Tuesday, March 10, 2015

One Boy’s Boston: A Great Little Memoir

And now for something completely different.

I am planning to teach an adult education course this fall. The working title of the course is “Memoir: Reading Others, Writing Yours.” The idea is for students to read excerpts from memoirs and then to begin making notes on their own lives in light of the readings.

It will be a low-pressure, not-for-credit course directed to older adults living in Boston who may have considered writing their memoirs but haven’t done so. It will draw on my experience of ghostwriting and publishing fifty memoirs for private clients over the past twenty-five years at Memoirs Unlimited.

The first text I plan to use is Samuel Eliot Morison’s quaint little memoir, One Boy’s Boston, 1887–1901. Published in 1962, it looks back on the great naval historian’s Brahmin boyhood at the base of Beacon Hill. He lived with his parents in his maternal grandparents’ home at 44 Brimmer Street, a giant brownstone that Morison himself still owned in his seventies when his book was published.

For purposes of the course, I will probably discuss Morison’s interesting family constellation—in which his Eliot grandparents, known in Boston for their intellectual contributions, were everything and his father’s Baltimore family hardly figured at all. Students will be asked to compare the author’s family—and his cultivated memories of it—with their own.

For purposes of this blog, however, I’m most interested in chapter 10, “Those Alleged Prejudices,” in which Morison discusses the state of religion in Back Bay Boston circa 1895.

This was the heyday of Phillips Brooks (left), legendary rector of Trinity Church, whom Morison remembers as “a majestic figure in frock coat, white tie and top hat.” Morison’s parents and grandparents left the “not at all fashionable” Church of the Advent, across the street from their home, to worship in Brooks’s church.

Brooks was “the most eloquent and inspiring preacher Boston has ever heard.” By contrast, Church of the Advent’s Dr. Frisbee was “rather severe” and “ascetic.” Yet if either church was “high Anglican” it was Frisbie’s, and this appealed to the boy Morison:

“Services at Trinity, in those days, were decidedly ‘low’; there was no altar, only a communion table, no vested choir of boys and men, but an adult quartet who occupied the gallery at the west end, behind the congregation. Since I was not interested in sermons, it was a treat for me occasionally to be taken by my mother to the Church of the Advent, where one had the beauty of the traditional ritual, and superlatively good music.”

Brahmin Boston was predominantly Unitarian in that era, and there were three centers of this persuasion: King’s Chapel, Arlington Street Church, and First Church. All of Morison’s Eliot relatives, except his grandparents, were Unitarians. King’s Chapel, he writes, “was a peculiar compromise worked out by conscientious New Englanders who couldn’t take the doctrine of the Trinity, yet yearned for the beauty and tradition in worship”—almost, one might say, like the boy Morison himself.

“A traveling Englishman who strayed into King’s Chapel one Sunday shortly after met President Eliot, and complained that the service seemed ‘expurgated,’ to which ‘Prexy’ retorted severely, ‘Not expurgated, washed.’”

Next on Morison’s map of Boston’s houses of worship was the African Methodist church which served “the respectable colored community that lived on the northern slope of Beacon Hill.” The very last church on Morison’s tour is the Roman Catholic. Apparently, he knew of no Catholic churches in his neighborhood because he doesn’t name any. He only writes:

“A branch of the Otis family [from which Morison’s maternal grandmother came] were Roman Catholics, and we respected that ancient faith even though we did not embrace it. The only thing I even heard of the American Protective Association, the ‘A.P.A.,’ which tried to revive the anti-Catholic Know-nothingism of the 1850’s, was a ditty we used to sing:

Where is the mick that threw the brick?
He’ll never throw another—
For calling me an A.P.A. 
He now is under cover!

So ends Samuel Eliot Morison’s discussion of Christian worship at the turn of the last century. 

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