“New England was founded consciously, and in no fit of absence of mind,” observed historian Samuel Eliot Morison on the establishment of the Bay Colony in 1630 on the narrow, mountainous Shawmut peninsula of what became Massachusetts.
With Morison’s observation in mind, UMass Boston Professor of English Shaun O’Connell has brought together in his interpretive anthology Boston: Voices and Visions a compelling literary record of the evolving vision of Boston in the last four centuries. On November 4, O’Connell read excerpts from his anthology and then led a discussion attended by about 50 faculty, students, staff, and community members. The event, held in the Chancellor’s conference room, was organized and hosted by Brian Halley, the UMass Boston-based acquisitions editor of the University of Massachusetts Press.
From the 17th century to the present day, writes O’Connell, Boston writers “[invoked] the high purposes for which the city was founded, sometimes in praise of the city, but often in works which called attention to the city’s failures to fulfill its promises.” On this point, he cites Robert Lowell’s For the Union Dead that “both honors the city’s noble past and illustrates its ignoble present.”
In his wide-ranging anthology, O’Connell includes a generous sampling of those who have recorded, revised, and redefined the vision of Boston. Anne Bradstreet, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, W.E.B. Du Bois, Mary Antin, Edwin O’Connor, John Updike, and many others evoke and explain Boston.
Rather than present a random array of writers who happen to have been Greater Bostonians, O’Connell focuses on those authors who possessed a commitment to the sense of place, those who addressed Boston not only as a geographical, social, and political entity but as an image and site of symbolic values.
Joseph A. Conforti, author of Imagining New England: Explorations of Regional Identity from the Pilgrims to the Mid-Twentieth Century, offers some observations on O’Connell’s work: “This excellent anthology brings together a broad, diverse, and well-chosen collection of primary readings, with substantial introductory essays for each of the six sections. . . . New voices such as Michael Patrick MacDonald, Roland Merullo, and Eva PaPlante join familiar Boston literary luminaries. . . . O’Connell’s introductions are informed, well written, and effectively frame the varied voices and selections that are included in the anthology’s sections.”
O’Connell was recently recognized by Chancellor J. Keith Motley for his 45 years of service to the university. His areas of focus are American literature, Irish-American literature and culture, and modern Irish literature. In addition to his latest publication, he has also published the books Imagining Boston: A Literary Landscape, and Remarkable, Unspeakable New York: A Literary Landscape.