Daily Archives: May 6, 2007

Only in Massachusetts: Moby Dick and the 40 Years’ Poetry War

I don’t usually write much about local news. Neither Dispatch nor Witness could be considered a Mass blog much less a Boston blog. My readers tend to range the globe, I suppose because I write about national news. But there are exceptions to every rule and this is one of them.

I live in west-central Mass, maybe an hour or so from Pittsfield in the Berkshires of western Mass. It’s unusual for anything we do out here in the boonies to attract the attention of easterners, so I perked right up when I saw this editorial in today’s Globe about my neck of the woods. And wouldn’t you know it? It concerned something that could likely only happen here.

We’re about to have a vicious fight over the naming of a State Book.

State birds we’re familiar with. State mottoes are often the bane of our existence. State animals have provoked legislative rumpuses of monumental proportions (making the mule the state animal of Missouri in the 90’s caused a rift in the Missouri lege that has yet to be healed). But a state book? Where else would they argue about something like that but the home of Harvard and Boston Univ and Boston College and Northeastern and Clark Univ and Smith and on and on and on? We have more colleges in this state than drive-in movies or topless car washes. If you count the state colleges – four of them within a half-hour of here, and I live in the sticks – we may have more institutions of higher learning than we have donut shops.

Which is why the proposal by Pittsfield State Rep Chris Speranzo to make Herman Melville’s Moby Dick the official Mass State Book is bound to ignite a firestorm of criticism and competing candidates. The Globe editors came up with a partial list that boggles the mind.

[L]et the debate begin. In Berkshire County itself, fans of Edith Wharton could make a case for any of the novels written while she lived in Lenox. Nathaniel Hawthorne, who temporarily lived in the Berkshires and socialized with Melville, will have advocates for “The Scarlet Letter” or “The House of the Seven Gables.” Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” will deserve a hearing as possibly the state’s most influential book. “The Poems of Emily Dickinson” has to be in the mix. The Pittsfield students admit that none had read “Moby-Dick” but some might have read Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.” Bostonians will put in a vote for Edwin O’Connor’s “The Last Hurrah” or George Higgins’s “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.”

A state as steeped in politics and history as this should also consider Henry Adams’s “The Education of Henry Adams,” John Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage,” and the histories of Samuel Eliot Morison, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and David McCullough. Roger Tory Peterson published his beloved “A Field Guide to the Birds” while a teacher in Brookline.

Granted this has just surfaced and no one is actually contesting Speranzo’s choice. Yet. But, as the Globe points out, in a state like this, a “donnybrook” is almost inevitable as soon as he makes the request on the House floor. It may already be in train after the publication of this editorial.

We take literature far more seriously than other states (with the possible exception of Minnesota, birthplace of F Scott Fitzgerald, which can’t seem to get over the fact that it once, a hundred years ago, sired a writer where cows ruled the Earth and the only thing St Paul was known for was its being too far up the Mississippi to be of interest to riverboat gamblers). Mass is a place where political contests (except in Southie, of course) usually generate less interest than your average tractor pull. Literature – especially locally grown literature – and where to get the best thin-crust pizza are the only two topics capable of starting a riot here (I understand that in NY, the Yankees/Mets dichotomy performs the same function).

If you believe I exaggerate, I call your attention to an event little known outside Mass but famous here as The 40 Years’ Poetry War of 1883-1924.

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