John Pierpont Morgan is the glowering face of the Gilded Age. He may have glowered at pesky men with cameras because he was too busy to sit still, but he was also self-conscious because his nose was deformed from rhinophyma. He liked beautiful things, and he was not beautiful.
Born into banking family, Morgan rose to become the greatest financier of his time, building much of his empire on railroads. But he was far more than a shrewd businessman. Fluent in French and German and holding a degree in art history, he became a prodigious collector of books and art, a large portion of which were kept at his house on Madison Avenue and 36th Street — what is now the Morgan Library & Museum.
Given the scale of New York City, the Morgan Library must be counted among Manhattan’s smaller treasures, but the actual library — three tiers of rare and ultra-rare books connected by secret passageways is a wonder to behold. The “museum” portion of the house presents small-scale shows, often with literary themes, and often worth the detour from the city’s more celebrated gigantic warehouses of the arts.
What brings the Morgan Library & Museum to my attention right now is a notice that arrived in my inbox a few weeks ago. The director, Colin B. Bailey, wrote to explain how the Morgan had been moved to respond to the “murder of George Floyd” by undertaking important work “for greater diversity, equity, access and inclusion (DEAI).” In October 2020, the Morgan had launched its “first six-month DEAI Action plan.” First, mind you. But the novelty for me was the “A.” Over here in the world of education, it always just DEI, but I can see that “access” may be a good buzzword for libraries and museums.
These efforts to get right with the “anti-racism” movement are so common as to barely register anymore. It seems like every elite institution wants to murder its own eliteness and then congratulate itself on its descent into inconsequence. In the case of the Morgan:
“The entire staff participated in a series of anti-racism training sessions, and we refreshed our communications and DEAI committee structure to foster dialogue across the organization.
“We also took a careful look at our collection and exhibition practices. We developed critical and ethical guidelines for a more sensitive presentation of our online collection records. We established inclusive language guidelines for Morgan publications and exhibitions. To amplify the voices of women creators and creators of color, we prioritized the imaging of works by these creators in the collection. Staff teams also critically evaluated the museum’s acquisition, interpretation, and presentation strategies to continue to make the Morgan’s collection and exhibitions more accessible to a broader audience.
“We made a thorough review of the Morgan’s public programs and social media content, with the goal to ensure that our entire program reflects and appeals to a more diverse audience. Our staff deepened their commitment to creators from underrepresented groups and multilingual communities. As a result, our audiences now encounter a richer array of content in our lectures, educational programs/curriculum, and across our social media outlets.”
I imagine that the Morgan Library & Museum were open to all sorts of people long before the advent of “inclusive language guidelines” and special amplification for “women creators and creators of color.” But it is important to keep up with the times. Old J.P. certainly did. When the railroad industry peaked, he had already moved into steel.
I have a good friend who says that the best historical model for the United States today is the Gilded Age, which he bookends with the Civil War and “sometime in the 1890s.” His parallels between then and now are “unparalleled wealth,” incredible corruption, the rise of a new elite and — take note — “the “marginalization of blacks.” My friend, Wight Martindale, Jr., has already committed his argument to print, where it can be found in last fall’s issue of the National Association of Scholar’s journal Academic Questions (“The New Gilded Age: We’ve Seen It All Before.”) What’s most arresting is his fourth claim. Who could possibly believe we live in a time characterized by the “marginalization of blacks”?
After all, the house of Morgan — the literal house of Morgan — is tying itself into knots to “prioritize” all things black at the very center of an ultra-rich American’s enthusiasm for the fineries of Old Europe and the heights of Western civilization. Turn on your TV or any streaming service, and at least half of the advertisements are populated by black actors. Go to the movies; watch the award ceremonies; choose whatever cultural index you like, and blackness is prominent. Marginalization? Not hardly.
But Martindale does score some points. “The party to which blacks have thrown their support takes that support for granted, and prioritizes globalist policies like offshoring of jobs and mass legal and illegal immigration, and teacher union opposition to school choice.”
I’d venture a different way to recognize that marginalization — and one entirely in keeping with the logic of the Gilded Age. It was the age of ironic exaggeration, when the largest claims rested on the thinnest base. Consider the figure of James G. Blaine, the American statesman from Maine, “the Plumed Knight,” who served as secretary of state under three Republican presidents (Garfield, Arthur, Harrison), Speaker of the House and presidential candidate. But as early as 1876 he was dogged by stories of taking large bribes from the railroad trusts. “Kindly burn this letter,” he wrote at the bottom of one if his self-incriminating missives. The Democrats rallying behind Cleveland lampooned him — “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the state of Maine” — which may be all that most American school children ever hear about him.
But I will plant him here as the spirit of his age, and leave it to my perspicacious readers to think of a career politician today who has likewise risen to riches on the basis of corrupt deals. It’s a thing.
Ironic exaggeration comes when we not only pretend that something works when we know that it doesn’t, but we further pretend that it works superlatively well. Men who pretend to be women can now be champions in women’s sports. Vaccines that have marginal efficacy are paraded as miracle drugs. And, of course, racial preferences that demean and demoralize are extolled as triumphs of social justice. Are blacks in America marginalized? Perhaps this is how. Eliminate the SATs, bypass any neutral criteria for advancement in education, government or business, and some kind of marginalization is bound to emerge.
J.P. Morgan, being a man of his age, may have understood this flimflammery as part of life in a rambunctious nation where everyone was trying to get ahead. He kept a compartment for himself, however, on Madison Avenue where he reveled in things that had stood the hard tests of time. Perhaps he’d be amused as to what has come of his legacy. But the Morgan Library & Museum isn’t doing anything that unusual. What made me think of its DEAI program was the similar commitment enunciated by the president of the United States to find someone DEAI-ish to fill the coming vacancy on the Supreme Court.