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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

September 12, 2012: The Boston Cosmopolitans

[There are few Boston sites that I would more highly recommend for a fall visit—for anybody, from tourists to lifelong residents, students to seniors, and American Studiers of all varieties—than the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. For this week’s series, I’ll be blogging about five topics connected to the Museum and its historical and cultural contexts. Please add your responses, and your suggestions for other unique American sites and experiences, for the weekend’s crowd-sourced post!]
On the elite, snooty, and deeply inspiring community of which Gardner was an integral part.
As Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) convincingly demonstrated, Americans have long had some serious issues with our cultural elites. I don’t think those issues necessarily go all the way back—Ralph Waldo Emerson sold out his highly intellectual lectures—nor have they ever been an uncontested trend, but there’s no question that to be considered a know-it-all in America is generally not a good thing; note Willy Loman’s casual dismissal of young Bernard as precisely such an egghead, compared to Willy’s own football-playing Adonis-like sons Biff and Happy (the three men’s respective fates reveal that Miller doesn’t share Willy’s disdain, of course). And if you’re a know-it-all who also tends to prefer European culture to American, and who has the money and ability to pursue that preference through travel? Forget about it.
That’s an over-simplified but not inaccurate description of the Boston Cosmopolitans, the group of artistic and cultural elites—including Gardner as well as such figures as Henry Adams, Henry and William James, Charles Eliot Norton, Augustus Saint Gaudens, and more—whose presence on both sides of the Atlantic significantly influenced turn of the 20th century society. Like Gardner, these figures came from prominent American families and only gained in prominence in their own lives, used that prominence and its accompanying wealth to travel extensively, developed strong affinities for and attachments to Europe (Henry James spent much of his adult life and set most of his novels there, for example), and generally constructed international and, yes, cosmopolitan identities. Each individual is worth his or her own attention and analysis—and I’ll have more to say about Adams and Saint Gaudens in the next two posts—but collectively, the Cosmopolitans certainly exemplified a new possibility for transnational experience and identity, one that would seem to place them distinctly outside of America even if we refuse to buy into anti-intellectualism or its ilk.
Or did it? In The Boston Cosmopolitans: International Travel and American Arts and Letters (2008), scholar and long-time mentor and friend to this American Studier Mark Rennella seeks to reclaim the Cosmopolitans, both from critiques of them as elitist or out of touch and from the idea that they were not centrally and inspiringly American. In Rennella’s argument, the key components to the Cosmopolitans’ lives, such as new modes of travel and international connection, were central features of their era, and their experiences can thus serve to illustrate the best possibilities for both the American and world communities in that moment and beyond. Moreover, as Rennella likewise notes, the Gardner Museum itself exemplifies the Cosmopolitans’ lifelong and genuine desire to use those experiences to benefit their native county and their fellow Americans—Gardner may have constructed her Museum out of a Venetian palace and filled it with (mostly) European art and culture, but she built it in the Fenway and hoped that it would become an important part of the city and of America in the centuries to come. That’s the heart of the Cosmopolitan project, Rennella and I would both argue, and it’s a very American and powerful one.
Next Gardner Museum link tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? What’s your take on this community or these questions?

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