North, South and West of the Hub
Boston is called Hub of the Universe. And that’s not a name given only in jest. As a Boston native, I can say that pride in the Bay State has always spilled over into what outsiders sometimes might consider to be, well, arrogance. (Hub of the Universe?) The Massachusetts image exported to the outside world consists of Harvard, Boston Brahmins, the Puritans, the Kennedys, pa’hking our ca’hs, liberalism and, oh, yes, the Boston Red Sox. Not usually included in the exported image are the high taxes and cost of living, the interminable Big Dig problems, and the fact that besides lawyers, the Massachusetts legislature was, at least in past years, dominated by funeral directors. (As far as I know, it still is.)
The notion that a region’s humor is often based on regional personality traits, much exaggerated, is certainly borne out by Massachusetts. For instance, there’s the old (but true) story concerning a visitor seeking to speak to A. Lawrence Lowell, then president of Harvard, who had been called to Washington by then-president William Howard Taft for a White House conference on education. The visitor was informed by the secretary in Lowell’s outer office: “The president is in Washington seeing Mr. Taft.” Tell that story to many Bostonians or any Harvard graduate and they won’t understand why it’s funny.
Massachusetts is, I think, fueled to some subtle extent by the old-time Puritans, including their historic work ethic as well as perhaps their greatest contribution to our American culture still known in Massachusetts today as The New England Conscience.
But, to be fair, I should add that the old-time Puritan instinct for “doing good deeds” is viewed as just plain “meddling” by some. When the great evangelist Dwight L. Moody (a 19th-century version of Billy Graham) returned to his native Northfield, Massachusetts, after years of journeying around the world preaching against sin, he decided to devote some of his efforts on behalf of his hometown. The story goes that one morning he met someone in the local store whom he’d known from boyhood and immediately began suggesting ways in which he might live his life in a more godly manner. The local, who suffered from a rather severe stutter, finally interrupted him by saying, “D-D-Dwight, y-y-you’ve been all over the w-w-world and people think you’re a g-g-great m-m-man, but there’s one thing you’ve n-n-never learned to do, D-D-Dwight.”
“Oh,” said Moody pleasantly, “I’m sure you’re right, but what special thing are you thinking of?”
“Y-y-you c-c-can’t s-s-seem to m-m-mind your own business, D-D-Dwight.”
Besides Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket — all three of which are special regions unto themselves — the Massachusetts regions other than the Boston area are named for their geographical relationship to Boston. There’s the North Shore, the South Shore, and Western Massachusetts, and I think the residents of each feel somewhat superior to the others. For instance, North Shore residents are known to describe the South Shore as merely “a sandy prelude to the Cape,” while dwellers of the South Shore view the North Shore as “snob heaven,” the last sanctuary of the Boston Brahmins. And they don’t mean that as a compliment.
West of the general Boston area is, naturally, Western Massachusetts. Because of its political isolation, growing educational institutions, and curious mix of old-time natives and idealistic but now-old dreamers left over from the hippie generation, Ralph Nader once referred to Western Massachusetts as “the most interesting part of the United States.”
Writer Tim Clark had a slightly different view. Writing for YANKEE Magazine a few years ago, he referred to Berkshire County from June to September as “a comic opera kingdom, inhabited by wealthy city folks pretending to be farmers, Hollywood stars pretending to be actors, natives pretending to be picturesque, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra masquerading as the Berkshire Festival at Tanglewood.” It was that last cultural dig that infuriated everybody, and I had to agree he might have overstated things a bit.
“I’m so sick and tired of outside media always thinking anything cultural in this area has to come from Boston,” an art museum director in Amherst wrote me after reading Clark’s article, “and that once the summer people go home in the fall there’s a cultural wasteland here until the following spring. That is simply not true, as anyone who lives here and attends the art shows, concerts, and excellent theater year-round knows full well.”
Boston is, of course, the cultural center not only of Massachusetts but also of all New England. Down deep, we all know it. The problem is — Boston knows it, too.