Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony is a sprawling score that heaves, blasts, marches and meanders for nearly 80 minutes. Written in 1941, while Hitler’s forces were devastating Leningrad in a siege that would last 900 days and take at least a million lives, the work practically screams, “This is a big statement!”
And scream it did on Thursday at Geffen Hall, where Jaap van Zweden led the New York Philharmonic in a performance of the “Leningrad” that was intense and powerful — sometimes overly so.
Shostakovich began composing this symphony, his seventh, before the German invasion. Debates continue over whether he intended it as a grim portrait of a historic city under siege, or as a more general cry against tyranny. Are there coded, anti-Stalinist messages in the piece? And are those long stretches of militaristic-sounding marches bitterly ironic?
I am aware of divergence of critics on these points.
Mr. van Zweden seemed to take the piece at face value — in the best sense. He laid out this shifting score clearly, letting it speak for itself. He pushed the orchestra to blaring extremes at times, but the excessiveness of the music may call for that. (Critics who question the symphony’s merits, including Virgil Thomson, have found it obvious and steeped in banality.)
I wonder about this. Thomson is not NECESSARILY wrong, but I know the seventh well and find much to admire in it.
From the Philharmonic strings, Mr. van Zweden drew a dark, deep tone in the opening theme: a stern yet elusive melodic line, played in unison, that is soon goaded by bursts of drums and trumpets. The transition from there into a quizzically lyrical passage was deftly handled.
The most curious section of the nearly half-hour first movement comes when you expect a development section to begin. Instead, a snare drum plays an obsessive march rhythm. Over it, individual instruments, then groups, play what sounds like a jaunty march tune — over and over. Each statement becomes bigger, louder and more elaborately orchestrated. This roughly 10-minute section has aptly been described as Shostakovich’s “Boléro.” Mr. van Zweden and the orchestra played it straight, building inexorably to an assaultive fortissimo climax.
I don’t like Ravel’s “Boléro.” I know this passage in Shostakovich’s seventh well. I am not crazy about it. … Shostakovich often surprises.
The Philharmonic’s high level of the performance continued throughout the symphony: the second movement’s cross between a scherzo and lyrical reminiscence; the restless slow movement; and the often frenzied finale, which drives toward of seemingly triumphant (or bitter?) coda of victory.
Composer and critic Virgil Thomson is known for having been highly critical of Shostakovich and composers similar to him, such as Sibelius. His caustic remarks on Shostakovich’s seventh are frequently quoted. The review quoted has, I would suspect, been rarely read in its entirely and it is not available online. I am posting the entire review here.
Whether one is able to listen without mind-wandering to the Seventh Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich probably depends on the rapidity of one’s music perceptions. It seems to have been written for the slow-witted, the not very musical and the distracted. In this respect it differs from nearly all the other symphonies in the world in which abnormal length is part and parcel of the composer’s concept. Beethoven’s Ninth, Mahler’s Ninth and Eighth, Bruckner’s Seventh and the great Brahms “machines” are long because they could not have been made any shorter without eliminating something the author wanted in. Their mater is complex and cannot be expounded briefly.
Its Length Is Arbitrary
The Shostakovich piece on the other hand is merely a stretching out of material that is in no way deep or difficult to understand. The stretching itself is not even a matter of real though possibly unnecessary development. It is for the most part straight banal repetition. The piece seems to be the length it is not because the substance would brook no briefer expression but because for some reason not inherent in the material the composer wishes it that way. Of what the reason could possibly be I have only the vaguest notion. That the reason was clear to its author I have not the slightest doubt, however, because the piece all through bears the marks of complete assurance. It is no pent up outpouring out of personal feelings and still less an encyclopedic display of musical skill. It is interminably straightforward and withal is limited in spiritual scope as a film like “The Great Zigfield” or “Gone With the Wind.” It could have said what it says in fifteen minutes or it could have gone on for two hours more. The proportions of the work seem to this auditor, in short, wholly arbitrary.
Its Content Is Tame
They do not seem, nevertheless, accidental. Nothing seems accidental in this piece. The themes are clearly thought out and their doings are simplified with a master’s hand. The harmonies, the contrapuntal web, the orchestration show no evidence of floundering or of experiment. If the music has no mystery and consequently no real freedom of thought, neither does it obtain any obscurity or any evidence of personal frustration. It is as objective as an editorial, as self-assured as the news report of a public ceremony.
Heretofore this author’s music, whether theatrical or symphonic, has been animated by an instinct for easy theatrical values. He has put into his works with never-failing effect crowd scenes, barcarolles, burlesques and patriotic finales, holding these all together with a kind of neutral continuity-writing in two-part counterpoint. The most entertaining of these numbers have always been burlesques of bourgeois musical taste, which were the more charming for their being purged, as it were, of bitterness by the optimism of the final patriotic and military passages. One could always feel in them the rambunctious but gifted boy whose heart was really in the right place. In spite of the static and not very significant character of the innocent two-part counterpoint between, his “production numbers,” if one may call them that in symphonic music, have always been bright, full of gusto and genuinely characteristic of their composer. They have put us in contact with a real person.
The Seventh Symphony has the same formal structure as the rest of its author’s work. It is series of production numbers interspersed with neutral matter written chiefly in that same two-part counterpoint. There is a mechanized military march and the usual patriotic ending, neither of them quite as interesting or imaginative as they might be. And the rest of the episodes are tamer. The pastorale and the Protestant chorale are competent routine stuff, no more, and the continuity-counterpoint, though less static than usual, just sort of runs on as if some cinematic narrative were in progress that needed neutral accompaniment. The opening passage, which is said to represent the good Soviet citizen, is bold and buoyant. But nowhere is there any real comedy, which is what Shostakovich does best.
It is no reproach to an author to say that one of his works is the kind of work it is. And this work is certainly of more sober mien than most of its author’s others. It is very long and very serious, and both these qualities are certainly deliberate observances. The facile competence and the assurance of the whole thing, moreover, eliminate the possibility that any auditor find the struggle between the artiest and the material a major subject of interest. It is easy to listen to the piece, equally easy to skip any part of it without missing the sense of the whole. It is excellent journalism, and some of it can be remembered. But it will probably not make much difference to anybody’s inner musical life whether he hears it or doesn’t.
Its Author Is Growing Up and Not Very Prettily
Shostakovich is an abundant musician, a “natural” composer. He is also an experienced and perfectly assured one. Heretofore he has maintained a boyish taste for low comedy (redeemed by sincere patriotic sentiment) that gave gusto to his writing and made listening to it sometimes fun. The present work shows a wish to put boyish things behind him and a complete ability to do so without losing confidence in himself. That it is less amusing than his previous works is not to its discredit. That it is, in spite of its serious air and pretentious proportions, thin of substance, unoriginal and shallow indicates that the mature production of this gifted master is likely to be on the stuffy side. That he has deliberately diluted his matter, adapted it, both by excessive simplification and by excessive repetition to the comprehension of a child of eight indicates that he is willing to write down to a real or fictious psychology of mass-consumption in a way that may eventually disqualify him for consideration as a serious composer.
— Virgil Thomson, “Shostakovich’s Seventh,” New York Herald Tribune, October 18, 1942, pg. E7
In an earlier review of a performance of Shostakovich’s Seventh by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Arturo Toscanini, Thomson stated:
The Shostakovich Seventh Symphony is easy to listen to but hard to keep the mind on. It is easy to follow because the tunes are simple, the counterpoint thin and the orchestration very broad and plain. It is experienced work by a man of thoroughly musical mentality; and it is apparently designed for easy listening, perhaps even with a thought to making it possible for the radio listener to miss some of the repetitions without losing anything essential. It is hard to keep one’s attention on it at a concert hall because it repeats itself so much. One gets to thinking about something else while waiting for the next section.
As usual with Shostakovich, the quiet passages are less effective that the noisy ones. [italics added] Even these, with doubled brass and seven men at the battery, are not especially rousing. Like everything else in the work they are a little too simple to be interesting. The symphony seems to need film accompaniment, something to occupy the mind while it goes on and to explain the undue stretching out of all its sections. I do not find the work objectionable in spirit, and it is certainly sincere and competent music-making. I merely find it thin in substance.
— Virgil Thomson, “Imperfect Workmanship,” New York Herald Tribune, October 15, 1942, pg. 18
I don’t, in the final analysis, agree with Thomson. I like Thomson’s music. And he writes very well. He was justifiably regarded as a very good critic. I don’t mind incisive criticism like this even when I disagree with it. It makes me think.
With a Shostakovich symphony, you never know what to expect. There are deep thought and great ingenuity in all his works. Somewhat like Beethoven, his symphonies (with the possible exception of the second and third symphonies) tend to hold their own, none “copying” another. Each one is a remarkable work.
Yet, the greatest works of art can be uneven. “Perfect” construction is not necessarily desirable or a virtue. Samuel Johnson said as much in a comment about Milton’s Paradise Lost:
In every work one part must be for the sake of others; a palace must have passages; a poem must have transitions. It is no more to be required that wit should always be blazing, than that the sun should always stand at noon. In a great work there is a vicissitude of luminous and opaque parts, as there is in the world a succession of day and night.
— Samuel Johnson, “Milton,” Lives of the Poets
Take Beethoven’s Ninth, for example. An inferior work? Yet, at times the construction seems sort of messy. How does the “Ode to Joy” fit into the work? Is it strident? Too much? An emotional outpouring that amounts to overblown sentiment?
Shostakovich has been accused of writing such music and of being inferior to supposedly more cerebral composers such as Stravinsky. Was Beethoven’s music at times too romantic? Is Shostakovich’s music as times too patriotic? Such questions seem nonsensical to me.
Shostakovich, in my opinion, stands head and shoulders above most twentieth century composers, including those who were trying to show primarily how clever or innovative they were. Shostakovich is a brilliant “musical thinker,” and, on top of that, one continually encounters passages of deep feeling and startling beauty.
Thomson’s assertion that “the quiet passages [in Shostakovich’s works] are less effective that the noisy ones” is flat out wrong. Here are some examples from the symphonies that demonstrate just the opposite:
Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47
Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 60 (“Leningrad”)
Symphony No. 9 in E-flat major, Op. 70
Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103 (“The Year 1905”)
Adagio (Eternal Memory)
Only one of Shostakovich’s fifteen string quartets had been published when Shostakovich’s seventh symphony was premiered. Had Thomson been familiar with the quartets and other later works of Shostakovich — such as the 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87, premiered in 1952 — he might have had a deeper and fuller appreciation of the composer’s’ oeuvre.
* The third movement of Shostakovich’s eleventh, “Eternal Memory,” starts with a halting motion on pizzicato strings, over which a noble melody (‘You Fell As Victims’, most famous of all the revolutionary songs and whose deployment was by no means limited to Soviet composers) is heard on violas then extended to upper strings. A sombre new theme, heard initially on woodwind and brass before being transformed on violins, begins the ascent to the apex, at the summit of which the climactic motif from the previous movement is sounded out balefully on full orchestra, underpinned by pounding timpani that continue as the intensity subsides. The viola melody, now a distant recessional, is heard again before pizzicato strings arrive at a questioning pause. [Program notes, recording of the eleventh symphony by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.]
The sociologist Pitirim A. Sorokin mentions this revolutionary song and Shostakovich’s eleventh symphony in his autobiography, A Long Journey.
— posted by Roger W. Smith
transcription of Virgil Thomson’s New York Herald Tribune reviews by Roger W. Smith
… I have been a chronic loafer and an enthusiast of dolce far niente all my life. This is the other side of the Taoist percept that “doing nothing is better than to be busy doing nothing.” Almost daily I spend a couple of afternoon hours in my favorite ways of “doing nothing” mentally: working in my garden, cutting the lawn, struggling with the jungle around my summer cottage, walking, swimming, fishing, and climbing mountains. … I still do … [all] kinds of physical work.
Quite frequently I also loaf by meditating on a beautiful sunset or sunrise, whitecaps or the stillness of dreaming waters, the fireworks of a thunderstorm, or the “deafening silence” of a starry night.
— Pitirim A. Sorokin, A Long Journey: The Autobiography of Pitirim A. Sorokin (1963)
Uber-kids. You will from time to time read about them in the newspaper. The high school student who missed getting into an Ivy League School for some reason and perhaps feels it was because of discrimination. Near 800 scores on their SAT’s. Proficient on the cello. Captained the high school tennis team. Volunteers at a homeless shelter and spent a summer in Guatemala assisting with refugee efforts.
And so on.
I hope I don’t sound snide. Or like a know it all. When I was in high school, and was striving to get accepted to Harvard, I felt overprogrammed. I volunteered for all sorts of clubs and student organizations; participated in athletics which I did enjoy for the most part but also hoped would make me appear “well rounded”; and studied very hard. But, one can’t help wondering, is it fair to place such demands and expectations on young people, that they always perform at a high level in so many areas? With no time to just be themselves. Their wonderful, unique selves (as their parents know them to be).
I have witnessed, as I am sure most readers of this blog have, many kids brought up this way from early childhood. Swimming lessons. Tennis lessons. Music lessons. After school enrichment programs. Summer camp (no time allowed for sheer idleness). And so on.
Their parents seem hard pressed to shepherd them (usually by automobile) from appointment to appointment.
Anyway, I took a walk yesterday after a long, hectic week. And was thinking about how I often feel overprogrammed. Multitasking. I often seem to be doing everything practically at once and accomplishing less and less as time goes on.
It was sometimes this way in my own adolescence, but I do recall having a lot of time as a child — in a different age, when things seemed simpler and less competitive — to just hang out with friends or do things by myself. Long summer vacations (they seemed endless when you were a kid). Playing in the back yard, the street, or a vacant lot. Improvised games and idle conversations. Playing kids’ board games or with toys, or simple card games such as War and Old Maid. (Games that were essentially a waste of time, but we were socializing.) Days spent lolling around with a book, or a comic book. Daydreaming. Being alone, lost in thought, or playing a solitary game. The feeling we used to have of delicious boredom.
On my neighborhood walk yesterday, I thought to myself that everyone needs down time. Not only to “recharge batteries.” But for true productivity.
And, most importantly, for CREATIVITY.
When one is idling mentally, one has the time and opportunity to think or just start doing something different or new. It doesn’t have to be something momentous. It often isn’t. It could be picking up something such as a book you had forgotten you had. It could be cleaning your room or raking leaves, or doing some other menial task. But, what happens is that one finds that the mind becomes reenergized. Naturally.
It seems to be true that the mind is most fertile precisely when it is not overprogrammed. You pick up a newspaper or magazine or a book you had forgotten about. You engage in a conversation that seems to be going nowhere in particular (which is of no account). And, suddenly, you get a new idea. Or, when you are doing something nonintellectual, and a whole new idea, a new thought, comes to you, strikes you. And, feeling refreshed, you are eager to perhaps write it down, to run with it, so to speak. This happens, it seems, not only because you are refreshed, but also because the mind has been cleared, making new thoughts more likely, and so on. If I were a psychologist, I could, no doubt, explain this better.
Pitirim A. Sorokin expressed this well. But, it should be noted that it is not exactly a matter of shutting down mentally. It’s just that the mind needs freedom to idle (like a car engine) and wander a bit. It needs some freedom to “roam.”
To put it another way, using a metaphor from nature. If you can give yourself a break mentally, a germination process often occurs. You are cleaning your room or raking leaves (or perhaps doing something non task oriented, like walking). You have shut down mentally for a short while. All the thoughts and impressions, all the knowledge, is still there. They are mulch, like leaves on the ground. They are the substratum of new mental matter, new thoughts.
How truly pleasurable this is. I hope our kids will be allowed to experience it.
The Russian-American sociologist and social philosopher Pitirim A. Sorokin (Russian, Питирим Александрович Сорокин) has been one of my personal heroes since my high school years. I have a created a new site about him at
Further materials about Sorokin which I have discovered as well as materials that Russian scholars have shared with me are in preparation for posting and will be forthcoming.
There has been much scholarship about Sorokin going on in post-Communist Russia (he was banished shortly after the Russian Revolution by the Soviet government). There have been exciting discoveries such as that of a long lost and unknown novel by Sorokin.
Pitirim A. Sorokin was an interesting person, scholar/writer, and historical figure in his own right — interest in him is not limited to sociologists or, for that matter, scholars. I encourage those who are interested to visit my new Sorokin site.
Дальнейшие материалы о Сорокине, которые я обнаружил, а также материалы, которые поделились со мной российскими учеными, готовятся к публикации и будут опубликованы.
Было много стипендий о том, что Сорокин происходит в посткоммунистической России (он был изгнан вскоре после русской революции советским правительством). Были интересные открытия, такие как давно потерянный и неизвестный роман Сорокина.
Питирим А. Сорокин был интересным человеком, ученым / писателем и исторической фигурой в своем собственном праве – интерес к нему не ограничивается социологами или, если на то пошло, учеными. Я призываю тех, кто заинтересован посетить мой новый сайт Сорокина.
In the spirit of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, I will begin with the conclusion, followed by evidence to prove my point.
Walking is a naturally beneficial form of exercise habitual since human origins. It is perfectly suited to the human body and is a form of physical activity from which it seems personal injury cannot come; hence, one can justly say that it is one hundred percent beneficial.
The body welcomes such exercise. In fact, when it is undertaken, the body seems to be saying, “give me more!” It seems to cure all kinds of nagging (but not serious) physical complaints, discomforts, and ills, such as aches and pains, and actually seems to restore energy as much if not more than depleting it.
I like to think of new places and routes to walk in the City (i.e., New York City, including Manhattan and the “outer boroughs” of Brooklyn and Queens).
I keep finding new places to explore — in Brooklyn, for example. It could be a neighborhood, such as Williamsburg, or a park, such as Brooklyn Bridge Park, which I only found out about recently. I like to call my walks, playfully, “jaunts,” a favorite term used by the poet Walt Whitman.
The other day, while writing a post, “Walt Whitman on Manhattan”
I noticed that in his poem “Mannahatta,” Whitman describes Manhattan as “an island sixteen miles long.”
Yes, I thought to myself, sixteen miles long, from the southernmost point of Manhattan, Battery Park (which overlooks New York Harbor and from which boats depart regularly for the Statue of Liberty, which can be viewed from the park), to Inwood at the northernmost point of Manhattan.
Then, on Thursday evening (July 20), I saw a documentary film at the Morgan Library in Manhattan: Henry David Thoreau, Surveyor of the Soul, directed by Huey Coleman. In the film, it is noted that when Thoreau first attended a lecture by Ralph Waldo Emerson, he walked seventeen miles from Concord, Massachusetts to Boston to attend.
I had been thinking of taking such a walk myself. If Thoreau can do it, I can, I thought. I would like to see how such a long walk feels.
Yesterday I walked, in around 90 degree weather, from Bowling Green, at the southern tip of Manhattan, to the northernmost point of Manhattan Island, Inwood Hill Park, where the Henry Hudson Bridge and the Spuyten Duyvil Bridge link Manhattan to the Bronx.
It took me about ten hours with a couple of pit stops.
I got up in the morning feeling sluggish and achy. I took the subway to Bowling Green, then started walking, taking a few photographs of the harbor and then starting to walk uptown.
I felt sluggish and unsteady on my feet. The heat felt oppressive. I had a pain in my right foot that had persisted for a day or two. But gradually, as my walk and the day progressed, I started feeling better.
At 3:45 p.m., I texted a friend:
have reached 96th St and Broadway
wouldn’t u know it
I seem to have more energy than when I started
my toe is not hurting any more
I feel much less achy and better overall
A couple of hours later, from 155th and Broadway, I texted my friend again, saying “I am getting tired.” I had probably walked over 15 miles already. But, I kept going. It took me over an hour more to reach Inwood Hill Park. The park is entered via Dyckman Street, which is located precisely where West 200th Street would be, were it a numbered street. I walked along the western end of the park, which skirts the Hudson, to the northern end of the park, then back to the subway.
Riding home on the subway, I felt exhausted. I was relieved to get home and after a short while fell into a deep sleep.
I woke up very early after only a few hours of sleep feeling refreshed and very energetic. I haven’t felt so good in a long time. I felt very alert and refreshed. (It is my belief that pleasurable, mentally relaxing exercise such as walking obviates neurasthenia and chronic fatigue.)
I already said it! The body welcomes exercise. It craves it. I can often hear my “brother body” (a term used by Pitirim A. Sorokin, which he undoubtedly got from Saint Francis) telling me, “thank you; give me more.” It is not uncommon after a five to seven mile walk for me to find myself saying to myself, I could do another five miles more. And, I am not a fitness addict or fanatic.
Addendum: On Sunday, August 6, 2017, I reversed myself and walked from the top (northernmost point) of Manhattan Island to the bottom (Battery Park). I found that Manhattan actually ends at Broadway and 218th Street — not at 207th Street, as I had thought.
I did it faster this time. It took me about seven and a half hours.
The weather was cool for August, and I did not experience appreciable fatigue. I felt as if I could have kept going should I have had cause to.
Broadway at 218th Street, 1:34 p.m.; Manhattan’s northern border
Broadway at entrance to Battery Park, 8:44 p.m.; Manhattan’s southern tip; end of my Sunday walk
During the month just ended, I took a trip to Massachusetts to attend the American Literature Association’s annual conference in Boston, and also to take photos of personal interest from the point of view of my personal history and also from a genealogical angle.
I grew up in Massachusetts, in the Greater Boston area.
Practically all of my relatives came from Massachusetts. My father’s ancestors, on his father’s side, emigrated from Scotland to Boston in 1872. His relatives on his mother’s side emigrated during the colonial period and lived mostly in Essex County, north of Boston, and subsequently in the Greater Boston area.
My mother’s relatives were originally mostly from Cape Cod; some of my relatives continue to live there.
The following is a trip itinerary with photographs.
I went to Danvers, Mass., which is where my mother grew up and photographed the house and block where she lived. Danvers was originally an outlying area of Salem; it was known as Salem Village. The Salem witchcraft trials arose from incidents that took place in what is now Danvers.
My mother lived at 19 Braman Street from around 1920 through 1940. The house looks shabby now.
From Danvers, I headed south, in the direction of Boston. Although my focus was mostly family history, it occurred to me, why not make a stop in Winchester, Mass., where the world famous Russian émigré sociologist and social philosopher Pitirim A. Sorokin, one of my heroes, lived?
Sorokin, his wife, and their two sons resided at 8 Cliff Street in Winchester. (Sorokin died in 1968. One of his sons still occupies the same residence.) I was interested not only to see the residence of a world renowned scholar and writer, but also to see the house because it was famous for its grounds: a garden developed and maintained by Sorokin himself, for which he had won awards from horticultural societies and of which he was proud.
I drove up the block, which was on a steep ascent, using GPS to guide me. The GPS system advised me that I had arrived at my destination, 8 Cliff Street, on my left. I saw 6 Cliff Street, but where was number 8? Number 8 was shrouded and hidden by a profusion of flowering bushes. It reminded me of the Forest of Thorns in “Sleeping Beauty.”
Pitirim A. Sorokin residence, 8 Cliff St., Winchester, MA. Photographs by Roger W. Smith.
Next, I drove to Woodlawn Cemetery in Everett, Mass., which was close by — a beautiful cemetery where my Scotch ancestors are buried — and photographed gravestones. This required a return visit a couple of days later because a cemetery worker suggested I have one of the gravestones, for my great-great grandfather and great-great grandmother, cleaned, at the cost of seventy-five dollars.
Gravestone of my father’s paternal grandmother Jennie H. (Wright) (Smith) Simpson and her 2nd husband, Capt. George F. Simpson. Marjorie (Smith) Farrar (my father’s aunt) was her daughter. Elva Farrar, who died in infancy, was Jennie’s granddaughter.
I then drove all the way, heading south, to New Bedford, Mass., which was a flourishing city in the nineteenth century but now has a depressing look and feel to it. My maternal grandmother grew up there. I took photographs of the house where she was born in 1894. The house is on South Sixth Street. Shortly thereafter, the family moved to Wing Street in New Bedford. I intended to photograph the house, but it is no longer standing.
120 South Sixth St., New Bedford, MA. My maternal grandmother, Annie Congdon (Hart) Handy, was born there in 1894.
I drove to New Bedford again early Thursday morning to visit Rural Cemetery, an old cemetery where many burials occurred in the nineteenth century. There, I located the grave of my mother’s great-grandfather, John Congdon Hart. He died in 1883. He had two wives and thirteen children. His gravestone reads “J. C. Hart / 5th Mass. Batt’y.” No dates are carved on the stone. John C. Hart was a Civil War veteran. The inscription on his gravestone clearly indicates that he was proud of his Civil War service.
Section of Rural Cemetery, New Bedford, MA where John Congdon Hart (1829-1883), my maternal grandmother’s paternal grandfather, and his family are buried.
From New Bedford, I drove to Cape Cod, a drive of about 45 minutes. I went to Cataumet Cemetery in the town of Bourne (Cataumet being a section of that town). It is a small cemetery across the street from a Methodist church where many ancestors on my mother’s side worshiped. Many of my mother’s ancestors, surnamed Handy, are buried there.
United Methodist Church, Cataumet, MA
Gravestone of Henry Thomas Handy, his wife Lydia Perkins (Ellis) Handy, and three of their children, two of whom died in infancy, Cataumet Cemetery, Cataumet, MA. Etta H. Handy was my mother’s aunt and a close relative. Henry T. Handy pursued a career as a whaler in his early adulthood and later became a farmer on Cape Cod.
Gravestone of my maternal grandparents, namely Ralph Ellis Handy (1894-1946) and Annie C. (Hart) Handy (1894-1972), Cataumet Cemetery, Cataumet, MA. Also named is Clifton Edward Handy, my mother’s younger brother, who died in infancy.
Another view of my maternal grandparents’ gravestone, Cataumet Cemetery, Cape Cod.
I then drove to Pocasset, also on Cape Cod, which is right next door. I photographed the beautiful house and grounds where my mother’s uncle Robert S. Handy lived. My mother and her cousins spent many enjoyable times during summer vacations there. One can’t miss the house from the street, although it is set back and is fronted by an extensive greensward. It is a neighborhood landmark.
The late Robert S. Handy’s residence, County Road, Pocasset. Robert Handy (1881-1972) was my mother’s uncle.
From Cape Cod, I drove to Dorchester, Mass., to the section known as Mattapan. Dorchester is part of Boston. It took me a long time navigating local traffic to find 67 Woolson Street in Mattapan, a modest house where my father, Alan Wright Smith, was born in 1917. I had never seen the house before.
67 Woolson St., Mattapan (Boston), MA. My father was born there in 1917.
Friday was a total change of pace: the American Literature Association (ALA) annual conference at the Westin Copley Place hotel in Boston. I attended a few lectures and the annual meeting of the International Theodore Dreiser Society.
Attendance at the Dreiser Society meeting was sparse, but I was very glad to be able to participate. I had the opportunity to meet noted Dreiser scholars such as Thomas P. Riggio, Renate von Bardeleben, Yoshinobu Hakutani, and Miriam Gogol, all of whom I already knew (not necessarily well) from prior acquaintance. Professor Hakutani made some very interesting observations comparing a work of Richard Wright’s (he is an authority on Wright), Black Boy, to an autobiographical work of Dreiser’s. I made a mental note to purchase and read Black Boy.
Other scholars present include Ashley Squires, a professor from Moscow who gave a fascinating presentation on the reception of Theodore Dreiser in Russia, where he has been for a long time — and is still — very popular. Being seated right next to her, fortuitously, I struck up a conversation. “For a Russian, you speak awfully good English,” I said. It turned out that she’s one hundred percent American and grew up in the heartland. It just so happens that she is teaching in Moscow.
I had a very enjoyable conversation with a graduate student from Oklahoma who delivered a paper on Dreiser. It was a pleasure to experience for a few minutes her sincere commitment to her studies and enthusiasm for them. A male companion was with her. They are both rabid baseball fans and were very excited about the prospect of attending their first game ever at Fenway Park that evening.
In the afternoon, I had an enjoyable get acquainted chat with a noted American literature scholar, Jerome Loving, a biographer of Whitman, Twain, and Dreiser. He was interested in talking with me about the Chester Gillette murder case, upon which Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy was based. I have done extensive research on the case.
On Saturday, I went back to Woodlawn Cemetery in Everett and photographed the gravestone of my Smith Scotch ancestors, which had been cleaned.
Gravestone of my Smith ancestors, Woodlawn Cemetery, Everett, MA. They included Thomas Smith, my father’s great-grandfather (who was born in Scotland); Thomas’s wife Jane (Gilchrist) Smith (also a native of Scotland); their son Thomas, Jr., my grandfather’s father (also born in Scotland); and Wlliam G. Smith, an uncle of my grandfather. (He was born in Boston just after his parents emigrated in 1872.)
I then drove to Cambridge, Mass., where I lived until age twelve. I photographed the house on Mellen Street, a ten or fifteen minute walk from Harvard Square, where we lived. The house is in excellent condition and looks the same, except that the back yard where we used to play has been paved over. Lesley College (now Lesley University) bought the house from my father in the 1960’s, and the section of Mellen Street on which the house stands has been made into a private way and renamed.
27 Mellen Street, Cambridge, MA. I lived there from birth until 1958.
27 Mellen St., Cambridge, rear view; the fire escape is still there.
I went over to the next block, Everett Street, where my best friend, Francis Donlan, lived. I photographed the apartment complex at 11 Everett Street where he lived. It looked the same, which is to say it sort of “reemerged” into my visual memory/consciousness — I had forgotten. Francis’s father was the janitor there. Parking in Cambridge must be notoriously difficult. Everett Street was one way, and restricted/no parking signs were everywhere.
Apartment house on Everett St. where my best friend Francis Donlan lived.
My last stop in Cambridge was Oxford Street, where I photographed my old elementary school. I walked right past it. Remembering the order of the streets, I was sure I had missed it, but how? I was looking for the familiar old building and schoolyard. I asked a middle aged man in a playground with two children, “Is there an elementary school near here?”
“Yes,” he replied, “the Baldwin School,” pointing in the direction which I had come from. The school, which I had inadvertently passed, was a block away.
The school when I attended it was named the Agassiz School. I always liked the sound of the name; it sounded distinctive. It was also hard for an elementary schooler to spell.
The school was named in honor of Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz (1807-1873), a world renowned Swiss-American biologist and geologist who was a professor of zoology and geology at Harvard University. The school’s name was changed to the Maria L. Baldwin School in 2002, due to objections to the theories of Agassiz, which have been characterized as racist. Maria Louise Baldwin (1856 -1922), an African American educator and civic leader, was principal of the school from 1889 until 1922.
I didn’t recognize the school building, and the playground where I used to play kickball was gone.
Maria L. Baldwin School (formerly Agassiz School), Oxford St., Cambridge, MA. Photographs by Roger W. Smith.
Oxford St., Cambridge, MA
The theories of Agassiz that have led to his being discredited are based on polygenism, the idea that races were created separately, that they could be classified on the basis of specific climatic zones, and that they were endowed with unequal attributes. It appears that the attribution of racism to Agassiz is not such an open and shut case. He did not support slavery, for example. In general, the renaming of buildings and monuments to conform to changing views makes me uncomfortable. A couple of former classmates whom I have mentioned this to feel, on the contrary, that the change of the school’s name was entirely appropriate.
Leaving Cambridge on Saturday morning, I drove as fast as I could to Oak Grove cemetery in Falmouth, Mass., on Cape Cod, wishing to arrive there before the cemetery supervisor, who works a half day on Saturdays, left. I got stuck in a traffic jam of holiday travelers crossing the Bourne Bridge, which spans the Cape Cod Canal.
At the cemetery, I found quite a few ancestral graves in the same section. I never would have found them without the cemetery supervisor’s help. My mother was born in Falmouth. Her maternal grandparents are buried there, as are several of their ancestors.
Gravestone of William Hewins (1801-1893) of Falmouth, MA and his wife Love (Handy) Hewins (1804-1884), as well as two of their sons. William and Love were great-grandparents of my maternal grandmother Annie C. (Hart) Handy on her mother’s side.
Gravestone of John Swift, 2nd (1806-1864) of Falmouth, MA. He was my maternal grandmother’s great-grandfather on her mother’s side.
Gravestone of Frances Lincoln (Weeks) Swift (1807-1868), wife of John Swift, 2nd, my maternal grandmother’s great-grandmother on her mother’s side.
Gravestone of Llewellyn Russell Hewins (1834-1908) of Falmouth, MA. He was the grandfather of my maternal grandmother, Annie (Hart) Handy, on her mother’s side. The birthdate on the stone is off by a year.
Gravestone of Arabella F. (Swift) Hewins (1834-1868), first wife of Llewellyn Russell Hewins of Falmouth. She was the grandmother of my maternal grandmother.
From Falmouth on the Cape, I turned around and drove right back, heading north and west, to Arlington, Mass., a town adjacent to Cambridge and only six miles northwest of Boston. It was practically a second home town for me in my youth. I photographed the big, stately house on a hilltop on Cliff Street in Arlington Heights where my paternal grandparents, T. Gordon and Esther (Whittredge) Smith, lived in the 1930’s and ’40s, which I remember visiting.
Views of 18 Cliff St., Arlington, MA,where my paternal grandparents lived during my early childhood, and of Cliff Street itself. Photos by Roger W. Smith.
And, the house on Wellington Street, near Arlington Center, where my grandparents lived in the 1950’s and ‘60s. I used to take the streetcar from Cambridge to visit them at the latter residence.
37 Wellington St., Arlington Heights, MA
It was adjacent to Spy Pond, which I photographed, and there was a baseball field across the street where I would sometimes watch games with my grandfather. I photographed that too.
Spy Pond, Arlington, MA
baseball field in park across street from my grandparents’ house
I then drove to East Boston, where my Smith Scotch ancestors lived and where my paternal grandfather, Thomas Gordon Smith, was born and raised. My great-great grandfather, Thomas Smith, settled there in the 1870’s after emigrating with his wife and children from Scotland. I found the house where my paternal grandfather was born and the house he moved to with his widowed mother and siblings when he was about ten years old. I found the residences where his grandfather, my great-great grandfather, lived at 606 and 635 Bennington Street. They are in good condition. The latter residence is owned and occupied now by the Salesians of St. John Bosco, a religious order.
606 Bennington St., East Boston, MA. The family of Thomas Smith, my great-great grandfather, lived their briefly in the 1880’s.
Photos of 635 Bennington St., East Boston. My great-great grandparents lived there for over 20 years. Photographs by Roger W. Smith.
I left East Boston at around 7 p.m. on Saturday evening and drove northward, hoping that I could perhaps reach Crane Beach on the North Shore before it got dark. The beach is located in the town of Ipswich. I remember going there with my parents in the 1950’s. My mother knew the beach well. It is said to be one of the most beautiful beaches in Massachusetts.
View of countryside, Essex County, MA, near Crane Beach. Photograph by Roger W. Smith.
Crane Beach, Ipswich, MA. Photograph by Roger W. Smith.
Crane Beach, Ipswich, MA. Photograph by Roger W. Smith.
A main objective of mine on this trip was to photograph ancestral sites and graves. Graves are very difficult to find; it is like looking for a needle in a haystack. But, I succeeded beyond my expectations. Not only in finding graves, which are invaluable as genealogical sources, but also in finding and photographing ancestral residences and streetscapes and, most importantly, the houses, hitherto unknown, where my father’s father and mother’s mother and also my father were born.
I decided to share this information with as many descendants as I could, emailing them photographs with commentary.
Their response, in most cases lack of response, was much worse than I could have anticipated — disappointing, and in, a couple of instances, not just disappointing, but inconsiderate and mean spirited. Hardly anyone bothered to acknowledge having received the photos.
Worst of all was the response of some of my relatives (I shared photos and pertinent information only with descendants of the ancestors whose graves and houses I had photographed) who actually COMPLAINED, saying that because I emailed the photos and information to them, they found it to be a nuisance. It had taken me about to week to go through the photos, select the best ones, tweak them, identify them correctly, and write commentary so that my relatives would know whose grave or house it was and how that individual was related to us.
I wrote back to the disgruntled respondents, my relatives, merely saying: “This has involved a great deal of time, effort, and expense on my part.” I mentioned, in replying to them, the time, effort, and expense merely for purposes of comparison: what went into the project versus what would be required for someone to open emails, read them, and download what was perhaps a total of 25 photos. (I do not recall the exact number.) Considerable effort over several days (not counting the spade work, planning, organizing, and dissemination of the materials) versus a few minutes of one’s time for each email.
Regarding the supposedly great inconvenience of being bombarded with emails, what the pros and cons are, it’s not worth discussing here, but I would have thought that someone could have overlooked this (despite whatever their preferences are) in consideration of receiving hitherto unavailable photos and information that were obtained at great effort and considerable expense, and which were available nowhere else, that they would never have known about or had access to otherwise. I am talking about things such as gravestones and homesteads of people such as my nineteenth century ancestors, my ancestors from Scotland, the houses were my father and two of my grandparents were born, and so on. (When, say I “my,” I mean also “their,” that is, our relatives.)
I felt it incumbent upon me to share these materials with as many relatives as I could think of contacting and had the email addresses of, hoping that they would disseminate them among their children and grandchildren. I thought they would be appreciative of this and was taken completely by surprise.
It seems to me that it’s a matter of weighing in the balance what one would rather have: the “inconvenience” (as they conceive it to be) of having a few additional emails (of course, they will say, “what do you mean, a few?,” as if they were greatly imposed upon, put out, inconvenienced; choose your participle) within the space of a couple of days in their inboxes, and having to download a photo or two with a simple click, versus the thought, which does not seem to occurred to them, of what goes into ascertaining the facts thorough prior research (such as, where was such and such ancestor buried? where were my father and grandparents born? where in Boston, at exactly what address, did my great-great grandfather and his children live?). Using those facts to locate materials, planning such a trip, driving to various locales not necessarily close to one another, locating the actual graves and houses, and so on. It would seem that the favor and services done for them far outweigh the “inconvenience,” as they perceive it. But, people seem to take things for granted. The last thing they would ever do is look up such stuff themselves. When it is handed to them on a silver platter, they don’t appreciate it but instead complain, vent, and find cause for fault.
I enjoy such projects and find them rewarding, despite the effort involved. And, it is my credo that such materials should be disseminated as widely as possible among parties to whom they would not, presumably, be of no interest or relevance. But, I have experienced such lack of appreciation and inconsiderateness in the past. From persons who have made inquiries of me and requests for information and materials related to scholarly or genealogical research. I always go all out to respond and share what I have. It is incredible how often people don’t even bother to acknowledge receipt or say thanks.