When, exactly, did the civilizational collapse that we see underway today get started? Apart from the 1960s, one obvious earlier turning point is the 1920s. Like the ‘60s, the ‘20s were a period of social liberation and rebellion and were marked by the effects of American involvement in a foreign war. As is frequently remarked, the carnage of World War I shattered the faith of many white Westerners in their own civilization. America, unsure of what role to play and geographically distant from the conflict, emerged physically and emotionally intact, but was still profoundly altered by the experience.
In the 1920s, too, the deep changes that took place in American culture had been preceded by decades of the weakening of the foundational beliefs of our society. An excellent reference for understanding how this process may have taken place, at least in the realm of ideas, is The End of American Innocence: A Study of the First Years of Our Own Time: 1912-1917, by Henry F. May (1959; there is also a 1994 edition). May provides an exhaustive discussion of the cultural trends of this brief period, showing that challenges to conservative social institutions, traditional morality, and conventional political processes were well under way even before World War I. It is fascinating as well as disturbing to learn how clear the signs were, even at this early stage, that a profound shift in our culture was taking place.
That some were aware that this shift was happening is demonstrated in the epigram, a quote by George Santayana from 1913: “The present age is a critical one and interesting to live in. The civilization characteristic of Christendom has not yet disappeared, yet another civilization has begun to take its place.” What was the nature of the American portion of Christendom? According to May, in 1912, almost all Americans were in agreement about “three central doctrines” of American civilization. These were: morality, progress, and culture.
May summarizes the American faith in morality characteristic of the time as follows:
The first and central article of faith in the national credo was, as it always had been, the reality, certainty, and eternity of moral values. Words like truth, justice, patriotism, unselfishness, and decency were used constantly, without embarrassment, and ordinarily without any suggestion that their meaning might be only of a time and place. This central commitment entailed several corollaries, often stated and still more often taken for granted. First, most Americans were still certain that moral judgments applied with equal sureness in literature, art, politics, and all other areas. Second, it seemed clear that such judgments could be and must be applied not only to the conduct of individuals but also to the doings of trusts and labor unions, cities and nations. Finally, and this was perhaps the most often stated corollary of all, the United States, as the leader in moral progress, had a special responsibility for moral judgment, even of herself. (p. 9-10)
America’s moralism set her apart from Europe. May mentions as an example the outraged response of Americans in 1906 when they learned that the Russian writer Maxim Gorky had traveled to America with a woman who was not his wife, as detailed here. The power of public moral disapproval at the time is almost unbelievable today. At the same time, as in Europe, new doctrines, including Darwinian evolutionary science and Freudian psychology, were leading some to question the traditional moral verities, especially on sexual matters. The prewar period, in this book, appears more or less as a light period of rebellion which prefigured a much more widespread rebellion in the 1920s.
Early 20th-century America was also the land of progress. May describes the problem of this second American credo as follows:
…the most crucial task for American thinkers was to reconcile a belief in eternal moral truth with the belief in the desirability of change. In the long run this was to prove, as many Victorians had suspected, the weak point in the nineteenth-century faith. In 1912, though, the link between moralism and progress seemed not only firm but inevitable. Good was eternal, but yet developing. The progress of the world was the chief proof of its underlying goodness; the eternal moral truths pointed out a direction for social change.
The idea of progress, according to May, was descriptive: most people at the time believed the world was getting better. It was also prescriptive: working to improve the material and moral condition of society was considered a high imperative. As a result, the era’s unprecedented technological and economic development was accompanied by a variety of movements to root out corruption, waste, and injustice in society. This Progressive movement left as its legacy the income tax, woman suffrage, modern education, Prohibition, and regulation of food, medicine, and industry.
While what was achieved was often laudable, one can see potential problems in the notions of progress prevalent at the time. There was a danger of excessive reliance on governmental regulation and intervention to deal with social ills. More importantly, the idea of “progress” itself could become a kind of civic religion: a belief system that might be pursued to the point of causing real harm, and a faith that might be shattered by real social catastrophes such as World War I. I believe that we can see, in the early 20th century view of progress, an early incarnation of contemporary American liberalism.
The third doctrine of American civilization was the transmission and defense of culture, particularly literary culture. This claim sounds surprising today, and not only because we get most of our entertainment and information from TV, film, and computers. Even those who enjoy literature and art do not generally link this interest with such causes as “civilization” or “morality.” It is hard to imagine that a conservative literary establishment once existed which had real power and which the brightest and best young men sought to join, or challenge. But so it was in America in 1912.
Culture, to most Americans in 1912, did not mean what it was beginning to mean to anthropologists, the sum of a particular area’s customs and institutions. It was not so much a way of describing how people behaved as an idea of how they ought to behave and did not. More specifically, culture in America meant a particular part of the heritage from the European past, including polite manners, respect for traditional learning, appreciation of the arts, and above all an informed and devoted love of standard literature. Standard usually meant British: culture might imply a vague knowledge of the classical and Renaissance tradition, but for the most part it was something that had come via England. This was part of the trouble; Americans for a long time had wanted to construct their own tradition, yet the European and English past was the only past that was available. (p. 30)
May describes faith in “culture” as the weakest of the three faiths, and much of his book is devoted to chronicling the chipping away at the standards and beliefs of the American cultural establishment. Among intellectuals, we meet H.L. Mencken, Walter Lippmann, and others attacking conventional morality (Lippmann: “no moral judgment can decide the value of Life. No ethical theory can announce any intrinsic good…”). Every poet and novelist of the era seems to have been subverting, whether congenially or aggressively, the artistic and moral conventions of the day. (Among those discussed are Sherwood Anderson, Edgar Lee Masters, T.S. Eliot, Amy Lowell, Ezra Pound, Vachel Lindsay, and Carl Sandburg).
The issues raised by this survey of early 20th century American culture are difficult and troubling for an American traditionalist. One sobering fact the book highlights is the very long history and deep-rooted nature of American liberalism. From the late 19th century onward, a “progressive” current can be found in the thought of virtually every American writer or intellectual. The cultural pillar of our modern civilization has a liberal component that cannot be separated out. This is the source of the tension that often arises for the traditionalist in dealing with the classic American writers: the majority of them ARE, in some sense, liberal. In trying to enlist their thoughts in service of American civilization, it thus becomes necessary to sort carefully through their spoken and unspoken assumptions and decide what we want to keep and what to get rid of. Of course, more “conservative” literature can no doubt be found if we plumb the old newspapers, sermons, etc., but the mainstream has long been liberal. Even in the realm of religion, the Social Gospel favored by the middle class prefigured today’s liberal Christianity.
The pillar of traditional morality is certainly one that needs to be restored to our society; but we will have to separate it once and for all from the other pillar, that of progress. It is no longer possible for us to see America as “the leader in moral progress,” a conceit which has made us blind to the real moral decline in our society and susceptible to believing that our supposed moral goodness can serve to defend us from enemies and invaders. Russell Kirk explains the conservative mistrust of the idea of a “mystical Progress, with a Roman P,” as follows:
When a society is progressing in some respects, usually it is declining in other respects. The conservative knows that any healthy society is influenced by two forces, which Samuel Taylor Coleridge called its Permanence and its Progression. The Permanence of a society is formed by those enduring interests and convictions that give us stability and continuity; without that Permanence, the fountains of the great deep are broken up, society slipping into anarchy. The Progression in a society is that spirit and that body of talents which urge us on to prudent reform and improvement; without that Progression, a people stagnate.
May devotes little space to discussing the issues of race, immigration, and religion that have proven, nearly 100 years later, to be the realms where the life or death of our civilization would be determined. In fact, the issues of today were all prefigured in early 20th century America, but their impact on the national life, serious as it was, was eminently manageable compared to today’s situation. Eastern European and Jewish immigration, fueled, as today, by a demand for cheap labor, deeply disturbed some, like Henry James, who “had found a trip to Ellis Island a profound shock; he could not get over, let alone accept, the ‘claim of the alien, however immeasurably alien, to share in one’s supreme relation.’” Others, like Harvard president Charles W. Eliot, believed the newcomers could be assimilated. The entire cultural establishment agreed, however, that America was an “Anglo-Saxon” civilization. As for blacks, a kind of complacency about their inferior condition seems to have been the rule for the era, based on the belief that they had proven themselves unequal to the opportunity emancipation had granted them:
Most believers in idealism and progress had concluded, with varying degrees of regret, that Negro equality was an impossible dream. It was to be a long time before the Negro himself was to be in a position for revolt, but his exclusion impaired the whole cheerful picture. Soon some young rebels were to notice this dangerous exception. (p. 122-3)
Obviously, neither the amazing partial successes nor the devastating, intractable failures of the later attempt to fully integrate blacks into American society could have been imagined a century ago.
One final thing to note about the progressive intellectuals of early 20th century America: most of them are virtually forgotten today. The great revolutionary European thinkers, like Marx and Nietzsche, still appear in college courses; but the writings of Lippmann or even Woodrow Wilson are little read today. In working, in their various ways, to manage, change, and level American society, breaking it open for radicals who disdained rational dialogue and aliens who sought raw power, could it be that these men, many of them brilliant, ensured their own obsolescence? In any event, retracing the steps some of them took may help us to understand how we arrived where we are now.