20. “The Boston doubt” | “Seeing through everything”

This is the latest post from DSTs  Gods of Copley Square | The Boston Brahmin and the dawn of the modern American experience,  a series of studies the earliest of which,  “Ralph Waldo Emerson:  The first Boston Brahmin”,  will appear on this site later this year. Gods of Copley Square is a work in progress, and this post is from the final and concluding study,  “TS Eliot:  The last Yankee Boston Brahmin.”  *********** Inbetween will be a series of studies of paired Brahmins,  including:  Charles W. Eliot and William Barton Rogers,  Charles Callahan Perkins and Emily Greene Balch,  Wendell Phillips and William James,  Edward P.  Warren and William Sturgis Bigelow,  George Ticknor and John Lowell,  Charles Eliot Norton and Henry Lee Higginson,  Henry Adams and Phillips Brooks and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Julia Ward Howe   *********** Also:  “Brahmin Bohemians:  The Isabella Stewart Gardner — Sarah Choate Sears Circles:   Berenson,   Loefler,  Sargent,  Day,  Prendergast, Cram and Okakura Kakuzo;”   and  “Annointing the first Jewish Boston Brahmin:  Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Louis Brandeis.”

TS Eliot again.  However,  I have decided —  such are the flexibilities of digital publishing —  to defer his Friday night rendezvous with ‘white slavery’ at the South End’s Grand Opera House in the 1900s for at least another chapter,  lest we get into a rut and lose track of the larger picture,  which Eliot himself never did.  Always and everywhere  ( in his Boston days especially)   he was probing and considering and,  indeed,  wrestling  with something —  in the back of his mind,  to be sure,  but soon enough to be named by him on the printed page the whole world would read  — something he will always be remembered for,  though it as yet not very well understood at all.  That would be  —  and he invented the term  —  “the Boston doubt.”

If Eliot was, as I will argue here,  the last Yankee Boston Brahmin,  afew throwbacks aside,  though he was certainly steeped in the thought of the first  —  Emerson  —  Eliot had,  I think,  most in common with the Brahmin inbetween them who best defined  (because he best understood)  that Bostonian category,  Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. whose idea that the best Bostonians were those who enjoyed a sort of  “dual citizanship”  we have already discussed in this series.

Holmes was also,  however,  the acknowledged authority in his time of what Cleveland Armory called  “Grandfaher on the brain.”  Whether  rolicking through Dover Street on a Friday night or balancing a tea cup after services on Beacon Street on Sunday morning or,  indeed,  in his Harvard lectures and reading, it turns  out,  TS Eliot,  like so many Bostonians,  suffered from  that fructifying but smetimes crippling affliction,  and in his case with better reason than most.


That’s what Emerson himself called William Greenleaf Eliot,  one Brahmin,  as historian Eric Sigg put it,  who  “did not doubt.”  Not at all.  “He acted.”  Grandfather Eliot missionized St. Louis and founded Washington University.  For Grandfather Eliot,  in whose shadow TS Eliot was raised,  “Unitarianism”  —  the “Boston religion” as Mark DeWolfe Howe called it  —  “meant certitude,”  in Siggs’s words.  But for Henry Adams,  to fix on the most outspoken figure of the generation between William Greenleaf Eliot and TS Eliot (the younger Eliot was born in 1888),  the situation had somewhow and quite strikingly changed.  Adams’s own attitude toward the religion and philosophy of life of his parents was unmistakable when in his Education he all but sneered that for them  “Boston had solved the universe.”  Sigg,  more disinterested,  is content to translate the sarcasim as meaning that  “the solutions of the fathers . . . may be visited on the sons,  and the Unitarian one did not satisfy . . . Henry Adams.”  Nor,  he added,  a generation later,  TS Eliot.  Each of them,  Sigg wrote,  were  “products of ‘the Boston doubt.  All his life TS Eliot would wrestle with this doubt,  “writ[ing] of both the skepticism and the conscience in a particularly knowing way,”  Sig observes,  because  “they mark[ed] two poles of his intellectual life.”

Whence came this doubt?   “Religious passion,  which Adams called  ‘the most powerful emotion of man next to the sexual,’  had disappeared from Boston by the time of Adams’s own boyhood  [in the 1840s],  leaving behind”,  another historian,  John Gatta,  declares,  “only mild Deism and a Unitarian establishment from which [Adams} expected nothing but a comfortable moralism.”  Certainly Emerson and the Transcendentalists by the 1840s had abandoned dogmas like the Virgin Birth;  by the 1890s the American Unitarian Association itself,  founded in Boston in 1825,  was admitting non-Christian congregations,  which eventually became dominant. Adams pronounced himself  “puzzled” by this.  In fact he was haunted by it all his life.

This decline in religious orthodoxy was hardly particular to Boston.  However,  it was most pronounced in the old Puritan capital of the New World, and in just the way it can be said to be true of the two Old World spiritual centers,  the Puritan capital of Geneva and the Papal capital of Rome.  Lyndall Gordon,  TS Eliot’s best biographer,  leaves little doubt that Adams was a herald of all this.  And  Gordon calls Eliots  “A Skeptical Patrician”,  his essay of 1919 on Adams,  “clearly a bit of self-analysis”  on Eliot’s part a generation later.

However,  though like Sigg Gordonshe  sees no doubt at all in Grandfather Eliot,  and a great deal indeed in TS Eliot,  she does see a very deep current of scepticism already in  Emerson’s generation;  indeed,  in Emerson himself,  though it is in his case the  “solid”  scepticism that does not necessarily erode piety,  but can deepen it,  in fact,  because constantly testing it,  unafraid of the consequences.  “Skepticism and passionate piety”  is how Gordon characterizes Emerson’s thought,  something we will come back to here.   And Emerson scholars do not disagree.  Joel Porte and Saundra Moris point  to  “Emerson’s realiz[ation] that his center was Mary [Moody Emerson’s] transmission of piety and skepticism to [his brother] Charles and himself,  a realization that emerges clearly in the journals of America’s Plato. 


No one ever argues,  of course,  for what James Russell Lowell called  “a credulous skepticism of feeble-minded piety,”  but who would protest on the other hand Gary Sloan’s respect for the value of one cleric’s habit of holding to  “an element of skepticism,  or at least a deep distrust of the ability of the human mind to penetrate particular truth.”  Perry Miller,  in his majesterial The New England Mind,  gives a wonderful example of this sort of sceptical piety:  “By surrendering to skepticism,  by rediscovery that the Almighty,  as approached from Northamption [Massachusetts,  a Puritan center west of Boston] as from Geneva,  is inscrutable,  [one Puritan divine] faced unflinchingly [the fact that] ‘there is no infalliable Sign of Grace,  but Grace.  Grace is known only by Intuition. . . . There simply was no absolute rule in Scripture for distinguishing between saints and hypocrites any more than . . . there was a rule for detecting witches.  All we know is that saints,  hypocrites and witches exist.”

Nor is it always a case of W.  H.  Auden’s  two polarities  —  “Truth is Catholic,  but the search for it is Protestant”  —  a key point because any study of the youthful Eliot like this must always keep an eye cocked for the very Catholic shore where he finally docked in mid life.

About that I believe Flannery O’Connor is always the great witness.   “To believe in God is not to avoid  [all]  doubts and difficulties,  but to undergo a lifelong combat with them,”  was Robert Woods’s take on her views,  while O’Connor herself once urged a convert to  “cultivate Christian skepticism.  It will keep you free  —  not free to do anything you wish,  but free to be formed by something larger than your own intellect,  or the intellect of those around you.”

This has always  been especially the case in the more liberal brand of Western Catholicism —  Anglicanism  —  as opposed to more conservative Roman Catholicism  —  often expressed through reserve and understatement.  In the second volume of my study of the life and work of Ralph Adams Cram I have quoted Richard Holloway in explanation of Cram’s own reserve:  “we know how prone we are to self-deception and inflation and how mysterious are the ways of God with our souls. . . . Ours is a sidelong spirituality.”  Holloway got it exactly,  for Anglicans in the classic tradition,  “reserve is intrinsic to the spiritual search.”  So too is the self-examination through which skepticism is often expressed.  Lyndall Gordon is certainly correct that “it is not possible to understand Eliot’s dreams and the associated confessional impulse outside the context of a native tradition . . . .of self examination in the journals of Emerson . . . as in the poems of Dickenson and Eliot,  and in The Education of Henry Adams,  a book Eliot recommended to his mother,  calling Adams  our ‘cousin’.”

Fact is,  the endlessly fascinating TS Eliot,  who would become a radical modernist poet,  but who was deeply conservative in his social and political beliefs,  would become,  turning again, a very liberal Anglican.  Indeed,  the mature  “Eliot was,  according to Jeffrey Pearl,

a Christian skeptic . . . .[who] argue[d] that  ‘Christianity will probably continue to modify itself as in the past into something that can be believed in’ . . . .[The]  Christianity in which Eliot believed was consistent with his skepticism.  The Anglican Church,  as Cardinal Newman discovered to his sorrow and  [TS] Eliot to his deep satisfaction,  is no resting place for truth seekers.  *******After his baptism as before it,  Eliot viewed absolute truth as the  ‘fairyland of Reality’ . . . . His criterion of belief was inclusiveness . . . .There is no contradiction between Eliot’s lifelong skepticism and his religio[n]. . . . Skepticism is not a belief . . . . [it] is an attitude toward holding beliefs.  ***********  The skeptic . . .will have opinions.  He may even believe them to be true. . . . ‘The demon of doubt  [Eliot remarked]  is inseperable from the spirit of belief,  and the skeptics relation to his own beliefs . . . is a movement to and fro,  of approach and withdrawal.

In defense of his views,  Eliot  would,  in fact,  come to argue that  “belief has a vertical as well as a horizaontal measurement”  —  two people’s identical statements could mean utterly different things  —  and to explain  “his own Christian faith,”  according to Perl,  “(in the only sermon Eliot ever gave) as the result of his  ‘pursuing skepticism to the utmost limit’.”


It was a matter of self-preservation,  really,  that TS Eliot  —  unimpressed,  for example,  with the  “uncentered skepticism verging of narcicism”  of Henry Adams,  whose  “flirtation with Mariolatry” never develop[ed]  into full-blown existential commitment,”  in John Gatta’s words  —  ended up making of his own skepticism something entirely different.  Despite Adams’s considerable achievements,  and not discounting the effect on him of his wife’s suicide, his pervasive sourness was as distasteful then as it is now.  Indeed,  his repeated tearing down of all belief  —  including,  finally,  his belief in science  —  was such that even  “the pleasure of the demolitions,”  Eliot wrote,  “had turned to ashes in his mouth.”  “I loathe mankind,”  Adams had written in his autobiography;  bitterly insisting that  “Boston cankers our hearts . . . . self-distrust become introspection  —  nervous self-consciousness  —  inevitable dislike of America and antipathy for Boston.”

Ashes indeed.  And Eliot was for a long time in like danger.  Edward Comental’s analysis speaks thus of  “Adams – Eliot”  as the same person,  each  “yearning for unity,”  but  “lack[ing] all conviction,”  and  “driven into a neurotic frenzy haunting history and culture for some glimmer of grace, . . . seek[ing]  solace  ‘with the wings of a beautiful but ineffectual conscience beating vainly in a vacum jar’.”

Now this is to be very harsh on Adams,  and it does have to be said that repeated and usually highly selective quotations from his autobiography have somewhat left the wrong impression.  It is a work more quoted from then read,  even though it is still widely thought of as perhaps the most distinguished of American autobiography’s.  But whatever else it is,  The Education of Henry Adams, though the critical work one would expect of so fine a historian,  is not at all an anti-Boston Brahmin book.  Consider this from the Boston chapter:

 The standards of Boston were high, . . . [and among] the Unitarian clergy . . . . Dr. Channing,  Mr. Everett, . . . R. W. Emerson and other Boston ministers of the same school would have commanded respect in any society;  but the Adamses had little or no affinity with the pulpit,  still less with eccentric offshoots like Theodore Parker,  or Brook Farm,  or the philosophy of Concord.  Besides its clergy,  Boston showed a literary group,  led by Ticknor,  Prescott,  Longfellow,  Motley,  O. W. Holmes;  but Mr. Adams was not one of them. . . . Even in science Boston could claim a certain eminence,  especially in medicine,  but Mr. Adams cared very little for science.”

Nor did Adams,  by the way,  claim more for the Old World.  “Had he known Europe,”  he wrote of himself  “he would have learned no better.  The Paris of Louis Phillipe . . . . the London of Robert Peel,  Macauley,  and John Stuart Mill,  were but varieties of the same upper-class bourgeoisie that felt instinctive cousinship with the Boston of Ticknor,  Prescott and Mote;y.”

Notice that Henry Adams candidly admits that his father  —  and he early makes plain that  “his education was chiefly inheritance”  and that his father’s character was therefore  “the larger part of his education”  —  disdained everything for which Boston was famous except for its influence on national politics.  Now the Adams’s peaked very early in American history, at the time of the Revolution,  and by contrast the Eliot’s peaked much later.  Though a very old Colonial family,  it was the Victorian Eliot’s who made the family’s repute by numbering among them the founder of modern Harvard,  the designer of the world’s model urban park system and reservation system,  and a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Adams in fact documents without meaning to in his autobiography exactly the rivalry Eliot also documents in his essay on Henry Adams.  If the Adams’s are the American royal family,  they are its political royal family;  the Eliot’s have far greater claim to be the intellectual royal family,  never mind the religious royal family,  constituting as they always have the leading Unitarian family.

Notice the entirely uneliotic assertion of Adams about the absolute  “disappearance of religion” in Boston in his time.  “The religious instinct had vannished,”  he wrote,  asserting that from the summit of Beacon Hill,  “the problem of life was simple as it was classic . . . . difficulties might be ignored;  doubts were a waste of thought;  nothing exacted solution.  Boston had solved the universe.” Note especially Adams’s view that “doubts were a waste of thought.”  Adams and Eliot,  Brahmins both,  were talking past each other.

Meanwhile for Eliot not only Adams’s predicament threatened,  but Emerson’s,  his the mother of all issues.  Stephen Whicher has described Boston’s greatest thinker as  “a figure divided against himself,  and divided in a particularly New England way.  He ha[d] a  ‘Calvinist-bred need for a religion of the heart,  a need which Unitarianism had neither eradicated nor satisfied.  His Unitarian skepticism perpetually  [kept]  him from full emotional and spiritual committment;  indeed,  it dr[ove] him to the Sisyphus-like task of using ‘skepticism . . . to fight skepticism’.”

No wonder  Eliot scholar Mark Jeffreys feels Eliot’s formulation of “the Boston doubt” in 1919 was  “intended to establish in his readers minds the notion that the Boston Brahmin heritage was as alienating as it was embracing . . . . one of isolation and skepticism.” No wonder too the first steps to liberation necessarily seemed to TS Eliot to entail a bold move.  Eliot,  in fact,  could not get out of town fast enough.  And except for one brief visit,  his transfer from Boston to London was so urgent to his psyche that from 1914 to 1931 he remained in the British capital,  even letting his Harvard doctorate go. “The prime cause”,  Gordon attests,  “was [Ezra] Pound,  who had turned Eliot against his prospects at Harvard and a lifetime in Boston.”  A misbegotten marriage sealed Eliot’s expat fate,  and for a while the poet was sure he’d done the right thing,  even arguing in  “In Memory of Henry James” that  “the New England genuis”, as Gordon quotes him,  “was not only ‘discernable’ but  ‘improved’ and given its chance,  not worked off, by transplantation.” Not  even the presence in Boston over the  forthcoming decades of his “Beatrice”,  Emily Hale,  nor his mothers patriotic urges when America joined the war  (writing a patriotic hymn for The Boston Herald)  could draw him back to America.


Decades later,  when in the early 1930s TS Eliot returned to Boston to teach at Harvard,  twelve years after the publication of his essay on Henry Adams and  “the Boston doubt”  and nine years after  “The Waste Land”  had seized the English-speaking world,  the famous poet —  as he had by then become  —  found himself in a very different place.

In his boyhood,  Eliot in Boston every summer was mostly to be found at the family;s big seaside house on the North Shire,  but he also spent considerable time on Beacon Hill at 2 West Cedar Street,  the town house of Frederick May Eliot,  whose children Martha and Abigail  “played in the Boston Common and Public Garden often with their cousin TS Eliot,”  according to Alan Seaburg,  who notes TS Eliot remained close to them lifelong,  especially the Oxford-educated Abigail,  who became an eminent Boston physician whose  “school in Roxbury,”  Lyndall Gordon writes,  “was to be the precursor of all programs of special needs.”  The poet thought much less of their father.  “My cousin Frederick”,  je once asserted,  “is an ass.”  (An ass,  it should be noted who became head of the Unitarian Church as chair of the American Unitarian Association for over 20 years.)  Then,  too,  Frederick was the subject of one of TS Eliot’s most bitter Boston Brahmin satirical poems,  “Mr.  Eliot;s Sunday Morning Service.”

In 1931,  howerver,  he found himself welcomed as a newly converted Anglican high churchman on the other side of the hill on much less posh and more Dover Street-like Bowdoin Street on the edge of Scollay Square,  Wallace Fowlie remembered,  by  “the Cowley Fathers,  whose monastary was in Cambridge . . . and who served the [mission] church of St. John the Evangelist on the back of Beacon Hill.”  That was not arid at all.  As much as at the Church of the Advent,  Eliot’s other church home when in Boston, where in later life he was often seen visiting relatives,  St.  John’s was famously a spiritual and artistic center.  There Fowlie spotted TS Eliot in 1931 at Christmas Eve Midnight Mass,  in an interior designed by the leading Anglican architect of the country,  Ralph Adams Cram,  ardent participant in  “a liturgy admirably performed . . . and music,  both plainchant and polyphonic masses . . . skillfully directed by the organist-composer  [Everett]  Titcomb.”

A very different scene indeed than West Cedar Street decades previously,  and a very different TS Eliot,  different right down to the Harvard graduate student Fowlie recognized who,  overcome perhaps by either the intensity of it all or the somewhat hothouse atmosphere of St. Johns en fete, was seen by Fowlie as the congregation slowly filed out at liturgy’s end to be  “trying to move closer to Eliot”.  (I remember doing the same thing with Samuel Eliot Morison at the Advent in the 1960s,  poor man).  “Finally,  in the silence in the back of the church,  [the graduate student]  recited in a clear voice  [the first line,  in Italian]  of Eliot’s  “Ash Wednesday”,  taken from a canzone by Guido Cavalcanti  [the 14th-century Florentine poet and friend of Dante].  Eliot gave no sign of recognition.”

Why would  he?  He had  himself been a Harvard graduate student once;  he knew the form.  TS Eliot,  moreover,  remained a Boston Brahmin whatever his religion,  something known well enough by Fowlie,  who went on to become a distinguished professor of French literature at Duke.   Fowlie,  whose recollections have been recounted by Cowley historian Eldridge Pendleton SSJE,  knew,  of course, that  “Ash Wednesday” of 1928-30 had been published just after the poets first confession and communion in 1928.  Fowlie also remembered,  furthermore,  another and even more memorable encounter with the poet at the 7AM mass at Cowley’s Harvard Square monastary that shows the mature Eliot had become no stranger to mystic visions in his new state,  or so it seemed when Fowlie recalled:

Eliot was a daily communicant  [at the monastary altar] and . . . he and  I were often the only ones  with the priest in the chapel  [of St. Francis House,  now Cowley’s Old Cambridge guesthouse].  One of those Tuesdays [when Fowlie was the priest’s regular server] . . . . at the time of communion Eliot had risen and come up to the altar to receive [the sacrament].  The priest and I had turned back to the altar and I could hear Eliot rise and return to his place.  At that moment there was such a heavy thud . . . .[the priest and I] turned around.  Eliot was flat on his face in the aisle,  with his arms stretched out . . . . I went and put my arm under his shoulder.  He came esily with me.  Almost no physical effort was required . . . to help him back to his seat.  I realized that Eliot had just undergone a mystical experience.

A few years later,  in New York,  when Fowlie related the incident to Jacques Maritain,  the Roman Catholic philosopher and political thinker,  who had inquired about Eliot’s faith  —  Maritain is today perhaps most often remembered as a  leading author of the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”  —  Fowlie recalled the philosopher (who taught at Chicago and Princeton as well as at Columbia)  telling him that he had had  “what must have been an experience similar to Eliots: “it was a desire to worship God,  and I stretched out face down at the altar rail.”

One cannot help but remember that Eliot was the man,  back in Boston in the 1930s,  who wrote in the  1910s that   “‘the Boston doubt’ was a skepticism difficult to explain to those who are not born to it  [as,  of course,  he was,  albeit in exile in St Louis as his mother would have put it],  a skepticism  [that]  is a product or a cause or a concomitant of Unitarianism;  it is not destructive,  but it is dissolvent  [my emphasis].”  Nor forget Lyndall Gordon’s own reading of it:  “the Boston variety  [of doubt] was not a solid skepticism,  but quirky, . . . a kind of vulnerability  ‘to all suggestions which dampen enthusiasm or dispel conviction.”  How had  “Adams – Eliot” come tothis experience of the Cowley Fathers, one may well ask,  a skeptical but also a mystical believer?

Eliot insisted,  it is necessary to recall,  that Henry Adams had been “directed or misdirected by two New England characteristics:  conscientiousness and skepticism . . . conspiciously a Puritan inheritance”,  one that surely explains  “the narrowness of the Boston horizon”  Adams found so cramping,  yet for all his brilliance and achievement,  could not escape.  Nor,  for a long time Eliot.  

Yet from so much longer a perspective now,  both in time and culture,  Lyndall Gordon,  an Oxford scholar with no American axe to grind,  nor Bostonian agenda,  saw something else,  something that Eliot himself internalized in the 1910s.  Instead of trying to surpress his native skepticism in favor of a conventional recourse to piety as eventual converts typically do,  Eliot accomplished rather a breathtaking intergration,  one of the first signs that our subject here is really early 20th-century Modernism:  he embraced the skepticism  (however troublesome)  as a modernist artist he could hardly with integrity jetison,  while at the same time taking up the piety necessary to sustain conviction,  never mind the distinctly anti-modernist politics that always so startled people about a man who would within a decade take rank with Stravinsky and Joyce and Picasso and so on as one of the modernist gods of the early 20th-century.

Gordon suggests it was his study of the Oxford Idealist philosopher,  F. H.  Bradley,  on whose work Eliot wrote his Harvard doctoral thesis in 1910-1916,  but she more than implies that Eliot’s inspired fusion arose fundamentally out of more native soil:  “combining skepticism with a search for the Absolute  [is what]  gave international philosophic stature”,  she writes,  “to a paradox native to the New England mind  (as Eliot saw it in Emerson,  and as Emerson himself saw it in his aunt Mary Moody Emerson,  the purest exemplar of that Yankee fusion of skepticism and passionate piety.”

TS Eliot was a Boston Brahmin born,  albeit because of his missionary family’s zeal,  far from Beacon Street,  as Bostonian in the Gateway to the West,  as St. Louis,  Missouri,  was called in his day,  as  a family of British missionaries in Kenya  was determinedly British  —  and as quick to return home too,  which TS Eliot’s mother and the poets siblings did,  returning to live in Boston from St. Louis after the death of TS Eliot’s father in 1919.  (“My first thought was that mother must leave St. Louis,  and I was glad to find such was her wish,”  Eliot wrote to his brother in 1919,  while to his mother he was eqyally direct:  “It seems to me it would be just as ecnomical to take a flat, if not a small house,  in Boston as to run that large and expensive house in St. Louis.”) Pointedly brought up all during his boyhood for a quarter of every year back in Boston on Beacon Hill and at the Eliot’s  “purpose built”  (for that reason!)  North Shore seaside house,  as soon as he was old enough he was sent back  home to be educated at Milton Academy and at Harvard,  where his Boston decade  —  the South End slum perigrinations of which this whole Eliotic series is  focused on  —  constituted according to all his biographers the most formative years of his life.

Both positively and negatively to be sure,  for as  “Eliot once joked,”  in Lyndall Gordon’s words,  “his family’s relation to Boston Unitarianism was like that of the Borgias to the papacy.”  But how he grew into a  New England poet,  and in that sense an American poet,  more than a British one  ( by his own admission in late life ),  and how he became a Modernist poet,  arguably the greatest in the English language in the 20th-century,  was not just a matter of how he dealt,  Brahmin-like,  with  what he called  “the Boston doubt”.  There was also what I call  ‘the Boston silence’.  If the first haunted him,  the second  —  it is his  own word  —  “terrified”  him.  Next time. 

COMMENTS:  www.backbayhistorical@gmail.com


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