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WASPs and the Lost Art of Civic Space

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WASPs and the Lost Art of Civic Space

The humanism of a now-defunct elite grew out of its virtuous impurity. January 21, 2022
Arts and Culture
The Social Order

Law firms are places of furtive intellectual conversation. In the intervals of negotiating the acquisition of a kitty-litter company by a private equity firm, or in the tedium of drafting a brief for the bank in its suit against a defaulting debtor, the questions will slip out. Did Hamilton throw away his first fire in the duel with Burr? Which was your favorite Trollope novel? Why did Dr. Johnson say to Adam Ferguson, “Sir, I perceive you are a vile Whig?”

One night many years ago, as I carried through the corridors of the firm a draft of assets to be excluded from an acquisition, I saw the lighted door of a friend, a lawyer who was also working late, and stopped to exchange a few words. Jennifer Ward Oppenheimer had one of those fertile, suggestive minds in which the inner world of intellect finds expression in exhilarating talk. Yet the boldness and originality of Fern’s thought never spoiled the pleasures of conversation, for she could not be content with what she already knew, and there was, besides, both a curiosity and a generosity in her nature that drew you out.

I was, Fern knew, trying to write a book, nominally about Robert Kennedy but in fact about the decline, in the 1960s, of the WASP establishment. She thought of one day writing about her own WASP family. But it would, she said, be difficult. There was the WASP code of omertà, enjoining reticence, if not silence, in such matters. We laughed about the way T. S. Eliot got around the rule, constructing a preposterous theory about how the “emotion of art is impersonal” in order to disguise the intensely personal, indeed confessional, nature of his own poetry.

My question was why newcomers like the Kennedys should ever have found the WASPs, who could be off-puttingly snobbish, to be at all attractive. Joe Kennedy, the founder of the dynasty, bore the scars of this Social Register disdain, yet his son Jack was the most WASP-oriented of the presidents, more respectful of WASP mores than the maverick Roosevelts or the transplanted Bushes, pushing their fortunes amid the alien corn of Texas.

Surely, Fern said, the spaces had something to do with it. She pointed to Frederick Law Olmsted, Henry Hobson Richardson, and Calvert Vaux, and to the houses, clubs, and schools of the WASPs, places that, in a country largely innocent of such arts, enchanted, and made the inhabitants themselves seem enchanting. She was sensitive to the question of space, to its effect on the imagination; it did not surprise me when she later became engrossed in the work of the English architect Sir Edwin Lutyens.

A quarter of a century later, I thought of the conversation in the law firm. I was staying in Fern’s house in Maine, and though she was by this time dead, her house was much as she had left it, a spare, luminous space, with its library intact. I took down from the shelf Katharine Graham’s memoirs. Distrusting on principle all books by celebrities, however louchely praised, I had not read it when it came out. But turning the pages, I found myself succumbing to a spell that did, in fact, have something to do with the intelligent disposition of space.

The magician in these matters, for Kay Graham and her generation, was Joe Alsop. He was in many ways a disagreeable man. A Cold War hawk, a foppish toff in a demotic age, he was the epitome, indeed the travesty, of WASP hauteur. In the morning, he would emerge from his bedroom at 2720 Dumbarton Street in Georgetown in a purple dressing gown piped with lilac, and he would spend much of the rest of the day putting people in their place. He growled at waiters, made scenes at parties, pushed to the front of every line, and bullied his wife, Susan Mary Jay. “Oh, that’s petty nonsense,” he would say when he cut her short in front of guests. In his relations with those lower in the scale, he had all the tact of Dickens’s Marquis St. Evrémonde, and he once tried to break the ice with a Minnesota farmer by nudging him with his stick and asking him, “What do you make of it all, old boy, eh?”

Yet Graham, who as empress of the Washington Post did not want for pals, said that Joe was one of the “two or three best” friends she made in life. His house in Georgetown, designed in what he jestingly called the “Garage Palladian” style, infused new life into the fainéant WASPs and their Washington circle. The Louis Quinze furniture, the jade and lacquer from Asia, the richly stocked cellar—Joe was partial to his friend Alain de Rothschild’s Château Lafite—tapped a submerged realm of dream and fancy in a dying class.

Few Americans since Jefferson can have been as devoted as Alsop to using space as a stimulus to conversation and an instrument for opening the mind: an enticement to a humanism at once civic and aesthetic. The house at 2720 Dumbarton Street was not of course in the same class as Monticello, but it was in many ways the successor to Henry Adams’s house at 1603 H Street, that rival White House on Lafayette Square in which Adams presided as a sort of anti-president in the American capital, much as Clement VII once presided as antipope at Avignon. Behind the heavy Romanesque masonry of the house—the work of his friend Richardson—Adams cultivated the art of ordering space humanely, to quicken places in the mind that might otherwise have lain dormant.

It is not easy to write about flawed people in a scrupulous age. WASPs were not merely arrogant but unskillful in their arrogance. Apart from a few showmen like the Roosevelts, they never mastered the art a viable elite must incessantly practice: that of hiding its contempt for those who seem to it vulgar. From the privileged heights of Georgetown and the Upper East Side, they looked down on the mass of their fellow citizens as proles and rednecks who, when confronted with the artifacts of a higher culture, were as helpless (to borrow Adams’s image) as a “Danubian Hun before a statue of Alcibiades.”

Yet arrogance was essential to what the WASPs achieved, for arrogance is intimately connected to all that passion for power, to all that drive for mastery, that has gone into the making of the world. Henry James saw the process at work in Venice. A lust for dominion lifted Venice above her rivals for maritime supremacy: she came to hold “the gorgeous east in fee.” But it was just this imperious will that contributed to her aesthetic supremacy.

Venice was for James a talisman; his 1886 novel, The Princess Casamassima, turns on it. When the book’s hero, Hyacinth Robinson, first sees the Piazza San Marco, he is a young English radical pledged to the overthrow of the old inequitable arrogances. But Venice alters his idea of things and leads him to discover unsuspected possibilities in himself. The awakening would, perhaps, be little more than sentimental kitsch—gondoliers and Gothic arches—were it not accompanied by a more sobering perception: that the splendors of Venetian art are inseparable from the evils of Venetian empire. Without the “despotisms, the cruelties, the exclusions, the monopolies and the rapacities,” there would, Hyacinth sees, be no Venice.

James was reimagining his own experience. In his memoir A Small Boy and Others, he recounts how he, too, crossed a “bridge over to Style,” not in Venice but in the Galerie d’Apollon in the Louvre. The “complicated sound” of the masterworks, their “deafening chorus,” entranced him, much as the Veronese ceilings in Venice stir Hyacinth. Yet James found that the productions of genius spoke not only of a passion for “beauty and art and supreme design” but of a more general, and more ambiguous, desire for “glory.” The motives that beget aesthetic masterpieces are, he realizes, of the same psychic stock that begets the world of “history and fame and power,” the ascendancies of kings and captains who ride in triumph through Persepolis: the two kinds of desire feed, and feed upon, each other, like cannibal twins.

The Galerie d’Apollon is for James an image of life “raised to the richest and noblest expression,” but it is also a conspiracy of aspiring egotisms: it takes a lot of arrogance to produce even a little civilization. In the Jamesian view, the Hellenism of Alexander the Great and the Hellenism of the Venus de Milo are products of the same confederacy of willful genius, just as the Renaissance instinct of mastery finds expression at once in the preeminence of the Borgias and in the paintings of Botticelli.

Portrait of Henry James by John Singer Sargent, 1913 (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

James’s conviction that the passion for glorious supremacy is a sine qua non of civilization is at odds with the modern idea that progress depends on an ever more widely diffused egalitarianism. For James, all striving for greatness is, in some degree, an effort to promote inequality: if a few are to be great, others must be small. In a truly equalitarian civilization, there can be no greatness; the Veronese ceilings, Hyacinth laments, must be cut “into strips, so that every one might have a little piece.”

James’s cultural realpolitik makes him hard to swallow for those of us pledged to the faith that “all men are created equal.” His candor about motive especially disturbs purer spirits who shrink from the Jamesian idea that the “great achievements” of the “happier few” are essential to “the general fabric of civilisation as we know it.” For these idealists, James is not simply the bearer of an uncomfortable message but a saboteur planting explosives in the cellars of democracy.

Ford Madox Ford tells the story of how the common people of Rye, in England’s East Sussex, thought that James in his literary voodoo “practiced black magic behind the high walls” of Lamb House. Progressive intellectuals found him no less sinister. It was not only, Lionel Trilling said, that James deplored the equalizing “rectification” of which they dreamed; his very “wit, and flexibility of mind, and perception, and knowledge” seemed the stuff of “aristocracy and political reaction.” Such traits could only widen the gulf between ordinary and extraordinary individuals.

The progressives were right: a dream of aristocratic mastery haunts The Princess Casamassima. Hyacinth breaks off his flirtation with radical egalitarianism just because he does want to live the life of the master-spirits, the dreamers of a glorious preeminence. Hyacinth’s conversion to so exclusive a mode of self-realization makes him seem, to many readers, a reactionary snob. Trilling counters that his conversion makes him an artist. For if “Hyacinth is a snob,” he writes,

he is of the company of Rabelais, Shakespeare, Scott, Dickens, Balzac, and Lawrence, men who saw the lordliness and establishment of the aristocrat and the gentleman as the proper condition for the spirit of man, and who, most of them, demanded it for themselves . . . . His snobbery is no other than that of John Stuart Mill when he discovered that a grand and spacious room could have so enlarging an effect upon his mind; when Hyacinth at Medley [the English country seat of his patron, the Princess Casamassima] had his first experience of a great old house, he admired nothing so much as the ability of a thing to grow old without loss but rather with gain of dignity and interest: “the spectacle of long duration unassociated with some sordid infirmity or poverty was new to him; for he had lived with people among whom old age meant, for the most part, a grudged and degraded survival.”

The dignity and lordliness of spirit Hyacinth experiences at Medley is, for Trilling, the image of his aristocratic vocation as an artist, one who wants not to bind books (Hyacinth’s day job) but to write them.

Yet Trilling differed from James in his estimate of the rival claims of aristocracy and progress. Trilling was a liberal who wanted to enlarge not only political and economic franchises, but cultural ones, to give more people better goods—material as well as aesthetic. But he doubted whether democracy and culture are as easily reconciled as progressives believed. “Civilizations,” he said, “differ from one another as much in what they give up as in what they acquire; but all civilizations are alike in that they renounce something for something else.” He was not at all sure that democracy could be at once virtuously egalitarian and culturally superb.

He was unable to escape the despairing conviction of William Hazlitt. No “stauncher radical democrat,” Trilling said, “ever lived,” yet Hazlitt was certain that the higher poetry of civilization is aristocratic in form and “not a friend of the democratic virtues.” “We are likely not to want to agree with Hazlitt,” Trilling wrote. But he was as little able to disagree with him. In what must have been a painful moment, he said that “all the instincts or necessities of radical democracy are against the superbness and arbitrariness which often marks great spirits.”

In his essay on The Princess Casamassima, Trilling confesses the dividedness of a man who finds two rival goods “in such a balance of authority and appeal” that he takes both into “his very being” and “is therefore destroyed. This is known as tragedy.” Trilling attributes the tragedy to James’s Hyacinth. But Hyacinth is Jamesian rather than Trillingesque. In his last interview with the Princess Casamassima—a rich, American-born woman who has embraced radicalism—Hyacinth listens respectfully as she repeats her mantra that the “old ferocious selfishnesses must come down . . . must be smashed.” Hyacinth replies, “I wish to God I could see it as you see it.” He admires the princess’s spirit, but as he tells her in a letter, he has “lost sight of the sacred cause” of reform in his “recent adventures” in high civilization. He will fulfill to the letter the radical obligation to which, before Venice, he pledged his honor, as a true aristocrat would, but he makes it clear that he has forsaken the simplifications of radicalism, that he has now “a great horror of that kind of invidious jealousy which is at the bottom of the idea of a redistribution.” He will not have the Veronese ceilings cut into pieces.

Hyacinth is much like James himself, who had no real interest in “a fresh deal of the social pack.” It may be true, as Trilling thinks, that James penetrated all distinctions of genius and fortune to feel the basic equality of human beings: one certainly hopes so. But his tone is different when he reports the language of his housemaid than when he recounts his collision with the brilliant if overbearing Winston Churchill. Great splendor of person or fortune, dazzling achievement in the service of the state or in the kingdom of art: for James it is always la gloire, la gloire, and he famously died in the hallucination that he was Napoleon.

In misreading The Princess Casamassima, Trilling did more than impose his own despair on James: he softened the aristocracy of James’s novel to make it palatable to progressives. He hoped, I suppose, that they would take seriously its idea that the motives of culture are often in opposition to uncultivated taste, that the effort to reconcile high civilization with the democracy of “the common man” may prove difficult, if not impossible. Between the egalitarian ideals of liberal democracy and “the deep places of the imagination,” there is, Trilling lamented, a “fatal separation.”

Muted though it was, Trilling’s critique of a “vulgar and facile progressivism” did not go unchallenged. Philip Rahv, the Partisan Review editor, scented heresy, and he commissioned the poet Delmore Schwartz to write a counter-sally exposing Trilling as a betrayer of the dream that we can (in Trilling’s words) “get everything for nothing.” Schwartz seized on the essay “Manners, Morals, and the Novel,” in which Trilling adopts the Jamesian position that a complexity of social manners, even a gradation of rank and privilege, are useful to the novelist who would create living characters and situate them credibly in a “field of tragic reality.” In his 1953 essay “The Duchess’s Red Shoes,” Schwartz pounced. Trilling, he argued, was a reactionary Jamesian prince, as little a good progressive as Proust’s Duc de Guermantes.

Schwartz’s portrayal of the author of The Liberal Imagination as the abettor of a putsch against virtuous democracy was only a shade more subtle than Ayn Rand’s contemporaneous melodrama of beautiful businessmen overmastering unwashed looters in the name of the dollar. At the same time, Schwartz overlooked real vulnerabilities in Trilling’s catastrophist argument that under democracy the instinct of mastery will exhaust itself in ever more trivial ends, in a world in which the “idea of life raised to the richest and noblest expression will quite vanish.” It is certainly possible that a purer egalitarianism will, as Trilling feared, be the death of high culture, a second beheading of Orpheus. But if the standard of taste and disposition of soul in modern democracies is somewhat low, there is no overt persecution of the motives that Trilling associated with high-souled aspiration: heretics like Proust and Waugh, Faulkner and Yeats, have not only been left in peace but even honored. Nor does Trilling do justice to the way American democracy has used older cultural forms for its own egalitarian ends. Walt Whitman and Louis Armstrong drew on premodern poetry to create a new American music; WASPs themselves revived antiquated techniques of stimulating the soul to create humane civic space.

In James’s novel The Ambassadors, Lewis Lambert Strether, a depleted WASP in middle age, finds himself in the Parisian garden of the sculptor Gloriani, a place intended by James to stand for all those Venices and Galeries d’Apollon of the spirit that awaken possibility and help you become what you are. Strether opens the “windows of his mind” to let his “rather grey interior drink in for once the sun of a clime” unmapped in any New England cartography. He is, finally, too tired to rise to the revelation of Gloriani’s garden, but James himself was closely connected to a group of WASPs who did rise to the challenge of the old spaces, and in doing so acted a Jamesian theme—that of the modern mind which experiences premodern artistry as redemptive.

Much like James’s Hyacinth, who in Venice feels a new set of nerves coming alive within him, James’s friends Henry Adams, Isabella Stewart Gardner, and Edith Wharton were drawn to the therapeutic arts of premodern cultures. In the carved and painted poetry of Nikko, Anuradhapura, Athens, and Chartres, neurasthenic WASPs found a hieroglyphics of the soul, a formula for sanity in a modernity they thought hysteria-inducing. America, these Jamesian WASPs saw, lacked such antidotes, and at the height of the Gilded Age they sought to remedy the deficiency by incorporating, in their schools, museums, parks, and concert halls, bits and pieces of premodern poetry to create spaces that would touch neglected places in the American mind. Gardner established a Venetian museum in Boston; James’s friend Charles Eliot Norton, the Harvard humanist, indirectly inspired an experiment in civic humanism at Columbia in which young people were initiated in older poetries through the study of Great Books.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum as viewed from the Fenway, 1904 (Detroit Publishing Co. collection, Library of Congress))

The civic humanism of the WASPs was secondhand and perhaps second-rate, yet it involved them in all that anomalousness of motive that characterizes even our most generous acts. You can’t foster more potent kinds of culture without wielding less-ideal forms of power. In making themselves into a patrician class capable of wielding such power, WASPs found themselves in the same moral labyrinth in which so many of James’s characters wander, seduced by a culture that is as deeply humanizing as it is deeply inhumane—a crystal goblet, a golden bowl, at once beautiful and flawed.

In the bargain WASPs made with themselves, they would obtain power, and pay for it in the coin of virtue. They would acquaint American innocence with the cultural facts of life even as they introduced their fellow citizens to elixirs by which they themselves had been reanimated. But their virtue was always equivocal; they liked power, and once they had grabbed a certain amount of it out of the hands of Gilded Age plutocrats, they were in no hurry to share the deeper secrets of their own patent medicines. Their museums and concert halls were open to the public, but their most potent humanizing poetry was concentrated in their fenced-off schools, clubs, and houses. No mere pleb shared in the mock-Palladian glories of 2720 Dumbarton Street, where Joe Alsop revived the higher laughter of the Greek symposium; nor was an outsider likely to experience the regenerative splendors of the coral villa of Alsop’s friend Marietta Peabody Tree at Barbados.

WASPs were not, as a rule, the sort of people to trace in glory the night’s starred face, but in attempting to reintegrate art and life in premodern fashion, they achieved something the greater creative spirits of their age could not, in part because modernity radically altered the artist’s relation to civic space. In the premodern world, artists (by whatever name they were called) were essential to the maintenance of the common places at the heart of each community. They chiseled the stone, painted the frescoes, tuned the choirs, performed the poetry. But with the vast expansions and technical advances of modern enterprise, they lost their civic role: they ceased to be guardians of local civic infrastructure and became instead performers in modern metropolitan space, feeding not on a connection to place but on an estrangement from it, the entertainers of an anonymous crowd. Where Aeschylus found identity and creative purpose in the civic life of Athens, Baudelaire and Picasso were at odds with the society of their time. The remarkable artist in the last two or three centuries has been, not always but often, a rebel living in a spiritual garret, the inhabitant of an aesthetic ghetto in an uncomfortable relation to the larger world.

Much like other Western elites before the First World War, WASPs, for all their neurasthenic whining, were at home in their metropolitan power, and were just for that reason inferior artists and patrons of art. Had they been, like Corbière or Hölderlin, more estranged and more original in their genius, they could hardly have been content to produce the revived Gothic, reworked Romanesque, and parodic Athenianism of their spaces. This transplanted vegetation was, Lewis Mumford observed, alien to America’s own mythopoeic soil, and he had a point when he dismissed it as an “effort to evade the logic of modern civilization by insincere gestures of respect to the culture, the feelings, the ornamental systems of previous ages.”

Yet the derivative art of the WASPs, precisely because it was plagiarized from premodern poetries that closely integrated the needs of the soul and the realities of everyday life, made their spaces civically generous and aesthetically accessible in a way the lonely stages of alienated modern genius so often are not.

As theaters of the soul, the cityscapes of Olmsted and the structures of Richardson are much inferior to Old World models. But they grew out of a similar instinct to create space in which no one is merely a spectator, the passive witness of another’s performance. In the Piazza Navona in Rome and the Place de la Maison Carrée in Nîmes, in the Piazza dei Signori in Vicenza and the Staromák in Prague, master and commoner unselfconsciously mingle. The spaces are at once egalitarian in the openness of their stages—on which everyone is a player—and aristocratic in the genius of their dramatic structure, the work of so many imperious Glorianis. The built and sculpted forms cooperate with the performing poetry to create a latitudinarian art, in which the antagonism between face-in-the-crowd democracy and willful Jamesian mastery is temporarily bridged. The most life-enhancing art may well be that in which the line between beguiler and beguiled, the player and the played, is briefly blurred.

Liberal modernity is more equitable than premodern civilization in managing the sociopolitical conflict between democratic equality and aristocratic mastery: it has been less skillful in assuaging the cultural-poetic antagonism. Yale Law School’s Anthony Kronman points out that although aristocracy is today synonymous with “unearned privilege and exploitative domination,” it originally grew out of a desire for excellence. (“Now I must win excellent glory,” Achilles says in The Iliad.) A democratic civilization, Kronman argues in The Assault on American Excellence, cannot be really healthy unless it preserves “a few islands of aristocratic spirit, both for their own sake, and because of the rarity and beauty of what they protect, and for the good of the larger democratic culture as well.” The last clause is not, as a cynical reader might suspect, an afterthought, but essential to the argument.

Kronman recapitulates the theory that led WASPs to create spaces like Isabella Stewart Gardner’s museum in Boston, in which the fruits of poetry and aristocratic mastery are cathartically available to workaday democracy. WASPs did not go far enough in reviving this humane conception of civic space, but they went farther than those who came after them, modernists whose spaces are bleakly faithful to a machine-like functionality that has little to say to the “the deep places of the imagination.”

As equality becomes (at least rhetorically) our supreme ideal, we are obliged (at least publicly) to disavow what is valuable in the morally complex urge to outstrip our rival in glory. It is just because the motives of the WASPs were so genuinely mixed—they valued both democratic equality and aristocratic mastery—that their civic humanism fails to impress a purer and perhaps more self-deluding age, one that has little patience with the notion that we are often “much more the better” for “being a little bad.”

Top Photo: Entrance to Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston (Photo: Infrogmation)

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