Introduction: the Problem of Boston


"The story of nineteenth-century Boston," wrote the noted British scholar Martin Green some fifty years ago, "is full of the most poignant interest for anyone who cares about literary and cultural values in a democracy." The title of his groundbreaking study, The Problem of Boston, announced its subject: why had the remarkable vitality of the civic and intellectual culture of antebellum Boston—the Boston of the North American Review and the Atlantic Monthly and the Saturday Club, of the Boston Latin School and Harvard and the Athenæum, of Emerson's "The American Scholar" and Thoreau's Walden—seemed shortly after midcentury suddenly and mysteriously to have died away to survive as little more than a receding memory. The Boston of 1840, Edward Everett Hale would recall at the end of the century, "really believed that a visible City of God could be established here by the forces it had at command." But so early as 1885, he sadly remembered, it would have been hard to persuade anyone living in the Boston of that year to "believe any such thing." Green's own attempt to account for the problem is then announced in a later chapter heading: "What Went Wrong?"

Green's great strength was that he grasped nineteenth-century Boston as a setting in which literary and intellectual energies flowed from a sense of organic community. Yet at the time he wrote The Problem of Boston an important piece of the puzzle was missing. As works like J.G.A. Pocock's The Machiavellian Moment and Bernard Bailyn's Ideological Origins of the American Revolution would subsequently permit one to see, the roots of Boston civic humanism had all along been in a tradition of classical republican thought powerfully influential in both eighteenth-century Britain and her American colonies. America had emerged from the War of Independence as a republic, and republics, as the celebrated Harvard legal theorist Joseph Story wrote in 1833, "are created by the virtue, public spirit, and intelligence of the citizens." The key word was "virtue"— the virtù of Machiavelli's Discourses on Livy—which in post-revolutionary Boston would imply a polity in which citizens collectively and individually, as it were by shared instinct, put the good of the community as a whole above individual or private self-interest. The precedent typically invoked by Bostonians was Athens in the age of Pericles.

The notion of virtù would lie at the center of Boston civic humanism from the Monthly Anthology generation at the beginning of the nineteenth century to the end of the Civil War. In classical republican discourse its mighty opposite was what the Monthly Anthology writers, as we shall hear, called Luxury, arising from the abandonment of citizens to wealth and personal display. In the immediate background of the opposition between virtue and luxury, in turn, lay a long established theory of cyclical history according to which the same virtue that permits nations to rise in power and consequence produces a material prosperity that, as it encourages individual self-gratification, leads inexorably to civic enfeeblement. This is cyclical history as envisioned at the close of the eighteenth century by William Cowper, a poet greatly esteemed in the Boston of The Monthly Anthology and the North American Review: "The course of human things from good to ill," Cowper had soberly concluded in The Task, "From ill to worse, is fatal, never fails. / Increase of pow'r begets increase of wealth; / Wealth luxury, and luxury excess."

In Boston, the heritage of classical republican thought had inspired figures like John Adams in the Revolutionary and Fisher Ames in the early Federal period. But for the generation immediately following it had an import somewhat different than the grim prognostication delivered in Cowper's lines. For the great promise of the young American republic could seem to those raised in Boston to be that, precisely as they had been forewarned by the fate of ancient Athens or early republican Rome, they were in a position to withstand the forces that brought older civilizations to decay and eventual ruin. The idea is essentially conservative. On the American continent there has fortuitously emerged a set of circumstances in which feudal property relations and hereditary privilege are unknown, and in which republican equality has thus been allowed spontaneously to flourish. In such a situation, the main object should be simply to promote those measures—universal education, private endowment of institutions that benefit the public, a strong emphasis on intelligence and personal probity in politics—able to nourish and perpetuate a spirit of civic virtue in the population as a whole.

To Europeans, for whom conservatism usually meant attachment to some version of an ancien régime, while egalitarian ideas implied a progressive or radical outlook, Boston civic humanism was a puzzlement. Thus, for instance, one hears George Ticknor, whose Beacon Hill home was in the antebellum period the acknowledged center of Boston literary and intellectual society, in conversation in 1836 with the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Where in the world, the Duke asks—fully aware that Ticknor moved easily in circles that included such luminaries as William Schlegel, Goethe, Humboldt, Mme. de Staël, and Chateaubriand—does Ticknor think it the greatest good fortune for a person to be born? In America, Ticknor unhesitatingly answers. The Duke is clearly perplexed. Why? Because, Ticknor explains, in America every citizen takes part in affairs of state, and is therefore a more truly realized human being than in Europe. This makes it, he tells the Duke, "more agreeable and elevating to live among them," in comparison to whom the inert and dependant masses of Europe seem to an American—as he says in another letter written to his friend R.H. Dana—"an inferior order in creation."

If not for the strong sectional antagonisms leading to the Civil War, Ticknor would no doubt have gone down in the cultural history of Boston as a reformer, even a radical. So, for instance, he would return from his studies in Europe to work for educational reforms—elective courses, lectures as opposed to rote recitation, assignment of students to classes on the basis of "proficiency and capacity"—that would, if adopted, as Samuel Eliot Morison later said, have put Harvard a full generation ahead of other American colleges. In the same way, Ticknor would become the moving spirit behind the Boston Public Library, raising funds for its endowment, overseeing the gathering of its collection, and insisting in the face of strong and vehement opposition that the institution, if it were to answer its civic purpose, must be a circulating library from which all citizens, rich or poor, might borrow books on equal terms. At a time when libraries were still largely conceived as repositories for the exclusive use of a few highly-educated scholars or antiquaries, this was a radical proposal. It was also hugely successful: by the end of the nineteenth century, the Boston Public Library would have become the largest free circulating library in the world.

The episode that would lead to the image of Ticknor as an unbending conservative, as well as a prominent representative of what one recent commentator understands to be "Harvard and New England elitism," was his banishment of Charles Sumner from the intellectual circle presided over by Ticknor and his wife at Nine Park Street on Beacon Hill. For Sumner, earlier one of Ticknor's most brilliant students at Harvard, had since become an abolitionist and spokesman for the Free Soil Party. Nonetheless, the great problem was not so much Sumner's political opinions—Ticknor himself regarded slavery as a curse, though he agreed with Daniel Webster that a splintering of the Union would be a greater curse—as Sumner's habit of injecting them into conversation on otherwise uncontentious topics. Sumner's banishment from Nine Park Street was taken as a symbolic episode, Charles Francis Adams would conclude many years later, largely because it occurred during a time when "slowly but surely the country was working itself up to the war point." Yet the after-effect of the episode would be to leave Ticknor, when the war was over and the Union restored, marooned in the eyes of later historians on the wrong side of history.

As such examples may suggest, a great part of the problem of Boston is that certain terms marking distinct points on any present day ideological spectrum—such terms as conservative, reactionary, reformer, radical, and the like—make little sense in relation to figures who, like Richard Henry Dana or Charles Sumner or Wendell Phillips or Ticknor himself, inhabited the world of Boston civic humanism in the period leading up to the Civil War. For Ticknor was, as Martin Green saw with admirable clarity, in some fundamental sense "a radical innovator and a democrat." Nor was Ticknor's commitment to American democracy as it had evolved in his own Boston in any way tentative or circumscribed. "Boston is a happy place to live in," he told his friend the English novelist Maria Edgeworth in 1838, "because all the people are educated." He would have been thinking at this point primarily of the New England common school system. But at just this time Ticknor was also pushing forward energetically his plans for the Boston Public Library, where no barrier of personal wealth or social background would stand in the way of anyone seriously bent on self-education.

A recent writer accordingly calls Ticknor, with good reason, a paradoxical conservative— that is, someone whose values were rooted in New England village democracy, and whose larger conception of the expanding American republic was based on universal education and the high level of civic consciousness fostered by intelligent political participation. These were precisely possibilities unavailable to the masses of the Old World. To the Ticknor who had grown up in Boston and traveled widely in Europe there seemed no obvious reason why America—or, at least, the portion then coming to be distinguished as the Free States—should not become, in essence, a greater New England. This is a note one hears again and again in Ticknor's letters to English and European friends. "Education is advancing more rapidly, even, than wealth is accumulated," he tells Earl Fitzwilliam in 1838. "If we can . . . continue the diffusion of knowledge and intelligence through the whole people, I know not that we can ask anything more for the country." In his own Boston, he reports to Maria Edgeworth, "there is a great deal of intellectual activity and cultivation," but no visible poverty, little outright ignorance, and almost no crime.

On any present day scale one would have to put a Bostonian like Wendell Phillips at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum from Ticknor. For Phillips was not only the powerful orator whose speeches brought thousands over to the abolitionist side— Federal indictment for his part in the attempted rescue of fugitive slave Anthony Burns had given him national visibility—but who after the Civil War would work tirelessly for women's suffrage, Native American rights, and the emergent labor movement. Nonetheless, Phillips's vision of the American republic would always consist, every bit as much as Ticknor's, of America as a greater New England: "My ideal of civilization is a very high one," he said in a labor movement speech in 1871, "but the approach to it is a New England town of some two thousand inhabitants, with no rich man and no poor man in it, all mingling in the same society, every child at the same school, no poorhouse, no beggar, opportunities equal, nobody too proud to stand aloof, nobody too humble to be shut out. That's New England as it was fifty years ago." This resembles as well the idea for which Boston had seen itself as fighting the Civil War: beyond the abolition of slavery, an American republic that looked like a larger version of the ideal Phillips spells out here.

The grounding of Boston civic humanism in classical republican thought would remain evident to the very end of the nineteenth century. In a memorial notice for James Russell Lowell published in 1893, for instance, Charles Eliot Norton gazed back on Boston as it had seemed to exist before the Civil War—"an age of greater simplicity and tranquility of life than the present day," he says—in terms essentially continuous with those one hears in Wendell Phillips's labor movement speech: "old forms and traditions prevailed. . . . The little New England villages and towns were independent communities, each with a character and pride of its own." In Boston, says Norton, and especially in neighboring Cambridge, there was "also a body of men of learning and character devoted to intellectual pursuits." The result—it is virtually a wistful summary of the hopes that literary Boston had once entertained for the American republic as a whole—"a society in which there was little wealth and no display, but much refinement and much knowledge." Writing at the turn of the twentieth century, William Dean Howells would recall the vanished world of Cambridge and literary Boston in virtually the same terms.

At the same time, the intellectual culture of Boston and Cambridge, to whatever degree rooted in New England village democracy, was also to a high degree cosmopolitan. This was partly due to universal literacy. In the Athenaeum reading room at midcentury could be found such periodicals as the Edinburgh Review, the Westminster Review, Blackwood's Magazine and the Revue des Deux Mondes, in Boston homes the most recent works of Dickens or Thackeray. But an even more powerful influence was the singularly enterprising succession of young Bostonians who left home to study and travel in Europe. The George Ticknor remembered today tends to be the host who presided ceremoniously over a select Boston intellectual circle at Nine Park Street. A few specialists may recall that his monumental History of Spanish Literature, written after his return to Boston, was long used by the Spanish themselves as a primary resource for study of their national literature. But almost no one now recalls the Ticknor who as a young man crossing the mountains between Spain and Portugal lived with a band of outlaws who, won over by his independent spirit and his ready good humor, accepted him as one of their own.

In the period just preceding his Spanish adventure, Ticknor had spent two years of arduous study in Germany, for he belonged to the remarkable group of young Bostonians who, stirred by Mme de Staël's account of what she called la nouvelle philosophie allemande—the movement in German philosophy originating in Kant's transcendental idealism and taken in various directions by Fichte, Schelling, Schlegel and others—had crossed the ocean to enroll at the Georg-August-Universität at Göttingen. Scholars have been aware of the influence of the Göttingen group on Boston and New England thought since the publication of Orie Long's Literary Pioneers some eighty years ago. Van Wyck Brooks's account of the Göttingen years of two of its members, Ticknor and Edward Everett, would rehearse the same story for a popular audience shortly thereafter. But as will be seen in chapter three, the strongest influence on the Göttingen group itself, and therefore on Boston intellectual culture in the period immediately preceding the Civil War, was Johann Gottfried Herder, a major German philosopher who never taught at Göttingen, and who spent the greater part of his career in the circle of Goethe and Schiller in Weimar.

Herder's influence on New England thought has long been acknowledged, but almost exclusively as the author of such works as On the Spirit of Hebrew Poetry (Vom Geist der Hebraïschen Poesie) which had a dramatic impact on Transcendentalism and Unitarianism. It was their theological implications that George Ripley had in mind when telling readers of The Christian Examiner in 1835 that Herder's works contained "the germ of the most important thoughts which have since produced such a mighty revolution in the prevalent conceptions of religion." A more direct influence was then exerted by Herder's friend J. G. Eichhorn, originator of what Eichhorn himself called the Higher Criticism, meaning study of the Old and New Testaments as human documents composed by different authors in disparate historical circumstances. The effect of such accounts, however, was to eclipse the quite different Herder who left an indelible impression on another group of Boston students, among them George Bancroft and John Lothrop Motley, who followed the lead of Ticknor and Everett to enroll at Göttingen several years later. This was Herder as a strikingly original and richly suggestive philosopher of history.

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From The Strange Death of Literary Boston

Copyright (c) 2017 W.C. Dowling