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Suicide, Despair, Lunacy, and Hysteria (and Surprisingly Little Murder) Among WASPS


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la valle d’abisso dolorosa . . .

the valley of the sad abyss . . .

—Dante, Inferno

You find comparatively few murderers among WASPs. Harry Kendall Thaw (the Pittsburgh coal heir who shot Stanford White, the beaux arts architect, on the rooftop of Madison Square Garden in 1906), Jean Harris (the Smith College alumna and Madeira School headmistress who murdered the diet guru Dr. Herman Tarnower in 1980), and William Bradford Bishop (the Yale-educated diplomat who bludgeoned his family to death with a sledgehammer in Bethesda, Maryland, in 1976) very nearly exhaust the list of WASPs who killed other than in the service of the state and the intelligence agencies. As for Lizzie Borden (she of the forty whacks), Henry Judd Gray (the double-indemnity murderer), and Theodore “Ted” Bundy, they were not the sort of people with whom WASPs were on visiting terms, however many genetic haplogroup markers they might have had in common.

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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., committed 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 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.

Were WASPs more troubled than other people? Probably not. But they were more articulate…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.

New England was a tragedy. The ancestors, dreaming first of a puritanical Jerusalem and later (after that project failed) of a Republic of Virtue (or “Christian Sparta,” in the words of Samuel Adams), had sailed too close to the sun, and the descendants suffered for their hubris. The lesson of the degenerate villages was reinforced by the literature the WASPs read. Hawthorne taught them that they labored under a curse, some grievance in the granite, and they had only to look to the asylum in Somerville north of Boston (McLean Hospital), its wards filled with deranged descendants of old New England families, to know that it was so. Behind the black veil of the New England conscience something sinister was at work, corrupting the bloodstock and producing mad or feckless heirs. Henry Adams, looking back on the New England colonists in their prime, saw a long line of Puritans and Patriots who had done much to create America’s culture and institutions. But nearer his own time he found the characteristic specimens weak and dilettantish, “ornamental” gentlefolk subsidized by their forebears’ spadework, spoilt children who could “scarcely have earned five dollars a day in any modern industry.”

Such energy and purpose as the WASPs possessed found few outlets in a modern economy. They were drawn to the old public virtues, to the statecraft their ancestors had practiced as well as to the sort of “soft” civic work that adorns a place with art and poetry. But politics, as the nineteenth century wore on, came to be controlled by political bosses who were not (in the eyes of WASPs) gentlemen, and art in America was a profession only a shade more respectable than harlotry. Boston was, in its own conceit, the American Athens, yet we have Professor George Santayana’s word for it that in “good Boston society” artists, if they were tolerated, were looked upon as “parasites” and not as “persons with whom the bulwarks of society” could have “any real sympathy.” The Calvinist austerity remained after the Calvinist consolations faded; Yankees, with their zeal for compound interest, were as suspicious of the creative impulse as the Puritans, with their zeal for divine election, had been before them.

But it was only when the children of the Puritans and the Patriots confronted, after the Civil War, a class that not only mocked their pretensions but also threatened to usurp their place in the hierarchies that the real crisis came. “In the reaction after the colossal struggle of the Civil War,” Theodore Roosevelt wrote, “our strongest and most capable men” threw their “whole energy into business, into moneymaking, into the development, and above all the exploitation and exhaustion at the most rapid rate possible, of our natural resources . . .” These industrialists and plutocrats were, Roosevelt said, “shortsighted and selfish,” but they were also masterful. Under their alien regime the descendants of the Brahmins—the New England statesmen and sages who had done so much to build the Republic—found themselves reduced in stature, smaller than their ancestors had been. They could no longer play the part, Edmund Wilson said, of a “trained and public-spirited caste,” for not only did the new society not “recognize them,” it forced them to make their way in “a world that broke” many of them. The fall was the more bitter when they reflected that the North, in vanquishing the Southern planters in the war, had destroyed the only group in America that could rival the Brahmins as a patrician leadership caste. With the destruction of the children of the Cavaliers—now reduced to so much “grey debris”—the children of the Puritans expected to come into their own, only to find that the war itself, and the new industrial power it had called into being, had created an elite more formidable than the defunct Southern aristocracy.

They stare out at us from the canvases of Sargent, well-to-do but uncertain young people, the splendor of whose poses is diminished by a certain vacuousness in their expressions, an emptiness in their eyes. Some committed suicide; others were sent to lunatic asylums or languished in self-doubt and nervous debility, an affliction they knew as neurasthenia, for which reading Dante was the only cure. Oppressed by the gloom of what the critic Lewis Mumford called the Brown Decades, in which coal smoke and perverse fashions combined to color the world with “mediocre drabs, dingy chocolate browns, sooty browns that merged into black,” they suffered, in lugubrious rooms furnished somberly in walnut, from obscure hurts and identified with the roi mehaignié—the wounded king—of the Grail legend. They were conscious of desolation, a barrenness in things, of belonging, in the poet George Cabot Lodge’s words, to “a dying race,”* one that had ever fewer means of distinguishing itself from the plutocracy that had outstripped it and the middle classes rising up to challenge it.

There was John Jay Chapman, who in 1887 was studying law at Harvard and already sensing in himself the misfit who, in Edmund Wilson’s words, was to spend his life “beating his head against the gilt of the Gilded Age.” Reading Dante in his spare time, he found himself, like the poet, in hell. He refused to accept the word of the girl whom he loved, Minna Timmins, that she loved him in return, and in a fit of rage he thrashed a man whom he (wrongly) suspected of having designs upon her virtue. When his friend Wendell Holmes tried to convince him that the girl did love him and that he was mad to think otherwise, he accused the future Supreme Court justice of being a spiritual “detective” and dreamt of bloody vengeance. In the climax of his ravaged state Chapman retired to his rooming house in Cambridge and put his hand to the coal fire. When he took it out, the charred knuckles and finger bones were exposed, a prefiguration of the ordeals he was to undergo as a living anachronism, upholding (as Edmund Wilson believed) the ideals of the early Republic in a different world.

George Cabot Lodge was another crippled soul. The oldest son of Henry Cabot Lodge, the Massachusetts politician, he was descended from New England’s political and cultural elite, and both his inheritance and his education led him to aspire to the old New England “effort at the Perfect.” “Bay,” as he was called, wanted to be a poet, and after Harvard he went to Europe in the hope that he might there get his music out and become a light bearer, a cultural leader. (The poet as liberator.) But in Paris he broke down; there were “hideous weeks of madness” in which he felt himself “losing my grip, my aggressiveness, my force of mind . . .” He wanted to “work with the tide and not against it,” to “adapt myself to my time and to become a moneymaker.” But he could not, he said, “stifle my own self,” the ideals that his education and traditions had prepared him to uphold. His Brahmin family was only too happy to subsidize his vocation; Edith Wharton, who thought him one of “the most brilliant and versatile” young men she had ever known, testified that his father, the senator, wanted to see young George a poet. He had been raised in “a hot-house of intensive culture,” and it “never occurred to his family that he was not meant for an active task in letters.” Caught between two worlds, divided against himself, George Cabot Lodge found himself “turning sick and cold and saying to myself, ‘See, your life goes, goes, goes . . .’” And indeed it did go—fast. He died young, having failed to make a mark.*

The case of Richard Henry Dana III was similar. Like George Cabot Lodge and John Jay Chapman, Dana came from a line of statesmen and poets, of doers and thinkers. His father had sailed before the mast and helped to found, in the 1840s, the antislavery Free Soil Party; his eighteenth-century great-grandfather had been delegate to the Continental Congress, envoy to Russia, and chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. More distantly Dana was related to the poet Anne Bradstreet, the “Tenth Muse” of Puritan New England. But no more than George Cabot Lodge or John Jay Chapman was he was able to make a place for himself in the gilded, gold-leaf America of his time. Like other WASPs who tried to live up to the traditions of their ancestors, he passed his life in “bewildered efforts to find some way of being useful.” The civic ideals he had inherited were outmoded; he had, the writer Van Wyck Brooks said, “the patrician’s pattern of mind in a world that had ceased to afford scope to patricians.”

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. In fact neurasthenia was a state of mind, one that had a good deal in common with other kinds of soul-sickness that have troubled human beings since the beginning of time. The “black bile” (melancholia) of the Greeks, the acedia or muddy  listlessness  of  the  medieval  souls  who,  in  Dante’s  words,  are  “sad  in sweet air brightened by the sun,” the “spleen” of the eighteenth-century English Augustans, with its attendant “Vapours, Lowness of Spirits, Hypochondriacal and Hysterical Distempers, &c.,” the ennui of Pascal and the noia of Leopardi, the nausée of Sartre—neurasthenia was another version of the immemorial despondencies.

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.

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 without first submitting to a Babylonian captivity. In writing the biography 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.

For out of the neurotic ruins emerged a patrician caste devoted to civic reform and the renewal of society. Caught, as they supposed, between barbarians above and barbarians below—between gilded tycoons and a flat-souled middle class—the children of the Brahmins overcame their debilities and reinvented themselves as WASPs.

The counterrevolution was bold. Like Dante before them, they wanted to reform the corrupt city and at the same time create a stable world order (the American Century). And like Dante, they rebelled against the idea of living an empty life and dying a meaningless (hellish) death. They were driven by a notion of human completeness, one that distinguishes them from the parochialism and self-complacency of more recent power establishments narrowly founded on money and technical expertise. They absorbed Dante’s faith in the humanities and attempted to revitalize liberal education, which was not for them, as it for us, an antiquated heirloom, practically useless: they believed that it could both unlock human potential and promote the civic virtues, which they looked on as a salve for a variety of psychic wounds.

One must not exaggerate their virtues or overlook their vices. There was a certain amount of simple arrogance in them, and too little of the magnificence that sometimes excuses it. The WASP never possessed the grandezza of the Venetian magnifico or the Roman patrician, nor has any artist succeeded in turning the hierarchic vanities of the preppies into elegiac poetry as Waugh and Proust, Faulkner, and Lampedusa do the pretensions of the sinking toffs who figure in their own works of aristocratic devotion.

Yet for all that they had an instinct for good form, no mean gift in a country which, Emerson said, “is formless, has no terrible & no beautiful condensation.” You see it in their houses, in the understated charm that never sacrifices comfort to pretension; you are always coming on odd little rooms of flowered chintz and cozy untidiness, devoted to conversation, leisure, books. The manners are as comfortable as the armchairs, are such as put a guest at ease; the tones of voice are pleasing, modulated with a tact that unfailingly avoids the awkward question. Still more do you see it in their institutions, in the ancient though nowadays little-studied arts by which they created places that commanded the heart and molded a type alive to possibilities we seem to have lost. Many have admired the WASPs for their effort to shape character in accordance with an ideal: but few have studied how they did it, or examined the techniques, the institutional artistry, by which they wrought upon the soul.

There is, to be sure, great difficulty in writing about people whose time has passed, who were bathed in the lukewarm bath of snobbery, who, with flashes of insight, were largely mediocre, and who were as narrowly European in their culture as they were complacently white in their pedigree arrogance. As for their other defects—where does one begin? And yet they were pretty nearly alone, among Americans, in pursuing the purposes they did. For all their arrogance and resentment, they sought a path to a new life.

* The word “race” was, when Lodge wrote, used to describe not only what observers took to be each of several large phenotypical divisions among human beings, but smaller groups descended from common ancestors. When Lodge called America’s “well-to-do classes” of primarily New England stock a “dying race,” he was describing what today would be called a social group.

* His son Henry Cabot Lodge, a product of the WASP revival, did make a mark. He was senator from Massachusetts before he lost the seat to John F. Kennedy in 1952; he went on to be Richard Nixon’s running mate in 1960 and Kennedy’s ambassador to Saigon, where he played a part in the debacle that contributed to the demise of his revivified class.

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From WASPS: THE SPLENDORS AND MISERIES OF AN AMERICAN ARISTOCRACY by Michael Knox Beran. Copyright ©2021 by Michael Knox Beran. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Pegasus Books.

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Michael Neff
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