Book Review: Carlo Rotella on The Given Day

  |   Imagine Boston Reading List

Carlo Rotella
Director of American Studies, Boston College

Rereading The Given Day, Dennis Lehane’s panoramic novel of big trouble in Boston in 1919, I came away thinking of three themes relevant to the process of imagining Boston’s future.

First, class matters—maybe more than anything else. In the novel, which features well-known historical figures as well as invented characters, Lehane has Babe Ruth, recently traded from the Red Sox to the Yankees, explain the way of the world to a union man whose strike has been busted: “‘Them’s that write the checks write the rules.'” That’s The Given Day‘s principal theme, although those who don’t write the checks do manage to get in a few good licks. Even more than the texture of neighborhood, even more than the radioactive matter of race on which his characters tend to dwell, Lehane’s great underlying subject is class—not just the enduring rage inspired by its injuries but also the way it shapes habits of mind and manners.

Second, the pull of the past feels especially strong in Boston, a city obsessed with its own history and traditions. The influence of half-buried wrongs and half-forgotten grudges shadows every move Lehane’s characters make. As they reckon with the wild events of their own present day—1919 featured a police strike, riots, the Spanish flu epidemic, the Great Molasses Flood, and a panic over anarchist terrorism—they’re tangled in a deeper history of grievance extending back to conflicts between Brahmins and immigrants, the profound injustices of slavery days, and the eternal Puritan hangover bestowed upon Boston by John Winthrop’s image of “a city upon a hill.”

Third, Boston’s reputation tends to take two-edged form—city on a hill and moralizing scold, robust localism and stodgy parochialism, world-class intellectual center and second-tier burg that thinks it’s the hub of the universe. “The Athens of America, my ass,” says one of the novel’s heroes, a black man from out of town summing up his experience of Boston as a snakepit of corruption and mayhem. Boston has Athenian status in at least two ways—as America’s traditional capital of book learning and the life of the mind, and as the one-time capital of the democratizing crusade for the abolition of slavery. But Boston has also been described as the nation’s most racist city (though, of course, so have many others), and it’s also known for deeply ingrained class difference (and ranks near the top in current measures of income inequality). Like classical Athens, it’s at once a high-minded cosmopolitan exemplar and a mean provincial backwater.

Considering Boston’s future through the prism of the novel, it’s foremost in my mind that Lehane’s Boston derives much of its economic and cultural vitality from the mix of characters—cops and captains of industry, day laborers and domestic workers and the mansion-dwellers who employ them. Like information-age San Francisco, twenty-first century Boston has to confront the possibility that it won’t remain a viable city if rising housing costs and drastic income inequality push it to the point that only the educated and wealthy can afford to live here. When we confront serious policy questions about affordable housing or the quality of public education in neighborhood schools, we should bear in mind that a city can’t function if it’s reduced to a preserve for the privileged classes. A suburban town might get by like that, if it has a real city nearby to supply the full range of necessities, but the region’s central city can’t. This isn’t a moral question; it’s a practical one.

The Given Day reminds us, also, to pay heed to the persistent influence of Boston’s history. The Boston of 1919 in the novel has already entered its long 20th century decline, from which it emerged late in the century by building upon its traditional strength as a center of education and research to remake itself as a high-tech post-industrial success story. But Boston in 2019 or 2030 will also still be recognizably the city it was before the decline began, a place characterized by an intense awareness of history not just in the negative sense—unsettled ancestral beefs—but also in the positive sense: a slow-grow mindset suspicious of the wholesale tear-it-down-and-start-over approach that has remade other American cities. Boston’s layered, history-rich urban fabric, graciously framed by Olmstedian green spaces, is much more than a cosmetic extra. I value living here not just because there are good work opportunities but because when I walk down the street I can feel those layers, a distinctive sense of a place that’s not just like every other place. I’m willing to risk slowing the pace of change, even if it means letting some opportunities for growth and short-term gain slip away, to preserve that quality.

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