The contemporary reference to  City Upon A Hill  is Ronald Reagan’s famous quote, Shining City Upon A Hill.  His comment was sourced all the way back to Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritan founder John Winthrop. When  Winthrop spoke these memorable words ( minus the word shining) , he was poised to disembark on the American shore on land that is now Boston. The man who eventually became governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony accurately predicted that the new community would be a City Upon a Hill to be watched by the world. I think Winthrop would have liked Reagan’s addition of shining!

Winthrop’s inspiration came from Matthew 5:14. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his listeners: You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. From this scripture comes the ethos of Michael Rawson’s Eden On The Charles THE MAKING OF BOSTON, a work of non-fiction that was a finalist in the 2010 Pulitzer competition.

Eden on The Charles is very different from a typical historical perspective of the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  It is the story of how over two and one half centuries a community with an enormously varied socio-economic strata came together to build America’s first great city in harmony with the natural environment.  It is a study of how within a political structure of fierce independence and private enterprise a community used the forces of government to act in behalf of the well-being of the citizenry and the natural environment.  Boston was indeed the very first American city to recognize that the  new world’s resources were not unlimited. From the mid-seventeenth century establishment of Boston Common as public land for everyone’s benefit there came a cascade of new ideas and concepts that established development patterns for cities throughout America.  These far-sighted yet fiercely independent citizens of varied rank established a pattern over two centuries wherby Boston Common went from cow pasture to the nation’s first public park,  Boston Harbor was saved from encroachment and destruction, greenways were established to prevent urban sprawl,  huge public parks were created on the outskirts of the city, and perhaps most important of all as early as the 19th century Boston built a public water supply providing free water for the city’s burgeoning population. It also built a public sewer system. There is some irony in the fact that the wealthy industrialists who became the Boston Brahmins were many of the most ardent environmentalists of the time. One of Boston’s early reformers and leaders of the public water supply movement, Walter Channing said,  Whatever a society judged to be essential to the health and happiness of its people must never be the responsibility of a profit-driven entity. It must ,instead, be made the responsibility of government.  Channing’s 175 year-old concept still rings loudly in contemporary political discourse.

Eden On The Charles  falls within a text-book reference and yet it reads so easily that concepts which are now fundamental  to the nation’s conversation regarding the preservation of the natural environment are easily understood and eye-opening. My being a New Englander and having spent a considerable amount of time in Boston made the book even more vivid.

In the closing paragraph of Eden On The Charles Rawson issues a wonderful challenge.  We should aim our sights high, as nineteenth century Bostonians did, and work to new environmental relationships that are worthy of a City Upon A Hill.


Howards End, first published in 1906, is E.M. Forster’s fourth novel and quickly placed him among the elite English writers. Indeed, this is a classic English novel! Some patience is advised for those who have not delved into this genre but once the plots and sub-plots are established and the characters evolve this great read unfolds rapidly into hours of enjoyment. The language of the period is rhythmical and you will quickly become accustomed to ” Crane is bringing the motor around.”

Most recently, in large part because of Downton Abby , much of  the focus on English society has been on the aristocracy. In writing  Howards End, Forster is unveiling not the aristocracy but the class warfare in the emerging English middle class, set among those in the mercantile order of  British society.  It is also very clearly exposes the  social  war between men and women over power within the households of the rich, moderately wealthy and the poor.

Forster tells the story through the voices of two sisters, immigrants to London from a well established and sophisticated German family. One has an illicit affair during a summer excursion with  the son within an upwardly mobile English businessman.  The second sister  ends up marrying the father following the death of his wife in a marriage that is more of an arrangement than a love affair. And so Howards End passes through further affairs, children out-of-wedlock, and the resolution of who will inherit Howards End, the generational family country home.

There is a sexual theme throughout the novel but don’t look for Lady Chatterley descriptions or dialogue. In this novel , love and sex is all about impact on ones status in society, nothing physical , with all detail in the imagination.  Forster treats the subject much like Henry James , always there but never explicit.

The late 19th and early 20th Century saw an explosion of great English novelists and E.M. Forster ranks  well among them.  Howards End is listed as 38th among the 100 best novels of the 20th Century. A Room With a View by Forster is ranked 79th. Forster’s final novel, A Passage to India written in 1924, ranks 25th on the Modern Library’s list.

Aldous Huxley’s Island – 21st Century Themes In 1962!

The prolific English writer Aldous Huxley is most famous for his novel Brave New World, published in 1932.  Many comparisons have been drawn between the aforementioned and George Orwell’s 1984. In Huxley’s last novel, Island, published in 1962, the author creates a “better place.” While you may well have read Brave New World (required reading for many), the perspective in the pages of Island is well worthwhile.

Island is set in the nineteenth century. Unlike any other place on earth, the island of Pala and the Palanese people have created a utopian society, isolated and virtually free from the influences of the modern industrialized world, while at the same time selectively adapting to scientific development and worldly knowledge that will enhance their idyllic lifestyle.  In Island, Huxley examines whether the best of both worlds is possible.

 The author, whom some have referred to as a social scientist, delves head long into the great issues looming in the 1960s; overpopulation, drugs, money, ecology, religion, Buddhism and even obliquely advances ideas on raising teenagers!  Will Pala become part of Greater Rendang, the surrounding territory controlled by decades of greedy Sultans, now that Pala’s rich deposits of oil, gold and other minerals have become objects of desire?    Will the modernity of a new generation of Palanese leadership sell out to the temptations of vast wealth and the “  creature comforts” of the outside world?

In reading Island  you will be amazed at the  contemporary themes!  “ We don’t give ourselves coronaries by guzzling six times as  much saturated fat as we need. We don’t spend a quarter of the gross national product preparing for World War III. Our economic system doesn’t permit anyone to become more than four or five times as rich as the average.  Electricity minus heavy industry plus birth control equals democracy and plenty.  We never allowed ourselves to produce more children than we could feed, clothe and house. We have managed to resist the temptation to which the West has now succumbed , over consumption. ” 

Wonderful writing here. Huxley tells all, exposes his very soul through a protagonist that comes full-circle in the midst of a predictable downward spiral fueled by that all to common twenty-first-century destructive force, greed. “ If you’d been shown how to do things with the minimum of strain and the maximum of awareness, you’d enjoy even honest toil.”

In lieu of a Preface Huxley quotes Aristotle: In framing an ideal we may assume what we wish, but should avoid impossibilities.

You may wish to read Huxley’s Brave New World Revisited ( 1958) , abundant with many of the themes astutely developed in Island.


My immediate take-away after completing all 605 pages of Robert Caro’s The Years of  Lyndon Johnson The Passage of Power  is both awe and marvel at Lyndon Johnson’s  accidental presence at the pinnacle of power from November, 1963 through 1965.  If Lyndon Johnson was president or senate majority leader in today’s political environment, for better or worse, there would likely be no gridlock in Washington D.C.  Never in the modern presidency has more of significance been accomplished in such short period then what transpired in the year and a half  of the Lyndon Johnson  presidency following the assassination of President  John F. Kennedy.

This incomparable work by Caro illuminates, for both the student of history and the observer, that regardless of a like or dislike of his tactics or the man himself, Lyndon Johnson’s accomplishment in moving historic legislation through a gridlocked congress is beyond comparison.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 turned years of political rhetoric and decades of delay into law, and Lyndon Johnson made that happen during a most improbable time in  American history.  LBJ with all of his ruthlessness,  cajoling, bravado, insecurity, impatience and meanness did what no other president had done.  Deeply seeded in the memory of the poverty of his youth, LBJ’s empathy for the poor and underprivileged surfaced, often with a vengeance, to overcome the impossible obstacles standing before these two pieces of landmark legislation. For this reader, understanding how the  aforementioned was accomplished became the centerpiece of this Pulitzer destined work.  But, there is so much more.

The mutual hatred that existed between Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy and the inordinate effect that it had upon a functioning government is made manifest throughout the book. Robert Kennedy’s unsuccessful multiple efforts to convince Johnson to withdraw from  his brother’s selection of Johnson as the vice-presidential candidate in 1960 depicts a near maniacal RFK. The relegation of LBJ’s vice-presidency to a meaningless and often humiliating position often punctuated by RFK’s ” corn pone vice-president” references are almost unimaginable and would normally be thought relegated to a school-yard bully.  While LBJ is often lionized in Caro’s pages, Robert Kennedy is given faint if any praise at all in this carefully researched book.

Caro details the brilliance with which Johnson handled the passage of power upon Kennedy’s assassination . How LBJ managed the emotional devastation of the Kennedy team  is a remarkable story in itself. He convinced the great majority of them to stay on because , ” I need you , the country needs you and John  Kennedy’s legacy needs you.”  The overnight transformation of the ruthless master of the senate and insignificant, irrelevant  vice-president to become the nation’s hope, healer and steady hand is so magnificently detailed by Caro, so real, that it places the reader in the midst of a current event, not a bygone era!

You will learn from Caro’s research sources that  it was widely speculated that Robert Kennedy’s inability to move beyond the grief over his brother’s death may have been tied to a feeling of self guilt; that he and the president’s pursuit of  the assassination of Fidel Castro ( Operation Moongose) and the Mafia  may have in  fact been  a direct retaliation that killed President Kennedy.  Caro, despite the Warren Commission report, raises that speculation to the level of plausibility.

The Passage of Power  at times elevates Johnson to the heroic level but the narrative is equally balanced with the reality of the often brutal, threatening and unforgiving methods by which LBJ accomplished his goals.  From Johnson’s euphoric highs and the compassion demonstrated for minorities and the downtrodden surrounding of the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, Caro, concludes Passage of Power with bombs dropping upon helpless villagers in Vietnam.  That era is left for another telling.

This is the fourth in Caro’s  The Years of Lyndon Johnson. The Passage of Power will have even greater meaning if you have already consumed The Path to Power ( 1982), Means of Ascent ( 1990) and Master of the Senate ( 2002).  However, Caro does such a good job in placing The Passage of Power in the context of Johnson’s lifetime that it is easily stand-alone read.  Throughout the book, Caro makes numerous references to another great work on Lyndon Johnson which I wholeheartedly commend to you, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I also recommend This Time,This Place, by Johnson aid and confidant Jack Valenti, who later left government for a distinguished career as the president on the Motion Picture Association of America. ( Check Gordon’s Good Reads Archives).

A  Robert Caro book of equal substance and a Pulitzer honoree  is his The Power Broker, Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.   Use of power to accomplish common good or abuse of power for personal gain; both books in a different time and place tell a significantly similar story.