- Visions of Belonging: New England and the Making of American Identity
New England's bid for cultural primacy among other regions of the United States has been alternately confirmed and challenged ever since European explorers and settlers first landed on its shores. Following the Civil War, the debate sharpened, with counter claims from other regions, although New England continued to gather considerable support. Its founding narrative—in many ways an endless replay of the hardships encountered by those who first colonized the region—was nevertheless unique and compelling national history. By the end of the nineteenth century, that narrative had sufficient strength to launch New England as the leading contender for regional supremacy, or at least to rank it first among equals. In the process, New England's image became roughly interchangeable with that of the United States, an argument art historian Julia Rosenbaum makes forcefully and effectively in Visions of Belonging: New England and the Making of American Identity, published in 2006.
How does one go about claiming cultural ascendancy for New England during this period, when its economic and political power were in decline? And how does one measure the influence of New England outside its borders, if indeed many Americans saw the region as a stand-in for the nation? The core of Dr. Rosenbaum's book is devoted to careful analysis of iconic New England images, produced by artists whose work is often closely identified with the region's shared national identity. The images address both the spiritual and natural worlds of turn-of-the century New England, or perhaps it's more accurate to say they address how the two were thought to interact with each other. The courtyard of the Boston Public Library, which Dr. Rosenbaum uses as one of several launching points for her narrative, I would place in the former category.
In 1896, the architect Charles F. McKim, who designed the library in a stately Beauxarts style, chose to place in the courtyard fountain a dancing figure called Bacchante and Infant Faun. The figure, nude and a bit risqué, especially by Boston standards, was by McKim's younger colleague, the French-trained sculptor Frederick MacMonnies. Response [End Page 279] to McKim's choice (he was actually the donor) was energetically bi-polar, engaging elite Bostonians of every stripe. Those in favor, such as the president of the library, thought the Bacchante "simply glorious," a beautifully crafted bronze. But they ultimately lost out to the nay-sayers, ranking members of the Brahmin hierarchy, who considered the work an affront to the library's social task of enlightening the reading public.
From this enticing lead, the author takes us behind the scenes to investigate the culture wars of turn-of-the-century New England. But as the investigation proceeds, one detects a trend, present almost from the beginning of the book (the first chapter is devoted to the 1893 Chicago Fair) that seems to favor social and historical context over a closer look at aesthetic strategies. Thus, the otherwise careful parsing of exchanges over the Bacchante leaves us with numerous unanswered questions. What, for example, might the figure reveal about McKim's own taste, or, for that matter, about his allegiance to MacMonnies' work? Why did the architect believe the Bacchante an appropriate complement to the Renaissance arcade surrounding the library courtyard (of which we see only one small illustration)? Did he think the Beaux-arts style of the Bacchante gave a lively touch to the classical spirit of his architecture? Or did McKim, a New York architect, fail to read accurately his Boston audience? One might also ask if he was simply taken by the beauty of McMonnies' sculpture, a beauty that the architect believed rose above the parochial taste of (at least) a few influential Bostonians. Does that further suggest that McKim saw art as an end in itself, whether in the form of sculpture or the great books that would soon fill the library, and that such a belief prompted him to look beyond moral uplift for...