Gods of Copley Square

These online columns in Boston-centric global studies, always sourced but not burdened with what poet David McCord used to call foot and note disease, and never peer reviewed, are divided up into sections, each about a fifteen minute read.  The latest iteration of DSTs column on WGBH, Boston’s PBS outlet, for Christopher Lydon’s Ten O’Clock News, this column moved in the 1990s to the Boston Phoenix as Skyline and now appears on the BBH website, modeled on the George Mason University Center for History and New Media blogs.  CONTENTS THIS MONTH: the  prologue to the first lecture of DSTs four part lecture series on his next book,  Gods of Copley Square / The Boston Brahmin at the Dawn of the Modern American Experience,   given in  October 2009 at the New England Historical Genealogical Society on Newbury Street in Back Bay Boston. l.  Boston’s Need for a New History– Redefining of the Boston Brahmin.  Subsequent   parts of the first lecture will be posted throughout the  next  month.    Gods 2,  Thinking Brahmin ;  Gods 3,  Four Capitals–Boston, Washington, New York, Los Angeles;  Gods 4, The Lowell Institute ;  Gods 5, Alexander Graham Bell at MIT;  Gods 6,  Louis Sullivan and the Culture of Creativity.  For the course sylabus  see “events” this website.


Boston,  America’s spiritual capital since become its intellectual capital,  needs a new history.

Historian Thomas N. Brown used to say something very similar,  but was never read in his time or since by a sufficiently diverse following to carry his point at all widely.  I continue to admire Brown — in mind all the more of late because of his recent death — for having written once what only the author of a seminal study on Irish-American Nationalism,  himself  called by Globe reporter Richard Higgins  “the Boswell of Boston’s Irish immigrants” , could hope to have gotten away with : “In the life of American ethnic groups there is a marked sense of grievance which having [in the first generation] served admirably to energize the group [has usually lived]  beyond its usefulness”,   Brown continued,   into subsequent generations when it   “does not encourage the generosity of spirit upon which great cosmopolitan centers are built.”

Even more memorably,  because Brown was a New Yorker originally,  he  could also get away with adding:  “Of no city [would]  this  [be ]  more true than Boston . . . . [where] memories of old adversaries are passed on like heirlooms . . . . The Irish,  of course,  have the Yankees;  the Italians have the Yankees and the Irish;  the Jews have the Italians and the Irish”,  and carrying forward into our own era,  “the blacks have the whites”.  Nor does Brown neglect the other side.  “The Yankee’s long ago had the Indians, and,  later,  Curley.  They have always had each other.”

Priceless,  such home truths,  so well spoken.  Especially for me.  Through my mother and hers —  Geraldine and Margaret Shand Groves — I am the proud descendant of an old  German-American family with a  (four times I think)  great grandfather,  Godfrey Augustus Specht, who fought in the American Revolution,   and a Scots-Canadian great grandfather,  Joseph Shand,  who was a  bridge builder in Lower Canada and brother to William Shand, a Royal Engineer involved in building the great citadel of Quebec.  On the  other hand,  through my father,  John Hugh Tucci M.D.,  I am the grandson of  Italian-American immigrant’s whose English was always rather less than perfect.  Just to confuse things I will add that my Socttish-German side  were pro Catholic Anglicans and my Italian side anti Catholic Waldensians.  My Harvard-educated ,  Protestant and Masonic parent  who  grew up off  Brattle Street in Cambridge and was head of a department at the Massachusetts General Hospital was not the Yankee parent,  but the Italian-American parent.

Mongrel in some sense that I am,  it is thus easier for me perhaps to be even handed in writing my prescription  for what is required if Boston is,  indeed,  finally,  to ever have this new history,  and make perhaps an even greater contribution to the national psyche.


First, we must admit  the absurdity of on the one hand glorifying the Yankee patriots who made Boston the cradle of the American Revolution and thus of our country while on the other hand condescending and making fun of their children and grandchildren and their children all the way down to the 1900s for aspiring to replace the 18th-century Tory aristocracy,  Boston’s ancien regime,  with a new American aristocracy Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr christened the Boston Brahmin caste — who built   (never mind in how genteel a tradition , now too much discounted,  say I,  an earnest modernist)   one of the Western world’s great civilizations in Boston in the 19th-century,  one we are still to some extent living off in this country.  (Why else was the essay on self reliance of Emerson,  the American Plato and Boston’s iconic thinker,  bound in with Barack Obama’s innagural address ?)

Does the 19th-century civilization the  Brahmins built really stand that high in the world’s table of contents?  Consider the  companion volumes   to Boston in the age of Emerson,  which  Walter Muir Whitehill expanded into the age of JFK,  in the University of Oklahoma’s Centers of Civilization series of volumes:   Athens in the Age of Pericles,  Rome in that of Augustus,  Constantinople in the Age of Justinian,  Florence in the Age of Dante.  Not every city by any means,  nor  every nationality even or every empire either,  is quite in this league.  As was once said of the Victorians in general,  we should wait to make fun of Boston’s   Brahmins untill we have achieved something like half what   they did.

Truly,   Boston without  Brahmins —  which is the fact today in daily life,  alas,  but does not have to be in  the writing  of Boston’s history,  where the  Brahmin  caste at its  height is hardly taken as seriously as  it  should be any more —  is like Vienna without Jews or Anglicanism without gays:  a great deal less interesting,  lacking an essential element of character and personality and  not at all as creative or fructifying.

Second,  we must stop condescending and talking down to to successful second,  third and even fourth generation immigrant descendents.  “Hopers”  they are sometimes called;  as in  “be more Irish than Harvard”,  as poet Robert Frost is said to have advised President Kennedy,  or in what   Massachusetts govenor Michael Dukakis used to be  called:  the first Greek Episcopalian.  It is a sign of racial and ethnic confidence,  not insecurity,  to be able to profit from the legacy and values of  the  high-achievers  of other nationalities.   Brahmins   did not certainly welcome all immigrants with the generosity one might wish for,  but on the other hand  they set a standard many immigrants found worthy of  the newcomers!

Such a one was John F.  “Honey Fitz”  Fitzgerald.  “Honey Fitz” was not in many respects a very good mayor,  but he might have been a very good physician.  We forget that it was  only his family’s straightened circumstances finally that made him leave Harvard Medical School in Copley Square,  where he had set his sights on a  much higher calling than that of local pol.

“Right in the middle of the of the most aristocratic quarter of the city,  in sight of the some of the finest and most elegant residences”  was where  Fitzgerald as a young newspaper boy stood in the early hours of every morning ,  according to Doris Kearns Goodwin,  and despite now legendary snowball fights with the  privileged boys who  lived in  those houses,  young Johnny  developed in Goodwin’s words,  “a heroic image of Boston’s merchant princes who had built their fortunes out of their enterprizes,  and then turned their energies back to the benefit of their city.  In his fertile imagination,  he could see  himself   standing  in   their  place . . . . Even as a young  boy”,  Goodwin continues,  ” he felt a special tie to Boston . . . . convinced that the heritage of patriots and abolitionists,  the clipper ships and the counting houses belonged” — and here is the crucial thought — “to him as much as it did to  anyone.”

Boston,  you see,  without Jews — to  switch ethnic groups but to move sideways on the same continuim —  is no more Boston than Boston without Brahmins ,  something Yankee critic Van Wyck Brooks seemed  never  to be able to grasp,  never mind the fact,  already evident by his day,  that the meaning  even of the  term Boston Brahmin was changing.

Just last week The New York Times Book Review , in taking note of a new biography of Louis Brandeis,  the Boston lawyer who was the  first Jew on the U. S. Supreme Court,  described him as “one of America’s most important social reformers”,  the “co-author of what may well be the single most influential law review article in history — on the right of privacy”,  and among the three greatest  jurists in the court’s history. His co-author was a Yankee  Boston Brahmin.

Do you know what Franklin Delano Roosevelt  used to call  Brandeis?   Isaiah!   What I call Brandeis is a Boston Brahmin of the highest rank,  right up there with his hero and mentor, Harvard president Charles W.  Eliot.  That formidible figure had a decisive influence of the confirmation of Brandeis’s appointment to the  Supreme Court  when Boston’s State Street  Brahmins  opposed President Wilson’s nomination.  Of  Eliot’s support one participant said,  “Next to a letter from God, we have got the best”.

Like so many leading Bostonians over the years,  Brandeis was an adopted rather than a native  Bostonian,  further evidence of how true it is that natives with half a brain usually get out of town as quickly as possible, while  those from elsewhere in the world with brains enough to  win their way  to  school in Boston very often  fall in love with the place,  especially the ones like Brandeis who value cosmopolitanism.  (Challenged once as to whether he was a Bostonian,  Oregon born and raised poet David McCord rejoined  “the Oregon Trail  begins  in Boston”.)

Brandeis quickly responded out of his own ethnic and family  heritage as a Bavarian Jew  to what  biographer  Allon Gal called  “the Boston Brahmins  strong sense of noblesse oblige . . . [and its] emphasis on the world of ideas,”  impressed with  “the highly intellectual and morally rigorous milieu of the ‘Last Puritans’ as George Santayana called the Boston Brahmins”  in Ben Halpern’s words.  Even Time Magazine  by 1930 eventually concluded Brandeis   had  become  “a Jew who is almost a Boston Brahmin”,  and when biographer Philippa Strum  concurred,  citing Brandeis’s  “qualities of moral earnestness and somewhat austere personal style of life”,  few argued.

“By the 1870s the Puritan ethic in Boston had been transformed into Brahminism”,  Strum has written,  and  “had become a secularized tradition of disinterested public service . . . . [and] an obsession with culture and education . . . . Boston Brahmins  retained the Puritan emphasis on the individual, on self-reliance, . . .[but]  individualism was but one tenant of intellectual Brahminism.   Individuals had to be active in public life . . . to demonstrate their sense of humanity by helping those less fortunate than themselves.”

Moreover,  Strum continued, “the  Brahmins who Brandeis began to meet in the 1870s were origin conscious but not exclusive . . . . Being a Jew was not a bar to  intellectual  Brahmanism . . . . And even though some  [Yankee] Brahmins clung to birth as a criterion for inclusion in the clan,  Brahminism became almost  entirely an  intellectual creed.  The path to that world . . . lay through Harvard”.

How  widespread such influences could be  is clear in Israeli scholar Allon Gal’s observation that  “the morality and industry of the pioneer Zionists in Palestine completed for Brandeis the picture of his own people as the new  ‘Puritans’  ”  and played the key role in his becoming a leader of world-wide Zionism and its crusade to found the modern state of Israel.  Brandeis,  Gal notes,  likened the  “rebirth of the Jewish nation in Palestine . . . to the birth of the new England”.

Perhaps more  pointed for us is the recent life and work of Edward Kennedy,  who must now keep company with Webster  and a very few others as among the greatest of United States senators in the Republic’s history.  Sufficient to say his Grandfather Fitzgerald’s  tours of historic  Boston had a lasting influence on young Ted , through which tours  I would guess  shone the  romance of the newspaper boy and the idealism of the would be Harvard physician perhaps even more than the  charms of the  politician.

I say that because nothing is clearer than that the record must show that  Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy,  whose admiration of the  Brahmin caste  was exceeded in intensity only by their absolute rejection of the Kennedy’s in her generation,     raised  a son who   for all his unintellectuality  — never mind his so many demons  –was nonetheless because of his profound sense of noblesse oblige  no less  outstanding a  Boston Brahmin than  Brandeis.  Neither “Honey Fitz”  nor Ted Kennedy were the jovial  ward healers of the  “all politics is local school”  many would  reduce them to in a misguided attempt to  promote  fashionable  ethnic narratives. Senator Kennedy,  for instance,   was an admirer of all things French not least French women and  the very best of wines,  and it is said on reliable auythority that he was given a telling  nickname  among the younger members of the clan —  le grand fromage!

If Justice Brandeis and Mayor Fitzgerald illustrate very well the first and second parts of my prescription for Boston’s much needed new history,   there is yet a third and final part  I will  for support  appeal to  a more literary and abstract source — an old French saying — that everything has the strengths of its weakness and the weaknessess of its strength.  If the strength of Boston is that it is forever America’s city upon a hill,  founded as Emerson  (and  William James) so boldly asserted  not for commerce only ,  but for  larger  purposes,  its weakness  is  no less obvious.  And  that weakness is something that fataly united —  united, mind you — Yankee Brahmin and Irish Catholic for too  long and to Boston’s prominent disgrace:   the greatly over-blown moralism that is so easily twisted to serve one’s own interests.  Witness the Watch and Ward Society of old.

Indeed,  it was just that  twisted moralism that opposed Brandeis’s nomination to the high court and which finally brought down the Brahmin caste as a ruling class —   that as much as demographics —  when,   to quote a phrase still heard in the city of the China Traders,  the Brahmins lost the Mandate of Heaven as surely as any Chinese dynasty , through their loss of nerve and shameful judgement in the the affair of Sacco and Vanzetti.  Like the Dreyfus Trial in Paris,  like the Wilde Trial in London,  the Sacco Vanzetti  trial in Boston disclosed unistakably the  decay and decline,  and foretold the fall, of  a great civilization.

Fortunate,  indeed, were those who knew it at its height.  And twice  fortunate are we that history supplied   in such as Louis Dembitz Brandeis and Edward Moore Kennedy the deficiency those trials disclosed.

A footnote.   Visiting once  with my kinsman in London,  Major Bruce Shand,  the father of  HRH The Duchess of Cornwall and the travel writer and conservationist Mark Shand,  Bruce introduced me to Mrs Vivien Forbes Adam,  a family friend who had  been deputed to see me through a great ceremony of state  at Windsor Castle it was hoped I would attend without the sort of mishap often  associated with  Americans.  Rattling on in the car on the way there about the television series  “Upstairs, Downstairs”,  with which I was then entranced as being the first to show both floors,  so to speak,  I remember Mrs Forbes Adam correcting me at one point that Americans too often misunderstood  “all that”.

When I asked in what respect,  her reply fascinated and I have never forgotten it.  It was,  she said,  upstairs,  not downstairs,  that had brought all that to an end;  upstairs, not downstairs, that proved,  so to speak,  unworthy.  Keeping up appearances can be a great strain,  she  insisted,  (grand daughter as she was of a Viceroy of India) .  Which perhaps somewhat explains the  experiences of my friend Carl Scovel,  the former Minister of King’s Chapel in Boston,  whose work for the Unitarian Universalist Association takes him all over the United States,  and who tells me he is always struck by the many Brahmin descendents he encounters who ask eagerly,  even wistfully,  after Boston,  but are very clear they never want to go  ‘home’.  Rather like the British in India,  they are guilty but happy to  have  escaped — what? — the  “Boston doubt”  , as T. S. Eliot called it?   Or,  perhaps,  it is what I call the “Boston demand”.

Next up —  Gods 2 / Thinking Brahmin



Auerbach, Jerold S. ARE WE ONE? (Rutgers) 2001

Brown, Thomas N.]  Higgins, Richard. “An Eye on Ethnic Boston A Changing City Fascinates Historian Thomas Brown” BOSTON GLOBE MAGAZINE (7 June 1988)

Dershowitz, Alan M> “The Practice” NE YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW (27 Sept 2009)

[Frost, Robert] Shannon, William. THE AMERICAN IRISH

Gal, Allon. BRANDEIS OF BOSTON (Harvard) 1980

Goodwin, Doris Kearns. THE FITZGERALD’S AND THE KENNEDY’S (St Martin’s) 1990

Halpern, Ben “Brandeis Way to Zionism” MIDSTREAM MAGAZINE Octover 1971

Hurst, Willard, to Aida Donald, MS report on Strum biograohy (Feb 15, 1962) visit hbcd.law.wisc.edu/hurst/SERIES %207.

[New York Timws] “Eliot Lauds Brandeis” (10 May 1920)

Strum, Philippa . JUSTICE FOR THE PEOPLE (Schocken) 1989

[Time Magazine] “Zionism” (7 July 1930)

Whitehill, Walter Muir. BOSTON IN THE AGE OF JOHN FITZGERALD KENNEDY (Oklahoma) 1966

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