On New England

From Boston’s beginnings and beyond

By Michael Kenney
Globe Correspondent / October 31, 2010

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Edith Wharton’s 1895 short story, “The Lamp of Psyche,” tells the tale of Delia Corbett, a Boston woman living in Paris whose husband gives her a badge commemorating a Union officer, which he had picked up in a little shop on the Rue Bonaparte.

The badge identifies the officer as having been killed at Chancellorsville, prompting Delia to ask her husband why he wasn’t in the war. “I don’t think I know,” he answers.

She ticks off the possible physical reasons, then pauses: “ ‘Or a coward,’ ” she flashed out, letting the badge fall from her hand.”

The story is among the striking selections in Shaun O’Connell’s new anthology, “Boston: Voices and Visions,’’ a compendium of works by notable preachers, politicians, poets, novelists, and others.

In his introduction to the story, O’Connell explains that Corbett “cannot survive being viewed in Boston light.”

From the 17th century to the present day, writes O’Connell, Boston writers “[invoked] the high purposes for which the city was founded, sometimes in praise of the city, but often in works which called attention to the city’s failures to fulfill its promises.” On this point, he cites Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead” that “both honors the city’s noble past and illustrates its ignoble present.”

Readers will find among the 56 selections that O’Connell, a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston, presents many that will be familiar. But it will be the very rare reader who won’t find one strikingly unfamiliar.

Stephen Puleo begins his exploration of the half-century of achievement that made Boston, as his title puts it, “A City So Grand’’ by taking the T to Park Street station.

The first link in Boston’s subway system opened on Sept. 1, 1897, with as many as 200,000 people paying a nickel for an inaugural ride. And by 6:30 that morning, barely a half-hour after the first car pulled into Park Street through a tunnel from the Public Garden entrance, the day’s Boston Globe sighed, “[T]he novelty of entering the subway was [already] showing signs of age.”

While it wasn’t “The First Car Off the Earth,” as a boosterish Globe proclaimed (London, Glasgow, and Budapest already had subway systems), it was America’s first, fostering the image of Boston as a center of innovation.

There were engineering problems aplenty, and opposition from short-sighted downtown merchants. And there was shock when workers broke into a half-forgotten burial ground on the Common. After the excavation and reburial of some 910 bodies, one report noted, “the contractors have been touched with a sense of decency.”

Puleo’s previous excursion through Boston’s past was “Dark Tide,’’ a gripping account of the 1919 molasses flood, recently chosen by users for a city-wide reading project.

Like the other achievements that Puleo describes here — the filling of the Back Bay in the 1850s, and the rebuilding of the downtown commercial center after the Great Fire of 1872 — the subway transformed the city.

Puleo describes how that first link under Tremont Street was built even while street railway cars continued to crawl overhead. The building of the subway thus prefigures the replacement of the Central Artery during the Big Dig.

Moving beyond Boston to small towns across New England, historian T.H. Breen in “American Insurgents, American Patriots,’’ his populist reinterpretation of the American Revolution, argues that ordinary people showed themselves ready to take action well before the battles at Lexington and Concord.

“The popular response” to rumors in September 1774 that a British fleet had bombarded Boston “was nothing short of spectacular,” writes Breen, a professor of history at Northwestern University. “Everywhere men spontaneously fetched weapons . . . and marched north and east to defend the capital of New England.”

As it became clear that the reports had been false, the various militia units returned home. But as Breen writes, “[T]he insurgency in New England [had taken on] a life of its own.”

Breen suggests that the local approach to resistance blunted any tendency toward the bloodbaths that occurred during other revolutions. The local committees, he writes, “quickly seized the political initiative.” Loyalists, he adds, “found themselves marginalized.”

With dozens of similar stories from places like Halifax and Petersham, Lebanon and Pomfret, Conn., and Durham, N.H., Breen makes his case that it was in those places, as much as in Boston, that the Revolution was ignited and fueled.

And it is “our own insatiable curiosity about prominent American leaders,” Breen suggests, that has caused us “not [to] pay much attention to the revolutionary experiences of the common people.”

Michael Kenney can be reached at

BOSTON: Voices and Visions
Edited by Shaun O’Connell
University of Massachusetts, 384 pp., paperback, $29.95

A CITY SO GRAND: The Rise of an American Metropolis, Boston 1850-1900
By Stephen Puleo
Beacon, 320 pp., illustrated, $26.95

By T.H. Breen
Hill and Wang, 352 pp., $27