Boston’s World-Improvers
Yankee Reformers In The Urban Age.
by Arthur Mann.
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 314 pp. $5.00.

 

In the agitation for social change that sprang up in America between 1830 and 1850, New England was one of the principal centers, the site of some of the best-known Utopian experiments, the home of some of the most respected spokesmen for the movement and also of some of its wildest visionaries. Later, abolitionism seemed to absorb most of the energies of unconventional New Englanders, and after the Civil War the storm center moved westward. In the second period of agitation, which began in the 1880’s and continued down to 1916, the only New England reformer of national repute was Edward Bellamy.

Yet, as Arthur Mann shows in Yankee Reformers in the Urban Age, the reform spirit did not die in New England. Professor Mann limits himself to Bostonian reformers between 1880 and 1900, but he makes it clear that there was no break between the earlier reform movement and that which he describes. Such persons as Wendell Phillips, Edward Everett Hale, Franklin B. Sanborn, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and Julia Ward Howe, all of whom had participated in reform movements before the Civil War, lived on into the later decades of the century and not only gave their blessings to the younger men and women but joined their organizations and espoused their causes. Furthermore, as Mann points out, the younger reformers who were not native Bostonians—a majority—were attracted to the city by the reputation it had won in the days of Emerson and Margaret Fuller and Theodore Parker.

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Professor Mann presents his reformers in set categories: first religious leaders, Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant; then educators, literary people, labor leaders, and women. Although no one he mentions can be compared with the giants of the Golden Day, there are some interesting figures: John Boyle O’Reilly, the former Irish revolutionary, who steered a difficult course between his own romantic and rebellious impulses and the dogmas of his church; Rabbi Solomon Schindler, a pioneer in Reform Judaism, who eventually lost his job because the members of his temple were more completely assimilated than he and, being assimilated to the middle class, were not in sympathy with his radicalism; Frank Parsons, who wrote on law and literature as well as economics and government, and preached what he called Mutualism; Benjamin Orange Flower, who was editing a muckraking journal, the Arena, more than a decade before McClure’s discovered the circulation value of the social exposé; Vida Scudder, a gentle professor of literature at Wellesley College and an intransigent Christian Socialist.

It would be pleasant to report that Professor Mann presents these persons with some vividness. Indeed, one would like to be able to say that the book does not sound like the Ph.D. thesis that it is. But it is in fact academic and heavy-handed, and one gets from it only a vague impression of what the reformers were like. On the other hand, it gives a perfectly clear, if somewhat formal, account of what they wrote and what they did.

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The Boston reformers, according to this account, were mostly educated persons of the upper middle class, if not actually of the Back Bay aristocracy. That they were motivated by the concept of noblesse oblige need not be held against them; surely that is a finer concept than the thesis of the bestiality of the masses or the nouveau riche willingness to see the public damned. But except for Frank K. Foster, a tough-minded battler for the American Federation of Labor, the people Professor Mann talks about seem remote from one aspect or another of late 19th-century urban reality. By and large, they were either impractical theoreticians or worthy, but not very resourceful, doers of good.

There was a great diversity of views, as there had been in the 30’s and 40’s, but many of the reformers considered themselves socialists—though with a very small “s” indeed. Several claimed, with fair consistency, to be Christian Socialists; others embraced the Nationalism of Edward Bellamy, not because they wholly agreed with it but because at the moment it presented the only considerable non-Marxist alternative to the status quo. Marxism they distrusted, as of course they had reason to do, but a few of them learned from it a little of what it had to teach.

In the Boston of the early 1920’s some of the reformers Mann talks about were still alive and active, and their heirs were numerous. The reform movement had no mass support in that decade, but there were still plenty of crusaders who, if they did not insist that they knew exactly how to transform the world into a Utopia, had no doubt that they could quickly eliminate some significant evil. The species, indeed, had a notable vitality until the Great Depression. The 30’s did produce, in the Technocrats, one last variety of universal reformer, but most people who wanted to change society had ceased to believe in the efficacy of ideas. Some of them, surrendering to the Marxist dialectic, learned to depend on the proletariat to change the world, and a few clung to that faith even when it was transformed into reliance on the Red Army and the agents of the Soviet secret police. Others backed the gambles of the New Deal, playing along with corrupt political machines and not incorruptible trade unions for high but limited stakes.

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Today, as Mann says, the spirit of reform is quiescent. Many of the little problems have been solved—so many that a person who was blind in one eye could think that Utopia was at hand—but the big problems are bigger than ever. Perhaps the only crusaders today are the enthusiasts for world government—and they are blind in the other eye. Dr. Mann recognizes this situation and, at least by implication, deplores it. He is right to pay tribute to the generosity of spirit of the Bostonians who refused to be proper, but if they were more humane than other people, they were not a great deal wiser. Living in their future, we can only marvel at the imperfectness of their foresight, and the chief lesson we can learn from them is humility.

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