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Academicians All

A Fragment of Cultural History

by Arthur Schlesinger, jr.

Probably more Americans are aware of the Académie Française than of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, not that either body is precisely a household word. Still our own national cultural institution, duly chartered by Congress, has enlisted much of the republic's artistic talent over the last century; and those interested in the arts might be interested in the basic change it has recently undergone.

In the spring of 1993 what had long been a bicameral body, the American Academy and the National Institute of Arts and Letters, celebrated the end of the internal division that had plagued the organization for nearly ninety years. The original creation and subsequent abolition of an upper and lower house in an institution dedicated to the arts make an instructive story — a story that tells us a good deal about the vicissitudes of American literary life over the last century.

At the annual ceremonial held last spring in the imposing building incongruously located at the corner of Broadway and West 155th Street in upper New York, two at long last became one; bicameralism yielded to amalgamation; the double bill gave way to the single feature; duality surrendered to merger. After decades of often angry controversy, the American Academy was transformed into a unitary body in which all at last are equal members.

The road to equality and union had been far from tranquil. The venerable institution, for all its stately exterior, had had its share of internal controversy. Its members, after all, were writers and artists and composers and architects: that is to say, arrant individualists. Argument is an organic part of the institution's history-a history that goes back to the last years of the nineteenth century.

The National Institute of Arts and Lettes, as it was known for many years, was founded in 1898. By 1904 it had grown to its stipulated limit of 250 members. While America's population tripled in the years after 1904, the Institute steadfastly clung to the 250-member limit, presumably on the assumption that the increase in population had not been matched by any corresponding increase in the pool of artistic and literary talent.

Early on, some felt that even 250 members constituted too large a body to make a public impression in the high style of the Académie Française. The creation of an elite class among the membership, the composer Edward MacDowell suggested in 1904, might strengthen the Institute's appeal, especially to philanthropists inclined to contribute toward an endowment. "In order," the members resolved, "to make the Institute more efficient in carrying out the purpose for which it was organized, the protection and furtherance of literature and the arts, and to give greater definiteness to its work," there should be organized an Academy of Arts and Letters composed of thirty eminent persons to be chosen from the Institute. The new body was formally established on April 23, 1904. By 1908 the inner circle's stipulated membership was raised to 50; this limit, too, resisted the mighty population growth of the years since.

The first seven academicians were, in order of election, William Dean Howells, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Edmund Clarence Stedman, John LaFarge, Mark Twain, John Hay, and Edward MacDowell. Mark Twain happily managed to slip in, even if only as number five, and Saint-Gaudens, Howells, and MacDowell also certainly merited election. But other names revealed the weakness for the genteel tradition that marked the Academy's first forty years. Henry James and Henry Adams, whom we today would rank above most of the first seven, only made the second seven, along with Theodore Roosevelt.

When the first fifty were completed, one woman was on the list. Julia Ward Howe, at the age of eighty-nine, came in forty-first, one place ahead of the president of Princeton, Woodrow Wilson. However, as Malcolm Cowley later put it, the author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" was elected not as a woman but "as a national institution."

"Did it ever occur to you," Henry Adams wrote Robert Underwood Johnson, the secretary of the Academy, "that if we put Julia Ward Howe on our membership, we are subject to much criticism for neglecting other women? I do not see how we justify omitting Edith Wharton, for example, and I've no doubt that a dozen more would claim much higher literary credit than Mrs. Howe can claim."

Adams wrote to no avail. For years after Mrs. Howe's death in 1910, the old guard succeeded in excluding women from both bodies. In 1918 Mrs. Wharton, Margaret Deland, and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman all received enough votes for election; but the Institute members at the annual meeting tabled a motion permitting the admission of women. By 1923 a clear majority of the membership favored the election of women, but the president, Maurice Francis Egan, a literature professor and occasional diplomat, joined the Institute's Council in refusing to submit the names of women as candidates for election at the annual meeting.

Egan died in 1924, and the Institute's lawyer advised his successor that there was nothing in the by-laws to prohibit the election of women. At last in 1926 Edith Wharton was elected to the Institute, along with Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Margaret Deland, and Agnes Repplier. Willa Cather did not make it until 1929. The next year, a long twenty years after Henry Adams's protest, Mrs. Wharton finally achieved the Academy — an honor for which Willa Cather had to wait till 1938. Things have perhaps improved insufficiently since. At last count there were only six women out of fifty members in the Academy, 44 out of 250 in the Institute.

Not everyone was gratified by the creation of the Academy. William James, elected three months after his younger brother, not only declined the Academy but seized the opportunity to resign from the Institute as well. "As a preacher against vanities," he explained, he could not justify joining an organization like the Academy that had been set up "for the mere purpose of distinguishing certain individuals (with their own connivance) and enabling them to say to the world at large `we are in and you are out."' In a passage that subsequently gave rise to much exegetical controversy, he also noted that his "younger and shallower and vainer brother is already in the Academy." If he were in the Academy too, "the other families represented might think the James influence too rank and strong."

What some later members of the Institute regarded as typical Jamesian family banter, others took more darkly. Leon Edel, not only a champion of Henry James but a disciple of Sigmund Freud, detected "hidden animus" in what Jacques Barzun, a champion of William James, saw as "mock insults to express strong affection." "Deep psychologizing on this frail tropic," Barzun added, "is itself shallow and vain." Lionel Trilling supported Barzun, and, for what it is worth, I must confess my own sympathy with the Barzun reading.

Despite William James's preachments against vanities, most Institute members readily succumbed when tapped. The distinction between the waiting club and the final club was not, however, clear to all. Every few years members of the Institute — on one occasion, Thomas Mann — would reply in some surprise to notification of election to the Academy by saying that they thought they were members already. The Academy itself, formed as it was of the elders and dominated by Nicholas Murray Butler and Robert Underwood Johnson — this was the era of the triple-barreled name — became by the 1920s the citadel of traditionalism, determined to save the arts in America from the corruptions of modernism.

The battle between the ancients and moderns, as Malcolm Cowley later described it, soon grew edgy and cantankerous. Henry Mencken made the Academy a favorite butt of his jokes, and Sinclair Lewis condemned the compulsion he thought the two bodies "put upon writers to become safe, polite, obedient, and sterile." Lewis brusquely refused election to the Institute, and, accepting the Nobel Prize in Stockholm in 1930, launched a gratuitous attack on the Academy. It "does not represent literary America today," the author of Main Street said; "it represents only Henry Wadsworth Longfellow." Ezra Pound, while accepting election, ungratefully called the Institute "a joke" and fulminated against "the unspeakably low state of American culture ... during the dominence [sic] of W. D. Howells and the still unjailed N. M. Butler." Pound then was still unjailed himself.

In 1933, to everyone's surprise, Sinclair Lewis reversed field and accepted membership in the Institute and then, four years later, in the Academy. Robert Underwood Johnson did his damndest to keep Lewis out of the Academy and wrote more than forty letters opposing Mencken's election to the Institute. He need not have feared: the sage of Baltimore had not the slightest intention of accepting. But the genteel tradition kept losing ground. During the 1930s Lewis and Pound were joined in the Institute by such deplorable modernists as Faulkner, Dos Passos, Sherwood Anderson, Steinbeck, Sandburg, and Jeffers.

The ancients finally gave up on the Institute as irretrievably lost to the enemy and retreated to their stronghold in the Academy. In 1940 they made their last stand and proposed a change in the by-laws that would empower the Academy to elect whom-ever it wished, no longer restricting its choice to persons already in the Institute. The supposition was that they intended to elect General Pershing. But a majority of the Academy itself, rallied by Walter Damrosch, defeated the proposed amendment.

The genteel tradition that had so long made the Academy/Institute the bulwark of conventionality now evaporated. By the 1980s not only Norman Mailer but Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, not only Willem de Kooning but Cy Twombly and Roy Lichtenstein, not only Elliott Carter but John Cage were all in the Institute. What would Robert Underwood Johnson and Nicholas Murray Butler have made of that?

In the meantime, the Institute and the Academy settled for a season into placid coexistence. By the mid-sixties, however, members began to wonder whether continued separation made much sense. In 1966, George Kennan, then president of the Institute, appointed a committee to take a look at the question. The next year, the committee reported that in principle unification would be desirable for several reasons. It would simplify administration, foster better understanding on the part of the public, strengthen the institution's influence on national arts policy, and expedite the search for financial support.

In 1976 the two bodies became a single legal and financial entity. But this strictly managerial reform did not alter the two tiers of prestige inside the Academy/Institute — a structure that an increasing number of members found objectionable. Elevation from one body to the other, Lewis Mumford said in 1970, was "an invidious and meaningless distinction." Jacques Barzun, Henry Steele Commager, William Schuman, Barbara Tuchman, and others joined Kennan in the movement for a single organization.

The argument continued sporadically throughout the decade. In 1979 Barbara Tuchman, in a caustic statement signed by a dozen other Academicians, said that the Academy performed no separate or distinct function "beyond an agreeable polishing of egos." Election was "often erratic, haphazard, and as much the product of friendship as of merit .... The invidious and divisive business of raising some to superior distinction, for which the criteria are so inexact, [should] be abandoned." A single body, the Tuchman manifesto concluded, "would be better recognized and understood as representing the best in American arts and letters, and within its own walls would generate a more united feeling among its members."

But the amalgamation project provoked vigorous opposition, especially among those elders already ensconced in the Academy. Ironically, Malcolm Cowley, who had defined the fight of 1940 as between the ancients and the moderns and had himself supported the moderns, now led the ancients in the battle against the new heresy. Responding to the Tuchman statement, Cowley, backed by twenty-one Academicians, rejected the idea that election to the Academy was "invidious." This word, he said, implied that election was "faintly immoral when judged by the ethics of an egalitarian democracy. But all honors are invidious.... In that sense the Institute is also invidious, and on a larger scale. Should we avoid the implied charge of elitism by abolishing both institutions?" As for polishing egos, "would it be morally better to neglect or abrade them?" Election to the Academy, Cowley insisted, was a very high honor. "The Academy has its own function in the world of art, one which it now seems foolish to surrender."

George Kennan spoke for many when he observed that, while he personally favored merger, the change should not be jammed down the throats of a sizable minority. "Either there is a strong and enthusiastic support or else we shouldn't do it at all." For this reason, the merger question, though still discussed intermittently and often irritably, went without resolution for yet another decade. As late as 1989, a straw vote at an Academy meeting came out 7 to 6 in favor of the status quo. In 1990 another Academy meeting decided that the matter could be safely postponed for several more years. Members talked vaguely of action in the early twenty-first century.

Then in this decade the climate suddenly changed —possibly as part, if I may be indulged, of the changing cycles of American politics. On May 15, 1991, Jack Levine, the Academy's new chancellor, reopened the question in an eloquent intervention. Unification all at once appeared as an idea whose time had come. At the next meeting, in December 1991, a resolution was placed before the Academy's membership: "That in the interest of removing confusing and inappropriate distinctions within our fellowship and of making our organization more intelligible to the media at home and our counterparts abroad, members of the Institute shall be invited to join the Academy, ways and means to be worked out by an executive committee of the Academy."

A clear majority of the Academy at the meeting voted to submit the resolution to the entire membership by postal ballot —even though, as John Kenneth Galbraith commented, the reform, which he otherwise favored, had "one grievous disadvantage in that it would rob us of one of the most persistent topics of conversation that we have had over the last half-century." Thirty-nine out of forty-nine Academicians returned their ballots-30 voting for merger, 9 opposed. To no one's surprise, the Institute promptly accepted the invitation by a vote of 145 to 4. And so, on the brink of the twenty-first century, the Institute disappeared into the Academy, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters entered a new era.

It was the culmination of a long and sometimes troubled journey. If objections remained, the objectors were in a tiny minority, and even they were ready to hearken to the words of the Psalmist: "Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity."

© Copyright 1993 by Arthur Schlesinger, jr.

Arthur Schlesinger, jr. teaches at the City University of New York Graduate School. His most recent book is The Disuniting of America.

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