This Happy Breed

The Gentle Americans

by Helen Howe
Harper & Row, 250 pp., $6.95

At some point in her long, generally agreeable ramble through a Boston that no longer exists, Helen Howe causes a casual and inessential passerby from New York to speak of the “drapes” at the windows of Mark Howe’s flat on Louisburg Square, and she says, chidingly, “Gentle Americans never used the word drapes. Curtains hung in the windows.” This assumption that it is the prerogative of well-connected parishioners of Trinity Church and subscribers to the Athenaeum to know that curtains are not drapes and a house is not a home is a dumb blunder, and it is a shame because it very nearly has the effect of one bad apple in a bushelful of pippins. Up to that point, the ultramontane reader has not been conscious of being underprivileged, but afterward self-doubts arise and he wonders if he shouldn’t have been squirming all along. But if it is possible to rise above the gratuitous rebuke, he will be charmed and envious of a modus vivendi that now is history.

Although she has written at far too great length, with the end result that her punch falters and at last is flaccid, Miss Howe has produced what she calls “a biography of a breed” with class and amiability and a store of anecdotes that could not possibly be believed if the nuggets had not been mined in Boston where the mother-lode was once the richest in the country. If you happen to like, as I do, to read of manly and learned and idiosyncratic women in absolute hats and ratty fur coats bought at rummage sales, you’ll look far before you’ll find a better hung gallery of the old eagles in the chapter called “Mighty Maidens.” They traveled widely (usually on the cheap) and were athletic (played tennis, rode to the hounds, sailed the coastal waters of Maine), took up the Navajos and the poor of the South End, lived forever, practiced aristocratic custom and mean economies. A Miss F. G. Curtis, at eighty, scavenged a baby carriage from a trash heap on the back side of Beacon Hill and used it to haul home her groceries from a supermarket, instead of prodigally having her spuds and sugar sent from S.S. Pierce or Rhodes; Miss Howe’s Aunt Mabel wore gray fabric gloves over her splendid diamond rings; and an insatiable bookworm, who had millions of dollars, never bought a book in her life but obliged her friends to borrow for her from the Athenaeum, using their own cards. But while they might go to New York by daycoach and enroute eat sandwiches brought from home in a paper bag, in other ways they kept up appearances like ruling monarchs: Miss Lily Norton, daughter of Charles Eliot Norton, dressed for dinner every night and went downstairs to a table that was laid for two even though much of the time she had no guest. When someone proposed that she dine from a tray snugly before the …

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