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alex beam

Boston’s glorious history of naysaying

In Boston, we often evince a certain fussiness where new undertakings are concerned.

Like the proposed Olympics. No matter how rosy a picture the babbitty business boomers paint of our fabulous, five-ringed future, there will always be mossbacks like me who want things to remain the way they are.

At least we come by it honestly. Boston has a glorious history of naysaying. It started with the tea-dumping, take-these-taxes-and-shove-them-where-the-sun-doesn’t-shine rebel colonists, and extended to the memorable catchphrase immortalized by Pittsfield’s own Herman Melville in “Bartleby, the Scrivener”: “I would prefer not to.”

This is, after all, the city that banned Walt Whitman’s immortal poem cycle, “Leaves of Grass.” You have to admit — there are some gamy bits there.


That was in the 19th century. Negativity continued to flower during the 20th century, when, kicking and screaming, Boston found itself dragged into the modern era.

Boston — well, maybe Cambridge — is the kind of place where you could have a bar bet about our greatest 20th century poem. It may well be Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead,” a brilliant, choking lament for the destruction of the city Lowell loved as a child growing up on Beacon Hill.

The year is 1960. The boy’s beloved South Boston Aquarium has been boarded up; its mammoth fish tanks are dry. Simultaneously, “yellow dinosaur steamshovels” are tearing apart the Common “to gouge their underworld garage.” Lowell hated the changing city:

The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,

giant finned cars nose forward like fish;

a savage servility

slides by on grease.

Within the year, he moved to New York.

At virtually the same moment, Arthur Crew Inman, a wealthy, depressive recluse who lived in the Back Bay, was writing his famous 17 million word diary, echoing Lowell’s lament. Inman abhorred daylight and street noise, and ventured from his apartment only in his chauffeur-driven limousine, which he called “the baby carriage.”


He hated anything that smacked of change, and he especially reviled the Mass Pike’s invasion into the city, and the clamor of the Prudential Building construction. “The Prudential tower keeps creeping up to the sky,” he wrote shortly before his death. “I feel nervous constantly as to how loud and disturbing traffic will be ... It may be I’ll survive this, but again maybe not.”

Overwhelmed by modern life, Inman didn’t move to New York, or return to his native Georgia. Instead, he killed himself in 1963.

The all-time champion Boston naysayer was surely the fictional George Apley, of John Marquand’s 1937 novel “The Late George Apley.” Apley hailed from an old Boston family, and disdained pretty much everything: the newfangled Harvard Business School; the damming of the Charles River (“the clams on the mud flats will be killed”); the Irish; flush toilets; Socialists; the Cubist paintings at the MFA; and most especially Dr. Freud and his noxious new theories about sex.

“You know and I know that all this idea of sex is largely ‘bosh,” Apley wrote to his son. “I can frankly say that sex has not played a dominant part in my own life, and I trust that it has not in yours.”

Apley had no use for “what is so incorrectly called ‘progress,’” though he thanks his lucky stars that Boston is a place where “these changes have occurred slowly, and only after a struggle with the sounder element.”

Help! Like one of Boston’s truest sons, the historian and memoirist Henry Adams, I worry that I have been born into the wrong century. Logic dictates that Boston should embrace its glittering future, but a little voice inside me whispers: “I would prefer not to.”


Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at alexbeam@hotmail.com.