a digital library of Unitarian Universalist biographies, history, books, and media
the digital library of Unitarian Universalism
Home » Biographies » Marquand, John P. (1893-1960)

Marquand, John P. (1893-1960)

These introductory paragraphs introduce the John P. Marquand Collection at Yale University, a rare and extensive gathering in 51 boxes of materials open for research.

John Marquand

John P. Marquand. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library Print Department.

Biographical Introduction

John Phillips Marquand, leading American writer of the twentieth century, was born on November 10, 1893, to Philip and Margaret Fuller Marquand, both descendants of old New England families. Although he was born in Wilmington, Delaware, and lived in Rye, New York, until he was fourteen, Marquand considered himself a New Englander. He was educated at the Newburyport (Massachusetts) High School and at Harvard University, from which he was graduated in 1915. From 1915 to 1917, he was assistant magazine editor of the Boston Transcript. After a brief period as advertising copywriter in 1920 and 1921, he became a novelist and published The Unspeakable Gentleman (1922). Marquand was a frequent contributor of short stories to several popular magazines of the day, most notably The Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, Collier’s, and Good Housekeeping. Many of his novels were also serialized in shortened form in these magazines.

A recurring theme in many of Marquand’s works concerns the life and times of the middle and upper classes in twentieth-century New England—particularly Boston—as illustrated in The Late George Apley (1937), Wickford Point (1939), and H. M. Pulham, Esquire (1941). Marquand also wrote several mysteries featuring the Oriental detective Mr. Moto. Film versions of the Mr. Moto mysteries enjoyed great popularity. Marquand’s writings were widely received and sold well. In addition, many of his works were successfully adapted for stage and screen.

In 1922, Marquand married Christina Sedgwick. From this marriage, which lasted thirteen years, a son and a daughter were born. In 1936, Marquand married Adelaide Hooker. Two sons and a daughter were born of this union, which also ended in divorce in 1958.

John P. Marquand died in his sleep of a heart attack on July 16, 1960 in Newburyport, Massachusetts.


A Grandson’s Story

Marquand as an infant

An infant John Marquand pictured with his mother.

One of my early memories rests in this very church. I am eight years old, sitting in one of the front pews, very unsettled because my mother is beside me crying. The casket is highly polished mahogany and seems very large. I vaguely realize that the death of my grandfather is a big deal but I am primarily concerned about my mother’s tears, the sudden tension around the house, and the swirl of activity that has disrupted my summer. Being a typical egocentric young boy, my thoughts are not on the man who, somewhat out of character, had gone out of his way to tell his grandson animated stories of Egyptian thieves, the Serengeti Plains, and Chinese warlords. This was the rather intimidating grandfather, who—even in my youthful ignorance—I vaguely realized was a somewhat famous person. The man who only days before had insisted that just the two of us soon have lunch—one of those intimidating formal lunches served by some housekeeper and replete with watered down wine and finger bowls—and discuss tales of old Newburyport. But, as I say, I was not reflecting on him. No, I am sure my thoughts were more focused on fishing that afternoon in the Artichoke River or considering some appropriate torture for my older sister.

The grandfather was John Phillips Marquand and his childhood was not as idyllic as mine.

Imagine the following. A young boy, age 13, learns that his father has lost almost all of the family’s money. The family will have to move from their extremely comfortable home in the wealthy suburb of Rye, New York. This boy will have to leave his private school classmates and attend a public high school. Even more startling, the mother and father will be leaving their son for an extended and indefinite period. The boy’s father, a failed stock broker with an engineering degree, has found a job working on the new project called the Panama Canal and will be departing for that distant location with the boy’s mother. The boy is to be shipped off to a small town in Massachusetts named Newburyport. And, he is to be raised by three elderly woman in an isolated country house.

Marquand book

The Late George Apley, which won Marquand a Pulitzer prize in 1960 and established him as a best-selling author.

This boy was, of course, John Philips Marquand. While born and initially raised elsewhere, he spent by far his most formative years in Newburyport. The sudden dissolving of John Marquand’s immediate family and the resulting upbringing by his three aunts were the defining events in his life.

In 1949, John P. Marquand had reached the peak of both his craft and his fame. He had just published yet another best selling novel, this one went by the title of Point of No Return. The novel was receiving good reviews even from some of his more reluctant literary critics. He had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction with his novel The Late George Apley. Every novel he wrote after Apley almost instantly became a best seller. In 1949, his face was on the cover of Time and Newsweek magazines with long feature articles that stressed the fact that this talented novelist of manners had become America’s most successful writer of that era. Even the higher brow New Yorker magazine carried a long, glowing and clever profile of the author. John Marquand must have read these complimentary pieces at either his Beekman Place address in New York City or at his country home on Kent’s Island in Newbury, Massachusetts. At either address he would have been surrounded by antiques and art work that would later be displayed in various museums. He was a wealthy and successful man. Given his introspective nature, it is almost certain that he recognized the irony of this fame. Here he was, a famous novelist, who was, at heart, still that young, insecure boy living in that charming but run down house with three spinster aunts, attending Newburyport High School and Sunday services in this church.

It does not take a child psychiatrist to understand that being abandoned as a child in the first year of adolescence by your parents and left with elderly women in a remote location would constitute a dramatic, even a shattering, event in one’s life. But, as with many a Marquand character, the story is not that simple. When John Marquand was left with his three aunts at Curzon’s Mill in Newburyport in his thirteenth year, his feelings were an ambivalent stew of loss, embarrassment and excitement.

Marquand at age 17

Marquand at age 17.

He understood, even at the confusing and tender age of thirteen—an age more tender than thirteen is now—that his father was a financial failure. The stock market panic of 1907 had wiped out Philip Marquand’s considerable inheritance. More than the reversal of financial fortune was the fact that the son had come to the realization that his father was an embarrassment. Phillip, his investment banker father having been given a comfortable nest egg, together with a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, tried his hand as a stock broker and had failed miserably. Indeed, he seemed to fail at most every professional venture. His father would never be a role model and John Marquand had little positive to say about him throughout his father’s long life.

John Marquand drew upon the very ambivalent feelings he held toward his father in his novel Point of No Return. There the father, John Gray, is portrayed as a more sympathetic version of his own, someone who was sure he could beat the system and make a fortune. A man who loved to live high on the hog when fortune smiled upon him, but who frequently lost it all.

I am always reminded of one scene from the novel, set in this very church, each time I actually make it to a service and the offertory begins:

Besides [John Gray] used to say, what was Unitarianism? He was in no position, not for a minute, to embark on a theological discussion or to criticize the tenets of a religion embraced by Emerson and Channing. He realized also that a belief in the brotherhood of man and in the general progress of mankind, onward and upward forever, was a stabilizing influence, good for him and everybody else, particularly for the children. He would have been glad to consider this mild dogma every Sunday and even listen to the asthmatic sound of the organ…if it had not been necessary to have [the minister] tell him about it….The best thing about Unitarianism was that there was no compulsion about attending its services—none at least for him.

Let me interrupt and hasten to add that these lines were penned before the arrival of either the Reverend Bertrand Steeves or the current Reverend Harold Babcock.

But one Sunday, during one of his rare financially flush periods, John Gray appeared dressed and ready to attend services with his family. “John,” his surprised wife asks, “why are you going?” He responds: “Let’s say I have a new sense of spiritual responsibility this morning that demands direct action.”

When it was time for the offering, John Gray flips open his billfold and deliberately drops a hundred dollar gold treasury note into the wooden contribution box for the entire congregation to see.

After the service his wife confronts John Gray and tells him that “at least you might have put it in an envelope.”

“That’s true,” John Gray said. “Of course, that’s perfectly true. I’ve always wanted to do that…ever since I was a little boy. I know it’s childish of me, but I don’t suppose I am sorry.”

Book of the Month

The Book-of-the-Month Club Board of Judges mulling over a selection, with Marquand presiding. Left to right, John Mason Brown, Gilbert Highet, Marquand, Clifton Fadiman and Basil Davenport. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library Print Department.

Indeed John Gray, much like Marquand’s father, never seems sorry. He is always promising his son Charley a pony as soon as he makes his next financial killing. The pony never comes. Eventually, Charley Gray—like the son of John Marquand—came to realize that the pony would never arrive. As the diligent, careful son Charley Gray noted: “His father had never tried too hard. He had never grown measured and tired by trying.” It was left to son Charley, and to John Marquand, to try hard and become tired, due to the fecklessness of their fathers.

The embarrassment of such a father also must have been mixed with a great feeling of loss. Suddenly, the mother of this thirteen year old child was leaving. There is no doubt that this boy unequivocally loved his mother. To suddenly be without her for a long, indefinite period of time, obviously had a profound effect upon young John Marquand’s relationship with his mother but also, in all likelihood, with the father who was causing this separation.

These feelings, however, were mixed with a certain exhilaration that John Marquand always felt when coming back to Curzon’s Mill in Newburyport. He had spent almost every summer of his youth at Curzon’s Mill, and this small, remote section of Newburyport was magical to him.

During these boyhood summers Marquand had a chance to know his grandfather, John Phillips Marquand, the man for who he was named. His grandfather was a very successful investment banker in New York who had married Margaret Curzon of Newburyport. As a result, he summered with the extended family at Curzon’s Mill. The author would later recall that his grandfather obviously enjoyed the place but was not above complaining that everyone seemed to be living off him as it was only his money that kept the buildings painted and the gardens planted. His grandfather told young John how he first met his wife Margaret Curzon: “They were sitting under an apple tree, Margaret was painting a picture and they asked me to stay to supper and then they found there wasn’t any supper. I took Margaret down in the carriage and bought some. That was forty years ago. I’ve been buying everybody’s supper ever since. The whole damn family’s supper.” Later in his life, the author—who took pleasure and comfort in thinking that he (like his grandfather for who he was named) had inherited the Marquand trait of achieving success from humble beginnings—found that history was repeating itself only now it was his bank account that seemed to be buying the whole damn family’s supper.

Curzon's Mill

Curzon’s Mill as seen from the Artichoke River near Newburyport.

Likewise, Marquand was fascinated by his maiden aunts. His grandmother’s sister, his great aunt Mary Russell Curzon, lived year round at the Yellow House, next to the Mill, and provided John Marquand with a unique glimpse into the past. Mary Russell Curzon was a well educated woman who had been courted by the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, who would row across the Merrimac to visit the Curzon sisters and write truly boring sonnets about these women, the river, and Curzon’s “bowery mill.” Another poet—William Ellery Channing—and the artist William Morris Hunt both proposed marriage to Mary. But, displaying an early feminist streak and good sense, she turned them all down, preferring her own company. (An ardent abolitionist, she offered her house as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Once, a very large male slave was delivered hidden in a wooden crate to her remote home. Upon unpacking the crate she made the tragic discovery that the man had been shipped upside down from Boston and was now definitively dead. With little hesitation, this temptress of poets and artists dragged the quickly stiffening body back to the orchard, buried the slave and planted a pear tree over the unmarked grave, a tree that flourishes still.)

This was a woman who read the classics each morning as she arose early, who taught young John Marquand how to build a fire, how to stitch up one’s own wounds with sewing thread, and who lived only by candle light and kerosene lamps, lighting both with a flint and steel (as she distrusted matches). As he later wrote, after having traveled extensively in every continent except Antarctica and having made the acquaintance of the powerful, the rich, and the famous, this elderly woman impressed him far more than anyone else that he ever had encountered.

During most of the year, John Marquand lived alone with the three elderly women. All were serious Unitarians and accompanied young John to weekly services in this very church. Here he developed a faith—or at least one was drilled into him—that, while not necessarily a comfort, did hold him throughout a rather tumultuous life.

The Mill and Yellow House were at the end of a long, unpopulated road. There were no neighbors. In many ways, it was a life tinged with antiquity, closely resembling the Federalist era, while the rest of America was hurrying towards the jazz age. But, for this brief interval—and perhaps for the first and last time—he felt truly a part of a place and, thus, in the truest sense, secure.

In the summers things changed when his wealthy and more sophisticated New York cousins would take over one of the buildings. Marquand was fond, yet envious, of these cousins who had retained their money, their family, and their casual confidence. These experiences, when mixed with an acute observation and substantial literary talent, laid the groundwork for Marquand’s later gentle yet pointed social satires.

Marquand was hardly the first author to use the pains and embarrassments of youth as artistic fodder. Had his immediate family not been shattered and its wealth lost, the author instead might have become a basically happy, if quietly desperate, member of the upper middle class like many of his fictional characters. And he might never have felt compelled to leave the contentment he found at Curzon’s Mill and Newburyport to seek a life that never provided an equivalent sense of comfort and belonging—no matter how much fame and fortune he garnered. Again, this theme of lost security and happiness and the unsuccessful attempt to recapture it in the rush and mobility of contemporary America runs through Marquand’s novels, and it often is as much an issue today as it was 50 years ago.

John and Adelaide Marquand

John and Adelaide Marquand promote the United China Relief Writer’s Committee. Marquand donated the entire royalties from his famous “Mr.Moto” detective series to the $5,000,000 campaign, for which he also worked as chairman. Writers Pearl Buck, Dorothy Fisher, Joy Homer, and Vincent Sheehan also contributed royalties. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library Print Department.

One would hope that the author also learned from the weaknesses and selfishness of his father and that he would make it a priority to raise a family that was not subjected to the same sense of abandonment as he had suffered. But that was not always to be. And, given the demands of writing and the psychic scars he may have carried, maybe it was too much to ask.

John Marquand married twice. He first courted and won Christina Sedgwick from a faded aristocratic family in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Two children were produced, John, Jr. and my mother, Christina Marquand. The marriage, however, failed and, as is often the case, both were a bit at fault. Christina Sedgwick, while charming and delightful, was far from practical and could not create the stable, peaceful home for which Marquand yearned. Marquand, wrapped up in beginning his literary career and feeling inferior to the Sedgwick family, was far from the model husband. Perhaps both were too young to appreciate what they had before it was ruined. But, Marquand did remain close to his first two children throughout his life.

Marquand’s second marriage was to a wealthy Connecticut heiress, Adelaide Hooker. While this marriage lasted longer, and produced three children, it was frequently rocked by arguments, affairs, and separations. The result was a chaotic—albeit privileged—upbringing for his last three children. The now famous author’s relationship with these three children was little better than his relationship with his own father.

These domestic failures weighed upon Marquand and underlie much of his last novel, Women and Thomas Harrow. It is a darker and more modern novel than his others and was written soon after his first wife had died of cancer at a relatively young age. The novel details the failed marriages of a fictional playwright, but primarily focuses upon the regrets that the main character feels when confronting his first wife and a love that never faded. Once again this church, thinly disguised, is featured prominently and perhaps is best described in the passage read by the Rev. Bertrand Steeves.

In this novel, published two years before his death, Marquand creates the climatic scene where the main character, Thomas Harrow, meets his first wife the day after he has entered the church and relived his first wedding ceremony. Looking back, Harrow, probably much like the author, felt that “he had been careless with human relationships that he had [casually] tossed away a great many things that were valuable” and that now life was closing in upon him. Thomas Harrow tells his first wife, Rhoda, of his entry into the church:

Yesterday morning when I went to get the mail, a new, young minister in front of the… church asked me to step inside. Frankly, I’d never been there since we were married… the place was so dead-quiet Calvinist it startled me. I don’t know why it is lately that quiet places do; maybe they make me feel afraid of God, not that I honestly feel afraid. It may be only the thought of an impending conversation.

Rhoda then asks him what he had been thinking in the church and he replies:

… it’s so simple that there isn’t much to say. All right, I thought I loved you when you were walking up the aisle, and I thought I loved you still. It’s as simple as that …

Mr. Moto poster

Mr. Moto (played by Peter Lorre), the mild-mannered Japanese private investigator who was in the late 1930’s the subject of eight films, all written by Marquand.

Soon thereafter, Thomas Harrow leaves knowing that he will never see his first wife again. Thomas Harrow, undoubtedly like the now older Marquand, realizes that the there was little exciting left in his artistic work or his life, that he has squandered human relationships and perhaps his talent. Anticipating that impending conversation with God, he again thinks back to the church and “the vanished minister saying, ‘God bless you, Thomas.’ Those were days when he had everything without knowing it, youth, and Rhoda, and his untarnished talent.” As he drives home, Harrow realizes, based on his life: “In the end, no matter how many were in the car, you always drove alone.”

So what is one to take from this? It is that, in the end, it is you yourself who is responsible for your fate and conduct when you have that impending conversation with God.

Well, in that belief, Marquand is simply being a Unitarian and confronting the faith’s not always comforting challenges and responsibilities. Or should one focus on the fact that a formerly famous author had a less than perfect father and became a less than perfect husband and father? That he was a man who never truly found happiness and satisfaction? Perhaps, but to love and err is to be human and true contentment is a fragile and rare commodity that is often overlooked until much too late. Still, he was a father who was truly mourned and missed by his oldest daughter, a daughter who got it right and raised a family of five strong willed children in a close, loving, and stable environment. And he was a grandfather who showed a deep affection for his grandson and who took the time to watch over him, proving once again the universal truth that it is much easier to be a grandparent than a parent. But still, he was a man who did enough so that a grandson still fondly remembers him after forty years and is willing to bore an entire congregation in his memory. Overall, that’s not so bad. Might we all have such an influence upon our grandchildren.

— An address, “Fathers, Sons, and Grandsons: John P. Marquand,” by Richard E. Welch III, delivered in the Meeting House of the First Unitarian Society (Unitarian Universalist), Newburyport, Massachusetts, February 17, 2002.


The Spire Above Yankee City
by John P. Marquand

What follows is the preface and the abridged text of an article published by the American Unitarian Association in the Christian Register, November, 1949.

Newburyport spire

The reconstructed spire
(photo courtesy of Patricia Bashford)

Newburyport, on Massachusett’s North Shore, has been immortalized by sociologist W. Lloyd Warner as “Yankee City” in the scholarly series of the same name. Also, it is the locale (under the name “Clyde”) of the latest book, Point of No Return, by Newburyport’s best known citizen, John P. Marquand. What does the First Parish church mean to this venerable seaport? What does its spire symbolize to its citizens? In this sermon, delivered at the beginning of the campaign to raise funds for the rebuilding of the spire, Pulitzer Prize winner Author Marquand gives his answers. He was chairman of the Steeple Committee, and is active in the affairs of the Unitarian Church.

Now that work has been started on the reconstruction of the spire of our church, it might be interesting also to endeavor to reconstruct with words some of the time and human forces which were responsible originally for its design. To do so, we must not consider this building solely as a religious edifice but instead as what it also is, a work of art and a monument to the spirit and thought of the age which conceived it. Its lines were drawn by an architect whose name, ironically enough, is lost to us today. Its foundation, frame and the spire, delicate carvings which adorn it were also fashioned by the unidentifiable hands of the artisans and shipwrights of Newburyport, men of diverse religions. Obviously, there was a unity of thought, some common spiritual ground, some convention of expression shared by all these vanished individuals. We have only to look around us to be aware of the spiritual flowering of a past many of whose values have lasted to the present.

This church, as we all know, was built in 1801 to take the place of an older building that once stood in Market Square. It was built in the midst of what architects and historians now term the Federalist Era. It was built not much more than a decade after the ratification of the Constitution of the United States, when the American Eagle adorned the sterns of ships and perched on the top of brass door knockers.

Marquand in China

Above the Yangtzee, 1935.

Newburyport, when this church was built, was a much more self-sufficient community than it is today, with such slender and uncertain means of communication to tie it to other communities on the eastern seaboard that England and France and the West Indies were almost as near to Newburyport, as far as ease of access went, as many towns on the mainland. The easiest means of travel was by sea. It was the sea that brought trade and ideas to Newburyport in 1801 and in consequence Newburyport was predominantly a maritime community. It was a town with a future rather than a past. It was, believe it or not, even suffering with growing pains in 1801.

Only a year ago, I showed some of Newburyport to a visitor who had been born and raised in California and he made a comment on the place so obvious to anyone living here that neither you nor I would even have thought of it. He said he would never have believed that there could be so many old houses 30 all together and in one place. He would not have said this about Newburyport in 1801. Large sections of Newburyport in those days were as new as a real estate development in Los Angeles. Newburyport in 1801 had a population of about 8,000 but everyone was sure that this was only a beginning. There was a brisk rum, fish and molasses trade with the West Indies in 1801 and, if the Baltic and Russian trade had not started, it was about to start. Newburyport was also a shipbuilding center with a national reputation. That almost revolutionary innovation, the half model, had been or was about to be invented facilitating the cutting of ship’s timbers. Around this basic industry revolved the smaller ones of sailmaking, ropemaking and forging, each in its proper orbit. The first woolen mill in America was starting in Byfield. Experiments were being made in Newburyport in the manufacture of nails and in improving the Franklin stove.

Marquand and plane

Marquand, pictured in October of 1952, getting instructions from his pilot before taking a ride in an Air Force jet trainer at Elgin AFB in Florida. Marquand visited the base as a member of the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference, which toured military installations under the sponsorship of the Department of Defense. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library Print Department.

In 1801 money was being made from trade and manufacture almost as rapidly and on a sounder basis than it had been made by privateering in the early days of the Revolutionary War. With suddenly accumulated fortunes came the obvious demand for larger houses, for silver service, jewelry and modem house furnishings. Local promoters were encouraged to start interesting new real estate enterprises. In a little while there would be opportunities for attractive investments on newly opened Fruit Street and, a few years later, the Federalist houses of High Street were built. Newburyport was not the world of yesterday in 1801 but the brave new world of tomorrow where comfort, taste and education and gadgets would all abound in a hitherto unknown profusion.

It is difficult today, as one looks back into local history to imagine a town with so long a past as having been young once, or to think of the elms that now line High Street and Green Street as only ungainly saplings and of the houses there as freshly framed and unpainted. Perhaps the best way to form some idea of Newburyport’s youth is to turn to the advertisements in the files of the old Herald. Newburyport one finds not only had its own distillery but even, at the close of the Revolutionary War, ten jewelers and watchmakers. There were also publishers and engravers who could supply local printings of popular English authors, translations and originals of the classics, maps, charts and works on navigation. There were excellent silversmiths, a saddlemaker, a chaisemaker and cabinetmakers. Merchants were selling long and elaborate assortments of French and British textiles. The reception given George Washington in 1799, with its parade of floats designed to represent local industry shows that Newburyport was a metropolis compared with most of America, a worldly, sophisticated place rightly regarded with suspicious suspect by country people going there to market. One discovers that in this era a highly educated pig visited Newburyport capable of entertaining ladies and gentlemen with feats of reading and addition. He must have done remarkably well because it is said later that he was burned alive in Havana and his owner was imprisoned there by the Inquisition. Also, a gentleman named Monsieur Perette visited Newburyport bringing with him a self-moving carriage. “An eagle automaton,” we read “suitably caparisoned draws the carriage forward with as much rapidity as though it was drawn by horses. The driver seated in the carriage holds the reins and directs the course of the extraordinary carriage.”

We find that emigres from European revolution flocked to Newburyport. Messrs. Renard and Dupatty started an academy of the dance here and there was also a Monsieur Lebarre who had taught music to the Duchess of Orleans, the Princess Linisky and the Princess of Salmak. He was now ready to teach Newburyport ladies and gentlemen the piano, the spinet, Spanish and English guitar, flute and violin. If one wished to go further in genteel accomplishments, there were also in Newburyport a qualified instructor of the small sword and saber and several teachers of drawing and painting. In fact, Newburyport, with its teachers and its artisans, could supply by 1801 almost anything that you might desire intellectually or materially. It was in this slightly garish climate, that the new building of the First Religious Society was reared on Pleasant Street.

Marquand family

The Marquand family in their home, late in 1927; John, Johnny, Tina and Christina Sedgwick Marquand. The dog is Prince. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library Print Department.

This town cannot be duplicated by a modern community. No town in America today with a population of 8,000 could possibly support silver smiths, dancing teachers, drawing teachers, academies for young ladies and gentlemen, printers, engravers and shipbuilders. There must have been a fresher and more wine-like quality on the East wind then.

At the same time in spite of luxury Newburyport was essentially a sober, godfearing place. The number of its churches and their generous size is enough to prove it. Feelings on every subject, beliefs and disbeliefs, ran stronger than they do today. There were no hazy half grounds of opinion, fewer confusions, fewer attempts at broadmindedness which bewilder in this present. There was right and there was wrong and every citizen of Newburyport seemed convinced that he knew the answer.

In Newburyport in 1801 there was a ferment of ideology which has not ceased working yet. There was the clash of wealth and privilege against newly enunciated rights of the common man. Washington had delivered his farewell address but already the United States was on the edge of a whirlpool of a European war. Mankind was on the march and no one knew exactly where mankind was going. The United States of America was still not much more than an abstraction. Though there was a common language and the basis of a common political belief, a Newburyporter walking the streets of Charleston, South Carolina, might very well have felt that he was in a foreign country. He would also have had something of the feeling in Quaker Philadelphia or in Dutch New York. Even in Boston and Salem there was not quite the same integration of values that existed on State Street and Market Square.

It would not seem that this unstable atmosphere would be conducive to the development of an independent culture. The influence of the old world was strong in all varieties of thought and manners, but there was already discernible the beginnings of a difference. In not so many years the United States would produce a Hawthorne, a Melville, and an Emerson and a Thoreau, all of whom would be essentially American; but Gilbert Stuart was already painting portraits that were not entirely British. In Salem, MacIntire the architect, was employing the Georgian forms and conventions, but the buildings he designed were not entirely Georgian. Something new, something subtly different had been added and this was also true of the builders of Newburyport. Their sense of line and form was not exactly Georgian and not exactly MacIntire.

John and Lonny Marquand

The author and his son Lonny just before the publication of Women and Thomas Harrow in 1958.

In those days in New England behind the instincts of every artisan for what was suitable and what was not there lay, of course, the tradition of the sea.

The climax of the sailing ship, as exemplified by the Flying Cloud and The Glory of the Seas, was still just around the corner but already every year, every Yankee shipwright was making constant efforts to create a new lightness, a new strength in his designs. He was developing a distaste for everything that even hinted at unnecessary weight or clumsiness and some of the best shipwrights in the world worked on the banks of the Merrimac in 1801. Their instinct for line and form is with us still for here in Newburyport we still live partially in a Federalist atmosphere of their creation. High Street, in spite of its modern interpolations, is as beautiful a residential street as there is anywhere because local shipwrights worked on so many of its houses.

You have only to look about you at the interior of our church to understand the flawlessness of their taste. The columns that support the gallery, the light, never obtrusive decoration that adorns the pulpit, still tell the worldless story of the builders and of their age. In the balance and simplicity of every thing around us there is a sense of serenity, and a reminder of a spirit that rises above mundane things. None of us here can escape this impression and none of us can definitely analyze it. We only know that it is exactly as it should be—the atmosphere which should belong to a “House of God.” This atmosphere was created by the architects and by the builders of this edifice not consciously and without a jarring note. It is the sort of indirection and the inner moaning that lies behind all true art, and it has been achieved here in daylight without the aid of shadow from Gothic aches, without the prismatic effect of stained glass windows.

There is nothing anywhere else quite like Newburyport woodwork. The embellishments on our Federalist houses have always seemed to me to have their especial character, and they have invariably escaped the pitfalls of fussiness and needless elaboration. Compared to ours, the exterior and interior ornamentation of the houses along the Battery at Charleston is heavy and almost dull. It may be the local prejudice but it seems to me that the same is slightly true with the mansions on the Hudson and even with the Salem of MacIntire.

Our church is not a ship but it has all the certainty of Donald McKay’s Glory of the Seas dedicated to a higher purpose. For more than a hundred years the spire of our church stood above our town as its greatest single monument to some of the most glorious moments of America’s past. It had a message and a moaning for everyone who saw it. No matter what his individual religious belief might be, it expressed a spirit and an aspiration which has never left our city from the days of its first settlement. Something of that spire belonged to all of us and so it was more than the property of any single religious sect. When over a century of wind and weather weakened the timbers of our spire, it was taken down. It is very fitting that it is now being rebuilt, not alone by this parish and not alone by the contributions of citizens of Newburyport, but by many others who have seen it and who “could not forget.”

Marquand on WBZ

Marquand joins host Clifton Fadiman and Edward Weeks, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, to talk about Boston on WBZ’s Conversation broadcast, “The Hub of the Universe” in May 1955. Marquand’s writing was many Americans’ only impression of Boston.

The most famous of Federalist architect, MacIntire himself, has called it the finest spire in New England and he did it honor by placing its replica in Salem. The late Ralph Adams Cram, who was America’s outstanding authority on the Gothic, has called it the most beautiful wooden spire in the world. But it has spoken for itself. It really needs no tributes or superlatives.

And yet I have heard it said that this spire should not be raised again. I have heard it said that the debt incurred by its restoration is too dangerous, that it would be better at most to build a simpler, cheaper spire. I have heard it said that it is only an elaboration, that it perform no useful function, and answers no social need. This is only common sense. It would be much cheaper, much easier, not to rebuild this spire. The workmen who are now engaged in restoring it could readily be employed in more useful work. But then so, too, could have the stonecutters who adorned the Cathedral at Chartres and so, too, could Michelangelo whose paintings in the Sistine Chapel do nothing to support its ceiling. Art very seldom performs a practical function, but the man through all the ages has never lived by bread alone. The people of Newburyport throughout this town’s long history have never been motivated solely by the dialectics of materialism. Because they never have been and I hope they never will be, they are rebuilding this church steeple now so that it will.


Resources Recommended by Harvard Square Library

Bell, Millicent. Marquand: An American Life. Boston-Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1979.


 


Notable in UU History
Abbot Lawrence Lowell President from 1909-1933

Lowell, Abbott Lawrence (1856-1943)

Biographical Introduction Attorney, educator and twenty-fourth president of Harvard University, Abbott Lawrence Lowell was born on ... Read More
Mary Pipher

Pipher, Mary (1947-)

Dr. Mary Pipher received her BA in Cultural Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley ... Read More
Curtis Reese

Reese, Curtis W. (1887-1961)

Curtis Williford Reese was born September 3, 1887, on a farm in Madison County, North Carolina ... Read More
Thomas H. Eliot

Eliot, Thomas H. (1907-1991)

Congressional Biography ELIOT, Thomas Hopkinson, a Representative from Massachusetts; born in Cambridge, Mass., June 14, 1907; ... Read More