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Jewish World Review Nov. 10, 1999 /1 Kislev, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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Mindmap -- Once I passed through
a populous city,
imprinting my brain,
for future use.
with its shows, architecture,
customs, and traditions.

-- Walt Whitman

BOSTON -- If memory serves, and mine doesn't always, Will Rogers once said there were three unique American cities: San Francisco, San Antonio and Boston.

Or would you nominate Charleston, New Orleans and Richmond?

Whatever your picks, there are certain cities one approaches, however many times you've been there, with a new, unfailing sense of anticipation. Their reputation does not just precede them; it shapes them.

Unlike ordinary cities, these seem aware that they must live up to themselves. Should they fail, we still hurry back, for the expectation of them does not change. They are like a map we carry in our minds, and Boston is surely one of them. Why? Its "shows, architecture, customs, and traditions''? No, those are only reflections of something else -- the unique spirit of the city.

Boston's is the spirit of liberty. That spirit was present even before there was a Boston, Massachusetts. The American Revolution was anticipated in Suffolk and Essex long before those were the names of counties in Massachusetts -- when they were still the centers of the Puritan revolt against the Cavaliers. It is no coincidence that Boston should have proved first the Cradle of Liberty and then the center of the abolitionist revolt against the cavaliers of Charleston and Richmond.

Early New England's mix of conscience and commerce, free minds and free labor, would spread like wildfire through the "burned-over territory'' of the Northwest -- western New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio ... as if freedom itself were migrating westward.

In today's Boston, freedom is the name of a trail for tourists. The spirit of '76 may be somewhere under the urban grime and stress, but it is no longer the first thing a visitor notices.

As for the Cradle of Liberty, maybe it's been preserved behind glass in one of the city's ornate museums or is being kept up as a showpiece, like the USS. Constitution.

The spirit of liberty remains imprinted on Boston's shows, architecture, customs and traditions, but perhaps only there. To pick up a copy of the Globe, or turn on public radio, or talk to a recent Harvard graduate is to encounter only the flat, stale taste of the national conventionality.

The brahmins and the brawlers seem to have settled into a kind of co-existence that cancels out both.

One wonders if, given another chance, Will Rogers would have kept Boston on his list of unique cities. Its peculiarities, like those of many an American city, may have ossified into a kind of inflated nostalgia, a collection of tourist attractions:

The new Fenway Park is to cost $600 million, but no amount of money can duplicate the classical sense of tragedy and catharsis associated with the old.

Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market are now places to buy trinkets, and Boston's commerce is as Internetted as Lands' End.

The mysterious Big Dig, a pharaonic construction project of indeterminate ends and endless public expenditure, continues. Taxachusetts marches on.

The nice, enlightened people I run into say with ill-concealed pride what they should confess with shame -- that they don't condescend to read the local papers. Their views have the faint imprint of New York Times editorials.

Well, maybe these folks read the Boston Globe to keep up on occasion, but certainly not the tabloid Herald. That would be declasse. What a pity. They would have missed the Herald's two-word, front-page headline that summed up the defeat of a 79-year-old city councilman who'd been around since James Michael Curley was boss: LAST HARRUMPH

Only when it comes to something they've actually experienced -- taxes, crime, traffic, their own neighborhoods or ethnicity -- do the people I run across veer from the party line and lapse into a Bostonian authenticity. In the bars, on the street, at construction sites, whether from dowagers or proletarians, the old-new spirit of liberty remains unabashed. But it goes unrecognized in the royal gazettes, now known as The Media.

The same process can be seen at work in Greater Boston, i.e., the United States.

Puritanism goes universalist/unitarian. The local, the parochial, the regional, even the national fades into the global.

Note the latest volume from The Library of America, our certified middlebrow canon. This newest addition to the series is a collection of American sermons, and it goes from the Pilgrims to the 20th Century. Much like Boston itself, the book begins in full Puritan vigor and dwindles down to a diluted sophistication.

To quote one reviewer, "the later sermons largely lack the literary appeal of the earlier ones. ... Indeed. they amply demonstrate the `dumbing down' of our public intellectual discourse. There is something urgent about the early Puritan sermons at their best -- rigorous, challenging, pungent, imbued with a vivid sense of language and intellectual adventure. Although the 20th Century sermons ... address many of the same civic and spiritual concerns, they smell either of the academic study or of the street. Gone is the awareness of an appreciative and reflective audience of serious lay listeners; in its absence, sentimentality and the cult of personality do for both argument and eloquence.''

It is that earlier spirit of liberty, of a self-determination of the mind and soul, that imprinted itself on America. New England's legacy went far beyond New England. And if today's cultural landscape no longer reflects that imprint, even in Boston, perhaps it is not the map that needs changing, but the terrain.

Cities are built, not given. They can grow freely and yet purposefully, or in an absence of mind. Boston bravely wharfed itself out into the ocean before sprawling vaguely inland. However much the result may disappoint from time to time, some of us will always return to Boston, and to America, with the same, unchanging sense of anticipation. Because some places exist in the mind, as well as on the ground, and we will always seek after them.

Paul Greenberg Archives


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