Elizabeth Benedict

Past Perfect Massachusetts

Appeared originally in These United States: Original Essays by Leading American Writers on Their State Within the Union, edited by John Leonard (2003).

A parlor game for Freudians: if California were a region of the psyche, which would it be? The id. New York? The ego? Massachusetts? The superego.

Impulses associated with the states: California--adventure. New York--ambition. Massachusetts--renunciation.

The Beach Boys. Benny Goodman. Bach.

Beauty. Nerve. Brains.

On second thought, Massachusetts is brainy and beautiful, exquisitely so, from the hooked tip of Provincetown to the verdant heights of the Berkshires. It's easy to appreciate but dizzying to contemplate because of all it was and is and aspired to be. And because of all that has been written about it: its goodness, its fleeting greatness, its complicated failings. The writing is so vast and tormented, so filled with ambition, anguish, self-examination, and genius that it exists as a shadow identity, somehow essential to our experience of the state, whether we begin reading with The Scarlet Letter, Couples, or Robert Lowell's "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket." Boston and Cambridge have inspired so much literary scrutiny that it would be safe to conclude that they desire to be studied, that the unexamined city is not worth living in. Yet somewhere, beyond the literature, is the place itself. Maybe. The mind wanders not to a quintessential street corner--Sunset and Vine--or a central location--Times Square--but to the door of the library. Of course you won't be able to get into the library--Widener--without a Harvard ID, but the grand Boston Public, designed by Charles McKim in 1895, will probably do.

Massachusetts Bay Colony began as an idea of biblical proportion, as articulated by John Winthrop's sermon, "A Model of Christian Charity," which he delivered in 1630 aboard the ship that began the great migration from Old England to New. "For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill," he intoned. "Justice and mercy" would prevail here, and "the eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God...we shall be made a story and a byword through the world." Eve ate the apple--we were only human, even after the ennobling voyage across the sea--and ever since, the state's scribes have been obsessed with the failure of the place to live up to its publicity. Early on, writers fretted over how much guilt they should feel over this. They clung to guilt for centuries, putting the emotion to its best use in fighting slavery. Guilt grew into anger and shame when Boston slipped from preeminence after the Civil War, when it became obvious that it would never achieve the greatness of New York or London.

Today, Massachusetts is not an historic relic like Venice, despite the meticulous preservation of its past: the restored Berkshire mansions; the miles of National Seashore; the twenty-thousand acres across the state permanently protected by the Trustees of Reservations (the country's first conservation group, founded in 1891); the village greens with their sparkling white Congregational churches; the grand houses of the shipping mandates in Salem, and those of the whaling captains on Nantucket and the Vineyard, with their widow's walks and shiny black shutters. In a museum on Nantucket are pieces of scrimshaw made by the sailors on those suicidal voyages while their wives waited for years at home. On the front of one we see an etching of a ship, and on the back, hidden from view--as the curators have displayed them--something pornographic. We think of the men as adventurous and stalwart, as people so distant from us that we cannot know their hearts, but they had to have been as full of longing and loneliness as our own.

This is what Massachusetts does, and I am not the only one to fall for it: it entices us to dwell in and romanticize the past, and, in some cases, to fling huge chunks of it overboard, leaving in their wake only the storybook myths. An example among many: in our minds, the glory of the abolitionists conveniently wipes out the state's history of slave owning and slave trading, outlawed only in 1788. The practices continued--to an extent still disputed--well into the early nineteenth century. Slavery did not originally take hold the way it did in the South largely because the Puritans' expectations of an agricultural economy, requiring thousands of hands to work the fields, were dashed once they arrived; the land was too rocky and inhospitable. The Puritans turned instead to the sea and made their fortunes salting cod, building ships, trading around the world, and eventually manufacturing, becoming "the codfish aristocracy" and the Boston Brahmins, who were recently given a wry requiem in Carolyn Cooke's short-story collection, The Bostons. In the title story, an aging father paints watercolors of the State House on Beacon Hill, and his grown daughter, who left husband and children to live with a woman in California, sends him a book, New Lesbian Detective Stories. He tries reading it but much prefers Thackeray.

It is something of a default position here: that the past is more seductive than the present, that old ways are the best. People and institutions have a tendency to cling, as though to a bad marriage, to creaky attitudes and politics when it would be wise and profitable to relinquish them. It's as though change requires a repudiation of the past, as though the Puritans are still in charge, and punishment--or, God forbid, and perhaps more frightening, pleasure--is sure to follow. On the other hand, the communal fixation on the past makes it difficult for plunderers to have their way. Thus the battles over preservation and casinos--two often in the news--are ferocious and invigorating; you feel flung back to a time of heartier debate. To some admiring outsiders, the state still seems a bastion of enlightened liberalism, while to a good many out-of-state Republicans it is something of a joke, home to a bunch of San Francisco-style lefties. The illusion of enlightenment is kept alive by the presence of a hundred colleges and universities, by the influence of the People's Republic of Cambridge, and the Kennedys, and still, by McGovern's win here in 1972, the lone state to reject Richard Nixon for president. But the state's left leanings were only ever part of the story. Today they're an even smaller part, as our politics and politicians, like those everywhere, move dramatically to the right, in chilling lockstep.

In Imagining Boston: A Literary Landscape, Shaun O'Connell explores what he calls "the Bostonian habit of invidious distinctions: race, ethnic, and class," a habit inherited from our British colonizers. The Puritans hated everyone who wasn't one. When they became Yankees and Boston Brahmins, they hated the Irish, who arrived, fleeing famine, in the 1840s. The abolitionists supported blacks while they were enslaved and long after, but only 160 attended Harvard College between 1890 and 1940. By contrast, Jewish students were plentiful--too plentiful. Around 1918, the university declared "a Jewish problem." In 1922, when the freshman class was 22 percent Jewish, President A. Lawrence Lowell began to limit enrollment from the big-city public schools in the Northeast, code for "Jews." In the 1970s, Boston's radical and ethnic animus became ongoing national news when Judge W. Arthur Garrity, Jr. attempted to solve another problem by busing poor African-American kids from Roxbury to the schools of poor Irish-American kids in south Boston. All hell broke loose.

Today, things are murkier and generally more tolerant, with some glaring exceptions. There are people from seventy countries in the Cambridge public schools; 20 percent of the college and graduate students in the area's sixty schools are Asian-Americans; Boston, in the 2000 census, is now "majority minority," with 49.5 percent "non-Latino white," 25 percent non-Latino black, 14 percent Latino, and 8 percent Asian. In the past decade, the city's minority population rose about 10 percent. Yet the state itself is overwhelmingly white: 84.5 percent. The greater Boston metropolitan area--from the New Hampshire border down to Plymouth--is the third-whitest metropolitan area in the country, behind Pittsburgh and Minneapolis. The cities--Boston, Cambridge, Springfield--are the only places with significant minority populations, and the problems minorities face affect the poorest and most segregated, as well as the young professionals in Boston's workforce. If to white outsiders Massachusetts represents racial tolerance, black professionals in Boston and elsewhere know otherwise. The city is disturbingly well known for its inattention to hiring and promoting African-Americans. Although they go to college and graduate school in the area, the inhospitable business atmosphere encourages many to find work elsewhere.

Yankee industry and ingenuity are thriving in the state's three-hundred biotech companies, located mostly in the Cambridge-Worcester corridor--a fact that has inspired the slogan "Beantown is now Genetown." But the industry should be doing better, according to the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, which in December 2002 released MassBiotech 2010, a major report that provides a fascinating window into the soul of the state at the start of the twenty-first century. The study warns that unless the biotech players--industry, academe, research institutes--and state government undergo what amounts to a personality and policy transformation, the state will lose its edge in the field to competitors in the West and South. The message is blunt: Hurry up and start doing what California and North Carolina have been doing all along. Both have state biotech agencies that lure companies with incentives, promote life-sciences education to plump up the workforce, and foster productive relationships between industry, academe, and government--essential in this evolving, interdependent industry. In Massachusetts there is no state biotech office and no apparent state awareness that California openness and Southern hospitality can have economic rewards. All players are on their own, even when a company needs to build a factory fast, to produce a drug the FDA has just approved. Many build out of state to avoid legal and bureaucratic obstacles just when the financial payoff for years of research begins sacrificing new jobs and tax revenue. Said one executive, "In Massachusetts, you never know what problem you'll run into."

One problem many researchers and businesspeople encounter is New England frostiness compounded by local arrogance: "The very strength of its dominant institutions sometimes makes it difficult for those institutions to work together," the study reports. "Is there something systemic in the culture and organization of Massachusetts institutions that inhibits the conversion of research richness into commercial power?" Does Macy's tell Gimbels? Does Harvard tell MIT? Apparently not.

Another high-stakes controversy in which the state's past is colliding with conflicting ideas of its future is taking place offshore. In a shallow, twenty-four-square-mile patch of Nantucket Sound called Horseshoe Shoals, four miles off the southern coast of Cape Cop, a company called Cape Wind Associates wants to build the country's first offshore wind farm, which the promoter's website describes coyly as a wind "park." The plan--several years from construction because many federal and state regulatory agencies must sign off on it--is to plant in the sound 130 turbines with three-pronged propellers and connect them to electric cables on the seafloor, pointing toward the Cape and islands. Each turbine would be 246 feet from the surface of the water to the top, except when the propeller blade stands straight up, pushing the turbine on 417 feet from the surface, the height of a forty-story building. Cape Wind claims the $700 million project is a clean alternative to fossil fuels and will produce enough electricity to power half a million homes. Pilots who fly small planes from Hyannis to the Vineyard and Nantucket aren't sure it's a great idea--FAA approval is necessary--and neither are the droves of activists concerned about fish, birds, fishing boats, sailboats, and the landscape. Every week brings new lawsuits, press conferences, plots, subplots--and plans from other companies to build more offshore wind farms from Massachusetts down to Virginia. I'm against the project, but it nevertheless seems to me a controversy worthy of the state's history, unlike the push for casinos, which is the same tawdry, tax-the-poor, money-grubbing scandal wherever it occurs. At issue on the Cape are serious questions about who controls the sea and the landscape and about where on earth, literally, we will get the energy to run our lives.

Speaking of water. Speaking of the sea. I lived for a time on Martha's Vineyard in the mid-1990s, before Bill Clinton became a regular and the island became a Hollywood hangout. Since then, the year-round population has gone up 500 percent; the real estate almost as much. The old ways might not always be the best, but they were cheaper, and you didn't have many day-trippers arriving with their motorcycle gangs or anorexic socialites who look like they just flew in from Palm Beach. One of my favorite places to bike to in the summer or take my dog walking in the winter was Wasque Point on Chappaquiddick, a breathtaking beach on this tiny, one-paved-road peninsula, connected to the Vineyard by only a narrow sandbar and a three-car ferry. The point is a vast sandy beach where two bodies of water--the Atlantic Ocean and the calmer waters of Nantucket Sound--meet at a right angle. The water is often sapphire blue or a shade of turquoise, as though this were Florida. Nothing but deep blue water and sky-blue sky as far as you can see, and at your back, two-hundred acres of rolling dunes and pristine marshland, managed and protected by the Trustees of Reservations. What makes the beach especially dramatic is the right angle of the shoreline and the way the two bodies of water bow to each other as they hurtle toward land. The curling waves collide and kick up furious riptides and a gorgeous trail of phosphorescence.

The only house you can see from the beach is in the distance, on a bluff, a low-slung wood and glass beach house, or so it seems from here. You can see a wall of windows that face the water and, standing at the point, you share the same ocean view. An investment mogul--from out of state, it must be noted--bought the place and nine acres around it for $5 million in 2001, intending to build a 10,000-square-foot house. The local planning board said he couldn't; it was too big and out of character. (There are other big houses, but they're hidden in the woods. They don't mar every view of the shoreline.) When the mogul returned with a proposal for a 7,500-square-foot house and the threat of a lawsuit if he did not get his way, the board relented; many of his neighbors, still not pleased by the outcome, intend to change zoning laws for the future. Even though I have only been a walker on that stretch of beach, it saddens me to think that it is no longer a place where small is beautiful. A house in keeping with the shoreline would have been a victory for good taste, community, and the environment, a defeat for vulgarity, and a respectful nod to all that came before. Sill, there are fiercer battles than this that need to be waged.

When I'm there I rarely think of it, but up the beach about a mile is the bridge for which Chappaquiddick is best known. Over the decades, thousands of tourists have come to look and have ripped pieces off--ripped off so much of it that the bridge had to be rebuilt several years ago. A woman whose name we didn't know beforehand was left to die, a man from the state's most famous family was never tried for the crime. And the rest, of course, is history.

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Elizabeth Benedict
photo: Emma Dodge Hanson

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