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.
BOSTON’S NEED FOR A NEW HISTORY:
REDEFINING THE BOSTON BRAHMIN
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
S O U R C E S
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