22. “The Boston religion” | First American Modernism

“Born in the Middle West,  where the pioneer mentality was still alive, brought up in Boston,  the stronghold of Puritan tradition, you came to Europe . . . . The position you have held in modern literature provokes a comparison with that occupied by Sigmind Freud  [and]  . . .   the novelty of the therapy which he introduced with psychoanalysis would match the revolutionary form in which you have clothed your message.        [ TS Eliots citation for his Nobel Prize for Literature,  read at Stockholm Town Hall at the award ceremony on 10 December 1948]

INTERESTING THAT TO EITHER SIDE OF BOSTON in Eliot’s biography the Nobel Committee,  all Europeans,  in focusing on both the American Middle West and Europe,  took as their sole comparison Sigmnund Freud.  An American,  I will make bold to add a Middle Western comparison,  Frank Lloyd Wright.

Neither Freud nor Wright was raised to be the Boston Brahmin Eliot was,  but although their birthrights were very different,  for exactly that reason both Wright and Freud make as excellent a case study as Eliot of the wide-ranging role Unitarianism as the first American Modernism played in the shaping of the early 20th-century Modernist movement.  It is a role,  though really already documented in detail,  that has been overlooked as a whole,  and thus deprived of its significance.  As we’ve seen already in the last two posts this has been true of Eliot.  It is even more true of Freud and Wright and others,  in the case of doctor and architect because they were not much seen in Boston,  nor thereby identified.

It is true that Wright spent time as a boy in Wayland,  Massachusetts,  and absorbed telling aspects of core and suburban Boston,  and that throughout his long career he several times made appearances in the city.  But only his historic overnight visit to the Spauldings on Back Bay Beacon Street,  visit so key to the history of the collecting of Japanese art in the Western world,  makes for historical headlines.  Freud,  meanwhile,  was even less in evidence,  in Boston only once, in 1909.  Indeed,  he had his experience of Boston in the Adirondacks,  where at a Emersonian  constellation of summer camps he was the guest of James Jackson Putnam,  himself very much a Boston Brahmin and subsequently Freud’s chief American disciple,  ally and advocate.

How ironic is it that the Boston Evening Transcript Eliot satirized so  justifiably in one mood  —  as Emerson might have put it  —  was in another mood the cutting edge of another aspect of modernity,  the one the Nobel committee compared to Eliot’s in importance, the cutting edge,  in fact,  of  Freud’s revolutionary teachings when the Boston city-state  —  not  the Viennese one  —  feted Freud ,  awarding  him through William James’s old student,  G.  Stanley Hall and Clark University,  an honorary doctorate in 1909,  the first international recognition for Freudianism,  a hallmark of the 20th-century.

The common thread here,  of course,  is a Unitarian one. 

For Eliot,  who frankly admitted as I’ve said before here that his family’s relationship to the Boston Unitarian establishment was akin to that of the Borgias to the papacy,  it was an unfullfilling but deeply formative prelude to his never entirely successful struggle to reconcile his modernist genuis with his anti-modernist self,  struggle which nonetheless yielded arguably the most powerful and eloquent English-language poetry of the 20th-century. For  Freud,  whose own genuis all but created that centuries self-understanding in the first place,  Unitarianism was the fixed frame of reference of the Boston Brahmin who was Freud’s chief advocate in America, increasingly Freudianism’s most important arena of discourse,  a frame of reference Putnam expanded  in just the opposite direction to Eliot’s so as  to  encompass increasingly Putnam’s own more and more free thinking positions,  he all the while stubbornly insisting to an impatient Freud the importance  of religion.  For  Wright,  finally,  no Le Corbusier he,  but Modernism’s Michaelangelo,  certainly America’s,  Boston Unitarianism was the cradle and shrine of a passionately held and deeply personal belief system out of which that architect created perhaps the most astonishing body of architectural work since the Renaissance.

“The Boston religion”,  as historian Mark De Wolfe Howe dubbed Unitarianism more than a century ago,  was like that:  never static,  fragmented even,  entirely modern.  As Samuel Eliot Morison put it in explaining its extraordinary importance in shaping modern Harvard,  itself the root of the religion’s widespread influence,  “Unitarianism of the Boston stamp was not a fixed dogma,  but a point of view that was receptive,  searching, inquiring,  and yet devout;  a half-way house to the rationalistic and scientific point of view.”

Indeed,  Boston Unitarianism was the explanantion,  though an utterly baffled Ezra Pound never could see it  (when Eliot’s work burst upon him)  for how,  as Pound put it,  Eliot  “modernized”  himself.  Nor was Pound alone in his bafflement.  Writes Eliot scholar Ronald Bush,

In 1910 and 1911 Eliot copied into a leatherbound notebook the poems that would establish his reputation:  “The Love Song of J.  Alfred Prufrock”,  “Portrait of a Lady”,  “La Figlia che Piange”,  “Preludes”,  and  “Rhapsody on a Windy Night”.  Combining some of the robustness of Robert Browning’s monologues with the incantatory elegance of symbolist verse,  and compacting La Forgue’s poetry of alienation with the moral earnestness of what Eliot once called ‘Boston doubt’,  these poems explore the subtleties of the unconscious with a caustic wit.  Their effect was both unique and compelling,  and their assurance staggered his contemporaries,  who were privileged to read them in manuscript.  [Conrad]  Aiken,  for example,  marvelled at  ‘how sharp and complete and sui generis the whole thing was,  from the outset.  . . .By Septermber 1914 Aiken had shown Eliot’s manuscript poems to Pound . . . . who wrote to Harriet Munroe . . . that Eliot  ‘had actually trained himself and modernized himself on his own.

In retrospect,  indeed,  one can see that Eliot was not altogether unknowing as to what his training had conspired to offer up.  In his discussion,  touched on so often here,  of    “the Boston doubt”  in  “A Sceptical Patrician”  in 1919,  Eliot complained  —  ever the modernist contending with his anti-modernism  —  that  “wherever the well-bred American steps the moral ground does not simply give way,  it fragments.”

What is that?  That would be Modernism.  The Modernist impulse which  “rejected  a number of optimistic Enlightenment assumptions . . . [as]  modernist artists and thinkers . . . began to represent the world and human nature as fragmented and chaotic . . . . [a] sense of spiritual dislocation,”  David Roser writes,  “[which]  found expression all across . . . the cultural spectrum.” The  fact is that “the Boston religion”  —  Unitarianism  —  was itself in America at first the cradle and then the cutting edge of the turn of the 20th-century Modernist movement,  the roots of which most scholars have always entirely sought in Western Europe. Our relunctance to perceive this is,  moreover,  not hard to explain:  afterall,  the Modernist impulse was,  and still is in retrospect,  more easily grasped,  more striking,  in the sensual Paris of Picasso and Stravinsky than in the cerebral Boston of Eliot and William James.

It is time for a little Unitarian history.


The Unitarianism which developed in Boston in the late 18th-century was at once characteristic of what from our point of view today we’d call Proto-Modernism,  in no small measure perhaps because it seemed  part and parcel of the American Revolution.

John Adams himself,  the first proposer of a declaration of independence,  was Unitarian,  a member of First Parish in Braintree  (now Quincy)  the minister of which,  Lemuel Brient,  caused such controversary because of his Unitarian beliefs it turned Adams,  troubled too by rumors about his own Unitarianism,  from aspirations to the ministry as a young man to pursue instead law and politics.  But with what results! Just this week in an editorial in The Boston Phoenix executive editor Peter Kadzis writes,

As the most privileged of the 50 states,  at least as far as civil liberties are concerned,  the Commonwealth  [of Massachusetts] is thus arguably the world’s freest political entity.   **************  The Bay State can thank John Adams for this glorious distinction.  Adams was the creative force behind the drafting of the Massachusetts Constitution,  which predates the United States Constitution,  and,  as a result,  is the world’s oldest written constitution still in use.  Not only is the Massachusetts Constitution venerable,  its Declaration of Rights is far more ambitious and inclusive than the national Bill of Rights

It is too much to say it is a very Unitarian constitution;  the  suggestion may well be best documented,  however,   by pointing out that Thomas Jefferson was also Unitarian,  though for political reasons in Anglican Virginia he remained a nominal Anglican all his life.  It was,  however,  the English Unitarian minister,  Joseph Priestley,  whose ideas had the greatest impact on the chief drafter of the Declaration of Independence and author of the famous  “Jefferson Bible”,  with all the miracles and such razored out!  Even in retirement,  however,  Jefferson was discreet.  According to Thom Belote  he was  “most open in his 1812-26 correspondence with John Adams.”

In revolutionary Boston there neverwas  any need at all for discretion, and the equivalent of Jefferson’s private Bible was significantly the very public removal from the Anglican Prayer Book of all Trinitarian references by King’s Chapel,  which in 1782 became,  along with the Essex Street Chapel  in London of eight  years earlier,  the first  explicitly Unitarian church in the world.  And while Jefferson’s prediction of 1822 that  “there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian,”  proved a tad enthusiastic,  by then what Notre Dame historian James Turner called  “the closest thing to an American aristocracy,  the Brahmin class of Boston,”  was dominated by Unitarians,  their stronghold Harvard Divinity School.

The central figure of Unitarianism as it matured in the early 19th-century was William Ellery Channing.  Minister of what is today called the Arlington Street Church from 1803 to 1842,  he was the chief spokesman for a more Unitarian than Trinitarian Christianity,  and in a famous sermon given in Baltimore in 1819 Channing’s clarion call to this effect led to the establishment of  Unitarianism as a seperate denomination with the founding in Boston in 1825 of the American Unitarian Association.

A Christian humanist of international stature,  Channing inspired many aspects of Transcendentalism  —  teaching,  for example,  that  “to understand God we begin by looking inside ourselves,”  —  and thus more than lives up to Matei Calinescu’s sharp definition of the avant-garde:  “to overthrow all the binding,  fromal traditions and to  . . . explore completely new horizons.”  But he was a moderate nonetheless and  “feared for the often fiery young men of the Unitarians’  second generation of ministers,  who  —  following Emerson  —  would discard their own churches liberal Christianity”  in favor an ultimately creed-less form of Unitarianism that is today so pluralist as to encompass deists and polythests and atheists.  However,  Unitarianism’s dynamic proved unstoppable as its own radicalization proceeded  with an almost triumphalist aspect.

At this point it is necesary to insist that for society then as for historians now  —  I speak as a High Church Episcopalian  —  atheism is a much maligned religion,  whether the context be Unitarian or not,  and by no means closes off sympathy with or understanding of Christianity of even the most orthodox variety.  This is perhaps true of the newly lapsed Christian,  like all converts too sure.  But,  consider the greatest Harvard historian of American Studies of the 20th century;  not Samuel Eliot Morison but Perry Miller,  and his three volume masterwork, The New England Mind. I doubt many argued with Murray Murphy when in 2001 he wrote:

The first volume was like no book [in American Studies] that had ever appeared before.  Leonard Laberee,  a Yale professor specializing in colonial American history,  found it unntelligible.  He said it was like watching Einstein at the blackboard;  he could tell something profound was going on but he could not say what it was.” 

How many were shocked,  I wonder,  when Murphy went on to disclose that  “Miller was an atheist.” Can an atheist be credible writing about an utterly,  deeply religious subject,  a matter of no small consequence given the Puritan foundation of the whole multi-cultural nation we know inhabit?  Murray had no doubts.  Nor do I.  He insisted:  “Miller underst[ood]  Puritans without being a Puritan  [and]  appreciate[d] their anguish without accepting their answers,”  knowing as no one else in the field had untill him that  “if you could not understand what the Puritan’s felt,  you could not understand what they thought, . . . what it meant to them.”  Or,  I would add,  what it means to us.

In part two of his  “Modern Theological Liberalism”,  Sam Storm divides Unitarian history into three periods:  the Introductory Period  —  what I have called here the cradle —  dominated by James Freeman Clarke and the establishment of King’s Chapel;  the Moderate Period led by Channing,  and a Mature Period  —  what I call the cutting edge  —   wherein Emerson inspired a  “flowering”  of the movement  —  Transcendentalism  —  which de-Christianized the denomination almost entirely.  Whether  continuing  “Channing Moderates”  or  “Emersonian Transcendentalists”,  what all had in common, however, was a conspicous  liberalism and elitism. As the old saw has it:  the Fatherhood of God,  thebrotherhood of Man and the neighborhood of Boston.

Certainly historians of religionwho have addressed the matter are in no doubt about this:  “centered in Boston,  the Unitarians dominated Harvard for much of the 19th-century,”  C.  L.  Walton writes:   “they were elites . . . members of the merchant class,  the leading figures in American literature . . . ‘archetypal modern intellectuals,’  Daniel Walker called them,  celebrat[ing] the characteristic features of modernism . . . .capitalism,  theism,  liberalism and optimism.”

Of course,  it was not so simple.  Unitarians,  no more than Trinitarians,  were always liberal.  Writing of the  “elite New England particularism  [that]  stood behind much of the Unitarians cosmopolitanism  [and] Unitarian descriptions of the unusual relationship between God and man  [which]  read like descriptions of the enlightened social intercourse of Boston Brahmins,”  all signs of what a refined civilization had been built in Boston,  Columbia University historian Matthew W.  Backes observes also that  many of these enlightened souls, and hardly an enlightened sign,  “made it clear that their  ‘charitable judgement’   did not extend to Catholics.”  Or,  indeed,  sometimes  —  for Channing moderates  —   to Transcendentalists even!

When the pope utterly condemned Modernism  —  Americanism too  —  however,  the lines were drawn and the favor returned.  And it was the Boston Brahmins who can be seen to be,  of all unlikely people many will say,  on the right side of history.  Kavel Van Baalens in his The Chaos of Cults is blunt:  “[Unitarians]  are the Modernists of Protestantism;”  furthermore,  he is much struck that between  “Unitarianism and European Modernism of the  [19th]  century”  he finds  “an intimate resemblance between them.”  Alas,  he leaves it there.  But in the most authoritive modern work,  The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism,  William R.  Hutchinson goes further,  declaring that  “in opening religion to philosophical idealism and later to scientific method and . . . . in alleviating the astounding American provincialism about world religions,  the 19th-century Unitarians made incalculable contributions.  As pioneers of a modernist synthesis,  they had trafficked with complexity and doubt.”

That,  of course,  was Transcendentalism,  wherein those radical Unitarians led what has been called  “the New England Renaissance,” which as Frank Schulman has pointed out did much to open Americans to  “science,  Eastern religions and a naturalistic mysticism,” all this in the wake of Emersons famous orations of the late 1830s and the so-called Transcendentalist Club that began in 1836 and was often,  significantly,  in  honor of Plato himself,  called the Symposium.


That’s what Emerson scholar Carlos Baker calls the New England Renaissance  —  “its intellectual centerpiece”  being Emerson,  who Baker calls the  “foremost citizen of the American Renaissance”  —  and although Boston figures in several so-called,  both literary and architectural,  as New England became less and less a nation in itself and more and more a region of a vast and growing country of many regions, and America its intellectual center,  Bakers  “American”  Renaissance is more reflective of  history’s movement.  Similarly as to what one calls Emersonianism itself,  there having long been some confusion between Unitarianism  and Transcendentalism,  this last a word Emerson actually did not much like.  He preferred Idealism  —  as any Unitarian would.

Bruce Kudlick,  Stanley Cavell recounts in Emerson’s  Transcendental  Etudes,  sees  “a conflict engendered by Transcendentalists attack on Unitarianism,  the Christianity of the Boston gentry,”  and how  “Unitarian laymen looked to philosophy  [specifically the philosophers of Harvard]  to buttress the established religion . . . . Although Emerson and his well known circle won over a band of converts,  the philosophical bases of Unitarianism remained unshaken,”  he insists.  Indeed, just as Henry Adams,  so Jackson Lears explains his views to us,  held  “Calvinism had softened into platitudinous humanism”  in Unitarianism,  so when under the pressure of Emersonian Transcendentalism,  Unitarianism became creedless entirely,  many protested that,  as usual,  all was declining away.   However,  Schulman points to the other way of seeing this,  noting that  “scholars now argue that Emerson did not reject his Unitarianism,  but  transformed it”.

What there is no argument about is the Emersonian capital,  as the Boston city-state consolidated itself.  Writes Emerson scholar Lawrence Buell,

The Boston into which Emerson was born was a town proud of its revolutionary heritage,  but a cultural backwater compared to London or Paris. . . . Yet within a mere half century . . . the Boston area . . . had become a center for literature,  for avant-garde American thought in religion,  philosophy and education and for a host of other reform movements.  [Explains Buell:]  The so-called Transcendentalist movement,  for which Emerson was the key inspirational figure,  was one of the reasons why.

Nothing is ever that simple in the New England capital  —  which from Emerson’s advent onwards is  (in the same way American displaces New England Renaissance)  is  better called the American intellectual capital  —  in contrast with Washington,  which after the Civil War emerged as the new nation’s political capital even as New York boded to become its economic capital  —  and Perry Miller is certainly right to say that  “most Boston businessmen found Emerson’s ideas both disconcerting and contemptible.”  Indeed,  Emerson more than returned the favor,  writes Buell,  remarking on his  “disdain for the greed and philistinism of State Street”,  which turned a blind eye,  for example,  for so long toward slavery for the most blatant economic reasons.  But as Vasari spoke of Florence,  so Emerson insisted one should speak of Boston,  whether the core city he was based in or the suburb of his constant retreat;  and who could mistake Concord anyway for the suburb of any other capital? Indeed,  historically and still today,  the Boston city-state brushes Nova Scotia  (once part of the royal province of New England, its capital Boston) and encompasses all of coastal New England from Maine  (untill 1820 part of Massachusetts) and New Hampshire to Rhode Island,  meeting New York City’s orbit westward in the Adirondack region of New York state,  in Vermont,  and in western Massachusetts.

“Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind”,  Emerson’s clarion call rang out across the land,  and figures as diverse as Gandhi and Robert Kennedy testify to its lasting resonance.  Indeed,  along with Lincoln’s Second Innaugural Address,  Emerson’s essay on Self-Reliance is for good reason bound into the the Penguin edition of Barack Obama’s own innaugural address.  Marvels Buell,  furthermore,  noting that  “within the Republican establishment Emerson did remain  a progressive,  liberal voice . . . [arguing for]  ‘the fusion of races and religions’,  free imagination . . . [and]  the advancement of political rights for women”  —    as late as the 2008 American presidential election      “the political right appropriate[d  Emerson’s]  values of remembering private interests as part of the public good,  while the left follows his exaltation of the American Adam,  a New Man in a New World.”  (Howard Zinn’s  People’s History of the United States , a frankly leftist and therefore biased interpretation I do not subscribe to but am glad to have to pay attention to,  brings up Emerson all the time).

Emerson achieved his international stature chiefly through his published essays,  and his great teaching of self-reliance,  which to him meant something more like self-mastery;  listening to  “the God within,  not the God of authority and tradition”.  “We know God first and mainly,”  he wrote,  “through the moral law within.”  A  philosopher of global stature,  Emerson continues to attract engagement with contemporary philosophical figures,  of whom perhaps the best example,  Cavell,  is significant for many reasons.

Born of a Jewish famly in Atlanta,  educated at Berkeley and at Juliard,  Cavell turned from music to philosophy at Harvard,  where he became the Walter M.  Cabot professor of aesthetics and gained repute as well as a MacArthur Fellow.  Best known for his work on Ludwig Wittgenstein,  Cavell has specialized in work on that philosopher and on four others:  Martin Heidegger,  J.  L.  Austin,  Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau.  His most pereceptive and penetrating work on Emerson comes in Cities of the World,  where he develops as Russell Goodman puts it the idea of how Emerson  “describes to each reader his own idea . . . never final,  always initial,  always on the way.”

“Some of Emerson’s most striking ideas about morality and truth follow from his process metaphysics:  that no virtues are final or eternal,  all being initial;  that truth is a matter of glimpses,  not steady views.  We have a choice”,  Goodman asserts Emerson as saying in ‘Intellect’;  “between truth and repose,  but we cannot have both”.  Adds Goodman:  in Emerson’s view,  “one finds God only in the present:  ‘God is,  not was’.”  (In contrast,  what Emerson calls  ‘historical Christianity’ proceeds  ‘as if God were dead.’)  Finally,  “even history,  which seems obviously about the past,  has its true use,” writes Goodman,  “which seems obviously of the past,  has its true use,  Emerson holds”  —    and here I must confess myself somewhat of the same mind so long as one is led by the evidence  —  “as the servant of the present:  ‘The student is to read history actively,’  Emerson declares,  ‘to  esteem his own life the text,  and  books   the commentary’.”

I stress Emerson as philosopher here,  not poet or stylist,  because that is,  so to speak,  the global and not the local Emeson,  the continuing root of his power,  and always has been,  sometimes perhaps problematically;  one thinks of  George  Stack’s view  in  Nietzsche and Emerson: an Elective Affinity,  wherein he,  like  David Mickics,  notes that  “Emerson’s radical thoughts profoundly influenced the development of Nietzsche’s central ideas.”  Whatever Nietzsche was,  Robert Gooding-Williams was certainly correct to write of  “the recureent allusions in contemporary debates about modernity,  modernism and post-modernism”  to the work of that violently anti-Christian thinker who be nonetheless one of the most striking philosophical teachers of the last century.

I would prefer to stake Emerson’s claim as a modernist on his straightforward declaration that self-consciousness,  the supreme modernist characteristic in my view,  was the chief vector of his time;  “the key to the period,”  he asserted in a lecture to the Concord Lyceum ,  “is that the mind became aware of itself.”


Sigmund Freud,  when he studied under Pierre Janet,  was frankly  “dazzled”  —  Freud’s biographer’s word  —  by the French neurologist and psychologist.  So too was Boston when in 1904 Janet lectured in Copley Square for the Lowell Institute,  and then again  two years later at Harvard Medical School.  Freud,  if he could only approve  —  never mind that Janet,  like William James,  distinctly disliked Freud’s sexual theories  —  must also have been annoyed. Meanwhile,  Boston,  on the verge of challenging Paris and Vienna as the western medical centers in the 1900s,  kept more than a careful watch on Freud.  The first mention of him by an American came in 1894 in a review by James in  Psychological Review and we have the word of Freud’s biographer,  Ernest Jones,  for it that  “it was another Bostonian,  physician James Jackson Putnam  who published in The Journal of Abnotmal Psychology in 1906 the first paper in English on psychoanalysis and the first adequate account of it as used at the Massachusetts General Hospital.

A Freudian afterall,  Freud surely fretted,  as perhaps is suggested by his writing in later years according to Jones to a colleague:  “Who could have known that over there in America,  only an hour from Boston,  there was a respectable old gentleman . . . who would . . . as he expressed it,  ‘ring the bell for us?'”  And that only three years after Janet’s brilliant Boston appearance.  Who indeed.  But the Boston city-state has many provinces no foreigner could have been expected to know,  each as the late John Coolidge of Harvard used to say created by Boston for its own purposes.  Not not the least of these  be the city of Worcester,  where G.  Stanley Hall,  a former student of William James and the holder of Harvard’s first PhD in pyschology, was the president of Clark University, a small,  graduate-student-only institution about which he wished to make a noise on its 20th anniversary. Hall and James had long since parted ways, and Putnam at first thought Clark too out of the way.  But in the event it was to be only three years after Putnam’s historic paper on Freud,  itself 12 years after James’s,  that Freud’s bell would be well and truly rung and at Clark.

It is perhaps significant that it was not to the president’s house at Clark but to the Back Bay town house of Putnam’s colleague,  Morton Prince,  that Ernest Jones travelled as something like Freud’s agent in 1908  “to lay the groundwork for the Clark event.”  Jones , in his biography of Freud,  writes of  “long talks”  with Putnam,  who along with one or two others foregathered quite deliberately to receive Jones.  “In the autumn of 1908,  while staying with Morton Prince in Boston,  I held two or three colloquiums”,  Jones wrote.  Years later,  Freud scholar Nathan Hale put the matter in its largest frame of reference:

[In the 1900s] major German authorities in neurology and psychiatry regularly were denouncing psychoanalysis. . . . Then,  quite unexpectedly came the the possibility of establishing  psychoanalysis in the New World.  In December,  the month Ernest Jones first visited Boston,  Freud received an invitation from G.  Stanley Hall to lecture at the twentieth anniversary celebrations of Clark University;  in a letter of September 9,  1909, Freud wrote a colleague:  ‘Now for the big news:  I have accepted the repeated invitation of Clark University,  Worcester,  Massachusetts.”

The father of psychoanalysis was just a little bit wicked.  “Near Boston,  to give a series of lectures,”  he triumphantly opined,  would perhaps  “annoy some people in Berlin as in  Vienna.  That cannot do any harm.”

What fueled Freud’s wickedness Jones did not explain.  But Hall did.  “Putnam and a small circle in Boston between 1890 and 1909 developed the most sophisticated psychotherapy in the English-speaking world . . . . notable for the informal operation of pyschologists,  philosophers,  neurologists and psychiatrists.”  Indeed,  today,  when Freud is no longer in strictly medical circles so dominant,  it is interesting to note how Eric Caplan projects this whole experience into Boston’s past.


Beginning in the mid-1880s a small cohort of elite Boston-based neurologists,  psychiatrists and psychologists began to consider . . . psychopathology . . . . The Boston School of Psychology . . . . probably  [was]  originally stimulated by William James. . . . Members of this pioneering group included psychologists James and G.  Stanley Hall,  neurologists James Jackson Putnam and Morton Prince,  and foreign-born psychiatrists Adolf Meyer and Boris Sidis.   ***********   James played the most dynamic role.  He had almost single-handedly defined the field of academic psychology in the U. S.  The first to establish a psychological labratory in the New World, . . . . his “Principles of Psychology” (1890) . . . established his reputation as one of the world’s foremost psychologists . . . .arguuing]  that rather than focusing on abstract entities,  psychology needed to be concerned with actual experience.   ************   By appealing to experience . . . .James implicitly contravened the view that mind and body were radically distinct entities and hence were incapable of  integration . . . . James accorded a special role to consciousness itself,  which,  he argued,  acted as the mediating face between experience and action.

Now no less than the British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead pronounced that in all of western litertaure there are four great thinkers whose services to civilized thought rest largely on their achievements in philosoph[y].  These men are Plato,  Aristotle,  Leibnitz and William James.  Moreover,  James had developed  “a full blown,  uniquely American psychology of the subconscious well before Freud’s theories reached these  [North American]  shores,”   in Eugene Taylor’s words.  It is common knowledge to say as Robert Richardson does that James was  “a major force in developing the modern concept of consciousness at the same time Freud was developing the modern concept of the unconscious.”

Historically the bridge,  vertically between what Taylor calls the  “literary psychologies” of the early 19th-century,  and,  horizontally,  between the  “folk psychologies”  of his own era like Christian Science and New Thought,  both of which James studied carefully  —  I can show you still the doorknob still there that James turned repeatedly to consult his Christian Science practioner  —  James crossed this bridge in both directions many times.  He was deeply interested in all these  “pre-decessors to psychotherapy,”  as Taylor calls them.  James believed in ” the scientific validity of Christian Science’s central assumptions,  that mental symptoms could be allievated by psychotherapeutic means.”  He was also an officer of the American Society of Psychical Research,  founded in Boston.  It was under James that Gertrude Stein studied  automatic reality,  which James saw as  “evidence that the subconsciousness played a major role in mental life.”

It was likely Stein  —  the ramifications of James’s work  were everywhere  —  who ( in one or more of the ninety-odd sittings she gave Picasso in 1906 for her celebrated portrait )  gifted Picasso with the very Jamesian structure of the faceted breast on the right hand standing figure . . . in  “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907)  [that would]  be central to subsequent experiments towards analytical cubism.”  The only question,  Arthur Miller suggests,  is how much of James’s visual experiments  [Stein]  actually discussed in what he calls her  “Radcliffe French.”  He concludes,  however,  that  “Picasso was undoubtedly struck by James’s  ‘folded visual card experiment’.  published in 1890 by him.

Similarly with James Joyce’s Ulysses.  The prose Modernist companion to Eliot’s  “Waste Land”  was famously written in a technique which tracks the inner dialogue of private thoughts called  “stream of consciousness”,  a coined James coined in 1892.  So it was with Debussy’s work,  which perhaps explains the first reception in America of so much of it in Boston.  There it was Georges Longy conducted the American premiere of  “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” in 1902.  There too the originally projected  (but later ousted)  cast of the Paris world premiere of  “Pelleas et Melisande”  —  led by playwright Maeterlinck’s lover,  Georgette LeBlanc  —  first performed Pelleas in 1908 with the Boston Opera Company.

So it was not always cerebral Boston as opposed to sensual Paris.  But it was in the French capital that William James,  visiting Gertrude Stein and astonished by her Picasso, who  “looked and gaped,”  and laid claim to encouraging her openess to new ideas.


“The momentum of the psychoanalytic movement would be evident first in America,”  Peter Kramer wrote;  yet added,  “Freud had contempt for the United States.  He considered Americans prudish,  immature,  unsubtle.”  It was a fact the Viennese doctor had to square with another:  “American psychiatry was ripe for change . . . . in particular New England was a site of ferment”  and the invitation to Freud was the result of how  “in academic settings the  ‘Boston School’  of Psychology debated such up-to-the-minute issues as as the formative influence of genital impulses in children.”  And one such academic setting was going to be quite crucial for Sigmund Freud:  Clark University.  There  “the inventor of the modern mind”,  as Kramer calls him  —  and as Freud remains even in his eclipse as a psychiatrist  —  tears in his eyes according to witnesses,  would see what he had probably forseen all along:  the Boston School’s honoring of him with what he himself called  “the first official recognition of our endeavors.”

One reason this turned out to be so pregnant a gesture was that when Ernest Jones came again  “to Boston in 1909 to meet with members of the Boston School,”  Nathan Hale is clear about the chief result —  “fullfilling a suggestion of  Jones,  who had spent some weeks in Boston,  Freud decided  [in his lectures]  to survey the whole field of psychoanalysis for the practical Americans.” It would be Freud’s  “first extended synthesis,”  about which Hale appends this note:  “The Clark Conference is best studied through . . . the scrapbooks at Clark University and in The Boston Evening Transcript.”

Freud was wary of the press,  especially in Boston.  In fact,  four years after the conference what he feared happened.  His biographer notes that Freud’s circle,  such was their sensitivity to how the master’s sexual theories particularly were received,  was considerably wrought up by outcries in Hamburg in 1910 and later in Budapest,  where the word pornography was hurled at Freudians,  and by the worst fracas of them all three years later in Boston.  “In the middle of the month  [October of 1913],”  Jones wrote in Freud’s biography,  “we heard there had been a panic in Boston. The police there,  no doubt with some instigation,  had threatened to prosecute Morton Prince for the  ‘obscenities’ he was publishing.'”  Against Freud’s teaching  “the only police action ever taken,  that in Boston in 1913,  was balked at the last minute” but its reverberations lingered.  Even Isabella Stewart Gardner was upset,  and it took all Bernard Berenson’s skill  to calm her down.

How outstanding in 1909 was the Transcript’s coverage is clear in the fact that The New York Times did not cover Freud’s American visit at all;  indeed the New York newspaper first took notice of Freud in any way in Septermber of 1912,  three years later,  and did not run a lead article on Freud untill March 2nd of 1913.  On the other hand the so-called Emmanuel Movement,  of which more soon,  based at Emmanuel Church on Newbury Street in Boston’s Back Bay,  was hugely featured by the Times  (“Boston’s Latest Experiment”) as early as May 26, 1907,  and a speech by Putnam in New York about it was well covered in 1908.  Even  The Boston Globe ignored Freud,  though it could hardly ignore the Clark exercises.  In the announcement program Carl Jung’s name appeared,  not Freuds,  and in the report of the conference itself Freud’s name appeared only once,  in the list of honorary degrees awarded.

The Transcript not only extensively covered the conference  —  extensively but not fully,  the attack Freud made on Puritan morality as unrealistic was not noted  —  but also sent a special correspondent, Adalbert Albrecht,  a fellow Viennese since emmigrated to America who one is not surprised to learn had a  “long acquaintance with[Freud’s] writing.”  And although it was Freud’s condemnation of the Emmanuel Movement that made the headlines then,  now it is the fullest account  we have of Freud’s exposition. Albrecht,  a journalist,  editor and translater,  whose work appeared in many leading journals of the period,  including The Arena,  the internationally known socialist journal based in Copley Square,  was obviously a German speaker,  important as Freud did not speak English,  and the interview Freud gave him was one of very few he ever gave and the only one during his American visit.  It was in fact the first general introduction for the American public anywhere of Freud’s ideas.


As it turned out,  however,  the real news of Freud’s visit emerged much firther away from the Boston State House than Worcester;  indeed,  from the extreme limits of the Boston city state,  in the wilderness of the Adirondack Mountains in New York State,  where Putnam,  instead of inviting Freud to his Back Bay town house,  invited him to his summer camp. Freud was floored,  writing back to Vienna to his family,  “of all the things I have experienced in America,  this is by far the most amazing.  Imagine a camp in a forest wilderness . . . . a group of roughly hewn log cabins . . . . Everything is left very rough and primitive but it comes off.”

Putnam’s Camp had an even longer history than the Boston School,  “model[ed] on the original Adirondack retreat for Boston intellectuals,”  according to George Prochnik, “the Philosopher’s Camp . . . . created  [by] the members of the . . .Saturday Club  [including]  Ralph Walso Emerson.”  To this shangrila Putnam summoned Jung as well.  But it was Freud he was most interested in,  and  “Freud recalled a few years later” in his 1914 biography that for him the most important personal relationship that arose from the conference was with Putnam,”  whose sophistication certainly led Freud to rethink his views about Americans,  but who also prompted Prochnik to refer to  “the culture clash and strange synergy between the sardonic Sigmund Freud and the pioneering American psychologist . . . who  ‘introduced him to America’.”  Putnam,  so  intimately a Boston Brahmin he roomed with Emerson’s son Edward in Vienna when both studied medicine there,  was an enormously respected figure in American medicine  and it was only natural he wanted to assure himself of Freud’s sincerity as well as his genuis.

Boston thus met Vienna  “around the campfire”  for three days.  Then, ” on the return trip . . . they all excitedly discussed founding  an international association that would build on the encouraging Clark experience.  Once he was home Freud drafted Putnam to head the American Psychoanalytical Association and began a correspondence with him that lasted through 90 odd letters for a decade.

Putnam’s reading of psychoanalysis was very Emersonian,  and focused not just on the need  “to avoid  ‘repression’  which led the minds unconscious energies to turn into dark neuroses,  [while]  when we knowingly refuse our uglier  (often sexual)  instincts we have power over them,”  but on Freud’s  less important idea  (to Freud)  idea of sublimation.  The idea that  “in a brilliant handful of individuals  —  among whom Freud included himself  —  the unconscious wishes,  once owned up to,  could by force of character be conveted into fuel for grand,  non-sexual achievements”  struck a deep chord in Putnam’s imagination and was just the sort of positivity he looked for in treatment. He thought that it was  not sufficient to strip patients of their neuroses and leave them to find their own way forward;  to do so would risk,  as Putnam wrote Freud in 1914,  making patients feel  “as Dante would have felt if Virgil had deserted him somewhere on the slopes of the Mount of Purgatory.”


It is a nice question whose plight,  as described by Juluis Stratton,  was worse:  Patrick Kerr Rogers,  an Irish Nationalist who fled Ireland for the US . . . in 1798  [during the rebellion of that year]  to escape persecution by the British,”  becoming eventually a professor at the University of Virginia;  or Patrick’s son,  William,  who encountered a similarly tense situation in the pre-Civil War American South.  Also a professor at UVA,  William was as offended by  “Virginia’s sectarian narrowness and conservatism”,  never mind slavery,  as his father had been by Britain’s oppression in  Ireland,  and like his father,  William was quick to fight back.  “Distressed by religious intolerance” in the South,  Francis Wylie recounts,  “when the university was attacked for appointing a Roman Catholic and a Jew to the faculty,”  William,  who at just about this time had begun to dream of  New England  in particular even as his father before him had dreamed of  America in general,  during a geological expedition with his brother Henry,  was struck,  he wrote to another brother,  Robert,  by the  “contrast between the region in which I live and . . . glorious New England.”  He  resigned his professorship and moved north.  And now he found himself  “dreaming” a more specific dream  —  Wylie’s word  —  “about starting a polytechnic school in Boston”  that would  “overtop the universities of the land.”  And that,  beloved reader,  is why today the foremost scientific university in the world is not in Ireland nor Virginia, but in Boston.

MIT’s founding,  of course, was not quite so straightforward.  But William Barton Rogers explained himself fully when he wrote,  “ever since I have known something of the knowledge-seeking spirit,  and the intellectual capabilities of the community in and around Boston,  I have felt persuaded that of all places in the world it was the most certain to derive the highest benefits from a polytechnic institution.”  Rogers allied himself to a Yankee Brahmin family,  the Savages,  marrying Emma Savage in in 1849,  and became friendly with a leading  Brahmin,  John Amory Lowell,  the head of the Lowell Institute.  “Boston had already become,”  Stratton wrote,  “a more than desireable  (even ideal)  place in [Rogers’s] mind,”  and he wrote his brother Henry in 1846 that if he could but be  “place[d] . . . in the congenial air of Boston,  I would indeed rejoice.”

Rogers was a liberal,  miscast in the conservative pre-Civil War Southern establishment  just as his father had been a liberal miscast in the conservative mostly pro-British Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland.  In Boston he came into his own,  no longer misplaced in a city where what Notre Dame historian James Turner has called  “the closest thing to an American aristocracy,  the Brahmin class of Boston,”  carried the torch of liberalism highest in the new American nation. 

Above all this would be true of the uber Brahmin,  soon to become America’s headmaster,  Charles William Eliot,  founder of modern Harvard.  Berkeley sociologist Jerome Karabel,  in his splendid book,  The Chosen,  admits plainly that Eliot was  “no egalitarian.  In his inaugural address he stated flatly that  “the community does not owe superior education to all children,  but only to those who have the capability to prove by hard work that they have also the necessary perserverance and endurance. ”  This  “meritocratic credo,”  as Karabel calls it,  was based as Eliot  (  an aristocrat he would have said in a republic )  wrote,  on  “the freedom and social mobility which characterize the democratic state”  in the modern era.

If  Harvard’s new president  “believed in a class society,”  however,  as any aristocrat would,  he also believed in  “equality of oppurtunities;”  above all of education.  Eliot completely diversified Harvard,  as we would say today,  and by the last year of his reign one student in six was either Roman Catholic or Jewish.

“Confident in the ability of American democracy to incorporate waves of immigrants,”  as historian Barbara Solomon has pointed out in really the classic text on this subject,  Ancestors and Immigrants,  Eliot thought the Immigration Restriction League that was founded by three Harvard graduates a  “vicious” organization,  and said so repeatedly.  And though he meant Europeans,  not Asians,  Eliot went so far as to warn that the nation must  “learn that alien immigrants should not be made as like as possible to Americans,  but should preserve their own peculair gifts and merits as contributions to American life.”  Indeed,  to one pro-Italian immigrant group Eliot wrote,  offering his services as advocate,  that  “the more Italian immigrants that come to the US the better.”

Even if they were Catholic!  That religion Eliot could not abide.  Yet he was as against High Church Episcopalian tradition as much as Roman Catholic customs.  A good example of how liberals can be as intolerant as conservatives,  Eliot disdained all  “authoritarian”  systems and the condemnation by the pope of modernism and Americanism hardly weakened his point.  One  doubts William Barton Rogers disagreed,  though I can find no evidence either way,  Rogers being  not nearly so active in religious affairs as was Eliot.

Certainly Rogers sorrounded himself with Boston Brahmins,  which is to say Boston Unitarians.   Eliot,  one of his chief collaborators in the founding of MIT, where he was a founding professor before he became Harvard’s president,   was Unitarian;  so was William Ware,  the head of the new architecture school,  the first in the United States.  Rogers himself,  who settled with his wife at 117 Marlborough Street,  where the Back Bay town house of MITs founder still stands, was drawn to the pastor of the new Brattle Square Church at Commonwealth and Dartmouth,  Samuel K.  Lothrop,  by that time the leading Unitarian divine in Boston.  Lothrop would eulogize Rogers at his funeral in 1882;  another Unitarian minister would read the King’s Chapel burial service.

A liberal-minded scholar and learned Unitarian,  William Barton Rogers was the archetype (even to a certain hereditary component as his father had been a professor)  of Oliver Wendell Holmes’s idealization of the Boston Brahmin;  was in fact the first Irish-American as opposed to Yankee-American  Boston Brahmin.  No one was surprized that 54 bachelor degrees were awarded women between1873 and 1900,  nor that in the same decade  —  the 1890s  —   Harvard gave it’s first doctorate to an African-American,  W. E. B. DuBois,  MIT graduated the first professionally trained American architect,  Robert Robinson Taylor.  Yes there were conservative,  even reactionary,  Yankee Boston Brahmins  —  the  “State Street Brahmins”  Emerson so disdained,  men like John L.  Gardner,  Henry Lee Higginson and Geoffrey Lowell Cabot  —  but Rogers had thrown in his lot with the Yankee Boston Brahmin leadership.

Of course both Rogers and Taylor came from a relatively privileged background insofar as Irish-Americans and African-Americans were concerned;  class,  I maintain,  like religion,  almost always trumps ethnicity  —  even in a civil war  —  sometimes race and gender too,  sometimes what would be called today sexual orientation.  That an Italian  “gentleman”,  historically,  will usually have more in common with an Irish  “gentleman” than with an Italian  “peasant”  is a fact of humankind to be taken into account in both  immigant and aristocratic narratives.  So too is its usual corrective,  historically,  education.  There is nothing complicated here.  Neither too much nor too little should be read into “aristocratic bigotry”  or  “immigrant oppression”.  As Solomon shows Boston’s Brahmins were not bigoted at all in the way Yankee-Americans usually were,  and Yankee-Americans themselves  found liberal Brahmin values just as uncongenial as some  immigrant groups.

Bearing in mind how class and religion trumps so much else, any difficulty in engaging  immigrants on the part of many of Boston’s entrenched and entirely legitimate aristocracy  (legitimate as heirs,  and thus in the mind of many stewards,  of their grandfathers,  who had created the nation)  came  less  from a lack of liberal Brahmin leadership than from their reaction to the fact of most of the immigrants’  extreme conservatism in religious,  social and political affairs.  Abolition is an obvious example.   The result of so many immigrants having been denied an education,  just the education Eliot and Rogers would be such leaders in offering them as their circumstances changed in America,  that situation soon resolved itself accordingly.

Darwinism,  of course,  was more Rogers’s subject,  a cause then as well as good science,  and one that held its own in Boston despite even Louis Agassiz’s opposition,  but whatever the cause  —  usually centering on the very Emersonian idea of self-improvement  as  opposed to taking refuge from human ills in an extreme view of original sin  —  the same liberalism was at the root of all the aspects of William James’s career we have touched on here in connection with the Boston School of Psychotherapy. Nor is it surprising that just as Eliot was Rogers’s star appintment at MIT,  so was William James Eliot’s star appointment at Harvard.

Boston Unitarianism,  of course,  is what we are talking about.  All Boston Brahmins,  save for a few Episcopalians,  were Unitarian.   And just as Rogers tended to sorround himself with such stout modernist allies, so did Eliot.  An outstanding example was Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr,  the inventor and definer of he term Boston Brahmin and a man who to call liberal seems hardly sufficient.  He was radical.  After Holmes became dean of Harvard Medical School in 1847 he sought to admit women.  Then he sought to admit blacks.  He failed in both efforts,  yet succeded better on the ethnic front:  in a very real sense Hlmes was the reason John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s grandfather was a student at Harvard Medical School before his impoverished family circumstanes forced him into politics. As Dennis Ryan writes,

Holmes  . . . helped to promote the careers of promising Irish medical sudents like Michael Freebern Gavin.  Gavin migrated to Boston in 1857 and worked in his in-laws’ apothecary business,  where he obtained a sound knowledge of medicines.  Entering Harvard Medical School in 1861 ,  he quickly won praise from Dr. Holmes as  “an intelligent and very industrious student.”  With Holmes’s assistance,  the twenty-year-old Gavin obtained a prized house residency at the newly opened Boston City Hospital in 1864.  Following two years study abroad,  he returned to South Boston,  where he entered private practice.

Alas life was not so kind to John F. Fitzgerald.

This was the milieux in which William James  operated.  Another progressive better called radical than merely liberal,  so much so it is not clear if he could even accept Unitarianism,   James met his wife-to-be at,  of course,  something called the Radical Club on Beacon Hill,  a meeting place for  “Unitarian ministers and liberal laymen,  formed to discuss,”  according to James’s biographer,  G. W. Allen,  “the abolition of all vestiges of supernaturalism in the Unitarian religion.” What else would Unitarians discuss?

The members of the Radical Club included James’s father,  Henry James Sr., showing that among Boston liberals and their extended family elsewhere learning was,  as Holmes suggested was a Brahmin trait,  hereditary!  Of course,  among more rebellious younger sons it was apt to be conservatism.  Witness James’s brother,  novelist Henry James,  and TS Eliot.  (William James loved the diversity,  as we would call it today,  of the Boston subways;  his brother Henry on the Common above was distressed not just by the Italian he heard evrywhere,  but the bad Italian.

Thus it was,  though his view  “infuriated many of his close friends in the Boston Medical community”  —  Boston liberals led but they did not go unchallenged  —  that William James dared to testify on behalf of groups like Christian Scientists against efforts to license only physicians to practive any sort of medical treatment. Although he admitted he could not  “understand a word of their jargon,”  Christian Scientists had rights too,  James thought,  and  might also have something to offer! “Rather than surpressing mental healing . . . he encouraged his colleagues to study such practices and learn what they could from them.”  To James Jackson Putnam James wrote:

I well know how all my colleagues at the medical school view me and my efforts.  But if Zola . . .  can face the whole French Army,  can’t I face their disapproval?   It is anti-semitism again.  It is the justification of Armenian massacres,  which we have heard of lately,  on the grounds that Armenians are so ‘disagreeable.’  The one use of our institutons is to force on us toleration of much that is disagreeable.

 James Jackson Putnam also opposed the medical licensing law.  There was good reason why Sigmund Freud felt so at home in the Boston city state and earned his first “official recognition” as he called it  there,  where to be a Boston Brahmin leader  at the height of that castes  ascendancy meant to be something between a liberal and a radical.


Vienna’s decline,  Boston’s rise,  evidence in the 1900s of the increasing separation between global Boston,  which by Eliot’s departure as Harvard’s president in 1909 stood triumphant  —  so much so Eliot could lecture the German kasier’s brother at a state dinner in Boston about republicanism  —  and local Boston,  which in 1914 elected James Michael Curley mayor of the core (rump?)  city.  More importantly,  perhaps,  the triumph,  like all such,  —  one thinks of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee on the eve of the Boer War  —  soon disclosed  even on global Boston’s heights another changing of the guard. 

How prescient William James had been in bringing up the Dreyfus trial.  Boston’s own,  and no less controversial around the western world, would be sparked by the Sacco-Vanzetti trial,  companion piece as well to London’s Oscar Wilde trial.  Modernist  reverberations were  everywhere.  In Boston the Sacco-Vanzetti affair exposed ruthlessly the loss of nerve and equally of moral integrity of the Yankee Boston Brahmin  caste and thus the decline and fall of the liberal leadership class global Boston had depended upon for leadership for well over a century,  to the point where,  as Senator John Kerry would learn in the 21st century,    the very concept of the  “Boston Brahmin”,  builder once of a great civilization,  and one that still endures,  is now rendered ridiculous. its only reflection stage Brahmins who are,  so to speak,  strangers in a strange land.  

 Yet consider what George Prochnik  thought the 88 letter between Freud and Putnam between 1909 and 1916 revealed:  a  “gap in status and opportunity and thus of understanding”  less between Freud and Putnam and more between Old World capital and New World capital.  Alan Lawson explains: figures like Putnam from  Boston’s Brahmin  “prominent families acted within an open democracy”,  wheras in Vienna  “Freud,”  Lawson writes,  “was a non-religious Jew living in an increasingly anti-Semitic,  decaying aristocratic society that he was moved to describe at least once as his ‘prison’.”  As a result,  “widely criticized for his unconventional views and with no outlet for civic activism,  Freud constructed his psychology as a closed,  fortified system devoted to personal and social change.”

Not so Putnam at the Mass. General!  His very Emersonian system was very open and community oriented.  Yes,  Bostons Yankee-American Brahmins were declining but Jewish-American Boston Brahmins were at hand topass the torch to.  Quite the reverse,  of course,  happened in Vienna,  from which eventually Freud fled for his life. 

Meanwhile,  Putnam-Freud was a kind of herald of the Yankee-Jewish Boston Brahmin alliance and hand off global Boston would continue to be empowered by;  “a combination of American attitudes and Freudian guidance” out of which grew,  Larson concludes,  another  “Boston School of psychotherapy.”  It was,  furthermore,  “an activist,  communally focused movement;”  Putnam,  ever the Emersonian,  “sought to make his patients realize the creative value of serving others . . . .At the MGH he combined forces with the physician Richard Cabot,”  Lawson recounts,  “to create the first corps of psychiatric social workers,  who brought much needed help to the growing population of immigrants and other disadvantaged people.”  Full circle.

Hale saw this too,  and pointedly cited  political as well as social arenas of discourse:  “Boston’s physicians,”  he wrote, “notably Putnam and Prince,  hewed to a Democratic tradition in politics and were active social reformers”, Hale wrote,  continuing,

Despite the caricature of Boston as the ark of prudery  —  and partly because the caricature was sometimes true  —  these physicians were interested in sexual problems. . . . [M]edical leadership in Boston and Harvard deliberately sought to remain open to talent from every social group at a time when snobbery and exclusion were growing among the American upper classes.  Openness was important because psychotherapy was developed by the co-operative efforts of American aristocratic professionals,  European immigrants,  Jews,  and upwardly mobile physicians from middle class families.

Finally,  Putnam was nothing if not the complete Emersonian,  and it is pertinent to quote therefore froma penetrating text about Boston’s iconic thinker by Perry Miller,

To the end of his days  [Emerson]  remained the child of Boston . . . . Nothing would be easier than to collect from Emerson’s journals enough passages about the Democratic party to form a manual of Boston snobbery . . . . Ibelieve students of Emerson get nowhere unless they realize how . . . . he might comfortably have regarded the Democratic party as a rabble of Irish and other unwashed immigrants,  and could have refused,  as for long he did refuse,  to find any virtue in democracy . . . . /  But he could not thus protect himself;  other ideas forced themselves upon him . . . . He lacked the imperviousness that armored State Street and Beacon Street;  intellectually he was too thin-skinned.  To the friends about him,  and I daresay to himself,  the reason was obvous: he was a genius . . . . /  [A]  serious man who could finally run down the devil of politics and declare that his name is levity,  who understood . . . in what the difficult ordeal consists,  that magnificant but agonizing experience of what it is to be,  or try to be,  an American.

That Emersonian vision was nothing to Sigmund Freud;  everything to James Jackson Putnam.  As Edith Kurzwell observes,  not only did  “Putnam’s convictions originate in his Unitarian upbringing,”  but  “the subject of his Unitarian and transcendentalist roots was at the base of Putnam’s psychotherapeutic program.”  And not only Putnam.  When Freud wrote to his American colleague in respect to launching the American Psychoanalytic Association,  “only you and only Boston could be the starting point,”  he was talking as much about a place and an aidea as much as about a person.  As Hale points out,  “a lingering Unitarian and Transcendentalist tradition fostered among Boston physicians a sympathy for hypnotism,  suggestion and psychic research,  al major sources of the new pyschotherapy in the critical decade of the 1890s.”

Condsider historian John Gatta’s discourse,  to touch base again with the Eliotic roots of this series,

In the first quarter of the twentieth century,  a critic revied a major literary work,  penned by an author born to New England Unitarianism,  that abounds in irony and cosmopolitan skepticism.  Self-conscioulsy adressing the problem of modernity,  the work under review highlights images of discontinuity and cultural fragmentation.  Clearly,  the reviewer finds much to dislike  —  as well as somt things to admire  —   about this expression of malaise,  alienation,  and  ‘dissolvent’ disbelief coming from  ‘a skeptical patrician.’  Was such a critical response provoked by TS Eliots  “The Waste Land”?  One might suspect as much.  In fact,  the review in question was written by Eliot,  not about Eliot,  and its object is  “The Education of Henry Adams.”  Eliot here admits his kinship with Adams,  another melancholic patrician once inoculated with the ‘Boston doubt’,  attack[ing] that Prufrock-like shadow of himself.

Melancholia is surely the last piece to fall into place here  —  so it is with all lost causes,  Eliot would have said  —  as well what Harry Carigan has written of Proust’s Remembrance of Lost Time,  which has been claimed too of “The Love Song of  J. Alfred Prufrock”: in both cases that  “melancholy and lyrical work ferries the modern self to places where it must wrestle with its identity.”

Behold the  “Boston religion” as Modernism’s ferry.  Its ferrymaster,  I will suggest next time,  was Frank Lloyd Wright.

COMMENTS | backbayhistorical@gmail.com


[Albrecht, Adalbert] US Census, 1910, 1920;  Boston Street Directories, 1907-1909

Belote,  Thom.  “Thomas Jefferson”  DICT> OF UNITARIAN AND UNIVERSALIST BIOGRAPHY (www25.uua.org/uuhs/doub/)

Bush,  Ronald.  “TS Eliot”,  AMERICAN NATIONAL BIOGRAPHY John Garraty ed,  Mark Caras  (Oxford)  1999

Carrigan Jr., Henry  “Readings” (www.bibliobuffet.com)

Cavell, Stanley EMERSON’S TRANSCENDENTAL ETUDES (Stanford) 2003

Coleman, Daniel.  “William James” NEW YORK TIMES (Oct 1, 1985)

[Debussy]  Earle, E. Stabley  SYMPHONY HALL

Freud, Sigmund. Interview given Adalbert Albrecht BOSTON EVENING TRANSCRIPT September 11, 1909

[Gardner, Isabella Stewart]  Hadley, Rollin Van N.  THE LETTERS OF BERNARD BERENSON AND ISABELLA STEWART GARDNER  (Northeastern) 1987

Gatta, John.  AMERICAB MADONNA  (Oxford)  1987

Gooding,-Williams,  Robert.”Nietzsche’s {ursuit of Modernism” NEW GERMAN CRITIQUE (Spring-Summer 1987)

Goodman,  Russell.  “Ralph Waldo Emerson” STANFORD ENCYLOPEDIA OF PHILOSOPHY Edward Zalta, ed. (http://plato.stanford.edu/Archives/fall2001/entries/Emerson/s)

Hale, Nathan. FREUD AND THE AMERICANS (Oxford) 1971




James, William.  THE PRINCIPLESOF PSYCHOLOGY  (Cosimo ed) 2007

Jones, Ernest. THE LIFE AND WORK OF SIGMUND FREUD (Basic Books ed) 1981

Kadzis, Peter. “Freedman’s Foot Soldier” BISTON PHOENIX (March 11, 2001)

Kaplan, Eric.  MIND GAMES (California) 1998

Karabel,  Jerome.  THE CHOSEN (Houghton,Mifflin) 2005

Koelsch, William A. Evans, Rand B.  “Psychoanalysis Arrives in America”,  AMERICAN PSYCHOLOGIST (August 1985)

Kublick, Bruce.  A HISTORY OF AMERICAN PHILOSOPHY (Oxford) 2003

Lawson, Alan  “Freudian Slips” (lecture transcript, Boston College) 2005

Maddox,  Brenda  FREUD’S WIZARD  (DaCapo) 2006


Miller, Arhur.  EINSTEIN, PICASSO  (Basic Books) 2002

Miller,  Perry.  “Emersonian genuis and the American Democracy”, NEW ENGLAND QUARTERLY (Marxh 1953)

Miller, Perry.   THE TRANSCENDENTALISTS (MJF Books) 1950

Prochnik, George. PUTNAM CAMP (Other) 2006

Richardson, Robert D.  WILLIAM JAMES (Mariner) 2007

[Rogers, William Barton] Angulo, A. J.  WILLIAM BARTON ROGERS AND THE IDEA OF MIT  (Johns Hopkins) 2009.  This work,  which has not been consulted, is based on Angulo’s “William Barton Rogers and the Southern Sieve”,  HISTORY OF EDUCATION QUARTERLY (Spring 2005);  Smallwood,  W. M.  “The Agassiz – Rogers Debate on Evolution”.  THE QUARTERLY REVIEW OF BIOLOGY (March 1941);  see also Wylie, Francis and Stratton, Juluis.

Roser, David.  “Anti-Modernism” (www.erea.revessory)

Ryan, Dennis BEYOND THE BALLOT BOX (Massachusetts) 1983


Solomon, Barbara. ANCESTORS AND IMMIGRANTS  (Northeastern) 1989

Storm, Sam. “Modern Theological Liberalism” (www.enjoyinggodministries.com)

Stack, George J.  NIETZSCHE AND EMERSON (Ohio) 1993

Stratton, Julius, Mannix, Loretta  MIND AND HAND (MIT Press) 2003


[Taylor, Robert Robinson] Williams,  Clarence G.  “From Tech to Tuskegee” (1995) (libraries.mit.edu/archives/mithistory/blacks-at-mit/taylor:html)

Wylie, Francis.  MIT IN PERSPECTIVE  (Little, Brown) 1975

Van Baalens, Kavel. THE CHAOS OF CULTS (Kessinger) 2004


I am indebted to Professor Mark Jarzombek and Mr. Peter Kadzis for much helpful discourse in thinking through this piece, and to Mr.  Henry Scannell,  Curator of Microtext at the Boston Public Library, for his usual excellent assistance.

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