John Sullivan Dwight (May 13, 1813-September 5, 1893) made important contributions to the Transcendentalist movement. A dedicated member of the Brook Farm commune while it lasted, he was America’s first influential classical music critic.
Born May 13, 1813, in Boston, Dwight graduated from Harvard College in 1832. He then began, with some ambivalence, preparation for the Unitarian ministry at Harvard Divinity School and graduated in 1836. During his years at the Divinity School, the “new views” of Transcendentalism were beginning to coalesce into a potent critique of Unitarian theology and social ethics. Dwight responded enthusiastically to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s regrounding of Unitarian theology in Platonic and Kantian idealism, and to his call for an innovative, non-conformist refashioning of social life. These lines of thought were much encouraged by the friendship and mentoring of the minister of the Purchase Street Church in Boston, George Ripley, one of Emerson’s most astute and effective allies during the Transcendentalist controversy, and his wife Sophia Dana Ripley, with whom Dwight shared a deep interest in music.
Like most Transcendentalists, Dwight was fascinated with German culture, especially the poetry and aesthetic theories of Goethe and Schiller and the symphonies of Beethoven. In 1839 Dwight published a highly regarded translation, Select Minor Poems of Goethe and Schiller, in Ripley’s series, Specimens of Foreign Standard Literature. In the next few years he became deeply immersed in Beethoven’s symphonic music, still relatively unknown in America except through piano transcriptions. As music historian Saloman has observed, Beethoven’s music was central to Dwight’s development of a set of interrelated aesthetic and social theories. He emphasized equally the cultivation of imaginative and expressive capacities of the personality and the creation of a just, cooperative and harmonious society.
Dwight was ordained as minister of the Unitarian church in Northampton in 1840, but his experience in the ministry was brief and generally unhappy. In 1841 he saw a more promising future when George and Sophia Ripley founded the Brook Farm commune “to prepare a society of liberal, intelligent, and cultivated persons, whose relations with each other would permit a more simple and wholesome life, than can be led amidst the pressure of our competitive institutions.” In addition to farming activities, Brook Farm established a day school to generate income and a new journal, The Harbinger, to advocate the “Associationist” social philosophy, heavily influenced by the radical French social theorist Charles Fourier and his American disciple Albert Brisbane.
Dwight served as director of the Brook Farm school and wrote a regular column on music for the Harbinger. He also taught music and organized musical and theatrical events, the heart of the commune’s social life. He embraced the cause of “Association” fervently, and in an 1844 lecture, expounded the movement’s constant theme: “Development by harmonious relations, based on the supposition that every individual nature is pre-adapted to Universal Unity.”
Dwight found a strong consonance between the commune’s social cause and his passion for advancing music as essential to human education and expression. Fourier’s emphasis on unity as the goal of human social fulfillment resonated well with Dwight’s allegiance to Emersonian idealism, and with his passionate belief in the aesthetic principles of harmony and balance in music. In his columns for the Harbinger and other essays, Dwight began in the early 1840s his life-long exposition of the developmental and spiritual power of classical music, and of Beethoven’s genius and authority. He largely established Beethoven’s reputation in America. As Saloman noted, Dwight saw Beethoven’s symphonies as a prophetic sign of the coming of a new age of progress toward the resolution of human conflict into a universal harmony. The Ninth Symphony was for Dwight “the music of the high hour of Human Brotherhood; the triumph of the grand unitary sentiment, into which all the passions and interests of all human hearts are destined finally to blend.”
Brook Farm died of debt and dissension in 1847. Dwight settled with several Brook Farmers in a cooperative house in Boston and began to try to piece together a career in musical journalism. He continued to write columns for the Harbinger from 1847-49, after Ripley moved the paper to New York, and also served brief stints as musical editor of Sartain’s Magazine and The Commonwealth in the early 1850s. In February, 1851, after a courtship of several years, he married former Brook Farmer Mary Bullard, known for her beautiful singing voice as “the Nightingale.” In 1852 Dwight made what he called a “last, desperate (no very confident) grand coup d’etat to try and get a living.” With some support from the Harvard Musical Association, he founded Dwight’s Journal of Music. It became the most influential musical publication of 19th century America. His labors on the Journal occupied him for the rest of his life.
Dwight made his only trip to Europe in July, 1860, visiting Berlin and other German cities, Switzerland, London, and Paris on a 17-month tour. His trip was marred by the death of his wife Mary, at home in Boston, on September 6, 1860. The news did not reach him until October. Stunned, he eventually decided to continue his travels. Having learned much about concert performance standards, he returned to Boston in November, 1861, and resumed his work as editor of the Journal and for the Harvard Musical Association.
Dwight had established his Journal early in a remarkable period of development of Boston’s musical institutions. The Music Hall was built in 1852. The Harvard Musical Association began its sponsorship of concerts in 1866. The Boston Conservatory of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music were founded in 1867. For three decades, 1852-81, his Journal was the authoritative musical word of Boston.
The Transcendentalist and social radical became in some respects a defender of musical tradition. His early commitment to principles of harmony and balance in music and his view of Beethoven’ symphonies as the apex of musical composition, made him less enthusiastic about later developments, such as program music or Wagner’s efforts to integrate music and language. He became, as his biographer put it, “the autocrat of music” in Boston. He was also long an intimate of the Saturday Club, a circle of genteel authors and intellectuals who met when Emerson traveled to Boston in the late 1850s, and who, by the 1880s, comprised something of an elite insider’s network having formidable cultural influence. Dwight’s journey from Transcendentalist radical to Brahmin establishment figure in some respects typifies the course of 19th century New England literary and aesthetic development. His was a life of extraordinary dedication to social and aesthetic ideals, and to the work of building institutions for the translation of aspirations into enduring social practice.
The Boston Public Library and the Houghton Library, Harvard University, have the largest collection of Dwight’s papers. Among Dwight’s publications, there are numerous musical columns written over four decades for The Harbinger and Dwight’s Journal of Music. Selections from Dwight’s Journal of Music, including many pieces by Dwight, have been gathered by Irving Sablosky in What They Heard: Music in America, 1852-1881 (1986). Other important works by Dwight include his contributions to the Transcendentalist periodical The Dial as listed in Joel Myerson, The New England Transcendentalists and the Dial (1980); two related lectures to the New England Fourier Society, Lecture on Association, In Its Connection with Education and Lecture on Association, In Its Connection with Religion (1844); “The Intellectual Influence of Music,” Atlantic Monthly (November 1870); and “The History of Music in Boston,” The Memorial History of Boston, ed. Justin Winsor (1883), volume 4.
Walter L. Fertig’s 1952 Doctoral Thesis (University of Maryland), John Sullivan Dwight: Transcendentalist and Literary Amateur of Music, includes an extensive bibliography of Dwight’s writings, and William G. Heath has prepared a comprehensive bibliographical essay in The Transcendentalists: A Review of Research and Criticism, ed. Joel Myerson (1994). The standard biography is George Willis Cooke’s John Sullivan Dwight: Brook-Farmer, Editor, and Critic of Music (1898), supplemented by Fertig’s Doctoral Thesis. Useful shorter biographies of Dwight include Myerson, The New England Transcendentalists and the Dial; David P. McKay, “Dwight, John Sullivan” in Biographical Dictionary of Transcendentalism, ed. Wesley T. Mott (1996); and in particular, Ora Frishberg Saloman, “John Sullivan Dwight,” The American Renaissance in New England. Third Series [Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 235], ed. Wesley T. Mott (2001).
For information on Brook Farm, with references to Dwight’s activities and contributions, see Lindsay Swift, Brook Farm: Its Members, Scholars, and Visitors (1900); Anne C. Rose, Transcendentalism as a Social Movement, 1830-1850 (1981); Carl J. Guarneri, The Utopian Alternative: Fourierism in Nineteenth-Century America (1991); Richard Francis, Transcendental Utopias: Individual and Community at Brook Farm, Fruitlands, and Walden (1997) and Joel Myerson, Transcendentalism: A Reader (2000). Dwight’s musical theories are discussed in Sterling F. Delano, The Harbinger and New England Transcendentalism: A Portrait of Associationism in America (1983); and Ora Frishberg Saloman, Beethoven’s Symphonies and J. S. Dwight: The Birth of American Music Criticism (1995).
Article by David Robinson
Posted October 6, 2001