By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
Culture and Consumption
Progressives and the Culture of the Twenties
VI. Not With a Bang,
but a Whimper
To wit, Lippmann maintained, "[t]he acids of modernity are dissolving the usages and the sanctions to which men once habitually conformed." As a result, all too many men and women were now staring into the abyss Nietzsche had warned about in 1882 when he had declared - in despair rather than victory - that God is dead. "The objective moral certitudes have dissolved, and in the liberal philosophy there is nothing to take their place."2
Reviewing the recent conflict between Fundamentalists and Modernists, Lippmann praised Machen's Christianity and Liberalism and argued that it was the Fundamentalists who had the fairer point. "Something quite fundamental is left out of the modernist creeds," he argued. "That something is the most abiding of all experiences of religion, namely, the conviction that the religion comes from God…The Bible to our ancestors was not simply," as the Modernists contended, "a book of wisdom. It was a book of wisdom backed by the power of God himself….[It] could not be wrong. But once it is allowed that each man may select from the Bible as he sees fit, judging each passage by his own notions of what is 'abiding,' you have stripped the Scriptures of their authority to command men's confidence and to compel their obedience." That being said, the Fundamentalists, mostly Baptists and Presbyterians as they were, had their own issue to contend with - the Catholic Church. Fundamentalists like Machen, as one Father Riggs had put it "cannot, while remaining loyal to the (Protestant) reformers…set limits to destructive criticism of the Bible without making an un-Protestant appeal to tradition."3
Either way, "[t]he modern man has ceased to believe" in the Gospels "but he has not ceased to be credulous, and the need to believe haunts him." According to Lippmann, men and women were also now haunted by an overabundance of freedom. "We have come to see that Huxley was right when he said that 'a man's worst difficulties begin when he is able to do as he likes":
The evidences of these greater difficulties lie all about us: in the brave and brilliant atheists who have defied the Methodist God, and have become very nervous; in the women who have emancipated themselves from the tyranny of fathers, husbands, and homes, and with the intermittent but expensive help of a psychoanalyst, are now enduring liberty as interior decorators; in the young men and women who are world-weary at twenty-two; in the multitudes who drug themselves with pleasure…These are the prisoners who have been released. They ought to be very happy. They ought to be serene and composed. They are free to make their own lives. There are no conventions, no tabus, no gods, priests, princes, fathers, or revelation which they must accept. Yet the result is not so good as they thought it would be. The prison door is wide open. They stagger out into trackless space under a blinding sun. They find it nerve-racking.4"It is all very well to talk about being the captain of your soul," said Lippmann. "It is hard, and only a few heroes, saints, and geniuses have been the captains of their souls for any extended period of their lives." (In this, Lippmann was echoing a line from Ernest Hemingway's 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises: "It's awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night it is another thing.") Instead, Lippmann argued, "[m]ost men, after a little freedom, have preferred authority with the consoling assurances and the economy of effort which it brings." They look "to find the shrine of some new god, of any cult however newfangled, where he can kneel and be comforted, put on manacles to keep his hands from trembling, ensconce himself in some citadel where it is safe and warm."5
In the modern age, however, the post-war generation had nowhere to turn for this much desired consolation. The men and women of Modernity "have seen through the religion of nature to which the early romantics turned for consolation. They have heard too much about the brutality of natural selection to feel, as Wordsworth did, that pleasant landscapes are divine…They cannot make a religion of science like the post-Darwinians because they do not understand modern science…As for the religion of progress, that is preempted by George F. Babbitt and the Rotary Club, and the religion of humanity is utterly unacceptable to those who have to ride in the subways during the rush hour."6
Nor would Lippmann's earlier hope for a disinterested ruling class of experts be able to solve this spiritual crisis of leadership. Man cannot "look to his betters for guidance," he lamented. "The American social system is migratory, revolutionary, and protestant. It provides no recognized leaders and no clear standards of conduct. No one" - much to Lippmann's chagrin "is recognized as the interpreter of morals and the arbiter of taste. There is no social hierarchy, there is no acknowledged ruling class, no well-known system of rights and duties, no code of manners. There are smart sets, first families, and successful people…but these leaders have no real authority in morals or in matters of taste because they themselves have few standards that are not the fashions of a season."7
The acids of modernity, Lippmann warned, were not only eating into the souls of a generation, but their very selves. "Novelties crowd the consciousness of modern men," he argued. "The machinery of intelligence, the press, the radio, the moving picture, have enormously multiplied the number of unseen events and strange people and queer doings with which he has to be concerned…These experiences come to him having no beginning, no middle, and no end, mere flashes of publicity playing fitfully upon a dark tangle of circumstances." Coupled with the disappearance of God, this overloading of unnecessary stimuli, this constant drip-drip-drip of information, meant that "[t]he modern man is unable any longer to think of himself as a single personality approaching an everlasting judgment. He is one man to-day and another to-morrow, one person here and another there. He does not feel he knows himself. He is sure that no one else knows him at all…He is moved by impulses which he feels but cannot describe. There are dark depths in his nature which no one has ever explored…The precise nuances of his likes and dislikes have become very important."8
As a result, Lippmann argued, man would have to accept the "vast indifference of the universe to his own fate," and rebuild a new set of values based on humanism, a "religion of the spirit" that emphasized living virtuously in the moment. "[T]he mature man would take the world as it comes, and within himself remain quite unperturbed. When he acted, he would know that he was only testing an hypothesis, and if it failed, he would know that he made a mistake," something "he would be quite prepared for" because "his intelligence would be disentangled from his hopes":
Would he be hopeful? Not if to be hopeful was to expect the world to submit rather soon to his vanity. Would he be hopeless? Hope is an expectation of favors to come, and he would take his delights here and now. Since nothing gnawed at his vitals, neither doubt, nor ambition, nor frustration, nor fear, he would move easily through life. And so whether he saw the thing as comedy, or high tragedy, or plain farce, he would affirm that it is what it is, and that the wise man can enjoy it.9However worthwhile a road map to a satisfying life, Lippmann's prescription for humanity -- stoic detachment and resigned acceptance to an unchanging and existentially indifferent world -- suggests how low progressive hopes had fallen over the course of a decade. The author of Drift and Mastery now seemed to be suggesting that mankind embrace passivity and forget the possibility of change, except inasmuch as one could apply it to oneself.
In any case, as Ronald Steel notes in his biography of Lippmann, A Preface to Morals struck a chord with a disillusioned generation. William Allen White deemed it a "serious book, but beautifully written and simply written…There isn't a paragraph in it that the average intelligent American cannot understand, and to me that is everything about a book." Oliver Wendell Holmes called it "a noble performance" and critic Harold Laski thought it "simply masterful." Edmund Wilson, in a highly favorable appreciation of the book for The New Republic, did worry that "the point of view which Lippmann commends seems to exclude intense feelings of any kind, and even to err on the side of complacency." But he still though it "far and away Walter Lippmann's best book…in thought, it shows a new competence, a new inspiration even…[I]t is both outspoken and persuasive in bringing news which has been uneasily awaited."10
The Nation's William Seagle liked it less, arguing that its driving impulse was Neo-Victorian and agreeing with Wilson that Lippmann's call for a disinterestedness of the soul was tantamount to drift - "The implication seems to be that all will be for the best in the most rapidly self-improving of worlds." Nonetheless, Seagle conceded, "Mr. Lippmann's mood has certainly changed since he wrote 'The Phantom Public." From Rome, philosopher George Santayana suggested that was an "admirable book" by a "brave philosopher," but it could possibly be read as "an epilogue to all possible moralities and all possible religions." Meanwhile, H.L. Mencken told his readers that Lippmann's book "shows a new maturity…It blazes clear tracks through a wilderness of ancient sophistries, some of them divinely inspired…There is cunning writing in it, and incisive thinking."11
That being said, Mencken, turning serious for a moment, thought A Preface to Morals "comes to a conclusion that is anything but satisfying." The book assumes "the present is an age of moral chaos…But is this really true? I presume to doubt it. There is no more moral chaos today than there has been in other ages. The great fundamentals still survive: honor, truthfulness, courage, indomitability, charity, decency. What we lose is simply trash -- the accumulated rubbish of centuries of bad government and insane theology." Honor, Mencken declared, "has no more to do with religion, whether high or low, than it has to do with mathematics. It is, in a deep sense, the very antithesis of religion. It is civilized man's answer to a God whose arbitrary mandates and taboos were framed for peasants." Honor "looks inward, not outward. Its impulse is inward, and so is its reward. And so, also, are the impulse and reward of truthfulness, courage, charity, and common decency." In other words, Mencken did not share the spiritual dilemma of Lippmann because he never assumed or expected anything more from the world. While many progressives saw their hopes and dreams crushed by the inexorable realities of the decade, Mencken saw only his biases confirmed.12
Mencken aside, many clearly took Lippmann's tome as a carefully thought-out and on-point critique of the spiritual dilemma of the times. Another similar such work published the same year -- expanded from a 1927 Atlantic Monthly article -- was The Modern Temper, by Nation theater critic Joseph Wood Krutch. "Of all the dirges composed for the death of the once-familiar human spirit," writes historian Loren Baritz, The Modern Temper "was the most gentle, persuasive, immensely sad, and influential."13
Citing Freud, Krutch began by arguing that "the baby in its mother's womb is the happiest of living creatures. Into his consciousness no conflict has yet entered, for he knows no limitation to his desires and the universe is exactly as he wishes it to be." This blissful state continues in early childhood, when the child is "carefully protected from any knowledge of the cruelties and complexities of life; he is led to suppose that the moral order is simple and clear, that virtue triumphs…He is prevented from realizing how inextricably what men call good and evil are intertwined, how careless is Nature of those values called mercy and justice and righteousness which men have come, in her despite, to value." As with children, Krutch argued, so too with races, individuals, and cultures: "As civilization grows older it too has more and more facts thrust upon its consciousness and is compelled to abandon one after another, quite as the child does, certain illusions which have been dear to it…The universe becomes more and more what experience has revealed, less and less what imagination has created."14
This was the terrifying point, Krutch argued, that Western civilization had now reached. "Illusions have been lost one by one. God, instead of disappearing in an instant, has retreated step by step and surrendered gradually his control of the universe," and even though "there are thousands who, unable to bear the thought of losing him completely, still fancy that they can distinguish the uncertain outlines of a misty figure…man is left more and more alone in a universe to which he is completely alien."15
In other words, much as in the dark tales Howard Phillips Lovecraft was then conjuring from his Victorian manse in Providence, Rhode Island, the inexorable progress of science had stripped away the veil from man's eyes and left him quaking in the face of cosmic indifference. Before, Krutch argued, man "had believed in even his darkest moments that the universe was rational if only he could grasp its rationality." But now "there is no reason to suppose that his own life has any more meaning than the life of the humblest insect that crawls from one annihilation to another." Educated people could no longer ignore the fact that "Nature, in her blind thirst for life, has filled every possible cranny of the rotting earth with some sort of fantastic creature, and among them man is but one - perhaps the most miserable of all, because he is the only one in whom the instinct of life falters long enough to enable it to ask the question 'Why?'"16
Worse, as science yielded more and more inexorable conclusions like tumblers in a lock, "man seems caught in a dilemma which his intellect has devised," and contemporary civilization was now trapped next to the "black abyss." "Time was when the scientist, the poet, and the philosopher walked hand in hand…But the world of modern science is one in which the intellect alone can rejoice. The mind leaps, and leaps perhaps with a sort of elation, through the immensities of space, but the spirit, frightened and cold, longs to have once more above its head the inverted bowl beyond which may lie whatever paradise its desires may create." But civilization was no longer a happy, ignorant child. The universe had been demystified, and shown to be callous and indifferent to man's fate, and there could be no unlearning what had been learned. "[H]aunted by ghosts from a dead world and not yet at home in [his] own," Man "has arrived at a point where he can no longer delude himself as to the extent of his predicament."17
This, Krutch argued, was the Modern Temper, and "only in the bleak, tortuous complexities of a T.S. Eliot" did poetry manage to give it expression. As a result "[t]here impends for the human spirit either extinction or a readjustment more stupendous than any made before." And, all too likely, that readjustment could only come through the decline and fall of contemporary civilization and a new Dark Ages, through which a more primitive culture - the Communists, perhaps - could restore the veil of ignorance. "The world may be rejuvenated one way or another," Krutch concluded, "but we will not. Skepticism has entered too deeply into our souls ever to be replaced by faith." In the final analysis, "ours is a lost cause, and there is no place for us in the natural universe." Still, we "should rather die as men than live as animals."18
As Mencken summed up Krutch's thesis in The Modern Temper, "he is really quite ready for the coroner." But as with A Preface to Morals, a generation responded to the dark portent in Krutch's musings. "This book deals candidly, and without offering a solution, with the despair which has beset intelligent people in recent years," wrote Bertrand Russell in his review of the book for The Nation. Robert Morss Lovett called The Modern Temper "a masterpiece of clear thinking and interesting presentation." Writing in The Forum, Granville Hicks deemed the book a concise distillation of the despair floating around the culture of the time. "The views he expresses are those tacitly assumed by the majority of contemporary writers, and the temper he describes is, it seems to me, responsible not only for the impotence of many men of talent but also for the way in which true genius is being perverted into strange and sometimes disgusting channels."19
Hicks didn't necessarily agree with Krutch's pessimistic outlook, however, and concluded that "what we regard as the modern attitude of inconsolable despair is merely the injured expression usually attendant upon disillusionment." Russell, who found his own solace through the steady advance of knowledge but thought that despair was driving the culture "toward something rather hard and rather inhuman," agreed that "the disenchantment with which the book deals is…a passing malady, most noticeable among those who have had an old-fashioned literary education, whose values therefore come out of the past; to them, the new world seems very bleak, but I doubt whether it will seem so to those accustomed to it both by their education and by their professional activities."20
And Mencken, who for a decade had gleefully played the role of the skeleton at the progressive feast, now found himself once again talking another reformer off the ledge. Krutch, he argued, "simply can't shake off the Christian delusion that human life is animated by some transcendental and grandiose purpose, that a mysterious divine plan runs through it, that there are lessons in it for philosophers, which is to say, for theologians." This, in a word, was, baloney:
The one demonstrable aim of man is to hang on gallantly to his ball of mud, whirling through space. That hanging on, viewed realistically, is a superb adventure, and it has bred and developed, within the brief span of human history, a series of qualities that are sturdy, useful and noble. Will they diminish as man learns better tricks, and hence hangs on more securely, and has a safer and pleasanter ride? Are they diminishing today? I see no indication of it. On the contrary, it seems to me that there is a steady improvement. The notion to the contrary arises out of a sentimental nostalgia for the old facile certainties, like that of a grown woman for her dolls."I do not argue here," Mencken concluded, "that the present age has brought in complete human felicity; I do not even argue that it is better than any age of the past, for I believe that the Eighteenth Century, in more than one way, was superior to it. But that it is dull and mean, and that its ideas are vain and invalid -- this I deny in a voice of brass." As for Krutch's lament that science had exposed too many harsh secrets, Mencken queried "What could be more ridiculous? If it had enabled us to see nothing save the flatulent imbecility of theology it would have served us far better than any light that ever dazzled the past. To be sure, we still have wars and politicians, but is it nothing to have got rid of gods and ghosts?"22
The despair of so many of the progressive generation notwithstanding, Mencken wasn't the only one who saw reasons for optimism -- or at least considerably less pessimism -- in the current state of things. Many Americans who had been treated as and considered second-class citizens in the old days also saw new promise in the culture of the New Era.
Return to the Table of Contents.
2. Lippmann, A Preface to Morals, 298, 107.
3. Ibid, 44-45, 32.
4. Ibid, 8-9, 6-7.
5. Ibid, 13, 8-9. Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1926), 42.
6. Ibid, 17.
7. Ibid, 61.
8. Ibid, 60, 106.
9. Ibid, 308-309. Schlesinger, Crisis of the Old Order, 150-152. Steel, 262-263.
10. Steel, 263. Edmund Wilson, "An Antidote to Despair," The New Republic, July 10th, 1929 (Vol. 59, No. 762), 210-211.
11. William Seagle, "A Popular Moralist," The Nation, August 7th, 1929 (Vol. 129, No. 3344), 148. Steel, 265. H.L. Mencken, "Man and the Universe," The American Mercury, July 1929, 379-380.
12. Mencken, "Man and the Universe," 380.
13. Loren Baritz, The Culture of the Twenties (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1970), 355.
14. Joseph Krutch, "The Modern Temper," The Atlantic Monthly (February, 1927), 167-175. Reprinted in Baritz, 356-357.
15. Ibid, 380.
17. Ibid, 366-371.
18. Ibid. Schlesinger, Crisis of the Old Order, 151-152. H.L. Mencken, "What Is It All About?" The American Mercury, June, 1929, 251-252.
19. Mencken, "What Is It All About?," 251. Bertrand Russell, "Disenchantment," April 10th, 1929 (Vol. 128, No. 3327), 428. Robert Morss Lovett, "Essays and Criticism," The Bookman, June, 1929, 439. Granville Hicks, "Days of Despair," The Forum, June, 1929, 308.
20. Hicks, "Days of Despair," 308. Russell, "Disenchantment," 428.
21. Mencken, "What Is It All About?," 251.
If you found this dissertation useful or entertaining, please consider contributing to the tip fund.
Alas, history isn't the wildly remunerative discipline it used to be.