BOSTON, like every lovable old city in the world, has been the subject of a great number of books. She has been evaluated in terms of praise and disparagement, delight and dissatisfaction. She was always a city for the pencil and brush. She ought to have had, in their day, the full Henry James and Pennell treatment, or the full Howells and Pennell treatment, though somehow she never did. Oxford and London, Edinburgh, Paris, and Rome have each been preserved for posterity in excellent books full of agreeable pictures. London and Edinburgh have been fortunate in the perambulations of two members of the Bone family. Not every city can have such luck.
Here in this book of stunning photographs by Arthur Griffin, tightly caulked with appropriate paragraphs by the author of Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, is the Boston we know and don’t know. Mr. Griffin takes pictures as if he were working with a needle on a copper plate. The edges are sharp, the shadows black and deep; and he has opened his shutter with full advantage taken of the vagaries of Boston weather. The book is happily not arranged by seasons; but something in every picture — in the sly way that Alfred Hitchcock appears in his own screen productions — gives the absolute signature of in the month. A fine sense of composition is shown to best advantage in the views of the steaming kettle above the coffee shop in Court Street, a corner of the Common seen through St. Paul’s Greek Revival columns, the Nôtre-Dame-like spectacle of Boston from the tower of the “new” Old South, the skiers in deserted Park Street, and in the only photograph I ever saw of Symphony Hall that gives it (surprisingly) the Athenian look. It saddens me that Mr. Griffin found nothing for his art in the great abutments and peppers and salts of the Longfellow Bridge, in the febrile evening mists of spring that make strange magic of the Hill as seen from Technology; in a shot at Locke-Ober’s, Durgin-Park’s, the epicurean North End, or the Boston Stone. Space likely forbade. But to have the Custom House Tower appear at least a dozen times in a book of 122 pages was, I think, a mistake. The series of color frontispieces, incidentally, is less effective than the black and whites. (Note to photographers, amateur and otherwise: full data on every picture — quite unintelligible to me — are in the back of the book.)
Miss Forbes writes affectionately and breezily about what she knows as an historian and loves at first hand. Her prose is too chatty to be her best, but it has all her charm and warmth. As a portrait of Boston, this is not the full treatment, but a very pleasing book about an endlessly fascinating subject.