Wednesday, March 24, 2010

New England Authors - 3rd in a series

New Bedford, Mass - New Bedford is trying really hard to establish itself as a tourist destination. Similar to Lowell, it has been declared a National Historic Park, as a former capital of the whaling industry. It does contain a wealth of extravagant neoclassical architecture from the early 19th century, as well as the cool Whaling Museum, featuring the massive skeleton of a blue whale. Now, there is a small Ocean Explorium with a few exhibits of living sea creatures too.

All this stuff is entertaining enough, but what really puts New Bedford on the map is its role in Moby-Dick. Herman Melville has been commended, not only for his literary genius but also for his indepth knowledge of the whaling industry. No big surprise - Melville knew so much about it because he spent 18 months on the whaling ship Acushnet, which set sail from this very port in 1841. "A whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard," he wrote years later.

I have to admit that I have not read Moby-Dick (not yet, anyway), but the first part of the novel vividly describes the New Bedford that we can still see today - the working waterfront, the Customs House, the boarding houses. The fancy homes that are set back from the waterfront were built by prosperous whaling merchants. "Yes," Melville wrote, "all these brave houses and flowery gardens came from the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. One and all, they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea."

The most evocative building in downtown New Bedford is the Seamen's Bethel, a small chapel that was built in 1832 by the Society for the Moral Improvement of Seamen. The idea was that this chapel would provide a respite "free from the demoralizing influences to which sailors are too often exposed."

In Moby-Dick, Melville wrote "[Few] are the moody fishermen, shortly bound for the Indian Ocean or Pacific, who fail to make a Sunday visit to the spot." With its pulpit shaped like the bow of a ship, the church is still open for services and special occasions.

This is also where Melville fans congregate for the Moby Dick Marathon, a non-stop reading of the hefty tome. The annual January-3rd event comemmorates the departure of the Acushnet from New Bedford and it takes about 25 hours. Just in case you don't get around to reading the novel yourself... here's another option.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Fall River

Fall River, Mass - Fall River may seem an unlikely destination, but it does have two things: Battleship Cove and Lizzie Borden.

A collection of war ships and the house of a murderess. Not exactly your typical tourist attractions.

Battleship Cove. I enjoyed this place way more than I expected to. The namesake battleship is the mighty USS Massachusetts and she is humongous. This hulk of a craft survived 35 battles in WWII and gunned down almost 40 aircraft, never losing a man in combat. Needless to say, nobody on board this beaut ever whined "You sank my battleship!"

While the USS Massachusetts is indeed impressive, it was not my favorite part of Battleship Cove. That would be the submarine Lionfish. Talk about claustrophobia!

These are only two of the eight historic ships at Battleship Cove. The USS Joseph P Kennedy Jr, named for President John F Kennedy's older brother, did battle in the Korean and Vietnam Wars and is now a museum. There are also two Patrol Torpedo (PT) boats, a landing craft, a Japanese attack boat and other craft. The ships are wide open for exploration, making this a great destination for kids.

Lizzie Borden. Fall River's favourite son (or daughter, rather) is indeed an assumed murderess. She is so well known thanks in part to the popular children's rhyme:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
And when she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one.

The rhyme is just one of many inconsistencies in the account of what happened on that fateful night in 1892. Actually, Abby Borden was assaulted with 18 blows to the head with a hatchet, while Andrew Borden received 11. Ouch.

Although Lizzie Borden was acquitted of this heinous crime, her story was rife with contradictions. That nobody else was ever accused was enough indication for Lizzie Borden to go down in popular history as America's most famous murderess.

Today, the Greek Revival Borden House in Fall River is - you guessed it - a Bed & Breakfast. Decked out with period furnishings and decor, the eight rooms are named for the family members that actually stayed there. It's artfully and accurately remodeled, which makes it all the creepier. If you don't care to spend the night in the room where Abby Borden was found murdered, you can just come for a tour.

Friday, March 12, 2010

New England Authors - 2nd in a series

Lowell, Mass - Enough about Emerson and Thoreau and Alcott and all those 19th-century idealists out in Concord.

New England is also the birthplace of Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac, and today is his birthday. I know this because a few days ago I was in Lowell, Mass, where Kerouac was born in 1922.

Nobody would put Kerouac in the same category as those other New England writers, yet he credits them (specifically Whitman and Thoreau, among others) with influencing his philosophy and writing. According to the Lowell Historic Society, "he and his contemporaries were restless seekers after the meaning of life," as were his predecessors. Like the Transcendentalists, he hung onto his religious roots (Roman Catholic in Kerouac's case), but he also explored other belief systems (specifically Buddhism, which he incorporated into his life).

This spiritual theme is reflected by the Kerouac Commemorative, a sort of monument in a small park in the center of Lowell. The granite columns are inscribed with excerpts from Kerouac's writings, while their arrangement draws on Catholic and Buddhist symbols.

Kerouac is most famous for his free-spirited novel On the Road, but many of his earlier novels are set in Lowell and based on his experiences growing up here. The Town & the City depicts the tension caused by "the universal human need for both roots and wings." The Town refers to Kerouac's hometown, Lowell (called Galloway in the book), while the City refers to New York City, the ultimate symbol of adventure and exploration.

Lowell is packed with Kerouac's formative places, from the house in Centralville, where he was born; to Lowell High School, where he began to write (and setting for his novel Maggie Cassidy); to the offices of the Lowell Sun, where he was a sports reporter; etc etc.

After living in New York, Kerouac returned to Lowell with his wife Stella Sampas. He is buried in the Sampas family plot at Edson Cemetery, just south of Lowell center.

The Lowell Historical Society publishes an excellent "Map & Guide to Kerouac's Hometown", which features all of these sites. It's called Lowell: Where the Road Begins, and it's available at the NPS office.

If you're really into Kerouac, head to Lowell one year from today to celebrate Jack's 89th birthday. Or, even better, show up for Lowell Celebrates Kerouac, a literary festival held the first weekend in October.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

New England Authors - 1st in a series

Concord, Mass - Appropriately enough, the selection of my book club this month was Geraldine Brooks' Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, March. It is a Civil War story, but flashbacks and other parts of the novel take place in Concord, Mass.

Perfect timing, as I am about to start my research on the update of Lonely Planet's guide to New England.

March is so called because it revolves around the character of Mr March, the absentee father in Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women. Brooks incorporates characters and plot elements from Alcott's book, as well as historical events from the life of Amos Bronson Alcott (Louisa May's real-life father, who was a philosopher, writer and historic figure in his own right).

Amos Bronson Alcott raised his family in Concord, and Little Women is set here. In fact, you can visit the Alcott family homestead, also known as Orchard House, which is where Louisa May wrote her masterpiece. Up the road in Harvard, Mass, you can also visit Fruitlands, the idyllic spot where the young Bronson attempted to establish a self-sufficient utopian community.

Bronson ran in the literary circle that included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, both of whom lived in Concord, and both of whom are characters in Brooks' book. All of these individuals live large in New England lore (not to mention Unitarian-Universalist theology, which was profoundly influenced by their Transcendentalist teachings).

Of course I have read Little Women, as well as visiting Alcott's house and Emerson's house and Walden Pond. So it was a real treat to read Brooks' clever and creative attempt to weave all of these elements together. The end result is a cohesive and compelling story for the one character who would otherwise remain a mystery.

Don't get me wrong - March is a work of fiction, and it's not 100% historically accurate. But Brooks' made-up story is all the more intriguing because it incorporates places and characters and historical events that are so familiar to us. 

Mr March is missing from Little Women because he is off fighting in the Civil War. As readers, we don't know much more than that. In March, he is a middle-aged minister who is committed to the cause of abolitionism, so he joins the Union army - first as a chaplain for the soldiers, and later as a teacher for freed slaves.

Aside from the New England connection, March is a compelling read for its portrayal of a fervent idealist who is nonetheless deeply flawed. Mr March always seems to have the best of intentions - to do the right thing, the moral thing - yet time and time again he comes up short, as a result of his lack of understanding or his lack of courage. This is true of his dealings with the soldiers, with his students and - most dramatically - with his family. In this way, his character is strikingly, disturbingly real.

Nor does Brooks spare us the gory details of the Civil War. March is a first-hand witness to the brutality of slavery, combat, torture, treason and guerilla warfare... and so are we the readers. March had set out as a true-believer, certain that he is on the right side of history, supporting a moral cause. But as events unfold, he must grapple with the realization that he can do very little to promote it. And we are left to wonder if the concept of "just war" is anything more than an oxymoron.

March asks tough questions: what is the point of doing "the right thing" if it doesn't actually do any good? Is it in fact the right thing? And how can one persevere when doing the right thing does not achieve the intended result?

Brooks never answers these questions, but leaves us to mull them over. "You go on," March laments. "You set one foot in front of the other, and if a thin voice cries out, somewhere behind you, you pretend not to hear, and keep going." It's a pang we all have felt at one time or another.

Upon completion of March, I was doing a little research, and I came across this quote from Louisa May Alcott. It expresses the same frustration, but with a tinge more optimism (making it a nice note to end on):

Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead.