by Arnold Goldman

The Governor of Massachusetts
finely balances the political and the personal. Like its indeterminately unreliable narrator, Frank, the novel is drawn unwillingly into politics, laughs at its absurdities, attempts nonetheless to deal for the best with its exigencies, and ends in a baffled stasis. The character of New England is changing, irrevocably, and neither individual nor political "plans" can hold back the tide or color it.

Frank considers himself but a spectator at life’s feast, fearful of influencing others - "the moot sin against the Holy Ghost" - or of taking responsibility for them. Wishing to preserve his detachment, he is nevertheless sucked in by a sympathy and "the faculty of responding to other people’s sorrow." Having taken up the profession of law mainly at his father’s insistence on his "doing something useful, as he expressed it," he finds a bolt-hole as the partner of the elderly, silver-tongued attorney Asa Perkins. When the amiable old-school Yankee explains that "his practice is so limited and his cases so rare," father-subsidised Frank knows he has found just what he wants: "our days fell into a pleasant routine which gave us time for individual study or reflection and brought us together when it was better not to be alone." They while away the time reading in the Park Street offices or visiting favorite saloons and the burlesque show at the Old Howard. The picture of Lawyer Perkins is completed when he takes Frank to meet Eileen Ryan, the Irish waitress whom he had established in a flat on Joy St twenty years before and to whom he repairs faithfully each Wednesday and Saturday night.1

For all his unworldiness, and because of it, Perkins is sensitive to the encroachment of the contemporary world upon Boston. Brooding darkly down upon an automobile making its way through the winter slush on Tremont St - cars had previously only been in evidence in the milder months - he realises the imminence of the horse-drawn era. Prudently, he determines to switch the trust-funds of his few, elderly clients out of horse-drawn public transportation and into steel, which will profit from automobile sales. One of his clients is his childhood friend, the Boston organ manufacturer Elijah Griffin.

Advising Griffin entails visits to his estate in nearby Eastford, which Frank realises "had many points of resemblance to the villages of England or of France where a single landlord cares for his tenants paternally and they look to him when an emergency arises." Griffin has five children by his two wives, both deceased. The children are "a difficult lot, phlegmatic and taciturn," except for the youngest, Mary, sole child of Griffin’s second wife, a Tarr of Rockport, who had died in childbirth. Mary is "like a moonstone on a dark cloth," with long eyelashes, a sensitive profile, and a clear and musical voice. Griffin has a "plan" to apportion his property, investments and business as "an outright gift" among his children as each reaches maturity. The first portion goes to Griffin’s oldest daughter Mattie, on her marriage to a thrusting insurance salesman, a symbol of the supersession of the old New England ways. The modern house Fred Atwell plans on his wife’s portion confronts the Colonial main house with their difference: "the rigidity of the design the proportions... were mathematically sound but had never been visualized before construction."2

At first spectatorially happy – "I could not help but be grateful for the chance to follow the process from the sidelines" - Frank is drawn in to Griffin’s planning. In Perkins’s absence, he draws up the legal instruments, and his growing sympathy for Griffin and the more amiable of his children inclines him to attempt to keep the plan afloat as successively it begins to encounter difficulty. The youngest son Charley has no interest in marrying his partner Captain Tewksbury’s daughter Beatrice, Mary’s best friend, but is carrying on with Sue, the daughter of the farm’s man-of-all-work. Daughter Anne, however, has social pretensions, and when she marries an old-family, steel company executive, and is given "the lot across the lane from Mattie," tension grows between her and her siblings. Her stained-wood California-style bungalow makes for further architectural incongruity.3

The working-out of the plan is complicated when son-in-law Fred, a rising politician, engineers the nomination of his reclusive but respected father-in-law as Lieutenant Governor. Though Griffin has no capacity for politics - it is sometime in the early years of the century - the accidents of Massachusetts Republican Party machinations make him "an ideal compromise candidate." Asa Perkins agrees to manage his campaign, seeing it as a way to redress old scores, and turns Griffin’s naivety, old-fashioned ethics and taciturnity into a political asset: "his brevity was his best asset and attracted state-wide admiration." Griffin’s victory results in a not onerous round of duties and he is duly re-elected. His public tenure but puts a delay on the domestic dynamics which time has set in train. Joe, the son who is to inherit Griffin’s organ business discovers that it is heading for bankruptcy; top-of-the-market mahogany organs are no longer in demand, "there’s no future in it." (Fred is keen on the mass-produced cylinder phonograph, not the organ.)4

Frank’s position as reluctant friend to Elijah Griffin, to Charley, Joe, and Mary, and to Mary’s friend Beatrice, is becoming difficult:

The new generation, the life which would persist and bring forth something of its own..., was represented by Beatrice and Mary and I could no longer conceal from myself that I shrank from witnessing their experiments. I did not want to stay around to see what might happen to them... on account of the hurt I felt when I realized that they must drift away from me. I was neither young more old. Mr. Griffin... treated me as if I were a contemporary. So did the girls, and it resulted in my being each day a bit more of a hypocrite.... I could not deny that I wished to keep the girls as they were, to shield their youth and beauty from eligible young men, to restrict their destiny because I had not the qualities for sharing it. I wanted to admire them, to touch them, to watch them bloom without incurring the responsibility which would fit me for such privileges. I knew it was not good for them to talk and act frankly with me, for in the relationships they must assume there was no safe place for such comradeship. I did not want to endure the pain which longer association with them would bring me. I longed for the end of the world, for delirium, for Nirvana.... There was not a single place in the scheme of things which I cared to fill, which I could think about without repulsion, or abject cowardice....
  I could not understand how I had been maneuvered gradually from my usual objectivity, or what had become of my sense of humor.... Previously I had been proud of my inaction, supported its inconveniences with a sort of zeal for the principle.... Now I had lost my convictions but not the habits with which they had enchained me.

Just at this moment, Frank is drawn in even closer to the Griffins: a telegram arrives announcing the death of Governor Doane, and Elijah Griffin is Governor of Massachusetts.5

Part II of The Governor of Massachusetts is given over to the political life, with which it deals sardonically and satirically ("one day while a senator was speaking, a messenger handed him a telegram and after glancing at it the senator cleared his throat, said, ‘On the other hand,’ and argued exactly the opposite way"). Frank becomes Governor Griffin’s Secretary and learns to work the machine, especially to stay on the right side of "the boys," the members of the press. He spars with O’Rourke, the Irish Catholic Mayor of Boston, endures the pomposity of the inaugural ritual, babysits the Governor on charitable visits. When Charley Griffin at length gets his girl Sue into trouble, Frank arranges her convenient absence, shielding the Governor from the facts - and from press outcry. While he persists in thinking politics and his work "more or less of a joke," Frank is moved by Griffin’s rectitude and decency, particularly in the appointment of a scientist as the Commonwealth’s fish and game commissioner over a politician hand-in-glove with the industrial polluters of the riverways. Making the Republican Party stalwarts swallow the pill requires clever handling of Frank. "You would be a wonder," the Republican state chairman says, "if only you would take things seriously."6

Frank’s life has changed completely: "Instead of idling away the morning and drinking mildly in the afternoons, I was busy at my desk from nine o’clock in the morning until far into the evening and more than once had been obliged to take Mr. Perkins’ place as the Governor’s spokesman." He finds himself "more anxious

each day that the year should be one on which he might look back with pride and no regrets. That would... give me inner justification for failing to turn my hand again the rest of my natural days." It is not difficult to see Frank’s feeling of "getting worried about everybody" as an expression of his guilt over Mary, to whom he is attracted - and has once kissed, on the forehead - even while his attention strays to Beatrice, "It was a bit disgusting... prancing like a satyr whenever my client’s children dressed as grown-up women for an hour."7

He soon finds the occasion - seemingly forced upon him - to justify his vague guilt. Beatrice Tewksbury comes to his State House office and asks to be taken to his room on Pinckney St; there she tells him she has discovered her father’s adultery. Frank, exercising his accustomed sympathy,

explained as best I could the difficulties her father must have undergone because of her mother’s infirmity, the irregularity of his life at sea, and the need which all vigorous men feel for the natural expression of their exuberance. I called to her attention... the effect which her own lavish affection must have had in stirring his desire for companionship. As I warmed to the subject, ...I did credit to the tutorship of such persuasive men as Mr. Perkins..., citing instances from history and from literature in which men of her father’s age had shown the same craving for rejuvenation by means of younger women....
  ...I do not hesitate to say that I made out a remarkable case for him, turning the very incident which had threatened to estrange his daughter into a cause for loyalty and unrestrained love.

Beatrice agrees that she can now understand her father, being like him herself, and "she began to detach the hooks from the eyes in the back of her waist."8

In the event, he feels "triumph" - "Could anything have been more fatuous." On the political front, too, he coasts, seeing out Griffin’s final months of office. As the Republican convention draws near, Frank is sounded out by Congressman Moore, who "represent[ed]... another generation, a new race of crafty men who were seizing upon the mechanical improvements of the age and discarding... the standard of conduct their predecessors had left unchanged in its essentials." Frank’s innocent remarks about travelling are naturally taken to be bargaining counters for a consulate. Griffin announces he will not run, and will support the convention’s choice; when it chooses him, "in an atmosphere of mutual hatred and distrust," it brings down the wrath of the disappointed Moore, who alleges Frank has deceived him. Newspapers now rumor Frank’s engagement to Mary; Beatrice "played up splendidly but... I could not act naturally at all with Mary. I began to suspect that she knew about Beatrice and me." The prospect of an extra year of delay makes Joe Griffin burst out about leaving the organ factory, and his father learns of its weakness for the first time. Mary too sees "the flux and change of everything... brought into her mind so inescapably.... [S]he burst out, clinging to me, ‘I want my mother, Frank.’ And she fell down sobbing on the grass.... I knew what she wanted, all right, but what could I do?"9

Despite having agreed to abide by the convention’s choice, Congressman Moore announces his independent candidacy. Frank is secretly pleased that he might not have to put in another year of work, but the Party machine, and Asa Perkins, insist that a strong campaign must be run. Forcing their candidate around the hustings, they fail to notice his physical debility. At a public meeting in Boston on the eve of the election, Moore charges Griffin with graft for having given work to his own company. A riot ensues. (The charge is untrue, but the damage is done.) Frank recoils:

I recalled all my former distaste for exertion and for public affairs. I could not understand how Mr. Perkins and I had been drawn into such a vortex. I think he felt the same way. We had made fools of ourselves and exhausted Mr. Griffin, spoiled his plans for peace, damaged his reputation.10

At the election night party, Frank dances with both Mary and Beatrice, and fantasises about the beauties of having two women, one daring and forceful the other with introspective passion. His "moment of real happiness" is shattered when Mayor O’Rourke, in a shady deal throws Charlestown and South Boston to Moore, and Griffin loses by the narrowest of margins.11

The political waters close over Governor Griffin; in a Presidential campaign year, the Party does not want trouble and his outrage at being cheated of the Governorship is an embarassment. Governor Moore rejoins the Republican Party and is re-elected with a large majority. Acting as Mary’s tutor, Frank abets her dreams of organ lessons in Paris: "I realized I was doing, in a subtler way, what my shameful scruples forbade in the open." At the Moore’s trial for slander, Asa Perkins trounces him. On the night before the summing up, however, the trap is sprung. The police, with an agent of the Watch and Ward Society in attendance, arrest Perkins in Eileen Ryan’s bed. The next morning, while Perkins is being charged in another court, an unprepared Frank stumbles through his first closing argument. The jury is hung. Perkins vows to leave Massachusetts forthwith, with Eileen.12

Frank closes up Perkins’s office; Beatrice goes to California with her parents; Griffin’s affairs are in disarray, the plan a failure. One afternoon, Frank strolls to T wharf:

The tide was high, and just ready to turn, and a cluster of Portuguese fisherman’s boats with sails stained sienna and large ungainly prows were clustered at one of the landings. Gulls, cocking their heads knowingly and diving for bits of refuse, sailed serenely against the breeze, then banked and flapped their wings in the other direction. A huge foreign steamship, newly painted and flying a flag I did not recognize, was edging her way through the channel and toward the sea. I breathed the salt air, watched the smoke from the funnels at the East Boston wharves, saw the ferry creep out of its shed to meet another going eastward, heard the voices of sailors on the tugboats and felt my resolution drifting away. The air smelled of Europe. The foreign flags and accents, the haze over the sea, stirred my slumbering urge to go somewhere that was distant from where I was.

Frank has a blank check in his pocket, given to him by his father for having earlier settled down to real work. His "hour for self-indulgence had come." There is still Mary, however. She has been asking for an explanation of the "statutory charge" brought against Asa Perkins. The thought of her physical attractions - and no doubt the absence of Beatrice - haunt Frank ("I was really almost envious of Tristram Shandy"). He determines to disabuse Mary of "the notion, if she had one, that Mr. Perkins had committed sin or crime, or even a misdemeanor."13

Griffin suffers a stroke and becomes paralyzed on one side. Griffin’s daughter Anne has to be prevented from taking away family treasures under her clothing. Griffin’s last days coincide with the public airing of the family’s dissention, and Frank’s reads the will at a similarly undignified scene. Again minded to leave, there are only his "qualms about parting with Mary." When Mary sees him packing, his door left ajar "in my confusion," she brings matters to a head. When he announces that is going to London to see Asa Perkins for advice, she retorts, "Well, why don’t you go?" and collapses. Thus prompted, he takes Mary in his arms, asking her to go with him. Questioned about Beatrice, he denies that he loved her. Suddenly Frank shifts his narrative ahead and we realise that he and Mary have married and have lived abroad for a long time. Now, however, his father’s money is exhausted, and he must he presumes return to America, perhaps to Boston, but to do what?14

The narrator has been much more to the story than the observer he considered himself, and it is that by which Paul precisely involves the personal with the political. The Governor of Massachusetts is much more than a satirical snub for the author’s old employer. "Change and disintegration" are chronicled in family and public terms alike.15


1 Paul, The Governor of Massachusetts (New York: Horace Liveright Co., 1930), 55, 89, 9, 12, 14.
2 Ibid., 38, 34, 54, 76. Mary may be as young as fifteen when the novel opens (see 83).
3 Ibid., 54, 108.
4 Ibid., 119, 124. Early years of the century: just what years the events are taking place in are unclear. At times it seems to be about 1904 to 1908, but towards the end there is a reference to an event that took place in 1915 -  Jess Willard’s 5 April heavyweight title victory over Jack Johnson. Paul takes care to keep the novel’s chronology even vaguer than in his previous novels.
5 Ibid., 112, 119, 128-29.
6 Ibid., 201, 198.
7 Ibid., 199, 200, 101.
8 Ibid., 208-09.
9 Ibid., 211, 246-47, 227, 226-27, 229-30. Act naturally: but elsewhere Frank says his relation to Mary now became more natural (257).
10 Ibid., 251-52.
11 Ibid., 257.
12 Ibid., 277.
13 Ibid., 302, 303, 298, 305, 309. Tristram Shandy: "‘Cannot you contrive, master, quoth Susannah, lifting up the sash with one hand..., - cannot you manage my dear for a single time, to **** *** ** *** ******?’ He was especially fond of that chapter, made catastrophic by the lack of a chamber pot and a window-weight..." (Laurence Sterne, The Adventures of Tristram Shandy).
14 Ibid., 328. Frank and Mary become "on intimate terms" while Griffin lies dying: it is impossible to know whether the ambiguity is unintended, stems from authorial revision, or is the result of incomplete expurgation by the publisher (321). "Of course I did love Beatrice. I loved Mary, too. What I wanted was both of them. I longed for what every man really wants, I suppose, - no work and two beautiful women. ...[T]wo lovely, congenial girls who could live in peace together" (329).
15 Ibid., 127.

This analysis of The Governor of Massachusetts is taken from Arnold Goldman's biography-in-progress of Elliot Paul. Arnold Goldman 2001.

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