I got a chuckle from the citation – by Jeremy Benson, Poet Laureate of Napa County – of a verse added to our national anthem by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., in 1861 ("Can we celebrate freedom at this moment?," July 7).
Benson wants the verse “penned” by Holmes to represent some sort of pro-immigrant sentiment. Does our poet laureate understand who Oliver Wendell, Sr., was?
The self-consciously cerebral Holmes was the man who coined the term “Brahmin” as applied to the lily-white upper crust of Boston society. Without the slightest touch of irony or shame, Holmes promoted, as an informal arrangement, the sort of caste system that applied in Vedic India.
In his version, Holmes himself, of course, belonged to the highest caste – the Brahmin class. Belonging to a lower class were “country boys” better suited by heredity for physical labor. And – here’s the part worthy of my chuckle – the untouchable class effectively consisted of unwashed immigrants, Irish, Italian, and Jewish, from the cesspools of the Old World.
Nor was the mindset founded by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., merely a matter of attitude. It exerted practical effects, none of them pro-immigrant, for generations.
One of our noble poet’s Brahmin heirs was Henry Cabot Lodge, who helped to advance the Immigration Act of 1917. A well-known provision of the law as passed, and enforced, was the designation of an “Asiatic Barred Zone.” Undesirables from such places as Arabia, India, Malaysia, and the South Sea Islands were excluded from immigrating into these United States.
In a famous case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court, Bhaghat Singh Thind, a Sikh who had served in the U.S. Army, tried to beat the “Barred Zone” by arguing that, as the descendant of “Aryans,” he was Caucasian and thus entitled to citizenship. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a Brahmin even more eminent than his poetic dad, was on the court that unanimously rejected the suit of that unwelcome Asiatic. Not Caucasian enough.
The addition to our national anthem “penned” by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., is definitely not a pro-immigrant rhyme. It is not clearly even a rhyme celebrating the manumission of slaves. It was written two years before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. “The millions unchained” of the fifth line are less likely to be the “Negroes” (as they were then designated) held in bondage by the South than our sturdy Anglo-Saxon yeomanry, who freed themselves from British tyranny and who needed to keep their blood pure. At any rate, the Brahmins did keep their blood pure for a very long time.
My point here is not to denigrate the memories of either Boston Brahmin luminary. That would be as boneheaded as tearing down a statue of Robert E. Lee. The racial views of such figures were indeed both goofy and reprehensible. But they were universally held at the time.
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When you have contempt for blacks, for the Irish, for Italians, or for Jews drummed into you since birth, it takes a unique and powerful personality to transcend. I despise the Boston Brahmins less for their ethnic idiocy than for their treatment of Edgar Allan Poe – who was a better poet than Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., could ever hope to be.
But I cry out to our poet laureate:
When engaged in poetical acts
That end up as political tracts,
When supporting a view,
You must strive to stay true:
Check your facts, esteemed sir! Check your facts!