The Death of the Victorian Mainstream

This is such an interesting book. I’m so glad that I bought it.

Keep sending me money and I will continue to finding these gems.

This is what it was like to be present at the end of the Romantic age in America and the passing away of the Victorian era. In cultural terms, this was the death of the 19th century mainstream and the beginning of the 20th century mainstream. The Crisis of the World Wars swept away the old regime.

The following excerpt comes from Henry F. May’s The End of American Innocence, 1912-1917:

“On March 3, 1912, President William Howard Taft made a special trip from Washington to New York to attend a dinner in honor of William Dean Howells. The dinner was given by Howell’s publisher, Colonel George Harvey of the great house of Harper. It was the seventy-fifth birthday of the dean of American letters – or rather it was not exactly, because the celebration had been moved to accommodate the crowded presidential schedule. Taft was both a cultivated and a genial man, and doubtless he was glad to get away for an evening from the Senate, the unkind attacks of the progressive press, and the developing feud with Theodore Roosevelt. Yet for any president to go literally out of his way for a writer is a rare event, and Taft meant all that his gesture implied. To the President, as to most literate Americans, Howells was not only the greatest living American writer, but something more than that – a valuable national possession, a link with a hallowed tradition, and, in the simple and confident language of the Progressive era, a “force for good.”

A wide segment of American leadership (though by no means the whole range of American life) was represented by the four hundred invited guests. As one would expect at a dinner for a man of Howell’s progressive social opinions, there was an assortment of reformers – Ida M. Tarbell the muckracking journalist, Herbert Croly the liberal nationalist, and Oswald Garrison Villard, half patrician and half reformer pacifist. All these guests undoubtedly mixed on terms of ease and even cordiality with such others as Charles Francis Adams, Ogden Mills Reid, and Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan. As a matter of course the editors of the still powerful serious magazines attended, and there was a sprinkling of university presidents. Writers of rank like Winston Churchill, the best selling novelist, were joined by a few writers of promise, like James Branch Cabell. Most of the diners were Anglo-Saxon, but George Sylvester Viereck represented the German-Americans and Abraham Cahan the Eastern European Jews, the most articulate section of the new immigration. Cabell, for Virginia, was balanced by Mary Austin, the chief literary spokesman of the unknown, romantic Southwest. Gratifyingly, as the New York Times front-page account remarked: “Nearly everyone in the hall knew everyone else.”

The President’s speech, like nearly all the others, paid an obvious genuine tribute to Howell’s novels but stressed still more his consistent service to the important and related ideals of “refinement and morality.” Few if any of those present would have questioned the importance or the relevance of either, though, Thomas Hardy and Henry James, who sent letters, praised Howell’s literary art in rather different terms. On the whole the speakers, putting aside the passions of a particularly tense campaign year, reflected the appropriate optimism about the state of the nation and its literature under Taft’s and Howell’s respective leaderships.

Colonel Harvey, the host and toastmaster, who still supported Woodrow Wilson despite their recent falling-out, paid a graceful and nonpartisan tribute to President Taft’s love of literature and service to international peace. The guest of honor, too, was associated with this last cause, and Harvey praised Howells for a recent stand against the obsolete sentiment, “my country, right or wrong.” Howells had, Harvey reminded his audience, recently expressed a sounder view in a public letter:

When our country is wrong she is worse than other countries when they are wrong, because she has more light than other countries, and we ought somehow to make her feel that we are sorry and ashamed of her.

In the complacent chorus, a keen ear might occasionally have detected a defensive note. Churchill, speaking for the novelists of America, congratulated Howells on standing for the purity of the English language against the menace of “polygot corrupters,” and for keeping himself clean against “the muddy tide of commercialism, of materialism, which has swept over our country, and which is leaving its stain on other dignified professions besides our own.”

Certainly the guest of honor in his own speech voiced no such worries, and combined reverence for the past with a robust optimism. He had, Howells pointed out, known all of those “in whom the story of American literature sums itself” except four: Cooper, Irving, Poe and Prescott. As he named the rest of the firmly established canon his audience must indeed have felt the presence of tradition incarnate: Howell’s acquaintances had included Hawthorne, Emerson, Whitman, Longfellow, Holmes, Whittier, Lowell, Bryant, Bancroft, Motley, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Julia Ward Howe, Artemus Ward, Mark Twain, Francis Parkman, and John Fiske. Yet even after listing these revered names, Howells refused, as he always had refused, to disparage the present or the future. If not as many of our novelists, playwrights, and poets in 1912 reached the very height of greatness as in the past, there were more writers of a modest excellence: “It is the high average which reigns in this as in all American things.” Modern writers, turning from the cloisters to the forum and event the market place, were reflecting modern life, when all humanity was moving into the light of democracy.

The press, commenting enthusiastically on the dinner, sometimes mentioned in passing that Howells had not always been beyond controversy. He had once been widely accused of insisting on the humdrum detail as against the ennobling ideal as the proper material for literature. He had even, a few papers remembered either with praise or depreciation, been a defender of anarchists and a spokesman for a sort of Christian Socialism. The Saturday Evening Post, always contemptuous of literary categories, recalled that there used to be some complicated argument about realism and romanticism, and that Howells had once been considered “a terribly wrong sort of person.” Now, however the Post agreed with everybody else that Howells was a man to be proud of, “always courageous, always sincere, always and invariably kind.”

As the Post and Taft both implied, Howells at seventy-five was more than just a critic or a novelist. Doubtless Colonel Harvey’s reasons for giving the dinner included a desire to advertise a valuable Harper property, but it took more than that to pull together this particular four hundred. They did not come solely to pay tribute to Howells’s literary gift, which many of them realized had long since passed its peak. They would not all have agreed either with his critical or political opinions, or event with his most quoted dictum, that the smiling aspects of life were more American and the sum of hardship and injustice in this country small. This statement, often contradicted in detail by Howell’s own vision of American society, was more nearly true in 1912 than it had been in 1886 when first pronounced. Yet it would have been thought unduly rose by some of the guests, and so obvious as not to be worth commenting by others. The dinner was really a testimonial to the unity, excellence, and continuity of American nineteenth-century civilization. Most of the speeches and press comments pledged the country’s allegiance to the three central doctrines of that civilization. These were first, the certainty and universality of moral values; second, the inevitability, particularly in America, of progress; and third, the importance of traditional literary culture. The last, especially, was sometimes praised in a slightly defensive tone. Many of the diners assembled at Sherry’s knew that some Americans valued one of these doctrines more than the rest, and even that a few misguided young people, usually through the effect of European corruption, defiantly rejected all three. This was all the more reason for honoring Howells, since these three major American commitments were almost perfectly summed up in his long career.”

The Victorian establishment gathered to toast Howells who was the embodiment of the Genteel Tradition of 19th century America. They controlled all the culture forming institutions of America. In the 1910s, they were coming under siege by the first Modernist insurgents.

“When we encounter this bland vision in the year of the beginning cultural upheaval, when we remember that every article of the standard creed was being sharply attacked, when we remember that young men had long been reading Marx and Nietzsche, that Veblen and Shaw and Mencken had loosed their arrows, we have a sense of double vision. To explain the complacency of the still dominant custodians of culture, we must look at their power in strategic terms. Obviously, their ideology was buttressed in places by conscious class interest. Exclusiveness was not really part of their purpose, and when it became rigid and narrow, it helped prepare the way for their overthrow. For the time, though, it seemed to make them stronger within their own constituency; some kinds of innovation coming from some kinds of people could be condemned without a hearing. In 1912, the champions of moralism, progress, and culture still retained a hold on nearly all the strategic centers of cultural war, on the universities, the publishing houses, the weightier magazines, and most of the other centers of serious opinion. This led to something like a Maginot line psychology; those centers were to prove less solid than they looked. To understand their strengths and weaknesses, we must look closely at a few of them, with their garrisons intact and their flags still flying.”

The Moderns are about 110 years old in the United States.

They go back to the 1890s in Europe and their earliest precursors even before that to the time of Baudelaire, Murger, Manet, Gautier and Whistler in the Paris of the 1850s. The values and beliefs of their culture are now so thoroughly “mainstream” and normal that their identity has been lost.

The 19th century was liberal but the values of the Genteel Tradition feel alien to our own times. The “mainstream” is now liberal, modernist, cosmopolitan and antiracist and various other things like multiculturist and politically correct and now “woke” which are derived from these core doctrines. Take a Victorian era American liberal, throw him in a microwave, heat him up for five minutes to scramble his sensibilities and out pops something different. We still have the moralizing from windbags and the belief in progress, but it is configured in a different way and aimed toward different ends.

About Hunter Wallace 9532 Articles
Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Occidental Dissent

14 Comments

  1. The sentiments which mattered most to these people are no longer existent. Taking responsibility for oneself and your ingroup at large, dignity, patience, candor and self respect to name just a few. On another level, “they” really have done a masterwork of sucking all the good from this once healhty society and injecting it full of victimhood, self loathing, doubt, and an obsession with cheap plastic crap and profane flashing images

    • Well put. I would add modern pop culture, movies, tv, Internet porn, etc, has quite a bit to do with culture going down the drain. It’s caused people to be petty and self absorbed..

      • “I now began to examine carefully the names of all the creators of unclean products in public artistic life. The result was less and less favorable for my previous attitude toward the Jews. Regardless how my sentiment might resists my reason was forced to draw its conclusions.

        “The fact that nine tenths of all literary filth, artistic trash, and theatrical idiocy can be set to the account of a people, constituting hardly one hundredth of all the country’s inhabitants, could simply not be tanked away; it was the plain truth.”

        — Mein Kampf, Volume One, Chapter 2 (“Years of Study and Suffering in Vienna”)

      • @copperhead thee most profane flashing images that have ever existed in the history of civilization. You just named them all

  2. A very fascinating read. I love little snapshots of history like the excerpt provided here.

    “ Keep sending me money and I will continue to finding these gems.”

    Out of curiosity…do you own, or are you familiar with, The Devil’s Dictionary? Not a history book, but something I’ve been enjoying lately regardless.

  3. The “Victorian Age” is aptly named after the Disraeli-led “Opium Queen,” and featured the Western imperialist gang rape of China (beforehand the world’s largest economy, and afterward “the sick man of Asia”) and many other imperialist war crimes on every continent.

    I wish the system called “genteel” had really died, but it is alive and fully active. Plutocracy is the norm, the default system, throughout human history. It dies very rarely and only briefly, but it is not impossible that it will be finally put to rest permanently someday.

    “Genteel tradition” reminds me of the Victorian-age homosexual Harvard philosopher George Santayana’s famous essay (I had to read it in college): “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy.”

    “Genteel” means not only “proper” and urbane” but also carries the sense of being “soft” and unmanly, well-heeled and conceited.

  4. I was just reading about the “Bourbon” Democrats of the U.S. in the Opium Queen Age. Sounds so familiar. Cleveland and McKinley make me think of Clinton and Obama. The Republicans and the Democrats (Bourbons) – or the “Thugs” and the “Demagogs” – such as McKinley and “Teddy” Roosevelt (which was the worse war criminal, the one memorialized on Rushmore? ) took turns at the imperial presidency, little difference between them, just as it is today. No one should gild the bad memory of the Opium Queen Age.

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