Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

Ummm, isn't "about me" part of the point of the blog?

Friday, March 17, 2006

Lem, We Hardly Know Ye

Some unsentimental reflections on St. Patrick's Day to tip the cap to my Irish ancestors.

As a graduate student, I was introduced to the notion that Irish-Americans have a stronger sense of sentiment and a poorer sense of their actual history than any other American ethnic group. This is owed in large measure to being the first really "foreign" group Americans had to deal with in large numbers, and the first to assimilate. Despite obvious physical differences, both African and Native Americans had always been part of the landscape. White America thought it knew how to deal with them (badly, but that's another tale). Here were a new people. There were, in the 1840s, tens of thousands of them, all at once. They were poor beyond the prosperous experience of eastern America, dirty, diseased. Myth notwithstanding, few of them spoke English well enough for Americans to understand them, or understood it well enough to grasp their rights in a new country. (As late as 1900, my Irish great-great grandmother--only a hazy memory even to my grandmother--spoke mostly Irish, and could barely put a sentence together in English.) Worst of all, they were Catholic, the ultimate other three centuries after Luther.

In 1839, Boston had won the contract to be the main American terminus for the fledgling Cunard Lines, an economic accident that drew other British-American traffic in its wake. Thus it was a few years after, when the near-genocidal horror of the famine broke upon Ireland, a vast number of those able to flee ended up in Boston. Those who could find work, in the time when the sign "No Irish Need Apply" was first seen in the land, ate the poorest food available: salt beef hard enough, sailors said, to carve like scrimshaw, and the cheapest vegetable, cabbage. Sound familiar? Those who could not find work to earn even that starved in their thousands. Indifferent Yankees pretended not to notice, as indifferent English pretended not to notice what was happening at home. Ignoring an insoluble problem is still a common way to deal with it.

One of them noticed. His name was Lemuel Shattuck, and every Irish-American who takes a drink on St. Patrick's Day ought to lift one in his honour. Already a founding figure in American statistical and demographic studies, in 1850 Shattuck published his Report on the Sanitary Condition of Massachusetts. It was the first comprehensive treatise on public health in America, and it shattered Yankee complacency like a weapon of mass destruction.

I read a good part of this extraordinary public paper in graduate school, and I think it ought to be read aloud in every Irish bar in Boston this weekend. My professor didn't think Shattuck had begun the study with any greater claim upon posterity than any other Boston Yankee of his day. He ended it in quite a different frame of mind. Wisely, Shattuck didn't climb on a soapbox, haranguing and screaming in behalf of improvements in basic public health and a decent housing standard for these sick, starving new arrivals, jammed into the city's disused corners*. Instead, he gathered, marshalled and presented his facts. What facts: page upon page that carefully documented the unspeakable desperation that passed as Boston's welcome to the Papist scum. Reading it, one can feel Shattuck's own outrage building behind the dam of his self-imposed restraint. No one with an immigrant in his or her past can come away from this reading without owning shares in what Shattuck and his students had seen. In the end, of course, he didn't win Yankee Boston over through compassion so much as through self-interest. Years before the germ theory gained acceptance, Shattuck was still able to show that today's sickness in a pestilential cellar on Fort Hill, calf-deep in raw sewage, would be tomorrow's in a Beacon Hill nursery.

It took a generation to get Boston off its butt, but Lemuel Shattuck began the solution to the insoluble problem. Taking public health seriously was the essential first step to a polity of integration and tolerance that took the Irish from sewers to streetcar suburbs in two or three generations, but at a cost: collective amnesia about the real circumstances in which they started.

Slainte, Lemuel, and Iechyd Da.

Circa 1980 I had an office in an early 18th century building in the North End, about 16 by 16 feet. I felt it forever haunted after I discovered a census return for the house from the era of the famine diaspora, when that one room had contained 14 people, and the whole place nearly 60. That, mind you, was a step up from the conditions Lemuel Shattuck documented.


Blogger Mass Marrier said...

Good work is still carried on in JP at the hospital that bears his name. Many's the AIDs sufferer who finds comfort and acceptance there.

12:36 am  
Blogger Uncle said...

I think Lemuel would comprehend this new epidemic, and be pleased that such work is carried on in his name.

11:54 pm  

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