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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 fire on the evenings she was alone, she answered brusquely, “It lets down the class,” and continued in her role of hostess to nobody at all.

The men of Boston are much better looking and very much better dressed than the women, a condition that strikingly exists in London, and it is not uncommon, Miss Howe points out, to find in the same family a hopeless female frump and a faultless beau, the latter being “a member of the Porcellian Club—handsome, well turned-out, hunting, shooting and drinking, at ease with attractive women as well as men and at home in a world of fashion far afield,” but having as his sister a creature “dowdy and ‘do-goody’…touchingly ill at ease anywhere removed from the little corner of Boston or its environs in which she felt as secure as she was ever to feel anywhere.” The longevity of both genders, and the energy that abides in them still when they grow ancient are imposing; Mr. Edward Forbes, when he was ninety, apologized to a lady for not getting to his feet when she came into a room—he said he was tried because he’d just been playing polo.

The central figure of this kindly reminiscence is Mark Anthony DeWolfe Howe, the father of the author and the father, as well, of Quincy, the journalist and commentator, and Mark DeWolfe, the lawyer who, like many of the most brilliant young men of his day, was an apprentice to Justice Holmes. The older Mark, biographer, mild poet, an editor at one time of the Youth’s Companion and at another, of the Atlantic Monthly, did not originate in Boston but in Bristol, Rhode Island, where his parents, from Reading, Pennsylvania, were summering. In the beginning, as a student at Harvard, he experienced the chill that blew down the Hapsburg noses of Cabots and Wheelwrights and Lodges, but through marriage to a Quincy and through a natural predilection for the Boston way, he became in his long life—he died at ninety-six—an appointment as familiar and appropriate as the swan boats in the Public Garden. He was as gregarious as his introvertive wife was not, and his friendships with people like William and Henry James, A. Lawrence Lowell, Santayana, Clyde Fitch, and with Mighty Maidens, were multitudinous, warm, and lasting, kept lively through letters and the presentation of suitable verses on memorial occasions. Miss Howe quotes much from letters to and by her father and one wishes for the days when the art was still a vigorous one. Indeed, the whole nostalgic book calls forth helpless yearnings for time intransigently past and in her Introduction, Miss Howe states our desperate case when, quoting John Glenn’s report of his orbiting in space—“And this would bring us around to a sunrise. This turned into a pretty interesting area, each time around, I think, as most of you are aware”—she comments, “Two cultures indeed!—when Eos, the rosy-fingered Dawn, has become ‘a pretty interesting area’.” It could be charged that this is shooting at a sitting duck but it is an awful duck (with one of those bird diseases that fells the innocent) and badly needs being shot. There is nothing new here and nothing surprising and the figures that amble through the dappled light of Cambridge and the Common and the Hill are not gigantic, but the sorrow The Gentle Americans inspires is sweet.

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