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.

In the 1880’s, shortly after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s death, a movement began in Boston (he died in Cambridge, across the Charles River) to make him the official State Poet. In Amherst, the home of Amherst College and a stone’s throw from Smith College across the Connecticut River and Mount Holyoke College on the other side of the hill in Hadley, took this as a direct slap in the face to their home-grown heroine poet, Emily Dickinson.

Now, Emily was not yet the icon that she was later to become. At the time, Longfellow filled that position. He was world famous and revered as the Be-All, End-All by literary mavens from coast to coast and beyond. He was honored, constantly quoted (his Song of Hiawatha was recited in schools from Bangor to St Louis – “By the shores of Gitcheegoomee/ by the shining big sea waters/ sat the wigwam of Nokomis”, and so forth) and considered the ultimate in mass verse production, sort of like a 19th century McDonald’s of poetry.

By contrast, Emily was known – if she was known at all – as a rather eccentric hick spinster poet believed to have spent most of her time locked in her room biting the heads off squirrels while engaged in long, whispered conversations with the ghosts of Marie Antoinette, Grace O’Malley, and an unknown Icelandic Viking who alternated fits of berserkerism with periods when he locked himself in his hut doing macramé.

Which wasn’t true, of course, but you know how these things get started.

Anyway, a counter-movement was soon afoot led by Emily’s staunchest local admirers. Letters-to-the-Editor were launched like missiles at the Eastern Establishment, who retaliated with an army of languid, self-assured articles that marched across the pages of the Atlantic Monthly in serried battalions, bayonets at the ready. The pro-Emily faction, educated in the Mount Holyoke tradition of endless, meandering debate punctuated by the occasional Duel of the Quill Pens (a ritual whereby contestants attempted to incapacitate each other by writing the longest, most pointless, most mind-numbing essay on 17th century religious movements dedicated to the worship of honeybees and/or macramé) and realizing that it was out-numbered and out-gunned, nevertheless escalated the conflict with a behind-the-lines assault in enemy territory. It sent determined platoons of pro-Emily speakers to churches, schools, and taverns all over Boston and Worcester.

Needless to say, their bold guerrilla tactics soon resulted in open clashes with pro-Henry factions waving pitchforks and copies of Paul Revere’s Ride whose covers had been honed to a razor’s edge.

Stung, the Emilyers struck back, tacking hand-written copies of Poem 1, her declaration of war (“The life doth prove the precept, who obey shall happy be,/ Who will not serve the sovereign, be hanged on fatal tree.”), on the cap of every Atlantic Monthly delivery boy as a warning to the Henryites that things could get ugly.

The Poetry War peaked in 1904 when the two sides met in battle on the streets of Worcester at Tatnuck Square. It was a day that lives in infamy.

The Henryites began the attack with a mass recitation of On Translating the Divina Commedia, drawing first blood. The line of Emilyers nearly broke under the initial wave of couplets, but then a Smith junior who had been holding her troops in reserve mounted a brilliant counterattack in which 75 readers each wielded one of the 1700 poetry blocks, sending these mortars of blank verse simultaneously into the enemy’s unprotected flanks.

Such advanced weaponry was too much for the Henryites who were forced to retreat behind the walls of Canto XXIII, from Three Cantos of Dante’s Paradiso. There they made their stand while the bulk of the Emilyer forces stood siege beyond the gates lobbing blocks from the 800 group.

The siege went on for weeks with neither side able to muster the forces to break the stalemate. At the end of the first month, the Henryites, running low on rhymes and spring water, tried to charge the Emilyers in the middle of the night armed with the deadly last sections of Hiawatha and hoping to catch them unawares in their nightgowns. But the Emilyers had posted sentries, and no sooner did the gates open than seasoned supporting troops were rushing to re-inforce the front lines with formidable weapons – blocks of bricks from the 200 group.

(“The stray ships — passing —

Spied a face —

Upon the waters borne —
With eyes in death — still begging raised —
And hands — beseeching — thrown!”)

The charge was repulsed and the siege continued for another 63 days before a small contingent of leading Henryites emerged from their fortress bearing a white flag with cods rampant – the sign of a parlay. The Poetry Wars, they said, had torn the state apart.

Which was true. As the contretemps spread, town after town and village after village had been forced to choose sides. It was brother against brother, sister against sister, Henryite against Emilyer, and the politicians against everybody. The Bay State was up in arms against itself, the Henryites said, and the war was beginning to affect commerce. Fishing fleets off the coast of Falmouth were said to be firing haddock across each other’s bows and boarding each other. There had even been hand-to-hand fighting – lobster traps had been flung at nets and kegs of ale had been swiped and drunk by fisherpersons under 18.

For the good of the State, they said, it was time for a truce. The Emilyers – who were nothing if not practical despite their taste for uncivilized, rhymeless poetry – agreed and major combat operations ceased, allowing Massachusetts to return to something like peace once more. Isolated skirmishes continued, however, until 1924 when the volume of Dickinson’s Complete Poems was published to great applause.

(There is a legend that it was Walt Whitman who brokered the eventual truce by visiting each army in turn and forcibly reciting the entire contents of Leaves of Grass [“O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done; / The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won.”] to the combatants, shaming them into submission, but as he had died 12 years before, this is unlikely.)

Thus ended the 40 Years’ Poetry War, leaving Massachusetts in tatters and short to the tune of one (1) State Poet. It was a disgraceful episode that left no literary reputation unsullied, but it was typical of the passion words can raise in the breasts of the Mass literati. One provokes their ire at one’s peril.

Good luck, Rep Speranzo. You’ll need it. If hostilities break out, my advice is:

Head for Connecticut. They don’t give a damn.

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