February 11, 2010
A. I discovered a contemporary psychologist, Daniel Gilbert, author of the international bestseller Stumbling on Happiness, and host of the new PBS series, “This Emotional Life.” Gilbert is about 52, and a professor at Harvard. “At the age of 19,” says Wikipedia, “Gilbert was a high school dropout who wanted to be a science fiction writer. In an attempt to improve his writing skills, he took a bus to the local community college to enroll in a creative writing class. When he was told that the creative writing class was full, he signed up for the only class that was still open: Introduction to Psychology.”
B. I also discovered a contemporary biologist, Sean B. Carroll. Carroll is 49, and a professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Carroll studies evolution at the molecular, genetic level; he’s a leader in the field of “evolutionary developmental biology,” or evo-devo. This new science compares development from an embryo (ontogeny) with development from earlier organisms (phylogeny). Evo-devo was the subject of a recent PBS documentary, “What Darwin Never Knew.”
Carroll is the author of Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom, and The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution, and Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species, which discusses Alexander von Humboldt, Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, Louis Leakey, etc. (Avoid Carroll’s Into the Jungle, which overlaps with Remarkable Creatures.)
C. Michael Scammell, best known for his biography of Solzhenitsyn, recently published a biography of Arthur Koestler, and discussed it on C-SPAN. Scammell isn’t a prolific writer; he seems to spend decades on each book. His biography of Solzhenitsyn is highly-regarded, and I suspect that his Koestler biography will be, too. In his C-SPAN interview, Scammell said that Koestler was a womanizer, and was married three times; perhaps we should connect this with his penchant for travelling (I discuss the connection between sex and travel in my book of aphorisms). Koestler had a deep interest in the occult, but Scammell seems to ignore this, perhaps because he doesn’t share it, perhaps because he thinks it’s a stain on Koestler’s reputation.
D. I discovered a 19th-century writer who is largely forgotten today: George MacDonald. He was well-known in his day for fantasies and fairy tales that have spiritual import, just as C. S. Lewis is well-known in our day for such works. Both Lewis and Tolkien acknowledged a debt to MacDonald. For a time, MacDonald worked as a minister, and some of his books deal with Christian themes; among his fans are Christian intellectuals like G. K. Chesterton.
MacDonald said, “I write, not for children, but for the child-like, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.” According to Wikipedia,
MacDonald was friends with eminent writers like Mark Twain, John Ruskin, and Walt Whitman. “MacDonald also served as a mentor to Lewis Carroll... It was MacDonald’s advice, and the enthusiastic reception of Alice by MacDonald’s three young daughters, that convinced Carroll to submit Alice for publication.”1
E. The recent election in Massachusetts, in which Scott Brown defeated Martha Coakley, was the biggest surprise that I’ve ever seen in American politics. Brown, a Republican, appeared to have no chance at all in dark-blue Massachusetts. Brown exemplifies two theories that I’ve discussed in previous issues: the politician from a broken home, and the athlete turned politician.
F. Encyclopedia Britannica recently admitted that its account of the Irish Civil War was incorrect, and needed to be substantially modified. This admission suggests that traditional encyclopedias may not be as reliable as they’re believed to be. Wikipedia may be as reliable, or more reliable, than traditional encyclopedias.
Eric Rohmer died. He’s one of my favorite filmmakers — tasteful, thoughtful. He was 89 when he died, and released his last film in 2007. I looked back at my diary for 1994, and found my first encounter with Rohmer:
From an obituary in the New York Times:
Another favorite of mine, J. D. Salinger, also died recently. I discovered him rather late, since he wasn’t on my list of Great Writers. But once I started reading him, I fell madly in love, since he spoke my language, and discussed my world, in a way that Homer, Proust, and Tolstoy didn’t.
I wasn’t alone, Salinger was extremely popular. Astute readers, like Edmund Wilson and Hemingway, were impressed with Salinger. He seemed to enjoy writing, and to make reading enjoyable:
And what piece of writing did Salinger The Reader most want to read? “What I like best,” he wrote, “is a book that’s at least funny once in a while.”4 So Salinger The Writer gave us books that were at least funny once in a while. Perhaps Salinger was too easily satisfied, both as a reader and as a writer. His books have wit and charm, but lack depth and breadth. [I took a different view of Salinger in a later essay.]
His specialty was the little details of home and family:
Salinger was receptive to Eastern wisdom, and to the occult. When his protagonist wants to talk to his sister on the phone, he wonders what he should do if she doesn’t answer: “I thought of maybe hanging up if my parents answered, but that wouldn’t’ve worked, either. They’d know it was me. My mother always knows it’s me. She’s psychic.”
Here’s another example of telepathy from The Catcher in the Rye:
If you want to try Salinger, I suggest one of his Nine Stories, or his novel, The Catcher in the Rye. As for Salinger criticism, I recommend an essay called “J. D. Salinger: Some Crazy Cliff.”7
Another prominent American writer, Louis Auchincloss, also died recently. He was 92, and was still publishing novels in his 80s. He was born into New York City’s WASP establishment (“Auchincloss” is a Scotch name), and often wrote about that establishment. An obituary in the New York Times said, “Although he practiced law full time until 1987, Mr. Auchincloss published more than 60 books of fiction, biography and literary criticism in a writing career of more than a half-century. He was best known for his dozens and dozens of novels about what he called the ‘comfortable’ world.”
Was there something unfashionable about Auchincloss’s fiction, something politically-incorrect? When the counter-culture movement of the 60s began, his reputation seemed to decline. I never heard of him until I saw his obituary. If I heard the name “Auchincloss” a few times, it was because of a family connection between Jackie Kennedy’s family and the Auchincloss family.
Auchincloss was more than a novelist, he was a man-of-letters. Among his non-fiction works are biographies of Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt, and an autobiography called A Writer’s Capital. He also wrote critical studies of Dreiser and Henry James. According to the Times,
According to the New Criterion, “Since the deaths of Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling... Auchincloss now stands out as our most distinguished and versatile man of letters.”8 If you want to try Auchincloss’s fiction, consider one of his many short stories, or his novel The Rector of Justin, “which was a best seller and a finalist for the National Book Award, [and] is regarded by many critics as Mr. Auchincloss’s best and most important novel.”9 Its protagonist is the headmaster (or “rector”) of a New England private school. Among his other novels, The Embezzler was also a bestseller; East Side Story traces an upper-class New York City family from the Civil War to the Vietnam War.
While Salinger was reclusive, Auchincloss was involved in civic affairs. “Mr. Auchincloss was a man of the city he knew so intimately, serving as president and chairman of the Museum of the City of New York.”10
I read his story, “The Cathedral Builder,” which is in a volume called Second Chance: Tales of Two Generations. I found it intelligent, cultured, well-written, clear, readable. If it has no brilliant virtues, it has no conspicuous vices, either. It’s just what one would expect from the author’s reputation and biography. Auchincloss doesn’t dig very deep, or soar very high, but he’s enjoyable to read.
I recently visited one of Boston’s most famous edifices, Trinity Church. It’s in the Back Bay — more specifically, it’s in Copley Square. It faces the Boston Public Library, and is next-door to the Hancock Tower, Boston’s tallest building.
The Back Bay neighborhood didn’t exist when colonial-style, or federal-style, buildings were being erected. Most Back Bay churches (including Trinity Church) date to the late 1800s, when Ruskin’s influence was at its peak, and the Gothic Revival was in full swing. Trinity Church, however, was built in the Romanesque style, with rounded arches. Apparently its pastor, Phillips Brooks, had a hand in its design, and he associated Gothic with “High Church,” so he preferred Romanesque.
Trinity is known for its stained glass and its murals. Some of its stained glass was made by William Morris and his associate Edward Burne-Jones, some by John LaFarge, who also painted many of its murals. The tour guide said that LaFarge influenced the famous maker of stained glass, Louis Tiffany, but Wikipedia calls Tiffany a competitor of LaFarge, not a disciple. At any rate, both LaFarge and Tiffany used colored glass, rather than applying paint to clear glass. According to Wikipedia, “Use of the colored glass itself to create stained glass pictures was motivated by the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement and its leader William Morris.”
Like most Back Bay buildings, Trinity Church is built on wooden piles (tree trunks). These wooden piles remain strong as long as they’re immersed in water (that is, as long as they’re below groundwater level). Such wooden piles are used in other watery cities, like Venice and St. Petersburg. But Trinity Church doesn’t rest directly on the piles, it has a stone foundation, which is composed chiefly of four massive pyramids of stone. These pyramids support the church’s four main columns (the columns are sometimes called “elephant’s feet”). The tour guide showed us these pyramids of stone when we went to the basement, at the end of the tour. Since the pyramids don’t have smooth sides, or a pointed top, we should probably call them “step pyramids.”
The tour guide described how difficult, how expensive it is to maintain the church. When someone asked him if they were planning to complete the murals, he said no, they were struggling just to heat the building. Perhaps the most urgent task for a church like Trinity is to keep people coming, to fill its numerous pews. The minister seemed eager to make Christianity appealing, to sugar-coat Christianity; he spoke of church cook-books, the tasty dishes they described, and the cooperative spirit they exemplified. I was somewhat bored by the sermons, but I enjoyed the music, and the tour was first-rate.
I also took a guided tour of the Boston Public Library. Unlike Trinity, which usually charges for admission and for a tour, both are free at the Library. The Library’s tour guide wasn’t as good as Trinity’s, but there’s much to see at the Library, and I’m glad I took the tour. The tour concentrates on the original Library, as opposed to the recent addition. The original Library was designed by Charles McKim, the addition by Philip Johnson. The style of the McKim building is Renaissance Revival. Early in his career, McKim worked for Trinity’s architect, Henry Hobson Richardson. The Library opened in 1895, about twenty years after Trinity.
The library boasts a mural by John Singer Sargent depicting religious history, a mural by Edwin Austin Abbey depicting the Grail Legend, and a mural by Puvis de Chavannes depicting the muses. The tour guide briefly described each of these murals; a more detailed description can be found on the Library’s website.
The McKim building is covered with the names of famous men (Emerson, Longfellow, Laplace, etc., etc.). Imagine one of today’s architects doing that! What a revolution in values has occurred in the last century!11 If we put names on our monuments, as on the Vietnam Memorial, it isn’t the names of the famous, but of the ordinary — not superman, but everyman, not Michelangelo’s David, but Giacometti’s L’Homme qui marche.
Like most Back Bay edifices, the Library was built between the Civil War and World War I, when Ruskin was influential. Ruskin’s favorite city was Venice, and there are references to Venice in the Library. There’s a Venetian Lobby, complete with the names of eminent Venetians, and the “Abbey Room” was inspired by a room in Venice’s Ducal Palace.
Boston Common is bisected by Charles Street. The smaller, southwestern portion, closer to Back Bay, is a simple square, or rather rectangle, formed by Charles, Boylston, Arlington, and Beacon Streets; it features a pond with a bridge and swan-shaped boats. It’s not actually part of Boston Common, it’s called the Public Garden.
The northeastern portion, closer to Quincy Market and the old city center, Boston Common proper, featuring a gazebo/bandstand and a skating rink, isn’t a simple square, it’s a 5-sided space, formed by Charles, Boylston, Tremont, Park, and Beacon Streets. At each intersection, though, the streets seem to meet at right angles, and you can easily mistake the Common for a square. The 5-sided shape has confused me more than once, and has doubtless confused many tourists over the years.
If you follow Boylston Street toward the northeast, it becomes Essex Street, and meets South Station. If you follow Boylston southwest, you’ll pass Copley Square, the Boston Public Library, the Prudential Center, and Fenway Park (actually, Fenway Park is one block north of Boylston, but you’ll feel like you’re near it). Then Boylston meets Brookline Avenue, which takes you to the hospital district.
Between the Prudential Center and Fenway Park are the Back Bay Fens, or swamps, a reminder of the days when the whole Back Bay was a bay/swamp (it was filled, beginning in 1857, with earth brought by train from the nearby town of Needham). Beware The Fens! In the warm part of the year, they look enticing, with quiet paths meandering through community gardens, and gardeners busy with wheelbarrows and shovels. But once you enter, it’s difficult to get through, or exit; the paths revolve you around, and you find yourself back where you started, except with less time and energy. I suggest you stay on Boylston, as it turns and twists, if you want to reach the hospital district. Beware The Fens!
The Fens are part of a chain of Boston parks called The Emerald Necklace. The chain of parks was laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted, and stretches for seven miles, from Boston Common, down Commonwealth Avenue, through The Fens, along Muddy River to Jamaica Pond and the Arnold Arboretum, and finally ending in Franklin Park. (You may want to go from Arnold Arboretum to Forest Hills Cemetery, which is probably more scenic than Franklin Park. Forest Hills Cemetery is a garden cemetery, like Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, or Swan Point Cemetery in Providence.) In many of the parks, biking is prohibited, so it might be best to walk The Necklace, then take the subway back to your starting point (there’s a subway stop, Forest Hills, between Franklin Park and the Arnold Arboretum). The Arnold Arboretum is extensive, well-organized, and offers free tours; it also offers in-depth classes.
If you’re driving, you could park at the Walk Hill gate of Forest Hills Cemetery (cemeteries usually offer free parking). Then walk along the red line to the Cemetery’s main gate (see map). Then walk along the street to the Arboretum’s Washington Street gate. There’s a bathroom at the Arboretum’s main entrance, and at Jamaica Pond. If you get tired, you can take a bike from one of the Hubway racks; you could also get a subway at Back of the Hill or Longwood.
The Emerald Necklace was conceived as a chain of parks forming a circle, but the Dorchester section was never completed. Now, however, there’s a bike-path called the Southwest Corridor that fills most of the gap in the Necklace. The Southwest Corridor extends for five miles, from the Forest Hills subway station to the Back Bay subway station; it follows the railroad tracks (the Orange Line). Though not as scenic as The Emerald Necklace, it’s more bike-friendly. There’s also a 10-mile bike-path west of Boston, the Minuteman Bikeway.
Just west of Arnold Arboretum is Allandale Woods, an 86-acre park. If you walk through Allandale Woods to Allandale Street, you can visit Allandale Farm. From Allandale Farm, you may be able to glimpse the historic Brandegee Estate, also known as Faulkner Farm. The Estate’s address is 280 Newton Street, Brookline; it straddles the Brookline-Boston boundary. The Estate’s formal garden was once home to the MFA’s statue of Juno.
The Boston Skyline from Hough’s Neck
From Hough’s Neck, looking toward Hull
If you want to tour Boston by bike, contact “Urban Adventours: Boston’s Downtown Bike Shop.” They lead tours on the Emerald Necklace and the Southwest Corridor, along the harbor to Castle Island, along the Charles River, etc. They’ll also give you a map, and rent you a bike, so you can do your own tour. If you’re really adventurous, there’s a midnight ride once a year, in early August; the ride deals with architecture and history, and it continues until morning, and then ends with breakfast. For information, google “Back Bay Midnight Pedalers,” or contact Ferris Wheels Bike Shop.
An organization called Historic New England offers house tours and walking tours in Boston; one of their properties is the Otis House, in the West End. The Gibson House, in Back Bay, offers tours, as does the Nichols House, on Beacon Hill, and the Prescott House, near Boston Common. The Massachusetts State House is also open for tours; visitors are asked to make a reservation by calling 617-727-3676. Barbara Berenson leads CivilWar walking tours in Boston; if you prefer a self-guided tour, Barbara has published a tour booklet. She also published a book called Boston and the Civil War. (Yes, Barbara is related to Bernard Berenson — or rather, her husband is.)
The National Geographic Society has mapped out three self-guided tours of Boston: Back Bay, Waterfront, and North End. Though the tours are heavy on shopping and light on history, they provide a good overview of the city, and include useful maps. Click here for a quick summary of Boston architecture; click here for a more detailed look at Boston architecture. The Boston Society of Architects occasionally organizes an architecture cruise or walk. Click here for a slideshow of Boston’s ugliest buildings (contemporary government buildings). Click here for the accompanying article, which defends these buildings.
|1.|| Wikipedia back|
|2.|| January 12, 2010, “Eric Rohmer, a Leading Filmmaker of the French New Wave, Dies at 89” by DAVE KEHR back|
|3.|| Seymour: An Introduction back|
|4.|| Catcher, ch. 3 back|
|5.|| Catcher, ch. 21 back|
|6.|| Ch. 5 back|
|7.|| A. Heiserman and J. Miller, Western Humanities Review, 1956 (10) back|
|8.|| October, 1997. Auchincloss was a Stratfordian, and dismissed “crackpot theories about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays.” (Motiveless Malignity, quoted in Ogburn’s Mysterious William Shakespeare, 1984, p. 256) back|
|9.|| New York Times obituary back|
|10.|| New York Times obituary back|
|11.||The architectural style of the Boston Public Library resembles that of a Paris library, the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève; McKim was inspired by this Paris library. This Paris library has 810 names on its facade! back|