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The Last Transcendentalist

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Bill Faucett’s delightful, sober, and beautifully researched “John Sullivan Dwight: The Life and Writings of Boston’s Musical Transcendentalist” has the merit of a good portrait. The subject comes vividly to life through careful contextualization but is not reduced to context or explained by context. The more we gaze, the more we are struck by the sitter’s personal idiosyncrasy and free agency. Take, for example, the portrait of the composer Christoph Willibald Gluck by Duplessis, painted in Paris in 1775, a copy of which hung in Dwight’s living room in the late years of his life. Gluck is firmly located in time and space by his clothes and harpsichord, but he gazes freely upward to heaven in a moment of timeless inspiration. Gluck’s soul seems to transcend circumstances, irreducibly personal and noumenal. Faucett does something analogous with John Sullivan Dwight. He provides abundant details that anchor Dwight solidly in his generation and in XIXth -century Boston, but he emphasizes the transcendent spirit that inspired him to act and the moral sense that guided him.

Like Duplessis with Gluck, Faucett coaxes Dwight to reveal himself. Consequently, we have a rich, full-bodied human story that grabs our attention without dulling our interest. Dwight’s very real importance as a key player in shaping the culture of classical music in Boston for a brief but decisive time frames Faucett’s narrative, but never overshadows the deeper story of a fellow human being grappling with life and death, beauty and meaning, passion and finitude. Mon semblable, mon frère – not in turpitude and guilt, as Baudelaire meant it, where we find a sort of perverse safety, but in spiritual yearning and idealism, where we are vertiginously exposed, vulnerable. “I simply preached the faith that was in me” Dwight declared. Faucett paints Dwight for us as uniquely combining self-drive and modesty — driven equally by his uncompromising love of music and distaste for all that dazzles without enlightening. The fact that so few of us know his name and must discover his ideas from scratch is subtly part and parcel of who he was.

Gluck by Duplessis (BMInt staff photo)

Faucett divides his narrative into three parts that articulate key turning points in Dwight’s personal growth. Part I walks us through the musical culture of Dwight’s childhood and youth, including his education at Harvard and failed attempts at Unitarian ministry. Part II shows Dwight coming into his own at the utopic Fourierist community of Brook Farm. Part III presents the mature Dwight who founded his own Journal of music, traveled to Europe, and devoted himself tirelessly to building a lasting musical culture in his hometown of Boston. Faucett nicely supplements each part with appendices that flesh out the evolving content of Dwight’s views as expressed in his writings.

So how did someone reared in a Puritan Protestant culture grow to replace the Bible with a fervent faith in “true” music? Part I, “Music sub rosa,” starts by sketching the morally complex attitudes toward music that Dwight inherited from his milieu. On the one hand, the singing of hymns was cultivated as an adjunct to religious worship – monophonic, so as not to overshadow Biblical words with aesthetic beauty (a concern that goes back to Augustine’s Confessions). On the other hand, instrumental music and profane singing were tolerated as a form of light entertainment, helping to keep youths from the tavern and from more sinful lusts. Faucett persuasively shows that a budding appreciation of music “for its own sake” distinguished Dwight’s immediate home environment from other families. By the time Dwight matriculated at Harvard, he had developed a deep enough connection to music to mourn the fact that no faculty promoted music, which remained sub rosa: a secret hobby, pursued in one’s leisure time, bordering on idleness.

From 1836, when Dwight graduated from Harvard Divinity School until 1843, when Dwight resolved to quit the ministry, Transcendentalism captured Dwight’s imagination and soul. Meaning, exactly, what? Although he emphasizes Emerson’s Nature, Gardiner’s The Music of Nature and Dwight’s plunge into the writings of German Romantics, ably translating some of them, Faucett nicely leaves Transcendentalism vague. The real point of Dwight’s immersion in Transcendentalism, Faucett implies, is substituting music for religion and discovering in Gardiner that “music can be described.” The deep culture of spiritual self-improvement that Dwight inherited from New England merged with Kant’s philosophy and Schelling’s aesthetics to convince Dwight that the human soul actively brings a priori transcendent notions of unity, harmony and meaning to experience.

Faucett, however, brings a key detail to our attention, apparently distinctive of Dwight. Dwight’s Transcendentalist friends chided Dwight for his faith in “spontaneity,” urging him to cultivate will-power. Was Dwight less Kantian than they? We should remember that Kant himself was singularly unmusical. Through Emerson, Dwight may have been exposed to Victor Cousin, who syncretized Kant with Thomas Reid, the Scottish philosopher of “common sense.” Thomas Reid argued that music is the most basic, natural, universal human “language”. Just as a human child naturally interprets his or her mother’s smile as a sign of benevolence, so the human child naturally understands the emotions that are expressed in music. Both Dwight’s predilection for music and for “spontaneity” have a strong Reidian flavor. Moreover, much of Shaftesbury’s rapturous aesthetics and of Hutcheson’s emphasis on innate senses (moral sense, sense of beauty, sense of dignity, sense of community, and more) were embraced by Schelling. Faucett’s Appendix A reveals that Dwight, when a student at Harvard in 1832, defended “the moral sense as required to explain moral phenomena” whereas Kant explicitly rejects it. Finally, while it is true that Dwight’s 1890 manifesto “Common Sense” includes Kant and concludes with Goethe, it is thoroughly indebted to Reid from start to finish. The strength of New England Transcendentalism lay precisely in its flexible, capacious, intricate syncretism, differing in nuance with every personal Transcendentalist, prone to renewal and transformation.

In any event Dwight basically transferred his yearning for spiritual growth from religion to music, which in turn shaped a distinctive commitment to “true” music. Addressing the newly minted Harvard Musical Association, Dwight preached his new spiritual way: “Permit me gentlemen and brother amateurs of a noble art, to exhort you to cherish [music] in the spirit of art; to strive to penetrate into its hallowed depths; and to feel that, in practicing or hearing noble music, you converse with a great and gifted mind through the purest medium of communication.” Faucett concludes, persuasively: “In this plea, Dwight reveals his foundational musical aesthetic—his recipe to make music art.” Faucett also points out that Dwight developed his own very pure notion of pure music for its own sake: “He stubbornly clung to the notion that the highest forms of music stand alone, that they are only harmed by the addition of texts, lyrics, program notes, explanatory notes, and libretti.’

Entitled “The Music of Transcendentalism,” Part II of Faucett’s story examines Dwight’s life at the Fourierist community of Brook Farm. One of Fourier’s distinctive contributions to utopic socialism was to anticipate Freud by urging that tasks be matched to personal libidinal profile (who will do the dirty work, dispose of garbage and clean latrines? Children! Everyone knows that children like what is disgusting). Put in charge of music and entertainment, Dwight flourished. Faucett gives us a detailed account of Dwight’s threefold growth as a musical critic, organizer, and teacher. Faucett draws memorable pictures of daily life at Brook Farm, where competition and greed were discarded in favor of friendship, communion, a sustainable lifestyle combining manual work with arts and crafts, education, and entertainment “in order to avoid boredom.” In its indirect advocacy of a frugal but happy lifestyle, Part II is joyous and inspiring. Since one of the risks of AGI that we face today is the loss of meaningful work and “societal-scale ennui,” the experiment of Brook Farm is strangely of immediate relevance.

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John Sullivan Dwight by Caroline A. Cranch (BMInt staff photo)

According to Faucett, it was at Brook Farm that Dwight discovered himself to be an able musical critic and Journalist. Most importantly, he wrote eloquently about Beethoven symphonies, which exemplified the “true” music that guided his faith. When Brook Farm dissolved, Dwight faced a new turn. Part III, enigmatically titled “The World at Arm’s Length,” delves into Dwight’s mature years and contributions as he founded his own printed blog in 1852, Dwight’s Journal of Music. A Paper of Art and Literature. Faucett corrects existing misunderstandings by pointing out that Dwight’s considerable business skills were resolutely deployed for the sake of what remained at its core an unwavering spiritual pursuit. Again providing us with abundant concrete detail, Faucett depicts Dwight’s Grand European tour as the natural culmination of his mature vocation to enjoy, understand and promote “true” music, which, by definition, transcended national borders, uniting humanity. Part III makes us recognize that the more intensely Dwight focused on “true” music and on “simply preaching the faith that was in him,” the more ably he diversified his activities on behalf of music, visiting conservatories, comparing concert halls, studying institutions public and private, the recruitment of musicians, training, sales. Faucett implies that after Dwight learned of his beloved wife’s sudden death while abroad, he was temporarily at a loss for words, but then devoted himself to every aspect of music all the more passionately in that his grief deepened his faith in music as the portal to a realm of timeless beauty and transcendent truth. 

Dwight’s focused pursuit of “true” music prompted him to a variety of activities but also guided his critical assessments. Faucett explores Dwight’s opinions in depth. Dwight rejected both virtuoso music aimed at astonishing audiences and bombastic music aimed at pleasing crowds. Not unexpectedly, he rejected Berlioz, Wagner and Liszt for departing from pure music, but he also rejected Brahms as insufficiently spiritual (“lacking in genius”). Had Dwight heard Brahms’s late works, would he have changed his assessment? In the last period of his life, as he worked tirelessly for the Perkins School for the Blind and promoted blind musicians, Dwight came to regard Bach and Mendelssohn as the clearest representatives of “true” music. Faucett speculates that Dwight’s Journal of Music folded in part because Dwight could not, or would not, embrace modern trends and composers. Faucett concludes that Dwight held fast to the Transcendentalism that had spurred him to devote his life to music, living his last years modestly, in close connection to the Harvard Musical Association, but in a sense left behind by the musical momentum that he himself had ushered into being. Beautifully, Henry Lee Higginson gave Dwight credit for his own resolve to found the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

In a sensitive coda, Faucett reflects on Dwight’s lasting meaning. The portrait for which Dwight sat in 1883 shows “the Apostle of harmony” as a gentle grandfather.  Faucett points out that the portrait strikes “by what is lacking. There is none of the determination of Emerson, none of the abrasiveness of Theodore Parker, none of the ruggedness of Thoreau. Here is a gentle, diffident man; contemplative, intellectual, holding a book; seemingly content, with inquisitive eyes; self-assured but by no means overconfident. Still hanging at the HMA, it evokes grace and tradition.” Faucett implies that Dwight was “the last Transcendentalist” because he was the most enduring, the most willing to adapt “the faith that was in him” to concrete conditions, hoping to make music into a spiritual oasis in a world filled with competition and greed. Thanks to Faucett’s excellent account, the reader might view Dwight with eyes to the future:  as the voice of a budding humanist global movement, as the pioneer of “less is more,” as the apostle of well-being and simplicity, of being rather than having, of quality rather than quantity – in short, of all that we need to rejuvenate ourselves, to embrace and cultivate mutual communion and to keep our planet inhabitable beyond the present generation.

Bill F. Faucett, “John Sullivan Dwight. The Life and Writings of Boston’s Musical Transcendentalist” (Oxford: Oxford U. Press, 2023), 376 pp.; with 6 Appendices, a Select Bibliography of Dwight’s writings and a Select Bibliography of secondary studies.

Anne Davenport is a scholar of early modern theology and philosophy. She has published books on medieval theories of infinity and Descartes. Her most recent book is “Suspicious Moderate” on the life and works of the 17th-century English Franciscan, Francis à Sancta Clara.

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