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Aldrich's poetry shows both religious,
intolerance and hints of racism

Click to read "Story of a Bad Boy"
Click to read "Old Town by the Sea"

Salome in 1906You won’t find a bigger fan of Thomas Bailey Aldrich. We’ve got 20 different editions of his breakthrough 1869 novel "Story of a Bad Boy" on the shelf we’ve typed every word of it and "Old Town by the Sea" onto the Internet. We host the only Thomas Bailey Aldrich web site. He was Portsmouth’s best known poet of the 19th century, his grandfather’s home is a local museum and he was editor of the prestigious Atlantic.

But Aldrich was also a bigot. Like most wealthy white Christians of his era, he was fascinated by people of other races and creeds, but never for a moment considered them to be his equal. His racism grew out of a standard boyhood in South before the Civil War and was, despite so-called ethnic "freedom" in the North, was sewn into the fabric of the American class society inherited from out colonial British ancestors. Aldrich spent his later years as an intellectual snob, but a talented one. Mark Twain, a man of much more liberal thinking, admired Aldrich, when he wasn’t being a prig, but despised the poet’s wife who was obsessed with her social standing and her husband’s literary legend.

"The Crescent and the Cross" sets out what, until this century, was the standard Anglod-Christian dogma since long before the Crusades. Read the lyrics to the now politically incorrect hymn "Onward Christian Soldiers" and you’ll get the idea. We’re gunning for you, infidels, it says, because we are on the Lord’s side. God blesses America, not the evil heathen empire. The old rugged cross will show that Muslim crescent who’s boss.

This religious bigotry, insidiously woven into our national Pilgrim past., survives. It survives today, an often confusing mix of religious and racial discrimination. By referring to his Eastern queen as "tawny" and his Christian monk as "pale" Aldrich demonstrates that the rift is racial too. He sees no divinity in the Arabic religion. Millions of Muslims simply missed the path to Heaven, he concludes. The whole culture depresses him because the culture oppresses women and rules with a bloody hand. This sweeping disrespect and distrust is the very essence of racism. There are good guys, it implies, in white hats, and there are bad guys in black hats.

Readers may see, between the lines, continuity between these old 19th century colonial American values and the current direction in the nation’s politics. -- JDR

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The Crescent and the Cross
By Thomas Bailey Aldrich

Kind was my friend, who in the Eastern land,
Remembered me with such a gracious hand,
And sent this Moorish Crescent, which has been
Worn on the tawny bosom of a queen.

No more it sinks and rises in unrest
To the soft music of her heathen breast;
No barbarous chief shall bow before it more,
No turbaned slave shall envy and adore.

I place beside this relic of the Sun
A Cross of Cedar, brought from Lebanon;
One borne, perchance, by some pale monk, who trod
The desert to Jerusalem – and his God!

Here do they lie, two symbols of two creeds,
Each meaning something to our human needs;
Both stained with blood, and sacred made by faith
By tears and prayers, and martyrdom and death.

That for the Moslem is, but his for me!
The waning crescent lacks divinity;
It gives me dreams of battles, and the woes
Of women shut in hushed seraglios.

But when this cross of simple wood I see,
The Star of Bethlehem shines again for me;
And glorious visions break upon my gloom, --
The patient Christ, and Mary at the Tomb!

Original commentary copyright (c) 2003
Photo of an actress playing Salome with the head of
John the Baptist in a 1906 production.


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