DS-T is a Boston-based, Harvard-educated historian, an independent scholar specializing in American art and architecture and Boston/New England studies. He now regularly teaches a course at the Boston Architectural College on Newbury Street: “Back Bay Boston and Historic Preservation | a Global Perspective on Metropolis.” * * * * Best known for his books, his earliest, published by the University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, is “Built in Boston, City and Suburb,” now in its third edition and the basis for a course Shand-Tucci taught at MIT. Another, Gary Wills has written in The New York Review of Books, documents that “the church has been a magnet for gays, as one sees in Douglass Shand-Tucci’s ‘Boston Bohemia’.” His two-volume biography of Ralph Adams Cram, the first such study, was called “magisterial” by Peter Cormack of London’s William Morris Gallery in the journal Stained Glass. * * * * “The Art of Scandal,” Shand-Tucci’s biography of Isabella Stewart Gardner for Harper/Collins (“intimate, engrossing biography” — The New Yorker; “dares to paint in words the woman John Singer Sargent painted on canvass” — The New Republic) earned a front page New York Times Book Review article and is still so controversial the Gardner Museum does not sell it. Shand-Tucci has also been Senior Affiliate in the History of Architecture in Eliot House, Harvard University, where his guide to Harvard in the Princeton Architectural Press series, with a preface by the then Harvard president, was praised by Neil Rudenstine as “stimulating and refreshing.” * * * * The London Review of Books also noted Shand-Tucci’s influence on Eliot studies in its review of James Miller’s path-breaking “TS Eliot: American Poet”, which followed up on Shand-Tucci’s “The Crimson Letter,” itself the subject of a lead editorial article by Sir William Rees-Mogg in The Times (of London). He has lectured throughout the US, including at Princeton University, University of Richmond and Rice University in Houston.
If “the Boston religion,” as Unitarianism was first called in the 1810s, had become by the turn of the 20th-century the first American Modernism, as I proposed in post 22 here, and Boston’s 19th-century Yankee Brahmin leadership the cutting edge of liberal thought in the United States — centered in the 1865-1915 era in the great New World agora of Copley Square where then stood MIT, Harvard Medical School, Trinity Church, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the Boston Public Library, what is today the Museum of Science and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences — if the Boston religion is thus truly characterized, then we have all been sorely misled.
To be sure, the word Modernism (capital M) has been used explicitly in this connection only by intellectual historians whose impact on art or literary scholars, never mind mainstream historians generally, has always been marginal. Still, misled we have been.
I bring the matter up because one of the most intriguing aspects of publishing on-line, in effect self-publishing, is that colleagues and students respond so quickly, in medias res, so to speak, and in a matter of days or weeks can suggest more adroit tactics to order or clarify one’s thesis, even to urge a more effective strategy in offering it for consideration. For a veteran, as I am, of over 25 years of publishing through academic presses and New York trade publishers, it is a heady experience to be able to accomplish so much so quickly on one’s own, emphasizing research and writing and foregoing more dubious things such as book proposals and talk shows. (Of course, royalties were nice, but that is another subject!)
Ever since Tim Bent of Oxford University Press, a brilliant editor to whom I owe two brilliant titles — The Crimson Letter and Gods of Copley Square, turned down Gods, a book he had commissioned and given me an advance for (which I returned) as too large and risky in the present publishing environment (never mind that Tim is a tad New York-centric in his attitude to the intellectual capital, where he did his own graduate work), I have canibalized the manuscript repeatedly on this website, updating and re-working it and opening up, frankly, so many new avenues, I wonder now if it might not have been a sort of favor that Tim turned it down as a print book, setting it free on the internet, so to speak, the very existence of which I knew nothing of when I first started the book some years ago.
True, in the same way I prefer ‘end-notes’ developed through a biblography to mid-text flags for foot-notes — mid-text links now — hopelessly distracting to my mind to anyone trying to follow an author’s analysis — so also I don’t allow on-line comments at essay’s end. My website is a platform for my work, not others work, for which I cannot vouch and must decline to judge; nor, indeed, presume to edit, without raising all sorts of issues . However, the comments that come in through email@example.com I find invariably worthwhile.
To judge by the most recent of these, my thesis in post #22 — “The ‘Boston religion’ | The first American Modernism” — has been well received in circles I respect, but with enough reserve to suggest it would be timely now for me to linger for a few more posts than at first planned at this point in order to “flesh out” my liberal Brahmin thesis, so at odds is it with what we have been misled to think in recent years.
This legacy, which I seek to discredit here, has really its amusing side. For a long time now, so widely is it assumed that Boston Brahmins have invariably been characteristically conservative (as, of course, many have been; there are always in any group more George Apley’s than Charles Eliot’s), biographers have adopted a strategy often when dealing with what they always conclude is the surprising number of liberal Brahmins that the language can only sustain for so long! So widely is it thought that Brahmins are Republican, the biography of Josiah Quincy is called Brahmin Democrat; so backward-looking is the caste’s repute Phillips Brooks’s biography was called Brahmin Prophet; so conventional the classes image George Bancrofts life was entitled Brahmin Rebel; so conservative the groups beliefs Wendell Phillips’s life story was called Brahmin Radical; and so — finally — ridiculous that an article about Henry Lee Higginson was titled Non-Brahmin! Villains all, of course, except for these exceptions. Nonsense. Yankee-Boston Brahmin leadership, and the characteristic tone and historical legacy of the caste, has been overwhelmingly liberal.
VILLAINS AND HEROES
Consider the way early 20th-century Harvard president Abbott Lawrence Lowell has become a sort of stock figure in the melodrama America’s urban history has been reduced to; deservedly, some will say; but I say that’s beside the point.
Certainly I have many times in these posts asserted that while TS Eliot’s satirical Boston poems are the most penetrating art and markers of the decline — not of Boston itself, as so many think, but of its Yankee Brahmin ruling class — the actual fall of the Brahmins, the withdrawal, as the Chinese would once have said, of the Mandate of Heaven, reaches its climax in the crusade President Lowell led against immigrants (Irish and Italian) and blacks and gays and, above all, on the eve of the Holocaust, against the Jews; a crusade that culminated in Lowell’s complete abdication of the moral high ground and the Brahmins’ complete loss of nerve in the Sacco-Vanzetti case. What little there is to say for Lawrence Lowell, who was an educational progressive, effective on issues of socio-economic division, he will never be a hero of today’s culture, nor any most of us would wish now to be identified with.
The pertinent question, however, is not whether Lowell deserves better of history. He may very well not. Ever. But we do. To “dumb-down” the history of any of the great 19th-century American city-states like Boston by seeing them entirely or even primarily through a narrative dominated by ethnic strife that is altogether controlling, economics and religion and all aspects of class and culture trumped by ethnic and racial politics, is to hugely distort the historical record in a very partisan way.
Even the briefest reading, for example, of Harvard historian Stephen Thernstram’s now classic The Other Bostonians, (“the best piece of quantitative history yet published,” The New York Times called it in 1973) would disabuse anyone of such a view. Of religion he writes: “religious affiliation thus might have been a more significant influence upon occupational adjustment than nationality.” Of class, the importance of the “distinctive value system[s]” of different groups is noted, Thernstram remarking that “unlike Boston’s other major immigrant groups, the Irish and Italians were largely of peasant origin,” and that “particular attitudes toward education,” for instance, varied widely; surely a reason, insofar as “economic advancement” was concerned “the Jewish record was especially remarkable.” On an even higher plane, history-writing from a Marxist perspective or from an Emersonian perspective, is equally worth reading in this area, where the assertions of Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, still debated, remain highly pertinent.
Without doubt the most recognizable characteristic of the ethnic and racial warfare narrative is that always the villians are to be found on one side; the heroes on the other. It is history as sport or video game, as comic book or polemnical pamphlet.
In the case of Lowell, he being an arch-conservative Yankee-Boston Brahmin (even to the point of being a leader of the infamous Immigration Restriction League of the time) he is thus set up to be not only representative of the conservative wing of the Brahmin class, even of its majority — fair enough: recall there are always more George Apley’s — but as characteristic, even as the patron saint, so to speak, of Boston Brahmins as a whole, a ruling class that by Lowell’s day had been in power well over a century.
To be sure, such casting insures that the strife will be fierce, and involve not only heroes and villains but victims to give pathos and beneficiaries and bystanders for witness. But as the technique is more entertainment than art, more propaganda than history, so is the purpose more play-writing than history-writing.
Why even some academic historians sometimes fall into this trap is hard to say. Assuming good faith as one must, I suspect that most immediately it is a case of identity history being always the child of identity politics. But in the long run this propensity is evidence I think of something even worse.
Anyone who has ever studied this period, for example, knows that before Boston Brahmin Abbott Lawrence Lowell there was Boston Brahmin Charles W. Eliot! Founder of modern Harvard, America’s Headmaster, the national and even international liberal oracle and visionary, Eliot was all kinds of astonishing things Lowell never was. No one would disagree. Not his bitterest adversary. Yet why do Eliot’s huge achievements register on all of us so much less than Lowell’s very few achievements?
My own explanation for this turns on historian Leopold von Ranke’s judgement, which compells my assent, that “all ages stand in imediate relationship to God.” But while that is true, it does not invaliate the rejoinder of Alan Levenson that “apparantly those ages which stand in imediate relationship to the Devil sell better.” There is too much of the business person in all of us. Levenson reaches this conclusion in the face of the “unending fascination with the Nazi dictatorship, and [the] relative lack of interest in the era [historian Peter] Gay hopefully describes as ‘already a legend’ in his seminal study, Weimar Culture. ” Well, we can all hope. But there is surely what I call a Weimar pattern in our overall propensity for the narrative of ethnic conflict I am protesting.
Consider, for example, Boston’s bitter 1970s inner-city anti-busing wars to achieve racial balance in the public schools. Remember the Annexionist Movement we discussed throughout the first ten or so posts of Gods of Copley Square? In that discussion I suggested its failure to include politically Brookline and Cambridge and Newton (after the failure of Dorchester’s and Roxbury’s annexation) was unimportant in the face of the economic, cultural and social inclusion of all the suburbs. Well, it would seem, no amount of Charles Eliot’s parks quite made up for the political failure afterall.
The result? For a whole generation this anti-busing war made Boston a national whipping post, deservedly, yet all but obliterating its earlier repute as a capital of the Northern racial paradise, a repute also deserved relatively, though both reputations were over-stated, but reflecting in each case quite accurately contemporary history. However, the first repute derived from Boston’s leadership in the movement to abolish slavery. Is there any doubt which historical reality trumps the other?
“NEW ENGLANDERS MERELY”
This narrative of racial and ethnic warfare, however distorting it can be — such is one lesson of readers comments on this site — is an important “arena of discourse” in which all issues must now probably be raised, though never, I will still insist, be finally judged, including my own thesis here. However, rather than raise up my own villains or heroes, I should lke to introduce a new role, the scholar-villian who is also the scholar-hero: Van Wyck Brooks, that most brilliant of New England literary historians, who in New England: Indian Summer, has left us the grandfather, so to speak, of the misleading scholarship I am complaining about.
Brooks saw the world of Yankee Boston very clearly, Brahmin and not. Indeed, he first saw intuitively what Harvard historian Oscar Handlin would document later in Boston’s Immigrants. There Handlin showed how unhappy Boston’s middle and working class Yankees were with Yankee-Boston Brahmin leadership, to the point,, nearly always missed, that it was not only a Roman Catholic convent school bigoted Yankees infamously burned down in Charlestown, but a convent school run by Catholic nuns for Yankee-Boston Brahmins, the schools principal patrons to the great distress of the Yankee lower orders, as ferevnt Evangelicals as Brahmins were Unitarians. Of all this more in future posts. Sufficient now to add that Brandeis historian Jonathan Sarna and Jewish Historical Society curator Ellen Smith, in their splendid volume, The Jews of Boston, have documented an equal affinity in the 1880s and ’90s between the leaders of Boston’s Jewish community and the Yankee-Boston Brahmin leadership of Harvard University.
Consider closely what Brooks is pointing to when he writes about the Yankee reception of the huge waves of immigration then entering the country:
William James looked forward calmly, . . . The Emersonian [President] Eliot believed in the future. . . .[T]he older and the bolder were the less inclined to think the world was going to the dogs. They were tough enough . . . like all true aristocrats, they believed in their country . . . . Those who’d fought and bled in freedom’s cause, like Justice Holmes and Colonel Higginson, were prepared to take long views . . . . So was Edward Everett Hale, ‘the grand old man of Boston,’ and Julia Ward Howe, the romantic old sibyl. . . . They ignored the signs of the times and lived above them, as Emerson had lived all his life. . . . It was easier for William James . . . and President Eliot to take long views of the future. They were sufficiently realistic, but they were not New Englanders merely.
That last sentence is key. When Notre Dame historian James Turner writes of “the closest thing to an American aristocracy, the Brahmin class of Boston,” which is the larger stage on which the Boston Brahmin must always be judged first, before we descend to party politics and local real estate deals and such, Turner means Eliot and all that company Brooks named. So did Brooks when he goes on in the same place to write: “Eliot embraced the nation;” Emerson, William James, Justice Holmes, Colonel Higginson, Edward Everett Hale, Julia Ward Howe, Brahmins all; “their ships,” Brooks recounts, “were heavily ballasted and sailed on broad bottoms.”
The literary historian even saw how welcoming such Brahmins were to gifted or skilled immigrants as we would call them today. If all native Bostonians “resented the Irish,” he wrote, for many Brahmins “the case had already its compensations . . . . [Boston editor and poet] John Boyle O’Reilly was one.”
But what of “the New Englanders merely”? They were Yankees, but not Brahmins, a key distiction little understood today when we use the word Brahmin too loosely, largely because we do not read closely enough the terms of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr in defining the castes membership as absolutely a heriditary/aristocratic caste whose members, if not always academics, were never merely businessmen, but invariably learned, a scholarly elite committed to much higher goals than money-making.
One historian in whose work one glimpses these naunces too often passed over today is Florida Atlantic University professor Mona Domosh, whose Invented Cities all Bostonians and New Yorkers ought to read. Her analysis, based on documentation far beyond what Walter Whitehill or Bainbridge Bunting saw, is key to understanding both citys, and her explanantion, for example, of why the Back Bay is not more like the Liverpool docks as fascinating as why Boston and New York are so different.
Domish notes that as early as in the 1820s, Boston merchants”recognized the failure of their city to compete with the port of New York” and there was in consequence a “documented plan for Back Bay that . . . envisioned a commercial focus . . . .This plan of 1850 suggested the use of the Back Bay area as an extended wet dock, such as those that existed in London and Liverpool.” A now long forgotten “schism between Boston’s established elite [Brahmins], whose economic interests at this point focused on industrial endeavors and merchants [Yankees, but not Brahmins] whose interests were exclusively commercial” is thereby exposed.
“This new industrialist class and members of the old mercantile community who had joined the world of industry saw their city primarily as a financial center, and a place for leisure and culture.” , “their industrial activities were kept outside the city borders. . . . They envisioned the Back Bay as a residential and cultural retreat.” For themselves, of course.
“To develop the area privately would have conflicted with [the Brahmins] ideological concern to create a benevolent society and to see themselves as public servants,” Domish writes, concluding: “the possible plans for the Back Bay developed within the context of competition between two economic groups with different visions of Boston’s growth, yet one vision was dominant. The city’s established elite led by the Yankee[-Brahmin] Associates [who had devloped Lowell] were able to control the design [of the Back Bay].”
Brooks’s “New Englanders merely” are Domish’s “exclusively commercial” Yankee merchants and Handlin’s “Yankees but not Brahmins.” Brooks expanded on the theme. These were Yankees “who lived close to the ground” — wonderful phrase — and for them, Brooks wrote, “the signs of the times were anthing but roseate and auspicious.” Unlike the Yankee-Boston Brahmin elite’s “heavily ballasted” and “broad bottom[ed] ships,” the “New Englanders merely,” “the true-blue Yankees who were only imperfectly also American [as in “embraced the nation” like Eliot], sailed in skiffs and found the water shallow.”
How much so Brooks gets to within a paragraph, and in it the warmth and sympathy with which he writes about the non-Brahmin Yankees is suddenly very telling:
[For them] the Boston mind appeared to have lost its force. It was yielding, inch by inch, to the Catholic Irish. . . . There was little to withstand the Catholic power, except the dubious faith of Christian Science, and within a few years the most prominent objects in Boston [on its skyline] were the Catholic Cathedral [of the Holy Cross], the dome of the [Temple Israel] Synagogue and the dome of Mrs. Eddy’s Mother Church. . . . All this had happened in Athens as it happened in Boston. . . [which Brooks described finally, despairingly, as] Boston, sorting its papers, like a man who is dying.”
Why does Brooks eschew the aristocratic Brahmins, they of the “broad-bottom[ed] ships” — an almost Homeric phrase — in favor of the “New Englanders merely” in their “skiffs in shallow water,” those who would have built commercial docks in the Back Bay and not one of the cultural centers of the world? It is not as if he didn’t know better. But he seems to have grown dependent by the time he wrote, during the Great Depression in the 1930s, on the romance of it all, of the “lost cause”, always so beguiling, and couldn’t help himself from falling into errors, indeed, that would embarrrass a freshman.
He complained, for instance, that Puritanism seemed to him to fall “like houses of glass at the impact of Freud . . . . Meanwhile, Boston was hostile to the world-ideas [like Freudianism], the ideas of a coming age that conjested New York.” But it was the impact of Unitarianism a hundred years earlier that had blown away Puritanism, and not in New York! And as we saw last week, it was Boston, not New York, a hundred years later in the 1900s, that Freud himself pronounced the spearhead of Freudianism in America. Had Brooks missed Dr Putnam? He certainly hadn’t missed William James. He’d even been moved to praise Louis Sullivan as “one of the first fine shoots of the Boston Irish.”
Brooks knew which club he belonged in, and like Isabella Stewart Gardner’s husband, it was the Somerset, not the Union.
No one would deny a decent respect to the departing Yankee Brahmins. But I sometimes think Brooks did more harm even than Lawrence Lowell, for his elegy was as beautiful as Lowell’s politics were vicious. But Brooks mourned too much, too much.
“ISABELLA STEWART GARDNER’S CO-FOUNDER”
No wonder University of Massachusetts historian Thomas Brown’s challenge — “Boston needs a new history” — has become this website’s motto. But that new history has been a long time coming.
I remember the skill with which my old mentor, Walter Muir Whitehill, himself progressive enough that his best book should have been titled at his insistence Boston in the Age of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, smuggled into his centennial history of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, without causing alarm (this was in the 1960s), the liklihood of his having identified the first Jew to be appointed to the board of trustees of that Yankee-Boston Brahmin bastion at the time. Although “Abraham” did become “A” and the word Jew was never mentioned, it was duly noted that when William Endicott, one of the founding trustees of the museum, retired after three decades from its board, his replacement in 1907 was explained by the circumstance that Abraham Shuman was “the proprietor of a men’s clothing store at the corner of Washington and Summer streets, next door to CF Hovey’s dry goods store, of which William Endicott had long been a director.” Even then there were enough other sources that identified Shulman as a Jew.
It remains, does it not, that circumstance, a beautiful example of the way friendship always vanquishes bigotry, and a more beautiful example of the passing of the torch from Unitarian Yankee-Boston Brahmins to Reform Jewish Boston Brahmins could hardly be found. How typical of Walter to have been the one to find same, and also to have been the one to act on it.
Three decades later, however, I also recall the effect in the 1990s when Harper Collins published my biography of Isabella Stewart Gardner, The Art of Scandal. (We almost called it the Scandal of Art, and I’m still not sure which Isabella Gardner would have preferred). By then America, at least most of it, had quite outgrown the euphemism, finally understanding that the use of such in matters of race and sexuality particularly ceded too much to bigots by seeming to agree there was something wrong with whatever was being “sugar-coated.” But because I did not recoil (as all Gardner’s previous biographers had) from calling Gardner’s ally in creating the Gardner Museum a Jew, there was, as Peter Gomes liked to say, much murmuring. And when it was discovered I hadn’t shied away either from the fact that others Gardner befriended and sponsored were gay, Asian or keen on African-American spirituals, or that the museum’s architect of record was not its designer, the murmuring grew louder.
I cherish to this day the view The New Yorker took of my book, that it “finally gives the creator of one of the world’s greatest museums credit for her achievements . . . . few know, for example, that she herself was the architectural designer of the mseum,” never mind the effect of “her friendship to other outsiders from African-Americans to women artists.”
Not troubled, as Van Wyck Brooks was, by “the dome of the Synagogue” on the Boston skyline, the intellectual concensus of a half century later than Brooks wrote allowed me to risk people’s ire and even to urge shameless anti-Semites and homophobes, by no means unkown at the Gardner in the reign of Rolin van N. Hadley, that Bernard Berenson was actually the co-founder of the Gardner art collection at its heart, Isabella Gardner’s great ensemble of Italian art. A Jew? Co-founder of the Gardner collection? Some murmur still.
Yet what did Berenson’s own biographer, Ernest Samuels, write? That in allying himself with Gardner, Berenson, the greatest Italian Renaissance scholar of his era, would not just “at last assure himself the means to study and write without nagging anxieties about money,” but that “at the same time it would help make [Boston] the city to which he was so deeply attatched a world center of art.” “A world center of Italian art,” Samuels adds later, noting that this project — because not only was Berenson a Jew but his friend Edward Warren was openly homosexual — would be accomplished by an alliance in which “Warren was a dedicated collaborator,” he of all those striking Greek statues athletes at the Museum of Fine Arts.
No wonder Mr. Gardner was always as wary of his wife’s friends as he was proud of her collection. Even the most conservative Boston Brahmins, more comfortable on State Street than on Brattle Street, never mind Concord, did the bidding of liberal Brahmin leadership.
Today? It is, of course, much better. But even now some institutions are more interested than others in the intersections between social and art history, for example, never mind how many times the influence of each on the other is documented. Others — the MFA to this day cannot confirm who was their first Jewish trustee — find the intersections between social and, say, musical or scholarly history more worth probing. Certainly both the Harvard History Department and the Boston Symphony Orchestra fall into that latter camp, and thus will be our case studies in this arena of discourse you, dear reader, have insisted I take more account of in urging my liberal Brahmin thesis.
You know who you are! You know too that when I announced last time here that my discussion of the Boston School of Psychotherapy, the spearhead of the American Freudianism Brooks missed, and a good example of Boston Unitarianisms ‘ home game’ , would lead this time to a discussion of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work as a good example of its ‘away game’, I meant it. But that will have to wait now we’ve entered this arena of ethnic conflict. Instead,
“HERETICS AND INFIDELS”
What I want to know is how a notorious perpetrator of hate-speech as recently as 1958 got the idea of characterizing the Boston Symphony’s first conductor in 1881 as “a most unseemly gentleman who . . . even the furthest reaches of the second balcony could only conclude . . . was an unashamed, full-blooded Jew,” the whole scene a matter of “a stuffy hall full of heretics — that’s Unitarian Yankee-Brahmin Boston — “being serenaded by a pit-full of infidels” — that’s the Jews of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Why dwell on this absurd scene of the first BSO concert of 1881 as recounted out of some ghastly oral tradition 77 years later? Ask yourself what we might have to learn from this hate-speech.
First, the speaker obviously was no more a Yankee-Brahmin than a Jew. In fact it was a Roman Catholic priest, Leonard Feeney, from another of Boston’s leading immigrant communitys, which shows yet again what we saw in the matter of the Charlestown convent, that predjudice is more complicated than most of us like to admit and certainly knows no boundaries. Second, if indeed the BSO conductor back in the 1880s was welcomed as a Jew, times had apparantly changed from the 1880s to the 1950s and not for the better, evidence that the prorgressive theory of history is a very flawed theory. As a matter of fact in learning that we learn that anti-Semitism, not very prevelent, and, indeed, unfashionable in 1880s Boston, was by the 1920s and 30s and 40s virulent.
Third, and this is key to my thesis: in recognizing so clearly, indeed, viciously, the Yankee-Boston Brahmin/Jewish alliance of the 1880s which the founding of the Boston Symphony was a marker of. Feeney’s hate speech has had a second good effect. The first, worth recalling as adding anotherdimension of complexity to a subject we all are too prone to simplify, is that hearing Feeney according to JFK speechwriter Ted Sorenson so startled another member of Feeney’s immigrant community that young Robert Kennedy, then a Harvard undergraduate, was propelled into his lifelong habit of protest. He stood up and challenged Feeney and ended up setting Boston’s Roman Catholic Cardinal Archbishop, Richard Cushing, on him. Cushing closed down Feeney’s center in Harvard Square and Pope Pius XII ultimately excomunicated the priest. In his recent memoirs, Senator Edward Kennedy confirmed Sorenson’s account; indeed, enlarged upon it significently.
I am indebted to Professor Shaun O’Connell, Boston’s leading literary historian in my book, for pointing out the importance of Cardinal Cushing’s role in all this, recounted so well by James Carroll:
Cushing forced one of the great changes in Catholic theology by excommunicating Father Feeney for preaching . . . ‘no salvation outside the Catholic Church.’ . . . . What made Cushing’s excommunicating astounding was that Feeney’s line had been official Church teaching for most of a thousand years . . . . Feeney confidently appealed to Rome, forcing the Vatican to take a position. . . . [T]he Vatican supported Cushing . . . . / . . . . Why was Cardinal Cushing the one to force this change? Cushing’s sister Dolly . . . was married to Dick Pearlstein . . . . There came to be no question for Cushing as to whether his sister’s beloved husband was beloved of God. . . . Dick Pearlstein was Jewish.
“There are religious reactionaries in the world who are suspicious of America precisely because of the religious and cultural elbow-rubbing that occurs,” noted Carroll, rejecting their claim that relativism is the inevitable result byhis appeal to Cardinal Cushing, who was hardly a relativist.
One thinks at once — at least I do, an Episcopalian — of another cardinal, Newman, who although Pope Benedict is just now trying to highjack him for the conservatives, was really was an Anglican fifth columnist after his entirely sincere conversion to the Roman obedience, and whose thinking was an important influence on the Second Vatican Council in drawing it towards what we (though not Newman) would call a more liberal direction. (See “Newman’s Unquiet Grave: The Relunctant Saint” by John Cornwell, a Roman Catholic and Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge.) What do I mean by liberal? Newman famously wrote the Duke of Norfolk as a cardinal: “I shall drink to the Pope, if you please, — still to conscience first and to the Pope afterwards.”
Cushing went on to play a key role in the Vatican II decree that absolved the Jews of the crime of deicide. Indeed, he not only could and did admire Jews. Perhaps because he was mindfull that their six or seven times grand gran parents had won that novel right to such “religious and cultural elbow-rubbing” in the American Revolution, Cushing was also willing to give Unitarian Boston Brahmin’s a fair trial! And I do not doubt if Henry Lee Higginson had still been around he and Cushing would have been close allies.
Was, finally, the first music director and conductor of the Boston Symphony a Jew? When I asked the symphony’s excellent senior archivist, Bridgit Carr, she at once demurred, surprised. So was I, when a few weeks earlier doing research on this paper the subject arose. Indeed even Sarna’s and Smith’s excellent volume on Boston’s Jews, though there is a list of Jewish figures who have played a leadership role in the history of the BSO, says nothing about George Henschel.
“I NEVER SAW A JEW BEFORE”
I wonder if Charles W. Eliot and William Barton Rogers, respectively the founders of modern Harvard and of MIT, might not also have said at one time or another what Henry Lee Higginson once said in a letter to his father when he had his first experience meeting a Jew. Certainly all three, the first and the third fine examples of the evolution over almost a 300 year period of the Yankee-Boston Brahmin from John Winthrop’s founding of “the city upon a hill”, the second an Irish-American-Boston Brahmin first by marriage and then by achievement, were notable for their open and welcoming attitude toward Jews in the mid to late 19th-century. The “hero” of this months post: Higginson, who in appointing George Henschel the first Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1881 appointed as well the first Jew to head a major American cultural institution ever.
How Henry Higginson got to that turning point in his now storied life is a remarkable story, only the heights of which most know, not its depths nor origins. By 1914, when his 80th birthday dinner filled the Copley Plaza ballroom in Copley Square, Higginson, his “eyes dimmed with tears,” Russell B. Adams has written, had become “a Boston institution.” That dinner was “a gathering of the clans, an assembly of all that Boston was and all that it had been, come to bear tribute to its most faithful paladin.” But sixty-two years earlier, in 1852, Higginson at age 17 gave his Boston Brahmin father very little to hope for in that department, protesting that the Higginson family “might be improved,” that “Boston is not the world, nor Bostonians always right,” and insisting: “I’m a New Yorker, thank Heaven! and I believe I have always had my eyes open to the fact that Boston was but a dot on this earth. I hope you won’t think me bitter . . . . I must be allowed my own opinions.”
He had not lived in New York since age four, not for fourteen years — his father, George Higginson, after repeated failures in Boston had sought a fresh start in New York with his Boston bride, where Henry was born, but had done no better there and had soon returned home — but young Henry was already beset by enough problems of his own to consider his own possible move. In the event he and his family chose Europe instead and by 1861, at age 26, New York was receding despite young Henry’s continuing problems, as bad as his fathers, in settling on his own life’s success. Wrote Henry to his brother: “New York is probably the best chance and even she does not appear very tempting. . . . Besides, I am loath to quit our Puritan city afterall . . . . Society is in some respects much pleasanter to me than formerly . . . . here I am known at least in my own right, and am trusted as a son of myfather . . . . I’ve seen enough of figuring among strangers not to cling to friends with all my strength.”
Why Boston is always so paranoid about New York, or New York so often so threatened by Boston is another subject. But in Higginson’s case it was only somewhat family that tilted the scales, it was much more young Henry’s preference even before the Civil War for “figuring” — doing business — the Boston way, not New York’s way — that made Higginson finally not just a Bostonian, but a “Boston institution.”
As to the “figuring” it was a view that grew stronger with Higginson as the years passed. Indeed, he lived to loudly lament “the coming of the Infidels . . . . robber barons, unchecked,” and to see that “Bostonians were no match for the Goulds and Morgans and Vanderbilts of the world ” in Adams’s words. And though there was a certain amount of seeing “the result, not of Boston’s shortcomings, but of its transcendent virtues,” in all this, Adams admitted, Higginson was proud of the fact that “the Boston Brahmin attitude toward wealth, no matter how creditably conducted, changed from approbation to scorn.” It had always been Henry Higginson’s opinion. He had never believed in what Adams called “Boston’s romance between mind and Mammon.” “The predatory rich! as T. R. [Roosevelt] says . . . .who are they,” querried Higginson” Sons of farmers, mechanics, day-laborers, etc., who fought hard for their first $100, and so believe that they can do what they like with their millions. They never had any good traditions, never had any high fine talk and should not be expected to act well.”
He is mostly talking here, in his plainspoken way, of the Yankee middle and working classes we touched on in our discussion of Van Wyck Brooks. The difference was that while he had no sympathy for those Brooks identified with, he had “high hopes that the heirs of these coarse nouveaux riches, exposed to . . . traditions more elevated than those of mechanics . . . might prove themselves.” Hence, Higginsons huge passion of fund raising for Harvard.
It was the decision for the ornamental cultural and residential Back Bay over a quarter of Liverpool docks all over again: in matters large and small Yankee-Boston Brahmin values were maturing and flowering. More like retrenching and retiring, even withering, New Yorkers would have said and doubtless did; yet a good deal of rather vigorous new money Higginson, for instance, would have come in contact with only distantly was attracted to this maturing vision of what would become the intellectual capital, the Back Bay and Copley Square its heart, and Olmsteds and then Eliots parks its arteries, the Back Bay itself a Suez Canal-level achievement to fill and develop. One thinks of the very new money indeed of the trio of businessmen, none Boston Brahmins in the old sense, who founded Boston University in the very year Charles Eliot became president of Harvard — millionaire Methodists, al of them.
Higginson was in the vanguard of this new view of things. Insisting mere “money-making, success in material pursuits; it is injuring our country,” in a long letter hitherto unpublished to John Moors, a younger friend, now in the Boston Symphony Archives, Higginson connected his concept of “figuring,” Bostonian and otherwise, with what always underlay his every move: “if he had any deep passion,” a conemporary wrote, “it was the passion for friendship;” friendship and the ideas and ideals it had nurtured in him. So many long years later, what he wanted to say to Moors, for example, in 1918, was how in his youth Boston had finally been brought round to a leadership position in what was always, after music, Higginson’s great cause, Abolitionism:
The feeling about cotton mills and, therefore, about cotton and the cotton planters, was very strong in Boston . . . . When Charles Summer, after having been beaten over the head in the Senate Chamber, drove down Beacon Street on his return from Washington, but one house was open to him, and that was William Prescott’s . . . . The talk began to change in 1856 or even earlier . . . . But I always had a strong “anti” feeling, not only with regard to that but to many other matters, and it was that feeling about our country, about our people, about the rights of Tom, Dick and Harry, and the dislike of money which influenced me very much. It was that in part which set up the [Boston Symphony Orchestra.]”
And all that was in aid of what sixty years later? And came from where? As surely as the Battle of Waterloo was won, the Duke of Wellington always said, on the playing fields of Eton, the experience of the snowball wars on Boston Common was formative of Boston’s Yankee Brahmin Civil War officer corps, and Higginson was ever a leader in both, wherein his Boston Latin School “chums” matured into his “serious” Harvard friends.
How serious? From his father Henry Higginson absorbed both an earnest Unitarianism — every week in King’s Chapel — and an ardent Emersonianism. All his life he professed in his no-nonsense way that he cared nothing for Trinity or not, just that as his Life and Letters quotes him, “the Unitarian Church is, I believe, more tolerant than the others, and therefore wins with me.” And did even as a boy. When not physically fighting, he recalled “we boys used to go down to Fanueil Hall to hear the meetings for and against slavery; in other words, verbal fighting. ” His feelings against slavery being “very strong,” he added: “somehow or other, from early days I had the feelings of a ‘reformer’ and these feelings grew with me,” he wrote Moors. But the important words in that sentence were “we boys.”
Higginson tipped his hand, albeit anonymously, when his donation to help rebuild for Emerson his house after it burned down was made “in memory of Charles Russell Lowell and Stephen Perkins,” his two dearest pals, both Civil War heroes. Indeed, in another letter in the same year, to C. A. Barron in 1918, Higginson wrote: “these men are all dead, and I am their heir, as it were, to their ideas” — Emerson’s ideas, of course, Boston’s iconic thinker, but not always on State Street, where, so his Life and Letters recounts, Higginson “kept over his desk a picture of the Concord seer.” Thus in his letter to Moors: “We all read Emerson in those days and alltogether had a lot of the views which are a matter of course now. Of course, my ideas were not original but came through my having several very clever friends, and then being also a disciple, as it were, of Mr. Emerson.”
Higginson was not in the usual sense of the word an intellectual, but when he wrote Moors that “my own mates were very thoughtful and clever men, and took the liberal view of life,” he was explaining not just his Bostonian youth. He was also explaining his days as a young man studying music in Vienna — yet another trip to try and find his footing in life, and another failure, in the sense that it turned out his musical gifts were few. But he did not leave his “genuis for friendship” behind: Vienna found him forming another cohort of friends whose ideas he learned to rely on, a cohort mostly of Jews.
BOSTON’S KING LUDWIG
“With what boldness . . . . no such orchestra as the envisioned Boston Symphony could be heard ‘in [any] of the larger European cities;'” never mind the American ones, Henry Lee Higginson founded his now legendary orchestra in 1881, musicologist Joseph Horowitz has written. Even then Higginson’s urgent benefaction compeled comparison to the pre-eminent royal patron of the era: “how long,” The Home Journal wondered in 1887, “the role of King Ludwig [of Bavaria, Wagner’s great patron] is to be played in Boston, it is impossible to know.” And today? Horowitz, writing in his superb study, Classical Music in America, pronounces this judgement about how the Boston Symphony’s founder fused
multiple worlds: of edifying Brahmin culture; of ‘barbarian’ business, at which cultured Brahmins winced; of music making — his pure, primary passion. Even in relation to his Boston Symphony, he was at once business manager, artistic advisor, and benefactor. . . . The single dominant force of Boston music . . . [and] of the institutionalization of America’s symphonic culture to come, he was a colossus, an American hero.
Not the least of Higginson’s gifts, moreover, was his choice of the orchestra’s first music director: thus the first of four sections in Horowitz’s discussion of the Boston Symphony’s establishment is titled “George Henschel’s enthusiasm.”
Higginson liked Henschel the minute he saw him, at a Harvard Musical Association concert in Boston early in 1881. In his still definitive history of the orchestra, Mark De Wolfe Howe wrote: “Here seemed to be a man who held an orchestra in the hollow of his hand . . . . Mr. Higginson, who was in the audience, may be fancied as breathing a soft, but heartfelt ‘Eureka’.” All the more so because he must have known his appointment would “sen[d] a message. Henschel was young,” wrote Horowitz, “only thirty one . . . . [H]e was not even a conductor, but a composer and concert singer who conducted on the side.”
Boston’s reaction, the musicologist recounts, was “a mixture of gratitude, stupefication, and trepidation.” But not a word, not a hint, is there — and this is true of the BSOs official history by Howe too — that in selecting Henschel Higginson, probably for the first time in American history entrusting what he projected as a major national institution in the care of a Jew. Which was, perhaps, to send another message? Our own first response a century and a quarter later is likely to be to query why it would matter in the first place. However, now as then, it is justice, not history, that should be ‘color-blind’, as it were. To be a Jew, ethnic Jew, religious Jew, observant or un-observant or apostate, may mean everything. Or it may mean less, for some much less. But for Jew or non Jew, historically, it is never nothing.
Now an hour’s careful reading under a librarians careful scrutiny of Henschel’s now very rare and fragile autobiography does yield one nugget, the importance of which when I queried musicologist George Bozarth, author of a new book about Henschel’s friendship with Brahms, Bozarth underlined. Writing of his childhood, Henschel is blunt: “Bitterly, too, I resented the contempt in which the Jews were held in Prussia, evidences of which could almost daily be found in the Jew-baiting columns . . . of Breslau’s premiere newspaper.” He adds as well that “there was no position, civil or military, Jews could attain,” and that much as he loved his homeland, he sought the freedom and opportunity of Britain, settling in London.
The subject never comes up again, however; nor does Henschel call himself a Jew. To discover that one must depend on the always reliable research of Nicolas Slonimsky, who notes that “both [Henschel’s] parents were of Polish-Jewish descent, but he converted to Christianity when he was young.” No sooner had he appeared in Boston, furthermore, Henschel married a Christian — in the Second Church of Boston in Copley Square — Lilian Bailey, who when she died, so devout was she, or perhaps it was he, Henschel wrote a full fledged requiem mass in her memory.
Doubtless the reader is already considering the question of when is a Jew not a Jew, something the Israeli parliament has yet to figure out and it would be impertinent for me to pronounce on here. Henschel was an apostate Jew, or a Jewish-born Christian, or Heaven knows what to a Boston Unitarian. Horowitz does pronounce, perhaps absent-mindedly: when in discussing Higginson’s consideration of hiring Bruno Walter in 1906 the musicologist opines that meant Higginson thought “Boston was ready for a Jewish Music Director.” 25 years after Henschel! Nor was Walter “more Jewish” by any standard: he had gone one better in 1896 than Henschel and changed not only his religion but his name, originally Schlesinger.
All this Horowitz avoids, as an American today is apt to, but how liberal-minded it was of Higginson to appoint any sort of Jew his first music director and, indeed, to have openly socialized with Jews in his youth in Vienna and written home to family in Boston positively about it, cannot be otheriwse understood than by bringing all this up. Vienna, indeed, is as important as Boston in the history of the Boston Symphony and it was from Vienna that even so great a genius as Gustav Mahler felt compelled to flee, because he was a Jew, accepting a position in New York. Never mind he too was a convert to Christianity. What volumes all this speaks of Higginson, that he could report his Jewish friends in the Austro-Hungarian capital were “very talented,” he insisted to his father, “true, liberal in views of life and religion, and free-handed to a marvelous extent.”
Clearly, Boston was not Vienna. Or was it? Higginson’s father replied that his experience of Jews had been otherwise! But he still expressed delight for his son’s sake. The equivocation is noticeable. So are Henry Higginson’s actions and utterances, however, like Gustav Mahlers, or King Ludwig’s or Wagners — facts in flesh and blood lives the meaning of which in regards to Jews are conspicuous enough. “Liberal in views of life and religion and free-handed” are not compliments Henry tossed off often or lightly and that he thought them compliments at all is telling about a man whose character has hardly been mysterious since the penetrating visage of him painted by that superb psychologist, John Singer Sargent.
Yes, as Bliss Perry noted, there was in Higginson “an exquisite delicacy of touch, a quaint, romantic idealism;” yes, he was “modest and even shy”. But has Francis Higginson once said, “I hope you understand that my brother Henry was a gambler,” and as William James insisted, as “tough-minded” as he was “tender-minded.” Hence the ruthless visage of Sargent’s picture. When “he had to take the reins in his own hands” Perry allowed “he must have known that he could drive.”
Never was this clearer than in the case of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Not to put to fine a point on it, if relying in general (as we’ll see shortly) on his Jewish friends in Vienna to help him shape the orchestra was another example of Henry being inspired by his mates to new ideas, relying on one Jew in particular in Henschel was a case of tossing the dice surely and arrogantly enough in pursuit of those ideas, sensing that flash as well as ballast was needed to launch the new enterprize; what Mark De Wolfe Howe meant, I suspect, when he wondered if some “instinct” or oher had not “whispered” in Henry’s ear that the way to “prestige and popular success,” both of which were needed, “lay through the glamour of a picturesque and striking personality.” This the stolid and puritanical Higginson was not, but Henschel surely was. “There can be but little doubt that the selection of Mr. Georg (now Sir George) Henschel to lead the new orchestra brought to the undertaking an element of the romantic, the debatable,” Howe wrote, struck even years later by the unusual tone and spirit of the new orchestra. Listen closely:
The unconventional aspect of the whole affair was rendered the more striking by the pronounced personality of the first conductor . . . . In the ’80s the word ‘temperamental’ had not acquired the vogue it has . . . but the quality — in Mr. Henschel’s conducting — which divided the local music lovers into the camps of his admierers and his opponenets. . . . In the brilliancy of that first season — in the conductor’s fire, which brought delight to many but led one critic to remark, ‘not that we object to fire, but we would rather be warmed by it than roasted in a furious conflagration — an element of highest value to the young organization.
About that Henschel’s opponents were less clear, of course, than his admirers, and just as Howe, who in his conclusion perhaps showed himself more an admirer, settled on the later meaning of the word ‘temperamental ‘ to characterize Henschel’s ‘pronounced’ and ‘picturesque’ personality, and the ‘debatable’ quality of what he brought to so ‘unconventional’ a situation, so too some of Henshel’s detractors may have oted for their own shorthand — Jewish. Music in and of itself does not usually generate what Howe admitted was the case: “Before many concerts had been given, . . . criticism . . . became positively clamorous. . . . [S]uch language had been used that [an anonymous defender of Henschel querried in one paper] if it was fair, just, honorable, or even decent for . . . critics to vilify, malign, abuse and ridicule a gentleman of Henschel’s abilities.”
Those are sufficiently strong words my mind goes at once many generations forward to Father Feeney’s anti-Semitic tirade. Could the source of whatever vile underground rivulet that fed Feeney’s hate-speech 77 years later have been the the Henschel wars of the early 1880s? We cannot know is the short answer. But one possible conduit that would carry us through to the 1930s would be the work of the Boston(Brookline)-born and Harvard educated (in the 1890s) composer-musicologist, Daniel Gregory Mason, later head of music theory after 1905 at Columbia. Writes Maureen Demaio:
As modernist techniques made their way into American at music of the early twentieth century, some critics attacked the new sounds as being characteristically ‘Jewish.’ The most vocal critic was Daniel Gregory Mason, . . . . [known for his] rants against the ‘Jewish infection’ in American music and . . . warnings to Americans about the ‘insidiousness of the Jewish menace to artistic integrity.
Usually, however, anti-semitism, especially in Boston musical circles, was much more discreet. In the text (or, better yet, in the footnotes) but never in the index — lest anyone ever find it! — biographers who even take note of it pass over it very quickly. Thus a close reading of Adrienne Fried Block’s biography of Amy Beach prompted Joseph Horowitz to say Beach had “misgivings about Jews”, a remark worthy of Noel Coward, while the biographer herself is content to point out that Beach joined organizations, including the Daughters of the American Revolution, which espoused “anti-immigrant and anti-semitic sentiments.” Similarly, in her fine study of Martin Loeffler Ellen Knight points out that his dislike of Mahler and later of Serge Koussevitzky “may have been due in part to an antisemitic prejudice . . . [Loeffler] never completely overcame.” That all this was still rampant in the 1950s at even the highest levels of Boson music, never mind the controversary over Leonard Bernstein at the BSO, is clear in the fact that Boston’s most venerable musical club, the Harvard Musical Association on Chestnut Street on Beacon Hill (full disclosure: I was for twenty years a member) was the scene in the 1950s of a nasty little play wherein the Italian-American composer Walter Piston of Harvard resigned when his close friend, another Harvard composer-teacher, Irving Fine, was blackballed initially because he was Jewish.
Three quarters of a century earlier, however, there was no Nicholas Tawa to tell such tales ‘out of school’ and such matters were kept discreetly under wraps. So it was, for example, with Louis C. Elson, a Leipsig Conservatory graduate and professor after 1880 of music theory at the New England Conservatory of Music, with whom Henschel necessarily interacted because Elson was one of Boston’s three leading music critics in the 1880s. Elson was a Jew, although one would never know it, for instance, from his Boston Transcript obituary in 1920. Elson too, was a Unitarian convert. Were it not for an obscure volume by Albert Ehrenfried, Chronicle of Boston Jewry, that he was a Jew would be unknown entirely.
Indeed, only once so far as I can tell, did the BSOs founder and first music director join forces to reach out to Boston’s Jewish community in the Henschel era. In 1882 Henschel led a 100-piece orchestra drawn from the new Boston Symphony Orchestra, along with the Handel and Hayden Society, in a “grand concert” to benefit “the unfortunate Hebrews of Russia who have been so horribly persecuted,” to quote a contemporary account in the Globe. On the committee of this benefit Henry Lee Higginson sat as sponsor along with the likes of Wendell Phillips, Charles W. Eliot, John Boyle O’Rielly and Temple Israel rabbi Solomon Schindler. The music performed, moreover, included scenes and choruses from “Elijah” by the Jewish composer Mendelsohn.
Whatever their roots the Henschel wars ultimately calmed down, and though he lasted only three years in Boston, that he departed distinctly in triumph is suggested by the fact that at his final concert orchestra and audience alike arose and sang “Auld Lang Syne.” The BSOs first conductor was reported to be “too moved to speak.”
THE JEWISH CONSPIRACY
Blessed be the conspiracy I say, and who today will disagree: the roots of which were to be found in Higginson’s student days in Vienna in the 1850s when two young men, both in their twenties, struck up a friendship that documents with particular force Bliss Perry’s assertion that Higginson’s relationships reflected how he “was drawn to other men by quick and almost fierce affection.” The oher man in Vienna in the 1850s was Julius Epstein, and their friendship lasted for over sixty years.
Maybe Brahms (“It was a Jew, Julius Epstein, who first helped bring Brahms to fame” in 1862 according to David Ewen), certainly Mahler (more below) and absolutely the Boston Symphony (much more below) are the three summits of the career of Epstein, who went on to become a highly influential professor of piano at the Vienna Conservatory and a musical leader of that late 19th-century musical mecca. But it is the opening of the Mahler chapter for me that fixes Epstein’s genuis most clearly. It was not just that he ‘discovered’ Mahler, it was how he discovered him.
Gustav Mahler came from a humble family with not much hope of enabling his musical gifts. “Epstein alone,” Stuart Feder observed, “would decide if the young man’s talent merited further training.” In the spring of 1875 . . . Mahler’s father took him to Vienna to play to Epstein,” and Michael Kennedy tells the story of how “[Epstein] was struck by a remarkable look in the boy’s face.” No pedant, Epstein was a very sensitive person; also a sure judge of talent. “After hearing Gustav play for a few minutes, he said: ‘He is a born musician.'” But then, shrewd as well as sensitive and intuitive musically, he saw that the none-too-well-off father still hesitated and needed to be pushed: admonished Epstein sternly: “I cannot possibly be wrong.” Mahler became his student.
The Higginson-Epstein friendship preceded the Mahler chapter; also the Brahms chapter: that composers first success in Vienna was when his work was played by the Hellmesberger Quartet in 1862, the result of Epstein introducing the composer to Joseph Hellmesberger. And it can be argued that of Epstein’s three summits, his involvement with Boston — because it was where the idea was most radical and the need most urgent — was the most important. Certainly, moreover, the Higginson-Epstein alliance was exactly the same sort of inspired partnership, inspired on both sides, that Isabella Stewart Gardner forged with Bernard Berenson.
Call it a Jewish Conspiracy, and who is not now glad of it? Even at the height of American anti-Semitism in the 1930s, though a lot was never made publicly of Higginson’s alliance with Epstein, Bliss Perry identified the BSO founder’s secret weapon in his brief character sketch of 1931 as Higginson’s “Jewish chum — Epstein.” The BSO official history is also brief but explicit: naming Epstein as Higginson’s “wisest counsellor,” declaring that he rendered “valuable service to the orchestra from the beginning.”
Key to the success of the conspiracy, which I insist just a tad wickedly calling it, was Henschel’s successor, Wilhelm Gericke.
Praised at once for being “free from all over-dramatic demonstrativeness,” the new music director pleased Transcript critic William Apthorp at once. The Gazette similarly: “[Gericke’s] bearing was quiet, unassuming and refined;” his conducting “free from all that can be construed as a desire for display.” Horowitz thought “the subtext was that Higginson had found a conductor who remedied Henschel’s defects.” I wonder if to characterize Henschel and Gericke thusly — replacing an “over-dramatic conductor” for one “unassuming and refined” and uninterested in “display” — was code for a generation which thought very much in stereotypes for replacing a Jew with a Gentile.
Amazing then to discover that no less than three contemporary sources, detailed in the bibliography — sources by Madison C. Peters and Isaac Markens — identify Gericke as himself Jewish, reports cited as recently as in 1989 by a modern scholar of American Jewish history, Jacob Radar Marcus.
Reported? That’s the instructive part. Such mysteries are vivid evidence of the urgent need of Jews then to supress their Jewishness in an era when it was almost impossible for them to be accepted into certain schools, illegal to live in certain cities. They were commonplace once at even the highest levels of society. Then again, the opposite was also true and suggests a chief reason Higginson found Viennese Jewish circles so attractive. A distinguished Brahms scholar, Daniel Belter-McKenna, maintains that “Brahms’s close association with Jews and the perception that he belonged to a Jewish brand of cultural elitism in Vienna colored the reception of his music,” but that Brahms himself “enjoyed playing with the perception that he might be Jewish, thus encouraging speculation.”
In the case of Gericke such speculation is also probably fruitless. Besides, the reason Gerricke was key to this conspiracy was not that he was a Jew, if he was, but that he was Gericke’s student, and that the professor brought Higginson and Gericke together. The results of this partnership were not at once liked by everyone. By George Whitefield Chadwick, for example, a composer of the Boston School. Chadwicks ambitions as a conductor, as his biographer, Victor Fell Yellin, points out,
were obvious. . . . But whatever chances he might have had were . . . lost by the founding of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It had sprung, like Athena, fully grown, with the best musicians money could attract world-wide. Higginson, the founder, built his orchestra in much the same way professional baseball teams were organized. ‘Boston’ in the title referred only to the place of its concerts and the residence of the benefactor. With relatively cheap tickets and virtuousic performances . . . [the BSO] reduc[ed] . . . opportunities for any local aspirant [and led to] the demise of . . . [Boston’s] Philharmonic Society and the Harvard Musical Association [Orchestra}.
Sixty years before Harvard president James Conant’s “up or out” policy was introduced whereby for all faculty positions Harvard conducted national and international searches, discussed here in a previous post, building the departments of the university — history, for instance, our topic next time here — Higginson built each section of his orchestra — violins, brass and so on — as Yellin writes, without any preference for locals and entirely “on a professional basis, an entirely novel idea.” Indeed, nowhere in the world had that been done, and it was only possible to do it because Higginson was what I call a “global Bostonian”, desiring only the very best for his town and his country, a figure who had “embraced the nation,” to refer again to Van Wyck Brooks’s differentiation between Brahmins like Higginson and those Yankees Brooks called “New Englanders merely.”
It was his studies in Vienna, of course — and how many who study in Boston now carry this idea back to their localities everywhere? — that had made Higginson a “global Bostonian”, and in just the same way that the definer of the Brahmin caste had suggested, through the idea of “dual citizenship” in more than one city, another idea we’ve discussed here in previous posts. It was an essential idea for Holmes for all Bostonians, Brahmins included; indeed for citizens everywhere. Such divided loyalties, he thought, served best any community, an idea he developed doubtless out of his own European studies, in his case medicine in Paris. It was, moreover, the legacy of Higginson’s global view — Euro-centric as it seems to us — that through his relationship with Julius Epstein he was able to develop a transatlantic network and a constant stream of musicians of the highest calibre.
Disappointed locals, furthermore, like Chadwick, himself European trained and with many gifts he could have deployed anywhere, eventually found that Higginson’s model did not, as so many who endlessly complain of the ‘curatorial’ nature of Boston’s end of the 19th-century culture, stifle creativity at all. Continues Yellin:
The presence of this magnificent assemblage of the finest players in the world [the BSO] must have acted as a constant prod to Chadwick’s creative imagination, for he knew that any piece he might bring to term would be assurred a performance of excellence and that he himself might even expect to conduct from time to time. . . . The orchestra not only offered the possibility of performance of orchestral music, but also spurred the production of chamber music, especially after the founding of the Kneisel Quartet.
One of several examples Yellin cites is Chadwick’s Symphony No. 3 in F Major (1894), given a coveted prize by Dvorak himself. “Easily identified as Chadwickian even though written in the shadow of such symphonists as Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Dvorak,” Yellin notes, Brahms chiefly, it is clear from “a perusal of Boston Symphony programs that the interested composer certainly had the opportunity of not only reading the Brahms scores, but also hearing them played more than once by one of the best orchestras in the world.” Adds Chadwick’s biographer of this global Boston milieux: “what is significent is that . . . Chadwick was able to create a national or, even better, a personal manner comparable to any,” to become “a pioneer in freeing American musical expression from the rigidities of German conservatory conventions.”
To detail Epstein’s specific contributions, musician by musician, issue by issue, by the way, in the same way Bernenson’s have been studied with respect to so many works in the Gardner collection, must remain a work for future scholars. A few nuggets must suffice.
I spent the better part of a delightful day at the BSO Archives reading many of these letters, wherein Higginsons’s and Epstein’s mutual regard was my focus.Thus to a BSO musician scouting for him in Vienna, from Higginson: “talk freely with Julius Epstein . . . .He is my intimate friend.” Gericke to Higginson: “[Epstein] and his wife [Alice] are very attatched to you, and I have to tell them every times about the sacrificial spirit with which you have made your concert institute viable.”
Nor does the sad tale of Epstein’s decline through the First World War other than deepen the relationship. Higginson regularly supported Epstein financially. At one point in their correspondence Epstein quotes Higginson: “If you need anything, tell me.” It was Charlie Lowell and Stephen Perkins all over again. And Epstein’s reply? “No, my noble friend. Even if I were hungry I wouldn’t tell you, for you have already done far too much for me.”
What Julius Epstein did for Boston, rooted alike in the cause of a “concert institute,” and the friendship of the two men, was to co-found with Higginson there what became quickly the leading orchestra in the western world.
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr so thought of himself because in no small measure of the number of his liberal Jewish friends — of this much more below — and probably Henry Lee Higginson did too. Thus the final intersection of this essay. Afterall, it only celebrates by the way the Jewish Conspiracy as I have called the Higginson-Epstein alliance. the essays underlying purpose is to “flesh out” my thesis that “the Boston religion” of the leading Unitarian Yankee-Boston Brahmins was indeed the cutting edge of liberal thought in the US in its day and the first American Modernism.
Alas, neither music historians nor business historians read each other, nor social historians or political historians; nor urban historians either. Biographers are better, but not much. Higginson’s praise singers, for instance, tend to be music and business historians, his detractors social and political historians. When I learned my abc’s in the Harvard History Department under Eliott Perkins none of them would have got out of the Head Tutor’s office without a stern talking to. Let us see if the evidence admits of, not rapproachment but reconciliation.
Higginson led a very, very “unliberal” prolonged and bitter battle to deny Louis Brandeis, one of Boston’s and America’s leading progressives of the day, any important Federal appointment, whether attorney general or supreme court justice, and it was not in any sense edifying. It was also very curious because as Brandeis’s own biographer, the Israeli scholar, Allons Gal, notes: “[Higginson] was a liberal of the old school, the same tradition from which Brandeis had emerged:” indeed, Higginson had given Brandeis “substantial” support in several causes previously. Another Brandeis biographer, Strum, agrees, adding that “it was a cause of of depression [for Brandeis] that [his] foes . . . had been his erstwhile allies,” but that Brandeis’s own evolution more than anything else accounted for the rupture.
The key fact, Strum concluded, was Brandeis’s development from a “Harvard-trained corporation lawyer to a radical political innovator.” No less key from our point of view here is that while in the history of American music Higginson was quite the radical innovator, in social and business matters the BSO founder, though he was a liberal, never evolved into a radical.
It was not a matter of a tamed Brandeis finally taking the reins into his own hands. His gain was not in courage or integrity but in life experience. He believed in his work as a corporation lawyer as much as in his work as a political innovator; moreover, the inovator he became needed to be the lawyer he always was, especially when to Higginson’s chagrin he did achieve the Supreme Court, the first Jew to do so. Nor did Higginson change colors. That he did not become a radical did not mean he ceased to be a liberal. Observes Strum: “When [Brandeis] found himself shunned by many of the Brahmins . . . . they were not motivated by Brandeis’s Jewishness, though some may have felt anti-Semitism,” always lurking. Indeed, the New York Jewish financier Jacon Schiff, a close friend of Harvard President Eliot as we will see next time here, also opposed any federal appointment for Brandeis.
Gal agrees with Strum, furthermore, in concluding that even in their days as allies, Yankee Brahmin “Boston bankers were undoubtedly dismayed by the populist vehemence with which the Jewish lawyer [Brandeis] directed his struggles against their common adversaries:” It was Henschel’s conducting all over again. Nor necessarily anti-Semitic. Wendell Phillips, a Yankee Brahmin of the first rank, was disliked for the urgent zealotry of his expression of his abolitionist views as much if not more than for the views themselves.
And for all his recognition, in Howe’s words, of “the personal danger involved in the pursuit of money for its own sake,” Higginson was also, Howe noticed, a businessman with a lively interest in same at a time when today’s blurring of the distinction between business and professional values had not occurred. Higgginson concluded Brandeis was anti business, and not unreasonably. And as Higginson would have been the first to point out, it had required very big business indeed to create the Boston Symphony Orchestra!
Complicating matters yet further was Higginson’s membership in the Immigration Restriction League, which like the equally notorious Watch and Ward Society, tended to attract arch-conservative Yankee Brahmins above all. But not only they, however, and not only for their reasons.
In the first place, it is Gal again — Brandeis’s, not Higginson’s, biographer — who points out that Joseph Lee, Higginson’s more conservative partner, “prodded Higginson into joining”, writing to Higginson that he’d put his name up and Higginson would have to make a point of withdrawing it. All this when Higginson was about to turn 80, the equivalent today of perhaps 100. Moreover, in the full knowledge that the BSO founder was worried about immigration, upon which fears Lee seems to have played.
So was Robert A Woods worried. Like Higginson something of a hero in his field, Woods’s membership in the IRL documents that it didn’t always mean, membership, what it seemed to. Within seven years of the founding of the settlement house movement in the London slums in the 1880s at Toynbee Hall, Woods, a former resident of the hall and pioneer social worker, founded the third of a trio of American settlement houses — Jane Addams’s Hull House in Chicago of 1889; Jane Robinsons’s College House of the same year in New York and Woods’s South End (originally Andover) House in Boston’s South End in 1891 — that were the spearhead of the American movement. Like Higginson, furthermore, Woods was very concerned with creating opportunity for blacks in Boston, not elsewhere, to participate equally in all areas of civic life.
No one would accuse Woods of the anti-immigrant views Higginson has been accused of; nor, certainly, Brandeis. Yet Brandeis himself considered joining the Immigration Restriction League! “Brandeis felt that large infusions of helpless and naieve immigrants would hinder good government and reform politics,” according to Gal, and wrote to an IRL leader that he was “entirely ready to adopt the educational test but for the apprehension which I feel that such a step would be followed by other legislation induced by baser motives.”
Higginson was not so sage as the younger man and fell into the trap. Brandeis, of course, would have realized more than Higginson the rising tide of anti-Semitism that was beginning to surge in the United States. Writes Strum:
In spite of the liberalism of the elite and their marked interest in, and sympathy for, free-thinking or liberal Jews, in [and] with the rising feeling against immigrants, social exclusion became harder to breach. [Especially after his marriage, Brandeis] remarked in later years that he had good friends among his Yankee clients, but his wife was not on their guest list . . . .The close friends Brandeis made among upper class Bostonians — the [Oliver Wendell] Holmes’s . . . among others — tended to perceive themselves as deviants in the straightlaced community.
Deviants? Well to Brahmin Democrats, and Brahmin Prophets and Brahmn Rebels and Brahmin Radicals we must now, it seems, add Brahmin Deviants. I myself, Homeric again, prefer the Brahmin’s of the “broad-bottomed boats”. But I think at once of a reviewer, Mark Klobas, whose reaction to Melvin Urofsky’s study of Brandeis was to report that “Urofsky’s arguement is that Brandeis’s legendary Progressivism was born of the essentially conservative values of the Boston Brahmin tradition.”
What mental gymnastics we accept in order to protect our misunderstandings! Let us conclude by following the deviants, as it were, into the weeds: into the footnotes of Sheldon Novak’s biography of Justice Holmes. No 28 explains the Higginson-Brandeis rupture as influenced by the fact that ” Brandeis zeal” was the problem. She told the justice’s secretaryonce that “when Henry Lee Higginson, then of the United Shoe Company, helped introduce Brandeis into Boston society and sent some law business his way” the result had been disloyalty as she saw it. “Brandeis sided with factory workers during a strike at United Shoe”. Mrs Holmes pronounced: “One doesn’t do that sort of thing.”
Eleven footnotes later, number 39, Novak then inadvertantly documents the fact that Justice Holmes was a very different person than is wife and saw things quite differently. Writes Novak: “it was partly Holmes’s lack of prejudice that drew so many Jews to him . . . .Despite his patrician connections, Holmes was somewhat an outsider, and these intellectual, passionate, somewhat aristocratic young [Jews] were outsiders too . . . . ‘Holmes seems to have regarded the intellectual Jews as a special variety of Brahmin!
More gymnastics. Holmes Jr an outsider. A deviant Brahmin? Really. People should read Holmes Sr. more closely, but don’t of course, having consigned that notable Boston Brahmin figure to the conservative stockade manned by Abbott Lawrence Lowell and all the rest of them. Perhaps they should reconsider.
How fitting it all seems. The son of the man who defined the Brahmin was the one man who could re-define it. It was Holmes Sr, two of whose ideas were his defining the Brahmin as a member of a caste of intellectual aristocrats, near-hereditary but necessarily only claimable individually, and the idea of the ‘dual citizen’, which conjured the mixed loyalties Holmes thought were so desireable among cities, especially capital citys.
Of course, it was a case of the pot calling the kettle black, when Holmes Jr namedBrandeis and his peers as others of his own breed. They wern’t rebel Brahmins, nor bold Brahmins, nor radical Brahmins. Certainly they were not deviant or outsider Brahmins. They were actually characteristic of the Yankee-Brahmin leadership; liberal Brahmins; finally Modernist Brahmins: gods of Copley Square at the dawn of the modern American experience.
Next time: Eliotic Jews, JFK Catholics | Charles W. Eliot and the Harvard History Department.
Bridgit Carr, Senior Archivist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, has been a great help and conspicuously open in her welcome. Similarly the Music Department of the Boston Public Library, where the invaluable Charotte Kolcynski has proved a wonderful resource. As has, as always, Henry Scannell, the curator there of Microtext. Thanks as well for permission to quote from Higginson’s letter to John Moors in the Henry Lee Higginson Collection, Baker Library Historical Collection, Harvard Business School, and to Abigail Thompson for making these arrangements.
Adams, Russell B. Jr., BOSTON MONEY TREE (Crowell) 1977
[Apthorp, William] — see Howe, MA deW
Belter-McKenna, Daniel. “Revisiting the Rumor of Brahms’s Jewish Descent” in BRAHMS SOCIETY NEWSLETTER (Autum 2001)
[Brahmins/book and article titles referenced]: Brahmin Democrat (Josiah Quincy) GT Blodgett, NEW ENGLAND QUARTERLY (Dec.1965); Brahmin Prophet (Phillips Brooks) Gillis J. Harp, Rowan and Littlefield (2003); BOLD BRAHMINS (Abolitionists) F> Wall, Dutton, (1961); BRAHMIN REBEL (George Bancroft) Russel B. Nye, Knopff (1944); Non-Brahmin (George Chadwich, Henry Lee Higginson) Steven Ledbetter, AMERICAN MUSIC (Spring 2001)
Brooks, Van Wyck. NEW ENGLAND: INDIAN SUMMER (Univ. of Chicago Press ed) 1984
Block, Adrienne. AMY BEACH (Oxford) 1998.
[Boston Evening Transcript] — see Howe, MA deW
[Boston Gazette] – see Howe, MA deW
Bozarth, George JOHANNES BRAHMS AND GEORGE HENSCHEL (Harmonie) 2008
Carroll, James. “What would Cardinal Cushing do?” BOSTON GLOBE (Dec 19, 2005)
Cornwell, John. NEWMAN’S UNQUIET GRAVE: THE RELUNCTANT SAINT (Continuum) 2010
Demaio, Maureen. “The Decline of Anti-Semitic Anti-Modernism”, Masters thesis, University of California at Santa Barbara
Domosh, Mora. INVENTED CITIES (Yale) 1998
[Elson, Louis C] “Louis Elson’s Library” BOSTON GLOBE (July 15, 1918)
[Elson, Louis C.] “Louis C. Elson” ETUDE (Nov.1910)
[Elson, Louis C.] — see Hun-Lun Vang
Elson, Louis C. HISTORY OF AMERICAN MUSIC (Macmillian) 1925
Ehrenfried, Albert. “A Chronicle of Boston Jewry”, unpub. typescript (1963) at Boston Public Library Social Sciences Reference.
Epstein, Julius, letter to Higginson, Henry Lee, in BSO Archives, Serial 1468; Reel 3/#159-160/XIII-15-1914
Ewen, David. “Last of the Three B’s” at www.everything2.com/title/JohannesBrahms.
Feeney, Leonard. “III-Boston Inferno” of “Some Jews in Gentile Clothing”, THE POINT (Magazine of St. Benedict’s Center, Cambridge/Archdiocese of Boston (August 1956).
Feder, Stuart. GUSTAV MAHLER (Yale) 2004
Fuller-Maitland, John A. “Brahms, Johannes” in THE NEW GROVE DICTIONARY OF MUSIC AND MUSICIANS (Grove) 1995
Gal, Allon. BRANDEIS OF BOSTON (Harvard) 1980
Gay, Peter. WEIMAR CULTURE (Oxford) 2001
[Gericke, Wilhelm] see Madison, Peter; Markens, Isaac; Marcus, Jacob R.
Gienow-Hecht, JCE SOUND DIPLOMACY (Chicago) 2009
[Hebrew Benefit performance] see BOSTON GLOBE March 26 1882 (“The Reining Art”); March 27, 1882 (“The Hebrew Relief Concert”); March 28 1882 (“Voice and Song”).
[Henschel, George] see Howe, MA deW; Bozart, George.
Higginson, Henry Lee — see Perry, Bliss; Howe, MA deW;Adams, Russel B Jr.;
Handlin, Oscar BOSTON IMMIGRNTS (Harvard) 1991 ed.
Horowitz, Joseph. “Bottled Demons”, TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT (Nov 20, 1998)
Horowitz, Joseph. CLASSICAL MUSIC IN AMERICA (Norton) 2005
HolmesSr., Oliver Wendell AUTOCRAT OF THE BREAKFAST TABLE (Burt) 1900
Holmes,Sr.,PROFESSOR AT THE BREAKFAST TABLE (Houghton) 1892
Hun-Lun Vang. “Nationality vs. Universality” in AMERICAN MUSIC (Spring 2003)
Howe, Mark deWolfe. THE BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA (Cornell ed) 2009
Higginson, Henry Lee, letter to John Moors (June 26, 1918) BSO#457; Baker Business Library/Harvard Business School XII-2-169.
Higginson, Henry Lee,letter to Martin Loeffler BSO Archives: Serial no. 1096,Reel 2,#429,XII-8-73
Klobas, Mark R. Review of Urofsky, Melvine, which see at Amazon.com
Kennedy, Edward M> TRUE COMPASS (Twelve) 2011. Kennedy supports Ted Sorensons accout of Robert Kennedy in Sorenson.
Kennedy, Michael. MAHLER (Oxford) 2001
Levenson, Alan. “The Renaissance of Jewish Culture in Wiemar” in BNET/CBS Business Network–www.findarticles.com/p/articles/m_m0411/is/an
Matthews, William. A HUNDRED YEARS OF MUSIC IN AMERICA (Home) 1989
Markens, Isaac. THE HEBREWS IN AMERICA (Tennyson,Neely) 1888
Marcus, Jacob R. US JEWRY 1776-1985 (Wayne State Univ. Press) 1989
Novick, Sheldon M. HONORABLE JUSTICE Univ. of Chicago Press) 1989
Perry, Bliss. “Henry Lee Higginson” 1931 address — see Howe, MA deW
Perry,Bliss. LIFE AND LETTERS HENRY LEE HIGGINSON (orig.published 1921) 2010 ed.
Peters, Madison. JUSTICE TO THE JEW (1899)
Peters,Madison. “The Jew in Music” in WERNER’S MAGAZINE (Music Teachers National ssoc.) 1901
Samuels, Ernest. BERNARD BERENSON (Harvard) 1979
Shand-Tucci, Douglass. THE ART OF SCANDAL (HarperCollins) 1997
Slonimsky, Nicolas. “Henschel, George” in BAKER’S BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF MUSICIANS (Schirmer) 1984 ed
Sarna, Jonathan and Smith, Ellen. THE JEWS OF BOSTON (Yale) 2005
Sorenson, Ted. COUNSELOR (HarperCollins) 2008
Solomon, Barbara. ANCESTORS AND IMIGRANTS (Northeastern) 1989
Strum, Philipaa. BRANDEIS (Univ. Press of Kansas) 1995
Tawa, Nicholas. FROM PSALM TO SYMPHONY (Northeastern) 2001
Thernstram, Stephen. THE OTHER BOSTONIANS (Harvard) 1973
Turner, James. THE LIBERAL EDUCATION OF CHARLES ELIOT NORTON (Johns Hopkins) 2002
Urofsky, Melvin. LOUIS BRANDEIS AND THE PROGRESSIVE TRADITION (Random House) 2009
Weber, Max. THE PROTESTANT ETHIC AND THE SPIRIT OF CATHOLICISM (orig. published 1905) (Penguin) 2002
Whitehill, Walter Muir. CENTENNIAL HISTORY< MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS< BOSTON (Harvard) 1970
Woods, Eleanor. CHAMPION OF DEMOCRACY (Boos for Libraries) 1971
[Von Ranke]–see Levenson, Alan
Yellin, Victor Fell CHADWICK (Smithsonian) 1990