This book is about some of the largest events of the twentieth century, about international war, economic collapse, new science and technologies, and about the transformation of an old mill town region into a modern American metropolis. But it sees those sweeping changes through the eyes of fourteen particular Bostonians, in an ambitious attempt to understand the disorienting experiences of recent history. These lives span the years from 1850 to 1980, a time when Boston, like all American cities, was being rebuilt according to the continually changing specifications of science, engineering, mass wealth, and big corporations.
From Boston Brahmins to self-made millionaires, Sam Warner, Jr., brings us into the diverse worlds of Robert Grant, judge and popular novelist; Mary Antin, mystic and advocate for immigrants; Fred Allen, radio comedian; Charles A. Stone and Edwin S. Webster, electrical engineers; Laura Elizabeth Richards, reformist clubwoman; Emily Greene Balch, economist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize; William Madison Wood, textile magnate; Fred Erwin Beal, socialist labor organizer; Louise Andrews Kent, suburban housewife and writer; Vannevar Bush, science administrator; Laurence K. Marshall, electronics entrepreneur; James Bryant Conant, university president and educational reformer; and Rachel Carson, renowned science writer.
These varied lives have been deftly brought together to illuminate the many contradictory qualifies of today’s metropolitan life: ambitions for education and pervasive social neglect; conspicuous luxuries and endemic poverty; elaborate science and a poisoned environment; far-reaching cooperative networks of strangers and narrow, segregated neighborhoods; the multiplication of women’s roles and the entrapment of women in the home.
Individual experience—how one person lived as a child in a family and in a particular place, how people did their work—can bring renewed insight to the conflicts of modern life. This engrossing story speaks from an urge to recapture history through human lives and to examine its meaning as authentic experience. As Alfred Kazin expresses it, we are a nation of men and women who have endeavored to escape traditions, and therefore self-discovery is our preoccupation and delight.