12. T. S. Eliot’s Boston

Boston needs a new history !  Who is a Bostonian ?  The two provocations of this series come now together.  Seeing the metropolis from a jet or a space satelite,  rather than the time-honored view from the sea  (see  essay 10:  “Airborne revelations”)  what Boston has become today was the hinge.  Our tracking of the development of the modern metropolis in the context of  the historic Boston city-state as a whole,  so much more evident from the air,  has  distinctly upped the ante,  so to speak,  since a world economic super power is not the way most Bostonians today would think of their hometown.  Now we push the door fully open in the last four essays of this series.

To discover what?  How and why out of its own history Bostonians today still so misunderstand Boston;  why,  in fact,  its legendary ‘superiority complex’ became  in the 20th-century something of an  ‘inferiority complex’ — thus accounting for that  “small town thinking”  my architect friend brought up here last time. The reader may well have realized by now that there are deep roots to cultivate here.  It is certainly true,  for example,  that the ‘small town’ component has something to do with the idea of the  New England Town Meeting,  much more of a force in the world than most imagine,  and,  indeed,  any Americanist must say,  happily so. Bostonians above  all must feel this way almost instinctively — and therein is a conflict of which more will be said here later — it having been  Boston Town Meeting that was the cradle of American independence in the 17th century.

But there is perhaps a deeper,  even a darker reason for why that all plays so well into the overall inferiority complex.  I think it is because  “the Boston tradition achieved probably its most brilliant successes”,  or so at least the British  literary historian Martin Green has concluded,  in the work of four early 20th-century Boston authors —  Henry Adams,  George Santayana,  Henry James and Bernard Berenson  —  all of whom Green felt consitute  “the most significant part of the New England heritage . . . .[t]he America out of which T. S. Eliot comes”,  he Green’s fifth writer in that context,  but to my mind the first.

Why?  Green argues,  and in this too he is correct I think, that  the price paid for  “the Boston tradition[s] most brilliant successes”  was,  indeed,  “a kind of suicide.”  And it was Eliot who to my mind led the kamikaze squad,  so to speak,  and with no less bravery than skill;  Eliot who  seems to us now to have thus foretold the rebirth that critic Van Wyck Brooks was not wrong to think would come.  Meanwhile,  however,  at the heart of it all was the shining new metropolis that is our ongoing  theme here.  And of this too Green hit the nail right on the head that Bostonians have not  taken sufficiently into their collective consciousness.  Of  “the America out of which T.  S.  Eliot comes”,  Green wrote,  “the sensibility which found the modern ugliness in twentieth century London was trained in nineteenth century Boston”.

Both critics tended to prefer early to mid 19th-century Boston.  Both were also quick to say so,  in Brooks’s case because he identified only too obviously — to be deferential to  a truly brilliant critic — with those who were clearly anti-Semitic and anti-Irish,  in Green’s case for a variety of reasons.  Although unpredjudiced enough to be among the first mainstream literary critics to take gay studies seriously,  and among the few to show an interest as well in the visual as well as the literary arts,  Green never quite got that Boston’s literary decline was part of an historic shift and was paralleled by its offsetting  rise as a center of architecture and design generally.  It would have been surprising had Brooks noticed not only novelist William Dean Howells move from Boston to New York but architect H. H. Richardson’s and Frederick Law Olmsted’s move from New York to Boston;   it was really  disappointing that Green didn’t either.  Moreover, wheras Brooks could not say enough about the glories of New England’s literary flowering,  Green concluded,  admittedly with a more British detatchment than Brooks’s native perspective,  that the Brahmin pursuit of  “literature as a civilizing mission”  produced finally only a very “feeble”literature,  the result of what Green called  “the collapse of the early moral strenousness into prolonged feasts of self-congratulation.”

In fact,  both critics were  altogether too autumnal,  as not only the awesome scholarship of Harvard historian F. O. Matthiessen but the lesser but still acute witness of Peter Davison showed, and today we can  all see that Shaun O’Connell was quite right to assert that Boston had  lost  “neither its moral character nor its literary inventiveness.”  On the contrary,  he continues to insist on the value of black American and now Asian American work to our accumulating literature ,  by no means either ignoring the fact that Yankee-Brahmins  like Eliot and Robert Lowell after him eventually  “reimangined Boston in the metaphysical landscape of literary modernism.”

That reimagining on Eliot’s part is this month’s chapter of our ongoing metropolitan tale,  picked up this week in the 1910s again.  on the even of the First World War.

By then the Gods of Copley Square,  the Brahmin creators of that great New World agora of Faith and Learning,  Arts and Sciences — the two great allegorical figures representing which  preside still  over the square from the front of the library — was done.  The new metropolitan civic center of their Boston city-state was complete,  regal enough on every side:   a  ‘cathedral’   for Phillips Brooks making the square a trans-Atlantic religious mecca;  a  ‘palace for the people,’  the world’s first big city public circulating library,  beckoning patrician and immigrant alike;  America’s first purpose-built Museum of Fine Arts  up and running and rejoicing already in 1900 in the  greatest Asian art collection in the West;  the nation’s first  ‘Little Theatre’ ,  open for business,  and in the wake of the revival of the Olympics,  the Boston Marathon off and running,  recreating Paul Revere’s ride every year no less.

And that was just the start,  for the cradle of  Boston’s modern galaxy of institutions of higher learning — that would secure the city’s role as the American inellectual capital into the 20th-century — had also been set,  as it were,  smartly rocking:  MIT,   Harvard Medical School — modern Harvard’s crown jewel — The Lowell Institute (grandfather of Harvard Extension School and PBS and NPR),  Boston University,  Northeastern University —  mass education following elite education —  Emerson College,  the American Academy of Arts and Sciences,  the Museum School —  all were launched into the 20th century from Copley Square.  And at the same time,  gathering on every side,  was the dawn of the modern American experience:  its stars William James,  Charles McKim, Phillips Brooks, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Bernard Berenson,  Alexander Graham Bell, Louis Brandeis,  Maurice Prendergast,  Harvey Cushing,  H. H.  Richardson,  James Jackson Putnam,  Mary Baker Eddy,  Charles W. Eliot,  William Barton Rogers  and so on.

Yet the  squares Brahmin builders and authors had so far exhausted themselves in this finale for the coming century,  as I suggested last time here,  Boston was really poised on the verge of being orphaned in more than one sense.  Even as in  the background  (seeding the future)  the educational and cultural galaxy expanded   down Huntington Avenue and up Massachusetts Avenue to the huge  new 20th-century campuses their growth soon required,  in the foreground during the next fifty years would be  (whether seen from city or suburb)  a deeply fragmented and somewhat stalled metropolis.

 Suffering first the decline and fall of the Yankee- Brahmin caste and then later of the Irish-Catholic ascendency,  and not yet quite registering the significence of the rise of the Jewish Boston Brahmins who would in the end save the day as much as the academy,  “small town thinking”  was everywhere evident in this,  the  “Banned in Boston” era in which,  almost uniquely  Yankee and Irish puritans found common cause.   And perhaps the most  most virulent expression in the long run of the recourse it forced everyone to  would be the fall of what is often called the genteel tradition to —  Boston noir.  Before noir,  however,  there was The Waste Land.  And before that —  T. S. Eliot’s Boston.

T H E   P O E T ‘ S   E Y E

Brahmin-born and Harvard-educated,  Thomas Stearns Eliot experienced Boston,  to be sure,  as both Edwardian and elegant.  When the headwaiter of the new Copley Plaza Hotel,  sumptously new in 1912,  was not catering to the likes of Isabella Stewart Gardner and John Singer Sargent,  both of whom used to like to dine together at the Copley before walking across Dartmouth Street to the new theatre to see the Charlie Chaplin films they both liked so much,  that functionary was likely attending to a party of Harvard undergraduates and graduate students, a party which often  included young Eliot and the woman of the moment.  He by repute something of a dandy,  was known to have taken full advantage of mteropolitan sport and culture,  whether sailing on the North Shore near his family’s summer home,  or regularly attending Symphony.  Certainly he enjoyed more than one life-enhancing experience as a result.  Eliot first saw Tristan und Isolde in 1909 at the Boston Opera House and four decades later he remembered the event so vividly in an account he gave of it to composer Igor Stravinsky that the composer concluded it must have been  “one of the most passionate experiences of [Eliot’s] life.”

However,  such flashes of lightning as so brilliantly illuminated the young man’s inner landscape  somehow more urgently and stridently lit up for Eliot the much more complicated landscape of his Brahmin caste’s waning.  It became the first great subject of arguably the greatest English-language poet of the 20th-century,  explored in a series of poems Eliot biographer Peter Ackroyd has caled the “Bostonian poems” —  “The readers of the Boston Evening Transcript / Sway in the wind like a field of ripe corn”;  “In the room women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo:”  “My smile falls heavily among the bric-a-brac.”

Later this year,  in a series on the Boston Brahmin,  we will take up this formidable subject in the greater detail it deserves than is possible here.  Sufficient now to explore one particular aspect of it,  the recourse Eliot sought for any sign of new life in Boston’s slums,  where his sardonic eye seemed instinctively drawn to the bleak outer landscape of the modern metropolis,  the bleakness of which  he was increasingly sure was more characteristic of the urban scene than Beacon Hill  salons,  oppulent opera houses or Harvard Yard classrooms — or rolling parklands.

Although Eliot would give epochal form to this revelation,  he was not alone in his urban vision.  Just perhaps its  most pointed modern herald.  Beginning  “in the second half of the 19th-century”,  cultural historian Jackson Lears has written,  “the city became an emblem of modern unreality.  From Baudelaire’s ‘ swarming city’  to Eliot’s  ‘Unreal City’ . . . the most sensitive observers imagined the city as the  breeding ground of a vapid,  anonymous existence — a death-in-life.”  Wrote Lears in No Place for Grace  “the growth of American cities was inevitably entwined with the growth of the market economy,”  and created for urban dwellers  “pangs of insecurity.”  Lears did not entirely overlook the revelations of William James — who loved the ripe-smelling Boston subways as much as his brother Henry could not abide the Italian dialects he heard too often along the Common paths above — but it would be difficult to argue with Lears  that the more important story line of the time was not how those insecurities led to  “new tensions in metropolitan character . . . form[ing] the kernel of some new notions about selfhood.”

Selfhood?  Neighborhood?  There is a continuum here,  and one that in the Boston city-state stretches as far back as the American Revolution;  a continuum in which  Brookline’s historic veto  of a unified metropolitan government in the 1870s was an  event with perhaps more positive than negative reverberations afterall.  Thus my interpretation of the historical development of the Boston metropolis in comparison with others in Europe and America,  while it has from the start turned on Brookline’s veto — so unattractive because as much tinged with ethnic bigotry and class self-interest as civic idealism — has become increasingly positive as evidence mounts that the veto was only negative from the perspective of the New York  “Brooklyn model”;  from the perspective of what I call Boston’s  “Brookline model”  that veto may have been  one of the best legacies Boston’s Brahmin’s left their posterity in that it jolted Boston toward a rather different form of metropolis.

But before that thesis waxes too full of itself  and reaches its finale here,  we must take full account of T.  S.  Eliot’s metropolis,  this  ‘death-in-life’  experience which reached its apotheosis in the face of the  ‘Olmstedian garden suburb,”  the parkland side of which was so widely celebrated,  particularly in Europe.  Indeed,  in the very year,  1915,  Sir Patrick Geddes pioneering book on town planning was published in London,  a book I have suggested here was far more important to redefining Boston than the purely local event of a mayor’s election,  in that very year young Eliot’s first haunted images of urban bleakness — of parts of Boston —  Roxbury,  North Cambridge,  South Boston –were first published,  also in London:  the  ‘Preludes’ —  the content of which caused Martin Green to conclude   “the sensibility which found the modern ugliness in 20th-century London was trained in 19th-century Boston.”

Had Frederick Law Olmsted and Charles Eliot both missed the  boat,  so to speak?  Wrote the Boston architect Daniel J. Coolidge,  my old mentor:  “the recurrent theme in all Olmsted’s writing is basic sympathy with the struggling working people confined in those times to unwholesome city precincts.”  And it was a theme Charles Eliot did not lose track of,  as historian Keith Morgan notes: when he wrote to his wife about ” the people he was designing his parks for”  the landscape architect dwelt upon his walks through the East Cambridge slums:  “Doorsteps crowded with unclean beings,  children pushing everywhere,  and swarming in every street and alley.”

All these images moved and,  indeed,  depressed Charles Eliot according to this letter of the mid-1890s as very similar images would T. S. Eliot when confronted with the North Cambridge slum — no different really than East Cambridge —  where according to his biographer he too  dwelt on  “dillapidated streets . . .broken glass . . .doorways and alleys,  of the sound of childrens voices”  all  “scenes of urban squalor: ” His soul stetched tight across the skies / That fade behind a city block;”  ” One thinks of all the hands that are raising dingy shades / In a thousand furnished rooms;”  “the burnt-out ends of smoky days . . . .;”  “And when all the world comes back / And the light crept up beween the shutters / And you heard the sparrows in the gutters / You had such a vision of the street as the street hardly understands.”

Although the landscape architect was able as the poet never could to add —   “it is good to be able to do something,  even alittle,  for this battered   and soiled humanity,”  because his walk ended according to Morgan at his firm’s Charlesbank park,  “the first American park to incorporate apparatus for active recreation,”   as striking as the similarity of Charles Eliot’s accounts of the slums and T. S. Eliot’s was the fact that the landscape architect’s more optimistic report dated from the mid-1890s while  the poet’s,  which was without any hope at all,  dated from nearly two decades later,  in the mid  1910s.

What that means beyond the obvious fact that the triumphs,  which were considerable,  of Olmsted and Eliot in the Boston metropolitan park systems had not registered sufficiently to tilt the urban scales for T. S. Eliot a decade or more later  (in a metropolis the growth of which everyone admitted it was hard to keep up with),  I cannot say really.  This much is clear though.  Charles Eliot,  who died  at only 38 in 1897,  had been dead nearly a decade when T. S.Eliot entered Harvard in 1906,  but they shared more than a propensity for solitary perigrinations through slums.  “In a talk,  ‘The Influence of Landscape upon the Poet’, [the surviving Eliot] called himself a New England poet,”  Lyndall Gordon noted,  “because he had been deeply affected when he came East as a child . . . .remember[ing] with joy his boyhood summers at Gloucester.” And then there was their charter membershp in Eliotic Boston.

T H E   E L I O T S

An exageration that I think survives its absurdity with some point is my contention that we all owe Western Civilization to Charles Eliot Norton.  Most American college graduates will know what I mean,  for that not inconsiderable global achievement (hurrumph) of the West is known to most Americans still by way of a college  “Western Civ”  course,  the idea for which as well as the first such given  (at Harvard)  is to the credit of Norton,  yet another relative T. S. Eliot found teaching him on the faculty when he arrived in Harvard Yard in 1906.

A fascinating example of the way Boston has always functioned historically as in and out box between Old World and New and the other way around,  the  “Western Civ”  course is also a window into the Eliot clan,  one of Boston’s super Yankee-Brahmin dynasty’s, in which Charles Eliot Norton,  by the way America’s first professor of art and arguably the nation’s foremost 19th-century cultural arbiter,  was more the norm than the exception in some ways.  (That he taught at Harvard,  for example, was just expected of an Eliot  most of whom also went there).

Another Eliot on the Faculty of Arts and Sciences there in the next generation,  historian Samuel Eliot Morison,  pointed out that  “the Eliot’s went in for education,  literature and scholarship”,  and at a preety high level:  Morison himself was the winner of two Purlitzer Prizes,  two Bancroft Prizes and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  First cousin to Charles Eliot Norton,  Morison stood in the same  relation to Charles W. Eliot,  himself son of a Mayor of Boston,  which is to bring up another Eliot family characteristic; that this clan of scholars has never found something  as practical as politics beneath them.  Indeed it was  as much because of his administrative genuis as his educational vision that Charles W. Eliot will be forever hailed as the founder of modern Harvard and the great reformer,  almost the creator,  of American higher education during his forty year presidency of Harvard from the 1870s through to the 1910s.

Add President Eliot’s son Charles to the roster,  the seminal landscape architect whose contribution to the preservation of the natural landscape in this country was of such global stature I have positioned him in this series between John Singer Sargent in painting and T. S. Eliot in literature,  and it remains only to hymn the accomplishments of the poet,  himself the landscape architect’s great nephew,  who would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

There is,  in fact,  no brighter constellation in the Yankee-Boston Brahmin patriciate than the Eliot’s,  members of which dynasty scaled some of the highest peaks of the civilization they so regularly insisted on willing Americans into alliegience to.  And though Boston be ever sacred to this family,  which immigrated to New England in the mid 1600s,  it has only been the main stage of the clan’s mission, as the poet knew particularly well from the life and work of his grandfather,  William Greenleaf Eliot.  (It was a Greenleaf,  by the way,  to share the credit somewhat,  who read the Declaration of Independence form the balcony of the old Royal State House in Boston in 1776).

T. S. Eliot’s grandfater  “came from Boston,  the seat of the Eliots,  and travelled in the role of a missionary to St. Louis in 1834”, Peter Ackroyd has written, “a Unitarian minister who left Harvard Divinity School in order to establish that faith in the frontier wilderness”,  sent there by William Ellery Channing himself,  the Boston divine  well called the Apostle of Unitarianism.  Emerson called the poet’s grandfather the  “saint of the west”  and well he might,  he being the founder of not only the Unitarian church there but also of Washington University  (only called that and not after him by his own insistence)  of which he would become chancellor.

His eldest son,  furthermore,  Thomas Eliot  (not T. S. Eliot’s father,  who was the second son)  pushed on himself to the Pacific Rim,  where he established Boston Unitarianism in Portland,  Oregon.  There,  wrote Howard Howarth,  “he did everything Dr. Eliot had done in St. Louis.”

S U I C I D E   W A T C H

Bear in mind that it is only to tweak Emerson a very little to say that since modern Harvard is the lengthened shadow of Charles W  Eliot  (never mind MIT,  of which Eliot was also one of the leading founding faculty)  Boston is always in some sense as much Eliot’s town as Winthrop’s or Emerson’s or Brandeis’s or Kennedy’s.

This is,  however,  more recognizable since the 1960s than it would have been in the 1930s, ’40s or ’50s in the sense that if a superiority complex was as absolutely characteristic of Eliot’s Boston as of Winthrop’s or Emerson’s Boston  —  remember President Eliot lecturing the brother of the German Kaiser at a state dinner in Boston in 1902 that Boston’s dynastic achievements rather outweighed those of his own Imperial House  (which the fall of the German Empire in 1918 would finally verify) — that Eliotic legacy  was also distinctly challenged on its own home ground in the mid 1920s.  Indeed, the superiority complex  was shunted shamefacedly underground as it decently had to be after the very public Brahmin loss of nerve and therefore of face in the wake of the Sacco – Vanzetti trial and the worlds response.

That debacle,  while not perhaps on the scale of the fall of the German Empire,  could hardly but raise up in its place a (well deserved)  inferiority complex,  given that  the viciously anti-immigrant Sacco – Vanzetti trial brought the same shame on ruling class  (which is to say Yankee-Brahmin)  Boston as the same sort of moral collapse did on ruling class London in what we’d call today the anti-gay Wilde trial and on Paris in the anti-Semitic Dreyfus trial.  Protests everywhere left Boston’s reputation as founding city and cradle of liberty and so on in utter tatters.  The ‘so on’,  furthermore,  included Boston’s claim to be the American intellectual capital,  impossible to reconcile with the  “Banned in Boston”  anti-literary movement also of the 1920s,  not unrelated.  The year before Sacco’s and Vanzetti’s execution in 1927,  H. L. Mencken himself came to Boston for the sole purpose of being arrested on the Common for trying to sell an issue of his magazine.  That too caused an uproar.

President Eliot,  Boston’s great liberal lion of those days rather in the way Senator Edward Kennedy would be a century later,  had — mercifully — died in 1926,  the year before his successor as Harvard’s president,  the arch-conservative Abbott Lawrence Lowell,  an officer of the  “Banned in Boston”  movement too,  had led a committee appointed by the govenor of Massachusetts,  along with MITs president and a well known judge,  that completely white-washed the Sacco – Vanzetti trial and verdict and thus,  in Alfred B Rollin’s words,  “triggered violent demonstrations in major cities throughout the US and Europe.”

It was a fiasco that brought to a head the Brahmin  “suicide watch”  —  to build on Martin Green’s word in connection with T. S. Eliot’s “Bostonian poems” —  which the poet had,  in fact,  put in place, and then,  by the way,  quite distanced himself from in London,  where his own silence was only too conspicious.  However,  writers and artists everywhere stepped into the breach;  the art and literature of Sacco – Vanzetti is a book in itself.

The deepest  roots in my opinion of the Boston – New York rivalry were also exposed by this affair.  And far more serious than the pop culture excesses of  “Yankee’s suck”  (when they so obviously don’t)  that are so harped on today.  Boston’s values are so differently rooted  (read, superior to!)  New York’s,  historically — a reflection of the seeking of religious freedom that was the basis of Boston’s founding as opposed to the strictly commercial nature of New York’s settlement —  that the Puritan capital’s very concpicuous world-wide reverberating fall from grace in the Sacco – Vanzetti scandal  was more than embarrassing.  It was humiliating. 

In this,  of course,  Boston is seen to be over-earnest,  never mind pompous,  and New York more than alittle crass and  grandiose in its ambitions,  but all that goes with the territory in both cases.  Sufficient to say Emle Zola’s part in the Dreyfus trial in Paris was taken in the case of the Sacco – Vanzetti trial by the novelist Upton Sinclair in his novel,  Boston  (“the world would want to know the truth”),  published,  not in Boston,  but — gleefully no doubt as well as sincerely — in New York.

It took a generation or more,  the redemption of the rising Jewish-Boston Brahmin achievement,  and the maturation before its own waning of the Irish-Catholic American ascendency in what Walter Muir Whitehill would call the advent of Boston in the Age of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in the 1960s,  for Bostonians to begin to retake any of the high ground of what Winthrop had once described as the  “city upon a hill.”  And while the renewal of the Kennedy Era was aided at the municipal and metropolitan levels by a mayor finally the equal of Josiah Quincy,  John Collins,  who reached out to Yankee Brahmins like Whitehill and Ralph Lowell, in the meantime a very, very un-Eliotic  habit,  deeply pessimistic and more parochial than expansive,  certainly more local than global,  had taken too deep root itself to be easily dug up.

I know of no better way to describe it than as very much the habit of thinking very small indeed,  a habit I can well illustrate out of my own experience.

T H E   C O P L E Y   S Q U A R E   L I B R A R Y

It was about in 1990 that the Trustees of the Boston Public Library,  still under the spell of that perfect leadership team of President Kevin Moloney,  Director Arthur Curley and Architect Daniel Coolidge,  asked me,  as co-director of the first phase of the McKim Building’s restoration,  to choose three learned Bostonian historical figures whose busts deserved to be placed in that library of so many busts on the three grandest pedestals of them all over the main entrances of the Copley Square lobby.  That they are still empty today is something of a story.

It can be hard to see today,  past the ugly metal security railings,  cheap black  ‘rubbermaid’   trash  recepticles,  fake greenery and aggressive signage that greet one now as one enters this lobby,  what a gorgeous hall it is,  giving at once,  of course,  on to the Lion Staircase,  the grandest perhaps of the New World.  But it is not the least part,  this lobby,  of what legendary Asian scholar Ernest Fenolossa called the “American Pantheon”,  containing as it does also what another critic has called the American Sistene Chapel,  the top floor Sargent  Gallery. Fenolossa was not exagerating.  The BPL’s only rival in its own day was the United States Capital in Washington.  Today it is architecturally unrivaled,  “this imposing monument of plain granite”,  British historian David Watkin calls it in his History of Western Architecture  “which established Boston as a centre of western culture.” Not Harvard or MIT or the Museum of Fine Arts or the Boston Symphony — all today world class while the library has slipped so badly — none of those;  but the Boston Public Library.

Form,  furthermore,  equals something much more important here than function;  it is a worthy expression of an epochal idea in western history:  this  “palace of the people”,  as it is so rightly called,  though perhaps so often the expression is loosing its punch,  is the great temple of the first tax-supported big-city public circulating library in the world,  an idea when its essence was brought home to British critic Matthew Arnold  when he saw a bare-foot newspaper boy reading therein,  was pronounced by Arnold the most amazing thing ever.  It  meant hardly less for Mary Antrim, who in The Promised Land famously hymed her response as a poor young Jewish immigrant to the fact this building was all available to her,  becoming a kind of fantasy land out of which she built a new life in the New World. 

I will admit to being partial for some reason I don’t quite understand to the more romantic side of the Copley Square library’s history.  Most people I’m sure know that perhaps America’s most famous political dynasty of the modern era has its roots here,  where  young Joseph Kennedy courted his future wife,  Rose Kennedy to be;  the two often  “met in the great halls of the Boston Public Library,”  Laurence Leamer writes,  “for them a place of romance,  not research.”  But fewer probably know that Franklin Delano Roosevelt paid his attentions to his own wife-to-be here too acording to Joseph Lash:   the day of the 1903 Harvard-Yale football game  (“in town at 10:30 and Eleanor and I walk to the library,  see the pictures,  and then walk up Beacon Hill”).  After the game the future president saw Eleanor  off to Groton,  but then followed her there at once,  the very next day,  having made up his mind.  She accepted his proposal.

More exotic,  perhaps, is the intelligience  from Robin Waterfield’s Prophet that Kahil Gibran himself,  master of moonbeams serious and not from America to he Middle East,  courted his own great love at the library. Mary Haskell was the  headmistress of a Marborough Street girls school,  which doubtless accounts for their discretion,  though Gibran’s biographer does discover them “whispering together in the corner of a room in the Boston Public Library.  Mary stressed that she would not marry him because of the difference in their ages,  but held out the possibility that they might one day have sex.”

Digressions?  Perhaps. However, that  learning and romance keep such close cmpany here is of the essence of the spell of this great building,  where high ideals and global stature and seminal thought as well as the most intensely personal confessions are to be found around every corner in the shadow of notable paintings and sculptures that cast their own spell.   The centerpiece of the Brahmin’s new metropolitan civic center of Copley Square,  even more than Phillips Brooks’s cathedral,  amounts to much more than the City Beautiful in American history.  I could as easily recount the artistic revelations,  say,  of Maurice Prendergast here,  he Ameria’s first great modernist painter. 

 The Copley Square Library is Eliotic Boston triumphant. Especially is this true because it stands across the street from the Trinity of Richardson,  America’s first architect of world renown,  and within sight of the Commonwealth Avenue mall,  gateway to Olmsted’s Emerlad Metropolis and  Eliot’s metropolitan parks.  (Indeed,  Olmsted prepared plans for Copley Square and also for the public library courtyard, plans it is a scandal no one has ever tried to revive and restore).

Daunting to have to sum up in three busts the presiding muse or whatever of the place that begets such a landmark of human thought and purpose: but the task proved a congenial one, actually.  Leaving aside founding father John Adams as more political than learned,  and telephone pioneer Alexander Graham Bell and anesthesia pioneer William T.  G.  Morton as too controversial,  three choices stood out at once.  Front and center,  of course,  had to be  Emerson — the American Plato and the proto Yankee-Boston Brahmin,  Boston’s iconic thinker still.  To is right,  William James,  the Anglo-Irish  Boston Brahmin and prophet of modernity,  whose star stands higher today than Freud’s.  And on the left,  Charles  W.  Eliot,  the uber-Brahmin founder of modern Harvard,  ever the brightest jewel in Boston’s intellectual crown.

G L O B A L   B O S T O N   V E R S U S   L O C A L   B O S T O N

Incredibly,  choices so obvious I should have thought to any historian,  did not go down well at all.  At a trustee’s meeting I sat there in disbelief as too many members of the board — not all,  but too many — protested that  none of my choices were Bostonians;  none had lived in Boston !  They meant,  of course,  the rump municipality,  historically,  Brookline and company had left so high and dry by the anti-annexionist veto.  The trustee’s Boston included Hyde Park but not Dedham,  excluded Cambridge but not Brighton,  as all their suburban friends would also have agreed were no part of Boston.  The trustees,  of course,  supposedly independent,  are all political appointees. 

My response,  perhaps personally unwise,  certainly too quickly ventured,  was professionally very satisfying in my role as consulting historian to the library:  I suggested the trustees apply the same standards being applied to my choices to the names blazoned on the vaults of the library lobby —  which include Emerson,  Hawthorne,  Longfellow, and Adams  (which is to say,  residents of Concord,  Salem,  Cambridge and Quincy) — and,  indeed,  to all the busts in the library.  All the  ‘Bostonians’ who in the more expansive days of the Boston city-state hadn’t found it necessary to actually reside  in old Boston or in an annexed as opposed o an unanneed suburb,  shold be banished.  I’m sorry to say I think I suggested a yard sale —  busts for sale in  Copley Square.

Global Boston.  Local Boston.  And whoever heard of the Boston city-state anyway?  Or of the Emerald Metropols?  Or of Charles Eliot’s  “all the Boston towns”?  Big thinking.  Little thinking.  And upon reflection it is even possible to put a date to this dramatic change in the life  (and stature)  of the Boston Pulic Library:  1976,  the year it had imposed upon it (largely as consequence of the busing wars and the number of citizens moving to the suburbs) a residency requirement by its political masters.  One can only imagine what the faculty of MIT,  or the roster of the Symphony,  or the staff of the Massachusetts General Hospital,  would look like were they victims of a similar localism.  Shades of James Bryant Conant! (See essay 2 here:  “Nativism weds localism”).  Nor is it surprising that the most high profile public figure and library spokesperson for years turned out to live in Cambridge.  (Well,  of course he was ‘grandfatheres’). 

I speak of Sinclair Hitchings,  untill his recent retirement, in 2006,  a legendary figure who presided over the BPL’s Print Department for near on forty years,  and was particularly notable for the synergy he established with the commercial art galleries of Newbury Street,   to their great benefit and that of the BPL collections too. Time and again people would refer to Sinclair —  with whom,  full disclosure,  I once guest- curated an exhibition — as the mayor of Copley Square. Of course, the post does not exist.  But neither today does Sinclairs old post as Keeper of Prints.  There is not even an honorary one.  Hitchings, by the way, raised the departments endowment during his years there from $30,000 to $10,ooo,ooo.

C H A N G I N G    P E R S P E C T I V E S

One reason Sinclair Hitchings’s old post remains vacant may be that in the century since FDR courted his bride to be looking at pictures at the library,  art and literature have both become more dangerous  for public institutions especially,  subject as they are to political control,  something authors and artists are wary of,  having at such cost freed themselves in this century of what is often called the genteel tradition.

That tradition’s siren call to the good and true explains really why so may observers have seen here only the experience of the City Beautiful and the rolling parkland,  upon which I have dwelt with good reason,  but others have seen only the  “death-in-life” urban experience Jackson Lears reported of,  for example,  landscape architect Charles Eliot’s  “battered and soiled humanity”,  of  “such a vision of the street,”,,as T. S. Eliot summed it up,  “as the steet hardly understands.” And,  indeed,  it explains finally why President Eliot and poet Eliot did not get on at all.

The elder Eliot,  be it said,  was nearly always right,  at least from my perspective.  While T. S. Eliot always inclined to the more conservative side of the Brahmin tradition,  Charles W.  Eliot was so liberal Herbert Howarth called Harvard’s president a  “left-wing Unitarian  (as if there had ever been anything like a right-wing Unitarian).  He was,  for example,  ardently pro-immigration in an era when most immigrants were Eastern European Jews or Southern Italians.  Wheras T. S. Eliot has been convincinglyportrayed  as anti=Semitic,  President Eliot publisly supported the appointment of a protege,  Louis Brandeis,  as the first Jew on the U. S Supreme Court.

But if the elder Eliot does not disappoint in most respects  (where T. S. may) the founder of modern Harvard was,  alas, on the other hand,  a hopeless philistine.  For Charles W.  Eliot the best literature was always enobling and always had a happy ending,  the best art was always the City Beautiful and never a slum in sight.  President Eliot was always the idealist,  which in the genteel tradition is never to be a realist,  never to risk the unhappy ending,  the bleak picture.  And to insist on that,  to make that the standard by which art and literature is judged meant in Eliot’s case,  moreover,  that he has a philistine of the worst sort; for  the arts and the humanities mattered very little to the practical idealistic presient,  while aesthetics famously mattered not at all.  Cultivation,  he is said to have held,  was for ladies.

As the French say,  every strength its weakness;  every weakness its strength.  But one is not suprised to learn it was the philistine aspect of the president that seemed to most alienate the poet;  to such an extent that the younger Eliot positiveky avoided the older man,  even when the great man condescended,  as he did,  to try to help  his junior. Indeed, on  any cultural map of the century the chasm between president and poet will,  in fact,  always be marked  the genteel tradition.  And that is the chasm too between the triumphant Eliotic Boston of the town’s legendary superiority complex and the era of Sacco and Vanzetti’s Boston with its equally well deserved inferiority complex.

Perhaps the way to Boston noir is now clearer,  wherein along the way I imagine the poet complaining as he did in quite another context that “I must borrow every changing shape to find expression.”



Ackroyd, Peter.  T. S. ELIOT  (Simon & Schuster)  1984

Antrim, Mary.  THE PROMISED LAND  (orig.publ.1912) (Book Jungle) 2006

[Boston Public Library restoration] Shand-Tucci,  Douglass.  “Alter egos”  BOSTON PHOENIX  (12 Febr., 1999)

Brooks, Van Wyck.  THE FLOWERING OF NEW ENGLAND  (Amaeron ed) 1981

Brooks,  Van Wyck.  NEW ENGLAND: INDIAN SUMMER  (Dutton) 1940

Coolidge,  Daniel J.  review  in NEW ENGLAND QUARTERLY  (March 1972)

Davison,  Peter.  THE FADING SMILE  (Knopf) 1994

Drozdowski,  Ted.  “The Collector”  NOSTON MAGAZINE 15 May 2006)

[Eliot, Charles]   See Morgan, Keith

[Eliot,  Charles W.]  see Hawkins,  Hugh.

[Eliot, T. s.  “The Influence of Landscape Upon the Poet”]  see Miller,  James  E.

{Eliot,  T. S.  Tristand und Isolde]  see Ackroyd,  Peter.

Fenolossa,  Ernest. MURAL PAINTING IN THE BOSTON PUBLIC LIBRARY  (Curtis & Cameron)  1896

Geddes,  Sir Patrick.  CITIES IN EVOLUTION  (origl.publ.1915)  (Harper & Row ed)  1960

Gelfand,  Mark.  TRUSTEE FOR A CITY  (Northeastern) 1998

Gordon,  Lyndall.  ELIOT’S EARLY YEARS  (Oxford) 1977

Green,  Martin.  THE PROBLEM OF BOSTON  (Longmans) 1966

Hawkins,  Hugh.  BETWEEN HARVARD AND AMERICA (Oxford) 1972

[Hitchings,  Sinclair]  see Drozdowski,  Ted

Howarth,  Herbert.  FIGURES BEHIND T. S. ELIOT  (Houghton) 1964

Lash,  Joseph.  ELEANOR AND FRANKLIN  (Norton) 1971

Leamer,  Lawrence.  THE KENNEDY WOMEN  (Fawcett) 1994

Lears,  Jackson.  NO PLACE FOR GRACE  (Univeristy of California Press) 1994

Morgan, Keith.  Introduction to Eliot,  Charles W.  CHARLES ELIOT, LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT (Univ.of Mss) 1999

Morison,  Samuel Eliot.  ONE BOY’S BOSTON  (Houghton) 1960

O’Connell,  Shawn.  IMAGINING BOSTON  (Beacon)  1990

[Olmsted, Frederick Law]  – see Coolidge,  Daniel J.

[Olmsted Copley Sq and BPL Court Plans]  see Zaitzevsky, Cynthia

Ricks,  Christopher.  T. S. ELIOT AND PREDJUDICE (

Rollins, Alfred B.  “Sacco and Vanzetti” on YALE ENCYLOPEDIA OF NEW ENGLAND (Yale) 2005

Sinclair,  Upton.  BOSTON  (Boni) 1928

Shand-Tucci,  Douglass.  “Alter egos” in BOSTON PHOENIX  (12 February 1999)


Waterfield, Robin.  PROPHET  (St. Martin’s) 1998

Watkin, David.  A HISTORY OF WESTERN ARCHITECTURE  (Watson-Guptill) 2005 ed.

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


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