13. Genteel be green

In the great court of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square,  a suitably literary venue,  my own muse — are historians allowed muses? — counsels discretion as this series of essays nears its end.  Let us pause then,  you and I,  and go about this new metropolis,  Eliotic we know now in two senses,  and give poet and president a break, at least for the next two chapters, before the former is duly ballasted by George Santayana and Van Wyck Brooks in his historic task  of demythologizing the Boston of the genteel tradition.  And then let us come back to our literary refuge at the library and see if there is not afterall something good to say of gentility.

L I T E R A R Y    M O D E L S

To my mind,  there are two important and pronouncedly Boston Brahmin literary traditions that play into and are often dominant in American literature generally before the 20th century. I call them Boston Major and Boston Minor after the British custom of so referring to older and younger siblings.  A friend suggests Brahmin  ‘heavy-hitters’  and  ‘Brahmin-lite’.  Whatever works for you.

First,  Boston Major.  In the pre-Civil War  “Romanticist”  era as it is often called  (dominated generally in America by Herman Melville)  New England’s towering literary figure is Nathaniel Hawthorne,  author of what is still the iconic Boston book,  The Scarlet Letter.  In Romanticism’s wake there was Edgar Allen Poe,  who although born in Boston seems to me really a more generalized American than New England figure,  and — heading up Boston’s side,  as it were,  Emerson.  Though immortal  more as thinker than as writer,  he was still a major literary personage of his time.

  In the post-Civil War  “realist”  period — the age generally of Twain and Whitman — there are three purely literary writers — Henry James,  Emily Dickinson and William Dean Howells — who stand out, the first two particularly;  a diverse threesome,  not at first glance altogether Brahmin or Boston as then understood,  but all of them published,  like Hawthorne,  under the Boston Brahmin imprimatur. (If expanded to other than purely literary writers I’d accept critic Martin Green’s  group of  “four Boston writers … Henry Adams,  Henry James,  George Santayana…[and] Bernard Berenson”). 

Before moving on to Boston Minor it is critical to observe that pre-Civil War  “romanticists”  and post-bellum  “realists”  alike,  whether Major or Minor,  largely shared a moralist point of view of life,  a view very few any longer find compelling today,  but which in the case of Boston Major,  being secondary to their genuis,  is a burden more than worth putting up with.  Moreover,  there is a distinct progression in attitude from romanticist to realist,  a progression historian Donna Campbell puts very well:  the realists continued to be concerned with morality,  but rather in the form of a  “paradox — morality with an abhorance of moralizing”.

A difficult stance to pull off,  Campbell is right I think to conclude Henry James  does so better than Howells,  but even the major New England realist writers were less given to plain speaking in thi arena of discourse than Twain,  for example,  whose Tom Sawyer  constantly mocks gentility. Similarly,  in a review of Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, J. C. Levenson observes of one of Menand’s figures that he had  “missed the Emersonian revolt against moralism,  but not the palid version of ‘Boston’ which is nowadays known as the ‘Genteel Tradition’.”  That,  of course,  is the essence of Boston Minor or,  if you prefer,  Brahmin-lite!

Enter the so-called  “Fireside poets” — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,  James Greenleaf Whittier,  Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., and James Russell Lowell.  And although some of this company remain important historical figures in other historical dimensions —  Holmes,  for instance,  is a key figure in American medical history as a legendary dean of Harvard Medical School,  and Longfellow is virtually the creator of the American national myth,  centering on Paul Revere’s ride,  none of the fireside poets is any longer read widely read for purely literary reasons.

Crucial to the distinction between Boston Major and Boston Minor is to recall that whereas Boston Major is intended to convert,  and still does  —  that is why Emeron’s essay on Self Reliance was bound into the published text (along with Lincoln’s second innaugural address) of Barack Obama’s own innaugural speech  —   Boston Minor was meant to console;  intended to be,  as someone has said,  a digestif rather than a stimulant.  “Written for literate but not literary Americans”,  to paraphrase the critic Roy Harvey Pence,  the poetry of the firesiders, “in which depth was not far below the surface,  had to make way for the much more radical sensibilities expressed in the works of Emerson,  Edgar Allen Poe,  Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.”

Even though Christoph Irmschur particularly defends what I call here Boston Minor as  “reader-centered poetics . . . literature not . . . of the few but as the shared possesion of the many “,  he does not neglect to repeat the characteristic anecdote I think defines major and minor among Boston’s poets:  confronted with Whitman’s  Leaves of Grass,  Whittier tossed it disgustedly into the fire;  Emerson dashed off a note to his admitted disciple:  “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” 

T N E    G R E E N    M E T R O P O L I S

It is relatively easy to apply the same categories to painters,  say,  as to authors;  to seperate out in this period  Boston Major  (Sargent and Prendergast)  from Boston Minor  (Tarbell,  Paxton;  indeed,  all the genteel Copley Square painters,  richly evocative of a disappearing elegance,   but not the best  “Boston School”  at all) .  But the matter becomes more difficult with,  say,  politics.  Historian Leslie Butler recently defended  several  Boston genteel icons I have labelled minor in a literary sense — including James Russell Lowell and Charles Eliot Norton — Brahmins who Butler points out were deeply enough invested and influential in abolitionist and good government circles to qualify as very heavy-hitters in those fields.  Both,  she writes,  were  “liberal reform thinkers whose post-Civil War careers were dedicated to  “the reform of American democracy,  to the elevation and broadening of its cultural life and to a sharp critique of its late [19th] century imperial adventures”,  all this a part of a broad Transatlantic conversation.”  She insists they — and George W. Curtis and Thomas Wentworth Higginson too — were part of a group who who  “defied the narrowly perjorative interpretation that these New England elite men comprized a genteel tradition.”

Indeed, politics is a good example of a field in which the genteel tradition in both Bostonian and non-Bostonian incarnations thrives today.  Certainly I will not deny I identify with historian Robert Davidoff when he notes  “the genteel tradition survives palpably in my own Jeffersonian academic liberal earnestness.”

Above all,  perhaps,  there is the example of the modern environmental  movement,  which since the 1970s has led to a renewed focus on Olmsted, so often  he or Eliot the  the hero of these metropolitan tales,   the latter the architect of the  “Emerald Metropolis”, as he has been repeatedly hailed as here,  which is to say of the  “Green”  Metropolis” !  Both Olmsted and Eliot are Boston Major,  of course,  but were something else too;  else Boston Minor,  who rejected Walt Whitman so forcefully,  would not have accepted Olmsted particularly with just so much enthusiasm as their heavy-hitting betters.    A New Yorker,  and by adoption too,  Olmsted was nonetheless actively recruited by Brahmins of all stripes. 

The result, as Geoffrey Blodgett points out,  is that the designer of Central Park  “moved his firm to suburban Boston and washed his hands of further dealings with New York”  and its robber barons and corrupt city officials.  Olmsted,  indeed,  responded warmly  to Brahmin seductions and  “the values he shared”,  writes Blodgett,  “with the genteel reformers of the Gilded Age”  were of the essence of his success.

Richard Wrightian Fox agrees,  but catches better the historical drift:  by 1917,  Fox writes,  “the 19th-century critical establishment,  or ‘genteel tradition’,  embodied in its most rigorous form by figures like Charles Eliot Norton,  E. L.  Godkin,  and Frederick Law Olmsted,  had lost all its control over American taste.”  But not for long.

A R C H I T E C T U R A L    L A N D S C A P E S

I have waited perhaps too long here to bring all this up,  though I have hinted  that Boston’s  metropolitan movememt  had a strong utopian,  “do-gooder” aspect to it.  But the truth is I wonder if Brookline had voted yes in 1873,  and Boston had had no  subsequent  “Brookline model”,  if today’s Boston city-state would have been as successful as it has been in challanging so close and huge a rival as New York,  whose  “Brooklyn model”  has also proved very much a success.  What is clear is the key role Olmsted and Charles Eliot both played in making the Boston metropolis viable,  so key that today Charles Birnbaum,  president of  the Washington-based Cultural Landscape Foundation reports that Olmsted’s Boston  “Emerald Necklace”  (“Emerald Metropolis”?) ,  “the first urban greenway in the world”,  is potentially a World Heritage Site in its own right.  It is,  in fact,  also an outstanding achievement of the genteel tradition.

Genteel is green.  Green is good.  Green is the color of the “Emerald Metropolis.” 

And not just of its garden suburbs either.  But of its city beautiful center,  for granite and marble and stucco and brick architecture is characteristically found in all parts of that metropolis  in active and deliberate harmony with landscape design.  It is a winning combination,  as any lover of the gardens of Italian villas or the manicured lawns of Oxford quads knows well,  never mind the Georgian terraces Bulfinch began in the late 18th-century to think of endowing Boston with,  or  the enormously eloquent collaboration of H. H.  Richardson with Olmsted,  most notable at the Boylston Street Bridge in the Back Bay Fens,  a masterpiece of its type.

Now it is certainly true that Olmsted’s and Eliot’s success in urging a metropolitan outlook on Bostonians was rooted more in suburban arcadia than in the city beautiful,  involving as romaticist Bostonians like to think it did,  preserving a more natural nature.  But there was always a recognition that  there was a place for the more formal monumental city beautiful idea  in the great city which,  in fact,  the pastoral idea was  never equal to.

It is true after the magnificant axial plan of the Back Bay,  chapter two rather reversed course in Olmsted’s very curviliniar Fenway, but not for long.

Thus it was that in 1907 a Boston Society of Architects report suggested a more axial and monumental aspect be introduced into the Fenway particularly;  “broad new boulevards would break open the enclosed spaces of Olmsted’s pastoral landscapes,”  no longer entirely adequate to the areas growth.  Harvard Medical School  of 1906 was a good example.   Its magnificant white marble classical court all but compelled the spacious amplitude of the grand Avenue Louis Pasteur laid out to lead to it.  Writes Carl Haglund,  “the city beautiful would reign triumphant over [what had become] Olmsted’s fusty,  outmoded pastoral ideals.”  A tad unfair that:  Olmsted had sorrounded the Capital in Washington with spacious balustraded terraces and fountains that were all the evidence needed to show  that he knew what was what when and where.

Charles Eliot,  as we have seen,  took things a good deal further.  Not only did he have a real grasp of the politics and the poetics of metropolis — remember  “all the Boston towns” — and give equal play to the suburban ideal in its overall metropolitan design,  but it was nothing less than inspired the way he unified the whole metropolitan idea by comparing a suburban site of natural beauty like the Waverly Oaks in Belmont with the art museum and also with the public library and their treasures in Copley Square.

L’Enfant’s plan for Washington aside,  the great flowering of grand, axial city planning  in America came,  of course,  in the second half of the 19th-century in the Back Bay,  the New World-Paris as it was designed to be.   And soon enough as we’ve seen the more  informal Fenway itself reverted back to include a more grand axial aspect. 

In the 1900s and 1910s in the Fenway,  at the new Harvard Medical School and the Museum of Fine Arts — as well as overlooking the Back Bay proper in MITs new Camridgeport campus –immense monumental classical facades were suddenly required —   even in Harvard Yard — Widener Library — to express the glories  of America’s intellectual capital as much as in Washington the same style of architecture expressed the glories of the nation’s political capital.

Significantly,  Boston’s two most compelling monumental modern landscapes of the grand,  axial capitaline type in the last half century — far grander in themselves than  either Copley Square or Commonwealth Avenue —  emerged on the Back Bay/Fenway border and in the Fenway itself,  building on two of the turn of the 20th-century classical  landmarks  of the area,  the grandiose domed Christian Science basilica of 1906 on Huntington Avenue and the majestic new Evans wing of 1915 of the Museum of Fine Arts.

The most important of the two landscapes is the magnificant Christian Science Center, unique among modernist cityscapes in America for its grandeur,  the work of I. M. Pei and Aaraldo Cossutta with landscape design  by Sasaki,  Dawson and DeMay,  one of the most famous of American landscape architectural firms.  This  award-winning work has been cited as exemplary of the design principles of founder Hideo Sasaki.  Alas,  small minded people with an eye more  for money than aesthetics propose to dumb down the plaza and install something of a pop park,  eliminating the enfilades of trees,  the gemetrical plant islands and,  worst of all,  savaging the near 700 foot reflecting pool that is the heart of the entire noble space.

The unanimous testimony of hundreds of Bostonians,  the only exception being a representitive of Northeastern University,  which already leases much of the sorrounding office space in the plaza,  has urged the Landmarks Commission to landmark this plaza to the highest and most exacting standards.   But it is still possible for Boston’s mayor to veto the dsignation.  Were that to happen it would be rank with the demolition of John Hancock’s House on Beacon Street and the destruction of the Boston Opera House on Huntington Avenue as the third  catastrophic failure of historic preservation in Boston’s long  history.

Meanwhile,  a more confident and forward looking institution,  Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts,  has achieved something of a triumph of majestic architecture and elegant landscape design in the new State Street Corporation Fenway Entrance of 2008 overlooking the Fenway.  Centered on two splendid monumental bronze heads, The Day and The Night,  each  by the Spanish realist sculptor Antonio Lopez Garcia,  the newly designed entrance is serenely magnificant and beautifully sets of the heroic Ionic colonnade of the Museum,  while at the same time the Museum’s aim is  “to renew the appeal of [Olmsted’s Back Bay Fens]”, a wonderful example of just the fusion we have been hymning her.  Working with Foster and Partners of London on this dramatic new design was Kathryn Gustafson of Gustafson, Guthrie, Nichol Ltd of Seattle. 

Yes,  indeed,  there is something good to say of the genteel tradition,  as the present controversary about landmarking the Christian Science Plaza has made clear.  It has been best said,  I think,  by  Frederick  A.  “Tad”  Stahl,  Boston’s senior master architect today.  Because he believes that the Christian Science Center’s only rivals are Jefferson’s University of Virginia,  Bostons  Faneuil Hall Markets and New York’s Rockefeller Center,  Stahl goes about as far as one can go when he points out that comparable reflecting pools worldwide — the Lincoln Memorial in Washington,  India’s Taj Mahal and Spain’s Alhambra — are all  “set into the earth”,  wheras the Christian Science Plaza’s pool,  “rises decisively above it.”

“For me,”  Stahl continues,  “it is more than simply a reflecting pool;  it is an aexhaltation of water as a pure element of creation.  Irresistably,  it brings to my mind the words of Genesis:  ‘Darkness was on the face of the deep and the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” 

Olmsted’s most pastoral landscape never evoked praise of that order.  Not only is there something good to say about gentility,  but the architecture and landscape that has been united in its service could hardly be more prized.

Comments |  shand-tucci@comcast.net


Baxter,  Leslie.  CRITICAL AMERICANS  (Univ. of No. Carolina Press)  2007

Birnbaum,  Charles,  quoted in Shea,  Christopher,  “MFA 1,  Gardner 0”,  THE BOSTON GLOBE (July 11 2010)

Blodgett,  Geiffrey.  “Frederick Law Olmsted: Landscape Architecture as Conservative Reform”,  JOURNAL OF AMERICAN HISTORY (March 1976)

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Morgan, Keith.  CHARLES ELIOT, LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT  (Univ. of Mass. Press)


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Stahl, F. A> Letter to Ellen Lipsey (August 2,  2010) By permission.


Wilson,  Douglas.  THE GENTEEL TRADITION  (Univ. of Nebraska Press)  1962

Zaitzevsky, Cynthis.  FREDERICK LAW OLMSTED AND THE BOSTON PARK SYSTEM (Harvard Univ. Press)

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