Memoirs of an Adams Transcriber
By Jim Connolly
For three years I worked as a transcriber for the Adams Papers. Future editors, responsible for checking and publishing my transcriptions of the Adams family’s letters, will rue this fact—as my colleagues at the time must have, I’m sure. Oh, those carefree days poring over priceless manuscripts!
One of the best parts of being a transcriber is coming across surprising passages. Novel turns of phrase, hilarious absurdities, powerful expressions of grief—that kind of thing. Occasionally I would find something so weird I needed to share it with the rest of the Adams Papers editors in a group email. Here is one such email—published in full for the first time!—about a poetic outburst I found in a John Adams letterbook.
Subject: JA, existentialist
This John Adams fragment from a 9 April 1813 letter to Benjamin Waterhouse is like a freight train barreling over the epistolary countryside bearing a cargo of bad attitude.
“Since there is Nothing in human Life but Brimborions, that is magnificent Nothings, pompous Bubbles, Sounding Brass tinkling Cymballs, phantastic Non Entities, airy Gossamours, idle dreams delirious Visions &c &c &c...”
About the subject line: I realize now that the sentiment Adams expresses is as much in line with any number of religions as it is with existentialism—maybe more so. Never mind that, though.
Brimborion, of French origin and meaning “a thing of no value,” is a word I had never seen until that day and that I haven’t seen since unless I’ve Googled it. Its printed use in English dates back to at least the 1650s. The word, in its look, sound, and sense, sets the stage for the torrent that follows it. From the energy and raucousness of the passage you might get the sense that John Adams was the original Allen Ginsberg. I wouldn’t be so bold as to make an assertion one way or the other.
You, too, can engage with the writings of the Adamses, and you can start by visiting the Society’s landing page for all things Adams.
| Published: Friday, 7 March, 2014, 8:00 AM
"Imposed Planning STOPS HERE": Fenway in the 1970s
By Anna J. Clutterbuck-Cook
My last post for the Beehive explored the creation, destruction, and potential renewal of Charlesgate Park in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston. In my continued exploration of the Society’s 20th-century urban history collections, I stumbled across this handmade flyer from the early 1970s calling on residents of the Fenway to protest what they experienced as "imposed planning" in the then-struggling neighborhood.
"Fenway Residents, We Ask You One More Time" (Broadsides Collection,  Nov. 3, MHS)
The gathering was organized by the housing task force of the Fenway Interagency Group (FIG), a loose coalition of grassroots social services organizations based in the Fenway neighborhood. What, exactly, were they protesting?
Though tentatively dated 1970, it is likely the flyer was distributed during the spring or summer of 1971, as the Christian Science Plaza was taking shape and the neighborhood around the plaza was filling with new development. A newspaper clipping dated April 1971 and preserved in a Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) scrapbook describes the construction in positive, neighborhood-friendly terms:
The first housing development is now under construction along the Church Center perimeter. This project, known as Church Park will be the largest apartment house in Boston. It is planned as a mixed use building with 526 units of housing plus parking and retailing. ...In this low and middle income development, 25 percent of the units will go to low income families and the balance will go to middle income families at rents ranging from $110 to $360 per month.
The article goes on to describe the "Wasserman Site," where the FIG flyer invites citizens to protest, as "320 units of middle income housing plus parking and retailing." This official story stands in contrast to the flyer’s claims that the development represents "imposed planning," a "disregard of residents," and "housing residents can’t afford."
Which story won the day? The Church Park building and what became Greenhouse Apartments were both constructed and remain standing today. Leasing at prices between $2500-$5000 per month, the units are now two or three times higher than the BRA considers the maximum affordable rent for median-income Boston residents.
Church Park from the intersection of Edgerly and Norway Streets (March 2014)
Over forty years after the FIG protest was held, economic inequality remains a central theme in Boston city politics, and the BRA role in neighborhood planning continues to prove controversial as Bostonians debate how to bring economic investment into the city without pushing lower-income residents and workers out of the urban core.
| Published: Wednesday, 5 March, 2014, 8:00 AM
This Week @ MHS
It is time again for the roundup of events taking place at the Society in the week ahead. In addition to seminars, brown bags, and tours, be sure to come in anytime Monday - Saturday, 10:00AM-4:00PM, to see our current exhibition, "Tell It With Pride: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment and Augustus Saint-Gaudens' Shaw Memorial." The exhibit is free and open to the public and is organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington.
On Tuesday, 4 March, Seth Rockman of Brown University brings us the next Early American History seminar. "Negro Cloth: Mastering the Market for Slave Clothing in Antebellum America" ties together the effort of a Northern firm to break into the business of making textiles for slaves; the politics of the slave plantation; and the national debate over tariffs. Rockman's project brings together the studies of material culture, the history of capitalism, and comparative slavery, emphasizing the design history of plantation textiles and the circuits of social knowledge that linked plantation to factory. David Quigley of Boston College will provide comment. The seminar begins at 5:15PM and is free and open to the public; RSVP required. Subscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers.
Wednesday, 5 March, marks the anniversary of the Boston Massacre but the Brown Bag lunch talk of the day focuses on events that occurred 95 years later. Come by at noon as long-term research fellow Michael Vorenberg, Brown University, presents "The Appomattox Effect: Searching for the End of War in the American Civil War and Beyond." Americans tend to mark the surrender at Appomattox as the end of the Civil War, but the last battle came more than a month later, the last surrender a month after that, and the official “cessation of hostilities” more than a year later. A similar Appomattox effect shapes the way Americans think of other wars, making people assume, even when well-known facts indicate otherwise, that wars have discrete, identifiable endpoints. This lunch discussion raises some of the issues associated with identifying the end of any U.S. war in light of the search for an end of the Civil War. This talk is free and open to the public.
On Thursday, 6 March, the Society hosts a special event titled "A Traveled First Lady: An Evening with Louisa Catherine Adams." In this program, editors Margaret Hogan and C. James Taylor selected excerpts from diaries and memoirs of Adams’s most revealing comments on life at European courts, the difficulty of being an outsider, Abigail Adams’s Quincy, and the importance of society and etiquette in early Washington D.C. She is best remembered as one the capital’s most accomplished hostesses as hundreds of guests regularly attended her Tuesday evenings of conversation, music, dancing, and refreshments. Join the editors for a social evening with Louisa. There will be conversation and refreshments—but no dancing! Margaret A. Hogan is an independent editorial consultant and the former Managing Editor of the Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society. C. James Taylor is Editor in Chief of the Adams Papers. A pre-talk reception begins at 5:30PM and the discussion begins at 6:00PM. To Reserve: There is a $10 fee (no charge for Fellows and Members). Click here to register online or call the MHS reservations line at 617-646-0560.
And last but not least, come by on Saturday, 8 March, for The History and Collections of the MHS, a 90-minute tour of the Society's public rooms led by a docent or MHS staff member and touching on the history of the Society, and the art and architecture of building at 1154 Boylston Street. The tour is free and open to the public. No reservation is required for individuals or small groups. Parties of 8 or more should contact the MHS prior to attending a tour. For more information, please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508 or email@example.com.
| Published: Sunday, 2 March, 2014, 12:00 PM
Postcards from Japan, 1916
During a peace mission in Japan in 1916, American physician Morton Prince sent many postcards to his wife who remained at their home on Beacon Street in Boston. While exploring the cities of Yokohama and Tokyo, the doctor wrote short explanatory notes about the scenes on the postcards. Here are two of the many cards in the Morton Prince papers which illustrate the natural beauty of Japan's landscape in stark contrast to the urban development of the Kanto metropolitan area in the early 20th century.
On 21 May 1916, an unidentified member of the peace mission entourage wrote to Mrs. Morton Prince with an update about her husband.
Dr. is very
The front image is a beautiful view of Mount Fuji, or as the Japanese call the mountain, Fuji-san, 富士山. Mount Fuji is located approximately 60 miles south-west of Tokyo and 75 miles west of Yokohama. Interestingly, this postcard bears the postal stamp of Yokohama rather than any of the surrounding towns near Mount Fuji.
The delegation continued north-east toward Tokyo. This postcard bears the postal stamp of "Tokio" despite the scenery of Yokohama on the front. Recognized as Tokyo today, "Tokio" was the romanization of the Japanese city at the time.
On 24 May 1916, Morton Prince wrote to his wife about the view of Yokohama, 横浜市:
This is the way
the homes are
The outside of the
natives' homes are
rather squalid or
down at the heel
but inside clean
The peace mission was successful in engendering diplomacy and friendship. In 1918, Dr. Morton Prince received the Order of the Rising Sun medal for his efforts in Japanese-United States relations. The Order of the Rising Sun was a Japanese Imperial decoration bestowed upon individuals who had rendered distinguished service to the nation and people of Japan. While the MHS does not have Morton Prince's medal in its collections, it does have the medal awarded to William Sturgis Bigelow in 1928.
| Published: Friday, 28 February, 2014, 11:54 AM
This Week @ MHS
This week begins with a rare Sunday event. On 23 February, visit the Lawrence Library in Pepperell, Mass., for an author talk with Gary Shattuck, retired federal prosecutor. This talk is called Crossed Swords: Job Shattuck's Blood at the Courthouse Door and is presented in collaboration with Freedom's Way National Heritage Area. The talk begins at 2:00PM and registration is required at no cost. To register, call the MHS reservations line at 617-646-0560 or click here to register online.
On Tuesday, 25 February, join us at the Society for a new Immigration and Urban History Seminar. In this edition, Catherine Gudis of University of California - Riverside presents Curating the City: The Framing of Los Angeles. This talk looks at the ways in which Los Angeles has been framed, first in the discourse around architecture, planning, and preservation in the post-World War II period, and then through artistic practices from the late 1960s to the present that engage diverse publics in re-contextualizing urban space and acknowledging the power dynamics that have structured its development. Comment provided by Carlo Rotella, Boston College. Seminar begins at 5:15PM. Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP required. Subscribe to received advance copies of the seminar papers.
And on Wednesday, 26 February, the Society hosts a special musical performance, Handel & Haydn Society: Bringing Music to Life for 200 Years. Since 1815, the Handel and Haydn Society has shared the inspirational and transformational power of Baroque and Classical music with people throughout Boston and the country. Join H&H for an instrumental and vocal chamber performance that will share the history of the institution, considered America’s oldest continuously performing arts organization. The performance begins at 6:00PM with a pre-performance reception at 5:30PM. To reserve: There is a $30 fee ($20 fee for Fellows and Members). Click here to register online or call the MHS reservations line at 617-646-0560.
Thursday, 27 February, visit the Boston Public Library for an author talk co-sponsored by the MHS and the BPL, George Washington: Gentleman Warrior. Award-winning independent historian and journalist Dr. Stephen Brumwell's new book focuses on George Washington, examining his long and checquered military career, tracing his evolution as a soldier, and his changing attitude to the waging of war. This event is free and open to the public.
Finally, on Saturday, 29 February, stop by the Society for a free tour. The History and Collections of the MHS is a 90-minute tour of the Society's public rooms, led by a docent or MHS staff member and touching on the history of the Society, and the art and architecture of building at 1154 Boylston Street. The tour is free and open to the public. No reservation is required for individuals or small groups. Parties of 8 or more should contact the MHS prior to attending a tour. For more information, please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
| Published: Saturday, 22 February, 2014, 11:00 PM