TO PARAPHRASE George Orwell, you can't throw a brick in Boston without hitting either a writer or the kind of reader who would be a writer if an early dose of literature had not stunned him into silence. My mailman is one of these serious readers. The other day he told me that he had just finished Michael Scammell's 1,000-page biography of Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
"Did you like it?" I asked.
"Oh, yes -- it shows us the man behind the saint -- petty, irascible, susceptible to female charms. Human, all too human," he replied. It was like talking to The New York Review of Books.
Perhaps it's the presence of so many universities, perhaps it's the lingering spell of Boston's 19th-century literary renaissance, of which, as Emerson said, "the reverberation is louder than the thunderclap," or perhaps it's Boston's new status as Yuppie mecca -- but from whatever combination of causes this town teems with people like my mailman. The trains and buses are full of secretaries and clerks, lawyers and businessmen, burrowing pleasurably into books. This climate of esteem for the written word makes it as easy to believe in the reality of culture in Boston as it is to believe in the reality of power in Washington. If you tell someone you're a writer here, you don't have to say it with shame. Writing is not thought to be synonymous with loafing, failure, or pretension. As a vestige of the vanished Brahmin aristocracy, something of the old deference toward literary culture still clings to the streetlamps and alleys, the cobbled streets and brass door this 18th-century city. Surrounded by this buzz of approbation, writers find Boston a good place to live and work.
Not that Boston is an ideal habitat for writers. For one thing, "It's a city without Jews," says Ward Just, whose latest novel, American Blues, was published last year by Viking. "There's no social yeast here -- the town doesn't rise. It needs more Jews," Just told me. For another, said Just, "the Ritz has the only bar downtown that isn't a meatmarket." Just did admit that he relished "the primeval anger displayed on the Southeast Expressway," and that when he lived in Back Bay he used to lift the pressure of his sentences by walking through the choked streets and "marveling at the traffic jams." A character in a series of stories Just is writing says of Boston, " I suppose it's obvious that I have no affection for this spoiled city and its noisy inhabitants. It is an indolent city. It is racist to the bone and in obvious political decline and like any declining city is by turns peevish and arrogant." Are these the author's own views?" "I guess I have a love/hate relationship with the place. Funny thing, the more I write about this guy [a Boston lawyer] the fonder I get of him and of Boston."
Just now lives north of Boston, in rustic Andover, but says his "cultural location is halfway between the Chicago of my youth and Boston." "I think it's called Buffalo," I heard his wife call to him on the other end of the phone.
DAN WAKEFIELD lives on Beacon Hill, and is happy his neighbors aren't writers. "There is a large literary community in Boston, but I don't feel under the pressure of it," he says. Wakefield, whose new novel, Selling Out, will be published by Little, Brown in May, went on to compare Boston with Hollywood, where he lived for several years. "Out there, you couldn't escape from the talk about deals, options, projects of all kinds. Here, people do different things."
Still, at least one of his Beacon Hill neighbors works at the same trade as Wakefield -- James Carroll, author of Prince of Peace, a novel published last fall by Little, Brown. Carroll spent nearly te whole of our conversation saying nice things about other Boston writers. Thus, the novelist Anne Bernays gets a bow for "practically singlehandedly" setting up the city's thriving chapter of P.E.N. Robert Stone, who lives somewhere in the deeps of Massachusetts, is "our Conrad," Dan Wakefield's latest novel is "wonderful," George V. Higgins (The Friends of Eddie Coyle et. al. ) is a local asset, and Ward Just is a "great writer." "His In the City of Fear still haunts me," he says. Sharing his tastes, I came away admiring his character. Imagine the torrent of bitchery you'd get from a Washington journalist if you asked him what he thought of his colleagues.
Carroll is a former priest (a clue there); in the 1960s he was a chaplain at Boston University. He told me he thought B.U.'s merits wre overlooked generally and he singled out for praise its Graduate Writing Program, and gave me the name of its director, Leslie Stephen.
Epstein, author of King of the Jews and Goldkorn Tales -- the latter soon to be published by Dutton -- said that his program accepted 12 students every year. His instructors include the poets George Starbuck and Derek Walcott as well as visiting professors like John Barth, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Stanley Elkin and Boston's own Jayne Anne Phillips, author of Machine Dreams, and Richard Yates, author of Young Hearts Crying. Also B.U.'s students benefit from the presence of publishers in Boston. Recently a student of Epstein's gave a reading of a work in progress at a P.E.N. meeting. Magic struck. A Boston editor was in the audience, liked what he heard, and signed the student to a book contract on the spot.
Epstein says he likes Boston well enough but misses the restless excitement of New York. "I lived for years on the upper West Side, where every time you crossed the street you saw something extraordinary. Even dead bodies. My kids once found a severed head in a garbage ca. Now that's a stimulating city!"
HARVARD, too, has a writing program, which features a faculty of over 40 local writers -- poets and novelists, playwrights and critics, journalists and biographers. Its director is Richard Marius, whose life of Thomas More was published by Knopf last fall. Marius told me that he and his colleagues give candid readings to one another's manuscripts, put on plays and evenings of poetry, and generally help to sustain the sense of the literary vocation. Harvard also harbors Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet who, from all reports, is a sort of one-man literary gang. It's so nice to have a bard around the house.
Apart from the universities, there are lots of informal literary communities in the Boston area.
Poet Celia Gilbert mentioned several writers who published books while members of a writing group. It met regularly over a five-year period to discuss the challenges of being women and writers, and it bucked the women up -- gave them the feeling, so necessary to writers, that they were not alone. "I'm not sure anything like that could have happened in New York -- it's just too busy," says Gilbert. She then drew my attention to the number of small presses in Boston, each the center of a small galaxy of writers. A partial list includes: Alice James Books, which published Gilbert's collection, Bonfire; David Godine, South End Press, Ticknor and Fields, Applewood Press, and the venerable Beacon Press. In addition, the reputation of editors like William Phillips at Little, Brown; Robie Macauley at Houghton Mifflin, and Peter Davison at The Atlantic Monthly Press, lures writers from far-off places to publish their books in Boston.
MY FRIEND and colleague, Peter Davison, whose most recent book is Praying Wrong, a collection of poetry published last year by Atheneum, claims that The Atlantic Monthly, our mutual employer, "ionizes" the Boston literary scene. However that might be, The Atlantic's fiction editor, C. Michael Curtis, has taught fiction for over 20 years in Boston and has helped ionize squads of aspirant Updikes and Salingers from his snug office, its lone window overlooking the duck pond of the Boston Public Garden, scene of Make Way for Ducklings that charming children's book.
The Boston Globe, under its new editor, Michael Janeway, is also doing its share of ionizing. The editor of The Globe's book pages, Robert Taylor, writes a weekly column of literary reportage that is must reading for Boston writers; and he and his able associate, Mark Feeney, write first-rate reviews themselves and publish pieces by the likes of C. Vann Woodward, John Kenneth Galbraith, James Dickey and Justin Kaplan.
Boston went big for Fritz Mondale in the late coronation, and several writers mentioned the area's ambient liberalism as one of its novel charms. "A fine mayor [Raymond Flynn], a liberal governor [Michael Dukakis], and two of the country's best senators [Edward Kennedy and John Kerry] make Boston a breath of fresh air in the age of Reagan," says Leslie Epstein. Writers of the conservative persuasion can find solace in the nimbus cast by Robert Nozick, the brilliant Harvard philosopher; John Silber, the president of Boston University, and Nathan Glazer, the Harvard sociologist; in the Rupert Murdochian world of the Boston Herald ("Gipper Wins Big One"); and in the burgeoning Young Republican coven at Boston College, the alma mater of the Great Cham of Boston politics, Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. The Kennedy School of Government at Harvard provides a forum for debate on the three sides of every public issue -- the Democrats' side, the Republicans' and Harvard's, otherwise know as the truth. Then there is Harvard's Nieman Foundation for Journalism. Under its new director, Howard Simons, the former managing editor of The Washington Post, the Nieman program promises to be a hotbed of intellectual activity, as well as an incubator of journalistic excellence.
Back when "the genteel tradition" was a target, not merely a musty phrase, Boston- bashing was great sport for writers. Henry James, who gave the city a scalding in The Bostonians, even went so far as to profane the noble Charles River, calling it "a brackish expanse of anomalous character, which is too big for a river and too small for a bay." Henry Adams said of Boston that "a simpler manner of life could hardly exist, short of cave-dwelling." And George Santayana, a graduate of the Boston Latin School, pilloried Boston as a "moral and intellectual nursery, always busy applying first principles to trifles." Nearer our own day, Elizabeth Hardwick mocked the city as "wrinkled, spindly-legged, depleted of nearly all her spiritual and cutaneous oils, provincial, self- esteeming . . . " and more in that inimitable take-no-prisoners style of hers. Her essay appeared in Harper's, adding to the pain of the wound the disgrace of its instrument. She depicted Boston as suffering from a denudation of vital life -- made it sound like a genteel ruin, a "city of whimsical stagnation."
All of which may have been true in 1960, when she launched her sally, though one poet I spoke to cautioned me not to take her essay at face value. "You've got to remember, she was married to a crumbling pillar of the Boston community when she wrote it," he said. (Footnote: the pillar in question was Robert Lowell.) But, whatever the fidelity of her portrait to its subject then, Boston has since changed a great deal. Now it is a lively place indeed. True, it can't boast the severed heads or splendid restaurants of Manhattan. But it is fairly crammed with hotels -- yes, Elizabeth, even "smart hotels" -- boutiques, and gaudy shops; and it is full of prosperous free-spending Yuppies, who college in Boston and then stay on, generally praising the city as if it were the vestibule of heaven.
To the student of contemporary manners Boston presents a more varied social palette than it did to Henry James in the days when the Cabots spoke only to the Lowells and the Lowells, grudgingly, spoke only to God. There is large-scale corporate greed here now, not merely decorous peculations involving the switching of fagged-out fortunes from trust fund to trust fund. Downtown, the ambitious young men strut and swagger. At the lunch hour, the ambitious young women crowd the health clubs and the exercise classes, slimming, slimming. Irish Catholicism still broods over the city; sin and guilt are the worms of the naive conscience. A large blue-collar population resides in Boston's outer neighborhoods; there is a Yuppie enclave at its heart; a black ghetto in between. Racial harmony prevails only fitfully. Hatreds simmer and flare. Class resentment festers.
In short, Boston is a city worthy of the talents of a Balzac. Among its many writers, perhaps he or she is at work right now, preparing a novel that will win for this generation of Bostonians the secondary immortality of a model posing for a portrait rich and resonant.