| Theodore White: A Childhood in Dorchester
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By Anthony Sammarco in Dorchester Community News, August 30, 1991.
In the first chapter of Theodore White?s book In Search of History, he describes in vivid detail his youth in Dorchester at the turn of the century.
The chapter, "Exercise in Recollection," creates a vivid impression of an immigrant?s viewpoint of a town settled by Puritans escaping the Old World, and creating a new society based on the Augustinian view of a ?City upon a Hill.?
White, however, gives us the viewpoint of his childhood in Dorchester from that of an American born to Russian Jews. Theodore White (1915-1986) was born on Erie Street, a nondescript street adjacent to the Midlands Line Railroad. Near his home was Grove Hall, a bustling shopping district that once boasted a magnificent estate, Grove Hall, for which the intersection had been named.
The area had changed dramatically after the annexation of Dorchester to Boston in 1870, and White recounted that ?it was then a bustling market street ancillary to the main shopping artery of Dorchester/Blue Hill Avenue. Storekeepers had transformed Erie Street from the quiet residential neighborhood my grandparents had sought as Jewish pioneers in the district into a supermarket bazaar.?
Boston's Amenities are Next Door
The aspect of immigrants in Dorchester was an important factor in the development of the town, for the town?s proximity to Boston allowed for both the affluent and those less fortunate to enjoy the same amenities. The cool breezes from Dorchester Bay during the summer, the same panoramic views of both the Harbor and the Blue Hills and the same enjoyment of the exotic animals at Franklin Park Zoo were enjoyed by both the descendants of the Puritans and the newer arrivals from Eastern Europe. The streets radiating from the former ?Upper Road? (now Washington Street) attracted ethnic enclaves that had distinct connotations from Irish, Jewish, or German settlements. White speaks of inner-city neighborhoods as being a part of a ballet that ?is different in each city. In the larger cosmopolitan cities of the Eastern Seaboard, old stock Protestants gave way to the Irish, who gave way in turn to Italians or Jews, who gave way n turn to blacks.?
Inspired by His House
However, being the grandchild of Easter European Jews separated White from his contemporaries. He lived with his family in a two-family house that had been purchased for $2,000 in 1912, in a neighborhood that once attracted more affluent residents. The house, unprepossessing by today?s standards, was an important feature in his youth, as ?the house on Erie Street ? connected me, unknowingly, directly to the New England past. It might have been gardened by John Greenleaf Whittier, and its garden was the most beautiful on the block. All the New England flowers about which I read in school, in the poems of Longfellow, and Whittier, and Emerson, and in the stories of Thornton Burgess, grew in my own backyard. Under the lilac bushes grew lilies of the valley; we continued to replant the tiger lilies and tulips until we became too poor to buy tulip bulbs ? To the original fruit trees?a pear and a cherry?my grandmother added a peach tree and a grapevine.?
Erie Street, carved out of the lands surrounding the former Atherton Estate, was an attractive neighborhood. Tree-lined streets and a pleasant walk to Franklin Park must have sparked his imagination, but it was Miss Fuller, his sixth-grade teacher at the Gibson School on Mount Bowdoin that ?set fire to the imagination of the ordinary children who sat in lumps before her, and to do so was probably the chief reward she sought.?
However, the public school education received by the children of immigrants could prove confusing, for the poems and stories read in school could be in marked contrast to the sounds of street merchants: ?[L]eading their horse-and-wagons through Erie Street, they would yodel and chant their wares. For each peddler another chant: the fish man would sing in a special voice, ?Lebediker fisch, weiber, Lebediker fisch;? the secondhand-clothes merchant would chant otherwise; the Italian banana man would chorus only ?Bananas, bananas, bananas,? hawking a fruit previously unknown to Eastern Europeans.?
Though Theodore White said that Jews have no place at all in the grand history of Western thought, the courage his own family showed in their movement from Russian to Dorchester proved to make so interesting a migration that his book remains a familiar and personal adventure of an immigrant group in Dorchester.
Journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Theodore White spent his childhood in Dorchester.
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Created: November 26, 2005 Modified: March 29, 2012