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"The Five-Foot Shelf," part four

Posted by David Mehegan  October 16, 2006 12:53 PM

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The 1910 Harvard Classics, "the Five-Foot Shelf of Books," was a remarkable thing in its day. It includes (in part) Dante, Homer, philosophy ancient and modern, from Plato through Hume, Kant, Voltaire, and Descartes; epics and sagas including Beowulf and Norse legends; tales of Grimm, Aesop, and Andersen; scientific writings of Pasteur, Lister, Harvey, and Darwin; political writings of Burke and Locke; economic writings of Adam Smith; American poetry through Whitman; English poetry from Chaucer to Edward Fitzgerald; sacred writings, including Hindu, Buddhist, "Hebrew," and "Mohammedan" texts; important American political documents, and academic lectures on much of the above.

As I handle them now, with battered covers and yellowed pages, I can imagine with what excitement Grandad touched the 50 books when they arrived by mail, in a wooden crate, in about 1914. He was studying law at Northeastern night school, and with his ninth-grade Catholic education, would never go to Harvard. But here was the learning of the ages, each red volume stamped with the motto, "Veritas." It was like going to heaven without having to die. His only real hobby, my mother wrote in her 1980 memoir, was reading.

However, by 1917 he also had a wife and four children. They lived in various apartments around the West End and the north slope of Beacon Hill (considered part of the West End): North Anderson Street, Cambridge Street, Myrtle Street, Joy Street, and two different addresses on lower West Cedar Street, the second of which, starting in 1929, was the last. His brief law career did not work out. My mother writes, "I have a vivid memory of listening with her [my grandmother] in the kitchen while Dad was trying to talk a poor client out of paying him. 'Will you listen to him?' she groaned in despair. 'You know, I thought Dad went to law school to make a good living for us, but it's the law he loves, not the fees.'"

"Not the fees." One needed connections to get any job, even in the private sector, and connections might come with a real or implicit price. With help from the local Democratic representative, sometime around 1920, Grandad got an appointment as a claims inspector for the Boston water department. He had had clerical jobs, but this was almost professional. Always interested in mechanical things, he had earned state licenses in civil and stationary engineering. In time, he became an expert on the Boston water system.

But sometime later, he discovered that everyone assumed he was raking in a fortune in graft on the side, from inflated water-damage claims. It seems others in this job had always done so, and that even the pol who helped him get the job had expected a cut. "Dad was sickened when he found out," my mother writes, "and said sadly, 'I should have known.' He said to me, 'In all my years I have never so much as accepted a cigar from anyone.'" Once again, it was "not the fees."

(More to come. Previous installments appeared Sept. 19 and 26, and Oct. 3.)

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Nicole Lamy is editor of the Globe's Books section.
Jan Gardner writes the "Shelf Life" column for the Globe's Books section.
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