- Historic Sites
Gloom, Gloom, Gloom, And Scarce One Ray Of Light
Ruminations of E. L. Godkin and Charles Eliot Norton.
August 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 5
Charles Eliot Norton had those qualities of gentleness and contemplativeness that his friend Godkin lacked. He too was the son of a clergyman, Andrews Norton, a prominent Unitarian divine. Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1827, Norton spent his youth in the scholarly surroundings of a home frequented by such distinguished visitors as Francis Parkman, George Bancroft, George Ticknor, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. While still a youth he developed a great passion for rare books and art objects, thus demonstrating an early and serious interest in the field to which he was unable to devote his full attention until he was nearly fifty. He made Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard, and after his graduation in 1846 spent a decade in business. The next twenty years were passed in studying, living in Europe, writing and editing books, supervising Union propaganda activities during the Civil War, and working both as editor and contributor for the cream of American journals—the Atlantic Monthly, North American Review, and the Nation. Finally, in 1875, he was appointed Harvard’s first professor of fine arts, a post which he retained until he retired in 1897.
As a scholar, Norton was an acknowledged master of medieval studies and a respected translator of Dante. He wrote an important volume titled Historical Studies of Church-Building in the Middle Ages as well as studies of Dante, Donne, Ruskin, Gray, Michelangelo, Holbein, and Turner. In addition, he edited the letters of James Russell Lowell, the Thomas Carlyle-Ralph Waldo Emerson correspondence, the Carlyle-Goethe correspondence, and the letters he had received from John Ruskin. As a teacher, Norton’s aim was to advance aesthetic values and inculcate high standards of taste. Art was not to be studied merely for its own sake. Norton believed that man had reached his greatest moral and intellectual heights in ancient Greece and medieval Italy, and he thought that this superiority could be seen in the artistic achievements of those epochs. It was his habit in class to illustrate this relationship between art and morality with frequent deprecating references to the barrenness of American art and the moral and intellectual inferiority of American life.
The story is told that Norton once began a lecture on the idea of the “gentleman” by remarking airily: “None of you, probably, has ever seen a gentleman.” It was inevitable that a teacher with such a rarefied taste for the antique would become the subject of parodies and the source of much campus amusement. One story has it, for instance, that an undergraduate emerged after three meetings of Norton’s Fine Arts 3 course with his total notes reading:
- Bully for Greece.
- There are no flies on Greece.
Norton’s general aesthetic sensibilities and his displeasure with the design of many new buildings at Harvard were parodied in a tale to the effect that he had died and was about to enter heaven when he suddenly drew back, shaded his eyes and exclaimed: “Oh! Oh! Oh! So overdone! So garish! So Renaissance!” Despite the numerous campus jokes made at his expense, Norton’s encouragement of the fine arts and his efforts to direct public attention to the advancing deterioration of America’s landscape and cities made him an important figure in post-Civil War America—a friend of art museums, conservation projects, parks, and schools. In the opinion of Van Wyck Brooks, “no one aroused the country more to a sense of its general ugliness and a will to create a beautiful civilization.”
In politics Godkin and Norton were mugwumps—independents who refused to commit themselves to the fortunes of any particular party. Both feared that American politics had rejected the country’s “good men,” and hoped for a breakup of the old party organizations. As early as 1859 Godkin had complained that the “nominating conventions toss men like Clay and Webster aside, and fish out from amongst the obscurities Pierces and Buchanans as likely to prove more pliable instruments in factious hands.” The political machines, he charged, put up such bad men to run for office that good men were no longer tempted to enter public affairs.
For Godkin and Norton the decline in political morality was but one aspect of a more serious decline in the quality of American life. Each felt that the United States had once enjoyed a Golden Age of reason, simplicity, and high morality. But the push toward an industrial way of life was transforming the social and physical landscape of their once-Arcadian America, and wherever they looked they now saw deterioration and decadence. Godkin deplored the “moral anarchy” of modern business methods and despised those who employed them. He fought the admission of businessmen to the Century Club of New York, complaining that most of them “rarely open a book” and “know no more, read no more, and have no more to say than the bricklayer and the plumber.” For his part, Norton was particularly concerned with the aesthetic changes and the unfortunate transformation in the tone of society. The country he had known had vanished under a wave of vulgarity. The “barren” art and literature of the late nineteenth century depressed him: