On The World in Time podcast in fall 2021, Lewis H. Lapham spoke with Michael Knox Beran about WASPS: The Splendors and Miseries of an American Aristocracy. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Lewis H. Lapham: The last page of the book comes with your summation of it as a song of lamentation for fallen toffs. You write with the hand of a poet. But before we get to the heart of the matter, perhaps you can begin with the prosaic: Who were the WASPs and when did they flourish and thrive? From whence did they come? And for how long did they hold pride of place in America’s cultural and political affairs? Mention some of the more luminous names in the WASP pantheon.
Michael Knox Beran: The ones we know best and whose names have lasted longest, they still mean something to a lot of people. Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Cold Warriors like Dean Acheson and Averell Harriman and Joe Alsop. And then there are the sort of dazzling figures of style: Isabella Stewart Gardner, Edie Sedgwick, Babe Paley, Marietta Peabody Tree. They’ve come to stand in for an idea of glamour and power, privilege, something very enviable, and the thing that Jay Gatsby and the Fitzgeralds knew. But when you look at their actual beginning, they began at an extremely low ebb in their own histories after the Gilded Age. The WASPs were feeling overshadowed in a country that their forebearers were accustomed to lead. You have figures like Henry Adams, descendant of two presidents—he now finds himself in the Gilded Age, overshadowed by a class that was not only usurping the old WASP place in the hierarchies but embodying a different conception of life.
I think some of the early WASPs, like Henry Adams, John Jay Chapman, and Theodore Roosevelt, were appalled by the narrowness of the new classes. They were very much influenced by European and British traditions of civic humanism, by Coleridge and Matthew Arnold, who believed that the modern, industrial, specialized world was failing to develop, in Arnold’s words, all sides of our humanity and was as a result producing incomplete and mutilated men. The WASPs were born in the attempt to get beyond that and to realize a different idea of the good life in the late nineteenth century.
LHL: The acronym WASP stands for what? We might as well make that clear to people who might not know it: white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. The descendants from the early American settlers of the Puritan city on the hill. Families of Boston that are known as the Boston Brahmins.
MKB: Exactly. But the term WASP was always sort of ludicrously imprecise. Louis Auchincloss hated it. He said growing up—he was born in 1917—they didn’t use the term, and he really disliked it. A better definition would probably be one that explored both their being descended from early American elites and the closeness of their family and institutional connections. My own working definition of an Auchincloss-style WASP—and it covers most of the people in the book—would be somebody who’s connected to at least one of these institutions: the Porcellian Club at Harvard, Skull and Bones at Yale, the Knickerbocker and the Colony Club in New York, Somerset Club in Boston, various summer watering holes, places like that. And an intense kinship structure, too, very endogenous—they all married within their families.
LHL: Let’s begin with Henry Adams and the founding of the Groton School, which I take to be one of the fundamental cradles of the WASP establishment.
MKB: We were talking about Theodore Roosevelt feeling that the Gilded Age was producing, in Theodore’s words, a sort of timid, shortsightedly selfish class of rich figures. The Vanderbilts or the Goulds would be people who stood for that. Endicott Peabody descended from old Massachusetts and Brahmin families. And his cousin William Amory Gardner, Isabella Stewart Gardner’s nephew, an adopted son, wanted to take that class of young WASPs and prepare them for a larger role in life. They all knew stories about people with their privilege who just lived in their clubs. This was Theodore Roosevelt’s younger brother, Elliot, who was a talented man but drank himself to death at a young age and left his daughter Eleanor as an orphan. So private school was intended to combat that, partly with what was called muscular Christianity. You get out there and you play football and you live in spartan cubicles. But there was also a whole humane tradition of civic humanism. Amory Gardiner, who is known as Wag by his students, tried to institute at Groton the old Athenian notion of the well-rounded citizen who makes a contribution. That was supposed to be the ideal. And to some extent it worked. Richard Hofstadter, the historian, would call Groton a little Greek democracy for the elite.
LHL: A word you use often in the book is eutrapelia.
LHL: Is that Italian or Greek?
MKB: Greek. Thucydides uses it in the funeral oration, which would be a key text for young WASPs. They would study it in Billy Wag’s Greek class. It meant originally “graceful turning.” It came to mean, with Thucydides paraphrasing Pericles, a person who can prove himself self-sufficient in the most various forms of activity and do it with certain style and grace. This humanist ideal of the WASPs was somebody who would be interested in the arts and culture, but who would also be capable of leading and taking a real role in the civic and the political life of their country and not just sit back and live the life of the leisured gentleman—which many of them could.
LHL: Henry Adams is to the manner born: his grandfather and great-grandfather were president, and his father is the American ambassador in London during the Civil War. And Henry works for his father in London as a secretary. And then, when he comes back to the United States in the 1860s, he is filled with this idea that you just mentioned of trying to reform and uplift the American ruling class.
MKB: Yes, he’s very much in the progressive reform tradition, at least at the beginning of his career.
LHL: He can’t do it himself. But Theodore Roosevelt does.
MKB: Yes. Although they had a sort of mixed relationship; he resented the fact that Theodore succeeded where he didn’t. Henry Adams is probably the largest intelligence among WASP minds. Franklin Roosevelt was probably the cleverest in terms of practical calculation, but it was that very largeness of mind in Henry Adams, that unwillingness to specialize, that made it all but impossible for him to succeed in politics, where you have to pay your dues, you have to make sacrifices he wasn’t willing to make.
MKB: The cultivated accents, the emphasis on good taste—although also quite keen-eyed on their own interests. This is not simply about idealism but about power. These were people that felt overshadowed by the new class and the new money and the new industrial power. And their revolution did create a whole new venue for their sorts of ambition, producing in addition to the Roosevelts Henry Stimson, Learned Hand, Edmund Wilson, who seem to succeed and dominate certain areas in diplomacy, in politics, or in culture.
LHL: Does Walter Lippmann appear in your narrative?
MKB: The high WASP that I’m describing for most of the book, the people that stood out in public life or in other aspects of American culture, what defines them, even distinguishes them from other people in their own class, is this desire for human completeness, to do justice in the Greek sense to what was in them. And Walter Lippmann very much identified with that. He had the same humanist education. He had the same mentors at Harvard. George Santayana was his principal preceptor there, and he studied Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe. He read them all in the original languages under Santayana’s tutorship. He was what I would call an honorary WASP as, for instance, Bernard Berenson was.
LHL: In each chapter of your book you have an epigraph from the poet Dante. Why do you do that? And what role does Dante play in the formation of the WASP attitude toward life?
MKB: After the Civil War, there was a great Dante craze among certain elements of American life. They had all kinds of nervous breakdowns. They knew it as neurasthenia, and they all suffered. They all were sort of head cases. And Dante really spoke to them by describing their state of mind, their inner anguish, but also his belief that you could work through it and see the light. Henry Stimson would quote Dante in his own memoir, saying that after years of the narrow practice of law, when he finally was able to be the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, he said, “I felt like the first time in my life I got out of the dark places to a place where I could see the stars,” which recapitulates the end of the Inferno, the first part of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
LHL: How do you fit J.P. Morgan to the WASP ascendancy?
MKB: He was much more ambiguous for the high WASPs like Henry Adams. They much admired his public service, even though it was driven by profit. But he was our de facto central banker. In a time when the federal government was not very strong, he was the one presidents would look to to help solve economic and labor crises in the 1890s. At the same time, he was much more at home with the sort of Marlborough set—Prince Edward, the Prince of Wales, that sort of luxurious rich people’s life that the WASPs were very ambivalent about. And he had the WASP love of art, but there was a lot of debate among WASPs as to whether he cared about the art or just the acquisition, the showing-off aspect of it. He is parodied in some ways in Henry James’ The Golden Bowl in the figure of the avid collector who makes a lot of money and wants to establish a museum.
LHL: Is it fair to say that during World War I and World War II that the staffing of the government, the State Department, the executive offices, the attorney general are largely WASPs?
MKB: Yes, that’s when you see WASPs coming into their own, a real network of privilege and power. It’s where Franklin Roosevelt gets his start as assistant secretary of the Navy. They didn’t control everything, but the State Department was on its way to becoming a WASP fiefdom, which it remained probably until the 1940s, when it began to democratize.
LHL: They’re the group that goes in 1919 to Paris with Wilson, the people who advise Wilson in his negotiation of the Fourteen Points. The Fourteen Points is kind of a WASP idea, too, isn’t it?
MKB: I think that the WASPs were much more in Theodore Roosevelt’s geopolitical-realist tradition, and they had a lot of doubts about Wilson’s idea of America and other powers exercising foreign policy on benevolent and altruistic grounds. I think that Theodore Roosevelt thought that was nonsense. He said that the Fourteen Points were mush; they could mean anything or nothing. The WASPs were deeply disappointed by the fact that Wilson was not able to be more of a realist to create a better peace. He set Germany up in a better geopolitical position to wage the next war. And I think the WASPs came away from that with an idea that you’ve got to be much more cold-eyed in the pursuit of the national interest. I think that was what led Franklin Roosevelt to bring the country into the Second World War, even though the country was profoundly isolationist in the 1930s. Roosevelt steadily worked to prepare American opinion to intervene in the world on the basis partly of our own interest. Not humanitarianism.
LHL: But it’s the WASP mentality that sets up the Council on Foreign Relations, which is another stronghold of the WASP turn of mind.
MKB: Yes, definitely. But there it becomes a citadel for pursuing the very realistic, or more realistic, policies of the Cold War to contain in this case Soviet aggression, which was very different from Wilson’s idea. He thought that nations could get together because they’d all be democracies. They would be altruistic. They would be willing to intervene collectively to prevent an aggressor. That never worked. I think the WASP establishment, under particularly Dean Acheson’s leadership, was much more cold-eyed and realistic. Acheson was very explicit about rejecting what he saw as Wilson’s fatuous idealism.
LHL: What happens to the WASPs in the 1920s? You talk about the overthrow of Victorianism, and you talk about some of the leading women.
MKB: It’s a great sea change. WASP women were at the forefront of a lot of cultural changes in American life. Divorce and the love affair—these were things that were taboo in the Victorian age. There was a great undercurrent of dissatisfaction. Eleanor Roosevelt felt it. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney felt it. She became a sculptor and collector of American art, founded the Whitney Museum, and lived a life outwardly quite conventional, but she had a second double life in which she was exploring all kinds of modernist territory that would have been unthinkable a generation or so before for WASP women.
LHL: T.S. Eliot publishes The Waste Land in 1922. How does that fit into your discussion? Eliot himself has a WASP background.
MKB: Very much so. His grandfather came out west of St. Louis, but Eliot was educated at Milton and Harvard. He was educated by Santayana and others. His father and his grandfather were very much in the WASP tradition of public service and public obligation. And there was this belief that through political reform WASPs could renew the country. Eliot, coming a little bit later—he’s born in 1888—sees that that is not going to be the cure many WASPs thought it would be. A little bit like Henry Adams, he begins to look to the need for cultural reform or regeneration. He characterizes modern life as sort of a wasteland, which is not very different from what we find Henry Adams characterizing it as in his memoir, The Education of Henry Adams. Eliot is one of these WASPs who is looking to cultural regeneration. It takes the form of Anglo-Catholicism and tradition, classics, literature, and the arts.
LHL: If I read your book correctly, the arc of the WASP ascendancy begins in the 1880s and ends in the 1960s.
MKB: In the 1960s a combination of things are occurring. First of all, WASPs themselves, they’re sort of—forgive me for saying it, but their inbreeding and their nepotism would be ruinous if they’re not bringing enough new talent into their organization. You have Henry Chauncey, who ironically is a legacy at Groton and at Harvard. He’s instrumental in developing the Scholastic Aptitude Test to level the playing field. So now you don’t have to go to Groton or Hotchkiss to be admitted to Yale or Harvard. You can go to a regular high school and perform well on the SAT. The postwar meritocracy is eroding the WASP position. There’s also a cultural shift after the war. There’s less deference.
LHL: I myself am privy to that. I went to the Hotchkiss School. I graduated in 1952. The main building was in the shape of a Y pointed at New Haven. Of my class of seventy, thirty-five went to Yale. But that changes in the 1960s. Kingman Brewster comes into Yale and makes an attempt to even the playing field and finally get around to admitting women.
MKB: And of course that changes everything, because part of the elite solidarity was carried on by whom you knew in college, and now you know different people. It changes the whole complexion of things. People aren’t marrying within their tribal groups as much. Also, of course, FDR is the greatest of the WASP statesmen, but his wealth taxes eroded that margin of capital on which a lot of WASPs depended on to fund their public service. But then the other large problem is that they made mistakes in Vietnam, whether it was all their fault or not—and no, it wasn’t. But they were there, and they’re associated with it. And as Kingman Brewster said of McGeorge Bundy, “Mac is going to spend the rest of his life trying to explain the mistakes he made on Vietnam.”
LHL: Yes, that’s right. I mean, the so-called best and the brightest were the people surrounding Kennedy. You say the mystique of the WASPs derived from their power to exclude: from clubs, banks, government, and so forth. Also the touch of anti-Semitism in Henry Adams as well as in Roosevelt and T.S. Eliot.
MKB: And that’s one of the quite unfortunate aspects of that WASP club culture, its exclusiveness that maintained itself by scapegoating or denigrating other people. But that does begin to fall apart in the 1950s and 1960s. But still I think it does explain a little bit of Camelot in that the WASPs still did have, to some degree, an aura that people wanted to be a little bit a part of that world. I think John F. Kennedy quite identified in many ways—it showed in Harvard, in marrying Jacqueline Bouvier, whose stepfather is Hugh Auchincloss. He was very connected to that lost world.
His court during Camelot was probably the most WASP heavy: McGeorge Bundy, C. Douglas Dillon, Averell Harriman. His closest journalistic paladin, Ben Bradlee, is a WASP, too, but also Joe Alsop. I think Kennedy was quite culturally at home, much to the amusement of one of his Irish fixers, Dave Powers, who thought it was amusing but admitted that some of them, like Leverett Saltonstall, were quite personable. And he joked that Leverett must have been Irish on his chauffeur’s side.
LHL: You open your book with Joe Alsop having civic-minded dinners in Georgetown and playing the part of Virgil to the Kennedy administration. Talk about Joe Alsop and the end of the WASP ascendancy.
MKB: Joe is a fascinating character. He carried the WASP man almost to the point of caricature. But it’s quite beguiling; his whole manner, it’s very theatrical. He’s got all kinds of props with the cigarette holder and all of that. He pretends to dislike every form of aristocracy. But as his stepson Bill Patton said, he was a tremendous snob and very much aware of what everybody’s lineage was. But he really was enamored of John F. Kennedy. He said Kennedy made him feel twenty years younger again. It gave him a new lease on life. And he quite identified with Kennedy.
That in itself, though, is sort of a sign that the end was maybe up for the WASPs, when they needed that sense of vitality from an outsider. They can’t provide it themselves. There was no Franklin Roosevelt in their own class that was capable of reaching people or beguiling people the way Jack Kennedy could. And it speaks to a little bit of a streak of desperation you see in some of these late WASP characters. They do latch on, almost vampirically, to some more magnetic outsider. You see it in Edie Sedgwick finding a guru in Andy Warhol, or Babe Paley finding a sort of blithe spirit in Truman Capote. And you see that in Alsop clinging almost desperately to Jack. He was so eager to have Jack come over to his house on the evening of the day he was inaugurated as president. And then when Jack is killed, Alsop said, “My life is in some ways over.”
LHL: I was working as a reporter for the Herald Tribune in 1961.
MKB: Was Jock Whitney still in charge at that point?
LHL: Jock Whitney owned the paper. And when Alsop came to town, it was my desk that he appropriated. So I was dismissed from his presence on a number of occasions. I remember his rather imperial manner.
Let’s get to the end of your book. You end with saying that your book is a song of lamentation, but even so you are grateful for what you know of the WASPs. They managed to produce diplomats, lawyers, bankers, but not poets or prophets. Talk about that, and talk about your idea of Plato’s thread, a choir of music and poetry.
MKB: I think what is maybe one of the most valuable achievements of the WASPs was to keep a larger idea of human possibility, human completion, doing justice to your various powers in an age in which all the tendencies are toward an intense specialization. And they created institutions in their colleges and schools that did work to produce this.
I speak of them now as enlightened archaists. They were archaic in an enlightened way. They used older techniques to try to open the minds of their young, and it succeeded to a great extent. Franklin Roosevelt was deeply affected by his experience in prep school and named Endicott Peabody as the foremost influence on his life after his parents. And what Plato says in his late book the Laws—of course, we all read The Republic in college, and we know Plato was very skeptical about poetry and wanted to censor the poets and make philosophers run the city. The Laws is when he is older. It’s a book that started recently to get more attention; it’s been ignored for years. But he seems to say that there is a value, a very rational value, even in supposedly archaic and mythical things such as poetry and music. And he does have that profound or mystical statement in the Laws that mankind has a strong enough thread of poetry and play by their choirmasters, the gods. I think that was an insight that meant quite a lot to a number of WASP educators—George Santayana or William Amory Gardner at Groton, who created this institution where you were surrounded not just by football but by poetry and music all day, from the chapel to Shakespeare to readings of Dante in what he called his pleasure dome. It sounds perhaps a little grim or pretentious, but it worked.
LHL: Yes, it did. I for one, reading your book and having been brought up very much in the WASP tradition, I miss it. Auchincloss says that, too. He says that when the WASPs are gone, we’ll miss them.
MKB: He said that to me when I was complaining to him about them. He took my complaints very civilly. That’s the way he was. He was a very generous man. But he said, “When we’re gone, they will miss us.”
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