American Aristocracy – Brahmin Dreams: In Search of the Capital of The World
The edgy dreamscape of Copley Square by New York Ash Can School painter George Luks(1904)
A demarche from New York, a response to my first article in OLM from an editor friend who insists he is writing from “the capital of the world,” and I am charmed, utterly. I resolve to dedicate this second essay to him; for his bravado, certainly; but mostly for the train of thought his e-mail sets in motion: one originally sparked by an anecdote that has somewhat haunted me since first I read it five years ago: Sherwin Nuland’s account, written, indeed, in The New York Times, of his first trip to Vienna.
He recounted how he’d “splurged on two tickets at the Staatsoper so my wife and I could see a performance of Aida in that legendary hall . . . . [T]he audience . . . were prosperous looking . . . but their responses were bland, colorless . . . . [T]hey sat dutifully and without joy.” He turned to his wife, baffled: “What’s wrong?” he asked. His wife wasn’t baffled at all.
“Simple,” she replied. “No Jews.”
I have had a somewhat similar experience, one anyone in Boston can have, walking through the painfully desolate third floor reading rooms of the Copley Square Public Library. When the third floor’s open, that is! As legendary in its own sphere as Vienna Staatsoper, there is historic civic art of rare magnificence — the Sargent Gallery, finally restored some years ago, has been called the Sistine Chapel of America — but what a contrast with today’s woefully poorly equipped and lonely, understaffed halls where the morale among librarians is as low as the user count of the fine arts, print and music research departments. The Print Department especially, as recently as a decade ago the glory of the Research Library and closely supported by the Newbury Street art scene, is now locked tight. No new appointment has been made to the position of Keeper of Prints, one of Boston’s iconic cultural leadership positions, for many years. What’s wrong?
Simple, no Brahmins.
What one might call the dual aristocratic and populist wellsprings of the Library are out of kilter. But the Copley Square Public Library is just an urgent example of a much larger problem as I see it, not really evident in most of Boston’s well established and very well run (and entirely private) institutions, but which is very evident indeed in what one might call the metropolis’s overall civic consciousness. It is why no Bostonian I know today would respond with a riposte such as that of my New Yorker friend, from whichever capital of the world. It is why Boston, as I keep insisting, needs a new history but may not get it; nor America either, which includes New York, of course.
Nuland tells his own anecdote in a review of In Search of Memory by Yale’s Nobel Prize-winning scientist Eric Kandel, a review in which Nuland points out that as recently as 1939 Vienna’s great tradition of scholarship yielded a huge amount of important modern literature, science, music, architecture, philosophy and art. “Vienna’s culture,” Kandel writes, “was one of extraordinary power, and it had been created and nourished in good part by the Jews,” none of which mattered, of course, to “the Nazi’s [who] drove out those Jews they did not murder . . . . [W]ith their departure a city of verve and excitement — a city of intense intellectualism and the acme of cultural attainment became,” Nuland records, “a prosaic place.” The Kandels were one of the families driven out.
Once, Vienna was a capital of the world. Today, writes Nuland, it is only a “mute memorial to past glories.”
Now it is never surprising to discover between close allies a deep affinity, and between these Viennese Jews and Boston Brahmins it was a very deep seated affinity indeed. In this connection, although it doesn’t come up in Nuland’s review of Kandel’s book, it is more than interesting that Eric Kandel, who as a child immigrated to the United States after his family were driven out of Vienna, though raised in New York, was educated in Boston, at Harvard College and then at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Hospital.
It was a time in his life when by his own account in his book he “reveled” in the “wonderful” and “heady intellectual environment” of the Medical School, as well, he recounts, in “the vaunted self-confidence of Harvard and of Boston at large, which is best represented,” he wrote, “by the canard of the Boston matron who, when asked about her travels, responded, ‘Why should I travel? I’m already here.'”
Doesn’t that just come from the same place as my New York friend’s e-mail? But notice, it was an emigre Viennese Jew, not a Bostonian, who repeats the well worn canard, more often now cited as an example of how smug, provincial and inbred was Brahmin Boston. No Bostonian would tell it today – except perhaps as a joke. However, the joke may be on us, who are perhaps too willing to join the national consensus that Brahmins are over and well done with, thank you. Notice that Kandel does not ridicule or make fun of Brahmins; no more do I my New Yorker friend. Kandel recognizes there are several layers of meaning here, of which perhaps the truest is that “Boston’s vaunted self-confidence” was the result of the city being led historically by what you may recall I quoted Notre Dame historian James Turner last time as pronouncing in US history “the closest thing to an American aristocracy, the Brahmin class of Boston.”
Moreover, he seems to realize it was mainly an intellectual aristocracy as Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr, who coined the term, defined it – just like the intellectual aristocracy of the Viennese Jews. No wonder Kandel in the 1940s found Boston’s aristocratic airs very attractive, very fructifying.
He may indeed have recognized some brilliant reflections in Boston’s intellectual life of those Viennese glories, in both cases very Capitoline. As I have detailed in two recent essays on Back Bay Historical \ Boston-Centric Global Studies, “The Boston religion: First American Modernism” and “Eliotic Jews, JFK Catholics”, the force and vitality of of turn-of-the-20th-century Viennese Jewish cultural and intellectual life was a key constituent of what I have called “the Jewish conspiracy” happily entered into by Boston Brahmin Henry Lee Higginson in the 1880s with Julius Epstein of the Vienna Conservatory, to which conspiracy the New England capital owes the crucial initial excellence of its superb symphony orchestra, the first of its kind in the world. Vienna’s influence was also felt in the the close alliance of the 1900s between Freud himself and another Boston Brahmin, Massachusetts General Hospital neurologist James Jackson Putnam, American’s pioneering Freudian, who the Viennese doctor himself anointed as his spearhead in the New World. Another of those modernist Viennese Jews, Joseph Urban, went so far as to depart the Austrian capital and move to Boston. He may have been the preeminent set designer of the 20th century.
From a very different time and place, the vast interior plane of China today: Ying Qian, a Harvard doctoral candidate in East Asian studies – an admirer of “Dream of the Red Chamber,” one of the four great Classical novels of Chinese Literature – built for us, in the February 2000 issue of Perspectives, an extraordinary bridge between two cultures even more apparently distant than even Jewish Vienna and Yankee Brahmin Boston — in an essay with a rather startling title: “Dreams of the Red Chamber – Encountering the Eliots.”
The Eliots, by any measure uber-Boston Brahmins, achieved perhaps their greatest distinction in a nineteenth century sequence of four generations. The first, a merchant, Samuel Eliot, endowed Harvard’s first chair in Greek. His son Samuel Atkins Eliot, a politician, was both congressman and mayor of Boston. His son was Charles W. Eliot, a founding professor of MIT went on to be himself the founder of modern Harvard. Finally there was President Eliot’s landscape architect son, Charles Eliot, father of Boston’s metropolitan park system and founder of the widely influential Trustees of Reservations. Relations included Charles Eliot Norton, Harvard — and America’s — first professor of art, Samuel Eliot Morison, arguably the nation’s leading 19th century historian of the 19th century, and T.S. Eliot, the Nobel Prize-winning poet.
Ying’s intellectual rendezvous with the Eliots arose also out of longing, but of a different sort than that of the Viennese Jewish emigre. Returning to Harvard in 2000 from China, Ying was struck with “Boston’s beautiful cityscape,” which “evoked [in her own words] wonder and awe.” She could not help contrasting this with “the pollution, disorder and lack of beauty in Luo-yang,” the Chinese city she had lived in over the summer.
I had never heard of Luo-yang. I wonder if my New Yorker friend knows of it. Perhaps you have. It is one of the cradles of Chinese civilization, once China’s capital and at its zenith it was where the Celestial Emperor condescended to receive the ambassadors of Marcus Aurelius. It was in Luo-yang that the first Buddhist temple in China was built. Confucius and Lao Tsu conversed there about philosophy.
Saddened by the low estate to which the old Chinese capital had fallen, Ying sought in her essay to move from “the contested notion of beauty” — which she explores at some length — to “another contested notion — ‘the elites”, with which “the ideal of democracy seems to be at odds.” She puts is this way: “with concerns for beauty and for the elite group I turned to the history of Boston, hoping not only to find out how the design of the urban space was . .. carried out, but also to inquire what kinds of persons constituted the elite class.”
Disarmingly, she describes the 19th century Brahmin milieu of the Eliots: “Bostonians believed in their own country and city and instead of looking back to a lost golden age, or looking forward to a better time, they lived in their own time and loved it . . . . They had won their political independence, established republican institutions, and they had faith in them [and] in the liberal doctrine of Unitarianism [which led to] . . . .an eager practice of philanthropy.” Familiar as well with Western philosophical thought, Ying also makes a point of noting that Plato’s prediction in The Republic that moral degeneration would follow a family’s accumulating riches seemed quite untrue in the case of the Eliots. “The sequence of merchant grandfather, politician father, educator son and [landscape] architect grandson reflected the change in the character and vocation of the elite group,” she notices, but also evidences “virtues that transcend generations.”
The 19th century Eliots, Ying insists, were “transparent, optimistic and morally consistent,” if also to moderns in the 21st century “unsophisticated and unrealistic for today’s world.” As the original text of “Dream of the Red Chamber” – the term refers to the sheltered private chambers of great houses – is thought by scholars to trace the decline of the Qing Dynasty, that judgment on the Eliots may imply Yings own reading of eventual Brahmin decline as a ruling class. But notice that not just the Brahmins but we moderns are to blame, she implies. Finally, we are left with a plea for understanding from this Chinese scholar that Americans try to understand Brahmins dreams, “private dreams that transcended Harvard’s [own] red chamber.
Brahmin dreams. A thought I find strangely freeing of the imagination. Ying Qian and Eric Kandel stand out as urging on us today – the former from an Asian perspective, the latter from a European perspective – not only the dreams but just the Capitoline claims of these more and more obscure civic ancestors of ours, ancestors both the Chinese graduate student and the Viennese Jewish emigre urge on us as worth understanding perhaps more fully. Dreams both the Asian and the European find rather as interesting and attractive as Bostons Brahmins themselves.
We do not – let us face it – find them so. Not anymore. We like the Brahmin’s houses, we like their causes. Like Kandel, we like their institutions; like Ying, we love their parks, indeed, the city they created. But, unlike Kandel and Ying, Brahmins themselves we are no longer drawn to. Indeed, the capital of the world built by Boston’s Yankee Brahmins is not our capital, not really: The only Brahmins we like are dead Brahmins, long ago Brahmins, or, perhaps, Brahmin rebels, always a great book title. Not even in retrospect — even the most idealistic and most opulent Merchant Ivory production of Henry James’s The Bostonians cannot win us over — nor when by chance we may encounter some surviving descendant of that era.
Which by the way is not easy. My friend Carl Scovel, the legendary rector of King’s Chapel, the Unitarian Vatican, often encounters Yankee-Boston Brahmin descendants throughout the Western US, particularly on his speaking trips. Like Russian grand dukes at hotel doorways in the 1920s, they are thick on the ground at Unitarian events (one association they keep up, this Brahmin diaspora), as much emigres themselves out West today as loyalist Tories like John Singleton Copley were in London after the American Revolution.
Invariably they ask Carl, a little shyly, how things are back in Boston. Echoes of the holy city tremble in the air. It is always, Carl says, a tender moment. Nothing is clearer than that they do not forget their birthright. Nor question it. Unless it is that they are never very likely to take it up again; wouldn’t, indeed, at all feel up to it; knowing as they do, and not really protesting the fact, that their time has passed. They are no surer, however, than present-day Bostonians “back home” of how all this came about. Like “upstairs” and “downstairs” in Britain, it is not entirely clear anymore who rejected who or why.
Did upstairs grow tired of dressing for dinner? Or downstairs find fuller lives? Who disappointed whom? Present-day Bostonians avoid the subject or, more likely, retreat to denial (it’s so complicated). Nonetheless this ambiguity pervades at a relatively low level the overall civic consciousness; Brahmn architect Daniel Coolidge used to say to me that at every meeting of Boston Public Library president Kevin Moloney and architect Hugh Shepley, their grandfathers were very conspicuously in the room too. Indeed, not a few Bostonians exhibit many of the signs of adopted persons in their restless uncertainty, their search even, for where they, where Boston, comes from. An underlying theme in John Updike’s work is just exactly this query about Boston’s clearly capitoline perspective, evident among people even who never heard of Brahmins.
Peter Meade, a very civic-minded Bostonian who might, indeed be mistaken for a Brahmin, in a less fraught context, riding up in an elevator with me, when I tell him what I’m working on, nods somewhat more vigorously than I might have expected. Where are the Brahmins? “All gone,” he waves his arms, and so is he by the third floor. He sounds a little exasperated. With his left hand I get why does Boston need Brahmins? With his right, where are they?
As to why, well that is another essay. But I will indulge myself in my favorite Brahmin anecdote: the Adamses, it has been said, notoriously a cool clan even in cold roast Boston, always took the same attitude toward running for political office they took toward death, which they insisted no person of sound mind would ever seek, of course; but equally, no person of moral fibre would ever shirk. Now there’s a different point of view.
Values like that made Boston the capital posterity inherited. True, there must be change – change is life – but there must also be continuity; the new history must make sense of the old history. While it is true that the first Boston Brahmins repudiated Boston’s first ruling class, the pre-Revolutionary Tories, the American Revolution was surely cause enough, and like the new Napoleonic aristocracy there was the sense the Bourbon aristocracy was over. But we – Bostonians, Americans today, far from repudiating Brahmins, or changing the history of the world by dethroning them, are instead heirs to their great achievement, of which the Revolution was just the first. We can’t repudiate patriot-families-become-Brahmins, because we are their heirs, the winners of a revolution which the Brahmins grandfathers and fathers led and their Brahmin sons and daughters consolidated in building a new country. We’ve just tried to put them behind us. Doesn’t work! Paul Revere or his namesake in the Harvard regiment during the Civil War are a case in point.
Brahmin standards are not easily set aside. Any city, obviously, is made what it is by its community standards and leadership. The transition away from the Tories to the Brahmins the Brahmins accomplished in what? Twenty years. The transition from the Brahmins to us–whatever we be–has already taken a century and is hardly yet over. And remember we are discussing America’s foremost aristocracy here. Nor can we resolve the matter in one chapter. It will take several.
But no mistake should be made. Boston as only the capitol of the region of New England, like Vienna as only the capital of the republic of Austria, or Rome as only the capitol of the republic of Italy – even London as only the capital of England – is not the Brahmin world capitol present-day Americans inherited. It is something else, of our own making, and thus conceived, much diminished. Like the joyless performance of Aida. Like the third floor of the Public Library.
The sort of engagement with the world the Centers of Civilization series defined as necessary to a mother city, that it be throughout civilization “a radiating influence,” is hard for any capital to achieve; difficult to sustain, gone before you know it, and recurs again usually when you least expect it. Great world capitals, like the ruling classes who lead them, rise and fall and rise again and so on. And have many always changing working parts. The brilliant mid-20th century New York school of painting we owe to that capitol did not last much longer than Boston’s gift of a Kennedyesque Camelot or Paris’s inter-war Bohemia a la Hemingway.
So what are my choices? Forever the world’s capital, for me, if there can only be one, is Jerusalem–and here already, you see, there be three: three religions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam; three acts impossible to follow. Are not these three civilizations, the presiding forces of our own world today? Of the Western world, my world, I’m afraid my choice is the city to which the plunder of Solomon’s Jerusalem was carried off in the first century. Rome, the Eternal City, Mother of the World. You see religion looms large in my reading of what captures Capitoline stature. More Western than Eastern. I will stick with Jerusalem and Rome. And add, as third and fourth in my list of capitals, Paris and Boston, in more than one era revolutionary. Intellectual, cultural and political factors closely follow religion in my choice of world radiating influence, and thus I insist on both the French and the New England capitals because each sparked epochal revolutions that have driven modern western history and now global history perhaps ever since.
Now to speak of revolution, of course, is to recall one of Harvard’s star historians of my era – I am class of 1972 – Crane Brinton, whose Anatomy of Revolution is definitive still. And at once I am in trouble, and am revising my list, because he deals not only with the American and the French revolutions, but before them with England’s Glorious Revolution, and after them, the Russian Revolution. So I add London and St. Petersburg to my list, behind Paris and Boston. And as Brinton makes plain that although he is is studying only Western revolutions, he feels the Turkish Revolution of Kemel and the Meji and McCarthy revolutions in Japan actually affected more people in the long run, I add Istanbul and Tokyo (twice) and ahead of Paris and Boston.
But Crane Brinton – once I open his book for the first time in 40 years – has a much greater surprise in store, at least for me. He asserts unequivocally – and convinces me at once, his argument is unarguable – that the greatest revolution of them all was the Industrial Revolution, a turning point in recorded human history the effect of which is still supreme. This has, of course, the effect of catapulting me back to the West, and to of all places, –and we are not talking English football here- Manchester, England!
Do I really, I wonder, have to accept this? Even though it is in one way to mix apples and oranges to mix the American or French with the Industrial revolution, the fact is that at the end of the day I am accepting Manchester, England, as another and perhaps the very first capital of the world. I am beginning to feel sorry I started this.
So I consult the standard text, the magisterial Cities in Civilization by Sir Peter Hall.
Boston, New York too, are still there, but not Alfred North Whitehead’s or Paul Revere’s or Charles Eliot’s, not my Boston, or my friend’s New York either, assuming his Capitoline allusion is to the UN world headquarters in Manhattan. Yet Hall’s bald statement about the state of Capitoline affairs in the 19th century is intriguing enough. Writing about the “innovation” that was so vital to what he calls “the first, heroic phase of the industrial revolution,” Hall insists absolutely that it is a story of only six cities and that “the stories of Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow on one side of the Atlantic are paralleled by those of Boston, Pittsburgh and Chicago on the other side.”
Hall’s capital of the world is like the two Romes – one for the Eastern and the other for the Western Empire: Old World Manchester he calls “without challenge the first and greatest industrial city of the world”—pairing it with what “first and greatest industrial city” of the New World? Boston?
The question mark is mine, not Hall’s. I insist on it. It is not my image of Boston. Yet Digby Baltzel in his Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia does indeed write of Boston Brahmins as having built “an American Manchester.” Not, to be sure, for long. By about 1870 Berlin in the Old World and New York in the New World, and eventually Detroit, take the lead away from Manchester and Boston respectively. But the astounding truth of the matter, or the dirty little secret if your prefer, about Brahmin Boston, is that while with its right hand it built on its revolutionary heritage the great intellectual and cultural edifice we all admire, with its left hand it managed the complementary–or not, your call–achievement of becoming the first and in the “heroic” era the greatest industrial city of America.
How and in what part of Boston this was accomplished we’ll examined later, but who and how is quite pertinent now, for the Boston Brahmin capitalist who led the way in all this was Francis Cabot Lowell, a 1793 graduate of Harvard who had taken up the China trade – he was the developer of Charles Bulfinch’s magnificent India Wharf on Boston Harbor, the center of Boston’s Asian trade – but who saw the future more clearly as more Atlanticist.
The Lowells, like the Eliots, have been uber-Boston Brahmins – also intellectual but also a clan distinguished for business and entrepreneurial skills, exemplified in Francis Cabot Lowell. His motive was that he felt American independence would be worthless if Americans did not make their own manufacturing in their own country, to which, of course, he added a healthy dose of the profit motive. After undertaking a two-year visit to England to study the earliest power machinery that gave the British a monopoly on the textile trade, he returned to Boston, where it turned out he had memorized every machine he’d seen, a prodigious feat nobody thought possible, but on the basis of which he was able to make his fame and his fortune, the result being the first US factory ever!
This search for the Capitoline wherever it is to be found in the world is beginning to take on the character of a Brahmin odyssey, which is to extend and to detail our discussion of which other and older global city might be Boston’s own mother city. I suggested then it was two — liberal Paris and authoritarian Rome, always in tension. I also raised the other side of the matter: which city of the present might Boston be shaping now? Singapore? It is to soon to know the outcome there, but not to soon to learn from that Asian city-state’s desires. Or from Luo-yang either!
Notice that both examples I cite are in Asia. European examples there also are, but fewer. But there are no American examples. Not just because Boston is so old, but because it is the American way to value its political, economic and entertainment capitals more than its intellectual capital. Boston is a capitol that registers elsewhere in the world more than in America. The Asian aspect — why for instance some Bostonians are called Brahmins — is a part of this and of the Brahmin odyssey we seem to be on. Remember the views of another uber-Yankee Brahmin, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. You will be told they are iconic and then always you will be told what they were every time wrongly. His views were, in fact, exactly the opposite of what is all but universally imputed to him. Let us detail them a little more this time, for his views were decidedly cosmopolitan, Atlanticist — he was a celebrated Atlantic Monthly contributor—and even global.
In The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, for example,when Holmes argued for “dual citizenship” for all city dwellers, he did so, he wrote, because those “who live in two great cities are by no means so jealous of each other.” In fact that idea was his rejoinder to the local who argued for the Boston State House as “the hub of the Solar System,” which Holmes never himself said at all. Instead, he instantly rebutted that “the satire of the remark is essentially true of Boston and of all other considerable – and inconsiderable – places: for the Cockney, for example,” he writes, “London is the only place in the world”; “Paris is the universe to a Frenchman”; “see Naples and die” and so on. Finally Boston’s Brahmin Autocrat, himself early in life delivered from any such nonsense by his youthful medical education in Paris, the basis many think of Boston’s later medical eminence, quite clearly pronounces judgement (it’s what Boston Brahmins famously do, remember):”It dwarfs the mind to feed it on any localism.” May I add: the larger the localism, the smaller the dwarf!
Today’s sovereign cure for “localism”, of course, is the Google search box, which for anyone over 40 has got to be the greatest research tool ever invented if wisely used, and I resolve therefore – it is my cultural bias, I know, Anglophile and Anglican that I am – to type in my first query on this matter: “London, capital of the world.” 180 million entries that day – bias clearly shared, think I. All is well with my world. Then, because of my New Yorker friend I substitute New York for London – 160 million entries the same day. America is holding its own. And Boston, with 40 million entries, is doing its share. Determined to include Asia, I type in Tokyo – only 6 million. Then I start down the rest of my list: Jerusalem, 3 million, Rome 6 million – Paris 50 million – logic disappears.
What do Paris or Boston, never mind London or New York, have going for them in this vote that Jerusalem and Rome do not? Power, of course, a shorter word for “radiating influence.” So I type in Washington. Bullseye: 317 million entries, double London, the next closest in Google’s ranking.
In the American context, to elevate our discourse to a more literary level, Anne Kornblut has been especially alert to such shifts in Capitoline power over time. Writing in The New York Times in 2005 when the Atlantic Monthly left Boston, she did not take up my point about how that Bostonian mandate had since been co-opted todays Atlanticist studies programs. Instead, Kornblut took a more immediate and more political view, writing that when the Atlantic was founded in Boston,
Boston’s role as the political and ideological engine of the [American] revolution and the center of Abolitionist sentiment before the Civil War remained vivid in the public imagination. But by the time of Irving Kristol’s move to Washington in 1998, [that] capital had begun to eclipse the Hub of the Universe.
New York too, in his view was waning. ‘If you want an animated discussion of ‘large’ ideas about God, human destiny, Western civilization, modern art, the future of democracy,etc., you are better served in Cambridge, Mass. [Times-speak for Boston] or Chicago’s Hyde Park than in New York’, Mr Kristol wrote in a farewell essay in the New Republic.
As the city with the most consumers and the most purveyors [of such ideas] NY retains a semblance of an intellectual center. But the reality is not there.
Power shifts. Henry Adams would still move, as the Atlantic Monthly did, from Boston to Washington. But Richardson today would move from NY, not to Boston probably, but to Abu Dhabi. Olmsted might still move to Boston, and I suspect William Dean Howells would still depart Boston, but for LA now, America’s new gateway city. Power shifts. And so does Capitoline status.
Washington today, yesterday – Berlin! And in 1902 that newest capitol of the new projected its new stature in Boston, sponsoring a new German cultural studies center at Harvard. So a newly resurgent capital of the world was heard from – and its regal representative met not just by welcoming downtown crowds that cheered Prince Henry, brother of the German Kaiser, to the Boston State House, and by the deafening thunder when “the battery sounded the royal salute,” according to The New York Times, from the topmost point of Boston Common. There was also President Eliot! Following a civic reception at the Copley Square Public Library there was a grand state dinner in the ballroom of the new Hotel Somerset in Commonwealth Avenue. And because in those days both governor and mayor would have deferred to Harvard’s president as Boston’s chief representative, Eliot was the chief speaker! (You may recall another priceless Brahmin saying, about ‘the President being in Washington to see Mr. Roosevelt’).
Boston Brahmins preached a great deal and that no one in this non-judgemental age very much misses, and Eliot did just that. Hymning “the social mobility of democracy” to this most undemocratic prince, the brother of a German emperor whose ambitions many would conclude in little over a decade required a world war to contain, Eliot was at pains to point out that aristocracy kept good democratic company in Boston, and that Massachusetts boasted “a democracy [that] preserves and uses sound old families” – not probably the way the Kaiser would have described the Imperial German house – but “also utilizes strong blood from foreign sources.” Baldly, he went on. Lecturing royalty in famously non-royal Boston, the capital of what Eliot called “little Massachusetts” as opposed to mighty imperial Germany, Harvard’s president pointed proudly to what a German prince might have to learn from it all, in matters “social, industrial and governmental”.
What Massachusetts was, declared Eliot to the Kaiser’s famously authoritarian brother, was “only“– the word is Eliot’s – “the oldest and most prosperous democracy in the world.” Shades of present-day Singapore’s foreign policy.
Dreams again. Recall explicitly Samuel Sewall’s dream in Puritan Boston in 1686: it was about Boston topping, not Philadelphia or New York, not even London, but Rome? Well at the dawn of the 20th century what looked most like Rome to many was Berlin (today it would be Beijing), and Eliot confronted it head-on but in the best Boston style. He made no such claim for the capital of little Massachusetts; he just pointed out, Brahmin fashion, quite judgementally of course, what the characteristics of the capital of the world should be, politely hoping the royal guest had the wit to recognize it. Poor Prince Henry, who had earlier in the day somewhat clumsily joshed assembled civic notables about their certainty about being the Hub of the Universe – one hopes no Holmesian was there – can only have been mesmerized by his translation.
Such an apparently unequal contest it must all have seemed. The mighty German Empire and its Hohenzollern dynasty and “little Massachusetts” and the Eliots. Yet President Eliot lived to see empire and dynasty both come to an ignominious end in wartime defeat only 16 years later in 1918.
Eliot, America’s headmaster, would remain forever secure on his Brahmin throne, of course, right through his retirement to his death in 1927, but that only perhaps disguised the fact that while Brahmin-conceived Massachusetts and its own bid for capital of the world would survive (victoriously!) the German Empire, the Eliots had no greater future in many ways than the Hohenzollerans, and Eliot’s sermon to German royalty seems in retrospect more than anything else a parting salvo at the height of Brahmn power and glory on the American stage, a Brahmin recessional about to become something of a decided retreat, much as did Kipling’s poem of that title mark the beginning of the British Empire’s recessional at Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897. Certainly by the 1920s Brahmin rule was increasingly under attack and Boston itself – whether as cause or effect it would be hard to say – beginning rather a precipitate slippage in national and international esteem.
One aspect of it was the sort of desperate “last gasp” alliance between the most arch-conservative Yankee Brahmins – I repeat: there are always as Digby Baltzell says more George Apleys than John Adamses – and the Irish Catholic Archdiocese of Boston and its arch-conservative early 20th century archbishop William Cardinal O’Connell, in support of the “Banned in Boston” phenomenon that had been brewing, like the Temperance movement, since as far back as the 1880s.
Much more serious was the way the Massachusetts legal system, which would achieve world-wide fame in the 2000s through Chief Justice Margaret Marshall’s visionary same-sex marriage ruling, disgraced itself in the 1920s as to cause violent protest demonstrations in London, in Paris, even in Tokyo, when the Brahmins so mishandled the trial, conviction and execution of two immigrants whose guilt for any crime other than being Italian American anarchists is still in dispute to this day, Sacco and Vanzetti.
All this transpired, moreover, against a background dominated by the occupants in the 1910s and 1920s of Harvard’s presidential chair, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, a gifted man but an arch conservative bigot, and of Boston’s mayoral chair, James Michael Curley, talented certainly, but ethically very challenged and the head of a very corrupt mayoral regime. It was not an attractive choice — Lowell and Curley (with Cardinal O’Connell and the Watch and Ward Society playing supporting roles) and on all sides the situation became pretty vile. But the Brahmin position was the most unedifying and corrosive because Boston’s ruling class, once it had lost the moral high ground through the Sacco-Vanzetti fiasco, had lost everything, at least in the public area in an era when academia was almost totally private. Indeed, it is the memory of those days probably that still controls why even today and even when it is now to our detriment, we turn or backs on Bostons Brahmins and try to disguise those many elements of their legacy we cannot do without as somehow part of the ether.
Meanwhile, however, let us make for a closer port, so to speak, on Capitoline aspirations and their relation to all this, while still in the 1900s, before the Lowell/Curley era disgraced Boston, when there was still a chance things might have turned out differently, even in the short run. For before the Lowell/Curley era there was the Eliot/Fitzgerald era, built somewhat on the better feeling of a huge reconciling figure in 1890s Boston poet and editor John Boyle O”Rielly,of whom more later.
It was a very different time, that of the first decade of the 20th century – for one thing Cardinal O’Connells predecessor was the very liberal, Brahmin-like Archbishop John Williams – and that first decade set quite a different tone. It was, interestingly, one that Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy kept alive and remembered almost single-handedly for a generation, and one she lived to see, after many decades of ethnic and class warfare, reassert itself at the end of the 20th century. It was her milieu, and she could never quite give it up, and must have been quite reassured when in the fullness of time even “Gangplank Bill” (as Cardinal O’Connor was called in honor of his frequent cruising) finally gave way to Cardinal Cushing, a much more liberal figure indeed. One reason Rose Kennedy was so invested in it, of course, was that the Eliot Fitzgerald era of the decade of the 1900s was dominated by, on the one hand, the long-lived Charles W. Eliot, still president of Harvard until 1909, and, after 1906, by Rose Kennedy’s father, Boston’s mayor, John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, the first American-born Irish Catholic mayor in the city’s history.
The liberal-minded Eliot, of course, we too often forget, appointed the first observant Jew (Charles Gross) and practicing Irish Catholic (J.D.M. Ford) to tenured chairs at Harvard.
Fitzgerald, for his part, and President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s grandfather, would certainly have disagreed strongly with the Unitarian Eliot about religion, but much less so I’m sure about education – Honey Fitz was a Harvard Medical School student before family reverses forced his withdrawal – and both agreed heartily about all things Bostonian historically. Indeed, it is not too much to say that Yankee Brahmin Boston fired young Honey Fitz’s imagination as early in his life as when he was a slum kid, selling newspapers opposite the State House on Beacon Street. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her remarkable The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys describes the scene:
Johnny developed a heroic image of Boston’s merchant princes who had built their fortunes out of their own enter-prizes and turned their energies back to the benefit of their city. In his fertile imagination, he could see himself standing in their place . . . .Even as a young boy he felt a special tie to Boston . . .convinced that the heritage of patriots and abolitionists, the clipper ships and the country houses belonged to him as much as to anyone else.
As much to Johnny Fitzgerald as to Eliots, Lowells, Holmeses and such? Out of his own imagination Honey Fitz created a reality history cannot gainsay! To be sure, it is easily mocked. The ambitious urchin was indeed dazzled by Beacon Street’s palazzi and the “silk-hatted liveried coachman” of the Brahmins. But as sins go that is hardly a mortal one, and more constructive than destructive was what Fitzgerald made of his envy, which was also admiration. As Goodwin points out, even as a very young slum kid hawking the penny press, Johnny Fitzgerald saw something else, something much more compelling, something he never ceased to talk of all his life: the “self-confident vigor with which [the Brahmins] sailed the seven seas” and then – and this of course Fitzgerald saw when he was a little older – came home to direct “the destiny of their city and their nation.”
Long before Viennese Jewish emigres or Chinese graduate students urged on us Boston Brahmin dreams, Honey Fitz had them too, and in his maturity came, as Goodwin attests, to value above all else the Brahmins’ “non-materialist ideal of living,” an ideal where “the life of the mind was accorded a dignified and important place,” more he came to feel that “in any other city in the US,” exemplified by the Adams family, who the Kennedy’s would come to rival of course. A master at outwitting Brahmin politicians as an adult – Honey Fitz could demagogue with the best of them and although himself untainted presided over a corrupt administration, hardly a uniquely Irish-Catholic phenomenon – his private admiration of Boston’s historic ruling class was felt through many generations of his family’s life in America, most lately and notably in the life and work of the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy.
To retreat somewhat from these lofty musings, and not meaning at all to disparage the life of the mind, it is Honey Fitz’s boyhood impressions I wish here to emphasize here in conclusion, especially the Brahmins skill, so impressive to a young boy, at “sailing the seven seas,” an image than which there is none better with which to conclude this second essay and our search for the capitol of the world, which even the young newspaper boy found his eye fixed on. It is an image, moreover, that any would-be historic preservationist does well to consider carefully.
Arguably, the best Boston architecture ever has been unarguably global, purpose built, so to speak, for our peregrination here. Thus perhaps Boston’s foremost interpreter among 20th century American historians, Samuel Eliot Morison, asserted that “The Sovereign of the Seas” was “[Boston’s] Parthenon”, “The Flying Cloud: “our Rheims” – the comparison being to the medieval French cathedral, the coronation church of French kings, a bold comparison indeed. What was Morison talking about? The mystery for some will deepen when they discover that the historian also pronounces Donald McKay, an architect who very few of us, I’ll warrant, have ever heard of, as Boston’s greatest – America’s too!
McKay was the only Boston architect, Morison wrote pointedly, comparable to a medieval “cathedral builder of the 13th century [to whom] came visions transcending human experience, with the power to transmute them into reality.”
None of which architecture – most global, most capitoline – survives, by the way, which is more than a preservationist’s lament – it is also a preservationist’s challenge, for if you cannot save the very best, the masterpiece, what matter the architectural courtiers, the second string? In fact McKay’s work is all gone, all destroyed, perished from the face of the earth as if it had never been; all Boston’s finest architecture, so Morison insisted, is utterly gone.
And like him I can do no better than suggest you close your eyes and imagine yourself on India Wharf, or any other extending out into Boston Harbor, on a misty, salty day when it is easy to imagine away whatever glittering hotel is likely to be found there now. Scan the horizon.
I cannot promise visions of anything, much less “visions transcending human experience.” But Morison was sure in his report that in such a place the mind’s eye, suitably prompted, was more than able to conjure something that seemed, indeed, to move “with the speed of an albatross,” and yet was not a great sea fish at all. Eastward, look, he said: “out of the mist in Massachusetts Bay comes riding a clipper ship.”
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.