Sunday, January 17, 2021

Centennials: The Transcontinental Railway and the Monday Evening Club

The ceremony for the driving of the golden spike at Promontory Summit, Utah on May 10, 1869; completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad. At center left, Samuel S. Montague, Central Pacific Railroad, shakes hands with Grenville M. Dodge, Union Pacific Railroad (center right). Photo by Andrew J. Russell.

Delivered to the Club in November, 1969 by Roger Linscott, at the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Club

The year 1869 was notable for at least two historic evens — the driving of a golden spike at Promontory Point, Utah, to complete the first transcontinental railway system across the United States, and the establishment, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, of the Monday Evening Club. Contemplating these two great happenings — the one so freighted with significance for the development of the American West, the other so freighted with significance for, if not the nation, at least that small part of it which gathered here tonight — it occurred to me the other day how delightful it would be if one could find some common link to bind them together and thus fashion the basis for a centennial paper to fit the title which Joe Nugent [Club secretary] had fed to his hungry printing press a week earlier. A common bond between Promontory Point and Pittsfield seemed highly unlikely; but in desperation one tries anything, so off I went to the Lenox Library Saturday to find out what its archives might be able to provide.

The quest — to my happy surprise — proved fruitful. It developed that a leading, if somewhat accidental, figure in the dramatic ceremonies that marked the meeting of East and West at Promontory Point on May 10, 1869, was the Reverend Dr. John Todd, pastor of the First Congregational Church of Pittsfield. And Dr. Todd, I discovered from a parenthetical sentence in a letter which he wrote to a friend shortly after his return from that historic occasion, was a charter member of the Monday Evening Club.

But more about Dr. Todd later. First let us look at the background of the events that earned Dr. Todd of the Monday Evening Club his footnote in history. For they were dramatic events, and historically momentous ones. Indeed, May 10, 1869, is a commonly described by historians as the most significant single date in the record of the American West.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Darwin's theory: Hard to swallow, then and now

Presented to the Club by Roger Linscott, about 1981

A century and a half ago, in the year 1831, a young divinity student of 22 set sail from England on a voyage to South America. Twenty-eight years later, after prolonged study and soul-searching, he wrote a book based upon his observations there. The world – certainly the world of science – has never been the same since.

The young man, of course, was Charles Darwin, and the book was The Origin of the Species. When he embarked on his historic voyage, he had already abandoned a proposed career in medicine, after fleeing in horror from a surgical theater in which an operation was being performed on an unanesthetized child, and was a rather reluctant candidate for the clergy, a career deemed suitable for the younger son of an English gentleman. An indifferent student, Darwin was an ardent hunter and horseman, a collector of beetles, mollusks and shells, and an amateur botanist and geologist. When the captain of the surveying ship H.M.S. Beagle, himself only three years older than Darwin, offered passage to any young man who would volunteer to go without pay as a naturalist, Darwin eagerly seized the opportunity to escape from Cambridge. Five years later, he returned to an inherited fortune, an estate in the English countryside, and a lifetime of independent study that radically changed mankind’s view of life and of our place in the living world.

To understand the extraordinary genius of Darwin’s theory of evolution, it is useful to look briefly at the intellectual climate in which it was formulated. Aristotle, the world’s first great biologist, believed that all living things could be arranged in a hierarchy – a ladder of nature in which the simplest creatures had a humble position on the bottommost rung, mankind occupied the top, and all other organisms had their proper places in between. Until the end of the century, most biologists believed in such a natural hierarchy; but whereas Aristotle thought that living organisms had always existed, the later biologists believed, in harmony with the teachings of the Old Testament, that all living things were the product of a divine creation. They believed, moreover, that most were created for the service or pleasure of mankind. Indeed, it was pointed out, even the lengths of day and night were planned to coincide with the human need for sleep.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Exorcising toxic Trump: An intentional alternative in our back yard?

Hancock Shaker Village — photo by Massachusetts Office of Tourism, used under Creative Commons License

Presented to the Club on Monday evening, March 9, 2020 by William P. Densmore

I’ve been thinking a lot about furniture lately as my sisters and I assess the provenance and best disposition of fine furniture in our parents’ Worcester home. We’re learning that “dark furniture” isn’t very valuable anymore. Kind of like the stock market after today, and quite out of our individual control so not to worry. But thinking about furniture and value inevitable leads to the mass-market tag line for the Shakers furniture. Excellent, simple, stripped of vanity and excess — furniture.

But it is not Shaker furniture on my mind for tonight. Rather, I wish to digress in perhaps contrarian fashion to a set of difference considerations about the Shakers — their status as the longest running intentional community in America — an effort at utopia which has tested a set of values in many respects relevant not only to contemporary American society but as well perhaps to some of the attributes of the culture which occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Fifteen years ago I spent six months working at Hancock Shaker Village. Like most people, I knew about furniture and celibacy and that was about it. I learned somewhat more, but ever since I’ve wanted to spend a chunk of time digging into Shaker values and practices.  This talk is the result and it stems from sit-down interviews last month with five Shaker experts — and an admittedly fast literature review.

What I will highlight, using with attribution the words of my interviewees as well as published authors is this: The Shakers can teach our contemporary politicians, and maybe Donald Trump, much about gender equity, caring for “others,” housing and economic security and the management of dissent. Seventy-five years before emancipation, and 150 years before suffrage, Shakers were already practicing social, sexual, economic and spiritual equality. For the most part, the Shakers just lived their politics, although in 1852, Shaker elder Frederick Evans was proselytizing that women should have the right to vote.

There are multiple sources — from Wikipedia to scholarly volumes, to fill in the basic Shaker history so I’ll rewrite to a few sentences. Factory worker “Mother” Ann Lee and her husband arrive near Albany, N.Y., in 1774 from Manchester, England and after several frustrating years begin to attract converts to her Protestant-offshoot idea of a community that sees women as a natural representation of God after the death of Jesus. The three tenets: celibacy, confession and community. At its peak, the Shaker movement involved 6,000 members and followers at 19 sites from Kentucky east to Maine; only two (or is it three) members remain — at Sabbathday Lake, Maine.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

The Past Is Never Dead: On intergenerational trauma

Presented to the Club on Monday evening, January 13, 2020 by Erik Bruun

1. The Damnedest Thing I Ever Saw

Seventy years ago my grandfather, Henry Ashton Crosby, was sitting in a New York City subway. He had recently returned to the United States after serving as a front-line officer during World War II. He was a gracious and polite man, so when an elderly woman got into the crowded subway car, he stood up to offer his seat. Just then another man scooted behind him to take the seat. My grandfather snapped.

He swung around, picked the man up and threw him through the subway window, smashing glass everywhere. The police arrived. After learning that he was a combat veteran, they let him go.

“That sort of thing used to happen all the time after the war,” my stepfather Player Crosby explained to me when I was a boy, delighted to have such chivalry in my family. I mean, what a grandfather!

Two overriding memories come to mind when I recall him.

One was his sparkling eyes. They absolutely lit up when he saw me after an extended absence as he shook my hand firmly and vigorously. He looked at me as if I was the most exciting person he could imagine seeing at that moment. It left such an impression that I try to mimic his enthusiasm when I see young people who I have not seen for a while.

This was a fantastic trait that all six of his children inherited. When you were in his presence you felt as if you were not just seen, but a source of complete delight. Your life felt special. He loved people and people loved him, as the hundreds who attended his standing-room-only funeral when he died at the age of 87 would attest.

The second memory was as a 10-year-old visiting him on summer vacation in Franconia, New Hampshire. I cannot remember what prompted it, but we were on the porch and he started talking about a patrol he led on the Western Front during World War II.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Across the bridge: A personal reflection

Presented to the Club on Monday, February 10, 2020 by Richard L. Floyd

We will come to the bridge in my title in due time, but it is a later piece of the story I want to tell tonight, so I will begin with an important book I read last summer while I was filling in as a guest preacher for my daughter during her maternity leave.

The book was Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman. My pastor had given it to me the year before, but I hadn’t got around to reading it. It was written in 1949, which happens to be the year I was born, and it came out right before the civil rights movement really got moving in the 1950’s.

Howard Thurman, a black minister and scholar, was the Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University. He had traveled to India and had met Mahatma Gandhi. When Thurman asked Gandhi what message he should take back to the United States, Gandhi said he regretted not having made nonviolence more visible as a practice worldwide and he famously remarked “It may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.”

Thurman did come back with that message about non-violent resistance, and became one of the influences on one of his students, Martin Luther King, who did his doctorate at Boston University. And the Civil Rights movement did in fact employ a variety of the tactics of nonviolent resistance, such as sit-ins, bus boycotts, Freedom Rides, marches, and mass demonstrations.

In his book, Howard Thurman draws comparisons between the socio-political world that Jesus grew up in under Roman Occupation, and the American South during the Jim Crow era. In both cases powerful majorities disinherited powerless minorities through fear and the threat of violence. The regular lynching in Howard Thurman’s day and the regular crucifixions of Jesus’s day were both designed to instill terror in the disinherited minority and keep them in their place.

Monday, December 16, 2019

The winter before the war in Washington: The Civil War era recollections of Henry Laurens Dawes

Henry Laurens Dawes

This paper was presented to the Club by Henry Laurens Dawes on Monday evening, November 22, 1886, at a meeting of the Club he hosted at his home in Pittsfield, Dawes presented this paper about events in Washington, D.C. between Abraham Lincoln’s election in November, 1860 and his inauguration in March, 1861. 

Dawes (1816-1903) was a founding member of the Monday Evening Club in 1869 and remained a member until his death, hosting and presenting papers often.

As Dawes notes in the paper itself, “some of the incidents of those days [were] not recorded in the history of the time and … will soon be beyond recall if left alone to the memory of contemporaries and participants.” In this paper Dawes presents many details that only an eyewitness and participant could know.

According to notes on the manuscript, Dawes later presented this paper to the Wednesday Morning Club[1] (also of Pittsfield) on November 28, 1886; to the Social Senior Club of Ware, Mass. on November 20, 1888, and at a public meeting at South Congregational Church in Pittsfield on Saturday, May 10, 1890.

Judging by the manuscript (a copy which was obtained from the National Archives where the original is among its holdings of Dawes’s papers), for these subsequent presentations, Dawes made small edits and appears to have inserted some new passages. In transcribing the paper, we have generally included these changes, but have retained some passages that Dawes bracketed —‘ he appears to have intended to skip over for brevity. In other instances Dawes made changes for modesty — for example, changing “I” to “one of the committee” or the like. In those cases we’ve generally retained the original first person version. Because of these changes and interpolations made over time this final version differs somewhat from the original presentation to the Monday Evening Club.

The first half of this paper was published, under the same title, in the Atlantic Monthly of August, 1893. The text of that article very closely follows the manuscript text we have used here. A small portion of this article has been used here to fill in a gap where one or two pages of the original manuscript are missing. The second half is published here for the first time.

For the reader’s convenience we have added a few subheadlines not found in the original manuscript. For some events, dates have been added in brackets to help illuminate the timeline. A few spelling corrections and punctuation and capitalization changes have been made for clarity.

Thanks to Megan Hoffenberg for her transcription of the manuscript.

Looking back over the graves of more than a million brave men who, on the one side or the other, laid down their lives in the struggle for mastery which began at Washington in the winter of 1860-61, the recollection of the flippancy and air of lightness and almost sportiveness with which it was entered upon fills me with a shiver of amazement. How great things were trifled with as if they were playthings and great stakes were played for as boys play for pennies, no one could now, in the lurid light of subsequent events, ever be made to believe, had not his own eyes been the witness. Much that happened would have been impossible but for the impenetrable veil which shut out the future. What seemed to us before whose eyes they were enacted as absurdities, arrant nonsense, and which it is difficult to recall after thirty-five years, with a sober face, were in truth the beginnings of Andersonville and Gettysburg and the assasination of Lincoln. I sometimes think it almost wicked to hold up their ludicrous side to public gaze, in the light of such a terrible realization. It is with no purpose to belittle the great events, the beginnings of which I saw that winter, that I venture, for your entertainment if not instruction, to present some of the incidents of those days not recorded in the history of the time and which will soon be beyond recall if left alone to the memory of contemporaries and participants.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Cleveland Amory: The Hub of the Universe

Presented to the Club by Roger Linscott in 1999. Roger was, for many years, the associate editor of The Berkshire Eagle, Pittsfield's daily newspaper. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his editorial writing in 1973, and died in 2008 at the age of 88, having been a member of the Club since 1950. We are indebted to Roger's daughter, Wendy Lamme, for a treasure trove of Roger's Monday Evening Club papers. Photo of Cleveland Amory by Ron Bull for the Toronto Star, used under Toronto Star Photograph Archive License.

The genesis of this paper, such as it is, was a lengthy obituary that appeared in The New York Times shortly before this past Christmas. Its subject was Cleveland Amory, a writer and editor whose tireless work in behalf of animal rights over recent decades had produced several best-selling books and an impressive body of state and federal human legislation.

But before becoming an animal activist in middle age, Cleveland Amory was a social historian, and a very good one at that. His first three books. The Proper Bostonians (published just 50 years ago [1947]), The Last Resorts, and Who Killed Society? were beautifully researched accounts of the mores and foibles of the American upper crust before it began crumbling under the pressure of the mass media and increasing social mobility.

And before that, Amory was an undergraduate at Harvard where – like a number of luminaries before him, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt ’04 – he was president of the Harvard Crimson, the undergraduate daily newspaper. In that role he was something of a mentor to me, who was admitted to the staff as a sophomore when Amory was a senior. He taught me a good deal more about newspapering that I could have learned from any school of journalism.