T.J. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920.
Lists: 19th Century, 20th Century.
Subjects: Gilded Age, Intellectual History, Elite Culture, Modernity, Antimodernism.

When the intellectual and cultural elite of the Gilded Age grappled with the brave new world emerging all around them, suggests T.J. Jackson Lears's No Place of Grace, they more often as not hearkened to the past rather than setting their chins to the future. The book, which explores "the origins and effects of American antimodernism, particularly its dominant form -- the recoil from an 'overcivilized' modern existence to more intense forms of physical or spiritual experience supposedly embodied in medieval or Oriental cultures," ultimately finds that the antimodernist movement was "a complex blend of accommodation and protest" that formed "part of a much broader quest for intense experience." (xv)

In trying to articulate an antimodern alternative to the emerging cultural order, Lears argues, fin-de-siecle elites inadvertently hastened modernity's rise to supremacy, by grounding all of their chosen symbols in terms easily adaptable to secular, therapeutic uses. As he puts it, "[e]mbracing premodern symbols as alternatives to the vagueness of liberal Protestantism or the sterility of nineteenth-century positivism, antimodern seekers nevertheless adapted those symbols for modern ends. Craftsmanship became less a path to satisfying communal work than a therapy for tired businessmen. The martial ideal ennobled a quest for the Grail but a quest for foreign markets. Even Catholic mysticism, art, and ritual were adjusted to secular purposes. They became instruments for promoting intense experience, rather than paths to salvation. By exalting 'authentic' experiences as an end in itself, antimodern impulses reinforced the shift from a Protestant ethos of salvation through self-denial to a therapeutic ideal of self-fulfillment in this world through exuberant health and intense experience. The older morality embodied the 'producer culture' of an industrializing, entrepreneurial society; the newer nonmorality embodied the 'consumer culture' of a bureaucratic corporate state. Antimodernists were far more than escapists: their quests for authenticity eased their own and others' adjustments to a streamlined culture of consumption." (xvi) (Lears discusses the relationship between consumerism and the authentic quest further in a more recent book, Fables of Abundance.)

Lears' theoretical project in No Place of Grace, besides illuminating the anxious, agonizing mental world of fin-de-siecle intellectuals, is to complicate Antonio Gramsci's concept of "cultural hegemony" by introducing Freud to the equation. As he puts it, "I want to revise Gramsci by drawing on Freud: to show that a change in cultural hegemony stems not only from deliberate persuasion by members of a dominant class but also from half-conscious hopes and aspirations which seem to have little to do with the public realm of class relations. I want to show how the responses of certain influential Americans to personal frustration had unintended social results: the revitalization and transformation of their class's cultural hegemony." (xvii)

Lears begins by exploring the origins and parameters of the "psychic crisis" that afflicted post-bellum intellectuals. Central to the concerns of the antimodernists, of course, were the cultural encroachments of modernity, perhaps most importantly the "changes wrought by the urban-industrial transformation" on the concept of the autonomous self. These ranged much wider and deeper than simply "the craving of comfort and the triumph of clock time," although both these innovations date to this time. (11) For Lears, the center of "nineteenth-century bourgeois morality," a morality that "equate[d] material and moral progress" even more than we do today, was "the autonomous individual, whose only moral master was himself. For centuries," he writes, "the internal dynamic of bourgeois individualism had been undermining all the older, external forms of moral authority -- the authority of king over subject, priest over communicant, master over slave. Freed from older constraints, each masterless man needed a moral gyroscope to keep him on course or else market society might dissolve into a chaos of self-seeking individuals...[Thus] even as they attacked the old, external forms of moral authority, bourgeois moralists labored to create a new, internalized mode of moral authority." (12-13)

But this autonomous, independent, and abstemious self came under withering attack from several forces of modernity, including industrialism (which removed independence from the work regime), secularization (which called into question the self-policing of religion), and extreme environmental change (leading to a increased perception of unreality and "weightlessness.") As a result, the bourgeois self fragmented into various, splintered, irrational selves. "By the end of the nineteenth century," writes Lears, "the self seemed neither independent, nor unified, nor fully conscious, but rather interdependent, discontinuous, divided, and subject to the play of unconscious or inherited impulses. The older conception of the self had been the foundation of the bourgeois worldview; the newer one undermined that foundation at every point. The older conception was solid, the new one insubstantial." (38)

From out this crisis of the self, antimodernism emerged to full flower. "Transatlantic in scope and sources," Lears discovers, "antimodernism drew on venerable traditions as well as contemporary cultural currents: republican moralism, which promoted suspicion of urban 'luxury'; romantic literary convention, which elevated simple and childlike rusticity over the artificial amenities of civilization; a revolt against postivism, gathering strength toward the end of the century, which rejected all static intellectual and moral systems, often in the name of a vitalist cult of energy and process; and a parallel recovery of the primal, irrational forces in the human psyche, forces which had been obscured by the evasive banality of modern culture." (57)

Having outlined the problem, Lears then spends much of the book exploring in detail the early embrace and subsequent co-optation of the various antimodernist enterprises, from the artisanal critiques of labor made by John Ruskin, William Morris, and the Arts and Craft Movement, to the militarism and muscularity embraced by Brooke Adams, Teddy Roosevelt and advocates of the Strenuous Life, to the medieval, oriental, and primitivist "mentalities" encouraged by such thinkers as Elizabeth Robins, William Bigelow, and G. Stanley Hall respectively. "Given [the] variety of sources," writes Lears, "it is not surprising that the antimodern impulse led in a variety of directions. To a bourgeoisie which seemed stagnant and vulnerable to revolution, some antimodern critics exalted robust simplicity, moral certainty, and the ability to act decisively. This activist version of antimodernism preached regeneration through preindustrial craftsmanship and a pastoral 'simple life,' or posed the violent lives of medieval warriors as a refreshing contrast to the blandness of modern comfort. Other more inward-turning antimodernists escaped the emotional constraints of bourgeois life and the spiritual limitations of a positivistic or therapeutic outlook by exploring the joys and terrors of medieval or Oriental religious belief. Those who recognized the problematic qualities of modern identity sought a wider selfhood by embracing the 'childlike' or 'feminine' aspects of premodern character. Disparate as these odysseys were, these critics shared a common view that modern culture had narrowed the range and diffused the intensity of human existence. They longed to rekindle possibilities for authentic experience, physical or spiritual -- possibilities they felt had existed once before, long ago." (57)

But, as noted before, this rooting of the new self in "authenticity" proved to be catastrophic to the antimodernists. For such a foundation proved easily erodable by the emerging power of consumerism and bureaucracy. The pursuit of authentic experience in a secular age often became circular and self-referential," remarks Lears. "In the West, particularly the United States, intensity of feeling -- physical, emotional, even spiritual -- became a product to be consumed like any other." (300) In other words, "antimodern longings for authentic experience, by promoting the self-absorption of the therapeutic world view, provided fertile ground for the growth of the twentieth century corporate system...In part, antimodernism was a reaction against the psychic effects of bureaucratization and secularization -- the sense of impotence, the feeling of 'weightless' unreality; but it also helped to reinforce those tendencies by accelerating the therapeutic search for well-being, which in turn accommodated the individual to the sources of his anxiety." (303-304)

In sum, while some antimodern arguments have managed to maintain a patina of their social protest origins, more often than not they have served to undergird the premises of modernity rather than to undermine them. In trying to recreate the self by appealing to older, "larger framework[s] of meaning outside the self," antimodernists "presented their most effective protest, [but] when they succumbed to the dominant ethos of individual fulfillment, they lost moral force and faltered." (306)

Lears concludes by arguing that this antimodern dilemma is the same that has afflicted every generation of reformers since. "Like their antimodern precursors," he writes, "contemporary seekers of authenticity often lack any but the vaguest ethical or religious commitments. Their obsession with 'meaning' masks its absence from any frame of reference outside the self. Their preoccupation with will and choice underscores an inability to will or choose. What begins in discontent with a vapid modern culture ends as another quest for self-fulfillment -- the dominant ideal of our sleeker, therapeutic modern culture." To take just one example, Lears cites "the cultural radicals of the 1960s, whose 'revolution' was rapidly transformed into a consumer bonanza of stereos, designer jeans, and sex aids." (306) Yet, despite these continual failures (and the distressing example of Nazi Germany as "the ultimate extension of one form of antimodernism"), Lears believes that the antimodern impulse has still "preserved a profounder tradition of dissent than that embodied in communalism or decentralism, a tradition animated by cults of inner experience but often seeking self-transcendence and hoping for infinite meaning." (309)

George Chauncey examines this same fin-de-siecle cultural crisis in light of gender in Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, while William Leach also considers the hegemonic rise of a therapeutic worldview at this time in Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture. For more on No Place of Grace, also consult my essay, "The Promise of American Lives: Heroic Individuality and Democratic Virtue in the Writings of Herbert Croly" in the Writings section.

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