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Boston U. historian Warner, originally known for a close, suggestive study of Boston's urban transformation, Streetcar Suburbs (1962), looks here, unhappily, at the lives of 14 diverse Bostonians--""in order to understand the vastness, the barbarism, and the unimaginable that are the central experience of recent history."" This is a tall, tendentious order, which has only a little to do with Boston per se (to Warner, muzzily, at once ""unique"" and ""a very ordinary American place"") and everything to do with Warner's broad, conventional strictures on American society. His 14 figures, however interesting individually, are pressed into molds. First come three who set down their childhood recollections--judge, novelist and clubman Robert Grant, who sought reform but couldn't see beyond ""the old manners and morals of the city's established families""; immigrant prodigy Mary Antin, who found refuge from ""her lifelong need to reconcile. . . her own Russian Jewish orthodoxy and the dominant culture of New England liberal Christianity"" in a non-sectarian spiritual community (one of the less doctrinaire cameos); and comedian Fred Allen, the poor boy who dramatized and universalized urban types until, ""at the pinnacle of success, he met the new masks of the faceless empire."" Then, to exemplify ""New Pathways,"" we have engineer-entrepreneurs Charles A. Stone and Edwin S. Webster and their electrical equipment firm--growing from ""a provincial private partnership"" (via modern technology and cost accounting) to ""a large, publicly held imperial corporation""; and two contrasting women reformers, sentimentalist Laura Richards (whose early summer-camp was ""a costly social retreat"") and socialist/pacifist Emily Greene Balch (""Her response to the force of evil was always to mobilize the opposing forces of reason and benevolence through openness and respect for the humanity of all the adversaries""). Still later, homey columnist Louise Andrews Kent will represent ""a generation of domestic retreat""--in juxtaposition (""The Province Divided"") with scientist/ bureaucrat Vannevar Bush and his business associate Laurence K. Marshall, who ""demonstrate both the unpredictable quality of Boston's business history and the uncertainty that accompanied the expansion of scientific culture in the province and the nation."" The book as a whole exemplifies social-science labeling and schematizing--in the service of themes that are either truisms or vast oversimplifications.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1984
Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press