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Jon Stewart and Moral Fire

As I have occasion to remark in my new book Moral Fire, moral passion is a phenomenon little glimpsed in public life nowadays, unless you happen to be a devotee of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Typically, moral passion as purveyed by politicians and the “media” is opportunistic and shallow, if not wholly counterfeit.

My book celebrates practitioners of moral passion in late 19th century America, when it was more mattered than today. More specifically, I explore four individuals for whom the notion that culture – that is, music, literature, the visual arts – is morally uplifting was more than a Victorian canard.

My first chapter remembers Henry Higginson, who invented, owned, and operated the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Higginson’s belief that Beethoven made people more humane was profound and true – at least for Higginson himself. His concept of “useful citizenry” was to amass a fortune so he could give it away for the betterment of the city of Boston. Though often misportrayed as a Brahmin snob, Higginson was not born to wealth. A cultural democrat, he set aside tickets for 25 cents – even in 1881 a modest sum – for all Boston Symphony concerts and public rehearsals. His friend Bliss Perry testified that “to his true comrades,” Higginson “was like a lover.” This capacity for affection, for honest intimacy, pervades many a startling Higginson letter. His singular range of close acquaintances – from J. P. Morgan to Henry James, whom he called “Harry” – anchored the man and his heroic scope of achievement.

Thanks of Boston’s WGBH, I recently enjoyed an opportunity to talk about Higginson on the air for more than 20 minutes – an unhurried exchange with time enough for thought. Brian Bell, who is himself writing a history of the Boston Symphony, asked the big questions, including: Where in the arts are there individuals of such colossal personal vision today? And if we can’t find any, what happened to them?

I’m additionally grateful to Brian for posting the interview online – and here it is.

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