Comments: February / June

“Farewell the Globe” provoked quite a few blasts,  two of which stand out.  First, my friend General Robert Quinn    protested my leaving out John Boyle O’Reilly in my discussion of Bostonian publishing generally, for which I have no defense and will certainly correct the mistake in some further blog.   Second,  there were observations about the Globe particularly by a distinguished Boston journalist worth quoting at some length.   While his praise of this blog was gratifying — “I like your distinction between the Boston press and the Bostonian press, noting that Boston consciousness is and almost ever was a global one” — what is more generally important is this journalist’s own judgement of the Globe’s more recent history:

“A. J. Liebling in The New Yorker,  who believed that only competition  (in two or more ownership towns)  could make papers valuable,  noted in his Wayward Press column in The New Yorker in 1960 that Boston was the exceptional place:  it had ‘three competing commercial ownerships besides The Christian Science Monitor and still hasn’t anything first class.  Winship changed that….And now Winship has been long gone….What’s missing in your blog is only that very modern piece — the strange stillness of the Globe on every kind of cultural and social and intellectual development of the last many years.”

“Renzo and Isabella” also provoked response,   but of the anonymous attack letter variety,  of which no further notice will be taken here.

“Saint Phillips Brooks”, on the other hand,   yielded an astonishing outpouring,    of which five or six   stand  out , including what for me was the most rewarding dialogue the Brooks piece produced, with Boston University Professor of Art History Keith N. Morgan.  The onetime head of BUs  highly regarded Historic Preservation studies degree program,  and himself a leading scholar in the field, Morgan was also for many years a parishioner of Trinity Church and very keen on the care and preservation of this international landmark.  Thus it was satisfying indeed that he should have responded quite positively to my history and analysis of the original Brooks chancel,  and by implication to my plea for trying to restore certain aspects of it,  as well as to my thesis that the Maginnis and Walsh marble and mosaic islanded sanctuary of 1937  was a distinguished addition to Richardson’s chancel, indeed its apotheosis. Indeed, it seemed to Morgan as well “a fulfillment of Brooks’s vision”, to quote Morgan, of the Trinity chancel.  Morgan wrote eloquently, moreover,  of “the sanctity of the Maginnis sanctuary  [at the center of the chancel]  as essential to the Trinity experience.”

At the same time Morgan also observed that what he was not clear about how Maginnis achieved this historically quite sensitive result,  whether his own superb taste independently was the explanation or whether he “was aware of Brooks’s and Richardson’s original intention”.  Alas, my answer must be that that the extensive files on the matter on deposit at the Massachusetts Historical Society are nowhere decisive on this point.

If that was the most rewarding response,  the most eloquent — one might almost say the most spiritual — was that of a Roman Catholic pastor of a working class parish outside Boston,  who was deeply impressed with how contemporary from today’s point of view was Brooks’s mountain climbing analogy in his preaching his very Christ-centric gospel.  As significant was this priest’s assertion that Brooks’s view of priesthood.  which was neither that of Roman Catholic or Anglo Catholic thinkers of the time,  was “a very contemporary view of Catholic priesthood”  today,  a point of view another reader,  a Roman Catholic professor of dogmatic theology in the Middle West, confirmed.

Most of the responses this blog gives rise to are from academics,  media types and history buffs,  so it was especially satisfying to me that a busy working pastor should fix on just those aspects of my work on Brooks that are most revolutionary and controversial,  and find Brooks’s ideas of priesthood to be,  over a century later,  both very modern and motivating.  This priest’s response even extended to rather a striking architectural comment worthy of Sir John Summerson:  of the church’s interior this priest wrote: “Trinity tower,  one cannot help but look upward,  and feel invited to climb Jacob’s ladder”.

The most challenging response(s) suggested that more should have been said about the development of the gathering concensus over the years that resulted in Brooks’s eventual canonization.  Possibly too I concentrated too much on Bostonians,  and on lefty Bostonians at that.  One reason I did so is that Brooks himself has been called ‘a rich man’s clergyman’.  And it is certainly true that he lived quite grandly; there was an Andrea del Sarto hanging in Trinity rectory in his time there.

I might have taken another tack,  neither Bostonian nor lefty,  a tack focused instead,  for example, on mainstream New York,  using The New York Times data base for the period rather than that of the Boston Globe.  In 1997,  for instance, the year the Trinity Porch raised some alarm about the question of a statue of Brooks, the Times published a poem by Wilbur  Larremore,  “The Bachelor of Arts”,  in which Brooks was described as a case of  “sainthood in manhood,  like a dream come true”.  Five years later it was a novel!  In 1902 Macmillian issued a book well known in its day by Mark Lee Luther,  The Henchman,  i n which Trinity’s rector is named as a distant but decided inspiration for a Chicago politician trying to find his way in a rather complicated situation.  Luther writes of the politician’s growing friendship for an Episcopal priest,  a Canon North,  that while the politician’s education “had put him out of joint with priestery….[but]….North had no sacerdotal air or jargon…and he was…a robust,  manly man.  The govenor took to dropping into the canon’s book-lined study near the cathedral….{The priest] did not talk religion.  Yet whatever the canon’s religion was,  Shelby was aware that he lived it.  The air was full of little stories of his helpfulness of the sort people told of a man North once alluded to as  ‘Saint Phillips Brooks’.”

Even more interesting,  in 1925,  P. W. Wilson,  in an article in the Times titled  “New Saints for the Episcopal Church”,  asked:  “can any reason be alleged for canonizing Archbishop Laud which would not apply with tenfold force to Phillips Brooks,  Bishop of  Boston?….What service  to humanity comparable with [Brooks’s] was rendered by King Charles the Martyr?”  Actually,  that royal martyr rendered  in his time exemplary service to his church (more so, indeed, than to the state),  but the point is that the comparison should have been made in the first place in the Times.

It was an Episcopal priest who raised perhaps the most unusual question.  Struck with how popular were veiled and hooded figures like the Christ figure behind Brooks in late Victorian and Edwardian art,  the reason seemed unclear.  To both of us.  But my mind went at once to the work of Sargent and to University of Maryland historian Susan Promney,  whose magisterial book on Sargent’s Public Library murals in Boston is definitive.  Writes Promney:  “privacy and the reliance on the self,  on interiority…in images like…the Frieze of the Prophets”  abound in Sargent’s work, suggesting “hiddenness”.

This matter led,  furthermore,  to a most remarkable story,  the report of a young man who noticed while crossing Copley Square in a snow storm that one of those grey blankets given out to homeless people had been draped,  hood-like,  over the head of a solitary figure sitting on a bench facing the library,  a figure thus clothed who the young man,  a photographer,  realized with a start was strikingly like the Christ figure in the Brooks Memorial nearby.  Thinking it would be a stunning photograph — a homeless person,  all unknowing,  assuming such a pose — he reached in his pocket for his small camera only to be stopped in his tracks.  Unaccountably,  a sense of immediate fear seemed to stop him and almost involuntarily he found himself turning on his heel and moving quickly away.  Whether or not this was a Theophany in Copley Square I cannot say.

                                                                                                                                                                               — DS-T


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