I entered America’s Century in 1924. World War I was over, Europe lay devastated, millions killed—a hundred thousand of them Americans. America had emerged vastly enriched, capitalism sanctified, and with a huge, growing, and largely unacknowledged empire.
Me just born, gums soon sucking on a silver spoon. Slaves, rum, opium, piracy, ruthlessness, hard work, entrepreneurial talent, astute marriages, luck, and thrift—that’s where the spoon came from. The first Cabot to immigrate to America arrived from England in 1700, settling in Salem, by then a thriving port in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This John Cabot soon became a prosperous merchant. His descendants continued as seafaring merchants and branched out into the very profitable businesses of legalized piracy, the slave trade, the rum trade, the Chinese opium trade, and well-chosen marriages. To wealth, to respectability—money, position, power—generations of it.
They left the sea, continued largely as entrepreneurs, though there were some notable doctors, a politician or two. It was dominantly a male ethos with dutiful women. Marriages were careful—no racial mixing, no Catholics, no southern Europeans, no Jews, no non-whites. No prodigals, no spendthrifts, no failures—that I know of—for more than a century. Nor, with some exceptions, did these Cabots fit the stereotype of the Boston Brahmin—the highly educated intellectuals, the humanists, men and women of arts and letters, with permissible leisure—albeit a leisure enabled by the sweat and sufferings of the masses of immigrants, slaves, and the rape of the native populations. No, the Cabots were largely Philistines and political conservatives. My father, his father, others in the line, were industrialists, players in the immense creation of American wealth. These men’s wives were generally supportive but suppressed.
Another piece of the genes of this family was cult-like Puritan morality and a powerful work ethic. My father, his father—brilliant scientific minds, phenomenal memories—they were driven men, working, traveling, adventuring virtually until they died—my grandfather at one hundred and one, my father at ninety-eight.
The moral extremist was my paternal grandfather. His was a principal voice in Boston’s Watch and Ward Society, a small group of self-appointed censors who previewed books and films—salaciously, one would guess—and banned many, much to the delight of the rest of the world, for to be banned-in-Boston was a great sales boost. He was an excessive disciplinarian, unbending as a father and grandfather, self-righteous, tactless to the point of cruelty, rigidly abstemious. The novelist and journalist John Gunther, in reviewing a biography of him, wrote:
Godfrey Cabot was a man who was all at once a demon, a monster, and a worthy citizen typical of his age and milieu…a revelation of the Puritan mentality…Thank goodness the species is extinct.
My father was not that extreme, but he too was racist to a degree, intolerant, with narrow measures of success. He was quite ready to use his powers abusively on “lesser” folk. Though he could be charming, even to those “lesser” people, humiliation was his stock-in-trade.
My mother’s family shared some of the work ethic, but not the razor-sharp mind, the abuse of power, the disdain of others’ dignities. Her father and his brother started life as destitute orphans. Both made good. Banking for one, the other in manufacturing—shoes, including, we grandchildren were told, the copper-toed crush-proof boots for the police force, allegedly giving us “cops.” The two brothers married two sisters, a pattern that was remarkably common among their forebears. They retired comfortably at early ages, the two families living together in the same home. Two loving, non-judgmental families, unconcerned with making their marks on the world—a world they seemed to largely ignore—once they’d achieved genteel comfort.
My mother’s family name was Wellington. It has a distinguished ring to it, but her parents were modest farmers, descendants of immigrants from an obscure English village, Wellington. Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, hero of the Napoleonic wars, when awarded a title, chose to be the Duke of Wellington, where his Irish family owned some property, though he apparently visited the village only once in his life.
Winters, they lived in a graceful Bullfinch brick rowhouse on Beacon Hill, the house where I was born. Summers, the two families would move out of the city to their lovely historic house on a traditional farm with an old-time farming family to run it. Riding and carriage horses, a one-horse sleigh, bells and all—to the delight of my mother and her sisters. Two great Percheron workhorses, Sun and Moon. Cows in a hay barn under an enormous loft with mountains of hay to the rafters—to the delight of us grandchildren.
In sharp contrast to my father’s side, the two families in which my mother grew up had considerable artistic taste. Her Uncle Arthur and his wife Tanta, childless until quite late in life, traveled widely in Europe, accumulating an impressive collection of antique furniture. They were all excellent pianists. My perhaps errant memory sees them sitting at two grand pianos playing eight-handed pieces.
My mother deeply but rather indiscriminately loved music. Not so my father. Music and most of art for him seemed to be inconsequential, even frivolous, bordering on immoral. Mother was a rudimentary pianist, but she loved to play and sing sentimental songs from popular musicals, and have sing-alongs with us of sweet tunes for children. “Leary the Lamplighter” and others are still sung at family reunions
My love for reading came from her. She read everything that came her way—again, it seems to me now, without much discrimination. She subscribed to the Book-of-the-Month Club for years and was a devoted member of a neighborhood ladies book-reading group, their Shakespeare Club. She would read aloud hour after hour to us children—winter evenings in front of the fire, our collie Lucky lying beside us, our father sitting at the other end of the living room reading Fortune magazine. She usually knitted while reading with her book on a music stand. She rarely looked at her flying fingers, though she used the awkward German method—which I can still manage. Dickens, Kipling, novel after novel, story after story. And she excelled at role-playing in her reading.
That role-playing and the novelists she chose to read were no doubt unconscious expressions of her distress at the inequalities and injustices that she observed everywhere. She had a deep reservoir of compassion, though her feelings were usually thwarted or suppressed as a result of the repressive Puritanism of her misogynous environment, and though the emotions she was able to express sometimes lapsed into awkward sentimentality. She bore a profound unease with privilege, even with the thought that privilege should be earnable.
Privilege. An obstacle or a gift? Branded by it or offered opportunity—effete or effective—cosseted or challenged. Dualities I would be dealing with throughout my life.
Excerpt from Time’s Up! A Memoir of the American Century
A veteran of many of the campaigns of World War II, Robert Cabot received degrees from Harvard College and Yale Law School, served for ten years in the Marshall Plan and foreign aid programs in Italy, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Washington, D.C., and resigned from the foreign service in protest over U.S. policy in Southeast Asia. He has since worked with intentional communities, the citizen diplomacy movement, and environmental and social change projects. He has also written several novels, the most recent of which, The Isle of Khería, was published in 2012. Cabot is a fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts, the McDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Ucross Foundation.
Excerpt provided by Rhizomatic