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The best books on Boston

recommended by Jane Kamensky

Interview by Eve Gerber

The idea of Boston as "a place of revolutionary fervour because liberty is somehow baked into its bones" is loaded with a "very heavy dose of self-mythologizing," says American historian Jane Kamensky. Here, the Harvard professor lifts the veil on this quintessential New England city and recommends five books for understanding its history

Jane Kamensky

Jane Kamensky is Professor of History at Harvard University and Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She is a historian of early America, the Atlantic world, and the age of revolutions, with particular interests in the histories of family, culture, and everyday life. She is the author of several historical works including the novel Blindspot, co-authored with Jill Lepore. Her most recent book is A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley.

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Tis a small canvas, this Boston,” remarks a character in Blindspot, the historical novel you cowrote with Jill Lepore. Tell me about this canvas; what brought you to Boston and what keeps you around? Before we talk about your books, please tell me about your perspective on this canvas. What brought you to Boston and what keeps you around?

Blindspot is the third of four books I’ve written that are set in and around Boston. Governing the Tonguemy dissertation book—focuses on Essex County, Massachusetts, under the Puritans. The Exchange Artist focuses on early nineteenth-century Boston. Closely related to Blindspot, though in a different genre, is my Copley biography A Revolution in Color.

I’m not a Bostonian by birth, though I’ve lived here for twenty-five years. The thing that draws me again and again is the vexed relationship between Boston’s reach and its grasp. From Boston’s very beginning, its ambition has been preposterous. It’s been a locus for American reform over three to four centuries, the birthplace of the first printing press in North America, the founding of Harvard College, the run-up to the American Revolution (which is when Blindspot is set). Boston had a vaunted but not un-complex role in abolition and in the Civil War. It’s a hub of American culture and has been called the Athens of America.

Boston has had great ambition and purpose from its founding right up to today, when Boston functions as a global knowledge centre. And also the vaunting self-regard that is mocked in the famous parody of a Boston Globe headline about a nuclear attack “Two Hub Men Die; New York also destroyed.”

“Boston has had great ambition and purpose from its founding right up to today, when Boston functions as a global knowledge centre”

There’s the sense that, as Massachusetts Bay Colony founder John Winthrop put it, the eyes of all the world are upon us. It’s more often false than true, but there’s a poignancy to striving to do good and falling short. I like that, both as an imperial story and as an American story. It gets to an essence of who Americans are as a people, in the best and worst of senses, and the best and worst of times. Boston is a mission-driven city that as often betrays as realises its mission. In that way, it’s a nice microcosm for much of the history of the United States.

Your most recent book A Revolution in Color largely takes place in eighteenth-century Boston. Can you please tell us about it?

A Revolution in Color tells the history of the American Revolution through the life of the Boston-born painter John Singleton Copley, who comes of age when Boston was a British imperial city. At this time, Boston is about the size of Edinburgh, but has nowhere near its cultural capital. Copley never set foot in the Boston of the United States. He knew Boston as the capital of British North America. And because Boston, at that time, did not fit his view of urbanity he was drawn to London and never returned.

“From Boston’s very beginning, its ambition has been preposterous”

One of the ironies that drew me to his story is that Copley was a loyalist who is known as one of the great painters of the American Revolution. He was a painter whose genre was portraiture and whose customers were drawn from Boston and its environs during the 1750s, 60s and early 70s. We tend to associate him with a mind’s-eye version of American patriotism, with his famous portrait of Paul Revere holding his silver teapot, yet his own politics were at odds with the iconography he created.

So Copley is an interesting person through which to piece together the puzzle of what the Revolution was like and what it seems like on its shiny painted surfaces. He takes us into an ambivalent Revolution that is westward-facing from London, that is largely cautious and ruthful. I like the vexedness of him as a character. The character that I wrote in Blindspot, Fanny Easton, is modelled characterologically on him, drawing in significant measure from his letters. His seemed a life that opened in a lot of different directions, plus I really love the artwork.

Much of your work concerns British Boston. How is Boston shaped by its British ancestry?

We still may be the most English of American cities; I guess along with Charleston in its appearance. Boston is a red-brick Georgian city in key parts of its built environment. Much of the city’s scale, despite the many things that have been done to its urban fabric and even its geography’s since, date to the period between 1630 and 1776 when it was a British port town. It retains that Anglophilic culture and economy for long after. I talk about this in Revolution in Color—the most salient feature in British Boston is the Long Wharf reaching out and stretching, stretching into Boston Harbor, as if reaching for London 2,000 miles away.

Boston, even now, is an intellectual capital of the United States—first, the foundational place of one of the oldest universities in the Western hemisphere; second, a capital of publishing; and third, now of science and biotech. All of that stems from the city’s imperial beginnings. Boston is a place that is importing books, pamphlets, learned treatises, an idea of what a university should be like. So, it retains that. The elite Boston accent is a species of British accent for a long time.

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I think one of the reasons that the Freedom Trail is so popular now as a tourist attraction is that not only does it tell a story of American origins that we want to hear, but you can also think your way back into that British eighteenth century in pieces of the North End where you can forget the higher parts of the modern skyline and look at the bricks.

How have the Congregationalist roots of the founding of Boston influenced its history?

There’s a combination of history and mythology in painting Boston as a Puritan city. A famous social history of the 1970s, called Winthrop’s Boston, followed the thinking of the time—that Boston was a Puritan city, remained so for a long time, and that its institutions and values were fundamentally rooted in reformed Protestantism. Historians have largely turned aside that thinking. Even in the first and second generations of English migration to Boston, there was a lot of dissent from the Puritan dissent. There’s a lot of weak affiliation or non-affiliation with Puritan churches; there’s the influence of Anglicanism quite early on, and also the influence of Quakerism and of Baptist sectarianism.

The idea that Boston is a place for people seeking toleration is a mythology that builds on itself. In this thinking, Boston becomes a place of revolutionary fervour because liberty is somehow baked into its bones. Bostonians begin calling themselves, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the cradle of American liberty. It’s not that this is fundamentally false, but it has a very heavy dose of self-mythologizing. People mock the Puritans and the Congregational soul of Boston almost as soon as there are Puritans in Boston!

“The idea that Boston is a place for people seeking toleration is a mythology that builds on itself.”

It’s more Congregational than any other American city, except perhaps New Haven, but less so than it likes to think. A lot of the city’s elite institutions owe their roots to settler-colonist families, but Boston has been a pretty fractious place from early on.

Let’s begin with your first book by Boston’s original mythologiser, The Journal of John Winthrop.

John Winthrop keeps a journal from the time that he journeys over in 1629/1630. It’s one of the most complete and detailed records that we have of those first decades of the plantation, this separate colony. He’s an extremely keen-eyed observer, which is characteristic of Puritans as a highly literate and self-scrutinising people. In their theology the more smug you are about your own salvation, the less likely you are to be one of God’s elect. Puritans are forever searching themselves for portents of their own destiny, which tends to make many of them very good observers; Winthrop is one of those. He’s also in a position of civil leadership for much of the period of his journal.

The Journal of John Winthrop is as interesting for the things that he doesn’t want us to think about as for the things that he does. We do see some of his ideas about order and propriety and righteousness in the organisation of the city, but we also see the city’s ties to markets around the English Atlantic, including to slave markets. It’s from Winthrop that we learn about the first enslaved people who come to New England from the Caribbean. We see a tremendous amount about relationships with indigenous communities. Much of this material, through our twenty-first century eyes, reflects quite poorly on the Puritan project.

Much of what we know about early tensions over radical Protestantism—the things that put the lie to the myth of seeking religious toleration—come from Winthrop. He talks about the need to winnow out the people whose beliefs are purer than the Puritans.

There’s a natural drama to what he shows readers about planting a colony on the seventeenth century equivalent of the moon. The day-to-day wear-and-tear of it. His journal gives a terrific sense of the fabric of the city, of how fragile the enterprise often was, its internal contradictions, its lofty goals and its more prosaic daily realities. He’s a poignant documenter of his moment.

According to the introduction of The Journal of John Winthrop (the abridged version) the ethnic stock of the Boston area was remarkably stable during the first century of the city. I was astounded to hear that.

It’s obligatory to state what Winthrop himself did so much efface: Boston is built on the land of Wampanoag peoples, which was expropriated by the English. As soon as the English plantation that becomes Boston establishes itself in the 1630s, it is a pretty strongly English place until the first big wave of Irish, German Palatinate and some French Huguenot immigration in the second decade of the eighteenth century.

The other different thing that distinguishes Boston from New York or Philadelphia and also the reason that its demographic profile is ethnically stable, is that as Winthrop said, “the eyes of all the world were upon them” until the English Civil War of 1642, at which point a lot of reformed Protestants want to stay and fight it out in England in the Civil War, and then in the Commonwealth period. So, it’s not a place of huge in-migration until the second quarter of the eighteenth century.

It grew mostly by natural increase for a much longer time than polyglot New York or parts of the colonies that had more direct relationships with the transatlantic slave trade. Although Boston has a foundational and enduring relationship with slavery, for the most part it is not a direct debarkation point for transatlantic shipping; its relationship with slavery is much more mediated by the Caribbean colonies. There are people of African descent here from the end of the 1630s. But you wouldn’t have heard large varieties of African languages on the streets of Boston as you would have, say, in Charleston.

Let’s jump to Black Bostonians: Family Life and Community Struggle in the Antebellum North, which brings us to the early history of the United States.

Jim and Lois Horton’s Black Bostonians is one of the foundational texts of the new social history of the 1970s. They publish a couple of years after the famous quartet of community studies that traces the social demographic fabric of New England towns like Andover, Dedham, Winthrop (which I mentioned a few minutes ago) and others. The Hortons go after a different quarry, and with it, a different story. They want to know about the non-white community—the community of African and African-descended people—in a city on a hill.

The thing that I admire so much about the book is how much blood they’re able to squeeze from really stony documents. They give us a sense of the sounds, sights and textures of daily life for some of the poorest people in the city, from records that, if you looked at them, would seem to tell you nothing. From city directories that give us occupations, from tax assessments that tell us who’s living on a block. From these really humble materials, they tell the story of the vitality and resistance of a relatively small black community, the infighting between Afro-Bostonians and the wave of Irish immigration that came in the 1820s and really picked up in the 1840s—this competition for scarce resources at the bottom of the economic ladder. Some of the under-history of Boston’s abolitionist thought, with the daily lives of free people and their own community, and a wonderful social geography of the city, too.

I’ve had the experience this week of reading Horton side by side with Common Ground, which I had never done before, and thinking this is really the pre-history of the busing crisis of the 1970s, just as it’s also the pre-history or the history of the Massachusetts 54th Civil War regiment that’s so famous. There’s a lot of humble, everyday glory in the stories that the Hortons are able to dredge up. It’s just a quite miraculous piece of research, especially for its time.

You focused on the role of slavery in early Massachusetts in Blindspot, and also the role of women in early colonial Boston. I’d love to hear your insights on the history of women in this city before we go to Common Ground. My reading of Henry James and Louisa May Alcott left the impression that women had a special role in the development of political consciousness in this city. Is that just fiction?

Relative to the rest of the Anglophone world, women are extraordinarily well-educated in New England. That is a post-Puritan legacy. For families to read the Bible in its vernacular editions and instruct their children in piety is an important article in civic faith. Women in Boston and Massachusetts and New England more broadly are much more literate than they would have been in almost any other place in the English-speaking world—by orders of magnitude over London, say.

There are educated women here from the very beginning. Some of the first writing that advocates for women in civic life by people like Judith Sargent Murray in published writings and by Abigail Adams in private writings, like Susanna Rowson in one of the first American novels. It’s not an accident that so much of that energy comes out of Boston. Anglo-women do continue to play an important role in the cultural life of the city up through Isabella Stewart Gardner’s time.

And not just Anglo-women. It’s quite logical that Phyllis Wheatley, one of our first published non-white women poets, is published in Boston, where the faith commitments of the people who owned and eventually would free her favoured women being educated to a degree. A patronage network of evangelicals saw her book into print.

So yes, it is a place of relative female achievement. The Common School movement that begins in the early nineteenth-century educates boys and girls alike, although not identically.

Before we move to twentieth century Boston, let’s stop at your foray into nineteenth century Boston. In The Exchange Artist you focused on the commercial history of the city. Please give us a precis of your book and the area’s economic development.

Sure. The Exchange Artist tackles the rise and fall of a financial and architectural scheme in the first and second decades of the nineteenth century. A man named Andrew Dexter, one of the commercial booster types that innovate disastrously across the early republic, engages in a dodgy paper money scheme in order to build a seven-storey skyscraper. It’s a temple to Mammon in the heart of Puritan Boston; built beside the city’s first church, it cast the old State House in shadow. It’s a comeuppance story in a lot of ways. Building a seven-storey building in a town of five-storey fire hoses and ladders turns out to be a mistake; it burns a mere ten years after completion, providing nineteenth-century commentators about speculation and excess with a large metaphor that they play with for about a hundred years.

Time for Common Ground, set during perhaps the most turbulent decade in Boston’s twentieth century social history. Tell us about it.

Common Ground is one of the great books of the twentieth century. As a matter of craft, it’s a foundational text of rigorous longform narrative journalism—one that gets at so much that resonates with the racial tensions of our own time, even though it’s written about a time almost exactly fifty years in the past.

Common Ground is one of the great books of the twentieth century.”

Through intensive interviewing, J. Anthony Lukas tells the story of America in the twentieth century, especially late twentieth-century Boston, through three families: a Harvard-educated white do-gooder of Protestant dissent, a Charlestown-based white Catholic family, and an aspiring African-American family from Roxbury who seek to realise the promise of Brown v. Board of Education in their own city. Lukas masterfully teases out the social geography of the place.

Lukas has tremendous empathy for where his Charlestown townies who resist the end of de facto segregation in Boston schools come from, ideologically as well as economically. This quality puts one in mind of works like J D Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis and Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.

Lukas is a civil rights warrior: he takes up the fight where Martin Luther King was bringing it at the end of his life to cities of the North, the places we classically associate with racial injury and segregation, and to places with an insidious apartness rooted in the cradle of liberty.

The irony is that the anti-immigrationist family he follows lives on Monument Avenue in Charlestown, literally in the shadow of the Bunker Hill monument. That tension—between the land of liberty that wants to allow for opportunity but not create the conditions of equality—is one that resonates all the way back to Winthrop’s time through the moment where Lukas’s story really picks up, which is in the 1930s or 1940s, all the way forward to today. He traces families from their Massachusetts and immigrant origins, so you get a long sweep of history in it, too.

A a new resident of Boston, I sense that the correlation between class and race is less tight in Boston than it is in other cities. Is that correct?

It depends on where and how you look. One of the wonderful things about the kaleidoscopic quality of Lukas, where he’s consistently moving the camera around, is we see the ways that race has been inscribed into the urban fabric of the city are firm and quite resistant. Boston is not known, even today, as a friendly place for people of colour. But there is not a Boston equivalent of the scale, violence and deprivation of Chicago’s south side, say.

It’s not necessarily that Boston is a more porous place. It’s that during the Great Migration—the mid-century movement north of Southern African-Americans free-people and their descendants—Boston was a secondary destination compared to New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. The Great Migration re-made those cities, creating large urban ghettos, but also thriving black middle-class suburbs.

Boston’s Great Migration history is different. Lukas traces some of it: there is an influx from the South, where the new black population from the South mixes somewhat uneasily not only with the white population in the city, but also with the ancient black population in the city. But it doesn’t remake the city in the way that it does with those other places.

What I was trying to get at is Boston’s white underclass is visible to a degree that I wasn’t able to see in other cities.

Yup. There are many varieties of what used to be called ‘white ethnic’ both power and poverty here. That’s one of the things that really comes out in Lukas: the ways that Irish immigrants, for example, engrossed an enormous amount of political and patronage power at the same time that places like Southie and Eastie were white ghettos of a sort. There is a native-born white underclass here. I’m not a twentieth-century urbanist, so I’m not an authority to quote on this.

Let’s turn to what you term “global Boston.” You’ve named Jumpha Lahiri’s brilliant Pultizer-winning book of short stories Interpreter of Maladies.

The other thing that is distinctive about Boston, which brings us to Lahiri is that Boston was—and is again lately—a tremendously international city. But that wasn’t true for much of the twentieth century. It’s remade by its English immigrants in the seventeenth century, to a certain degree by Scots, Irish, Germans, French, as well as Africans in the eighteenth century, and fundamentally by the Irish influx in the nineteenth century. But it doesn’t become a place of wildly disparate tongues and languages until much more recently. That late twenty-first century city of many immigrant populations is one that Lahiri and other novelists, such as Zadie Smith in White Teeth, get us into.

Many of Lahiri’s characters and many of the Boston’s inhabitants are educational migrants. The city has a special magnetism and a special meaning for people all over the world since so many come here to learn. Even those who move back home or move on after university consider themselves akin to alumni of the area. How has the area’s status as America’s and perhaps the world’s college town shaped its history?

We are the largest college town the world has ever known. There’s something around the order of 300,000 students and a score of institutions, which have grown hugely in power-scale and complexity since the founding of Harvard in the 1630s. Higher Ed, and its derivative sectors in tech and biotech, are the largest employers in the metropolitan area. That fact is remaking everything from culture and economics to our spiralling housing costs in the twenty-first century.

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Lahiri’s communities of Bengalis are exemplary of a new porousness that’s not always peaceful. It’s a global city in ways that it was when Winthrop was keeping his journal, and in ways that Horton attested to. Lahiri’s characters are often knowledge workers, of one kind or another, whose worlds are diasporic. I think she has a great knack for showing both the closeness and the distance of peoples and cities. They seem so close together at the same time, they’re incredibly far apart.

Many of her characters experience Boston as their embarkation port in the New World, as a place of opportunity but also of mortification. She uses that word ‘mortify’ quite a lot as a way to describe how people treat their elders. For example, her stories are a place where women often don’t have the opportunities or the security that they have in the world that they were leaving.

As in Lukas, the revolutionary heritage hovers, sometimes in interesting, flickering ways. In the terrific story, “When Mr. Prizada Came to Dine,” where Bengali émigrés are watching what turns out to be the birth of Bangladesh on TV in their college town, the narrator tells us she hasn’t learned the history of Partition, which is of her ancestral history, because in her Massachusetts school they’re drilling the history of the thirteen colonies—Boston history.

The metamorphosis of Boston throughout its four centuries is the subject of the last book on your list, Mapping Boston. Please tell me about it.

There are two great books about the assembling of the physical city. Mapping Boston is the one that is still widely in print. It’s a group of essays and catalogue entries edited by an urban planner from the Harvard School of Design and an eminent map curator. It’s a place where you see the earth on which all of the social dynamics that we’ve discussed grow.

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A city that starts as a tiny peninsula connected by a little neck of land to the mainland is transformed, in Dutch fashion, with infill over the course of the first half and into the third quarter of the nineteenth century. Many of the things that were floating in the harbour in Winthrop’s day are now under the city streets. You can see, in the maps that are so beautifully reproduced in the book, the coming together of the various neighbourhoods that Horton and Lukas take us into. You can see the cutting down of the hills. Winthrop’s ‘City on a Hill’ was a city on three hills in the West of Boston (the most famous of which is Beacon Hill). These hills loamed mountainously over the city in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, but in the beginning of the nineteenth century they were carted away, wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow, to make the neighbourhood known as Back Bay.

“Boston has a more interesting, ground-up built environment than most American cities.”

Boston is a physical incarnation of the preposterous ambition that we talked about at the beginning of the hour: the shape of the city isn’t suited our residential needs or our commerce, so let’s just remake it as a regular-sized land. You can see the organic city; that is, where the paths are marked out by the traffic of horses and feet, to the gridded city that is making way for streetcars, then subways and then cars. Boston has a more interesting, ground-up built environment than most American cities. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, many American cities are planned; Boston is really made.

Interview by Eve Gerber

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Jane Kamensky

Jane Kamensky is Professor of History at Harvard University and Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She is a historian of early America, the Atlantic world, and the age of revolutions, with particular interests in the histories of family, culture, and everyday life. She is the author of several historical works including the novel Blindspot, co-authored with Jill Lepore. Her most recent book is A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley.