Politics and the Creative Imagination 3

There were other isolated bookmen and old-fashioned virtuosi— the learned Pennsylvania Quaker James Logan, for example, more successful and consequential a scholar and scientist than Byrd—who were similarly remote from the metropolitan culture, similarly depen¬dent on echoes from abroad. And later, in the pre-Revolutionary years, there would be an outpouring of belles lettres in the North American towns and cities—a plethora of literary efforts and polite discourses in coffeehouses, clubs, salons, and tea tables, all “aping metropolitan rites and fashions,” all aspiring to images of a greater beau monde, all refracting metropolitan styles in amusement, wit, and social discourse.
So Thomas Dale, a well-educated London physician down on his luck, emigrated to Charleston, South Carolina, rose through his pro¬fessional skills and his reputation as what he called “a great wit and a great Scholard,” a veritable “vir literatus,” to achieve, in that center of provincial culture, wealth, position, and status, while pumping his English correspondents for word of literary developments in Lon¬don, inquiring after his old acquaintances and literary idols, and hoping that his friends, in their “walks thro’ Moorfields and the Stalls. . . would pick me up some pamphlets and 2 or 3 penniworth of Learning good and old.” He would consider that “a singular favour,”
For Fortune plac’d me in a ruder soil,
Far from the Joys that with my Soul agree,
From mt,from Learning—far, oh farfrom thee!
Later, in 1763, Benjamin Franklin, back in urban and enterprising Philadelphia after years in England, knew better than anyone else how far that city had advanced in literary accomplishments in the years since he had launched his Junto’s program of cultural develop¬ment. But he wondered why it was that the “petty island” from which he had just returned—a mere stepping-stone in a brook next to America, “scarce enough of it above water to keep one’s shoes dry”—should have, in almost every neighborhood, more sensible, virtuous, and elegant minds than could be collected in “100 leagues of our vast forests.” The most gifted Americans, he wrote, merely “lisp attempts at painting, poetry, and musick.”
But the witness of art and architecture is more objective and more revealing.
The young John Adams spoke with envy of the rich and powerful in his world, of a smug, arrogant American aristocracy, of elegant American mansions, of grand estates and grand prospects. But what was the scale? How grand was grand?
Some of the grand places he and his contemporaries knew are familiar to us—they have survived or been rebuilt—though we do not often think of them in this connection:
* Longfellow House, in Cambridge, Massachusetts (1759)
* The Wentworth-Gardner House, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire (1760), built with wealth derived from timber contracts with the British navy
* Westover, the Byrds’ famous house in Virginia (1730-34)
* Carter’s Grove (1750—53), with its handsome entrance hall
* George Mason’s Gunston Hall (1755-58), the “Palladian Room”
* Van Cortlandt Manor (1740s), on the Hudson, forty miles from Manhattan, built with third-generation Anglo-Dutch wealth
These are typical houses of the American aristocracy that Adams knew. But how shall we understand their scale? How grand were they? With what should they be compared? What is the range of possibilities?
There is no possible correspondence, no remote connection, between these provincial dwellings and the magnificent showplaces of the English nobility—those vast domestic palaces,
ornate and massive, with their pedimented porticoes, their spread¬ing balustraded wings—their colonnaded entrance halls, whence the Adam staircase sweeps up beneath a fluted dome; their cream and gilt libraries piled with sumptuous editions of the classics; their orangeries peopled with casts from the antique—all combine to produce an extraordinary impression of culture and elegance and established power.
Marlborough’s Blenheim, the Devonshires’ Chatsworth, the Mar¬quesses of Bath’s Longleat, Walpole’s Houghton are in a different world, remote and irrelevant.
Incomparable too are the sprawling dwellings of long-established English families that had grown organically bit by bit and year by year as successive generations had added extensions and orna¬ments until what had begun as medieval manor houses became eighteenth-century mansions—“patchwork houses,” they have been called, but imposing and handsome. The Sidney family’s Penshurst had grown that way, to attain, in Sir Philip Sidney’s day, “a firm stateliness,” its “exceeding lastingness made the eye believe it was exceedingly beautiful.”
Between Chatsworth in Derbyshire and Westover in Virginia— between Longleat and Carter’s Grove—the scales are incommensu¬rate. Yet there are meaningful comparisons, especially with the properties of the English gentry in Britain’s domestic borderlands— more remote places, like William Weddell’s Newby Hall in northeast Yorkshire. Weddell and Newby Hall, in fact, have a peculiar place in North American history since in order to finance his building plans Weddell raised his rents, with the result that a veritable village of his tenants left the land and emigrated across the Atlantic, where their destinies have been traced.

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