Home > Culture, History, Literature, Navel-Gazing, Travel > Myriad Americas: A Sojourn in Massachusetts

Myriad Americas: A Sojourn in Massachusetts

The recent radio silence at Random Dangling Mystery has a simple explanation: I was on vacation. Such a limpid term, I know, but then tourism can be a limpid experience if one is not careful, or rather if one is too careful. I make no claim to either, but my latest flurry of travel, the first in quite a while, was not unrewarding. Spending close to a week in Boston and its environs, wandering the city until my feet were sore with the effort of enjoying as much of this unique and resonant city as possible, I was struck anew by the strange stew that is America, as I always am when I find myself in that country.

To put it another, more accurate way, though, I am struck not by America, but by Americas, by those myriad versions of the same thing that are nonetheless different. I speak not of the stereotypes of the United States, those crude caricatures of boorish wealth, spontaneous excess, and shoot-from-the-hip credulity, although, admittedly, there were plentiful examples of all of those things on display, should an observer choose to focus on them. The food portions are rather enormous, and the cheerful serving staff often seems greatly concerned that a diner in search of smaller amounts might leave in a state of insufficient satisfaction. The working-class opiniated loudmouth is a well-entrenched type there as well, especially when it comes to sports and/or politics, subjects upon which nearly everyone is much quicker to venture a viewpoint than even your most diehard hockey-loving suburban conservative in these parts. And although centuries of undiminished exploitative capitalism have left a city gloriously strewn with edifying cultural institutions and beautiful public works, there is a bit of a mishmash of styles, to say nothing of evident fondness of generations of American architects for secular temples of Neoclassical grandiosity. These features of the American human landscape are considered prevalent because they are stereotypes, but can it not alternately be argued that they are stereotypes because they are prevalent?

But my choice of reading on the trip, E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 epic of early-20th-century America Ragtime, began to point my perceptions in another direction, or, rather, directions. A rambling novel of stream-of-consciousness Americana, Ragtime argues that there are so many stories to this grand mess of a land, so many competing and cohabitating narratives constituting the nation, that one story, or even three or four, will not suffice. Doctorow gives us stories of opposing sides of the wealth and the racial divide, but they are the stories of strivers, reachers, the masses of the hopeful. And every American dream is unique and singular.

All these different Americas were very much on display in Boston, unquestionably one of the finest urban experiments in a country overflowing with them. We know much of the proud, sophisticated, proper history of the Sons of Liberty and their glorious revolution, as well as the immigrant story implied by the tight-packed stone of the North End and the vaulting glass-and-steel collaborative triumph of business capital and engineering vision trumpeted by a skyscraper like the John Hancock Tower. But there are so many other stories living in the bones of this great old port town, and discovering them was wonderful.

There is, of course, faith, that core element of American identity. Despite Boston’s reputation as a bastion of liberal enlightenment and educated spiritual doubt, it’s hard to miss nearby Salem’s historical example of religious hysteria run rampant; tucked away behind the wax museums and witchy bauble shops is a sober memorial to the very human victims of puritanical excess. The flip side of this is the tremendously impressive Christian Science Plaza, a monument to a perhaps deluded ideal of faith as something that can be reconciled with and even assimilated into the secular capitalist order, rather than something that stands impotently in the way of progress, shouting “Stop!” with all its feeble might. And there is the Old North Church and the haunted burying grounds with their tilted Halloween tombstones, constructions with religious origins that history has transformed into symbols of something more inclusive and secular.

Indeed, there can be something very haunting about New England, especially when the fog rolls in over the towers of the downtown core, turning them into towering iridescent lanterns in the deepening twilight. Indeed, it isn’t hard to see how Eastern Seaboard authors like Washington Irving, Edgar Allen Poe, and Massachusetts’ native son Nathaniel Hawthorne were inspired to craft literary works of gothic resonance by their surroundings, an atmosphere not merely attributable to the foggy indistinctness on the coastline or the stentorian severity of the British colonial architecture. Surely once or twice they must have passed by the wide still marshes and fens north of the city and seen a lonely white crane edging through the reeds like a restless ghost. It isn’t hard to conceive of this America as a shadowy realm of headless horsemen and telltale hearts, where the perpetual golden sunrise of intrepid individualism is preceded and well-tempered by dark midnights of the solitary soul.

There are so many more Americas to be glimpsed in a place like Boston that any summary seems cruelly truncated. There is a considerable, singular artistic heritage to a city that names a square after one of its painters and maintains a major museum based purely on the whims of taste of one of its wealthy connoisseur daughters. This is to say nothing of the town’s mixed but fascinating history of professional sport or its role as the educational centre of America. But really, ultimately, it’s a city that lives, that breathes, that thinks, and that tastes of America, however that proper name is defined at any given time. Most cities in America do that, but it really does feel that Boston does so just a little more deeply. A fine place, then, for a sojourn.

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