written by Edward Weeks and illustrated by Fritz Busse. It’s the kind of keepsake tchotchke historic cities like Boston generate on a monthly basis (this March, it’ll be A History of Boston in 50 Artifacts, for instance), but this one stands out from the crowd for a few reasons.

Foremost, of course, being Ed Weeks. He’s entirely forgotten now, but once upon a time, for a very long time, he was the heart and soul of the old Atlantic Monthly back when it was headquartered in Boston. Weeks was the magazine’s “Peripatetic Reviewer,” and he was its eminence gris, and he knew every writer of any worth in two generations, and it very often seemed, in leisurely browses of the Brattle Bookshop or even more leisurely lunches in the back room of Goodspeed’s, that he’d read everything ever written. He had an absolutely infectious way of talking about books – not like they were exclusive society events but rather like they were warm, convivial parties that had been going on a long time. He would open the forbidding brownstone door onto the cold street where you were standing, and as the light and warmth and laughter spilled out, he’d quietly, happily invite you in – that was the experience of learning about books and authors from this wise and wonderful man.boston commons?

Something of that literary mindset fills even the pro-forma boilerplate that’s all little books like Boston: Cradle of Liberty ever require. Here in these pages are all the familiar old stories of the sacred cod and the confusing streets, the eccentric Bostonians with their odd mixture of warmth and prickles, and even the requisite boosterism no tourist-production can disavow – in this case, for example, compelling Weeks to digress a little about a grand new architectural marvel the city was then contemplating (in a detail of exquisite irony now lost on its readers, Weeks tells us the work is being done under the guidance of the “enlightened” Mayor John Collins), a glistening new hub called the Prudential Center:

Boston has long enjoyed two uptown plazas, Copley Plaza, and the smaller one the Christian Scientists have erected before their mother church. Now there is a third built by the initiative of the Prudential Life, with offices, a hotel, a vast auditorium, and on the 52nd floor of the Tower a restaurant reminiscent of the Top of the Mark from which one will see Boston old and new. The public and private cost of this entire development spread over a decade is one billion dollars.

But when Weeks leaves off regurgitating such press-release stuff (I doubt he knew any more clearly what he meant by “public and private cost’ than I do today, but oh, the true tales of the Pru’s financing I could tell you would make your each particular hair to stand on end, like quills upon the louisburg squarefretful porpentine), he can be relied upon to wax on matters literary, as he does in the sharply delightful little ditty at the heart of this book, “A State of Mind Surrounded by Water”:

Writers in our time still gravitate to Boston, attracted by the intellectual stimulus of Harvard and the less nervous wave-length distinguishing Boston from Manhattan. Robert Frost gravitated here, first to Louisburg Square and then to Cambridge; so did the late Bernard De Voto, who did his big historical books in Cambridge. Mark Antony de Wolfe Howe came to Boston from Rhode Island and was for long our most amiable biographer. At the foot of Beacon Hill, at 44 Brimmer Street, the house built by his grandfather, lives the seafaring historian Rear Admiral (Ret.) Samuel Eliot Morison, whose books about Columbus and John Paul Jones and whose histories of Harvard and of the Navy in World War II put him in a class by himself. John Marquand came back to Boston and his boyhood home in Newburyport to write his best novels, and today his place is taken by Edwin O’Connor, whose Irish heritage and skill in characterization mark him as our most discerning novelist.

All the classic old-style book-grandee hallmarks are there, most especially the unfailing taste: none of Boston’s more facile and publicity-friendly pundits in 1958 would have mentioned Bernard De Voto, let alone that delightfully stuffy old Athenaeum fixture from a century ago, Mark Antony de Wolfe Howe, whose string of Boston books are now permanently, resoundingly out of print, alas. chestnut stAnd leave it to Edward Weeks to praise Edwin O’Connor and Samuel Eliot Morison, two of the many fantastic authors he championed throughout his life.

The second reason Boston: Cradle of Liberty manages to survive my ever-increasing book-culls is, naturally enough, the artwork that fills it. The artist is Fritz Busse, one of the best hands at conveying the nervy and very new-feeling energy of mid-century cities in the grip of urban renewal and cultural diversification. This is extra-lucy in the cradletricky in a place like Boston, where the new and the old have always jostled a bit awkwardly, and Busse manages it beautifully, capturing both the monumental Boston that will stand until the Atlantic washes it under and the frenetic Boston of the day-to-day – in this case, a largely now-vanished day-to-day that adds an element of nostalgia to Busse’s drawings that he himself didn’t intend.

As mentioned, these books come and go – and they never come back again. A veritable avalanche of them rumbled off Boston presses in order to cash in on the nation’s bicentennial in 1976, and the books just keep on coming. Most of them are ephemera, but this one – like some other little gems of this joyous day! – is a keeper.