FRANCIS DAHL Herald has turned out a daily cartoon for the Boston Herald since 1930. out a daily The basis cartoon of his for work is the news item or a development in the news of the day, and Dahl is primarily a newspaperman, a commentator. An inventive fellow, able, if he chose, to work out of the blue, to create and to illustrate a comic idea, Dahl sticks to the news. He is not a gag man; in fact he would pass up many an easy job on a straight gag in order to search out just the right bona fide absurdity in the news itself for the next morning’s Herald.
I say “the next morning’s” Herald because Dahl is one of the real deadline artists of the whole field. With a newsman’s respect for what is genuinely current, he will be sitting at a blank drawing board as late as eight o’clock of an evening, with a 10 P.M. copy time staring him right in the face. Composed and languid, he is turning over the pages of an evening paper, and he has just leafed through a half-dozen or so others. If a visitor drops in at this point, Dahl will declare himself barren of ideas but he will have plenty of time for conversation, a drink across the street, or even a pickup meal nearby. Time passes and the visitor finds himself in a growing state of concern about the deadline. As the minutes go by, he can see only catastrophe ahead — the morning when Dahl went bust. Dahl shows no anxiety; he sits twiddling a fork or reloading his pipe, with his customary air of sadness but quite without concern. Pie may remark that he has half an idea but that it’s no good. Sooner or later the strain will be too much for the visitor and he will slip away. The next morning he will find the Dahl drawing to be, if anything, better than usual. Dahl’s Boston is essentially a village, not a city. It is a small place, containing not more than a couple of square miles. Its physical center is the village green, or Boston Common. It has a bandstand, Symphony Hall; a library, the Athenaeum. Its newspapers are dailies instead of weeklies, but in other respects they are reasonably to be compared with the lesser journals of Berkshire County, rural Indiana, and Long Island. The village school in this case is Harvard. There is an Opera House, where for a few days each year the villagers can attend the very latest operas — Faust, Madame Butterfly, Lucia di Lammermoor, Lohengrin, and such — in which highly paid artists from New York are heard. The men enjoy the “club nights,” which in other parts of the country would be “ lodge nights.” Their ladies join everything under the sun and divide themselves into committees and subcommittees. The people are all related to each other or know each other or try to find out about each other just as they do in any other village. Thus aware that his doings are closely remarked by those around him, that living on Marlborough Street is like living on a party line, the Bostonian conducts himself most of all with caution. His first need is to withstand the scrutiny of his neighbors, not to impress strangers. He must appear as a man of caution, able to restrict his impulses, limit his conversation, and make the old car do for another five years at least.
In matters of dress, these obligations have put Boston’s men and women into a kind of uniform. For the man, it means a blue serge suit, napless and shining; a white shirt, with a stiff collar and a reassuring hint of fraying at the cuffs (nothing that couldn’t be trimmed off readily enough with a pair of scissors); and an old, scrawny necktie.
Black shoes, an heirloom watch chain, rubbers, and an umbrella complete the kit.
The hat merits special mention. The Bostonian is a one-hat man who has long since discovered that a single good all-purpose hat is just as useful at the Opera, weddings, and funerals as it is for fly fishing or New York. The hat is cleaned and “renewed” every two or three years, shrinking a little each time, and you will notice that almost every Bostonian’s felt hat is just a shade smaller than you expect it to be.
The women, similarly, are on the side of the high neckline, foot comfort, and warm, durable clothing. They swathe themselves in hard-bitten tweeds, often with long capes of the same doughty fabric. Woolen mufflers, fur neckpieces of great acre, and hats that really protect the head, albeit with just a touch of ornamentation, are well regarded for routine daytime wear. By evening, the Boston woman gets out an immense collection of trinkets and jewelry, turning up at the Opera House or the bandstand all a-jingle with necklaces, chains, bangles, brooches, pins, earrings, a dozen or two bracelets and rings. Her husband wears an interesting old tail coat, white tie, black vest, red muffler, brown gloves, rubbers, and his Felt Hat. They make a memorable pair.
The attitude of thrift, so happily ex-, pressed in his dress, controls other details of the Bostonian’s folkways. He is likely to save tinfoil, and many a downtown desk holds a large ball of this excellent substance. Pure salvage, costing him nothing, the ball has grown entirely from the retention of numberless fragments which more thoughtless people simply throw away. Its uses are limited, but it certainly is large. Odd lengths of string and twine, wound on bobbins made of cardboard or scrap paper, are another vehicle for accumulation; one can fill a drawer to overflowing with them in a year or two if he keeps at it.
A real-estate man once took me through a house in Cambridge where the attic was crammed to the rafters with pasteboard cartons full of empty medicine bottles of all sizes — pill, ipecac, iodine bottles; large flasks which had once contained rubbing alcohol, Pond’s Extract, and milk of magnesia. They were all clean, in fine condition; lacking a ready market, perhaps, yet too good to throw away. I should judge that the whole collection had been some fifty years in the making.
The same agent also showed me a house in which the whole basement was piled from floor to ceiling with twigs. I should explain at this point that Cambridge is the same thing as Boston only more so. Cambridge trees are forever shedding small branches, twigs. The townspeople, being Cambridge townspeople, are forever picking them up and carrying them home to burn in the fireplace. Why pay money for wood when Nature has lavished her twigs on so many sidewalks? It is no uncommon thing to see shoppers around Harvard Square, male or female, toting bundles on one arm and twigs on the other.
I once saw a distinguished Cambridge burgher on his way home from church. A vestryman — doubtless of high position in the Laymen’s League — he was turned out in a cutaway, striped trousers, a careful collar-and-tie effect, white carnation. (He had stood by his Cambridge hat, however — a stained, rumpled, brown felt hat.) The day being fine, he wore no rubbers and in his left hand he carried a Malacca cane. With his right he was dragging a large dead bough of a tree. The reason why twigs pile up in such huge quantities is quite simple: Is this fire really necessary? Wouldn’t it be just as well to save the twigs for a colder spell when they would really be needed?
Judging from their conversation, one would think Bostonians lived entirely on chowder, fish or clam. They talk of it incessantly, brag about their particular version. The chowder is always the same, although one man’s fish chowder may have fewer bones in it than another’s. The conversation is always the same too, being a reiteration of the wellknown fact that New Yorkers put tomatoes in chowder and Bostonians do not. If you were to say to any Bostonian, “I had a good chowder in New York 1 the other day,” he would start the tomato story and the whole chowder conversation would be played all over again. My own opinion is that Boston chowders differ only in basic strength, which in turn depends on the generosity of the maker. If he is like most Bostonians, he will probably add an extra quart of milk or even tap water to it in the belief that either is cheaper than clam juice or fish stock and no one will know the difference. Next in conversational value is Indian pudding. One hears all sorts of fine distinctions drawn about this dish, which consists of
a dipperful of a brownish mush, tasting only of molasses, sometimes topped by melting, gelatinous vanilla ice cream. Indian pudding is demonstrably the worst looking and least interesting dessert of them all, and not even the English have anything to match it.
I tried once to argue all this to a well-situated Bostonian, an admirable host and possessor of a fine cellar. “Indian pudding is not very nice looking,” he replied, “but it makes good eating when properly done.” His point was, of course, that instead of being a merely frivolous dessert, Indian pudding is nourishing; a chance to take aboard valuable calories and energy-giving food. After all, that’s what you are paying for, and so far as the dessert business goes, Indian pudding is sweet, isn’t it? Naturally, he did not express these considerations in so many words, but they seemed to me implicit.
The New England boiled dinner is the third of these cherished specialties — a collection of wan vegetables and an unidentifiable cut of meat, all of which taste like cabbage. The dish, as its name implies, is achieved simply by boiling everything, hard, for hours.
Among his lesser habits, the Bostonian gives a high rating to mackerel, an oily fish abounding in bones. He sets equal store by its watery, flabby counterpart in the low-priced field, the haddock. (Whereas the dark parts of mackerel have a bitter taste, haddock has no taste at all.) He talks intently about pie.
When I first moved to Boston from Nebraska, I was astonished to find the people here really eating beans; eating them, I mean, with some regularity and even enthusiasm. I had supposed it only a sorry joke, a fable, but a pot of baked beans is actually a Saturday fixture on many a table. One sees people in restaurants, of a Saturday, ordering and eating baked beans and brown bread. The leftovers reappear Sunday morning as a side dish to the usual dropped eggs, fish balls, and pie. Chowder, boiled dinner, Indian pudding, and beans have, I believe, a great deal to do with the Bostonian’s psyche, his sense of guilt, his frugality, and, at the same time, his local pride. These dishes are inexpensive, easy to prepare, filling, and God knows they are plain and simple. By habituating his household to the week-end of beans, for instance, the moral the Bostonian creates the moral and financial equivalent of a Fast Day, perhaps two Fast Days. There is that much less marketing to do, kitchen work is cut down, a kind of culinary hair shirt is undergone by the entire family, and — best of all — beans are cheap. For reasons of such obvious merit, the Bostonian has long since persuaded himself that beans are a noble meal and that to omit them for a week or two would be an unpleasant deprivation. He will fire up at any taunts about beans, and he will talk just as earnestly about cooking them as about Indian pudding.
I repeat that the dishes mentioned above are what get most of the conversational emphasis in Boston. Here again is a psychological twist by the natives, a red herring, intended to show their Spartan character, their abhorrence of rich food and high living. But to leaf through any S. S. Pierce catalogue is to realize that this is no more than protective coloration like the shiny blue suit, the battered hat. I doubt that any grocer in the world could outdo Pierce’s opulence and variety. In normal times, Boston’s per capita use of U.S. prime beef is said to be the highest in this country. The point is that Pierce’s goods and the better cuts are consumed by the Bostonian privatim, in his home, where none may wonder at their cost and whether he is “living on Capital” in order to eat them.
Food is thus a secret vice in Boston, like an addiction to vanilla extract. Public eating places suffer in consequence.
For the people who inhabit Dahl’s Boston, censorship comes to full flower in the New England Watch and Ward Society. It’s a philanthropy, a gesture towards the common good just like bird feeding, the Anti-Vivisection Society, or the Horses’ Christmas Tree which used to be an annual fixture in Post Office Square. Various pedd1ers and draymen were persuaded to bring their animals around for a gift, and the horses would be given a carrot or a sugar lump to munch, and a drink of water if they wanted one, in addition to the natural enjoyment which they derived from the atmosphere of high holiday and Christmas cheer. The event was always treated as a good, solid tear jerker by the Boston press, but I believe it was allowed to lapse during the distractions of World War II.) At any rate, the Watch and Ward is supported by private donations just like any other worthy charity. The sale of cigarettes to minors, for instance, is a matter for serious watching and warding by the Society. It will be found from time to time that “conditions” in overnight camps have become intolerable and that couples have actually shared the same room in such places even though they weren’t married at all. Comic books and pulp magazines are sometimes no better than they should be, and, in the summer especially, Young Girls are seen on Boston Common at unconscionably late hours. And always, year in and year out, the novelists of Alabama and New York, Texas and Connecticut, Georgia, San Francisco, and Chicago, steadily seek to undermine the community with their abominable tales of infidelity, miscegenation, and worse. The Society holds a meeting each year at which the city’s narrow escapes are reported, with warnings that the year to come will be even more perilous. The donors produce their check-books, the treasurer’s report is accepted, officers are re-elected. The membership returns to its homes wondering what on earth the human race is coming to. Where can it all end? I happened to interview an Executive Secretary of the Society some years ago. He was in high spirits and told me, when I was shown into his office, that the Society had just brought off another conviction in the courts.
I asked him what for.
“Selling cigarettes to minors,” he replied, rubbing his hands. “Yes, we had that fellow dead to rights.” lie was eager to talk, filled with the craftsman’s pride in a job well done. I might add that at the time of the interview, Boston was in the final convulsions of national prohibition and the city was not wholly free from peccadilloes in that direction. But the Watch and Ward was determined to hold the line on coffin nails against all comers.
“Yes,” the Executive Secretary said, “it was a very simple case and the fellow didn’t have a leg to stand on. He was a Greek, over in Charlestown. Runs a fruit stand. We’d been hearing complaints about him, so I went over there with one of my agents and the agent’s son — boy of fourteen. We simply told the boy to go in and say that the cigarettes were for his father. The Greek sold them to him, and that was that. Cost him twenty dollars in court this morning.”
But wickedness is everywhere. Boston could scarcely depend solely on a little group of humanitarians in the struggle against it. The city and state governments do what they can to cut down wickedness. Public authority is invoked, and if its sources seem a bit unusual we must at least appreciate the intent.
The control of the theater, for example — but hold on. I’ve already misstated it. Let me go back and begin over again.
There is no censorship or control of the Boston stage. A producer can put on any show he wants in Boston. All he has to do is find a theater for it.
Theaters, in turn, operate under a city license. This is available, on an annual payment of a nominal fee, from the Clerk of the Licensing Division of the City of Boston to any theater owner whose building meets the prescribed requirements of public safety: sound elevator cables, proper exits and fire doors, sufficient state of repair.
Now you might think that the city’s bona fide inspection of a theater property would establish the building’s safety or lack of it at least for a while. Very likely it does. Maybe that is exactly what actually happens. A theater is inspected, gets its license renewed, and everything is fine.
But meanwhile, we find that the Clerk of the City Licensing Division, whose main obligation is to ring up the correct receipts, make change, and not put a strain on his surety bond, is a great one for going to shows. These clerks over the years have become inveterate first-nighters. Some of them even frequent rehearsals. They feel the lure of the footlights. Furthermore, they develop strong likes and dislikes on all manner of details. The chorus may be showing too much skin to suit the Clerk of the Licensing Division of the City of Boston. A line may abrade his sense of the verities. He has ideas about profanity. If the play happens to make sport of the Irish, the Clerk may not like any of it. If it asperses a “clergyman,” the Clerk will be seen fidgeting in his seat. During all these reactions the Clerk is the object of infinite solicitude on the part of the producer, author, theater owner, and others concerned.
At the end of the performance, the Clerk is urged to make known his pleasure. How did he like it? would the show be improved by a few cuts and changes or would the girls look better with a little more upholstery?
Just talking off the cuff and in a friendly way, the Clerk gives his opinions. He does not censor anything, because he has no legal right to do so. He just tells them what he thinks of the show. He may even say that the whole show is a bust, a turkey, and that it would be a waste of time and money to put it on at all in Boston.
Nothing in particular has befallen the fire doors, or elevator cables, or exit facilities of the theater while all this has been going on. Obviously. It’s the same building, same doors, same elevators. But whatever he does say is the very next thing that happens to that show.
This is what is known as “the Boston system” and theater people have long since stopped trying to buck it. System or no system, it is regarded locally as a very smooth operation indeed. A change of pace sets in, however, when it comes to burlesque. While the Clerk of the Licensing Division is busy in his ex officio role of first-nighter, cleaning up the better plays, somebody is dirtying up Boston’s burlesque shows, which are nasty beyond compare. No one can quite account for it. Genuinely fond of nature and the out-of-doors, the Bostonian gets plenty of exercise. He keeps on with tennis and squash, bird walks, sailing, rowing on the river, and scrambling about with the Appalachian Mountain Club long after middle age. He is brown in the summer and pink in the winter. His waistline is decent, and many Bostonians still buy their blue suits from the same London tailor who took their measurements on their graduation from Harvard, when they were first making the Grand Tour. Having no desire to travel again, well satisfied with his clothes, the Bostonian keeps himself at about the same dimensions, and the original measurements hold good whenever he buys another blue suit at fiveor ten-year intervals.
The wildlife of Boston Common and the Public
Garden naturally fascinates these people. Squirrels and pigeons cut a large figure in a Bostonian’s day. The little creatures must be fed, and a great deal of argument goes on about it. Some feed peanuts, others cracked corn, bread crusts, and even pecans. Letters to the Editor are forever advocating more feeding, or less, or a radical change of diet. Every so often the squirrels — overfed consistently, by any standard — develop rare diseases. They molt, become mangy, dispirited, or their eyes may suddenly show a wild gleam. On such occasions, the correspondence to editors is voluminous. Professional advice is sought from the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals or from the Animal Rescue League, its archrival. If the emergency persists, the police may intervene with a prohibition of squirrel feeding or even a threat of euthanasia for the whole colony of squirrels. The pigeons have long since developed a tolerance for unlimited quantities of feed, remaining healthy however lamentable their deportment.
The Public Garden is the main parade ground, also, for household animals, usually Pomeranians, Pekes, pugs, poodles, and spaniels. Their custodians are elderly women, who carry on a spirited conversation with them on more subjects than you might believe possible. All Bostonians are anthropomorphists in respect of dogs, cats, squirrels, horses, birds, trout, and salmon. If a dog would misuse a tulip bed, its owner will give him a regular progressive-school explanation of why he should stay out of it, making it plain that the tulips are for the benefit of the many and not for his private sport as he seemed to suppose.
As in the case of the stage, there is no censorship of books in Boston. The Superintendent of Police, however, is a great one for reading; or maybe he knows people who read books or has a few book readers in the Police Department. Sooner or later, the Superintendent or one of his trusted deputies will be browsing around the bestseller counters, looking over the jacket blurbs and leafing through the new novels. If the proprietor of the bookshop should happen to stroll by at such a moment, that would be no uncommon thing. Small talk would develop about the fortunes of the Red Sox, or the latest sleet storm, hurricane, or heat wave. “I see you have a new book here, Frosted Venus,” the Police Department man might remark. “I haven’t read it.” “I haven’t read it either,” the bookseller would answer, “but it was very favorably reviewed everywhere. Don’t you want to take a copy along with you?”
That will do perfectly for a go-in, the early stage of negotiations on almost any book. Just a chat, glad to see you again, how’ve you been, on both sides. The next words of the Police Department’s man are what count. If he puts the book back on the counter and says it looks to him like a mighty good book, nothing is going to happen. But if he replies, “No, I haven’t read it and I don’t believe it is at all the kind of book I should enjoy reading,” all hell breaks loose. Strictly speaking, he won’t even have to make such a declaration in plain English. He may just put the book down and leer at the bookseller or frown at him. “Looks like rain,” would suffice. He would then take gracious leave of the bookseller and wish him well in all his affairs. The bookseller would rush for the phone, summon his lawyers, and pass the Word to the other bookshops. Frosted Venus is no go. Can’t do it. Drop it. Put it away.
You will note both parties have tucked into the conversation the fact that neither has read the book. This is important. When the blowoff comes later on and certain hotheads begin asking questions, the Police Department man will blandly deny all knowledge of the matter. Why, he has not even read the book, he will say, let alone suppressed it. The bookseller has filed his disclaimer for an entirely different reason: he had not read the book and therefore didn’t dream that it was dirty — that is, dirty in the Police Department’s sense of the word. At long intervals, objectors to this simple noncensorship technique of suppressing books will insist on what is fondly called a “test case.” A bookseller will be goaded into making a “test” sale. He is thereupon arrested, experimentally, and given a “test” hearing and trial in court. The test is always successful: he is invariably convicted and fined and he discovers, to his astonishment, that it was not a trial spin at all but that everybody was really playing for keeps. He pays the fine not with practice money but with actual cash. In any and all of these matters the Watch and Ward Society will “coöperate.” The Boston accent is a subject of humorous reference elsewhere in the country. A complicated affair. It retains a hint of the dialect spoken in near-by Marblehead — pronounced Mabblehead in that town, where people also speak of Datmouth and hat-disease — but the Bostonian has not eliminated the r altogether. Depending on his conditioning, he may or may not add the final r to such words as saw, law, formula, idea, and Omaha, and here again is an upstate influence rather than a Back Bay characteristic. (The standard allusion to Omaha hereabouts is always a question, “ What is the capital of Omaha[r]?”) Leo Carroll, the actor, came a frightful cropper in Boston in the role of the late George Apley; Bostonians professed to find his utterances all but unintelligible, while New Yorkers derided them eagerly as the genuine patois of the Brahmin.
My own search for a definition of the Boston accent at that time yielded me only a vague conclusion that it is one part Boston, one part Harvard, and one part hick.
Accent or no, the Bostonian expresses himself in disconcertingly exact language, giving each word its full quota of syllables. His avoidance of such sounds as doncha, woncha, gimme, wanta, shocks the Western or Southern ear. He will not speak of Noo York or noospapers.
All these qualities give the Bostonian a faint air of slumming when he appears in other parts of the United States. The shiny blue suit, the old hat, and his air of piety and calm will sometimes lead the unwary to treat him as a pliant thing, a setup. But after he has clipped out a precise, inexorable statement of his wants, in a firm, carrying voice, in airtight, virtually legal language, he becomes a matter of uneasy respect, even deference. A New York hotel clerk, for instance, will feel that perhaps he had better humor the man until more is learned about him: he may be the holder of the first mortgage or a dangerous lunatic.
- Of course no Bostonian would ever eat a chowder in New York, and this is a purely hypothetical example. As a matter of fact, a Boston man would not like to seem too well informed about anything in New York; his friends would think it queer.↩