I continue to devote weekend time to my own perverse Eastern Massachusetts History Tour, and you continue to get the updates here, such as you want to read about them.
# # # # #
Since coming back here, I’ve felt a reconnection with and renewed interest in journalism, my original profession.
It might be because, every morning, I’ve got two old-but-new papers in the office to take a look at. I’m familiar with the Globe and the Herald, but I’m still sussing out how they’ve changed over the past 15 years (besides shrinking), and seeing how many bylines I recognize still appear in each paper.
Or, it could be because the last time I lived here I was a journalist, and so I connect Massachusetts with journalism on some basic cellular level.
At any rate, I spent a couple hours yesterday at the Boston Public Library, taking a look at some of the Boston dailies that died off before I got here. There was nothing instructive or immediately useful in this endeavour; I just decided it would be fun, and in its own fashion, it was.
Boston, now a two-paper town, had seven dailies as recently as 1941 — the year the upper-class Evening Transcript died. (This accounting excludes the Christian Science Monitor, which is an interesting paper but isn’t out there covering City Council meetings.)
The Post — once the biggest daily paper in New England — closed its doors in 1956.
And then, in the ’60s and early ’70s, the Record, American, Herald and Traveler took part in a complicated four-way fandango: First the Record and American merged, then the Herald and Traveler merged, and then all four came together in what was initially called the Herald American but eventually just became today’s Herald.
Every paper has a personality. And while I didn’t spend enough time or effort to really become an expert, it was cool to get a sense of each of the now-gone papers.
The Record and American were on the trashy-tabloid end of the spectrum — particularly the American, whose every front page seemed devoted to some sort of screaming regional crime story. If it bled, it led. (No prizes for guessing that the American was a Hearst paper.)
I checked out issues of the Post from the early ’50s, and it seemed … kinda gray and jumbled and not sure of itself.
Of course, newspaper design from the old days always looked gray and jumbled, what with all the stories they used to cram onto the front page. But the Post seemed to be trying to be all things to all people — running sports and crime and state government and international news together, in such a way that I suspect it failed to be anything to anyone in the end.
The Traveler, examined in 1965, and the Herald American, seen in 1973, seemed like much more readable papers — more consistent and thoughtful in tone — though the Herald American gave signs that a little bit of the American‘s tabloid nature still ran in its veins.
(A sample lead story looked at the company that sold highway barrels — you know, the kind you sometimes see at construction sites — asking whether the state was overpaying for all the barrels it needed to have for highway construction. It was at once clever, probing, and pretty well useless.)
(I didn’t seek out the Evening Transcript at the BPL because I can read it at home — a substantial archive of Transcripts is online through Google Newspapers. I wouldn’t be shocked if a Transcript post was on its way at some point soon.)
I came away from my afternoon at the microfilm machine with renewed appreciation for the work of all the reporters and editors who made those back issues happen.
I can only imagine what it was like to work on, say, the Traveler in 1950, and to be sent to cover an event, and to be expected to come back with something better, fresher or more interesting than the guys at the Globe, Herald, American and Record would get out of it — knowing that the city editor would read all the papers page by page and would mark your performance.
I thought of prose stylists stuck at the American, longing to write meaningful stories, but having to write about landladies getting stabbed in Walpole … and, perhaps, the reverse — somebody covering a State House hearing for the Globe but secretly wishing he could tell stories with some blood and vinegar to them.
(I thought of subterfuge and fraud, too. Do you think all those quotable strangers who happened to see all those fatal car accidents were real? How often did a reporter with his back against the wall invent some visiting witness who then disappeared? Abundant coverage is not always more trustworthy coverage. Or at least it wasn’t then, when sources couldn’t be Googled.)
I’ve been told more than once that college journalism programs are booming in recent years. We’ll never again see a seven-newspaper daily market … but I could get to like the idea of all these kids colliding with the same kind of friction and competition that once fueled all these daily papers in Boston.
# # # # #
You can do a lot of things at the Boston Public Library, and on yesterday’s trip, I also spent some time peeking through the windows of the rich.
You can blame my visit to Harvard Stadium, which took me down a totally unexpected Boston-cultural wormhole.
While doing research for that post, I was introduced to the Harvard class report, colloquially called a “red book.”
It seems that every Harvard class, upon reaching an anniversary ending in five or zero, invites its members to write in and let their classmates know what they’ve been up to, personally and professionally. Just about anything they choose to submit is allowed to reach print. The results are then hardbound and shipped out to all class members.
(This roundup from the official Harvard magazine provides an excellent view of the tradition, including a few particularly memorable submissions. Go check it out. If you don’t come back to the rest of my post, you won’t have lost much.)
The school says adamantly that red books will never be placed online. Making the books easily accessible to the public would make alumni clam up, thus permanently changing the character of the books. Plus, exposing the personal information of Harvard grads would provide a golden opportunity to thieves, social engineers and other online nogoodniks.
But, the magazine story says, a few places on earth keep hard-copy stashes of Harvard red books … and one of them is the BPL.
So, at the same desk where I procured five microfilm reels worth of old newspaper, I requested and got two more-or-less-randomly selected Harvard red books. (You can’t take them out of the library, but you can look at them at leisure under the green-capped lights of the reading room, and you’re not required to provide any reason or justification for your interest.)
Why did I want to poke my nose into these?
I’ve always been interested in history and American life as lived by the man on the street — as shown on Hope Street — and any time you can read about history in the direct words of the man on the street, so much the better. Harvard men might tend to live on nicer streets than the rest of us, but that doesn’t mean their view of their lives as they pass is any less interesting or worthwhile.
Based on my small sample size, though, I’m not sure the Harvard red book is really that interesting as a historical vehicle. Most of the updates I read tended toward the personal, and tended to be exactly what you’d expect. Poignancy, poetry, or larger insight was scarce and far between.
Depending on career paths and time periods, their jobs were either very challenging (stockbrokers during Wall Street crashes) or perfectly wonderful (Mr Chips-type schoolteachers putting on another ring of tweed at the academy year by year).
And on the home front, when the kids are young, there’s lots of struggling to keep up; when the kids are out of college, there’s lots of pride and lots of “where did the years go?”
As it happened, novelist Anton Myrer — whose 1978 novel The Last Convertible told the coming-of-age story of five Harvard men — was a member of the class I picked at random.
Several of his classmates praised The Last Convertible in their late-’70s writeups; one man went so far as to say that Tony Myrer had captured his life so well that there was no point in his submitting additional info to the red book.
So, if you want to know about how the smart and the rich navigated the 20th century, fiction may, in the end, be a better read than truth.
# # # # #
A few old, old red books are available online if you’re interested in getting the flavor of the enterprise. The Class of ’14 book that includes the Leverett Saltonstall update posted above can be read here.