This post is prompted by a remark made by Kristor under his recent item The Orthosphere Has Begun to SucceedResponding to a commenter, Kristor writes:

Your mention of Massachusetts nails it. The high minded poison in North America has flowed ever from the banks of the Charles River, and it goes back at least as far as Emerson. Or – of much greater relevance these days – to Salem. I say so despite my profound respect for Emerson, and deep as his insights truly were. Ditto for Whitman and Thoreau, and indeed for all the Bostonians. You can’t become as influential as they if you are spouting sheer shouting nonsense.

Henry James wrote a novel called The Bostonians (1886). James saw Boston in much the same ways Kristor sees it. In his novel he explores the genetic relation of feminism, lesbianism, spiritism, and a degraded transcendentalism. Back in 1995 (it seems like forever ago) I published an article in Anthropoetics, one of the first online scholarly journals, on The Bostonians. That article may be accessed here. Camille Paglia once characterized The Bostonians as the only James novel with a truly manly protagonist. Basil Ransom is his name, a Confederate veteran. He visits Boston to see his cousin Olive Chancellor, who has glombed on to a teenage girl, Verena Tarrant, who is a rising star in the Boston séance circuit.  James brilliantly illustrates through his narrative the intimate intermixture of “progressive” politics, the flim-flam of spiritism,  and sexual degeneracy. Olive takes in Verena, obviously wanting to groom her to be her partner in life. I won’t spoil the plot for someone who wants to read the novel, but I indeed recommend reading it.

At one point, Verena is supposed to appear before a crowd in a large auditorium; but she is late. Here is a passage from James:

It had become densely numerous, and, suffused with the evenly distributed gaslight, which fell from a great elevation, and the thick atmosphere that hangs forever in such places, it appeared to pile itself high and to look dimly expectant and formidable. He had a throb of uneasiness at his private purpose of balking it of its entertainment, its victim–a glimpse of the ferocity that lurks in a disappointed mob.

19 thoughts on “Bostonians

  1. @Tom – I can’t read Henry James, I’m afraid; but I enjoyed the Merchant-Ivory movie starring Christopher Reeve – which covered all the plot points you mention. Was that a decent adaptation of the book, do you think?

    • @Bruce Charlton. I think so, but I only saw it, when it came out, and that was a long time ago. I know what you mean about Henry James. At my age there are other things that I want to read. But in my younger years I liked the challenge of a James novel. That’s partly because James was thorough-going reactionary. His political novel, The Princess Casamassima, has many parallels with his weirdo novel, The Bostonians. And that was prophetic, as we now know that Marxists and weirdos are the same people.

      • I read about eighty per cent of James’s work in my thirties and forties. James is a big block in my eclectic literacy, but reading him took mental concentration which I could probably not muster today. Every college student should a James novel – a short one with a fairly simple plot, like Washington Square. Only genuinely adult people are capable of understanding a book like The Bostonians.

  2. “A New England Puritan’s idea of Hell is a place where everybody will be obliged to mind their own business.” (Church Review [1868]).

    This choice quote was written by an Episcopalian minister from New York City after a close and critical study of the culture of early New England. When Alexis de Tocqueville looked into the penal codes of early New England, he remarked:

    “The men who framed these penal codes primarily concerned with maintaining the moral order and sound mores of their society. They therefore repeatedly intruded upon the realm of conscience, and virtually no sin was exempt from the scrutiny of the court.” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (1835-1840), 1: 1.2.

    Tocqueville also recognized that seventeenth-century New Englanders were not satisfied to intrude upon the “realm of conscience” of other seventeenth-century New Englanders, but that their descendants were giving the moral law to the nation.

    “It was in . . . the New England states, that the two or three principal ideas which today form the basis of the social theory of the United States were first combined . . . . . . The principles of New Egland spread initially to nearby states. Little by little they made their way to the farthest reaches of the confederation . . . . until . . . their influence extended . . . to the entire American continent. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (1835-1840), 1: 1.2.

    Here is a quote from a newspaper article reporting on a convention of mid-nineteenth century freaks that met in New York City in 1860.

    “Infidelism, like all the other noxious isms, originates in Massachusetts . . . but it spreads and germinates and scatters its deadly seeds.” Its doctrines are “the offspring of the morbid mental condition of Massachusetts—a soil in which every absurdity seems to be indigenous, and which is favorable to every foreign delusion,” and from this hearth they are “disseminated through other states.” “The Infidel Convention,” New York Herald (Oct. 12, 1860): 6.

    • Harold Bloom, whom I take with a grain of salt, wrote a book arguing that “The American Religion” was Gnosticism. But in light of what we have learned since he election of Trump, I might treat that book with more seriousness now than I did the first time I read it. Critical Race Theory is the latest episode of Leftwing Gnosticism, which is also rigid dualism. When you hear that melanin is the source of truth and conscience and lack of it makes for demons, you know that you’re in a dream-world (or a nightmare world) where Aztec priests want to stage a mass sacrifice atop the pyramid. Clark Ashton Smith’s “Hashish Eater” might be offered as an illustration of the essentially nihilistic character of Leftism. Leftists want to abolish creation — simply because they didn’t create it and anything that they didn’t create offends them.

  3. I just read Dr. Bertonneau’s paper; good work, sir!

    Did anyone happen to read Greg Johnson’s recent review–under another name–of the film on Unz? He mentions with approval Ransom’s thought that his (Ransom’s) political ideas–which today would be called racist by ‘all virtuous people’– were unpopular because he came too early–not too late, as his opponents mistakenly supposed, ( paraphrasing, not quoting).

    It’s hard for me to believe that James would have agreed.

    I obviously need to reread ‘The American’, which I evidently failed to understand. Reading HJ is always a good thing to do.

    • Thank you – for taking the trouble to read my essay on The Bostonians. Sacrificial themes generally run riot in James’s novels. No one had paid serious attention to the Hypatia allusions before I wrote about them. The protagonist of The American is a liberal naïf. From Boston, I believe.

      Greg Johnson put his articles behind a paywall, so I don’t visit Counter Currents anymore.

      • Thanks for your response; Johnson’s review is available free at the Unz review.
        I agree that James had to be a thorough reactionary; I quite enjoyed ‘The Priness C’, which most critics–leftists all–revile.

  4. The Bostonians is one of my favorite novels. There are so many great passages in the book, but here is one of my favorites:

    The whole generation is womanised… it’s a feminine, a nervous, hysterical, chattering, canting age, an age of hollow phrases and false delicacy and exaggerated solicitudes and coddled sensibilities, which… will usher in the reign of mediocrity, of the feeblest and flattest and the most pretentious that has ever been. The masculine character, the ability to dare and to endure, to know and yet not fear reality, to look the world in the face and take it for what it is… that is what I want to preserve or rather… to recover; and I must tell you that I don’t in the least care what becomes of you ladies while I make the attempt.</blockquote

    Speaking of James and Boston, here’s a passage from The American where James describes the hero’s (Christopher Newman) thoughts about a fellow American friend of his who disdains America:

    [Christopher Newman] had never been a very conscious patriot, but it vexed him to see them [the United States] treated as little better than a vulgar smell in his friend’s nostrils, and he finally broke out and swore that they were the greatest country in the world, that they could put all Europe into their breeches’ pockets, and that an American who spoke ill of them ought to be carried home in irons and compelled to live in Boston.

    I always found that last bit funny, because I interpret James as saying that living in Boston would be a punishment.

  5. My favorite passage is in chapter 24, where Basil and Verena are conversing about her involvement in the women’s movement:

    ‘I have been very fortunate, I know that. I don’t know what to do when I think how some women–how most women–suffer. But I must not speak of that,’ she went on, with her smile coming back to her. ‘If you oppose our movement, you won’t want to hear of the suffering of women!’

    ‘The suffering of women is the suffering of all humanity,’ Ransom returned. ‘Do you think any movement is going to stop that–or all the lectures from now to doomsday? We are born to suffer– and to bear it, like decent people.’

    Basil’s retort has some ambiguity in it, but I take it as James’ own plainspoken observation on the state of humanity as a whole, the truth of which reveals the foundational lie of feminism. That lie requires you to believe that women as a class, no matter what your eyes may tell you, Have It Worse.

    • James gets it right. There’s something immature in Verena’s claim that one group has a monopoly on suffering. It is not an original claim. She is simply repeating what Olive has told her.

    • Regarding the film Agora — It is worth watching, not being thoroughly Left-Liberal in its point of view. It’s the only film that I know that is set in the period of Late Antiquity.

  6. “Leftists want to abolish creation — simply because they didn’t create it and anything that they didn’t create offends them.”

    Now there’s a line worth remembering and spreading abroad.

    • Destruction is the only thing that resentment can do — and it soon turns to self-destruction. God created Man and Woman. Leftists thus hate sexual binarism because they did not create it and because it is too basic to be deconstructed. They encourage people to mutilate themselves so to flout reality (i.e., creation) and some of the encourages take the same path. It is all false. It brings only misery on them. And the self-mutilators commit suicide at a far greater rate than the rest of the population.

    • Speaking of abolishing creation, an exchange between Ransom and Mrs. Luna (Olive’s sister) that is apropos:

      [Basil Ransom]: “Do you mean to say your sister’s a roaring radical?”

      [Mrs. Luna] “A radical? She’s a female Jacobin—she’s a nihilist. Whatever is, is wrong, and all that sort of thing. If you are going to dine with her, you had better know it.” …

      “Well, I suppose I might have known that,”…

      “You might have known what?”

      “Well, that Miss Chancellor would be all that you say. She was brought up in the city of reform.”

      “Oh, it isn’t the city; it’s just Olive Chancellor. She would reform the solar system if she could get hold of it. She’ll reform you, if you don’t look out. That’s the way I found her when I returned from Europe.”

      “Have you been in Europe?” Ransom asked.

      “Mercy, yes! Haven’t you?”

      “No, I haven’t been anywhere. Has your sister?”

      “Yes; but she stayed only an hour or two. She hates it; she would like to abolish it. …”

      • There you have it. I probably got the idea from reading James, but forgot the source. To want to abolish Creation is the negative essence of Gnosticism. Today, know-it-alls control every institution.

  7. Ian,
    I too had that passage dog-eared and underlined.
    Dr. Bertonneau,
    Another of my favorite lines is:
    “The most secret, the most sacred hope of her nature was that she might some day have such a chance, that she might be a martyr and die for something.”
    I have ambivalent feelings towards the two sides of the SJW/Karen meme coin, but I have encountered a few true believers. They are ferocious.


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