WASPS: The Splendors and Miseries of an American Aristocracy

Here are some highlights from this 2021 book:

* You find comparatively few murderers among WASPs.

* WASPs are creatures of guilt and self-questioning, more likely to kill themselves than kill others. Suicide blighted whole families. There were the Sturgises, an old Boston family with a “tendency to suicidal mania.” Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke of his horror when, in June 1853, he heard the “dismal tidings” that young Susan Sturgis Bigelow had swallowed arsenic: three of Susan’s sister Ellen’s children (one of whom was to marry Henry Adams) would also go on to kill themselves. The Gardners too: Joseph Peabody Gardner, in whom was concentrated the blood of a dozen old Massachusetts families, blew his brains out in 1875. His son, Joseph Peabody Gardner Jr., died by suicide eleven years later. Theodore Roosevelt’s son Kermit, his grandson Dirck, and his granddaughter Paulina all killed themselves; Eleanor Roosevelt’s father, Elliott (Theodore’s brother), and her brother Hall both drank themselves to death. Medill McCormick, of Groton, Yale, and the Chicago Tribune, sought relief, by turns, in newspaper work, drink, Jungian psychotherapy, and the Senate before he swallowed swallowed a fatal dose of pills in a Washington hotel room in 1925; John Gilbert Winant, whose career took him from St. Paul’s School and Princeton to the governor’s mansion in New Hampshire and the embassy in London, shot himself in the head in 1947. Edie Sedgwick was preceded to the grave by her two older brothers, Francis, who killed himself at Silver Hill in New Canaan in 1964, and Robert, who crashed his motorcycle into a New York City bus in 1965. As for the two boys of William Woodward (shot dead by Ann), James leapt to his death from the ninth floor of the Mayfair House Hotel on Park Avenue in 1978; William jumped from his fourteenth-floor apartment on East Seventy-second Street in 1999.
The suicides were only the most overt sign of trouble in the culture or the blood; WASPs have long been haunted by the despairs, lunacies, and hysterias in their domestic histories. The Sedgwicks called it “the family disease,” a malady that oppressed their house ever since Theodore Sedgwick made his fortune in western Massachusetts in the late eighteenth century, more than a century and half before his descendant Edie stripped off her clothes for Andy Warhol. Emily Dickinson spoke of “the Hour of Lead,” of a funeral “in my Brain,” Henry Adams complained of ennui, John Jay Chapman lamented his “queerness,” which as a boy led him to make “mysterious gestures before imaginary shrines” and as an adult got him the nickname “mad Jack.” Louisa May Alcott, a golden child of Emerson’s Concord who would go on to write Little Women , contemplated suicide, and “thought seriously” of jumping into the water of the Mill Dam in Boston.

Were WASPs more troubled than other people? Probably not. But they were more articulate. Their miseries got into the record, and did something to shape the destinies of the United States. Reticent though they were in person, they were voluble on paper. At some level they want us to pay attention.

WASP FAMILIES LIKE THE STURGISES, the Sedgwicks, the Gardners, and the Roosevelts were all, even at their lowest ebbs, doing quite well out of life. What went wrong? The New England heritage had something to do with it. (Even those WASPs who, like the Roosevelts, identified themselves with other regions were connected by a hundred ties to the land of the Puritans.) The New England soil was rich in neurotic possibility; the early New Englanders had not only, in Henry Adams’s words, to “wrestle with nature for a bare existence,” they had to do it under the burdens of their perfectionist enterprise. The Puritan effort to build a new Jerusalem in the American wilderness was not a formula for sanity; it was abandoned precisely because it did induce lunacy, not least in (the somewhat optimistically named) Salem itself, the center of witch hysteria. Puritanism was supplanted, in the eighteenth century, by a less demanding (and less fulfilling) Yankeeism, with its easier idolatry of moneymaking. But by then it was too late: the older vision had inflicted enduring wounds.
The Puritan guilts and manias (it is not easy to live in a city on a hill) lingered in New England long after the demise of Puritanism. You sensed them in the dying villages, with their mouldering houses and sapless apple trees, bereft of youth and vitality, for the enterprising children have escaped to seek their fortune in the cities or the West. In the old greens and on the moribund farms, the memory of primeval Puritanism survived, “
shrouded in a blackness ten times black,” in tales of wizards and witch-meetings, malignant groves, a shadowed Satanism, the sort of morbidity Nathaniel Hawthorne and (more recently) Stephen King retail in their books. WASPs in the late nineteenth century were drawn to the haunted countryside, and not only on account of its quaintness or its closeness to nature: they found, in the cranks and recluses, the eccentric spinsters and cracked seers, a reflection of their own uneasy souls.

* THE CHILDREN OF THE BRAHMINS blamed their weaknesses, their fatigues, their failures—the scruples that prevented them from getting on in the world—on neurasthenia. They actually believed it to be a medical condition. In his 1881 book American Nervousness: Its Causes and Consequences, the WASP physician Dr. George Miller Beard described neurasthenia as a disease caused by “lack of nerve-force” and productive of such symptoms as, but not limited to, insomnia, bad dreams, mental irritability, nervous dyspepsia, fear of society, fear of responsibility, lack of decision in trifling matters, profound exhaustion, and excessive yawning.

* What distinguished the WASP neurasthenic was his (or her) consciousness of unused powers in the soul that he (or she) sought to discharge in civic and creative activity. You see it most clearly in Henry Adams, who adopted the pose of a neurasthenic weakling oppressed by his New England heritage, looking on life rather than living it, and doomed to fail in an America that had little use for the patrician’s theory of virtue. The pose was ironic—the man who wrote The Education of Henry Adams was not in any ordinary sense a failure: but it enabled Adams to explain why the best and brightest of his generation so often fell into neurotic despair. Neurasthenia, he maintained, was the natural response of gifted natures to an environment unsympathetic to their gifts. It was the inevitable reaction of those who, resisting the fragmentary part-lives on offer in the Gilded Age marketplace, sought to do justice to the whole of their nature in a land where the two great perfectionist experiments (New England Puritanism and Yankee commercial democracy) were culturally inadequate precisely because they were founded on too narrow a conception of human flourishing.
Neurasthenia was hell. But Adams learned from Dante that hell was good, a thing, indeed, instituted by divine love, ’l primo amore . For in deserving cases the path through la città dolente , the suffering underworld city, led, if not to sanity and salvation, at any rate to small victories over hellishness. This was the tradition of productive lunacy, the belief that you can’t attain the Jerusalem of your heart’s desire without first submitting to a Babylonian captivity. In writing the life of his dead friend George Cabot Lodge, Adams spoke of the young man’s “philosophic depression,” the dejection one feels when one’s powers find no release in joyful activity and one’s soul is condemned to feed upon itself. But the lassitudes of neurasthenia, exempting the sufferer from the demands of the marketplace, could also, Adams suggested, buy one time—to plot a comeback, and obtain one’s revenge on those who doubted one’s virtue.

* BLAMING THE PARENTS FOR THE failures of the children would become, in the heyday of Freudianism, a WASP pastime. Henry Adams anticipated the trend, urging his wounded contemporaries to rouse themselves from their neurasthenic fatigues and repair the errors of the ancestors.
His discovery of the primal sin of the fathers—their narrowness of vision—illuminates WASP culture and in some measure explains it. He made articulate the partly formed, half conscious idea of the WASPs that, however much they might venerate their forebears, there was something missing in the civilization they created. Political reform by itself could not fill the void. It must be supplemented by cultural regeneration, and cultural regeneration—this was the crucial insight—was impossible without forums in which the soul, protected from the rapidity and chaos of American life, could ripen. Looking back longingly to the stoas and porticos of the Mediterranean, Adams was never more of a WASP than when he reflected on the virtues of the old civic culture, the “classic and promiscuous turmoil of the forum, the theatre, or the bath,” formative institutions “which trained the Greeks and the Romans” in their prime, and brought alive parts of their nature that would otherwise have been neglected, but which were unknown in America.
Yet Adams’s most delicate stroke was his suggestion that the cultural revolution he contemplated was unrealizable. The acceleration of mechanical power in America would, he predicted, doom the efforts of the preppy rebels and frondeurs; the WASP coup d’état he advocated would ultimately fail. In effect The Education of Henry Adams dared its readers to prove its author wrong.

* Together with memories of color (sitting “on a yellow kitchen floor in strong sunlight”), illness and taste (coming down with scarlet fever and his aunt “entering the sickroom bearing in her hand a saucer with a baked apple”), and displacement (being “bundled up in blankets” and carried from his family’s house in Hancock Avenue to a new, larger one in Mount Vernon Street), some of Adams’s most vivid early recollections are of filial resentment: of his grandfather John Quincy Adams for making him go to school, and of his great-grandfather John Adams for being a dull writer whose work he was forced to help his father edit. How mortifying, for Henry, that these forebears, with all their faults, should have had, by any worldly measure, so much greater success than he! It must have been an unconscious satisfaction to him that the Republic they founded was inadequate.

* In retrospect it is remarkable that these WASPs should have sought satisfaction in directing the destinies of distant nations and puzzling out the feuds of remote peoples in insalubrious climates. But statesmanship, if it is an expensive form of therapy, is not, Pascal long ago observed, an ineffective one. Yet beneath the WASPs’ pursuit of those twin balms, power and pleasure, there was a desire to make a civic contribution. They had all been expensively educated in a tradition that descended, ultimately, from Athens, and they regarded “the man who takes no part in public affairs, not as a man who minds his own business, but as a man who is good for nothing.” Public service, they were taught, not only bettered the res publica, it was an essential element of self-realization.

At the same time there was something less creditable at work in this zeal for civic virtue. Complex webs of privilege enabled the WASPs to live spacious, many-sided lives even as so many of their fellow citizens performed monotonously dull tasks to get their bread. The WASPs persuaded themselves, as they negotiated their treaties or sailed about their harbors in Maine, that their lives were of service to those forgotten millions who toiled away in occupations that made a mockery of their potential. Self-deception is evident. So far were the WASP mandarins from seeking to enlarge the civic playground, so that others might play there, too, they seemed to rejoice in their possession of the high places in the state. In the recesses of their hearts, they seem even to have derived pleasure from looking down on their less fortunately developed and less well connected fellow citizens.

* “We live by poetry, not by prose,” Wilson said, “and we live only as we see visions.” It would be truer to say that we live by poetry and by prose, and that we get into trouble whenever we confuse the one with the other. The WASP statesmen who were to shape the American Century were, by and large, realists in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt, versed in the language of geopolitical interest. But Woodrow Wilson taught them to clothe this realistic prose in an ideal rhetorical poetry. As statecraft, the WASPs’ mélange of the two presidents’ policies was ingenious, but not without disadvantages. The WASPs intended Wilson’s poetry to be the servant of Roosevelt’s prose. But poetry is a potent, as well as an unpredictable thing. What if the servant should become the master?

* Instruments of collective security differ from the traditional alliances that Wilson sought to do away with. Traditional alliances are “directed against specific threats” and define “precise obligations for specific groups of countries linked by shared national interests or mutual security concerns.” Collective security, by contrast, “defines no particular interest, guarantees no individual nation, and discriminates against none.” It “is theoretically designed to resist any threat to the peace,” but because it “leaves the application of its principles to the interpretation of particular circumstances when they arise,” it unintentionally puts “a large premium on the mood of the moment and, hence, on national self-will,” with different nations favoring different approaches and unable to agree on the concerted action that might deter an aggressor.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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