The Long View: Terrible Honesty

In passing, this is a pretty funny comment on my own review of The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise.

The problem with the academic writers on the subject, he complained, was the same that bedeviled writers on Spanish history: both seemed to be infected by the insanity they were describing.

I enjoy this review because it is a view of the relatively recent past [from the author's point of view], written in the very recent past [from our point of view]. Thus, we have a feminist scholar of the mid-1990s, who with some justice described the overwhelming power of women and women's interests in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries.

I suspect that last sentence would be incomprehensible for many college-educated Americans today. However, this is simply the truth. Because we have since repealed the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution, it is too easy to dismiss the magnitude of its initial ratification. If you can imagine a United States without the repeal of Prohibition, can you also envision the effort needed today to pass a Constitutional amendment to prohibit the sale of alcohol? It seems strange, right? Even though in some sense Prohibition did exactly what it claimed to do.

Age–adjusted death rates of liver cirrhosis by gender, 1910–1932 in death registration States, and 1933–1997 in entire United States

Age–adjusted death rates of liver cirrhosis by gender, 1910–1932 in death registration States, and 1933–1997 in entire United States

The gap between what is imaginable now and what actually happened then is how much power female-dominated movements like Temperance had at the time. However, it is probably also a mistake to think you can easily map the concerns of a 19th-century feminist like Susan B. Anthony onto current politics.

I also enjoyed Douglas' description of Freud:

Douglas cites James's judgment of him as a monomaniac, a man of "fixed ideas" whom it was best just to humor. She spends many pages describing how Freud refused to follow up implications of his own theories that seemed to lead in uncongenial directions. He did not so much debate with his critics as issue unfavorable diagnoses of them.

Unfortunately, Freud continues to be popular.

Terrible Honesty

Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s
by Ann Douglas
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995
ISBN 0-374-11620-2

Eschropolis on the Hudson

Herbert Butterfield, the renowned historian of science, once lamented the fact there was no good history of alchemy. The problem with the academic writers on the subject, he complained, was the same that bedeviled writers on Spanish history: both seemed to be infected by the insanity they were describing. Something of the sort might also be said of this long, selective history of the Jazz Age (roughly from the end of the First World War to the crash of 1929) as reflected in the cultural life of Manhattan. In the last paragraph of the book, Ann Douglas (an Americanist who has taught at various Ivy League schools) offers the judgment: "The 1920s could be said to have perfected the idea of history as instant is hard to use irony on those who perfected it...The men and women of the urban 1920s remain, as they wished and aimed to be, in some sense culturally invulnerable, impervious to historical hindsight..." This startling assessment begins to make sense in the light of Douglas's more plausible observation that modern civilization (or maybe better, the current phase of modernity) only really jelled in the 1920s. It is understandable, therefore, if the worldview of that decade still seems somehow obvious and unanswerable. The assessment may be understandable, but it is still wrong.

The basic thesis of this book, that the self-consciously masculine 1920s were a reaction to the "matriarchal" late Victorian era, is unexceptionable. The reality was, perhaps, less richly gendered than Douglas's theoretical apparatus requires, but then these are the 1990s, and historians have a perfect right to ride their own era's hobbyhorses. Her previous major work, The Feminization of American Culture (1977), described the overwhelming cultural power which women and women's interests wielded in America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The great literary names from the 19th century may be those of such men as Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe, but most bestsellers were books like Pollyanna and Little Women. The bulk of the literature of the period was by women for women. Like any period's popular literature, most of it wasn't very good by any standard. It was prolix, sentimental, falsely optimistic. The era exuded moral uplift and positive thinking. The Mark Twains and the Ambrose Bierces might condemn and satirize the treacly literature of their country, but to no avail. It was enough to drive a man to drink, which it did until the female Prohibitionists outlawed alcohol.

What was true of literature was also true of the nation's spiritual life. The turn of the century was the sunset of the age of table-rapping mediums, who promised to take all the nastiness out of death. It was also the golden age of what has been called "the Great American Mind Cure." Mary Baker Eddy and her doctrine of Christian Science perfectly represented the determination of late Victorian Americans that there were no unpleasant facts. The truly pure of heart believed there no facts at all, simply appearances that we create in our own minds and that can be cured through mental effort. All the mainline Protestant churches were infected to some degree by the cult of the non-judgmental Mother-Father God which Eddy preached.

The intellectual life of the era was not a total waste, of course. Douglas's model of sanity and wisdom is the Harvard psychologist, William James. He was a rigorous thinker who yet did not belittle the traditional concerns of the spiritual life. James, however, with his moderation and empiricism, was not suited to preside over the opening decade of modern civilization. He was too accommodating, too optimistic, more like a favorite uncle than the vengeful patriarch the emerging national mood required. Although Sigmund Freud thought of the United States in rather the way that Billy Sunday thought about New Orleans, he nevertheless was elected the national vengeful patriarch by acclamation. The election, of course, was held among the writers and intellectuals of Manhattan.

Douglas makes the interesting observation that the popular Freudianism of the 1920s had a lot in common with the Neo-Orthodoxy which was beginning to spread though the elite seminaries. (It was also related, perhaps, to the popular fundamentalism which became prominent at about the same time.) The bare-bones protestant theology promoted in the early decades of the twentieth century by people like Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr was not "orthodox" in the sense of adhering to a keen belief in the supernatural or in the literal inerrancy of scripture. It was primarily concerned with the reality of evil and the moral necessity of a sense of sin. Neo-Orthodoxy was a kind of Calvinism that made damnation almost inevitable, but without strongly affirming the reality of the afterlife. It was thus closely associated in mood with the grim moral universe implied by Freud's psychology. Freud's metaphysics was reductionist enough to make traditional moral reasoning appear as an evasion of harsh realities or as a mask for disreputable lusts. Freud did, however, rigorously uphold the reality of true and false, reality and illusion, adult and infantile. As in Calvin's Geneva, the percentage of the population who could be judged to fall into the class of the healthy elect was austerely small. But the moderns at least had this advantage, that they lived in the new dispensation when sanity was theoretically possible. The people in the whole of the past, on the other hand, had lived in the darkness of social and religious illusion. The moderns of the 1920s, particularly those of Manhattan, therefore strove to make the best of their sour privilege and to describe the world as it really was.

The "terrible honesty" cultivated by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker and Eugene O'Neill and their contemporaries was in fact a much fiercer enterprise than the "irony" which passes for wisdom in the 1990s. Its enduring monument is the muscle-and-bone narrative prose of Hemingway, who ruled literary New York from Paris in those years. Its most conspicuous manifestations at the time, however, were the new social mores and deliberately jarring popular arts of the Jazz era. As with the Neo-Oxthodox theologians, 1920s modernism was a movement of moral condemnation, though what was being condemned was the conventional morality of the nineteenth century. In former ages, writers had been known to drink themselves to death. For writers who were young in the 1920s, in contrast, perpetual inebriation became a matter of principle. It was a protest against the derisory attempt by the Boobus Americanus (to use H. L. Mencken's classification) to impose Susan B. Anthony's morality on the whole country. The same impulse toward reverse evangelism was felt even by those writers who purported to be relativizing all moral systems. In these years, the young Margaret Mead made cultural anthropology a popular literary genre with her somewhat fanciful account of the lives of young people in Samoa. However, it was always clear that the primary goal of her study was not to relativize the cultures of the America and Samoa, but to condemn the Judeo- Christian morality of America. This, of course, is an old procedure: eighteenth century Enlightenment philosophers concocted similarly inaccurate accounts of Chinese civilization with which to shame their own societies. The moderns knew that cultural anthropology was different, however. It was science, just like Freudian psychology. Therefore, it could be relied on to reveal the unvarnished truth.

In retrospect, what is most striking about the leading lights of the 1920s was their willful mendacity. Freud, the great archon of the age, was basically a gifted crank. Douglas cites James's judgment of him as a monomaniac, a man of "fixed ideas" whom it was best just to humor. She spends many pages describing how Freud refused to follow up implications of his own theories that seemed to lead in uncongenial directions. He did not so much debate with his critics as issue unfavorable diagnoses of them. The writers were even worse. Hemingway, as his third wife noted in later years, was "the biggest liar since Munchhausen." His three weeks as an ambulance driver on the Italian front during the First World War became in reminiscence a military career of Alexandrine proportions. During the Spanish Civil War, he became an apologist for the Communist line on the conduct of the war and the nature of the Spanish Republic. H. L. Mencken spent his days writing tendentious editorials and his nights making up the references for The American Language out of whole cloth. (Well, some of them.) The lesser lights in Manhattan followed suit, as their capacities allowed. To be honest, particularly to be "terribly honest," did not mean being as factual and logical as you could. It meant denigrating the right old things, and cultivating the right new things.

The chief right new thing that progressive Manhattanites were supposed to cultivate in the 1920s was black culture. About half the book is given over to the decade's "Harlem Renaissance" and the early years of jazz as a mainstream cultural force. Much of this discussion is more like an adulatory prose-poem than a history. It is disfigured by the sort of factoids found in a bad Black Studies course. Thus, we learn that Aesop was black. In the dialectic of black and white culture, we are told, it is the former that contains the latter, since only black people see America as it truly is. Douglas has rather a lot to say about an entity call "Euro-America," a community that is of the same order as Black America and in many ways inferior to it. Despite Douglas's credulity, however, it is not hard to pick out the threads of what happened during those years in the interface between the avant garde culture of Manhattan and the lively subculture in the island's most famous neighborhood.

The writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance, ranging from Langston Hughes to W.E.B. Du Bois to Fats Waller, really did not have the same set of interests as their neighbors in the more southerly reaches of the island. They were not undergraduate nihilists; they thought of themselves as creators, not critics. Middle class status was something to be devoutly wished for rather than denigrated. They were often spiritual to a degree that would have ostracized their white counterparts from intellectual life entirely. The writers, at least, were more likely to be homosexuals and less likely to be drunks. Even the early jazz artists were not bohemian in the sense that white artists aspired to be. They often had some early classical training, and they expanded their art to encompass classical techniques they encountered in later life. All the participants in the Renaissance, of course, were still subject to insult and outrage because of their race. Harlem, however, compared to the deep South where many of them came from, was an oasis of equity and prosperity. The Harelm Renaissance as a whole was conspicuously optimistic in the context of the contemporary West.

Lower Manhattan was part of the international cultural system which included the London of the "Bright Young Things" and the Berlin of the Weimar Republic. Had the people of Harlem been some insular white ethnic group, the Manhattan avant garde would have dismissed them as provincials. This, after all, was what they (and Douglas) did to Yiddish-speaking New York of the time, which was the golden age of Yiddish theatre. As it was, however, lower Manhattan saw to it that one element of the Renaissance, the music, was spread throughout the world. Lower Manhattan did not particularly want to hear what upper Manhattan had to say. In essence, the Renaissance was set upon by fashionable white people in search of the noble savage.

To judge from this account, some of these people may have been vampires. The novelist Langston Hughes's wealthy theosophical patroness, for instance, tyrannized over the black artists she supported like a mad guru over a cult. Douglas tells the sad story of how young heiress Nancy Cunard attached herself in a long-term relationship to a black musician, deliberately ruining her own life and coming close to ruining his, all in a successful effort to alienate her imperturbable mother. On the other hand, jazz and blues permitted some black artists to break the bonds of patronage entirely. The blues-singing divas of the 1920s were the prototypes of rock singers later in the century. They were the first class of poor people with little or no education to rise to wealth and prominence by virtue of their ability to produce entertainment for the mass media. Like the rock stars, many of them came to early ends. However, they were also the first class of black entertainers who were able to perform in a medium that did not, like the old minstrel shows, require them to act at least in part like buffoons.

None of this might have done any harm, had it not been for the transmutation of the black man into a new cultural archetype. Jung and D. H. Lawrence led the way early in the century with their blather about America having a black subconscious. The cult of the cthonic wisdom of the Negro began in earnest in the 1920s. It has persisted to this day, and this book might serve as one of its sacred texts. The process of myth-building must be understood in the context of larger developments within Western civilization as a whole. The end of the First World War marked the beginning of the manufacture of improbable countries out of sometimes wholly imaginary ethnic groups. Each of these countries had to be outfitted with a native language, an ancient history, a national soul rooted in the soil. In the 1920s, black people became America's "peasants." They became, at least for the avant garde, the source of primordial folk-wisdom to which city intellectuals might repair, if they could bear to hear the fundamental truth. Curiously, the truths about sexual liberation and the impulsive side of human nature which white intellectuals thought they were hearing from black culture, particularly from black music, were an awful lot like what Margaret Mead thought the Samoan teenagers had told her. Actually, it also sounded very much like what the New Yorkers' own subconsciouses were saying, at least according to their psychoanalysts. This harmony of inspiration was surely the voice of Being speaking, just as Heidegger would argue that the soul of the German people was being articulated through the Nazi Party. Some realities are so terrible they have to be true.

Can anyone really find creatures who thought things like this to be "impervious to historical hindsight"? Only a few years later, C.S. Lewis neatly skewered the "Bright Young Things" of the same period in his allegory, Pilgrim's Regress (1933). There they appear simply as "the Clevers" of the city of Eschropolis ("Acid City"). They cultivate "savage disillusionment" for the amusement of Mr. Mammon, all the while drinking repulsive drinks and carrying on vicious personal invective. There really isn't very much to them. Perhaps this assessment by a contemporary helps to establish the "invulnerability" of the epoch, since the criticism comes from the epoch itself, but I don't think so. Lewis's satire was based precisely on the perennial principles which the 1920s thought to be permanently discredited. His view of the matter, which was humorous but not ironic, has more resonance for people today than does the Jazz Age's view of itself

The leading lights of Jazz Age Manhattan believed many things very strongly, and they disbelieved other things more strongly still. Still, their beliefs and unbeliefs were both insubstantial, frivolous, a matter of entertainment rather than thought. For all their professed determination to know the truth, they were singularly incurious and therefore gullible. Throughout the 1920s, they chug-a-lugged the Freudian snake oil without pausing for a skeptical breath. In the 1930s, before their outraged livers exploded, they became the most strident and obedient of Stalinists. At least from this reviewer's perspective, the 1920s were barren of deep insight into the human condition or the American soul. The great ones of that age left us serviceable styles of prose and architecture, and a gallery of short, vivid lives. They also left us in a trance of willful self-delusion, from which we have yet to wholly awaken.

This article originally appeared in the October 1995 issue of Culture Wars magazine.

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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  Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s By Ann Douglas