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BERNSTEIN, LEONARD - 16-Year-Old Leonard Bernstein Muses on the Ethnic Nature of Boston’s Chinatown and its Inhabitants
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BERNSTEIN, LEONARD - 16-Year-Old Leonard Bernstein Muses on the Ethnic Nature of Boston’s Chinatown and its Inhabitants

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BERNSTEIN, LEONARD. (1918-1990). American composer, conductor, teacher, and pianist. AMsS. (“Leonard Bernstein” and “Bernstein”). 3¼pp. 8vo. [Boston], March 25, 1935. A school essay entitled “Tyler Street,” about Boston’s Chinatown written while he was attending the prestigious Boston Latin School.


“It didn’t reverberate with terrifying gongs; it didn’t intoxicate one with incense. It didn’t boast of turned-up pagodas, at least, not to me.


Perhaps they see pagodas in those musty doorways. Pagodas are funny things. They are ethereal, paper-weight. One might speak of a cloud-group as being pagodaic. So maybe they see a pagoda-lined pavement where I see only a few thousand cobblestones separating two rows of very un-Chinese façades. 


“They”? Oh, they’re a group of indescribables. They must be Chinese; [?] I can tell that from their physiognomy. But they walk around in tweed overcoats made in Kneeland Street close by, and smoke Luckies. That’s not my idea of being Chinese. They’re not my idea of Americans, either. They walk – nay, float – along, never turning their eyes to the right or to the left, and hold their American-made cigarettes in un-American fingers.


Well here’s the way it all happened. I was on Washington Street, going to Harrison Avenue; suddenly I found myself on Harvard Street, and before I knew it I was virtually swept into Tyler. I say ‘swept,’ because Harvard Street is not a place where one feels especially like turning back. Nor going ahead, either, for that matter. But the aversion to turning back predominates, and one feels irresistibly driven into Tyler Street.


I don’t see why they call it Chinatown. It looks less like a Chinese town than Mass. Avenue. It’s only a quarter of a dozen streets huddled together in the midst of a roaring city. It goes about its business quite like Tremont Street. I have a childhood recollection of an idea that Chinatown was fenced off. I always pictured a dignified Chinatown, one set apart and aloof from humanity. There’s certainly no fence now, judging from the way those bloated-looking ladies swarm into those chop suey houses.


I suppose we ought to be grateful for Tyler Street. It’s not something one finds wherever one goes. It would be difficult, for example, to picture a place called ‘Rue Tyler’ or ‘Teilerstrasse.’ Tyler Street has individuality. Pagodas, no. Mandarins, no. Individuality, yes.”



Talented as a conductor and a composer, Bernstein is remembered both for music he created and music he shared with the world through his leadership of the New York Philharmonic. Growing up in Boston, Bernstein began his musical instruction at the age of 10 and attended the famous Boston Latin School, where he wrote our essay. He went on to study at Harvard University and under conductors Fritz Reiner and Serge Koussevitzky. His talent for conducting led him to posts with several prominent metropolitan orchestras including the New York Philharmonic where he introduced his popular “Young People’s Concerts.” But Bernstein was also adept at composition, working in the disparate areas of classical, liturgical, jazz, and contemporary music. His works include West Side Story, the oratorio Kaddish and music for the film On the Waterfront.


Our essay, written when Bernstein was just 16, describes his impressions of Boston’s Chinatown, a densely populated ethnic downtown enclave. Chinese immigrants had lived in the area since 1870. By the 1920s, it was renowned for Chinese businesses such as restaurants, laundries, garment manufacturers, and importers as well as for gambling and organized crime. By the 1960s, a portion of Chinatown, which included Kneeland Street, was a well-known red light district nicknamed the Combat Zone.


Bernstein’s impressions and comments are interesting in light of his most famous work, West Side Story, which explores the themes of urban gang violence and racial prejudice in an ethnic setting.


Written on recto and verso of two sheets of lined paper with file holes in the right margins. With normal wear and the teachers comments and corrections in black ink. In very good condition.  Uncommon.



Item #18628

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