Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Book Review: A City So Grand

I'm a big fan of Stephen Puleo's book Dark Tide, a riveting account of Boston's great molasses flood of 1919. I was very happy to see that Dark Tide has been selected by readers as the first title for its online book club. Dark Tide was voted ahead of other great books of local interest, some of which were written by big-name authors, so it's a testament to the quality of Puleo's writing and the engaging nature of his story-telling.

So, I was naturally interested in reading Puleo's new book, A City So Grand. The book chronicles the history of Boston in the second half of the nineteenth century and the incredible technological, social, and political innovations that were first pioneered in the city and later altered America. Puleo begins his tale with an account of the return of the runaway slave Thomas Sims from Boston to the South in 1851 and uses that event to detail the leading role that Bostonians, in particular Charles Sumner, played in the abolitionist movement. The book discusses the city's role in events that transformed America, such as the Civil War and the massive influx of Irish immigrants, as well as Boston's Great Fire of 1872 and the creation of the Back Bay. There are also large segments devoted to the creation of the first subway in America and Alexander Graham Bell's invention of the telephone in his little workshop in Boston.

What I found really interesting were Puleo's passages describing the pageantry of great city-wide celebrations such as the Great Railroad Jubilee of 1851 and the Great Peace Jubilee in 1869, which drew attendees from all around the world. I had never heard of these events before so it was really eye-opening.

Puleo could have written another 320 pages about Boston's history between 1850 and 1900 and not run out of stories. Personally, I would have enjoyed reading more about the pioneering role of Bostonians such as John L. Sullivan and George and Harry Wright in sports in the late 1800s. The sports-crazy city that we live in today was born during the time period covered by Puleo. I grant you, though, this is just a personal bias.

While the book is a great read, I couldn't help but feel a little melancholy about the Boston of today compared to the Boston of the 1800s. The list of achievements by Bostonians back then seem to surpass our contributions to American life today. Back then, Bostonians literally moved mountains to resculpt the city, filling in waterways and creating the Back Bay. Puleo writes that the Great Coliseum, 500 feet long and 300 feet wide, that held 50,000 people for the Great Peace Jubilee was built in just 90 days. 90 days!

Boston still plays a leading role in science, technology, and education. In the last 20 years, Boston has had some notable achievements such as the cleanup of Boston Harbor and the Big Dig, but even while the Big Dig was an engineering marvel it was a long, protracted project and not necessarily a source of pride. These days, we can't even stage an event such as the Parade of Tall Ships without constant bickering and political infighting. There's a huge hole festering in Downtown Crossing where the old Filene's building, a Boston institution, once stood. I fear that it's becoming a symbol of a can't-do spirit in the city. Could Boston build the Great Coliseum in just 90 days today? I doubt it.

Puleo touches on the contrast between yesterday and today in A City So Grand: "Long before the frustrations of our modern era, in which the notion of accomplishing great things often appears overwhelming or even impossible, Boston distinguished itself in the last half of the nineteenth century by proving it could tackle and overcome the most arduous of the challenges and obstacels with repeated--and often resounding--success, becoming a city of vision and destiny."

Puleo includes this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson in the book: "Boston commands attention as the town which was appointed in the destiny of nations to lead the civilization of North America." My question is: Can we say the same today?

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