Old-time New England humor typically includes the “asking direction” jokes and also those deadly “put-downs.” Often included, too, are fun stories about Boston and Bostonians, relying on their allegedly snobby ways and attitudes. And some of that, I must admit, is actually true!
“My goodness,” said a Boston woman when the Boston Transcript announced that it was going out of business. “Whatever shall the country do for a newspaper?”
That same particular woman was known to have said, when her husband was in the Antarctic for a six-year scientific expedition, that he was “out of town.”
I remember a brief cocktail-party discussion in a house on Commonwealth Avenue many years ago on the subject of the desirability of extensive travel.
“Why should I travel,” one elderly matron interjected, “when I’m already here?”
Harvard, of course, often comes into play. When a Harvard alumnus asked a fellow classmate in what class a mutual friend had been, he replied, “He had no class. He went to Yale.” There are lots and lots of those.
James T. Fields, a great supporter of the “Chosen City of the Universe,” as he called Boston, used to delight in telling the story of a Boston man he personally knew who, after viewing a production of Hamlet, was expressing his wonder at the genius of William Shakespeare. Finally, he was moved to the ultimate praise. “There are not a dozen men in Boston,” he said, “who could have written that play.”
Boston and its suburbs (to which a lot of the “old money” has moved in recent years) really are the center of New England culture and social life. Not because culture and social life in other parts of New England aren’t as good. In many cases, they are. Maybe it’s just that they’re not as old. Something like that. I mean, formal dinner dances (rare these days) in, say, Springfield, Massachusetts, are very fine, but as the participants themselves used to say frankly, they’re “not Boston.” The Boston Symphony Orchestra travels to the Berkshires every summer, but when it returns to “the Hub” (meaning “Hub of the Universe”) in the fall, Berkshire County, as writer Tim Clark says, “hangs up its tuxedo and pulls on the long underwear.” Possibly that’s a bit overstated, but still …
Then there are the “Brahmins.” Even though the dictionary broadens Brahmin to include all New Englanders of a “cultured, long-established, upper-class family,” it seems to me that the two words Boston and Brahmin are inexorably linked.
The best image of a Boston Brahmin, in my opinion, is to be found in a certain anecdote told by the late Cleveland Amory in his very humorous book The Proper Bostonians, about the late Wendell Barrett of Boston, known during his lifetime as “the Brahmin of Brahmins.” It seems that on one of his trips to Ireland, Barrett visited the famous Blarney Stone. However, he did not, as most every other visitor is expected to do, lie on his back and kiss it. Instead, he touched it with his umbrella and kissed that.
To me, that sorta says it all.