Friday, August 15, 2008
Gerald Richman: A Collector and Keeper of Fiction Set in Boston
Gerald Richman is an energetic man, with a white bristle mustache and a strong sense of purpose. Richman, a professor of English at Suffolk University in Boston, is the creator of an online bibliography the: “Annotated Bibliography of Fiction Set in Boston.” It started out as a two page reading list for a course Richman taught: “Boston: A City of Fiction” at Suffolk. Later it turned into a 40-page list, and presently it is an online list of 240 pages, with thousands of entries and detailed annotations. I talked with Richman on my Somerville Community Access TV Show “ Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.”
Doug Holder: To undertake a detailed project such as this you to have a touch of the obsessive. There was a Dr. Minor (June 1834 – March 26, 1920) who was quite obsessive, locked away in a mental hospital in England, who was a major contributor to Oxford English Dictionary for instance.
Gerald Richman: I don’t think I am as obsessive as all that. But in some ways I have gone into more detail than I expected. The bibliography was about 40 pages long in Dec. 2007. I thought by March I would be putting the finishing touches on it. But I am not finished. Simply put, writers will continue to write novels set in the greater Boston area in 2008, 9, and beyond. There are older novels that I have missed. There are 20th century novels I missed. I even missed 19th century novels, in spite of all my searches on Google, WorldCat, etc… I stumbled on these and I added them to the bibliography. It has become a little bit of a burden on me. I know I will never complete it. By its very nature it’s never going to be completed.
DH: Are you ever going to pass it on to anyone?
GR: I never thought about it, accept to the fact that I will do it. Because of the nature of the Internet it will remain online in spite of what Suffolk does to it. The “Internet Wayback Machine” has a good portion of my bibliography.
DH: Is there a need for a resource such as this with Google, and all the other search engines, etc… available?
GR: My bibliography makes the search a lot easier. For instance: If someone was interested in all the fiction written about the Boston Red Sox they could find it. Like: “Murder at Fenway Park,” or several novels before 2004 that deal with the fictional breaking of the ‘Curse”—can all be found. If someone had to look in WorldCat or Google, it would be piecemeal. I am an organizer. I don’t do anything creative
DH: So what was your motivation to undertake this?
GC: It was originally to fill in the gaps of a reading list in a course I taught: “Boston: The City In Fiction.” There were no great works of fiction set in Boston between the Revolutionary War and the 1870’s, where Henry James and William Dean Howells set their novels. The Irish immigration, commercial development, rural New Englanders leaving the farm, many came to Boston and changed the face of the city. That was the gap I wanted to fill.
DH: Do you have to be a native Bostonian to write good fiction set in Boston?
GR: You don’t have to be a native Bostonian to write good fiction. For instance “The Last Hurrah” by Edwin O’Connor was written by an author who was born in Providence, the author James Carroll is also an outsider. Although you don’t have to be a native, in certain ways it helps. Jean Stafford, who wasn’t a native Bostonian, wrote “ Boston Adventure” which did a wonderful job of depicting Boston. Her introduction to the Boston aristocracy was no doubt from her husband Robert Lowell and his family.
DH: What is unique about fiction in Boston?
GR: There is no one single thing because there are many Bostons. In Beacon Hill upper crust Boston fiction, what’s important is not how much money you make, but who are your relatives. In this society cousins are all married to each other. Elizabeth Hardwick wrote in an article about Boston that you have to watch out about what you say in this stratum because you never know who is related to whom.
DH: I am going to throw out a few books I loved that were set in Boston and have you comment on them.
“The Last Hurrah.” Edwin O’Connor.
GR: An interesting book because it actually never mentions the word Boston. When I was researching “Fiction Set In Boston” on Google, etc…the book didn’t come up.
DH: The book was based on the political life of the late and very colorful Boston mayor James Michael Curley. What did he think of it?
GR: Jack Beatty, the author of “The Rascal King” the biography of Curley said that Curley would sue at the drop of a hat. When the film version with Spencer Tracy came out, Curley supposedly had a show down with Warner Brothers. There was a world premier in Boston and Curley wanted his cut of the gate.
Once, by chance O’Connor found himself in a taxi or subway with Curley. Curley said to him: “You know the best part of the book was when I died.” One of the minor characters in the book said (while the Curley character was in a coma): “I’ll bet he is in hell.” Curley briefly came out of his coma and said “I’d do it all again.”
DH: “The Late George Appley” by John Phillips Marquand.
GR: I never used it in my courses because although it was once a very popular novel, it would go a little slow in class. The character, George Appley, was a satire of an outdated, decent, but lost in the modern world Brahmin. When he tried to meddle in politics he was easily outwitted. It isn’t a great work of literature. It is an interesting book in the context of Boston.
DH: “ The Friends of Eddie Coyle” George Higgins.
GR: I thought it was a very good book. I was disappointed by its lack of “Boston ness” It seemed superficial. It could have taken place in Detroit or New York.
DH: What are the criteria for being included in the bibliography?
GR: It has to take place in the greater Boston area.
DH: You are obviously a bibliophile.
GR: I love books. I love Boston. I never actually lived here. I worked here for many years. My great grandparents lived in the West End.
DH: Are scholars using this bibliography?
GR: It’s being used but not really by scholars. I did get an inquiry from Michael Kenney of The Boston Globe who published a literary map of Boston in The Globe. He found my bibliography online. I get inquiries from people who are going to visit Boston for the first time
---Doug Holder/Ibbetson Update