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The Harvard Exiles

ISSUE:  Spring 1934

William james once said of Harvard that “our irreconcilables are our proudest product,” and one may suppose that he had in mind both the nonconformist at home and the rebel abroad. The very dissidence of dissent which enters into all the tradition of Harvard—from the Puritan to the pragmatist—has fostered many kinds of revolt, including the ultimate rebellion against Harvard’s own individualism, in favor of the authority of kings and bishops. An observer once attempted to explain the difference between the ethos of Harvard and of Yale by pointing to William Graham Sumner as the timeless model of all good Yale men, with his preoccupation with folkways and mores—the gospel of social conformity; and over against him, William James the Harvard man par excellence, experimentalist and antinomian, living by the light of individual judgment. Beyond the humor of this comparison remains the fact that in the course of American history Harvard has more often been the home of newborn causes than lost ones, that its very praise of self-reliance, independence of mind, and the rest of the Emersonian virtues has attained certain paradoxical results.

In recent years we have heard much talk about expatriation among the artists—artists of the Old World seeking the freshness of new, primitive horizons in Tahiti, Somaliland, Mexico, and Southern California; and those of the New going in quest of what Henry James called “the denser, richer, warmer European spectacle.” It seems that a country is not without honor save to its own prophets. In the post-War decade the cafes of Montparnasse were jammed with noisy American expatriates who confused Prohibition with the “soul-hydroptic,” and found their self-justification in such books as Stearns’ “America and the Young Intellectual” and Westcott’s “Goodbye Wisconsin.” Such exiles cannot be taken very seriously; like Polonius, they should have been advised to play the fool at home.

Of much more significance in the intellectual history of America is that company of pilgrims, mature, deliberate, and self-conscious, whom we might call the Harvard exiles—including such offshoots of Puritan stock as Henry Adams, Henry James, and T. S. Eliot, and such adopted sons from other latitudes as George Santayana, John Gould Fletcher (lately returned), and Conrad Aiken. “The Pilgrimage of Henry James” offers the most complete analysis yet made of any member in this group; Van Wyck Brooks, himself a Harvard man, has taken as his province the inhibitions of nineteenth-century Puritanism upon the creative life of America.

Henry Adams, George Santayana, and T. S. Eliot are fine examples of that remarkable type, the pure academic tory—a type which, with the decline of literae humaniores in the American college, has grown increasingly rare in these latter days. How shall we describe him? Perhaps we might say that his meat is another man’s straw: he is able to draw spiritual nourishment from an agnostic monograph on comparative religions; to him the record of history becomes a profoundly thrilling experience, fraught with strong personal significance; and logic and philosophy, far from being discredited in this age of empiric science, still serve as valid weapons for attacking the problems of life, which, though never quite solved, are richly subtilized. This academic type, rare in any society, has most often been met in America during the past century burgeoning like a tender orchid in the sanctuary of Boston and Cambridge. The Puritan’s restlessness has been transformed into a quest for perfection of a rather bookish sort, and his concern with moral purity has at length become a fastidious devotion to purity of style and precision of utterance. The late Gamaliel Bradford’s whimsical desire, “to be buried in the Athemeum,” suggests a newer symbol for the Ivory Tower.

And yet the grandson of the Colonists rebels against the more visible aspects of his heritage, feeling that his culture should be more eclectic, more urbane: his study of comparative philosophies and cults, in such a work as the Harvard Oriental Series, has given him a fear of appearing provincial. Young Henry Adams “watched with a vague unrest from the Quincy hills the smoke of Cunard steamers stretching in a long line to the horizon,” and later abandoned Harvard to wander on a sceptic’s pilgrimage to all the shrines of medi-aeval France. Henry James’ eternal nightmare was a vision of Boston and Cambridge reaching out “strange inevitable tentacles to draw me back and destroy me.” George Santayana, that strayed Utopian, whom New England adopted at the age of nine, came at length to repudiate his foster-mother Harvard, complaining of an environment “chilled and impoverished by Protestantism.” He writes concerning the University of his youth, perhaps not entirely without personal animus: “It was an idyllic, haphazard, hu-moristic existence, without fine imagination, without any familiar infusion of scholarship, without articulate religion: a flutter of intelligence in the void, flying into trivial play, only to drop back into the drudgery of affairs. There was the love of beauty, but without the sight of it; for the bits of pleasant landscape or the works of art which might break the ugliness of the foreground were a sort of aesthetic miscellany, enjoyed as one enjoys a museum.” T. S. Eliot in his younger days was reported acidly to have described the society of Boston as “quite uncivilized but refined beyond the point of civilization.” Mr. Eliot’s satire against the Boston Brahmanism of his youth, reflected in “Prufrock and Other Observations,” has, however, been mollified by the passing years and his recent lectureship at Harvard; and II. G.

Wells in his latest fantasia, “The Shape of Things to Come,” forecasts the presidency of Harvard for Mr. Eliot twenty years hence, a fixed point in a dissolving world of war, communism, and pestilence.


The academic mind, from the days of those first college professors the schoolmen, has sought for a single system of knowledge which would embrace all science, history, and metaphysics. Hence the attraction which Saint Thomas Aquinas held for Henry Adams the doubter, and his great effect upon the mind of Eliot the believer. Santayana’s Catholic scholasticism, even in his undergraduate days at Harvard, so he tells us, led him to reject the materialism of William James and the solipsism of Royce. But through the years of teaching at Harvard and the later years of English adoption, Santayana has sought in vain for a system of pure scholastic infallibility, and has at length reached an equally academic disillusion, i. e., that all systems are merely the creations of human ingenuity, to be approached in the spirit in which one studies the primitive epic or the evolution of marriage customs. Like Henry Adams, he has played with the idea of adapting the language of physics— most rigid of the sciences—to a new scholasticism, but more clearly than Adams he perceives its futility. In his “Brief History of My Opinions” he writes: “Matter may be called gravity or an electric charge or a tension in an ether; mathematics may readjust its equations to more accurate observations; any fresh description of nature which may result will still be a product of human wit, like the Ptolemaic or Newtonian systems, and nothing but an intellectual symbol for man’s contacts with matter, in so far as they have gone or he has become distinctly sensitive to them.”

Santayana’s position toward the modern world is that of a grave, disenchanted irony. In one of his sonnets he writes: The crown of olive let another wear, It is my crown to mock the runner’s heat With gentle wonder and with laughter sweet.

And this, after all, is the heart of his disagreement with an older Harvard and, even more broadly, with neo-Puritan America—because the Puritan impulse has been always to assert with John Milton: “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and seeks her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.” Here is a fundamental difference in attitude which has expressed itself from age to age upon such subjects as monasticism, mysticism, contemplative exercises, and the philosophic life of reason.

Like Santayana and Eliot, Henry Adams discovered that he was an exile in time as well a.s in space, and felt an almost acute distress at the discrepancies between the age in which he was born and the age in which he found his spiritual home, the thirteenth century, The modern world was bewildering, gross, unmannerly; its energies were all centrifugal. But the world of Abelard and Aquinas possessed an inward conservation, a lucidity of purpose and unity of structure so compelling to the imagination of the academic tory. Like Miniver Cheevy, Adams “missed the mediaeval grace of iron clothing,” or more literally the iron-clad dogma which might lend his puzzled mind that invulnerable armor of eternal truth which every schoolman so passionately desires. Of course, colleagues of a different stamp, like Charles W. Eliot and Louis Agassiz, felt no such need, and doubtless the average scientist of the time would have had little patience with Adams’ brave attempt to speak of the Verities in the jargon of erg and terebratula. Adams, with his polite curiosity about science, his sense of moral responsibility even in a world of anarchy, and his will to disbelieve, was as truly a son of nineteenth-century Harvard as Matthew Arnold was of Tractarian Oxford.

Adams’ theory of history, dilettante as Buckle but neat as one of Saint Thomas’ syllogisms, is too ingenious to be very convincing. However, the implications behind his dilemma of forces, the Virgin v. the Dynamo, can be appreciated better now than in the early days of scientific bumptiousness. Today the self-assurance of Spencer and Huxley has yielded to the humility of Eddington and Millikan. Yet even in those earlier times it was quite natural that the sedentary grandson of the pioneers should pray to that elemental strength, the dynamo; that a New England historian should see most clearly the ancient powers of the Blessed Virgin, and pay her the tribute of his stiff academic chivalry because, in all her dealings, she had possessed a sweet unreasonableness.

T. S. Eliot has turned Adams’ dilemma into an ethical problem. The Blessed Virgin is still there, but her rival the dynamo has been supplanted by the mechanistic theory of conduct, that beyond good and evil are the endocrine glands. Eliot’s creature called Apeneck Sweeney is behaviorism made flesh, an anthropoid who wallows complacently with his “lusts and luxuries,” in the sight of an indulgent science and a materialistic age. He owes his being to that exploration of the barbaric mind, swinish, illiterate, stupid, which has so greatly fascinated other sensitive moderns like James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. As a foil to this sensual ape, Eliot turns back again and again to Dante’s Arnaut Daniel, the poet cleansing himself in the holy flame of Purgatory for “all his past folly,” and finally, in “Ash Wednesday,” stilling his self-reproach in rapturous contemplation of the Queen of Heaven. In his Harvard lectures, published under the title of “The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism,” Mr. Eliot remarks, apropos of certain modern psychological studies, “It is perhaps only my private eccentricity to believe that such researches are perilous if not guided by sound theology.” To Eliot, then, the sanctions of behaviorism are vicious nonsense.

Going far beyond Adams, Eliot has come to believe in the supernatural order, although his faith, as expressed in poetry, is still that of the neo-conversus who takes his stand rather self-consciously. He has traveled a long way since he left Harvard in 1910—a spiritual wayfaring from Boston to Canterbury, with more than a casual glance at the Eternal City. He has passed the Everlasting No, the period of satire when he mocked at “the barren New England hills”; also the Centre of Indifference, the season of utter disillusion when he saw that all Europe, as well, was a spiritual wasteland, and turned vainly to “The Golden Bough” for primaeval strength; and finally reached the Everlasting Yea, the affirmation of faith in a True Church. Such has been his progress, although in some respects one doubts that he has yet attained perfect stability.

Mr. Eliot’s conversion was no lip-service to a Church of social and political standing; his sincerity is beyond cavil. Still, the old spiritual pride of Cotton Mather, preaching on the election of the Chosen Few, rings in Eliot’s declaration that “the majority of mankind is lazy-minded, incurious, absorbed in vanities and tepid in emotion, and is therefore incapable of either much doubt or much faith; and when an ordinary man calls himself a sceptic or an unbeliever that is ordinarily a simple pose, cloaking a disinclination to think anything out to a conclusion.” In precisely the same strenuous aristocratic spirit Charles Eliot Norton had written some years before to Sir Leslie Stephen: “The worst sign [in America] is the lack of seriousness in the body of the people; its triviality, and its indifference to moral principle.” But he likewise found solace in the high seriousness of Dante and the mediaeval mind.

Eliot, like Henry Adams, is also dominated by a strong historical sense, which lends to his thought and prose the same urbane academic tone which we find in Adams. Eliot’s poetry, richly strewn with literary allusion, echo, and parody, reveals even more clearly this historical sense. Upon it indeed rests his whole poetic theory, that today a man must “write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer . . . has a. simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.” One thinks of the five foreign languages and thirty-five sources quoted in “The Waste Land”; indeed, an unkind critic might call Mr. Eliot the poet of the Harvard Classics.

Similarly, in Eliot’s stand for authority in Church and State—the authority of an apostolic bishop and an anointed king—we perceive all the accretions of primitive magic and pagan ritual, of feudalism and Divine right, which buttress his faith. It is a faith inseparable from history and folklore. What I have called the academic toryism of his position shows plainly in his much-discussed definition of himself as “a classicist in literature, a royalist in politics, and an Anglo-Catholic in religion.” These terms stand for purely personal values: upon his arrival last year he assured a reporter for the Boston Evening Transcript (whose readers, he once wrote, “sway in the wind like a field of ripe corn”) that his royalism was not designed to overthrow the Constitution of the United States! We recall that Henry Adams, sickened by the Washington of the Gold Conspiracy and the Erie Scandal, also shrank from the unsavory aspects of American democracy back to the court of Saint Louis the King. And even that staunch Yankee Edwin Aldington Robinson has long been enchanted by the times of King Arthur. Perhaps a gentler Nemesis, which laid the witch-burning judges upon Hawthorne’s conscience, sprinkled the blood of Charles I upon the restless heads of the Regicides’ great-grandchildren.

Unable wholly to give his allegiance to the Mediaeval Church and the Mediaeval State, Eliot has pitched instead upon the middle ground of the seventeenth century, which in the light of his Puritan heritage affords him a, keener personal realization. He has retraced his steps three centuries to the parting of the ways, and cast in his lot with the Royal Martyr. His royalism is that of Strafford and Clarendon, his classicism that of Marvell and Waller, and his Catholicism that of Andrewes and Laud. Eliot’s recantation—at root the same impulse which makes a Conservative M. P.’s son a communist and a recusant Jesuit the staunchest of unbelievers—has been greatly subtilized within his own mind. He has worked out a set of criteria—aesthetic, historical, theological—which achieve a fine balance. We remember, that he defines a heretic as “a person who seizes upon a truth and pushes it to the point at which it becomes a falsehood.” This definition renders a heresy a kind of spiritual barbarism, found among those tribes who know nothing of the classical ne quid nimis.


The sensuous charm of Catholicism has wooed many half-believers of the North, just as the mellow sun of Rome lent spiritual warmth to the bones of Hawthorne, Longfellow, Norton, and many another. Eliot is certainly not insensible of this charm, but quotes with approval the words of T. E. Hulme: “I have none of the feelings of nostalgia, the reverence for tradition, the desire to recapture the sentiment of Fra Angelico, which seems to animate most modern defenders of religion. All that seems to me to be bosh. What is important, is what nobody seems to realize—the dogmas like that of Original Sin, which the closest expression of the categories of the religious attitude. That man is in no sense perfect, but a wretched creature, who can yet apprehend perfection. It is not then, that I put up with the dogma for the sake of the sentiment, but that I may possibly swallow the sentiment for the sake of the dogma.” Yet when Eliot assumes such an attitude—under the guidance of neo-scho-lastics like Maritain and D’Arcy—we wonder if he is not trying to rationalize a more impulsive attraction. It is plain that he is thrilled, as only a former Protestant can be, by the wedding of piety and beauty. He delights in the rich audacious language of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes (“Christ is no wild-cat. What talk ye of twelve days?”); in the “inexplicable splendor of Ionian white and gold” of Sir Christopher Wren’s little church among the fish-markets; and in his “Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry” he has one of his characters praise the Mass as “the consummation of the drama, the perfect and ideal drama,” though Mr. Eliot himself goes far beyond mere aesthetic relish. In the seventeenth century, with its blue-veined marble tablets and walnut cherubs by Grinling Gibbons, its wayward Stuart charm and its memento mori its pungent sensuality and its robust mysticism as joined in the person of Dean Donne—in this century Eliot has discovered a unity and significance which he missed in commercial St. Louis or even bluestocking Boston. Here his subtle academic mind and his costive, metaphysical poetic genius have found their Great Good Place.

Henry Adams of course never ceased being a dilettante, to whose studies of Catholic faith and polity the salt of scepticism gave a special flavor, and George Santayana, born in the shadow of a Divinely-appointed Church and State but early transplanted, has remained loyal in sentiment but wilful in philosophy. He migrated to England some twenty years ago, drawn like Eliot by the humanism of Oxford and Cambridge; but with all his fine appreciation of English ways and attitudes, one cannot imagine Santayana finding any deep satisfaction in professing allegiance to the Crown and the Established Church. To a Spaniard with a Yankee education, England has come to represent a mellow compromise—with a King who is gracious but never dominating, and a Primate who is not quite infallible.

G. K. Chesterton has somewhere compared religions to beverages, saying that Anglicanism is pale ale, Roman Catholicism old mulled port, and atheism a dash of cold water —perhaps a somewhat partial comparison, but of course Mr. Chesterton has long been a notable wine-bibber. If we may use his metaphor, it often appears that one who has drunk the headier Catholic brew finds ale a. little too mild, though even that malt may prove intoxicating to the austere palate schooled upon what Van Wyck Brooks has called “the wine of the Puritans.”

Men with the stamp of Henry Adams, Henry James, George Santayana, and T. S. Eliot exhibit, to be sure, certain differences of talent and achievement. Yet running through the fabric of their lives is a curiously similar pattern, what James himself would have delighted to name “the figure in the carpet.” We may call it the academic rather than the realistic approach to the modern world; or we may speak of it in terms of a wearied individualism, pining for the feudal securities which an early New England proudly renounced for the greater glory of Man, and toward which today the average European mind has appreciably cooled.

We may take as its symbol the passage in which George William Curtis, that Puritan Charles Lamb, tells how as a boy he loved to wander down the wharves and lay his hand in mystic communion on the blistered hulk of an East India-man, or climb the State House cupola to watch the dwindling masts of ships bound for Europe. The grandson of the Colonists, possessing intelligence without ripeness and poetry with little faith, has long cast wistful eyes upon the wake of the returning Mayflower.


However, it appears that this chapter in the intellectual life of America is drawing to a close. If the common attitude of twenty years ago was echoed by Mr. Masters’ young artist who fled to Rome “because there was no culture, you know, in Spoon River,” that of the newer generation is voiced by Stephen Vincent Benet: “I am tired of loving a foreign muse.” Archibald MacLeish, who once wrote a poem with the refrain, “It is a strange thing to be an American,” and was in many ways strikingly imitative of T. S. Eliot, has latterly altered his entire poetic trend: in “Conquistador,” he has written a sinewy American epic, and in his “Frescoes for Mr. Rockefeller’s City” has drawn the scornful caricature of an expatriate artist Mr. Pl’f, who complains that

There is much too much of your flowing Mississippi: He prefers a tidier stream with a terrace for trippers and Cypresses mentioned in Horace or Henry James. . . There is more shade for an artist under a, fig Than under the whole damn range (he finds) of the Big Horns.

Mr. MacLeish’s attitude is significant of a change which has befallen not merely the New England generation but the broader creative life of America as well. The young artist, even when living abroad on a Guggenheim Fellowship or the Prix de Rome, now turns aggressively to American scenes, American history, and the American idiom with a perception of values deeper than that of the old local-color-ists—Bret Harte, Charles Egbert Craddock, Thomas Nelson Page. This impulse is by no means confined to literature; it is reflected in the painting of Grant Wood, in the music of George Gershwin and Leo Sowerby, and in the architecture created by the disciples of Frank Lloyd Wright.

The change may be ascribed to several independent influences. Eldest of them is that growing complexity of racial mixtures, attitudes, and cultures in American life. In the heyday of Henry Adams the United States was still a relatively homogeneous nation, thanks to its prevailing British ancestry, and to its tradition of colonial dependence which lingered in arts and letters long after the political cord had been severed. Poets tuned their lyres to the music of Tennyson; painters reverently copied the Old Masters; and architects filled the land with Palladian court-houses. In those days it seemed natural that aspiring Americans should turn their faces toward the greater splendor of Europe with a simple heliotropic urge. But in his later years Adams witnessed a great infusion of new blood—Italian, Slavic, Jewish—which held no kinship, actual or sentimental, with the Anglo-Saxon. A generation of cosmopolitans arose who often found the Indian and the Negro more attractive types than the English Puritan in our historical background. For example, the intellectual American Jew has been almost unfailingly hostile to the Puritan. Meanwhile the integration of American life and industry was rapidly going forward, building skyscrapers, inventing machines, and carrying the center of population farther and farther from the mournful and misty Atlantic with its nostalgic vapors. Before this tumult the less adaptable spirits fled like Scholar Gypsies.

Next in order of time should be mentioned the influence of the Great War. When the United States played a decisive part in ending the greatest of European wars, this very action cast into sharper outline the nationalism of America against the European scene and heightened her self-consciousness. Even more significant was the aftermath of the War, when the American people awoke to a, new disillusion regarding the nations of Europe, whose aims now appeared to be incurably selfish and destructive. The “spiritual bankruptcy” of the Old World became a current phrase, and cynical observers went so far as to call our participation in the European quarrel an act of quixotic hysteria.

In the decade following the War, an impulse toward expatriation among the artists arose not so much from their dream of an idyllic Europe as from their scorn of an America grown materialistic in values and hypocritical in morals. It was the era of Prohibition, Fundamentalism, and Rotary; Sinclair Lewis, wandering from Sauk Center to Berlin, equally attracted and repulsed by the spectacle, was its impresario. Henry L. Mencken affected to pine for the robust cheer of a German beer-garden, and James Branch Cabell for the courtly graces and licenses of mediaeval Provence. Glenway Westcott, emigre at a precocious age, described the Middle West as “a state of mind of people born where they do not like to live.”

Already that decade is gathering the dust of history, and its protests seem quaintly archaic. Now, after four lean years, a new experimental liberalism in politics, social philosophy, and perhaps art and morals, is asserting itself in America; Joyce’s “Ulysses” is no longer contraband and buying a drink has ceased to be a traffic with the Prince of Darkness; a chastened Babbitt has lost his after-dinner magniloquence; and even Mr. Mencken has been stranded, like the Ark upon Ararat, by the receding tide of the Zeitgeist. Times of economic stress appear also to have increased our national self-awareness and self-reliance, and in ways both material and intellectual we have been drawn closer to our own hearth-stones.

The present attitude of the artist, therefore, is prevailingly one of curiosity and sympathy, in place of his old revolt against a too static order. He perceives that these are challenging and exciting days, and he is no more disposed to renounce his native land and his share in her destiny than was the keen-witted Englishman, let us say, in the stirring times of Queen Elizabeth.


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