THE MOUNT VERNON STREET WARRENS: A Boston Story, 1860-1910 by Martin Green


Email this review


A symbolically charged tale of money, art, blood, and scandal played out in turn-of-the-century Boston by the ""remarkable"" Warren family. Green (The Triumph of Pierrot, 1986, and New York 1913, 1988), begins in 1910 with the suicide of Samuel Warren, prominent industrialist, attorney, family leader, and museum trustee. With a shot to the head, the father of six ended his lifelong conflict with his brother Ned, who, at the time, was suing him for bleeding the family trust. An eccentric aesthete, a connoisseur of Greek art, a friend of Bernard Berenson, and a homosexual, Ned hated the Bostonian virtue Sam personified. Green traces this rivalry to the family's rapid social ascent, which he compares to The Rise of Silas Lapham. Quickly, ""the money they made in the smelly paper mills of Maine was converted into flagrant tapestries, bronzes, china, and paintings on Beacon Hill."" Like Sam and Ned, the three other Warren children were generous individualists who pursued idealistic projects, from a settlement house in immigrant Boston to Oriental studies at Harvard. Although Green admits to a shortage of facts on the central protagonists, he compensates by evoking the social and intellectual tensions in puritan Boston at the heyday of the aesthetic movement. Green takes full measure of the story's resonance, emphasizing the Warrens' influence through figures like Berenson and Louis Brandeis (Sam's law partner), through still-standing Boston buildings, and particularly through Ned's ""heretical"" aestheticism. Ned collected 90% of the Boston Museum of Fine Art's classical antiquities, but Green dwells on the ""larger, looser idea"" of a life that promoted the sensibility epitomized in Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. As Green's close-up social history awakens us to the internal screams of the Warrens in their ""grand, but gloomy dining room,"" it suggests the conflicts born and prices paid in America's getting of culture.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1990
Publisher: Scribners