Harvard, Homosexuality, and the Shaping of American Culture

The title of this post is actually only the subtitle of the book, as you can see in the image of the cover. But “Harvard, Homosexuality, and the Shaping of American Culture” is more specific than the book’s main title, “The Crimson Letter.” (If you look at the image of the cover, and then think about it awhile, you will realize that the title is a take-off on The Scarlet Letterwhere crimson is close to scarlet but of course is Harvard’s color, and then there’s the crimson H on the ambiguously gay model’s crew uniform and… oh, no, it’s more complicated than you expected!)

Combine title with subtitle, and you get a fascinating and extraordinarily thoroughly researched book by Dorchester architect and historian Douglass Shand-Tucci, who often writes in an impressively florid, almost Ciceronian style. I enjoy the style; you may not. For example, savor this sentence:

One of the secret pleasures of the collegiate neighborhood of Old Cambridge—which not for nothing is often called Boston’s Left Bank (as often, Boston’s conscience)—is the way one generation comes and goes, but never really goes, not in terms of the national—often the international—culture, which it continually tweaks and troubles, and often shapes pretty decisively, all the while by some sort of bush telegraph never losing touch with or letting up the pressure on newer generations of Harvard types, themselves coming and going, disheveled youth seen perhaps only at a reunion bash at Locke Ober’s or an Advocate reading, in passing, when the the newly or nearly great return to Boston to canoodle; but always addressed, never lost sight of, in everything thought or written, whenever it may be, begetting—thank God—riposte and rebellion as often as admiration or discipleship.

I know, I know, your former seventh-grade English teacher is grabbing her curmudgeonly red pen right now and writing “run-on sentence,” but it isn’t; the sentence really deserves “riposte and rebellion as often as admiration or discipleship” in Shand-Tucci’s phrase at the end of the sentence.

So what’s going on here? Is this a history of gay students and faculty at Harvard? Well, in part—but it’s mostly about a much larger picture: American culture. Of course it is filled with individual characters over the course of two centuries. Some are students, some are faculty, some are neither. Some are openly gay, some are definitively straight, some are ambiguous. Most are from the realms of literature, visual arts, and music—clearly the author’s interests. Some have very little direct connection with Harvard—Tchaikovsky and T.S. Eliot come to mind. Some I should have known more about—Alain Leroy Locke and Lincoln Kirstein come to mind. (You can look them up in Wikipedia.) Some I knew were gay—Leonard Bernstein and Roger Brown come to mind; I knew about Bernstein when I was a kid, but I hadn’t known that my thesis advisor Roger Brown was most definitely gay, as I wrote about almost exactly one year ago. And I never met the author of this book, Douglass Shand-Tucci, when we overlapped at Harvard for one year (he was a freshman, I a senior). Harvard is a big place.

There are two underlying themes that pervade The Crimson Letter :

  • The lesser one is how Harvard, and by extension America, has treated gays. You probably know.
  • The greater one is how American gays fall into two groups. Shand-Tucci calls them esthetes, the followers of Oscar Wilde; and warriors, the followers of Walt Whitman. I never thought of the latter group as warriors, but these designations are little more than convenient handles to describe the two groups.

There’s surprisingly little about politics in this book. There are a few discussions of Sacco and Vanzetti, whose execution took place in part because of Harvard’s most offensive president, Abbot Lawrence Lowell. Then there is the revelation that Peter Gomes (university chaplain right after I graduated) was one of the first gay, black Republicans in the country; he came out as a Republican long before being public about being gay. (Nothing about Mayor Pete, but Shand-Tucci wrote The Crimson Letter 20 years ago, so of course there wouldn’t be.) End of politics; it’s about culture, not politics.

So, let’s return to the last two words of the subtitle: “American culture.” That’s really what the book is about. Boston, as you know, is the Hub of the Universe. And Harvard is the Hub of Boston (using Boston as a stand-in for the entire metro area in both cases, not just its municipal boundaries). OK, maybe Boston isn’t really the most important city; there’s Washington, which does have some importance, and even New York is mentioned (the Yankees get a quick nod), but basically American culture comes down to Harvard in the conscious and unconscious views of lots of its alumni. One old joke says that “You can always tell a Harvard man… but you can’t tell him much”; many old jokes contain hidden truths. You will also recall the surely apocryphal story of the headline in the Crimson about Harvard president Charles Eliot in 1909: “The President is in Washington today to confer with Mr. Taft.” If Harvard is too self-important for your taste, you can ignore those aspects of the book and focus on the very detailed accounts of a slice of gay contributions to American culture though the slightly biased prism of Douglas Shand-Tucci. You’ll learn a lot, and you’ll find some captivating reading while you are held captive during the pandemic. And there are 33 pages of footnotes (endnotes, actually) if you re the sort who demands thorough documentation.


Categories: Books, Dorchester/Boston, Teaching & Learning