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OSTON COMMON has given to Boston individuality. Standing practically untouched and unbroken, in the very heart of the city, it represents the permanence of ideals. And it has always represented liberty, breadth, uniqueness of standpoint. One gathers the impression that the people of Boston will retain their liberty so long as they retain their Common, and will sink into commonplaceness only if they give up their Common. It is, in a double sense, a Common heritage.
Utilitarianism would long ago have taken this great central space to make way for the natural development of business; this great opening, in the ordinary course of city growth, would long ago have been cut by streets and covered with buildings. But Boston has held loyally to her ideals: she has held the Common; from the first, she seems to have had a subconscious sense of its indispensability to her.
One might begin, in writing of the Common, with naming the streets that bound it, and setting down the precise area – which, by the way, is not far from fifty acres – but the vital fact about it is that for almost three hundred years, almost from the beginning of Boston, the Common has been a common in fact as well as in name, held for public use throughout these centuries. No street has ever been put through it; no street car line has been allowed to cross. To some extent the subway has been permitted to burrow beneath, but that has itself been for public use without affecting the surface. The long-ago law of 1640 declared that "There shall be no land granted either for houseplott or garden, out of ye open ground or common field," and this inhibition, broadly interpreted for the Common preservation, has held through the centuries. In 1646 – how long, long ago! – a law was passed, further to strengthen the matter, declaring that the Common should forever be held unbroken until a vote of the majority of the people should permit it to be sliced or cut; and this very year in which I write, the people, on account of this ancient law, voted on a proposition to reduce the Common in order to widen bordering streets, and by a big majority voted it down.
The ordinary American impression of a common is of a shadeless and cheerless expanse, a flat, bare space. But Boston Common is crowded thick with old trees, it is light and cheerful and alive with happiness; instead of being flat it is delightfully diversified, and instead of being bare it has, over all of its surface excepting the playground spaces, an excellent covering of grass – and this in spite of the fact that there are no keep-off-the-grass prohibitions. The Common is a space to be freely used, but the people love it and do not ruin it with use.
Those whom one ordinarily meets on the Common are of the busy, earnest, clean-cut types. Many of them, one sees at a glance, have grandmothers. All are well-dressed, alert, genially happy – and the fancy persistently comes that the very air of the Common diffuses a comfortable happiness.
Among the pleasantest of the many pleasant associations with the Common is that of Ralph Waldo Emerson and of how, as a small boy, he used to tend his mother's cow here! There is a fine and simple breeziness in the very thought of it. What a picture – the serious, solemn little boy so solemnly and seriously doing his part to aid his widowed mother in the time of her straitened fortunes! I think it much more than a mere fancy that the influences of that time had much to do with making Emerson a patient and practical and kindly philosopher instead of merely a cold and theoretical one. And I associate with those early days a tale of his later years, a tale of his coming somewhere upon a young man who was vainly struggling to get a mild but exasperating calf through a gate: pushing would not do, pulling would not do, and, "Oh, don't beat her!" said a gentle voice, and the by-that-time famous Emerson tucked a finger into the corner of the calf's mouth and the little beast trotted quietly along, sucking hard! I think that Emerson, personally lovable man that he was, owed to his experience with the cow on the Common the possession of so great a share of the milk of human kindness, and to his living for a time at the very edge of the Common much of his open outlook on life. And there comes to mind a letter in which some one mentioned his writing, as a boy, a scholarly composition on the stars, because of thoughts that came to him from looking up at the stars from the Common. That is the sort of thing that represents Boston Common. Perhaps "Hitch your wagon to a star!" came to Emerson from the inspiration of those early days.
Cows were freely pastured on the Common until about 1830; and one thinks of the delightful story of Hancock, he of the mighty signature, who, having on hand a banquet for the officers of some French warships, at a time when the friendship of the French meant much to us, and learning that his own cows had not given milk enough, promptly sent out his servants to milk every cow on the Common regardless of ownership! And the very owners of the cows liked him the better for it. And the fact that Hancock's splendid mansion looked out over the Common had, doubtless, much to do with giving him the cheerfully likable qualities that he possessed, in spite of qualities not so likable. For this is such a human Common! You cannot help feeling it every time you cross it or walk beside it or look out over it. It is a place where people are natural, even though you no longer see cows there. And there is a building on fashionable Mount Vernon Street, close by, a low one-story studio building, which not only, though the inhibition is ancient indeed, is kept down to one-story height as an incorporeal hereditament of the houses opposite, which did not wish their view interfered-with, but which also possesses, opening upon the street, a broad door which – so you are told, and you have no desire to risk the chances of disproval by unearthing old documents – must forever remain a broad door so as to let out the cows for the Common!
The Common is not all a level, nor is it all a hill, for it is freely diversified with levels and slopes. It is a pleasantly rolling acreage and possesses even a big pond. And there are a great many trees, in spite of the difficulties that trees face in their fight for existence against city air and smoke, and in spite of the ravages of the gypsy moth, and in spite of serious lopping. The trees still cast a royal shade and give a fine, sweet air to it all.
It is pleasant, too, to notice the system adopted here many years ago, and now in use in some other cities also, of marking carefully the different trees with both their popular and botanic names. For my own part, I remember that it was as a youth, on Boston Common, that I first learned to differentiate the English elm from the American and the linden from the English elm.
One may get somewhat of real beauty on the Common too, as, the glorious yellow and green effect of the great gold dome of the State House seen through and beyond the trees.
The paths, whether of asphalt or earth, are rather shabby, and the Common has nothing of the aspect of gardens or of trimmed lawns. There is an excellent Public Garden just beyond the Common, if that is what one is looking for.
I know of no other open space in America so genially and generally used. And no one, except once in a while for some special event or reason, ever goes to the Common – no one needs to – for it is simply right here at the center of things, and doesn't need going to! It is crossed and passed and looked at in the daily routine of life.
In its complete exclusion of vehicles, the Common is the pedestrian's paradise; and never were there paths that lead on such unexpected tangents. Never were there paths which so puzzlingly start you in apparent good faith for one destination only to make you find yourself most surprisingly headed in another. Yet these perplexing paths are all straight l The uneven and vari-angled sides which make the Common neither round nor oblong nor square nor anything at all, are responsible for leading even the oldest citizen away from his objective if he for a moment forgets what a lifetime of familiarity with these paths has taught him.
Many of the Common walks, as winter approaches, are made to look amusingly like the sidewalks of some village, for interminable lengths of planking, full of slivers and holes, are dragged from their summer's hiding places and laid down here, on crosspieces that raise them a few inches above the level of the walks.
A prettily shaded path is the one known as the Long Path, leading far on under tall and overarching trees from the steps opposite Joy Street to the junction of Boylston and Tremont, and this is the path followed by the Autocrat and the Schoolmistress in the charming love episode that was long ago so charmingly told. One may almost think that the human touch of this pretty romance, with its simple glow of love and life, is the most delightful bit of humanity about the Common, and the fact that it was a love affair of fiction does not make the story the least particle unreal, for every one remembers it as if it was lovemaking of the real and actual kind.
Although the Common has been held immune from homes or streets for these three centuries, a part of it was long ago given over to a graveyard. It is a large graveyard, too, and, although it is directly across from thronged sidewalks and sparkling shops and theaters, it is just as attractively gloomy in appearance as a good old-fashioned graveyard ought to be! Central as it is, and befitting its name of Central Burying-Ground, it has all the interest of aloofness. It is practically hidden, it is almost forgotten and overlooked; and this effect is really remarkable.
One of the many who are buried here was the inventor of a soup that promises to keep his name in perpetual remembrance – of such varied possibilities does Fame make use to hold men's names alive! Many years ago a certain Julien was a cook and a caterer in Boston, an excellent cook and caterer whose finest achieved ambition was the making of a certain soup which so hugely tickled the palates of the elect that by general consent the name of Julien was lovingly attached to it. Well, he deserves his fame, as does any man who adds to the happiness and health of humanity. And here his body lies.
And in this lonely and melancholy cemetery, with the brilliant shops and theaters so incongruously looking out over it, there is buried the artist admittedly honored as the greatest of early American portrait painters; perhaps the greatest, even including the best of modern days; and of course I refer to Gilbert Stuart. This son of a snuff grinder was honored abroad as well as at home, and gave up a triumphant career in England, in the course of which he painted King George the Third and the Prince of Wales, who was to become George the Fourth, in order to satisfy his intense desire to return to America to paint a greater George than either.
It is fitting that he should be buried here in New England's greatest city, for he was New England born, and he lived in Boston throughout the last twenty years or so of his life, and Boston is the proud possessor of his best and finest Washington, one of the only two that he painted direct from his subject (the many others being copies or adaptations by himself or by other artists), and with this George Washington is also Stuart's altogether charming portrait of Martha Washington, the two being painted at the same time. Yet only the other day I noticed, in Boston's best morning newspaper, a brief reference to Gilbert Stuart which twice spelled his name with a "w"! O Tempora!
Some years after Stuart's death, it was arranged by some wealthy folk of Rhode Island to take his body back to his native State: for he was born at Narragansett, six miles from Pottawoone and four from Ponanicut, as he once explained to some Englishmen who wondered where a man could possibly be born who spoke English, but said that he was not a native of England or Scotland or Ireland or Wales; but after the preparations had been made it was learned that not only was the grave of Stuart unmarked but that it was unknown; Boston had carelessly mislaid the body of this great American; so the best that could be done was to put a tablet on the outside of the cemetery fence.
Not far from the burying ground is a monument in honor of the men who were killed in what has always been known as the Boston Massacre. And the list of killed is headed by the name of Crispus Attucks, the negro; not that he was more of a martyr than the others, but that this was a chance to set a negro's name first as a sort of defiance, on the part of this abolitionist city of Boston, to any who might deem negroes inferior. And by far the noblest monument in Boston, a monument positively thrilling as well as beautiful, a monument which, though standing unobtrusively, just recessed from the sidewalk, is astonishingly effective in its splendid setting between the two great trees that shade it, is a sculpture by St. Gaudens, which vividly presents, in deep relief, not only the figure of the gallant Colonel Shaw but figures of the negroes who bravely followed him to a brave death. It is a memorial to the spirit, even more than it is a monument to men. This memorial – the most successfully placed monument in America – stands at the highest point of the Common, close to the spot where the War Governor of Massachusetts stood to see Shaw and his regiment march by; and fittingly, here, these soldiers in bronze will forever go marching on.
There is a great deal in a city's devotion to ideals; but only a few evenings ago, in a big Boston theater that was packed to capacity, there were "movie" pictures of the sad Reconstruction days, pictures so utterly unfair in character as to be deplored even by the more earnest sympathizers with the South; and yet, that crowded house applauded tempestuously – the only applause of the evening – the pictures of masked Ku Klux riding down and killing negroes. But I suppose one ought not to forget that Boston must hold descendants of those who tried to mob Garrison, as well as descendants of those who stood for human liberty.
Another of the Common monuments stands on an isolated little hillock, and is to the memory of the soldiers and sailors who died in the Rebellion. It is not much as a work of art; in fact, it is somewhat worse, because more pretentious, than a host of mediocre military memorials set up throughout the country; but the situation is fine, and the inscription is fine, narrating as it does that the city has built the monument with the intent that it shall speak to future generations; and so, one sees that it is an excellent thing to stand here, elm-shaded on its eminence. More and more one feels that across this Common comes blowing the warm breath of a history that is alive.
From the very earliest days the Common was a training ground for soldiers, and this use has not been entirely forgotten. The Bostonians are inclined to resent the fact that their Common was used by the British in the Revolutionary times as a training ground and mustering place for the soldiers who went to Bunker Hill, and before that for the ones who marched to Lexington; it was taking quite a liberty, they still feel; but they find consolation in certain facts of history in regard to what happened to those men.
It is still remembered, too, that a tall young American, standing by, attracted the awed attention of the British soldiers here, for he was over seven feet high; and he remarked to them, carelessly, that when they should get up into the interior of the country they would learn what Americans really were, for out there they looked on him, with his height of only seven feet, as a mere baby.
And once, between the days of Lexington and Bunker Hill, an American stood by and laughed amusedly as a company of British were practising target shooting, which so annoyed their captain that he demanded an explanation, whereupon the American said it amused him to see such bad shooting. "Can you do any better?" said the officer angrily. "Give me a gun," was the laconic reply. And with that the American proceeded to give an astonishing exhibition of center-spot hitting – and the British were to learn, to their cost, over on the hill in Charlestown, that Americans could hit live targets just as readily as they could hit any other kind. (That story of target hitting is curiously like Scott's story of Robin Hood hitting the target at the angry behest of King John! If Scott had been an American he would have found a wealth of material in American annals.) The broad elm-arched mall along the Beacon Street side of the Common is an odd memento of our second war with England; for money was raised by subscription in 1814 to defend the city against an expected attack, and as the attack was not made and peace was, the money was spent in constructing this mall.
Very early, the Common was used as a place of execution, and in particular it was where Quakers and witches were unanswerably silenced: but in the good old times executions were looked upon in a much more matter-of-course light than they are in modern days. They were really public entertainments in a time when entertainments were few and when the Puritan public frowned on the frivolous.
The mighty Whitefield used to preach on the Common, and it was the main place of refuge for goods and people from the great fire that less than half a century ago devastated the business section.
Flocks of pudgy pigeons now hover about the Common, and it is a pretty sight to see them come circling and whirring, in graceful curves and full trustfulness, to eat the crumbs so freely scattered for them. One need not go to Venice to find a city where citizens and visitors feed the pigeons! Countless gray squirrels dart safely about, and the Common is also a popular place for the airing of that fast-disappearing race, the dog – for dogs are indeed rapidly disappearing, not only on account of city conditions but in particular from the continuous and deadly attacks of the automobile; and so the broad Common, without automobiles as it is, is a rallying place for dog owners and their dogs. They make a sort of last stand here! But never do you hear a man whistle for his dog in Boston; not even on the Common. It simply isn't done! And if a thing isn't done in Boston, you mustn't do it!
The Common has from the first been a place for spectacles of one kind or another; not only such as the drilling of soldiers or the execution of people of unpopular opinions, but many and many other kinds. There comes pleasantly the thought of what a pretty picture it must have presented on that long-ago afternoon, far back before the Revolution, when, under the auspices of a society for the promotion of industry and frugality (the Bostonians have always had a partiality for long titles!), some three hundred demure maidens, "young female spinsters, decently dressed," as the old-time phrasing has it, came out here on the Common with their spinning wheels, and sat here and spun, with busy demureness, prettily playing Priscilla to the admiring John Aldens among the watching throng. What a charming memory it makes for the Common! How one thinks of the Twelfth Night lines about the "spinsters and knitters in the sun," and the "free maids that weave their threads!"
One notices that the Bostonian of those old days did not consider a spinster as necessarily a female; a city of spinsters would not need to be a city of women; and after all, the word spinster might properly be used as meaning merely spinner. But the explanatory words "decently dressed" would seem to deserve further light: could any young female spinster of pre-Revolutionary days ever have dressed otherwise! The very thought is incredible.
The genial freedom for which the Common stands was well illustrated by a story told me by a Boston lady, of her last meeting with Louisa M. Alcott; for a little niece came running up, exclaiming excitedly, "Oh, Aunt Louisa! I just feel that I want to scream!" Whereupon the creator of "Little Women" most placidly replied, "Very well, dear: just go out on the Common and scream." And that was both wise and illustrative.
Old-time city that it is, Boston has an old-time fancy for observing holidays. Even on the last Columbus Day it seemed as if every store was closed and that every citizen was either at the ball game – some 40,000 were there, with at least half as many more anxious to get in – or else walking on or beside the Common. And when night fell, it seemed as if everybody went to the Common, for there were fireworks given by the city, with lavishness of expense and superbness of effect. Mighty crowds were gathered and hundreds of motor cars were lined up around the Common's edge, and when, at the close, the American flag was flung to the night in colors of blazing fire, every motor horn honked joyously and every individual joyously cheered. For this was their own Common.