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Reading Boston: on the Page and on Foot

English class animates city’s literary and cultural geography

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William Huntting Howell (left), a College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of English, with his class at Fenway Park. Howell has created a course that introduces students to Boston’s history and culture by combining literary texts with related field trips. Photos of Howell’s class by Kalman Zabarsky. Photos below by Mackabee and wallyg

When Danielle King first landed in Boston from Tel Aviv two years ago, she admits she was disappointed.

“I was expecting more of a busy, New York City feel,” says King (COM’13), following the crush of Red Sox fans up the ramp at Fenway Park. “But my expectations about Boston have been exceeded. I’m in love with this city. It has a unique feel. It’s a little more sophisticated, not as crazy, but you still have everything you want. There’s so much history, so much to see, so much to do.”

King’s love affair with Beantown was juiced by William Huntting Howell, a College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of English and creator of the CAS course EN128: Representing Boston. The first of its kind in the curriculum, it tackles the literary and cultural geography of Boston. “The course is designed to get students thinking about the city that they live in,” Howell says, “not just by reading books about it, or by people who live here, but by treating the city itself as a kind of text.”

Aside from a reading list that works its way from John Winthrop’s sermons to Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River, Howell asks students to explore their own roles in the narrative of Boston, their home for four years. That means fieldwork. Aside from the tour of Fenway Park, field trips include old graveyards, the Museum of Fine Arts galleries, the Freedom Trail, and Brook Farm, the former utopian community in West Roxbury founded in the 1840s. And even though excursions take place on Saturdays, there are few no-shows.

“The Boston Common was probably the craziest thing,” says David Baroody (CFA’12) as the Fenway tour guide ushers the crowd toward the Green Monster seats. “It’s this beautiful park that lots of people go to. But there are thousands of people buried right under the Common. That was definitely a shock.”

From the get-go, Howell says, Boston has served as stage for the American experiment. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Massachusetts capital was the City on a Hill for English Protestants and ground zero for colonial independence. In the 19th century, it was dubbed Hub of the Universe and gave birth to an American national literature midwived by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. And last century, Boston marked an important battleground in the struggle for civil rights.

The class has also dipped into the poetry of 18th-century former slave Phillis Wheatley, tackled Malcolm X’s Autobiography, studied Revolutionary plays, and “read” the Robert Gould Shaw memorial sculpture across from the statehouse commemorating the colonel who led Massachusetts’ all-black 54th Regiment in the Civil War. For the Fenway visit, Howell had recommended A. Bartlett Giamatti’s essay on opening day, “The Green Fields of the Mind,” and John Updike’s paean to Sox legend Ted Williams, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.” Julie Balsamo (SED’13) says she isn’t a big baseball fan, but now appreciates the loving, sometimes infuriating, almost sacred bond between the city and the team.

“People are really intense about the Red Sox,” she says. “I live two blocks away and there’re always crowds around, so it’s good to know its history and see what the hype is about. The Red Sox serve as Boston’s greatest obsession.”

A few weeks later, the class had arrived at the other end of the spectrum: discussing what divides city residents, the wedges that exist even within small neighborhoods. On desks next to open laptops, copies of Lehane’s 2001 Boston-based crime drama Mystic River were cracked. The windows of Room 204, on the second floor of the College of Arts & Sciences, frame the Charles River and the pyramidal Hyatt Hotel, and beyond that, Cambridge’s Central Square, then Somerville, Everett, and the Mystic River itself. On the blackboard, Howell had written, “What is a neighborhood?” For the next 50 minutes, the class parsed that question through the prism of Lehane’s characterization of fictional East Buckingham. “Mystic River isn’t just a crime novel,” Howell says, “but a novel about what it means to live in the city.”

While Lehane’s compact neighborhood, an amalgam of South Boston, Dorchester, Charlestown, and Roxbury, is seen by the rest of the city as a single face, it’s divided into two distinct sections—the Point and the Flats—separated by a single avenue.

“There is a fine line between the communities within the neighborhood,” Howell says. “Maybe because it’s so small, the boundary lines, and the people in it, are drawn in bright lines, otherwise you’d all get lumped in together. To outsiders, they all fall under the sign of working-class Irish, but to people living there, there’s a whole other way of conceptualizing the place. This gets us thinking about what it means to be a member of the neighborhood.”

Talk turns to one of the book’s three main characters, Dave Boyle, who was abducted for four days as a child. Even though the neighborhood throws a big party after he escapes his captors, the effort to fold him back into the community doesn’t take. Later, his childhood pal Jimmy Marcus, now a grown ex-con, expresses these thoughts:

“Once you got in that car, Dave, you never should have come back. That’s how I look at it. You didn’t belong. Don’t you get it? That’s all a neighborhood is: a place where people who belong together live. All others need not fuckin’ apply.”

King comments that while having a shared culture—religion, tastes, tradition—tightly knit neighborhoods can also be restrictive.

“If you decide to do anything that they don’t necessarily approve of, marrying someone, or taking a job, or something that doesn’t go with what the neighborhood considers right, this neighborhood you felt so integrated into, suddenly you’re a stranger. You don’t belong. It’s really easy to fall out of something.”

The discussion moves on to the impact of external change on the neighborhood—gentrification, a city mandate such as the 1970s busing initiative that led to rioting and the city’s infamous reputation for racism—but class time runs out.

Asked what drew her to Howell’s course, King says: “I’d been trying to see as much of the city as possible on my own. This is my city now for the next two years. Not only do you get to learn about Boston, you get to go out and see it. I thought that was incredible. I hadn’t heard of anything like that. I’m always telling my friends, ‘I heard the craziest thing about this place,’ and ‘wait until you hear this.’”

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

3 Comments

3 Comments on Reading Boston: on the Page and on Foot

  • Anonymous on 12.10.2010 at 11:07 am

    This class sounds great!

    I wish this class was more well-advertised. I would have loved to have taken this class as a freshman!

  • PK on 12.10.2010 at 12:13 pm

    Sounds like a cool class! If they’re not on the reading list already, I highly, highly recommend “A Choice of Enemies” by George V. Higgins, “All Souls” by Michael Patrick MacDonald, and “The Late George Apley,” by John P. Marquand.

  • Anonymous on 12.10.2010 at 3:26 pm

    Agreed on "The Late George Apley"

    I agree “The Late George Apley,” by John P. Marquand – it is a brilliant parody of Boston Brahmins. I also enjoyed his “Wickford Point.” I’ll look at the other’s on your list :)
    ……. If you haven’t read them ……
    Edward Bellamy’s “Looking backward” imagines a utopian classic set in Boston. while “The Duke of StockBridge”, set in Western Mass during Shay’s Rebellion gives a view of how Bostonians viewed the land and people not blessed to be living in Boston.

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