A VERY BRIEF HISTORY OF BOSTON

The historical development of Boston can be summarized in 6 just words: From the Yankee, to the Yuppy.

This is the basic form, the beginning and the end, and the role of the contemporary historian is to fill in the content that can answer the double question: How and Why did this happen?

We begin in 1630 with the arrival of John Winthrop aboard the Arabella. A particular sociocultural constellation emerges from this original community: Calvinist Christianity, an elementary model of free market capitalism, and the development of a sociality completely and utterly unique to the city of Boston. The historian K.T. Erikson described the Puritan-Yankee that grew out of Boston as being

almost a mythical people in their own time, sure they were involved in a special cosmic drama … to establish New England as the spiritual capital of Christendom, the headquarters of the Protestant Revolution.(1)

This description of high Puritan culture is given further poetic justice by the 19th century writer Oliver Wendell Holmes in his characterization of Beacon Hill society as being akin to an Indian religious sect; with his now famous term “the Boston Brahmins”:

There is, however, in New England, an aristocracy, if you choose to call it so, which has a far greater character of permanence. It has grown to be a caste … it has acquired a distinct organization and physiognomy … (2)

So, if we are to read our Boston history through a Hegelian frame, the Puritan-Yankee is our starting point; our thesis.

But then, the unexpected: in the 1840’s, with the mass arrival of Irish-Catholic refugees fleeing the famine, this original Boston thesis begins its process of ‘negation.’ That is to say, the original thesis (Puritan-Yankee) encounters its antithesis (Poor European Immigrants) and is progressively ‘negated’ from the encounter: it loses political control, its neighborhoods (the North End is the primary example) are taken over by the European rabble, and its culture fades into the history books.

But this negation is not immediate. It is a long, drawn out historical process: first with the Irish in the mid 19th century, then further in the 1880s and 1890s with the arrival of both the Italians and Eastern European Jews (not to mention smaller migratory groups at this time, such as the Lithuanians that settled along C and D Streets in South Boston, or the Polish that settled proximate to Andrew Square and the Columbia section of Dorchester).(3)

This ongoing negation of the original Boston thesis (Puritan-Yankee) is further exacerbated in the postwar era with a surge of African-American migrants leaving the Jim Crow South to resettle in the industrialized north. The population figures of Boston referencing this demographic shift are astounding: in 1950 the African-American population of Boston was under 10%, by 1980 it was approaching 40%.

And then, as the negation enters into its final stages in the 1980s, we see yet even more new ethnic groups arrive, such as the Vietnamese that settled along Dorchester Avenue or the Hispanic community in East Boston that had taken over from the Italians that had previously been there.

By the end of the 1980s the negation of the original Boston thesis (Puritan-Yankee) is nearly complete.

But then, another unexpected turn.

In the 1990s, this 150 year negation of the original Yankee thesis by a successive wave of migratory groups also begins to be negated: a negation of the negation itself. A new contemporary social agent, the Yuppy, begins to move into Boston and slowly take over all of the ethnic and racially bound neighborhoods that had been previously taken from the original Boston thesis.

In other words, what the Yuppy effectively does in the historical development of Boston is to  ‘negate the negation’ — it destroys what destroyed the original Puritan-Yankee thesis; it annihilates the legacy of the ethnic-migrant experience that had been central to the city of Boston since the 1840s with the arrival of the Irish; to the migration of African-Americans that settled into the Roxbury and Dorchester neighborhoods in the postwar era.

With that, we come now the absolutely crucial point when trying to theoretically frame the situation in Boston today, which is the dialectically evolved relationship between the Yankee and the Yuppy.

For the Puritan-Yankee, the two most important things were God and money; taking the basic logic of Luther to its radical extreme in the New World. As many commentators have noted, the emergence of Protestantism — in particularly the severe Calvinistic version of the New England Puritans — was absolutely crucial for the development of capitalism in both Europe and America. The shift towards Protestantism and the social consequences that followed from its theology was in many ways responsible for

creating a void that led to a desacralization of nature. The sense of the sacred became focused entirely on man. Religion was centered on the drama of fall and redemption played out between man and God. Nature had nothing to do with it except as a kind of backdrop, or the means for people enriching themselves, becoming prosperous as a sign of God’s grace and providence.(4)

But this “desacralization” of nature, coupled with the radical individualization that necessarily follows from the Calvinist doctrine, is precisely what gives rise to an unbridled capitalist dynamic in Puritan Boston: it is what allowed for the ships to sail, for the textile factories to be built, and for the investment banks on State Street to stay perpetually busy.

Interestingly enough, it is precisely this degradation of the natural world and the obsession with incessant material production that inspires the Puritan-Yankee to instigate its own negation. That is to say, although the Puritan-Yankee were undoubtedly horrified at the tide of impoverished European immigrants rushing into Boston in the 19th century, they also saw these people as potential sources of cheap labor to man the emerging factories in places like Lowell and Lawrence.

By the time the Yuppy emerges as the principal social agent in 21st century Boston, long after the formal decline of the Puritan-Yankee, this desacralization of nature is entirely complete. The economy, social interactivity, and cultural production have all moved into the virtual realm: on networks and social media sites, mediated by algorithms and mined for personal data. But not only has nature been completely and utterly desacralized in 21st century globalized society, but religion itself (especially the austere Calvinist version) has been “desacralized” as well. There are absolutely no traces of any Calvinist theology that serves to ideologically suture the relationship between capitalist productivity and God in contemporary Boston.(5)

And this is precisely where things get so interesting.

Because what the Yuppy effectively does, 400 years later, in a textbook Hegelian dialectical reversal, is simply to fuse the two together: in contrast to the Puritan-Yankee where it was “money and God,” for the Yuppy money itself is God.

In other words, the theological link so crucial to the early relationship between capitalism and Protestantism — a feature noted time and again by Max Weber and others —- that allowed the Puritan-Yankee of Boston to develop their unique culture in the 17th and 18th centuries has been inverted into itself with the 21st century Yuppy.

What this means, far from being cultural dead and gone, the Puritan-Yankee of Boston has been resurrected in a new form, in the guise of the the contemporary Yuppy, and has now come back to take his revenge.(6)

 

Notes

  1. See, https://www.openlettersmonthly.com/issue/american-inheritance-harvard-pulpit-boston-brahmin-liberalism/
  2. See, https://www.enotes.com/topics/brahmin-caste-new-england
  3. See, O’Connor T. South Boston: my hometown: history of an ethnic neighborhood.

  4. Sheldrake, R. The evolutionary mind: conversations on science, imagination, and spirit. Rhinebeck: Monkfish Book Publishing. pgs. 187-188. Kindle Edition.

  5. Spirituality in globalized cities like Boston have been handed over to a hodgepodge of New Age and Eastern spiritualities. Motivational speakers like Tony Robbins and yoga studios in gentrified neighborhoods now serve the spiritual desires of people far more than traditional Christianity.

  6. A character in one of Boston’s great novels, Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah, is an old stock Yankee named Amos Force. Although he would not live to see the arrival of the contemporary Yuppy in Boston, in many ways his absolute disdain for the immigrant-ethnic ethos of the Boston of his time bears witness to this intergenerational desire for revenge.

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