By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
Culture and Consumption
Progressives and the Culture of the Twenties
IV. The Triumph of the Cynics
Mencken of course, had been contemptuous of democracy and public opinion before it was fashionable. To take one of innumerable examples, in 1920 Mencken had applauded General Leonard Wood's "genuine desire to find out what would be to the public interest, i.e. to the public as he understands the word, i.e. to the propertied classes and their kept idealists, of whom I have the honor to be one." In the New Era, Mencken's time had come. "His name, already the war cry of the younger generation, is beginning to penetrate all quarters, even the most holy and reverend," proclaimed one writer in 1921. "One finds him everywhere." F. Scott Fitzgerald declared that he valued no man's opinion more.2
By 1926, with the world seemingly come around to his point of view, Mencken published arguably his most full-throated attack on these cherished idols of progressivism. "Democratic man," he announced in his 1926 book Notes on Democracy, "began as an ideal being, full of ineffable virtues and romantic wrongs -- in brief as Rousseau's noble savage...The fact continues to have important consequences to this day":
It remains impossible, as it was in the Eighteenth Century, to separate the democratic idea from the theory that there is a mystical merit, an esoteric and ineradicable rectitude, in the man at the bottom of the scale -- that inferiority, by some strange magic, becomes a sort of superiority -- nay the superiority of superiorities…Down there, one hears, lies a deep, illimitable reservoir of righteousness and wisdom. What baffles statesmen is to be solved by the people, instantly and by a sort of seraphic intuition. Their yearnings are pure; they alone are capable of a perfect patriotism; in them is the only hope of peace and happiness on this lugubrious ball! The cure for the evils of democracy is more democracy! 3This belief, Mencken contended, "is now more preposterous than ever before," for "[t]he dictatorship of the proletariat, tried here and there, has turned out to be -- if I may venture a prejudiced judgment -- somewhat impracticable. Even the most advanced Liberals, observing the thing in being, have been moved to cough sadly behind their hands." It wasn't just experience that suggested such, Mencken argued, but science. "Man comes into the world weak and naked, and almost as devoid of intelligence as an oyster," he wrote, citing John B. Watson and the Behaviorists, "but he brings with him a highly complex and sensitive susceptibility to fear…Make a loud noise behind an infant just born, and it will shake like a Sunday-school superintendent taken in adultery." This innate fear, Mencken argued, was why "the plain people, under democracy, never vote for anything, but always against something," which "explains, in large measure the tendency of democratic states to pass over statesmen of genuine imagination and sound ability in favor of colourless mediocrities. The former are shining marks, and so it is easy for demagogues to bring them down; the latter are preferred because it is impossible to fear them."4
Mencken also invoked Freud to explain the innate flaws of Homo Boobiens, although "[i]n these sad days, when every flapper has read Freud and ponders on the libido, there is no need, I take it, for me to explain" the effects of hormones on the human mind - Suffice to say "the new child psychology confirms the observations of the Freudians, and reinforces their allegation that even the most tender and innocent infant may be worthy of suspicion." These inherent human flaws, for Mencken, were most evident in the agrarian "yokel." "They may be safely assumed, I believe, to represent the lowest caste among civilized men. They are the closest, both in their avocations and in their mental processes, to primeval man…The yokel hates everyone who is not a yokel -- and is afraid of everyone. He is democratic man in the altogether…The city proletarian may be flustered and run amok by ideas - ideas without any sense, true enough, but still ideas. The yokel has room in his head for only one. That is the idea that God regards him fondly, and has a high respect for him -- that all other men are out of favour in heaven and abandoned to the devil." As such, "Democracy, as a political scheme, may be defined as a device for releasing this hatred born of envy, and for giving it the force and dignity of law."5
Educating most men out of this primordial state, Mencken sighed, was quite impossible. "Of the sciences, as of the fine arts, the average human being, even in the most literate and civilized of modern States, is as ignorant as the horned cattle in the fields…Such things lie beyond his capacity for learning, and he has no curiosity about them." Nor was a moral education of much use, for most of the time "the common man…has no yearning for moral perfection. What ails him in that department is simply fear of punishment, which is to say, fear of his neighbours. He has, in safe privacy, the morals of a variety actor." Does the average human desire liberty? Of course not. "The truth is that the common man's love of liberty, like his love of sense, justice, and truth, is almost wholly imaginary…[H]e is not actually happy when free; he is uncomfortable, a bit alarmed, and intolerably lonely. He longs for the warm, reassuring smell of the herd, and is willing to take the herdsman with it." In short, all of this, Mencken said, was "man on the nether levels:"
Such is the pet and glory of democratic states. Human progress passes him by…He still believes in ghosts, and has only shifted his belief in witches to the political sphere. He is still a slave to priests, and trembles before their preposterous magic. He is lazy, improvident and unclean…He can imagine nothing beautiful and he can grasp nothing true. Whenever he is confronted by a choice between two ideas, the one sound and the other not, he chooses almost infallibly, and by a sort of pathological compulsion, the one that is not…What is worth knowing he doesn't know and doesn't want to know; what he knows is not true.6To Mencken, not even the simple Christian faith of Democratic man redeemed him. "I simply answer, What faith? Is it argued by any rational man that the debased Christianity cherished by the mob in all the Christian countries of to-day has any colourable likeness to the body of ideas preached by Christ? The plain fact is that this bogus Christianity has no more relation to the system of Christ than it has to the system of Aristotle. It is the invention of Paul and his attendant rabble-rousers - a body of men exactly comparable to the corps of evangelical pastors of to-day, which is to say, a body devoid of sense and lamentably indifferent to common honesty." Most contemporary Christians, Mencken declared, "would be repelled by Christ's simple and magnificent reduction of the duties of man to the duties of a gentleman."7
From the average American to Christianity, no sacred cow, as ever, was safe from Mencken's withering pen in Notes from Democracy. Public opinion? "Public opinion, in its raw state, gushes out in the immemorial form of the mob's fears. It is piped to central factories, and there it is flavoured and coloured and put into cans." Progressivism? At least earlier despotisms had "refrained from attempts to abolish sin, poverty, stupidity, cowardice, and other such immutable realities…Now, each and every human problem swings into the range of practical politics. The worst and oldest of them may be solved facilely by traveling bands of lady Ph.D.'s, each bearing the mandate of a Legislature of kept men, all unfaithful to their protectors." What of the long-cherished pursuit of happiness? "Here the irony that lies under all human aspiration shows itself: the quest for happiness, as always, brings only unhappiness in the end."8
In Mencken's final analysis, the only positive attribute of American democracy was that it was a carnival of the grotesque. "Try to imagine anything more heroically absurd! What grotesque false pretences! What a parade of obvious imbecilities! What a welter of fraud! But is fraud unamusing?...I offer the spectacle of Americans jailed for reading the Bill of Rights as perhaps the most gaudily humorous ever witnessed in the modern world." In sum, Mencken concluded, for all its faults "I enjoy democracy immensely. It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing."9
Mencken's Notes on Democracy was not saying anything particularly new. Along with the recent revelations of Freud and Watson, it drew on criticisms of democracy that were derived from de Tocqueville and Nietzsche and had been mirrored by Bernays and Lippmann. As The Nation argued, the book was "essentially a burlesque translation of Mr. Mencken's personal prejudices in favor of the Rabelaisian life into the form of a social manifesto…The effect is a huge practical joke on the last century and a half in that highly civilized preposterous vein which is Mencken's genius." Still, Mencken's mordant jester's tone and idol-smashing approach to every topic was, by all accounts, enormously influential. Indeed, his cynicism was all the more corrosive to progressive values for being proven, time and time again, to be prescient. After Notes on Democracy was published, Lippmann called Mencken "the most powerful personal influence upon this whole generation of educated people," and thought his writings had had "an extraordinarily cleansing and vitalizing effect," while Edmund Wilson called the book "quite remarkable…a sort of obverse of Whitman's Leaves of Grass." Naturally, the book was more popular in the urban centers that shared its prejudices. While Notes on Democracy did not sell particularly well nationwide, one reporter encountered seven different New York City subway riders lugging a copy around in the space of a few hours.10
That cynicism -- about man, democracy, values, and idealism in general -- could be found throughout the culture of the Twenties. 1922 saw the publication of Harold Stearns' Civilization of the United States, a compendium by thirty authors (including Mencken on politics, Zechariah Chafee on the law, Frederic Howe on immigrants, and George Soule on radicalism) surveying all the various corners of American culture and finding hypocrisy regnant in most every one. "[I]n most every branch of American life there is a sharp dichotomy between preaching and practice," Stearns noted in his introductory essay. "we let not our right hand know what our left hand doeth…there are certain abstractions which are sacred to us, and if we fall short of these external standards in our private life, that is no reason for submitting them to a fresh examination; rather we are to worship them the more vociferously to show our sense of sin" As a result, "in actual practice the moral code resolves itself into the one cardinal heresy of being found out, with the chief sanction enforcing it, the fear of what people will say."11
What's more, Stearns and his team of scholars concluded, "the most moving and pathetic fact in the social life of America today is emotional and aesthetic starvation…We have no heritages or traditions to which to cling except those that have already withered in our hands and turned to dust." If "these main contentions seem severe or pessimistic," Stearns shrugged, "the answer must be: we do not write to please; we strive only to understand and to state as clearly as we can." Besides, "whatever our defects, we Americans, we have one virtue and perhaps a saving virtue - we still know how to laugh at ourselves." Reviewing the tome for The New Republic, Horace Kallen -- who thought the book missed the dynamism of American life -- noted that "[i]f thirty American intellectuals are to be believed, their country is in a bad way indeed. Its blacks are so very, very black, and its whites so dirty gray." With only a very few exceptions, "there is nothing, it would seem, except Puritanism, materialism, vulgarity and wealth in which the United States excels."12
This same cynicism was also rife through the literature of the period. In the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, a lost generation of Americans had come to adulthood "to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken." In June 1920, just as he left London for Paris, where an impressive host of disillusioned American writers, poets, and artists had decamped in the years after the war, expatriate Ezra Pound lamented in "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly" the millions who had perished for no reason in the World War -- "the best, among them/ For an old bitch gone in the teeth / For a botched civilization." In 1922's "The Wasteland" and 1925's "The Hollow Men," T.S. Eliot conjured a bleak, nightmare world where death always looms, and there are no more dreams or ideals left to sustain life -- "This is dead land / This is cactus land." Here in "the broken jaw of our lost kingdoms," the world would end "Not with a bang but a whimper."13
Poets like Pound and Eliot expressed this existential despair and disgust with civilization in its purest form. But it could be found in countless other writers of the period as well -- in the broken, battle-scarred veterans of Ernest Hemingway and the cruel and careless flappers of F. Scott Fitzgerald. In a 1922 "Interpretive Survey of Recent Fiction," literature critic Henry Canby summed up what he saw as the basic plot of the emerging literature of discontent. "At the age of seven or thereabout [the author] sees through his parents and characterizes them in a phrase. At fourteen he sees through his education and begins to dodge it. At eighteen he sees through morality and steps over it. At twenty he loses respect for his home town, and at twenty-one discovers that our social and economic system is ridiculous. At twenty-three his story ends because the author has run through society to date and does not know what to do next." Among others, this prescient summary encapsulates much of Thomas Wolfe's well-regarded 1929 novel Look Homeward, Angel, about the author's dissatisfied youth in a fictional version of Asheville, North Carolina.14
At best, writers urged their readers to forsake attempts to improve a broken civilization and just enjoy life. Asked how best to make the world a livable place in 1921, Winesburg, Ohio author Sherwood Anderson suggested his contemporaries should drop out and form a "leisure class." "I want to hear less about the future splendid physical growth of towns, factories or farms and more about trees, dogs, race horses, and people," he argued. To accomplish this, Anderson advised "a body of healthy young men and women to agree to quit working -- to loaf, to refuse to be hurried or try to get on in the world -- in short, to become intense individualists. Something of the kind must happen if we are ever to bring color and a flair into our modern life." "The next time a Politician goes spouting off about what this country needs," advised Will Rogers in 1925, "either hit him with a tubercular Tomato or lay right back in your seat and go to sleep. Because THIS COUNTRY HAS GOT TOO BIG TO NEED A DAMN THING." Similarly, Main Street author Sinclair Lewis argued in the same venue as Anderson for "a sense of humor, and a sense of beauty!" He urged readers of The Survey to refuse aid "to the spiritual demagogues who are campaigning for a blue-law Sunday, for an Alles Streng Verboten regime which would cause normal persons to turn against all reforms fine and sound."15
While other writers are now better remembered, Sinclair Lewis was the bestselling fiction author of the decade, the first American author to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (in 1930), and the only author of the Twenties to have two of his works feature as the top-selling fiction book of the year -- Main Street in 1921 and Elmer Gantry in 1927. Instead of the searching literary despair that marked many of his contemporaries, Lewis was more a cynic of the Mencken mold, and, according to Robert Morss Lovett, he and Mencken had become the "most read and considered interpreters in American life." In effect, his books were muckraking tomes, except -- unlike, say, Upton Sinclair, who wrote thinly-veiled fictional takes on Teapot Dome and the Sacco-Vanzetti case in 1927's Oil! and 1928's Boston respectively -- Lewis, time and again, instead set his sights on skewering daily life in Middle America.16
Released in October 1920, Main Street, Lewis' satirical novel loosely based on his life growing up in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, was something of a phenomenon through 1921, selling over 415,000 copies. It tells the story of Carol Kennicott, an aspiring young reformer who marries a doctor and moves to the small Everytown of Gopher Prairie only to discover that the stultifying pedestrian values of the community thwart her every attempt to modernize the place. Much of the plot unfolds as an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-like tale of creeping suburban conformity, whereby every attempt by Carol to bring progress to Gopher Prairie, Minnesota is ultimately subverted and subsumed by the overpowering inertia of small-town Normalcy.17
Throughout the book, and perhaps accounting for some of its broad appeal, Lewis gently satirizes the progressive foibles of his main character. Early in Main Street, he describes Carol thinking of herself as a "great liberator" who "enjoyed being aloof…She wanted, just now, to have a cell in a settlement-house, like a nun without the bother of a black robe, and be kind, and read Bernard Shaw, and enormously improve a horde of grateful poor." As one of Carol's few progressive-minded friends in town chides her later in the book, "You sneer so easily. I'm sorry, but I do think there's something essentially cheap in your attitude. Especially about religion. If you must know, you're not a sound reformer at all. You're an impossibilist. And you give up too easily. You gave up on the new city-hall, the anti-fly campaign, club papers, the library board, the dramatic association -- just because we didn't graduate into Ibsen the very first thing. You want perfection all at once."18
But these moments aside, the focus of Lewis' most withering satire is rather clearly not on Carol Kennicott's good intentions, but the soul-crushing drabness of small-town American life. "It was not only the unsparing unapologetic ugliness and the rigid straightness which overwhelmed her," Lewis writes of Carol's first view of the eponymous Main Street. "It was the planlessness, the flimsy temporariness of the buildings, their faded unpleasant colors. The street was cluttered with electric-light poles, telephone poles, gasoline pumps for motor cars, boxes of goods. Each man has built with the most valiant disregard for all the others." Throughout the book, seemingly good-natured residents of the town continually espouse the virtues of Harding normalcy to Carol. "I certainly hope you don't class yourself with a lot of trouble-making labor leaders, "says one. "Democracy is all right theoretically, and I'll admit there are industrial injustices, but I'd rather have them than see the world reduced to a dead level of mediocrity." "All this profit-sharing and welfare work and insurance and old-age pension is simply poppycock," pronounces another. "Enfeebles a workman's independence - and wastes a lot of honest profit…[T]hese suffragettes and God knows what all buttinskis there are that are trying to tell a business man how to run his business, and some of these college professors are just about as bad, the whole kit and bilin' of 'em are nothing in God's world but socialism in disguise!'"19
Writing Sinclair Lewis in 1920, William Allen White, well known as a champion of small-town values, gushed wildly over the book. "It has been years since I have read anything so splendidly conceived and so skillfully executed as Main Street," the Sage of Emporia proclaimed. "I don't know where in literature you will find a better American, or more typical, than Dr. Will Kennicott. Of course, Gopher Prairie is my habitat…If I were a millionaire, I should buy a thousand of those books and send them to my friends, and then I would go bribe the legislature of Kansas to make 'Main Street' compulsory reading in the public schools. No American has done a greater service for his country in any sort of literature."20
But White, it seems, missed much of the satire. Will Kennicott -- Carol's doctor husband -- is also the character who, when Carol complains about a Non-Partisan League member not being allowed to speak in town, eventually screams at her, "That'll be all from you!":
I've stood for your sneering at this town, and saying how ugly and dull it is…But one thing I'm not going to stand: I'm not going to stand my own wife being seditious. You can camouflage all you want to, but you know darn well that these radicals, as you call 'em, are opposed to the war, and let me tell you right here and now, and you and all these long-haired men and short-haired women can beef all you want to, but we're going to take these fellows, and, if they ain't patriotic, we're going to make them be patriotic. And - Lord knows I never thought I'd have to say this to my own wife - but if you go defending these fellows, then the same thing applies to you! Next thing, I suppose you'll be yapping about free speech. Free speech! There's too much free speech and free gas and free beer and free love and all the rest of your damned mouthy freedom, and if I had my way I'd make you folks live up to the established rules of decency[.]21Eventually Carol leaves her husband for a time and moves back to Washington DC. There, she gains "not information about office-systems and labor unions but renewed courage, that amiable contempt called poise. Her glimpse of tasks involving millions of people and a score of nations reduced Main Street from bloated importance to its actual pettiness."22
Similarly, it's hard to imagine White nodding along in agreement to Carol's devastating summary of life in Gopher Prairie midway through the book: "With such a small-town life a [Will] Kennicott…is content," she (and Lewis) argue, "but there are also hundreds of thousands, particularly women and young men, who are not at all content":
The more intelligent young people (and the fortunate widows!) flee to the cities with agility and, despite the fictional tradition, resolutely stay there, seldom returning even for holidays. The most protesting patriots of the town leave them in old age, if they can afford it, and go to live in California or in the cities.And it was not just Gopher Prairie. "Nine-tenths of the American towns are so alike that it is the completest boredom to wander from one to another," Carol concluded. "Always, west of Pittsburgh, and often, east of it, there is the same lumber yard, the same railroad station, the same Ford garage, the same creamery, the same box-like houses and two-story shops." Given passages like these, it is hard to see Lewis as much of a booster for small-town America.24
Nonetheless, Main Street was not a fluke. His 1922 follow-up, Babbitt, also managed to be an incisive, even arguably mean-spirited satire that nonetheless enjoyed plaudits from the people being satirized. It tells the story of George F. Babbitt, an occasionally Walter Mitty-like realtor who lives out his days in the town of Zenith -- slightly larger than Gopher Prairie -- trying to succeed in business and in life by going to Booster Club meetings and church religiously and generally doing what he's supposed to. Like Will Kennicott before him, Babbitt aims to be resolutely, almost aggressively "normal," in the Harding sense, in everything he does. At one point, in one of the most satirical monologues in the book, Babbitt gives a speech to the Zenith Real Estate Board on "Our Ideal Citizen." "I picture him first and foremost as being busier than a bird-dog," Babbitt tells his audience of similarly-minded businessmen, "not wasting a lot of good time in day-dreaming or going to sassiety teas or kicking about things that are none of his business, but putting the zip into some store or profession or art.":
With all modesty, I want to stand up here as a representative business man and gently whisper, "Here's our kind of folks! Here's the specifications of the Standardized American Citizen! Here's the new generation of Americans: fellows with hair on their chests and smiles in their eyes and adding-machines in their offices. We're not doing any boasting, but we like ourselves firstrate, and if you don't like us, look out-better get under cover before the cyclone hits town !"…H.L. Mencken, for one, ate of this all up with a spoon. "I know of no American novel that more accurately presents the real America," he raved in The Smart Set. "As an old professor of Babbitry, I welcome him as an almost-perfect specimen, a genuine museum piece. Every American city swarms with his brothers…They are the Leading Citizens, the speakers at banquets, the profiteers, the corrupters of politics, the supporters of evangelical Christianity, the peers of the realm. Babbitt is their archetype." Study Babbitt, Mencken declared, "and you will know better what is the matter with the land we live in than you would know after plowing through a thousand such volumes as Walter Lippmann's 'Public Opinion.' What Lippmann tried to do as a professor, laboriously and without imagination, Lewis has here done as an artist with a few vivid strokes."26
But even as Mencken applauded Lewis's satire, the official organ of the Chamber of Commerce urged its readers to "Dare to be Babbitt!...Good Rotarians live orderly lives, and save money, and go to church, and play golf, and send their children to school…Would not the world be better with more Babbitts and few of those who cry 'Babbitt!'?" Similarly, an editorial by a businessman in American Magazine channeled George F. Babbitt in a way that would have filled Mencken with a devilish mirth. Entitled "Why I Never Hire Brilliant Men," it argued, as historian John Barry notes, that "business and life are built upon successful mediocrity."27
Despite increasingly grappling with the demons of alcoholism, Lewis was remarkably prolific over the course of the decade. His 1925 book Arrowsmith, about the coming-of-age of a young doctor (and by extension a satirical inquiry into the careerism of the evolving medical establishment) won the Pulitzer Prize, which Lewis turned down. 1926 saw Lewis publish Mantrap, a love triangle and adventure novel set in the Saskatchewan, 1928 a long-form piece called The Man Who Knew Coolidge -- a series of Babbitt-esque lectures delivered on a train by a fellow who had once met the president, and 1929 Dodsworth, about a retiree and his wife journeying through Europe and discovering the expat life. But his most popular book in the second half of the decade was 1927's Elmer Gantry, which Lewis dedicated to Mencken, and which applied the same muckraking satire of his first few books to the character of a ne'er-do-well preacher.28
A dissolute former college football star from the Baptist-founded Terwillinger College, Elmer "Hell-cat" Gantry "got everything from the church and Sunday School" growing up "except, perhaps, any longing whatever for democracy and kindness and reason." Nonetheless, he eventually becomes a minister both for all the wrong reasons - namely, the sense of power he enjoys over the flock while preaching ("Never knew I could spiel like that! Easy as feetball!") - and by them. (Gantry plagiarizes one of his early sermons from an "atheistic" classmate.) He then spends the rest of the book having various misadventures that cast ignominy on evangelical religion and its adherents, including sleeping around and eventually falling in with an Aimee Semple McPherson-like evangelist named Sharon Falconer. ("It was not her eloquence but her healing of the sick which raised Sharon to such eminence that she promised to become the most renowned evangelist in America. People were tired of eloquence; and the whole evangelist business was limited, since even the most ardent were not likely to be saved more than three of four times. But they could be healed constantly, and of the same disease.")29
Throughout the book, Gantry remains an out-and-out charlatan who knows his sermons are "pure and uncontaminated bunk. No one could deny his theories because none of his theories meant anything. It did not matter what he said, so long as he kept them listening; and he enjoyed the buoyance of his power as he bespelled his classes with long, involved, fruity sentences rhapsodic as perfume advertisements." Gantry is also an obvious hypocrite, as were his more ardent followers. In one sermon, Gantry "explained that hatred was low. However, for the benefit of the more leathery and zealous deacons down front, he permitted them to hate all Catholics, all persons who failed to believe in hell and immersion, and all rich mortgage-holders[.]" Anticipating Lewis's later book about fascism in America, It Can't Happen Here, both the lies and hypocrisies help Gantry to climb the ranks over the course of the novel. By the end, he has become not just the pastor of a Methodist church in New York City -- not unlike John Roach Straton -- but the head of the National Association for the Purification of Art and the Press (NAPAP). "Dear Lord, they work is yet begun!" Gantry proclaims in the novel's final moments. "We shall yet make these United States a moral nation!"30
As Lewis biographer Richard Lingeman colorfully put it, "Elmer Gantry hit America like a Sunday punch in the jaw." Lewis, a TIME cover story decreed, "whose position as National Champion Castigator is challenged only by his fellow idealist, Critic Henry Louis Mencken, has made another large round-up of grunting, whining, roaring, mewing, driveling snouting creatures - of fiction - which, like an infuriated swineherd, he can beat, goad, tweak, tail-twist, eye-jab, belly-thwack, spatter with sty-filth, and consign to perdition...This time, the Castigator, instead of exerting his greatest efforts," however, had singled "out the biggest boar in sight and hound[ed] him into a gratifyingly slimy slough." The nation's men of faith were not amused. While Gantry very quickly became the best-selling fiction book of 1927, there would be no threading the needle between satire and the satirized this time. John Roach Straton called the book "bunk" and the "figments of a disordered imagination." William Allen White, who had so loved Main Street, thought God had struck Lewis' artistic side dead. From the echoes of Lewis' original Gopher Prairie, Sauk Center Congregational Church's minister C.S. Sparkles, who had recently helped to bury the author's father, said that Elmer Gantry showed that "the unclean mind of the author" was "dead -- dead to goodness and purity and righteousness." H.L. Mencken, meanwhile, stood up for the book, although he told his friend Lewis in private it was equivalent to Babbitt, "except the last 30,000 words, which you wrote in a state of liquor."31
Lippmann was also highly critical of Lewis, and not just for Elmer Gantry. While an admirer of Mencken's, Lippmann had worried that the Sage of Baltimore's caustic, often insult-heavy approach was eating through any chance at ever fixing the problems of public opinion. As The Nation's Benjamin Stolberg aptly summed up the crux of Lippmann's Mencken problem, "at bottom Mr. Mencken's joke on democracy is Mr. Lippmann's dilemma with it." "Have we the right to believe that human reason can uncover the mechanism of unreason, and so in the end master it?" Lippmann asked Judge Learned Hand soon after publishing Public Opinion. Given that "the rate at which science expands is much slower than the pace of politics," it seemed unlikely to him. "I think the Hearsts will overwhelm us before they are tamed…But there is one thing I'm sure of…We can't beat the Hearsts by using their methods, as Mencken, for example, thinks. We'd merely be Hearsts in the end. We have to do the other thing, even if we get licked."32
The satires of Sinclair Lewis, Lippmann believed, carried all the same dangers as Mencken without the upside. "Mr. Mencken is a true metropolitan," Lippmann argued in a vicious June 1927 essay soon after Elmer Gantry was published. "Mr. Lewis is a half-baked metropolitan. He has just arrived in the big city. He has the new sophistication of one who is bursting to write the folks back home and let them know what tremendous fellows we are who live in the great capitals." More than anything, Lippmann argued, Lewis was a "mere inventor of new prejudices" and "a revolted provincial…too much a part of the revolt he describes ever for long to understand it." "Mr. Lewis has an extraordinary talent for inventing stereotypes," Lippmann conceded. "He has prospered by inventing and marketing useful devices for seeing the American scene quickly. His psychological inventions are being used by millions of Americans to express their new, disillusioned sense of America. They are wholly mechanical and they are completely standardized now that they have passed into common use…A Babbitt is no longer a man; he is a prejudice."33
Having said all that, Lippmann thought Elmer Gantry was a new low. "It is the study of a fundamentalist clergyman in the United States, portrayed as utterly evil in order to injure the fundamentalists. The calumny is elaborate and deliberate…It is intellectually of a piece with the sort of propaganda which says that John Smith is an atheist, and that he beats his wife…in "Elmer Gantry" the revolted Puritan has become fanatical. The book is a witch-burning to make an atheist holiday." In fact, Lippmann was so infuriated by Elmer Gantry that he broke ties with his mutual publisher, Harcourt Brace, informing them they did "not provide any longer the right medium for such books as I write."34
Lippmann's reading of Lewis is incisive with regard to stereotypes and prejudices, as is his venomous evisceration of Gantry, a book Lewis ultimately pieced together between alcoholic binges. And yet, his distinction between the Mencken and Lewis brands of cynicism doesn't really measure up. The problem with Lewis, Lippmann maintained in his essay, was that there "is no evidence in his writing that he knows or cares much about the good things which the world city contains, as Mr. Mencken does with his German music, his fine sense of learning, and his taste for speculation about genus homo apart from his manifestations on Main Street." In other words, Mencken seemed to the manor born while Lewis reeked with the flop sweat of a striver. "One comes to feel," argued The Nation's Benjamin Stolberg in an equally acute 1927 dissection of Lippmann, "that he is more sophisticated and astute than wise, more competent than sound…His urbanity protests a little; it is a trifle pompous. A certain condescension, a touch of civilized conceit defends his observations."35
There is a reason, Stolberg argued "why Mr. Lippmann never quite satisfies. Mr. Lippmann is afraid. He is afraid to venture beyond sophistication to its conclusions. He is afraid to leave the noblesse oblige of the open mind." Stolberg's cutting critique rings all the more true when one considers that Lippmann was all too happy to indulge his Lewis-like cynicism in private. "My own mind has been getting steadily anti-democratic," he confessed to Learned Hand in 1925. "The size of the electorate, the impossibility of educating it sufficiently, the fierce ignorance of these millions of semi-literate, priest-ridden and parson-ridden people have gotten me to the point where I want to confine the actions of majorities." Lippmann may have preferred to sadly shake his head while Mencken and Lewis cackled at the flames, but all three had built the same funeral pyre for the progressive conception of democracy.36
Continue to Chapter 10, Pt. 5: Scopes and the Schism.
Return to the Table of Contents.
2. Mencken, A Carnival of Buncombe, 13. Lasch, 361.
3. H.L. Mencken, Notes on Democracy (New York: Dissident Books, 2009), 29.
4. Ibid, 31-32, 38, 40-41.
5. Ibid, 44, 46-47, 121.
6. Ibid, 62-65, 117-119.
7. Ibid, 66-67.
8. Ibid, 143, 148, 155.
9. Ibid, 156-157. "Try to imagine monarchy jailing subjects for maintaining the divine right of Kings! Or Christianity damning a believer for arguing that Jesus Christ was the Son of God! This last, perhaps, has been done: anything is possible in that direction." Ibid.
10. Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, "Introduction," in Mencken, Notes on Democracy, 8, 12, 18. Benjamin Stolberg, "Walter Lippmann, Connoisseur of Public Life," The Nation, December 7, 1927 (Vol. 125, No. 3257), 640.
11. Harold Stearns, ed. Civilization in the United States (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1922), vii-ix.
12. Ibid. Horace Kallen, "The Newest Reaction," The New Republic, March 8th, 1922 (Vol. 30, No. 379), 54-57.
13. Schlesinger, Crisis of the Old Order, 145. Steel, 258. Ezra Pound, "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly" (http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15422). T.S. Eliot, "The Wasteland," 1922. T.S. Eliot, "The Hollow Men," 1925.
14. Henry Canby, "The Young Romantics: An Interpretive Survey of Recent Fiction," Century, February 1922, in Brown, 18. Lippmann, A Preface to Morals, 17.
15. What Else Must Be Done to Make This a Livable World?" The Survey, January 1st, 1921, 499, 504. Higham, Strangers in the Land, 326.
16. Publisher's Weekly, "Best Selling Books of the 1920." Reprinted at Printed Pages, July 29, 2008 (http://printedpages.wordpress.com/2008/07/29/best-selling-books-of-the-1920s/) Lasch, 361.
17. Richard Lingeman, Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street (New York: Random House, 2002), 155-157.
18. Sinclair Lewis, Main Street (New York: Signet Classic, 1920), 10-11, 263.
19. Ibid, 197-198, 53.
20. White to Sinclair Lewis, November 23, 1920. White, Selected Letters, 211-212.
21. Lewis, Main Street, 403-404.
22. Ibid, 413.
23. Ibid, 257-258.
24. Ibid, 260-261.
25. Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1922), 181-188. Lingeman, 192-193.
26. Brown, 17. H.L. Mencken, "Portrait of an American Citizen," The Smart Set, September, 1922 (Vol. 69, No 1), 138-139.
27. Barry, Rising Tide, 141.
28. Leinwand, 282-283. Lingeman, 258-262, 270. Sinclair Lewis, "The Man Who Knew Coolidge," The American Mercury, January 1928 (Vol. 13, No. 49), 1-21.
29. Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry (New York: Harcourt, 1927), 11, 34, 61-62, 65, 208.
30. Ibid, 224, 100. Lingeman, 295-296.
31. Lingeman, 300-303, 295. "Bible Boar," TIME Magazine, March 14, 1927.
32. Benjamin Stolberg, "Walter Lippmann, Conoisseur of Public Life," The Nation, December 7, 1927 (Vol. 125, No. 3257), 640. Steel, 183-184.
33. Lippmann, Men of Destiny, 72-84. Steel, 259-260.
35. Lippmann, Men of Destiny, 72-86. Stolberg, "Walter Lippmann, Connoisseur of Public Life," 639. Steel, 217.
36. Ibid. Steel, 217.
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