New England was founded consciously, and in no fit of absence of mind,” observed historian Samuel Eliot Morison on the establishment of the Bay Colony in 1630 on the narrow, mountainous Shawmut peninsula of what became Massachusetts. That self-conscious presence of mind has endured for four centuries. Boston has been shaped and sustained by observation, imagination, and interpretation. As a result, the evolving vision of Boston has yielded a compelling literary record.
In this wide-ranging anthology, Shaun O’Connell includes a generous sampling of those who have recorded, revised, and redefined the vision of Boston. Anne Bradstreet, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, W. E. B. Du Bois, Mary Antin, Edwin O’Connor, John Updike, and many others eloquently evoke and explain Boston in these pages.
From John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” sermon, delivered aboard the Arbella before his followers landed in 1630 in the place they would call Boston, to Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead,” a poem delivered in Boston’s Public Garden in 1960, writers have continued to invoke the high purposes for which the city was founded, sometimes in praise of the city, but often in what Robert Frost named a “lover’s quarrel,” in works that called attention to the city’s failures to fulfill its promises. In the twenty-first century some writers continue to celebrate or to castigate the city, while others look back to Boston’s origins to reassess its founders and renew its covenant of high purpose.
This is an interpretive anthology—one that includes commentary as well as writings. Section introductions provide historical and biographical context, offer analysis that stresses the thematic relevance of each selection, and explore the pattern of their relations. Rather than present a random array of writers who happen to have been Greater Bostonians, O’Connell focuses on those authors who possessed a commitment to the sense of place, those who addressed Boston not only as a geographical, social, and political entity but as an image, idea, and site of symbolic values