This semester I’ve been teaching a course on the history and literature of Boston since 1865. Among its pleasures are flashes of recognition in which the city I know appears suddenly in the midst of some bygone version of it. I love a throwaway moment in the final chapter of Dorothy West’s “The Living Is Easy,” for instance, in which we see a woman “scramble aboard” a Brookline-bound trolley on a spring day in 1919 “and tangle with a man with a load of groceries who was trying to assert his right to get off first.” By the time the two realize that they know each other, and are in fact brother- and sister-in-law, the trolley has departed and the awkward moment has passed, a belated realization of familiarity emerging from instinctive anonymous contention. Things haven’t changed much on the T since then.
Another constant is the recurring set of traditional formulas employed by Boston stories, chief among which is the tale of close rivals who regard themselves as bitter opposites but who the rest of America would have a hard time telling apart: established black Bostonians trying to separate themselves from more recent migrants from the South in “The Living Is Easy,” old-school Irish-American politicians trying to hold off new-order Irish-American politicians in Edwin O’Connor’s “The Last Hurrah,” genteely declining Brahmins facing down the insurgent nouveau riche in William Dean Howells’s “The Rise of Silas Lapham.”
The greatest pleasure of all is spending several weeks on J. Anthony Lukas’s “Common Ground.” Published in 1985, this massive nonfiction account of the school busing crisis of the 1970s is the “Moby-Dick” of Boston books. A classically obsessive reporter who absorbed the novelistic techniques of the New Journalism, Lukas lavishes on the Twymons, McGoffs, and Divers, three families involved in the desegregation drama, the kind of depth and sympathy one might expect in a presidential biography or a 19th-century realist novel. But as close as he gets to his characters, in their kitchens and bedrooms and in their heads, he still manages to keep in perspective the contradictions and failures that contribute to the fullness of their humanity.
Those characters live the consequences of a richly layered past, caught up not only in the immediate school crisis but also in conflicts that run all the way back through the city’s long history — like the root tension between Boston as a capital of high-minded moral crusades and as a mess of squabbling tribal villages. Boston may lead the league among American cities in layers of history per square foot, and part of the distinctiveness of life here, caught so well by Lukas, is the acute sense of navigating a landscape overcrowded with restive ghosts and unsettled beefs.
Inevitably, Bostonians pushed back against Lukas, contesting his rendering of this or that event, his portraits of people they knew, his right to come to town from elsewhere and presume to tell its stories. But rarely has a writer succeeded in “doing” a city as thoroughly and deeply as Lukas did. The distinguished novelist Zadie Smith, who came to Boston College recently to give a talk, was toting a hardback copy of “Common Ground,” which she was reading compulsively. “It’s like all five seasons of ‘The Wire’ at once,” she said, citing the most celebrated effort in recent years to “do” an American city.
There are scenes in “Common Ground” as vivid and moving as anything in fiction. Among the most memorable is the climactic moment in which Colin Diver, a white idealist who moved to the city to help make it a more just and vibrant place, somehow finds himself taking a swing at a black man with the Louisville Slugger that Diver had once used to help win a Little League championship in suburban Lexington.
As I go about my business on campus I have been catching glimpses of students plowing through their copy of “Common Ground.” At 674 densely printed pages it offers a serious challenge to 21st-century attention spans, but I think they are coming to appreciate the book’s lasting power. There’s an education to be had in inhabiting the Boston that comes alive in its pages, a city worth knowing in all its glory, sorrow, and grievance.
Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.’’