Douglass be nimble

These online columns,  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 less than a fifteen minute read.  The latest iteration of  DSTs column on  WGBH,  Boston’s PBS outlet,  for Christopher Lydon’s Ten O’Clock News, the column moved in the 1990s to the Boston Phoenix   as   ‘ Skyline’    (so named be editor Peter Kadzis)  and today  appears on the BBH website,  modeled  now on the George Mason University University Center for History and New Media blogs.  CONTENTS THIS WEEK:  the first of a series of blogs drawn from  “The Gods of Copley Square”,  a lecture course given in October 2009 at the New England Historic Genealogical Society on Newbury Street in Back Bay Boston– 1. The Word;   2. Backstory  ; 3. Brahmin-Bashing;  4. Digital Time.  For the course sylabus  click  “Events” on the menu bar above.

Thanksgiving  —  Massachusetts’   own,  and more and more the  quintessential American holiday because of its lack of ideological ownership,  a good foundation for any beginning:  this year here for  GOD’S  OF  COPLEY  SQUARE,  the prologue to which —  “God’s 1” — I posted the first of the month.  Now  begins a series of many but relatively short blogs,  each highlighting chapter by chapter some aspect of  “God’s”,  my next  book and just concluded lecture course . This post   is rather a more personal forward to what follows.

The physical book I cannot promise anymore;   nor should need to in the light of this near work of art which is the BBH website,  handsomely designed originally by Kaustuv DeBiswas through the agency of Mark Jarzombek of MIT and now so superbly re-imagined by Ryan Pinkham through the assistance this time of Mark Pasnik of Wentworth Institute and over,under,  the  Boston architetural office.  Neither, dear reader,  should you insist on the book form of old.   To do so in the Digital era is surely to betray a very anti-intellectual preoccupation with form over substance,  the implications of which,  moreover, verge on illiteracy in a period  already  dominated unduly — say I,   an art and architecture person —  by images over words.


I have quoted before,  in respect to Boston’s 19th-century priest-poet and saint-bishop,  Phillips Brooks,  as notable a patron of art and architecture as himself a great orator,  the observation of critic Clive James that we are dealing more and more today with  “a generation of young people” —  just about anyone under forty now — “who know nothing except images  [and are thus]  cut off from  ‘the mother ship of culture’.”   The only solution?   Attention must be paid,  as the muse has it,  to a truism of another critic,  Camille Paglia:  “the only antidote to the magic of images is the magic of words”.  St. Phillips Brooks was not afraid of the competition in the pulpit of his gorgeously frescoed basilica in Copley Square;  neither should we be,  especially online,  where the issue is most urgent today.

In so far as books are concerned,  textbooks and anthologies aside — which have their place;  my one book that functions as a text book,  BUILT IN BOSTON,  still outsells by far all my other work —  our increasing  passion for the image above all distorts both popular history,  which I have absolutely no desire to attempt,  and academic history as  well. The latter is now  weighed down  less by jargon-filled thesis reiterations, yet is more and more afflicted  by piles of full color picture books,  many too heavy to read whatever text there is.  I have no objection to images: my guide to Harvard University architecture is full of images in dazzling (indeed, rather hyped up) color.  But there is also a substantial text and the book is easily carried about and read.

Such things are not likely to be foresworn by publishers  either  good and bad,  however,  whose plight is more and more a sad one.  How sad I’m afraid shocked  hearers at my recent lecture series when I shared with them a fact many seemed hardly to beieve:  the fine academic press operated under the name of a distinguished university that has published so many of my books over the years now suggests with every royalty cheque that I remember how precariously placed scholarly publishing now is  —  never mind the digital era,  there is now the Great Recession to contend with —  and  endorse my royalties back to my publisher to help keep them afloat!   Even more shocking:  I’d like to be able  to do so!    Dr. Johnson’s law that only blockheads write for nothing seems  suddenly very old.

Blogs like this,  however,  can serve — as need be —  either as platform or substitute for the sort of book,  sans full color extravaganza’s,  I have some small reputation for writing  and no intention at all of abandoning.  It’s either that or mysteries!   So it’s not just Douglass be nimble,  fair reader;   for which,  by the way,  other kinds of rewards there certainly are.

For all my shelf of books written it took  in each case more or less a year for my agent to pitch a carefully worked up proposal that was always more dishonest than not in its appeal;  another year to edit and print the tome,  and the better part of a third to collect and sift — long after they could be of any use to the author — the various journal reviews.  That’s three years in addition to  however long it took to do the research and write the book in the first place  —  three years that is now a  matter of a week or two,  and not just because of spell-check.  Good editing and good readers have always been hard to find,  but now both,   speeded up smartly, offer regularly , without thinking twice about it,  all  but “same day” critiques and responses.  About which much more soon.     Meanwhile,  GODS  OF  COPLEY  SQUARE  is actually a very good example of how digital ways can improve things.


The spark which set off the whole idea of  “Gods”  in the first place was my excitement,  followed by my disappointment,  in  connection with the election night victory rally in Copley Square in November of 2004 for John Kerry.  Of course,  it turned out not to be a victory rally at all,  which today when Senator Kerry is poised to be a most influential senior senator from Massahusetts seems no  tragedy ,  but then seemed like the end of the world. Not until four years later,  on the occasion of another rally,  did things seem to right themselves;  not in Copley Square,  but in Grant Park in Chicago;   the culmination afterall of a trajectory launched by Kerry in 2004 when he chose then Senator Obama to give the famous speech in Boston which so electrified the nation and made him instantly a likely candidate  to be  our first black president.

Meanwhile,  however,  Kerry’s loss,  beause it had been by so small a margin,  continued to  demand  explanation,  and I was fascinated to come to the realization that one of the chief reasons I had voted for him — that it had been too long since a Boston Brahmin had occupied  the  White House — was all by itself a reason many others did not  and denied him the presidency.  He was,  to quote from one  of the  kinder  observations,  from the Washington Times,  the “quintessential moralizing,  haughty Boston Brahmin.”


Now I know more about Boston Brahmin’s,  the term and the historical elite thus described,  than any sane person  (other than a Boston/New England studies historian)  should.  But an hour on the Internet enlightened this authority considerably and one kind of digital reward is obvioulsy that in  half an hour the meaning of the term to the rest of the world can now be seen so clearly.  It  is  not a preety picture.

The PBS documentary “The Choice”,   relatively mild in its treatment,   nonetheless felt it necessary to ask the question,  “Did some people find [Kerry] a Boston Brahmin”,  to which the answer was a resounding “yes”,  with the add on that  “a little bit”  that was widely taken to mean the senator thought  “he was too good for them”.  More blunt was the Seattle Times,  where a report surfaced of  “the Boston Brahmin doing  ‘a man of the people’  routine in a mine”.  It was headlined,  “Opportunity Knocks Kerry for a Loop”.  A New York Times Magazine piece by Matt Bai even prompted a letter to the editor from a reader who found the magazine’s portrait of  “an enigmatic Boston Brahmin” so chilling it was “frightening.”

Even more complicated was the reaction of Anthony Howard in The Spectator,  where the British response to  a Boston Globe-inspired biography of Kerry occasioned a piece entitled  “An ersatz  Boston Brahmin”,  in which, however,   what seemed to register most strongly was  not the senator’s lack of Brahmin credentials ,  but that “Kerry . . . has no claim to be Boston Irish. . . . Instead, he turns out to be the grandson of a Jewish refuge.”   A Yankee Brahmin who is also ‘Irish Boston’ and Jewish was  apparently just too much for Mr. Howard.

One of the reasons  was  perhaps  to be found in an article  of the same year in Slate by Andy Bowers,  “What’s a Boston Brahmin?” which  just baldly  and mindlessly announced that  “Brahmin’s are also well known for their hostility to the Irish and other immigrants”.  I say mindlessly because an hour with the most  respected sources in the field  — Oscar Handlin’s work, for instance, which won a Purliter Prize — would have disclosed Brahmin’s were,  in fact,  quite divided on the subject,  and included almost militantly pro -immigrant as well as  anti-immigrant  figures.

On the other hand,  Bowers was open minded enough to see that the definition of Boston Brahmin was in some sense evolving;  indeed,  broadening sufficiently that,  in Bowers’s words,  “some now think of the Kennedy’s as Brahmin’s”. “Indeed,  exploring Kerry’s background,  Bowers  concluded by writing  ,”whether he’s really a Brahmin depends on whether you think that the term has evolved to include a Catholic with both Protestant and Jewish roots.”

Well!  That issue,  so timely today in the period just after the death of Senator Edward Kennedy,  is at the heart of the ‘new history’  I’ve made such a point of declaring Boston needs in my recent lecture course and in  “God’s 1”  just posted here.  A chord well struck,  I think , on Thanksgiving Day in not only Massachusetts’  but the nation’s spiritual capital  — since become America’s intellectual capital — as famously  now  the land of MIT as of the Boston Tea Party —  it is a chord the difficulties and complexities of which we should all get right,  or,  at least,  try to understand a little better.  Nothing,  in fact,  is more necessary to the unearthing and disclosure of this new history,  in the light of what is often called American exceptionalism,  than open-mindedly exploring the meaning not just of Boston Brahmin,  but  Bostonian,  Brahmin  or not.

All this,  of course,  played very nicely into my own evolving ideas for a book about the concentration of  genius, rather unaccountably thus far overlooked,  in that Yankee Brahjmin agora,  Victorian Copley Square,  and when my agent — the late Upton Brady of happy memory –shopped my proposal around and St. Martin’s Press bit hardest,  I was glad indeed.  I owe the title of the book,  in fact,  to their  then senior editor,  Tim Bent,  now senior editor at Oxford University Press,  who in what seems like another world now commissioned THE  GODS  OF  COPLEY  SQUARE.  He even ventured a small advance,  while the sub-title —  “Dawn of the Modern American Experience” — was the equally inspired gift of longtime  Boston Phoenix editor Peter Kadzis.


All very traditional sounding.  But  as book became lecture course and likely  blog,  one after the other  (“blook” is a term I am still not comfortable with)  things took something of an unexpected turn thanks to the four most esteemed of  the  “first responders”  to this blog:  Kadzis,  an old friend;  Mark Jarzombek of MIT (who once confessed he read one of my blogs three times,  about  which I hardly dared to  inquire exactly why!) ;  BU professor of art and architecture Keith Morgan and Shaun O’Connell,   the University of Massachusetts  literary critic and historian.   In each case their responses  to my blogs have jointly and severally offered a startling lesson  in how the value of readers comments and criticism can be so much more immediately useful now in the digital era at the crucial intersection of research and thought with writing and explication.

Indeed,  I can now act immediately upon as many comments as I see value in, as I complete the blog text on line , which  such readers  can  and usually do  read that day , often having the effect of  prolonging  the posting a day or two for alterations and tweaking.

Now in each case,  reading the last of my lectures and the prologue of this blog series,  each of these four,  each unknown to the other,  but  all known  strikingly to me as  uniform in  their  opinion,  reacted  to one thing particularly:  my insistence that the adoptee as well as the native had equal claim on  being Bostonian  ( the former,  as converts,  perhaps even more)  and that from both groups had arisen,  historically,  both the original Yankee Boston Brahmin,   and , not very much later,  the Jewish Boston  Brahmin.   So positive were their responses,  moreover,  I  realized  almost at once that this was the aspect of my  “new history”  which perhaps I would do well to lead with,  which in turn would bring to the material the focus it had hitherto lacked,

Thus the new subtitle of  THE  GODS  OF  COPLEY  SQUARE  :  “The Boston Brahmin at the Dawn of the  Modern  American Experience”.  And thus too the  present  titles of the two halves of the book  (in this case with a nod to my old mentor Walter Muir Whitehill  with respect to JFK ):  “Aristocratic Visions:  The Yankee  Boston Brahmin Agora”,  and  “Immigrant Horizons :  The  Rise of the Jewish Boston Brahmin and the Age of John Fitzgerald Kennedy”.

The first blog —  “Forma mentis” — will be posted next week.

Happy Thanksgiving.

To all of which let me now add in  an even more  infromal way to what I did say was a rather more personal forword to this series of blogs, that the day after Thanksgiving,  yesterday,  as entirely unexpected but further evidence of what I’m arguing here,  there  appeared on my computer screen the missive of another esteemed   “first responder”  to these blogs at their critical moment of posting,  unmentioned before because he’d not yet  had anything to say in this matter,  the well known public intellectual and media personality, and old friend,  Christopher Lydon.

“The essential point  [is]  that ‘Brahmin’ is an open and in fact democratic category of mind and spirit and as you know too well,  a very valuable quality in history and in public and private life today, ”  Chris writes,  adding:  “I’d be interested in where you differentiate  (and don’t)  the Brahmin standard from what are called the  ‘republican virtues’ . . . embodied in, say,  John Adams and the Massachusetts consitution”.

Now to bring up the Adams connection is especially intriguing,  for one of the issues of the forthcoming  ‘Brahmin blog’ is the ascent of the Adams family to  Brahmin stature.  And,  in general, though as a historian I will probably not be able to entirely agree with Chris about the matter,  his key phrase —  “the Brahmin standard” — I find  fructifying.  That is a very interesting way of thinking about the historical  development of  the term Brahmin,  and, indeed,  about the direction in which  THE  GODS  OF  COPLEY  SQUARE   is  headed.   -DS-T/ 26  November


Handlin, Oscar.  Boston’s Immigrant’s  (Harvard, 1941)

[New York Times Magaine] Bai, Matt. “Kerry’s Undeclared War” (10 Oct 2004). The letter was published on  31 Oct.

[PBS] “The Choice” / Frontline (12 October 2004) visit

[Seattle Times]  Levey, Collin (29 April 2004)

[Slate] Nowers Andy “What’s a Boston Brahmin?” (1 March 2004)

[Spectator] Howard, Anthony. “An ersatz Boston Brahmin” (5 June 2004)

[Washington Times] Blankley, Tony “The trouble with Kerry” (21 Sept. 2003)

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