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 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 by editor Peter Kadzis), and today appears on the BBH website, modeled on the George Mason University Center for History and New Media blogs. CONTENTS THIS WEEK — blog 1 of “God’s of Copley Square” — A State of Mind; The Away Game; Up or Out; Soul City and Dual Citienship.
I love the Public Garden in winter. Snow throughout. Bare trees. Iron grey sky. Against all this the straw-colored tint of the weeping willows makes for a delicate palette, one in which the dark bronze of the park’s statuary suddenly stands out. Like so much of Boston’s Back Bay, where the architecture does not dominate as it did originally, the Public Garden is overgrown. Only in winter does the elegant sculpture garden it truly is emerge, all the more so now thanks to the Friends of the Public Garden, through whose efforts so much of the sculpture is now brilliantly illuminated every evening at dusk. Suits me far more at Christmas than the multi-colored elctrical extravaganzas and problematic religiosity of Boston Common ‘s decorations.
The best view of the park today is from the Bristol Lounge; my grandfather’s view actually; in mind especially this year because 2009 is my grandparents ‘ 100th wedding anniversary.
He was very American; German-American. And fiercely proud that his four times great grandfather, Godfrey Augustus Specht, had fought in the American Revolution. My grandmother was not American at all ; Margaret Louise Shand was Scots-Canadian. Well met clearly in Boston in the 1910s , in their twenties, he lived at 72 Mount Vernon Street, just a few doors up from Louisburg Square in the heart of Brahmin Boston, when those two town houses were the Boston University School of Theology, to which after college in Ohio Lucian had been drawn for his graduate degree. She lived in a boarding house on Bohemian St. Botolph Street, drawn herself to Boston because her sister, Isabelle, who had married a well known Boston resteranteur, D. C. Wymnan, was going crazy living alone all day in what she called her “gilded cage”, in reality a lovely half-timbered mansion on Townsend Street in fashionable Roxbury Highlands.
Lucian and Margaret eloped, a huge deal in those days. “Revealed in a recent note which appeared in newspaper society columns” according to the Boston Journal, it was according to the same paper later denied. So long ago now. A century. But every time I look out the windows of the Bristol toward the Garden I think of the romance of these grandparents, one dead long before I was born, the other almost, because this is, so to speak, where it all ended.
My grandfather abandoned the ministry at my grandmother’s behest, and became D. C. Wyman’s partner, which did indeed yield a few years of bourgeois prosperity in a fashionable Back Bay apartment (where my mother, Geraldine, was born in 1914) but did not survive the anti-German hysteria of World War I. Nor the 1918 Influenza Epedemic, which like the decline in their fortunes drew my grandparents to then suburban Dorchester. Post-bankruptcy, my grandfather ended up manager of a Child’s restaurant that in the 1920s stood about where the Four Seasons does now. I doubt he was very happy. Nor perhaps with my mother’s marriage subsequently, daringly cross-ethnic in the 1930s, to an Italian-American medical student from Cambridge whose parents, though rather better off than my maternal grandparents by then (my Italian-American grandfather was a furniture designer) , did not speak very good English.
Thus Douglass, who is now the Bostonian neither of his grandparents were and his parents only barely. Or not! What do you think? And before you answer, full disclosure: I spent my most formative years as a boy a thousand miles away from Boston. Because of a similar situation the distinguished 19th-century Boston literateur Thomas Bailey Aldrich once confessed he felt only “Boston plated”. Same here sometimes.
All of which drove me one morning recently to quote poet Seamus Heaney on Archimedes to a quarrelsome friend; punishment perhaps for my breezy observation here last time that, historically, Bostonians with half a brain get out of town as soon as they can, while those with sufficient brains from the other 49 to be able to head to Boston for their education arrive soon enough to replace the natives, often for good. (I remember exactly when I fisrt had this thought, during a conversation with New York Times Book Review editor Charles McGrath. I had not known he was from Boston, and when he wondered if that made him still a Bostonian I remember thinking he had so obvioulsy made the right life choice Iwondered why it mattered. Then, of course, I realized it did, very much).
A STATE OF MIND
A key part of the thesis of these blogs, that Boston needs a new history, an idea to which I was incited by the (New York-born but Boston-trained) historian Thomas Brown, proceeds from my conviction that Boston’s modern history since the Civil War — or Washington’s history or New York’s — can only really be studied effectively in the context of all three cities, which would become the prototype of the 20th-century American megalopolis. Some of my colleagues call this Douiglass’s capital obsession.
Obsession or not, this thesis, evolved out of the five years of research, writing and teaching of “God’s of Copley Square”, argues for three post bellum American national capitals: Washington, the new nation’s then newly energized political capital; New York, more and more in this period the country’s economic and media capital, and Boston, which consolidated itself at this time as the American intellectual capital, all three by the 1930s cultural rivals, by when Los Angeles must be added as a fourth, having become by then the American entertainment capital.
The archetypes of this capitaline system I propose are the Bostonian reformer Charles W. Eliot, founder of modern Harvard; the New York capitalist J .P. Morgan, and the Washington politician-statesman, U. S. President Theodore Roosevelt. Equally clear to me is the pattern of significant mobility between the three capitals. Seminal relaist novelist William Dean Howells moves from Boston to the new media capital of New York; Henry Adams, pioneer of modern political history writing, moves from Boston to Washington; H. H. Richardson and Frederick Law Olmstead, the pre-eminent shapers of America’s future architecture and landscape, move from New York to the newly solidifying intellectual capital of Boston.
Many other aspects of mobility play into this of course. The economy, the climate, marriage. Boston, where Henry James was first published, became noticeably less attractive to him when his parents took up permanant residence in its “academic suburb”. Similarly with ones field of interest. It is an interesting fact, for instance, that there are more architects and psychiatrists in Boston than in any other American city, a reflection of Boston’s stature in intellectual matters, comparable to Washington’s lead in the field of government and public service and New York’s in commercial media and performing arts. But all things being equal . . . .
Truth being no better an offense than defense when self-interest is involved, my observation was either well or ill received just as one might expect. First a Boston-born but present-day New Yorker– who has thrived there as I’m not sure I think he would have in Boston — reacted rather grumpily, even defensively. On the other hand the reaction of several adopted Bostonians was very different: they seemed actually pleased I think that in some measure their affections were returned. Similarly, no one quarrelled with Archimedes when I fell back on that ancient philosopher to return service, loudly declaiming: “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the world”.
A place to stand? Like a room of one’s own, it seems at first easy enough, not really hard enough to find to make of it such an issue. Which is where Seamus Heaney comes in. Family and baseball stand aside, of course. I rejoice to hear that New York’s mayor, born in the Boston suburb of Malden, remains a Red Sox fan. Equally I was pleased to learn that Harvard professor Stephen Jay Gould, who had season tickets to Fenway Park, always rooted for the Yankees, a reflection of his boyhood loyalties. But family and baseball aside, a place to stand can be often a fraught and sometimes even a fatal choice to seize in life. Especially for creative types. Hence Heaney’s take on it all, as understood by critic Daniel Tobin: “the philosopher’s declaration is tacitly the poets, for by lodging his hammer at the central point of self, Heaney would move the world imaginatively.” That central point is a place, Tobin adds, and for the most part, “place, like self, is not only discovered, it is made”
That is perhaps why it is so much advertized a truism that, all things considered, it is probably best to go away to school.
THE AWAY GAME
In my case, my experience of spending formative prep school years in a very different country than my own in every sense — a British “public school” in Canada ‘s capital city with an international student body of “diplomatic brats” quite hostile to all things American — may have saved me in later college years from joining the native Bostonian exodus. Like Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr going abroad to study medicine: “at a crucial moment in his intellectual development”, William Dowling writes, “it had given him an outside perspective on New England”. So it was when it was my time to go to college I commuted to Harvard from Dorchester.
“The longest trip imaginable”, my classmate Boston lawyer Lawrence DiCara called it, for by our day Dorchester was hardly very suburban. But for old families like mine that trip was a well travelled route. I was born a Harvard legacy, the third generation to be college educated, and my father was then on the staff of the Massachusetts General Hospital, where he had done his residency as a physician. Indeed, when I later joined the Eliot House Senior Common Room, I used to ride the Red Line home acrosss the river with no less than Professor Willard Quine, perhaps the leading analytical philosopher in the world.
Thus it was that it was an intriguing as well as the easiest course for me to “choose” Harvard and thus to “choose” Boston, more than alittle as a follow up to my expatriate boyhood. In Canada I had always noticed that while anti-Americanism was the norm, everyone seemed to have a high regard for Boston and it was thus always in my best interest to be “the kid from Boston”, not “the American kid”. At Harvard the same rules applied.
Perhaps it was for these reasons I have always been partial to expatriate writers, particularly non-stereotypical authors like Heaney. Like my well-off Protestant Italian American grandparents , who lived off Brattle Street , and my pro-Catholic High Church Anglican Scots grandmother in Dorchester , Heaney was announced as very odd: a Northern Ireland man but a Catholic. He regularly divided his time each year throughout the 1980s and ’90s between Dublin and Harvard and Oxford, which was preety cosmopolitan for those days. Furthermore, I liked his Harvard verse, about which dangerous subject he dared to write almost as eloquently as David McCord.
In every place, moreover, Heaney gave good testimony as to his “central place of self”, witnessing always as critic Fergus O”Ferrall put it, to the fact that “our sense of place derives from the fact that we are not simply inhabitants of ‘a geographical country’: we inhabit also ‘a country of the mind.'”
That is very like, is it not, that old saw that Boston is less a city than ‘a state of mind’, a saying that has been attributed to Emerson with good reason (though also to Mark Twain). Certainly historian M. A. DeWolfe Howe , in whose work the phrase first is used with respect to Boston, in the very same breath of his citing the term, went on to discuss Emerson on Boston at once. Furthermore, I like very much the way Roberta K. Ray explicates Emersons own use of the term “state of mind” in other contexts. Writing of Emerson’s “rhetoric of of provocation”, that he “did not see truth as … set down in a book, or defended by logic”, but rather as “a state of mind, an attitude of searching for and listening to the voice within”, Ray asserts that in Emerson’s view the preacher-orator, never mind the historian, can only be in this respect a sort of “divining rod” in the search for such depths.
The poet too, surely, aims to be such, to provoke the reader’s discovery of his or her own “central space”, which often, by the way, is a case of the furthest away the better. I think of those two Harvard icons, the Victorian novelist Owen Wister and the modernist poet Archibald MacLeish, and how each pronounced in different ways the American West (in the latter’s words) as such “a coutry of the mind, and so eternal.” The only rule , I’d add, is that bracing and consoling is better, as so many makers of dreams have learned, than dark and brooding. The more so because Kenneth Grahame, he of “Wind and the Willows “, is surely right to say that those who strike out for this other country, wherever, however, are apt to be those, however sociable they seem, who “choose to walk alone.”
UP OR OUT IN HARVARD YARD
Boston University Professor of English William Vance went a long way toward acting on Tom Brown’s admonition about Boston’s need for a new history in his 1986 essay “Redefining Bostonian”, which in my opinion every reader of Van Wyck Brooks or Martin Green needs to read. And not only because Vance deals there with the “transformation” of New Yorkers into Bostonians, for instance, Isabella Stewart Gardner and Juia Ward Howe, the latter of whom took as her model Margaret Fuller. Vance notes too that in the the context Henry James was so abused for developing in “The Bostonians” ( in an era when women were seen as the primary “carriers of culture” )Boston’s “feminine” character was a distinct asset as opposed to the “powerful masculinities of commerce” of New York and Chicago. He also shows, switching from gender to field, how very well William Dean Howells “proved more than anyone how successfuly a sufficiently literary outsider could become a true Bostonian”. McCord would do the same thing — remember “the Oregon trail begins in Boston.”
Vance also addresses how “new Bostonians” have, historically, “changed the meaning of ‘Bostonians'”, not least in the way the comparison of post Civil War Boston to “Paris or St. Petersburg consituted] comparisons hardly dreamed of, or even desired, in the 1840s.” Indeed, he rightly cites Boston University itself in this respect, all three of whose founders were “emphatically new Bostonians” concerned that pre-Eliot Harvard’s “tradition-bound and caste-bound” character, which was not serving the new educational needs of a metropolis nearing a population of two million.
Natives, of course, are only too easily found to wail, Van Wycks Brooks-like, against all this. A supreme example is the agitation that arose in the 1930s when James Bryant Conant’s “up or out” tenure system was introduced at Harvard, carrying forward a philosophy no one seemed to notice Charles William Eliot had launched at the medical school a half century earlier.
Notable by the 1930s in Keller and Keller’s words in “Making Harvard Modern”, not for “world class scholars but [for] charismatic classroom performers”, Carnegie Corporation president Frederick Keppel reported in that decade to Conant that an increasingly inbred Harvard faculty meant that the school was “still princeps but no longer facile princeps , and the story is current that at one of America’s great universities (no doubt Chicago) it is considered the height of academic distinction to receive an invitation from Harvard and to decline it”, reason enough for Conant’s decision to opt for “outsider-dominated ad hoc committee’s” which New School economist Alvin Johnson told Harvard’s president in 1945 he thought “the most important step forward in university education of the last generation” .Allied to Conant’s nationalization of the student body, his new system bypassed an increasingly inbred local academic community to bring in outstanding scholars from wherever, near or far.
That meant, of course, a great many unhappy Bostonians, but never mind the crucial importance of Harvard in Boston’s stature in the world and in its own sense of itself, to have thus taken the lead in forming “the modern American meritocracy”, as historian Louis Menand calls it, “the basis of the educational system we have today”, was surely the office of the nation’s intellectual capital, declining which office would surely have spelt disaster. One wonders in the absence of Conant’s iniative if British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead would have pronounced Boston in the 1940s the Western world’s capital city of learning.
Whitehead was, in fact, a great ally of Conant, and as well the supervisor of the doctoral thesis of my fellow subway commuter to Harvard, Willard Van Quine, than which there was no more superb example of the rightness of Conant’s policy. Of modest background, an Oberlin graduate from Akron, Ohio, this by no means gilded youth had nonetheless made Quine into a just the sort Harvard needed to attract. “Conant’s meritocratic Harvard was made for Quine”, Keller and Keller recount, “and he for it”. I was too young, obviously, ever to have had William James for a subway mate — James famously loved Boston’s subways — but although I am embarrassed to remember some of my attempts to challenge Professor Quine’s views I remember very well indeed what a good talker Quine was and that this adopted Bostonian came to love Boston sufficiently so as to give the lie to those who suggested that loyalty to field would from now on mean absoutely everything in academe. Quine not only settled , for half a century, in the academic grove of the Old Cambridge neighborhood but in the social grove of Brahmin Chestnut Street in the Beacon Hill neighborhood, in both of which he was a much loved figure, and one not too grand to come to more than one lecture by a very precocious young scholar named Douglass.
BETWEEN SOUL CITY AND ARCADIA
At least one figure, Transcendentalist Bronson Alcott, attempted to map his own inner landscape to the extent that according to his biographer, Odel Shephard, Alcott “praised Boston [as the] capital of the Country of the Mind.” Which was not to go so far at all as Bernard Berenson, who declared in his old age, when he had been living abroad for over half a century, that Boston was in his experience “so hospitable, so human, so highly civilized”, his slum upbringing, the anti-Semetism of so many Harvard mentors , all counted as for nothing ; Boston, he declared, was the “‘forma mentis”‘ which had influenced [his] character for life.” Nor did his biographer disagree, observing that “the cultural resources of Boston” were the reason , Ernest Samuels wrote, why even when resident in glorious Florence, Boston and not Florence was ever Berenson’s “Arcadia, his city of the soul.”
Which is to bring us to the foothills, so to speak, of what has become the greatest Boston cliche of them all — the root of Boston exceptionalism which is in turn the root of American exceptionalism — and too bad it has come to that; for when Boston’s founder famously preached on the verge of landing in the New World the necessity of building a “city upon a hill”, John Winthrop’s words were more prayer than boast, obviously, and more admonition probably than hope, though perhaps that too. And if the prayer remains just that it does not ( even nearly four centuries later ) loose its capacity to inspire.
Certainly it inspired Emerson, who is there around very corner in Boston. And no one saw it more clearly than that old cynic George Santayana, who wrote of the American Plato and Boston’s iconic thinker: “[Emerson] was far from being like a Plato or an Aristotle, past master in the art or science of life. But [Emerson’s] mind was endowed with unusual plasticity . . . He was like a young god making experiments in creation: he blotched the work, and always began on a new better plan. Every day he said, ‘Let there be light’, and every day the light was new”.
Indeed, “how quickly the New World got old”, seems to have been Emerson’s chief compaint, Charles Simic wrote, though for answer Emerson famously saluted not just new Bostonians but Walt Whitman, very un-Bostonian he, who for all he was Emerson’s disciple stayed in New York , as Emerson , for all he admired Whitman, stayed in Boston.
I am reminded of a theory Elizabeth Bancroft Schlessinger lent a willing ear to, in a piece entitled “Proper Bostonians” . Boston according to this theory produces always the very best, more so than any other city, but in order to avoid being “fossiized” that best must flee to New York. The best must begin with “vigorous growth” in Boston , but “if it would stay vigorous.. .[that best had better] migrate betimes to New York”. It is an interesting idea; that we must all start out in Boston–New York will not do. But we must all leave Boston and end up in New York.
Perhaps I am so drawn to this idea , despite no desire at all to end up in New York, because of my capitals obsession. There is a kind of prophecy here. These are, afterall, New York and Boston, two of the three neighborhoods of megalopolis, and Boston’s role therein (as in the country as a whole ) has always been as educator, from which proceeds as well its role as intellectual capital and reformer-in-chief. Moreover, today the power as between all these neighborhoods, resides perhaps more in my third capital, Washingtopn , than in either of the two older capitals.
On the other hand, I have often been struck by the fact that it is entirely possible, especially as between Boston and New York, to be born in the wrong place. I always think the outstanding example of this are those musical luminaries , Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland.
DUAL CITIZENSHIP BY THE AUTOCRAT’S RULES
Respectively Boston and New York Jews, Bernstein and Copland, righted themselves very surely indeed. Bernstein, for all his Boston credentials — native son, Boston Latin School, Harvard College, the Boston Symphony — was, in fact, a New Yorker the moment he laid eyes on the Manhattan skyline, and New Yorkers were more than happy to help in his translation to the southernmost metropolis, where thanks to Bostonian anti-Semitism ( or was it homophobia?) it was the New York Philharmonic he led to such great distinction. Meanwhile, of course, in composing “West Side Story” Bernstein created the most characteristic musical expression of New York in the 20th-century.
Copland, on the other hand, though Brooklyn-born and a Manhattan resident, was in his day quite ignored by the powers that be in New York according to his biographer, Howard Pollock, Copland all the while pining for Boston. “Just as every ten-year old American boy dreams of being president some day,” he wrote, “so every twenty-nine year old American composer dreams of being played by [Boston Symphony maestro Serge] Koussevitsky.” Indeed, it turned out exatly as Copland dreamed.
Koussevitsky’s loyalty to Copland, once discovered, prooved “unshakabe” (in David Mermelstein’s words) and he eventually installed the New York Composer at the heart of the Boston musical establishment as head of the Composition Department of the BSOs Tanglewood School, a post Copland held for over a quarter of a century, while the BSO meanwhile premiered one after another of his symphonies. Copland was chosen, furthermore, by Harvard to be the first American musician (and only the second in the world, after Stravinsky) to hold the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship, one of the most prestigious posts in the arts in America. When he died Copland directed his ashes be scattered at Tanglewood.
Where one is born and raised would seem sometimes to be a mistake one had better see the need of correcting. Yet there is also something to be said for the point of view of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., who in “The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table” argued that “dual citizenship” had much to recommend it. Those who “live in two great cities”, Holmes opined, “are by no means so jealous of each other”, this in response to his tablemate’s now notorious amnouncement that “Boston State House is the hub of the solar system”. The autocrat, by the way, was having none of it. Far more sophisticated than the civic boosters who embarrass themselves still by repeating the remark, but never the autocrat’s reply, Holmes rejoined: “the satire of the remark is essentially true of Boston, and of all other considerable — and inconsiderable — places” [emphasis added], with which assertion who would argue? “Cockney’s think London is the only place in the world”, the autocrat continues, “while Paris is the universe to a Frenchman. . . .See Naples and die”, and so on. “It is quite as bad with smaller places”.
Holmes goes even further in “The Professor at the Breakfast Table” . To the suggestion that Boston is “the thinking center of the continent, and therefore of the planet”, he not only has another tablemate remark that it must also be “the grand emporium of modesty”, but takes the side of a young Marylander who replies that surely such talk is beside the point because “every American owns all America”. Finally, the professor shuts down the conversation by remarking in support of his dual citizenship idea that “it dwarfs the mind, I think, — said I — to feed it on any localism.”
Localism indeed . I am reminded of Sam Bass Warner’s book “Greater Boston”, in which he writes of John Updike and the like in the modern period: “in all this writing the local community. . . city, farm town, or suburb, is a presence, a defining force. . . . [A]ll three Yankee authors [share] a strong moral edge, as if by adopting this place to be their home they have felt some emanations of the anxieties of the Puritans percolating through the soil beneath their feet”. But that is a different kind of localism, and the next blog.
Meanwhile, however, let us conclude this first pass at redefining Bostonian with the best example perhaps of Holmes’sdual citizenship, T. S. Eliot.
I might have chosen John Singer Sargent (Boston and London) or Saul Bellow (Chicago and Boston) or Robert Lowell (Boston and New York) or Henry James (Boston and New York and London and several Continental locales), or William Barton Rogers (Virginia and Boston) or Frederick Law Olmstead (New York and Boston) but each would be a column in themselves. Wheras Eliot is in this respect at least no trouble at all, he being about as Boston-blessed or Boston-burdened as it is possible to be.
Eliot was the son of a Bostonian missionary of the Boston religion, Channing Unitariansism, a man who founded in St. Louis — then the gateway to the frontier — George Washington University and that cities first Unitarian church. But he was careful to bring his family back to Boston’s North Shore every summer, where he built a big summer house. Like the British in Kenya, or in India, he was careful too that his son should go home for his eduaction — in the case of T. S. Eliot, Milton Academy and Harvard.
The result, quoth the younger Eliot, was that he “always felt like a New Englander in the Southwest, and a Southwester in New England”. Which is why, perhaps, the only solution was England. Eliot, unlike William Barton Rogers, for instance, the visionary founder of MIT, did not “choose” Boston for his vision. Instead, it having been chosen for him, he confronted it. And the “Boston doubt” he famously articulated was one result, self criticism being the ultimate Bostonian trait. Of his and Robert Lowell’s dialogue on the subject more will be said here when we get to Boston Brahmins.
Only one of Eliot’s Four Quartets — The Dry Salvages — speaks in a distinctly Bostonian voice. But it is enough validation of the Autocrat’s thesis to have that much share of perhaps the greatest religious poetry written in English in the 20th-century.
S O U R C E S
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[Brown, Thomas N. “An Eye on Ethnic Boston” BOSTON GLOBE (7 June 1988)
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[Quine, Willard van] Home page/ www.wvquine.org/
Ray, Roberta “The Role of the Orator” COMMUNICATION STUDIES (August 1974)
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Simic, Charles. “Defense of Poetry” (Poetry International) 2009
Tobin, Daniel. PASSAGE TO THE CENTER (Kentucky) 1998
Vance, Wiliam L. “Redefining Bostonian”, THE BOSTONIANS (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) 1986
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