Mary Whitall Smith’s Harvard Annex Readings: A Selection




Tiffany L. Johnston



Among the boxes of archival materials in the Berenson Library are miscellaneous papers—remains of the lives of Mary and Bernard before they ever set eyes on Villa I Tatti. Mary, in particular, had a lifelong habit of recording: diaries, notes on places visited and art works seen, letters to family and acquaintances, and even lists of friends and of books read. Of the many book lists Mary transcribed is the following, found in one of her notebooks. (cat. MS.III.3) It dates from December 1884, the mid-point of her time at the Harvard Annex. By illuminating Mary’s philosophical influences and extracurricular interests in physiology and literature, it offers an intellectual snapshot of her during this pivotal moment. We get a glimpse of the young woman as she was at Harvard, and can surmise how these readings may have shaped Mary and help set the foundation for her later collaboration with Bernard.


1. “Hygienic Physiology” – Steele [Joel Dorman Steele. Hygienic Physiology: with special reference to the use of alcoholic drinks and narcotics. 1884]

This book was edited and endorsed for use in schools by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, an organization with which both Mary and her mother, Hannah Whitall Smith, were greatly involved. The Temperance Movement was the first in the United States to mobilize women and provide them with both a voice and means of demanding and creating social change. The initial focus of the organization was to limit the consumption of alcohol and the resulting degenerative effects upon society. One of their strongest arguments was the ill effect of alcohol on the human body.
     Mary’s interest in hygiene reflects the influence of Dr. Henry Hartshorne, formerly professor of Physiology and Hygiene at the Women’s Medical College. Later, he became president of the Howland School and the East Germantown Girls School, both of which Mary attended under his direction. By December of 1884, Mary had lectured on behalf of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union on hygiene and heredity to church groups as well as to girls at Boston University. She may have been considering Steele’s Hygienic Physiology as a text book or reference for her classes. Years later, Mary’s background in physiology surely aided her implementation of Morellian methods of examination and comparison of anatomical details in Italian Renaissance painting.


2. “Confessions” of St. Augustine [edition consulted, unknown]

Mary’s religious skepticism surfaced during her time at Smith College, then reached its zenith while she studied at Harvard. Hoping to find answers through philosophical inquiry, Mary enrolled in three philosophical classes offered at  the Annex. Josiah Royce’s class on Ethics specifically addressed two particular concepts of which Mary sought a better understanding: duty and God. Many of the solutions proposed by Royce in his course were eventually published in The Philosophy of Loyalty (1908). There he explained how St. Augustine, in a well-known excerpt from his Confessions, addressed these questions:


[St. Augustine] regards God’s will as that in which, and in which alone, our wills can find rest and peace, he indeed makes God’s will the rule of life; but he also shows that the reason why each of us, if enlightened, recognizes the divine will as right, is that, in Augustine’s opinion, God has so made us for himself that our own wills are by nature inwardly restless until they rest in harmony with God’s will. Our restlessness, then, so long as we are out of this harmony, give us the reason why we find it right, if we are enlightened, to surrender our self-will. If you find out, then, what is right and what is good for you, bring your own will to self-consciousness. Your duty is what you yourself will do in so far as you clearly discover who you are, and what your place in the world is. This is, indeed, a first principle of ethical inquiry. [1]


Readings such as this would have strengthened Frank Costelloe’s efforts to convince Mary that she should surrender herself to a life spent with him in the faith of God and in duty to both country and fellow man.


3. Leviathan – Hobbes [Thomas Hobbes. Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiastical and Civil. 1651; edition consulted, unknown]

Hobbes probably formed part of Mary’s reading for her Harvard Annex course with Silas MacVane on the history of constitutional government in England and the United States. The course dealt with constitutional development, much in the tradition of Georg Waitz and his Deutsche Verfassungsgeschichte [German Constitutional History]. MacVane’s teaching had a reputation for being dry and uninteresting, although the material itself was well taught and practical. Leviathan, published in 1651, is regarded as one of the earliest and most important examples of social contract theory. He argued that the political authority of the government derived from the consent of the individuals governed, an idea that would have strengthened Mary’s views on the rights of women. Hobbes also advocated absolute monarchy, but Mary encountered quite a different view in another course she took at the Harvard Annex: English philosophy with lectures on Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, taught by George Herbert Palmer. John Locke, Hobbes’s counterpoint for U.S. constitutional history, argued for the natural rights upon which the Declaration of Independence is based.


4. Part of “Philosophy of Kant” – Caird [Edward Caird. A Critical Account of the Philosophy of Kant, with an Historical Introduction. 1877]

This book was, in all probability, part of the required reading for Royce’s course “Ethics with a study of English Utilitarianism, German Ethics since Kant, and Ethical theories in relation to modern thought and life,” a course of particular interest to Mary. On page 667, Caird argued that Kantian philosophy represented the first necessary stage “in the transition of philosophy to higher forms of Idealism.” Caird’s work was largely in reaction to the empiricist view of Mill, whose work Mary was also reading at the time (see below). Caird, a Scottish philosopher and former chair of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow, had known and taught Frank Costelloe during his time as a student there. It seems likely, therefore, that Mary would have written to Costelloe about Caird and his writings.


5. Marianne - George Sand [1876; edition consulted, unknown]

The essential question Sand addressed in this pastoral novella, written in the last year of her life, was whether a woman could live by her own convictions within a marriage—a question that Mary herself was struggling with during her time at Harvard. Independent of mind and means, Marianne refused to accept a marriage in which she would be objectified or treated as property; she was interested in being a respected and equal partner. She finally accepted marriage to an older, more experienced man only when, in addition to loving her, he understood her need to live without dependency and as an individual. Marianne made it clear that if she could not remain independent in marriage, she would choose not to marry. This sentiment was echoed in Mary’s letter to her parents when she received a marriage proposal from Frank Costelloe, an older and presumably wiser man, only three months after she read Sand’s novel:


I am going to do my best to be reasonable and sensible about it all. I have a very high ideal of marriage, and if I cannot realize it, I shall never marry. If I can, I feel sure that thee and everyone who knows me will be glad to have me do so. And I am sure that if I have time to judge and weigh everything carefully, to see it all in a clear light, that nothing can ever tempt me to lower my ideal, and that I can tell with a reasonable degree of certainty whether I can realize this ideal in the case which is now under discussion. We must leave it therefore until I have some chance to judge clearly. [2]


6. Fumée – Turgéneff [Ivan Turgenev. Smoke. 1867]
7. Journal d'un Homme au Trop – Turgéneff [Ivan Turgenev. Diary of a Superfluous Man. 1850]
8. Dimitri Rondine – Turgéneff [Ivan Turgenev. Rudin. 1856]

Mary began reading Turgenev as a result of her friendship with Walt Whitman, who, according to Mary, ranked him very high among novelists. Mary considered Turgenev’s novels the best she had read for their dramatic power. In a letter to a friend, written a few months before drawing up this list, Mary wrote, “I believe he does not believe in Immortality, and there is a deep sadness in each story that he tells, perhaps, an echo of the author’s fatalism.” [3]
     Certainly Turgenev’s Diary of a Superfluous Man represents more than an echo of his fatalism, as the hero, Chulkaturin, writes the entire narrative from his deathbed. Mary would likely have felt sympathy for the subject, since his romantic sensitivity and suffering, while unappreciated and unnoticed by those around him, are the very things that make his life worth recording. Although Chulkaturin’s plot revolves around proving his own superfluousness by the example of an unrequited love, it concludes with his published narrative living on and immortalizing his life. This likely would have struck an important chord with Mary, who enjoyed the company of writers like Whitman, himself nearing the end of his long life.
     Rudin is the first of Turgenev’s social novels, and its subject represents another of Turgenev’s “superfluous men.” Rudin, a man of evident talent, is unable to find a meaningful place for himself in society. Natalya, the story’s heroine, is described as


the first poetical revelation of a very striking fact in modern Russian history; the appearance of women possessing a strength of mind more finely masculine than that of the men of their time. By the side of weak, irresolute, though highly intellectual men we see in his first three novels energetic, earnest, impassioned women, who take the lead in action, whilst they are but the man’s modest pupils in the domain of ideas. [4]


     The character Rudin is remarkably and hauntingly prescient of Bernard Berenson’s formative years. In his youth, Rudin, like Bernard, was described as a conversationalist with a sharp mind and capacious memory, who drew an audience with his eloquence, defended science and “systems,” yet relied upon others for financial support. It is interesting then to consider Mary’s reaction to the young Berenson, talented, full of potential and searching, but as yet without a defined purpose or direction. She might have remembered that Natalya, fascinated by Rudin’s erudition and eloquent intellectualism, fell in love with the young man but left him when he was unable to act. Mary, in her youth, was both impetuous and headstrong and in contrast to Natalya, she worked hard to motivate her partner to action, urging Bernard to eternalize his life through the publication of books.
     Published eleven years after Rudin, the first of Turgenev's novels on Mary's list was also the latest. In Smoke, when the married Irina, bored with the politically concerned Russian aristocracy, falls in love with Grigory Litvinov whom she knew from her youth in Moscow, she pledges to abandon her husband and their exalted life to be with him. When the critical moment arrives, however, she falters and claims not to have the strength to see it through. Echoing Turgenev's Irina and the Slavophil society which held little interest for her, only six years after reading Smoke, Mary found herself disinterested in her marriage to a man active in the Liberal circles of London politics. Yet when Mary fell in love with Bernard Berenson she did not rescind her decision to leave like Irina, despite the fact that for Mary the cost, which included her children, would be even dearer. Though Mary enjoyed fatalism in novels, evidence suggests that she did not subscribe to it in her own life.


9. Utilitarianism – J. S. Mill [John Stuart Mill. Utilitarianism. 1863]

As with Caird’s book (discussed above), Mary probably read Utilitarianism for Royce’s class as a part of their philosophical discussion of right versus wrong. At the time, Mary was also studying Mill’s Principles of Political Economy for her Annex class with James L. Laughlin and was undoubtedly already familiar with Mill’s 1869 work, The Subjection of Women. According to Mill’s Utilitarianism, happiness in life was defined by the experience of many and various pleasures and could be obtained by, among other things, mental cultivation:


A cultivated mind—I do not mean that of a philosopher, but any mind to which the fountains of knowledge have been opened, and which has been taught, in any tolerable degree, to exercise its faculties—finds sources of inexhaustible interest in all that surrounds it; in the objects of nature, the achievements of art, the imaginations of poetry, the incidents of history, the ways of mankind, past and present, and their prospects in the future. [5]


     A decade after reading Utilitarianism, Mary returned to the question of how “the achievements of art” stimulate interest in the cultivated mind when she edited Bernard Berenson’s second book, The Florentine Painters of the Renaissance. Mary consulted with Bertrand Russell—Mill’s godson, then married to her sister Alys—when she sensed a problem with the philosophical reasoning in Bernard’s theory of pleasure. For Bernard, form that communicated 'tactile values' stimulated our enjoyment of the Florentine painters and was 'life-enhancing.' Russell disputed the idea that pleasure resulted in an enhancement of 'capacity for life.' [6] Mary later reported to Bernard that she and Russell were “at it hammer and tongs over thy theory of ‘pleasure.’” [7] Certainly her philosophical studies at the Harvard Annex had well prepared her to do so.





Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. London, 1871.


Royce, Josiah. The Philosophy of Loyalty. New York, 1916.


Samuels, Ernst. Bernard Berenson: The Making of a Connoisseur. Cambridge, 1979.


Spadoni, Carl. “Bertrand Russell on Aesthetics,” Russell 3 (1984): 49–82.


Strachey, Barbara, and Jayne Samuels, eds. Mary Berenson: A Self-Portrait from Her Diaries and Letters. New York, 1983. Turgenev, Ivan. Rudin, New York, 1906.




[1] Royce 1916, 26–27.


[2] Strachey and Samuels 1983, 28–29.


[3]Mary Berenson to Friend, 15 February 1884. Courtesy, The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington Indiana. Hannah Whitall Smith Papers.


[4] Sergei Stepniak, “Introduction” to Turgenev 1906, xxvi.


[5] Mill 1871, 20.


[6] For more on Russell’s objections, see Spadoni (1984): 49–82.


[7] Samuels 1979, 229.


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