November 26, 2006

Not Necessarily Jamesıs Bostonians

"Nobody tells fibs in Boston" says one of Henry James's characters in The Bostonians.  It's a throwaway line, but the underlying assumption remains today: "Bostonian" means something specific, maybe to those of us who live here, but certainly to the outside world. 

I talked about that Boston image with William Vance, a Boston University professor emeritus and the author of America's Rome.  He also contributed a chapter called "Redefining "Bostonian'" to the book The Bostonians:  Painters of an Elegant Age, 1870-1930, by Trevor Fairbrother.  In it, he quotes a saying popular in James's time that "Boston folks are full of notions,"  adding  that jokes about "entrance examinations at the city limits and a race of people who wore spectacles even in their cradles were sufficiently numerous to indicate that other Americans knew what made "Bostonians' different."

And different we still are if what's written by us and about us are to be believed.  In a country where cities blur into a generic landscape, Boston stands out for its sense of place and identity, as well as a larger-than-city-limits sense of self.

"We have a symphony, we have museums beyond what another city this size might have," says Vance.  Boston also leans on its outsized academic presence and literary tradition. Its image even has a physical component, from its compact and contiguous geography  to its 18th and 19th century architecture.  There Vance believes Boston benefitted from its mid-20th-century economic slumber, which preserved its old buildings out of necessity until they came to be appreciated esthetically and historically.  Vance, who spends part of each year in Rome, sees how Boston's identity crosses the Atlantic, where Europeans admire it as city of intellectual activity, of ideas, universities, and the arts.

But, as James's contemporaries knew, Boston's seriousness and particularity make it  ripe fodder for caricature.  James mockingly portrayed it as a place of strict rules, down to the "right" private dancing classes which only the "right" people knew about.  Even if it wasn't, it somehow seemed as if it could have been. 

"James was consciously using local color," says Vance.  Today, the emphasis has shifted to the intersections of a wider population, flattening out old class hierarchies to include a fresh assessment of who the Bostonians are now.  In the work of writers like Dennis Lehane and Michael Patrick MacDonald, the local color is more likely to mirror the city's grittiness, with its streets and crime scenes, its courtrooms rather than its drawing rooms. 

Is "Bostonian" more than simply a geographic label?  Even as the original plain gave way to nouveau plush  more than a century ago, Vance notes, Boston remained somehow identifiably Boston.  We know it wasn't monolithic then and is certainly even less so now, but it does have a specific image.  Like most such images, this one is concocted from a pinch of truth--or maybe truthiness--and a cupful of misconceptions and assumptions.

Vance recalls that, not long ago, he was having a conversation in an elevator in Rome and one of the other passengers perked up at the sound of her native tongue.  "You're Americans, too!  We're from Dallas.  Where are y'all from?"

"I told her we were from Boston," Vance recalls, "and she said, "Oh,' and we rode the rest of the way in silence."

Ellen Steinbaum can be reached at

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