American Aristocracy – Civil War: Pride and Shame on the Via Sacra
What happened to Rome should not happen to the Boston Athenaeum. I remember how striking I thought was Walter Muir Whitehill’s worry about the foundational institution historically, of literary and artistic Boston. Best of mentors – Whitehill wrote the introduction to my first book – and best of Athenaeum directors too, Walter recounted more than once to me how when he first saw Rome, wandering the city’s ancient and still quite crooked streets, he suddenly looked up and found himself breathless, overwhelmed by arguably the greatest vista in the world: Saint Peter’s Square, the basilica rising up behind it. A few years later he found the experience no longer was to be had. Mussolini had cut through a broad thoroughfare, lined with statues, leading with much bombast, Walter thought, to the great piazza, which still overwhelmed, but not quite in the same way.
I recall how similar – on a much more domestic scale – was the feeling when I first penetrated the tiny, oddly-shaped alcove (still quite unchanged) off to the side of what is now the Athenaeum’s first floor Long Room, an alcove perhaps six feet wide either way but two storeys high, including the window wall which gives on to the Old Granary Burying Ground, an alcove dominated then by the towering full-length portrait of the Athenaeum’s great benefactor, Thomas Handasyd Perkins.
Over the years I think I came to suspect there was reason as well as eccentricity behind the placement of this immense portrait of the19th century Boston merchant prince in this small place, half closet, half chapel. It was therefore a shock when this aesthetic charm, or was it institutional subtlety, was disrupted by the rather pompous restoration – decoratively; I’m sure much useful work on the building’s innards was done – visited in the early 2000s on the Athenaeum. Most pompous of all was the decision of some young fogey or millionaire donor to reinstall the Perkins portrait at the end of a newly-configured and splendid first floor Long Room, the principal venue of most of the Athenaeum’s many lectures and concerts and such. The sense of a kind of Brahmin throne room was overwhelming.
For a while I was accepting of it. There was a way in which it seemed fitting: not only because the splendor of the portrait matched the splendor of the room, and because portraitist Thomas Sully’s is a superb work of art, but because of what Perkins’s biographer Thomas Cary had to say about Perkins as “prizing beauty, [but] avoid[ing] ostentation, always seeking balance . . . .[and] self control,” a man for whom “excess [was] distasteful,” suggesting the merchant prince’s aesthetic was exactly the Athenaeum’s.
Then, working on this series, I read Katherine Wolff’s superb history of the Athenaeum, Culture Club, and I realized almost as if a light bulb went on what it was that so bothered me about the new placement of the Perkins portrait. It was not just pompous. It was something much worse, and Wolff – this is my interpretation, not hers – nailed it in one sentence: in the mid 19th-century it was very often the case, she wrote, that “elite Bostonians confounded moral leadership with aesthetic and scholarly leadership,” each good things, but very different things; something people like me are only too prone to do.
Suddenly, I understood why the big picture belonged in the closet/chapel; why a venerable Boston institution which prized great art and its own history, but also understood the need for a certain decorum, had wanted it there, probably, I thought, deliberately, though in truth I do not know that. Suddenly I remembered what I’d somehow suppressed – repressed? – and, studying the nearby Shaw Memorial one time walking home from the Athenaeum was sure of it. Moved as one must be by that memorial, I realized the Perkins-dominated Long Room exemplified another side of Civil War Boston just as expressively. Other words by Wolff jumped out at me from the pages of Culture Club that night. There she recounts how at the mid-19th century fairs put on by Athenaeum relatives in the Female Anti-Slavery Society “a juxtaposition of refined taste and human suffering was calculated.” The decor of the present-day, Perkins-dominated Long Room exactly.
Why do I characterize the Long Room this way? As we will shortly see in my discussion of the splendid role of the Boston Brahmin officer corps in connection with the Massachusetts troops – highlighted, of course, by the really quite inspiring story of Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th of black volunteers – all of which was very much the pride of Brahmin Boston in the Civil War – it is important not to deny the too-often obscured Brahmin shame that also marked this passage of American history. All the more so because in that aspect will be found the seeds of the ultimate decline and fall of the Brahmin ascendency in the early 20th-century. But whether deliberately or accidentally, that shame is what is now enthroned in the first floor of the Boston Athenaeum. Thomas Handasyd Perkins was a slave trader.
Now Perkins wasn’t only a slave trader. His is the sort of narrative that in the wrong hands easily lends itself to sensationalism, never mind self-righteousness. But in the case of the present installation of the Perkins portrait, suppression is the issue.
Perkins’s most most recent biographers in the 1970s, Carl Seaburg and Stanley Peterson (Merchant Prince of Boston, Harvard University Press, 1971) entirely downplay this aspect of Perkins’s career: “slavery, at best, [was] a small part of the Perkins enterprise,” they assert. How interesting though that in this respect Perkins stands out less in the small arena of his own life than in Boston University historian Hugh Thomas’s saga of many centuries, The Slave Trade (1997), where Thomas paints a vivid picture of the elegant subject of the Sully portrait: “slaveships left Boston in those days for Africa . . . . the tall figure of Colonel Thomas Handasyd Perkins of that city had recently established a good business selling slaves.” That was very far from Boston, of course – in Haiti – but Wolff reminds that it was not just the lords of the loom who kept careful watch of such things in the New England capital.
“At the Athenaeum,” writes Wolff, “the problem of slavery became a tightrope on which members precariously balanced . . . . Its reluctance to embrace the cause of abolition demonstrates that the Athenaeum did not advance the nation in all the ways that its founding documents had envisioned. The institution tried to remove itself from the unpleasantness of abolition.” Wolff notes “the Athenaeum’s silence around antislavery” and how “often those Athenaeum shareholders who did speak out encountered some measure of ostracism.” As between what Wolff candidly calls “the resistance to the antislavery movement among Athenaeum proprietors,” as well as their ongoing condescension toward the very few women they allowed to use the library, all this showed the same pattern of denial, denial that worsens defensively as reform threatens.
Certainly the extent of Perkins’s role as a slaver stands out more after the outlawing of the trade. According to James A Rawley’s classic The Transatlantic Slave Trade (1981), “Boston entrepreneurs found ways to evade the laws of the Commonwealth and of the United States. The great mercantile firm of James and Thomas Handasyd Perkins, working through middlemen and correspondents, managed to keep obscure their extensive participation in the slave trade . . . From Boston they conducted a heavy correspondence with African traders . . . mindful that they were carrying on an illicit traffic, they explained how to evade the law.” The recent Harvard and Slavery Research Project concurs: “James and Thomas Perkins . . . became slave-smugglers, charging premium commission rates to dodge restrictive laws. By 1788 they owned their own ships and were bringing in slaves from the African port of Anomabu.”
It will not do, by the way, to imagine Perkins himself as trying to keep his distance from this sordid work. As Paul Goodman documents in his Ethics and Enterprise: The Values of a Boston Elite, 1800-1860, Perkins was personally involved. On 17 November 1792, for example, he wrote to a ship captain that he was “to take care that they [the slaves] are young and healthy and without any defects in their Limbs, Teeth and Eyes & [that he purchase] as few females as possible.” On December 1st of the same year he advised another that “if you cannot readily buy the slaves in the road [off the coast] we hope you will find some new negroes from on shore, who know nothing of the language.”
To understand this obscene intersection Wolff brought into focus for me at the Athenaeum, one should sit comfortably in the first floor Long Room and read these letters in situ, as it were. Talk about “the juxtaposition of a refined taste and human suffering”! That the right hand here knew very well what the left hand was doing is very clear in the case of Thomas Handasyd Perkins, and there is nothing to suggest this slaver ever sang “Amazing Grace.”
Perkins had more than one reason to remain gripped by this demon. As Lawrence Ladder reminds us in his Bold Brahmins (1961), in the era in which “Perkins . . . . entered the inner circle . . . . of the ‘Boston Associates” – a group whose best and most generous impulses I have not been slow to praise here, but which had as well its dark side “. . . the merchant aristocracy . . . achieve[ed] a complete reversal of Boston’s attitude toward slavery . . . The struggle [in 1820] over Missouri’s admission as a slave state [was supported by] eleven Massachusetts representatives, only three opposed. . . . A few dissidents like John Quincy Adams continued to rail against slavery, but Boston had made its convenient peace with the south.”
Both sides, it is some compensation to say, operated increasingly on a world stage; in that respect at least the right side benefited as much as the wrong side, to be bald about it: “their place among the international community of transatlantic reformers infused Boston’s abolitionists with convictions that were vividly seen, tangibly felt and immediately acted upon,” historian J. B. Stewart notes, adding “abolitionists of both races also came to embrace a distinctive view of the world . . . global in scope. What, after all, was The Liberator’s famous motto – Our Country Is The World – Our Countrymen all Mankind.”
Not only was the abolitionist movement as big as big business, but the greatest Brahmin orator of the era, Wendell Phillips – Stewart marks him as “possessing perhaps the most eloquent voice in America during its golden age of oratory” – was an ardent abolitionist. That said, there was the further aspect of this conflict that it showed the “listening democracy” could also speak so as to goad the “speaking aristocracy” to listen. Writes Stewart:
While Boston’s first abolitionist leaders were obscure individuals (the printer Garrison and the rag peddler Walker), the movement quickly began to enroll some of the city’s most prestigious members. . . young men and women with impressive educations, great inherited wealth, pronounced anglophile tastes, and extraordinary personal qualities began mingling with the free blacks and little known white religious visionaries who gathered in The Liberator’s dingy office . . . While David Walker and William Lloyd Garrison had already challenged the Brahmins’ southern allegiances from below, this direct confrontation from the aristocracy’s own sons and daughters was a far more serious matter.
What impelled these young Brahmins? One reason Stewart cites is that “they saw themselves as carrying forward the fundamental principles of human liberation that had been formulated in the American Revolution (if not earlier) and bequeathed to them by their forebears.” Stewart, in fact, goes on to remark that “these young renegades were openly denying all orthodox ‘brahmin’ claims to moral leadership, historical authority, and economic legitimacy. The sons and daughters of these leading families now sneered at their elders as ‘lords of the loom,’ enslaved by their dependence on cotton to the ‘lords of the lash’ on southern plantations.”
Which side Perkins was on, and why, is not, however, hard to see. And it would be easy to paint him as the poster boy, so to speak, of what are often called the State Street Brahmins. It was not, however, so simple.
Because William Ellery Channing, the father of American Unitarianism – and my choice for Unitarian pope – is worth consulting on all this, which means reading Alan Seaburg’s essay on Perkins’s life in The Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography for, yes, Thomas Handasyd Perkins was Unitarian; a member in fact of Channing’s own church. And, to be fair, he was a generous patron, as his many benefactions – to the Massachusetts General Hospital as well as to the Athenaeum and, above all, to what was named in his honor the Perkins Institution for the Blind – attest. Yet though he does not neglect this side of the great merchant prince, Seaburg pulls no punches. “Neither [Thomas Handasyd or James] Perkins were concerned with the morality of selling slaves,” he asserts. Knowing that what “mattered to them was that what they traded should make money for the firm,” Seaburg goes so far as to pronounce that Channing “did not appreciate merchants much, even those in his congregation, and later condemned the business of slavery.” The guru of the “Boston religion” never spoke clearer: perhaps someday the Athenaeum will follow suit, and move Thomas Handasyd Perkins back to the closet/chapel.
Between the Perkins-dominated Long Room and the Shaw Memorial nearby – between what I insist on calling Brahmin shame and Brahmin pride – there was the statesmanlike realpolitik of Massachusetts’s great war governor, John A. Andrew, of which our most splendid artistic legacy is another spectacular Boston interior, the Lion Staircase of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square.
How many, I wonder, have come to internalize the idea (as I have) that the library’s magnificent stair, visually so full of hope and glory – Henry James wrote once of the “high and luxurious beauty” of its golden Sienna marble – seems to prompt thought of an equally glorious soundtrack? It is something I have thought ever since I learned how often Julia Ward Howe (who lived nearby, whose son was a student at MIT across the square and who used the library regularly) was seen to climb this stately stair. What must have been the thoughts of the author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as she passed those two huge, regal lions around which the stair turns, Boston’s war memorial to two of its most storied Civil War regiments, one of them the ‘Harvard Regiment’ and both of them famously led, of all remarkable things for an intellectual aristocracy to have yielded up, by a Boston Brahmin officer corps: mine eyes have seen the glory!
The Boston city-state having at first sight not much in common with Prussia, or Venice or Napoleonic France, it is not easy to see how this happened. A Calvinist-turned-Unitarian led culture produces professors and ministers and then ups its game to reformers of a high order; but an officer corps? Especially an officer corps tasked, as contemporaries in the State House who knew the New England culture admitted, with something no royal governor in Boston had ever achieved, “changing a town meeting into a regiment.”?
To probe that process one must have recourse to a very different venue – Memorial Hall at Harvard, which Walter Whitehill significantly pairs with the Shaw Memorial in his study, The Civil War in Boston. At Memorial Hall the whole arsenal of religion – cathedral plan, glorious stained glass, fine sculpture, lofty vaults – was appropriated for a private, collegiate memorial totally dedicated to honoring Boston Brahmin values and ideals. One has only to notice the way it figures in Henry James’s The Bostonians to realize that Harvard’s Memorial Hall is Boston’s Unitarian cathedral.
The ‘liturgy’ of this cathedral, of the College “Hall” some version of which – complete with high table dais, royal portraits and Latin grace – Harvard had cultivated since 1636 but at Memorial Hall for the first time was able to create on the splendid scale of the colleges of English Cambridge Harvard’s founders would have wanted to emulate, taught in a hundred personal ways that carried over into the classroom and playing field the muscular Christianity that was Unitarianisms (and to a somewhat lesser extent Episcopalianisms) junior partner in character formation.
A more public side to their personal values seems to inform the Lion Stair, and, like the Hall of Flags in the State House and the Soldiers and Sailors Monument atop Boston Common both nationalism and patriotism come first to mind, and thus the American Revolution. Shaw was not only a Harvard man; he was the descendant of a Revolutionary War officer. Another source a Brahmin officer corps might draw upon.
Still the passion and fury of reformers and agitators like Wendell Phillips and Theodore Parker and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and of the abolitionists generally, is altogether more what one expects of Boston – where the archetypal figure is ever the Reformer, not the general Officer. That is more Virginia than Massachusetts, yes? The Brahmins of India offered no model either. The first or Brahmin caste included only priests and educators. Warriors were not included; they were assigned to the second or Kshatriya class, while merchants were in the third of Vaishya class. Nor did Holmes, Sr. ever make these distinctions. Beyond the one bold stroke of reaching across a vast cultural divide to appropriate from India what he needed to name Boston’s learned caste – although it is hard to believe he did not know that physicians like himself were welcomed into the first or Brahmin class – Holmes restricted himself thereafter to more Western concepts. Moreover, in various ways at various times he did make plain his doubts that The Professor’s Story would ever easily become The Warrior’s Story.
Right at the start, in Elsie Venner (1861), Holmes observes that though the Brahmin’s “eye is bright and quick,” he was also likely to have a face “smooth and apt to be pallid … his features . . . of a certain delicacy,” never mind an air Holmes thought in part sometimes “awkward.” While the good doctor seemed not at all surprised to learn that out of the more robust masculinity of the immigrant Irish there could arise what he called “a regiment of gallant Irish,” he openly wondered if Brahmins “being, for example, so sensitive,” would rise to such a demand. “The race of the hereditary scholar,” he wrote, “had exchanged a certain portion of its animal vigor for its new instincts, and it is hard,” he felt, “to lead men without a good deal of animal vigor.” The best he could venture on the eve of the Civil War was to hope that “Brahmin . . . courage is enough for the uniform which hangs so loosely about their slender figures.” And again: “I don’t believe in any aristocracy” – including a learned one, presumably – “without pluck as its backbone. Ours may show it when the time comes.”
And so it did, including Holmes’ own son and namesake, an exemplar, though a complicated one. The most convincing probes in this realm, those of historian Carol Bundy, unite the values of the “Unitarian cathedral” and the public monuments in her biography of Charles Russell Lowell Jr, The Nature of Sacrifice. “I saw,” Bundy wrote,
a biography of Charlie Lowell as a chance to tell the story of the Civil War from the point of view of the children of the Transcendentalists: steeped in idealism, these young men yearned for practical applications. Lowell believed that the world advances by impossibilities achieved. The American experience in democracy was one; the abolition of slavery was another. New England has never recovered from their loss.
That extraordinary assertion – so reminiscent of what was so often said of Britain after its officer corps was decimated by World War One – is yet another chapter in the overall balance of gain and loss I first raised here with the Puritans, noting how their losses and gains haunt those Bostonian psychologists Hawthorne and Updike, for Massachusetts led in every respect during the Civil War. It was, in fact, the first state to answer Lincoln’s call for troops to defend the Union. As historian R. F. Miller recounts: “Through a series of dramatic public gestures, many recalling the commonwealth’s crucial role in the Revolutionary War,” Massachusetts’ then governor, John A. Andrew, made a determined effort to “rally support at a time when indecision paralyzed many elites:
Andrew’s energetic preparations paid off. On 15 April, one day after the Union surrender at [Fort] Sumter, President Lincoln issued a call for . . .militia. . . ; within forty eight hours, Massachusetts troops were en route to Washington, and, for a time, were the only combat-ready units present to defend the capital.
Miller goes on to recount how in an effort to unite the state Andrew adopted a deliberate policy of “choosing the sons of the Brahmin elite to form his officer corps.” Fascinating to report, the historian is driven to the astonishing extreme of titling the article in which he addresses this issue “Brahmin Janissaries,” even more exotic than Holmes’s recourse to the Brahmins of India, for the entirely Christian troops of the Ottoman sultans were even more set apart than Brahmins. A term certainly self-aggrandizing, but Miller nonetheless argues for its truth in some sense: ‘that amidst the chaos of war the Brahmin class – in some hazy way analogous to the Janissaries of Ottomon days – was, once committed, reliable. The point was perhaps that Brahmins, like Janissaries, were “brought up expecting to command … and on the firing line would hold their places. Indeed, even a crusading anti-Brahmin journalist cited by Miller agreed: “the young bloods,” Miller quotes this journalist agreeing, “tried harder just because they were ‘more particular’ about their rank.”
Andrew’s biographer’s perspective on this in 1904 is instructive: touching on the sensitivities aroused by “the belief that ‘Beacon Street’ influence was too strong’ with the governor – Beacon street being the seat and state of Boston’s Brahmins then – Henry Pearson wrote:
Popular sentiment in the state was jealously sensitive of aristocratic leanings in one who had been elected as he people’s governor; but though the class which Andrew trusted most was that known as the ‘plain people’, yet when it came to . . . military office, indeed, he felt that there was a presumption in the other direction. He realized that a liberal education [then an attribute only of the aristocracy] and inheritance of social traditions are likely to breed in a man not only mental flexibility but also that sense of superiority which is invaluable to those who command. Among the young fellows of good Boston family, just graduated from Harvard . . he found what he needed.
To be sure there were drawbacks to a Brahmin officer corps: ethnic tensions and class distinctions hurt morale and surfaced frequently in the 20th Massachusetts, but Miller documents his point about why New York and not Boston had draft riots when he asks in concluding his study:
Did the governors preference for the upper crust alienate less privileged Bostonians?. . . Andrews favoritism, in fact, may actually have eased class and ethnic tensions . . . . The newspapers . . .trumpeted the services of Brahmins . . . .the charge of ‘rich man’s war, poor man’s fight’ could be effectively answered. ‘Indeed, such was the elite’s contribution to the war effort, the Brahmin Janissaries redeemed themselves on the battlefield.’ Here was a fighting aristocracy, not just a speaking one.
Consider the 20th Massachusetts, found as Miller attests “at the lethal crossroads of nearly every major battle of the Army of the Potomac,” the ‘Harvard Regiment,’ whose officers included not only Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, but another officer whose “impeccable Brahmin lineage” Miller emphasizes – Paul Revere III. And was not this highly dedicated and effective officer corps the best way for Brahmins to maintain their credulity as a ruling caste, and was it not in just the same way African-Americans struggling up in Shaw’s 54th were to prove themselves in the same arena as more than worthy of freedom and full citizenship?
“Something of what Homer did for Hector and Achilles in the Iliad,” critic John Russell wrote in The New York Times in 1986, Lincoln Kirstein in Lay This Laurel did “for Robert Gould Shaw and his regiment of black volunteers” in the wake of Augustus Saint Gaudens’s memorial opposite the State House – which is to escalate at once to the fact that while Andrew was a great war governor in general, arguably (in Miller’s words) “his greatest contribution to victory, and to history, was the North’s enlistment of black men to fight for emancipation and Union.” General Colin Powell in his address at the Shaw centennial in 1997, agreed, noting that the 54th was not only “the cherished project of Massachusetts abolitionist governor” but also of the black educator and activist Frederick Douglass, whose two sons joined the unit.
The 54th Massachusetts was “not the first of all the black regiments raised throughout the US”; it was “the first official regiment raised in the North “for black troops” – a point Powell necessarily made because the movie Glory misleads in this respect. In fact, the First South Carolina Volunteers, organized some months before the 54th, and the Louisiana National Guard, enjoy that distinction, though in respect to the Boston Brahmin officer corps, it only adds, so to speak, grist to my mill, for it was another Boston Brahmin, Thomas Wentworth Higginson – interestingly, the future Atlantic editor – who was asked to command the South Carolina regiment.
Even in Massachusetts, by no means was all this smooth sailing. For a variety of reasons, none creditable, black troops were at first denied by the Federal government the full wages paid white soldiers. Worse, all the officers had to be white. In the black church on Joy Street – the African Meeting House on Beacon Hill, so beautifully restored today as a museum – Wendell Phillips did not dissemble: “I think you have as much right to the first [officers] commission in a brigade as a white man,” he declared. “’But if you cannot have a whole loaf, will you not take a slice?’”
The answer was overwhelmingly yes, and recruits surfaced in Boston from as far away as St. Louis and and Canada to join a cause Governor Andrew certainly rose to: what a scene it must have been – talk about uplifting rhetoric – when at the ceremonial presentation of battle flags at the State House, Andrew turned to Robert Gould Shaw: “I know not, Mr. Commander,” the governor declared, “where in all human history, to any given thousand men in arms there has been committed a work at once so proud, so precious, so full of hope and glory as the work committed to you.”
This was a good deal to ask of a 23-year-old college dropout, even a Boston Brahmin and a Harvard man! Shaw, furthermore, as a young man had something of a mixed repute among his classmates, for example, as “one who drank and partied with abandon.” Worse, he was known to use bigoted and racist epithets about blacks and Irish immigrants. Certainly he was no abolitionist. But family as much as the individual mattered a lot in Brahmin Boston, and his parents were committed to the cause of eradicating slavery from the American scene.
But no one ever called Robert Gould Shaw timid or faint-hearted. At the start of the Civil War, such was his patriotism and excitement he rushed to enlist as a private, and when he got his commission he did not disappoint. It was in one of Boston’s most aristocratic regiments. Yet he turned down the governor’s first offer to lead the 54th. It was only when he considered his mother’s reaction that he thought better of the decision, as much out of respect for her as anything else. To his fiancee he offered this explanation: “I shan’t be frightened out of it by its unpopularity, and I hope you don’t care if it is made fun of.” It was left to William James to draw out the situation: “loneliness was certain, ridicule inevitable, failure possible; and Shaw was only twenty five; and although he had stood among the bullets at Cedar Mountain and Antietam, he until then had been walking socially on the sunny side of life . . . [But Shaw] . . . inclined naturally toward difficult resolves.” Like Charles Lowell Jr.
Beacon Street, from Somerset to Charles streets; more than Oliver Wendell Holmes’s “street that holds the sifted few”; between the Massachusetts State House and the Boston Common Parade Ground, Beacon Street is the crown of Boston’s via Sacra.
Rome’s Sacred Way is first and foremost, most storied, of course, of any and all such of the great capitals of the world. From the Capitoline Hill through the Roman Forum to the Colosseum, the Via Sacra was the route of the Roman Triumph, its high point the Arch of Titus. In ancient times as now in Hollywood spectaculars, the Roman Sacred way is instantly recognizable. And if you have seen the movie Glory, the Civil War film starring Denzel Washington, you have seen Boston’s too, consecrated the morning of May 28, 1863.
It was at 9:00 AM on that morning in May in 1863 that the thousand and seven black men of the Massachusetts 54th regiment detained at the old Providence Depot in what is now Park Square and, in full dress, drums beating, bugles sounding, their white colonel riding at their head, began their triumphant march through the Massachusetts capital to a farewell military review and their embarkation for the South at Boston Harbor. Nothing like it had ever been seen before. Highly controversial, even dangerous, this now legendary march as finally it climbed Beacon Hill from School Street to Tremont to Pemberton Square to Somerset Street, and then a sharp right past the Boston Athenaeum to the State House, was greeted by unexpectedly rapturous enthusiasm. As he drew abreast of the State House Shaw paused to raise his sword to Governor Andrew, standing with his staff on the State House steps, and thereafter served as the governor’s escort as they passed down Beacon Street to the parade ground.
The mix of exaltation and danger must have been electric: as the parade passed Wendell Phillips on his balcony and then William Loyd Garrison on his – in tears, witnesses said, hand on John Brown’s bust – and also poet John Greenleaf Whittier and Frederick Douglass, whose two sons, Lewis and Fredrick, were in the line of march, high drama was everywhere. Indeed, even now it must give pause when one passes 44 Beacon Street, the beautiful ironwork second floor balcony of which is today always so empty-seeming, but not that historic day, when Shaw’s mother and his wife and two of his four sisters stood watch there, bidding Shaw farewell alas, in more than one way. Echoing a sentiment many a person left a record of during this parade – including poet Whittier, who as he saw Shaw pass, felt him “the very flower of grace and chivalry. . . beautiful and awful, an angel of God” – Shaw’s sister wrote that “when Rob . . . looked up and kissed his sword, his face was the face of an angel; I felt perfectly sure he would never come back.”
He didn’t, of course; in the poet’s words “Two months after marching through Boston, half the regiment was dead”; Shaw too. Meanwhile, by way of the Charles Street Gate to Boston Common, Shaw led his regiment on to the Parade Ground, where they formed up for the great military review at which Governor Andrew took the salute. The New York Daily Tribune, noting that “the march of the First Colored Regiment through the streets of Boston [was] an event of momentous importance in the annals of the State and Union,” carried a full account:
The first colored regiment organized in a Northern State embarked at Boston last Thursday. Its arrival in the city, the review on the Common by Governor Andrew, the march through the streets of Boston, and the magnificent reception given to the regiment by the citizens is very noteworthy . . . Vast crowds lined the streets where the regiment was to pass and the Common was crowded with an immense number of people . . . Even in State Street the regiment’s reception was enthusiastic. Over the spot where . . . in the gray light of early morning, Anthony Burns was stolen away to slavery, all Boston consenting to the deed; three years later, under the noonday sun was openly kidnapped, with escort of Boston troops, this black regiment now marched to the music of John Brown’s hymn to embark on the ship which should bear them on a hostile errand to the soil of South Carolina.”
In a letter to his bride, Annie – these letters are online at “Written in Glory/Letters from the Soldiers and Officers of the 54th Massachusetts” – Shaw himself wrote, “The more I think of the passage of the Fifty-Fourth through Boston, the more wonderful it seems to me. Just remember our own doubts and fears, and other people’s sneering and pitying remarks, when we began last winter, and then look to the perfect triumph [of the Boston parade] last Thursday . . . Everyone I saw, from the Governor’s staff (who have always given us rather the cold shoulder) down, had nothing but praise for us. . . [I]f the raising of colored troops prove such a benefit to this country, and to the blacks, as many people think it will, I shall thank God a thousand times that I was led to take my share in it.”
Yet incidents there were, the two most notable at opposite ends of the social scale. One was that as the regiment passed the Somerset Club on the corner of Beacon and Somerset street; it was fashionable among business Brahmins, and members pulled the shades down. Another was that Irish dock workers, when the regiment reached the harbor to embark, tried to start a riot. There was some sort truth in both reports. It was no accident that a number of members – John Murray Forbes, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Eliot Norton, to name three – resigned from the Somerset and started a rival club called the Union. Similarly, the Irish-Catholic Boston Pilot certainly fanned the flames of what Boston historian Thomas O’Connor calls Irish racism: “One Southern regiment of white men could put twenty regiments [of blacks] to flight in half an hour,” the Pilot‘s editors railed, and were made fools of, in the event.. As O’Connor points out, this regiment of “heroes” fought gallantly, never more so than at Fort Wagner, where they died. However, it was perhaps significant that neither the club men nor the dock workers figured in the contemporary press reports cited here.
In rising to the obligations of a military aristocracy, the intellectual aristocracy hardly ceased its intellectualizing, even in the purely literary realm. Thus it was, however bizarre it seems, that Emerson’s “Boston Hymn” was the regimental fight song of for the South Carolina black volunteers! And it was in the same year that Thomas Wentworth Higginson took command of that regiment that he began to read the poems sent to him quite out of the blue by one of the greatest American poets, as she turned out to be: Emily Dickinson, for whom he would be mentor and discoverer in years to come (alas, censor too, but that is another story. Boston Brahmins could be awful pedants, not to say moralists). Nor is Colonel Shaw reading Emerson in his tent on the eve of battle at all a stretch. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr can reasonably be thought given to the same habit.
More broadly, the war itself and its aftermath proved variously inspiring and disillusioning. File Oliver Wendell Holmes under disillusioning, William James under inspiring. First, Holmes, of whom Harvard cultural historian Louis Menand has concluded, “the war made [Holmes] realize that Boston was just one American city. He had not fought for Boston, he had fought for the United States, and the experience had taught him the two were not the same thing.”
It was a belief heavily indebted to the influence of his father, Holmes Sr, for whom Menand suggests Boston was indeed the American city. Of course a fair reading of Holmes would acknowledge that all such claims were clearly meant to be satirical – he compared Bostonians who felt this way to Londoners and Parisians – even the citizens of Naples! – who felt the same way about their cities and even went so far as to say the best citizens claimed dual citizenship in more than one city – but few people read Holmes anymore, though those who do understand why in Britain as in America the Dean of Harvard Medical School was better known as author than physician. (There is a reason Arthur Conan Doyle’s world-famous consulting detective is named Holmes, and the Professor – or is it the Autocrat – at his Breakfast Table). Sufficient to say Holmes Sr. was too much an icon for any son to bear, and a Boston icon at that.
Menand sees the reaction of Holmes Jr as a transformation from provincial – as in Holmes Sr – to cosmopolitan, something readers of this series will at once be skeptical of, since I have I hope documented the fact that whatever else Homes Sr. was, he was not provincial, a position in the wake of the scholarship of William Dowling’s study of the elder Holmes in Paris it is harder and harder to maintain. But although Menand is a thoughtful and penetrating scholar, he perhaps invests too much in the Van Wyck Brooks school of New England’s Twilight and takes no account at all in charting the rise of the (American) nation-state in the late 19th century (at the expense of the region, including New England) of the countervailing development in America of the urban scene and the increasing dominance nationally of the metropolitan area, never mind city-states like Boston.
In truth, Holmes Jr’s reaction to the Civil War was much more to my mind what is often called a “loss of faith.” Not entirely, of course. Not, for example, in Emerson, who Holmes Jr confided in his old age was “the only firebrand of my youth that burns to me as brightly as ever” – but in Boston at least as what Menand calls (quoting Holmes Sr. again but again with no sense of his satirical posture) “the measure of all things.”
It was a profound enough loss of faith that Holmes Jr near the end of his life seems a poor cosmopolite but an excellent example of a far more conflicted figure, when in Menand’s words, he “breaks down in tears . . . not tears for the war . . . .[but] for what the war had destroyed. Holmes had grown up in a highly cultivated, homogeneous world, of which he was in many ways the consummate product: idealistic, artistic and socially committed. And then he watched that world bleed to death at Fredericksburg and Antietam, in a war that learning and brilliance had been powerless to prevent.” That world, of course, was Boston’s. Adds Menand: “When [Holmes] returned, Boston had changed and so had American life. Holmes had changed too, but he never forgot what he had lost. ‘He told me’ [a friend] reported, ‘that after the Civil War the world never seemed quite right again.’”
William James disagreed entirely.
A longtime friend, though not usually an ally, of Holmes Jr, James was a different kind of Boston Brahmin, but no less so, unless one adopts the view that a nativist as well as an hereditary premise absolutely underlies the caste, which Holmes Jr’s view of Louis Brandeis, for instance, would suggest he at least did not accept. Converts are always a different matter, and James, drawn to Boston from elsewhere, had an entirely different view than Holmes, drawn away from Boston in the usual way. (See my long-form blog on why the brightest Bostonians get out of town as quickly as possible, replaced easily by Americans from elsewhere, smart enough to be drawn to school here.)
Have I jumped two generations ahead? Look at MIT founder, William Barton Rogers, who fled his native South for the ideal liberal world he saw in Boston, adopted its mores, married into its aristocracy and founded one of its great institutions – sufficient to be accepted by Brahmins as one of their own. Unlike brother Henry, the novelist, who despite so many Boston associations, could never be called a Boston Brahmin, William, by choice, vocation, marriage and caste acceptance (Professor and Mrs. James, just like Justice and Mrs. Holmes, were duly listed in the Brahmin bible, the Boston Social Register) altogether agreed with his election to the Brahminate in just the way Rogers did, or Olmsted, and encountered no challenge to maintaining himself there. Where, not by the way, early on two other James brothers were themselves deeply embedded. Not enough people notice that younger brother, Wilky James, was on Shaw’s command staff of the 54th while Robertson James enlisted in the Massachusetts 55th, the 54th’s sister regiment.
James had as many difficulties as Holmes Jr. about the war, sufficiently intense that he could never bring himself to enlist though he professed ardently wanting to. Instead, Louis Agassiz’s expedition up the Amazon was, in Menands words, “[William James's] Civil War.” However, as the historian goes on to say, though James “had set off as if to the [war] front,” he had found “no opportunity . . . for heroism” and “seems to have decided the war was back in Cambridge,” in the “academic suburb” as brother Henry called it. It was, in fact, on the intellectual battlefield of ‘Academic Boston,’ not the military battlefields of the South, that William James, in his own words, felt compelled to take a hand in “people swarming about . . . killing themselves with thinking.” What a phrase – killing themselves with thinking.
In a sense one could say James saw that the war being fought on the home front, not only in politics but in philosophy and science, was no less important. Who realizes anymore, as we will see a few articles ahead, that the coming into being of Art-become-Copley-Square, which grew up in the wake of MIT’s founding there on what would be the square’s northeast corner block in 1861, was marked on the world stage by an historic New World defense of Darwin’s theory of evolution, by MIT founder Rogers, supported, furthermore, but by the builder of Trinity Church across the street, the Reverend Phillips Brooks. This was only the first chapter in an ongoing conflict that is after all the lifeblood of any intellectual center, as Copley Square became.
In some measure it was liberal versus conservative. As Frederickson points out, though in Boston even the most “instinctive conservatism on pressing social issues was accompanied by a philosophical and religious liberalism – an inherited penchant for Enlightenment ideas” – that undermined many Conservative initiatives, there was on the other hand Charles Eliot Norton’s Consideration of Some Recent Social Theories (1853) more evidence of how some elements of “New England’s Brahmin caste looked back nostalgically to the days of Federalism.”
Indeed, it will not do to lose sight of the persistent conservative strain in Brahmin society, “the dream of a secular priesthood, a conservative intellectual class based on learning and culture . . . .came naturally in New England, ” Fredrickson remarks, “where for generations there had been a definable class which had attempted to combine intellectual achievement with social leadership. This was the aristocracy Oliver Wendell Holmes called ‘the Brahmin caste of New England.’”
Francis Parkman, whose racist take on Holmes’s ‘Brahmin’ came up last time, was a leading example. Never a humanitarian, and no fan either of Channing, Parkman once wrote Charles Eliot Norton, “I would see every slave knocked on the head before I would see the Union go to pieces and would include in the sacrifice as many abolitionists as could conveniently brought together.” Worse, he announced baldly – and simplistically to say the least – in a letter to the Boston Advertiser that Robert Gould Shaw “had not died for the Negroes, but for his class.”
Holmes Jr, and William James, on the other hand, did not carry simplistic banners but nonetheless brought very different perspectives to the dedication in 1897 of the Shaw Memorial, an occasion both grand and moving. A citywide celebration with national participation – several US Navy ships having been ordered to Boston Harbor to fire salutes at the unveiling, in common with batteries on Boston Common, the governor – still greeted in those days by “Hail to the Chief” – reviewed a march of over a thousand troops on Commonwealth Avenue at Dartmouth Street, and everywhere the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was the soundtrack. Most poignantly according to the Boston Globe, “on the balconies and in the windows of the houses of Beacon Street from Charles to Hancock Streets will be some of the same people [in 1897] who witnessed the triumphant march of the 54th [in 1863.]” Holmes and James shared the same stage, Holmes as a justice (soon to be chief justice) of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and James as the principal speaker.
It was, Menand recounts, “the finest of [James's] speeches.” He took a very high view indeed of the Civil War, hailing “our ransomed country.” And he took as high a view as well – pace Holmes – of Boston. He spoke not only of “a richer and more splendid Boston” – James loved immigrants, unlike his brother, and rejoiced in the growing metropolis – but of “the city of promise,” as he called it. It was surely a re-wording with reference to Boston’s role in the re-founding of the country in the wake of the war as compared with the role of the “city upon a hill” in the country’s original founding. Furthermore, James brought both themes into a moving and prayerful but distinctly triumphalist finale: “may our ransomed country, like the city of promise, lie four square under Heaven, and the ways of the nations be lit up by its light.” (Why do I at once think of Harvard President Eliot’s speech of welcome to the brother of the German Kaiser to Boston five years later, in fact a lecture on what he had to learn in Boston!)
A nation ransomed and a city of promise ceded very little to the post Civil War Holmes and embraced, as was only seemly, Shaw’s legacy. One would give much to know the thoughts of Holmes, and because the justice did remain so ardent an Emersonian, I think we can assume it was with mixed emotions he heard a speech in which, as University of South Carolina historian Thomas J. Brown sees it, James found the genius of the sculptors conception in the way his masterwork “envisioned the procession[al march] down Beacon Street on May 28, 1863.” Thanks to Saint-Gaudens, that triumphant passage of the 54th is depicted as “an exemplar of the timeless formation of a community of conscience.” In an Emersonian phrase if ever there was one, James went on to say how the art, like the event depicted, “luminously represented” men “obeying a sentiment, and marching loyally whither that should lead them.’ ”
In fact, the historian is putting into the sculptor’s mind and hand as into James’s mouth, not only Emersonian ideals but the philosopher’s own words. When Emerson declared, “I do not speak with any fondness, but the language of coldest history, when I say that Boston commands attention as the town which was appointed in the destiny of nations to lead the civilization of North America,” the “Buddha of the West,” as Harold Bloom via Holmes Sr. hails Emerson, sounded for a moment rather more like a New Yorker; until, that is, one examines his meaning, which was an obvious commentary on cities less favored than Boston, which was, he insisted, “not an accident, or a railroad station, cross-roads tavern or army barracks grown up by time and luck to a place of wealth.”
What was it then? The philosopher’s conclusions were not what one might have expected. What Boston had to offer the nation, Emerson wrote – what it stood for – what Saint-Gaudens had captured, what William James was quoting the philosopher saying, was that Boston was “a seat of men of principle” – as if any rival capital would think that a prize worth contesting! But Emerson did. And to any who raised skeptical eyebrows, he made (for him) an unanswerable reply: sounding now much more the Bostonian, he pronounced what was a masterpiece of understatement: “This town has a history.”
The way in the subsequent century and more the story of Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th has sparked one masterwork after the other – in sculpture and music, in poetry and prose, never mind perhaps less enduring but more popularly prominent work like the movie Glory – attests to the fact that there is no more compelling relationship of its kind in the history of the American experience than this somewhat unlikely Civil War alliance between the Boston Brahmin aristocracy and the African-American oppressed and even enslaved.
It is also true that over the years the alliance has been more and more read as a more black than Brahmin story, the explanation for which may surprise: University of Pittsburgh historian Kirk Savage’s work suggests strongly that the shift is traceable to the committee of Boston Brahmins under whose auspices Saint-Gaudens created the Shaw Memorial in the first place.
Australian critic Robert Hughes in his American Visions offers the widest possible perspective here. “The bronze face of Shaw is finely modeled, an image of sensitivity and command,” Hughes writes, but pivots at once to what is, indeed, the most unusual aspect of the work: “no American sculptor has ever been called on to represent blacks as heroes, level in nobility and resolution with a white leader.” Adds Hughes:
In the 1880s nearly all images of African-Americans by white American artists were either crude racist stereotypes . . . or else merely generic. Saint-Gaudens, however, worked assiduously from the life, doing studies in clay of some forty different heads for the black soldiers . . . Among the very few American treatments of blacks up to that time that neither mock nor condescend . . . They are . . . not cogs in a machine, but citizen soldiers.
There is, however, a back story here: both client and artist were open to a process of evolution that in the end led them to a very different conclusion than their original intention. The client – a committee of Brahmins that coalesced in the early 1880s – began with the sort of idea one would expect: an equestrian statue of Robert Gould Shaw alone. In no small measure because of what the Shaw family thought of the idea of an equestrian statue of a 25-year-old, this idea gradually changed:
It is ironic that the traditional white hero monument contemplated. . .evolved, in the hands of a group of Brahmins . . . into a monument also commemorating the black soldiery. The Brahmins clearly understood the change and welcomed it; for them the shift from a lone equestrian statue to a narrative relief was not a compromise but an opportunity to enrich the monument’s meaning. Committee member John M. Forbes wrote five years before the monument’s completion, ‘by tacit consent we have changed to a bas-relief which includes soldiers. . . Permit[ting] us to make it a memento for those who fell.”
The sculptor cannot be said, however to have been sympathetic to the change for the same reasons. Saint-Gaudens was not a Boston Brahmin nor an abolitionist; quite the reverse. Savage points out that the sculptor has left us “a memoir containing several anecdotes. . . about the black men who modeled for him . . . .essentially a series of racist slurs and jokes made at the expense of these men,” all of which is hard to misunderstand. However Saint-Gaudens had his own reasons to reverse gears, which again Savage explains:
There is a clear difference between Saint-Gaudens representations of the models in print and his representations of them in bronze . . . . [H]is own artistic philosophy compelled him to individualize the soldiers rather than stereotype or caricature them as he did in his memoir. . . . [H]is artistic discipline took him in a new and unexpected direction. As a social being, he was thoughtless, mimicking the racist beliefs of his milieu; as an artist he was extraordinarily thoughtful, compelled to search out the humanity even of people he would have ridiculed in his gentlemens club.
The result was that the Brahmin abolitionists forced him through his own better nature to fashion a masterwork, what Hughes calls “the most intensely felt image of military commemoration made by an American, ” so much so the monument as much as the story compelled an American composer to a different sort of masterpiece.
Charles Ives’s music – the mediation of the Shaw Memorial in Three Places in New England, begun about 1911 – “identifies with the men,” Denise von Glahn has written, “and concedes their sustained power over him and the nation . . . Ives’s men are our conscience.”
Finally, there is Robert Lowell’s 1960, “For the Union Dead,” one of several works of poetry the Shaw monument has inspired but “the single great poem it has occasioned” according to Harvard literary scholar Helen Vendler. Comparable to the dozen or so foundational literary texts of Boston, “For the Union Dead” pivots back toward an ‘as-Brahmin-as-black’ perspective , and offers our finale here.
The poet’s language is sharp, even harsh – “a rebuke to all civic booster-ism,” Vendler argues; “also to the easy patriotism of the more mediocre elegies on Shaw.” Why does Lowell insist this memorial, the pride of a nation, arguably America’s greatest public sculpture, “sticks like a fish bone/ in the city’s throat”? Because global Boston and local Boston are not the same thing? And whence comes Shaw’s “angry wren-like vigilance”? Were the boundaries of the different Bostons different then? How account for the poet’s sureness Shaw “wince[s] at pleasure”? Were the 1960s less Puritan-friendly than the 1860s? Finally, most controversially, why insist on “the ditch, / where [Shaw's] body was thrown and lost with his ‘niggers’”? There at least we know the source and thus the reason; indeed, the letter the poet quoted from – reproduced in Edward W. Emerson’s Life and Letters of Charles Russell Lowell (1907) – was penned by that Civil War hero:
Everything that comes about Rob shows his death to have been more and more completely that which every soldier and every man would long to die, but is given to very few, for very few do their duty as Rob did. I am thankful they buried him ‘with his niggers’; they were brave men and they were his men.
All this documents Vendler’s view that Robert Lowell “had personal reasons for writing the poem” in 1960: in the 1860s Colonel Shaw’s sister Josephine married Charles Russell Lowell Jr, Shaw’s close friend and fellow officer, whose uncle Robert, brother of poet James Russell Lowell was poet Robert Lowell’s grandfather. The poet knew, in other words, whereof he spoke in more than one sense, and Vendler is surely right that “[b]ecause Lowell’s poem comes to grips with his nostalgia for his family heritage. . . it catches fire interiorly.” She points out, moreover, that in his poem “Lowell depicts himself as helpless before the vandalizing of a venerable part of his city (the Common where Emerson had his vision) . . .[He laments that] once the ruling citizens of the Boston oligarchy (drawn from families such as the Shaws . . and the Lowells) governed almost as by dynastic right, but now the poet’s civic presence. . . is as anonymous as anyone else’s.” Worse, widening his lament, “Lowell suggests that no heroic posture is available to the modern American.” To any American.
Did Lowell think it was more available to Victorian Americans? To Boston Brahmin Americans? Clearly, the poet’s grandfather and father thought so. Louis Menand observes that “to the minds of everyone listening to [William] James’s speech” in 1897 Shaw was not only a “paragon of breeding. He was the type of the heroic Brahmin.” Certainly, General Colin Powell, the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US armed forces, a century later, in his speech at the memorial’s centennial, saw Shaw’s heroic role as enduring.
Heroism, of course, has many faces. Vendler, for her own ends – not necessarily always mine – takes what I find to be some very deep soundings, especially when she focuses on the most elitist and therefore the most problematic aspect of the monument’s message: the motto which appears prominently on it of the Society of the Cincinnati, a motto meant to denote not only aristocracy, but hereditary aristocracy, restricted as membership in the society is to direct descendants in the male line of Revolutionary War officers. Vendler’s response is pitch perfect: “[Shaw's] motive is duty, not love; his virtue is less an abolitionist fervor than a Roman pietas. Lowell’s poem is itself conspicuously Roman, adopting as its epigraph the motto of the Cincinnati.”
It is true that the poet makes (mistakes? It has never been clear) the singular plural, thus ennobling black as well as Brahmin service, in the spirit of adding (as was done in 1997) the names of the black dead to the monument’s roll of honor. But to make the monument’s motto the poem’s epigraph was to take so considerable a risk that Vendler can only explain the poem as
a resurrection rite intending to resuscitate both Shaw and his monument . . .by bestowing on them the present tense. . . [t]he monument has found a way — through the power of its sculptor’s genius – to make the colonel and his men living presences. . . not the past-tense Shaw of the historical record but the present-tense Shaw of ongoing sculptural energy. Without the spiritual forces that Saint-Gaudens first, with an effort of empathetic imagination, absorbed from the story of Shaw and his regiment and then, with a second effort of aesthetic imagination poured out of himself into his sculptured re-presentation of heroism, there would be no Colonel Shaw riding still in Boston . . . .Lowell hopes, of course, that his resuscitation of both the historical Shaw and the sculptural Shaw will once again give the hero a new lease on life within the legend of Boston.
To appreciate the imaginative power of Vendler’s interpretation one must remember the way she sees the ‘virtue’ of both the undoubted hero(s), Shaw (and his men), and the non-hero (the poet) as exemplifying “duty, not love”, their virtue less “fervor” than “duty.” echoes Emerson, who wrote of Shaw “when Duty whispers low, Thou must? The youth replies I can.” Though Menand is reporting, not endorsing, the concept of the “heroic Brahmin,” Vendler’s meaning is very clearly otherwise. And so I think was George Fredrickson in his The Inner Civil War: Northern Intellectuals and the Crisis of Union.
In that work, when he focuses in this respect on Charles Russell Lowell Jr, a war hero and martyr, and on his fellow Boston Brahmin, Henry Lee Higginson, another war hero but one who survived to found the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Fredrickson explores what he calls the problem of “double conscienceness,” a problem problem that afflicted Boston’s Emersonian Brahmins particularly, how to live according to the thinkers precept that while “high thinking and idealism are more important than practical activity,” the supreme good is man thinking and acting. How to “develop this inner life and play an ‘heroic’ role in the world’ was a problem the war solved for Charlie Lowell, and though Higginson lived to achieve more, for him too, the war was the hinge upon which his life turned. As indeed it seemed in some sense to continue to matter extraordinarily.
The son of Louis Kirstein, one of the first Jewish Boston Brahmins – a term some will find provocative but which in the last article of this series will be sufficiently explicated – Lincoln Kirstein, though he flunked Boston in the usual way of the dropout – he was gay as well as Jewish – had a lifelong fascination with the city, or, as editor Nicolas Jenkins put it, “with the city’s aristocratic inhabitants, and through them with the founding and preservation of the Repubic.” The younger Kirstein was close to the Lowells and in Lay This Laurel there is not only a notice at book’s end that “the author of this essay was raised in Boston and shared Harvard rooms with a descendant of Colonel Shaw,” but the added information that Kirstein “in his youth knew some of Shaw’s kin and survivors.” Nor does Kirstein dissemble about the obvious fact that Shaw was his hero. “A born New England patrician,” he calls him with undisguised pride, adding (to Saint-Gaudens’ credit but in support of that pride), “the exquisite justice of the placement of the mounted colonel, whose leadership was as natural as breath itself” – there’s the pride again – “amidst the marching volunteers is on a level with a translucent legibility and sudden reality unequaled in Western art.”
Kirstein earned his right to be considered the laureate of the heroic Brahmin because of the power and clarity of what what Jenkins characterized as his “obsession,” one effect of which, for example, was Kirstein’s insight – perhaps easier for a New Yorker, as he by then was, to say, that “it was hardly an accident that Thomas Wentworth Higginson and [Robert Gould] Shaw, who were to become the two most famous commanders of black troops in the Civil War, both came from Unitarian Boston.” Furthermore, Kirstein cut to the heart of the matter as he saw it in his usual way when he observed that such a stance “was supported by traditions which Harvard College had defined for two hundred years, partly as transcendentalist ethics, and even more significantly as active political morality.”
Then, moreover, this Bostonian-turned-New Yorker intoned, as was his right, the usual liturgy: Boston as ‘Athens of America’? Yes. But Boston as “The Brahmins’ Rome”? That was, to me at least, quite new. And put me in mind at once of Vendler’s – and, somewhat, Emerson’s – ‘Roman’ thesis. But the way Kirstein put it struck me as doubly significant. He wrote: “The Brahmins’ Rome,’ as Boston’s best described their citadel, with less smugness than irony.”
Given Kirstein’s intimate links with and close observation of the sons of the last Brahmin generation, it is reasonable to think this was a more youthful reading in the tradition of the Brahmin officer corps (citadel is a very military term) who Kirstein would certainly think “Boston’s best,” of which there could be nothing better to say for Kirstein than that they so cheerfully expressed their self-confidence through self-mockery as to hold their most sacred beliefs “with less smugness than irony.”
It was as some would see it the intellectual’s fatal weakness. For Kirstein and his like, however, it was of the essence of the heroic Boston Brahmin American, for whose cause it is significant Kirstein made only the most austere claim, yet the highest possible: the leadership of Shaw and his black volunteers, Kirstein concluded, “in a national history often dominated by shameful event, form an episode that gives cause for pride.”
Pride and shame, then, on the via Sacra.
Douglass Shand-Tucci is an historian of American art and architecture and Boston/New England studies. His most recent book is the second volume of his study of the architecture of Ralph Adams Cram (Univ.of Massachusetts Press, 2005) and he also teaches at the Boston Architectural College in the Masters degree program in Historic Preservation. He is the founder of the innovative new history site, Back Bay Historical | Boston CentricGlobal Studies, where his monthly longform blogs have become his principal publishing outlet.