What is the “mainstream”?
Where did the modern Left come from?
In The Birth of the Mainstream and The Death of the Victorian Mainstream, I began to pinpoint its emergence in the years around World War I. It was the moment in time when the Romantic or Victorian sensibility that dominated the 19th century – the Genteel tradition – began to be challenged and give way to the Modernist sensibility that dominated the 20th century. Modernism was arriving in the United States and was taking root in enclaves in Chicago and Greenwich Village in New York City.
The modern Left is not synonymous with liberalism. It is not synonymous with Progressivism either. The hallmark of the modern Left which sets it apart from its ancestors is cultural liberalism or social liberalism. In the 19th century, liberalism was natural rights in politics and laissez-faire in economics, but this was combined with a Romantic or Victorian sensibility. The Victorians were notorious for their concern with proper manners and the repression of what they considered to be bad taste. In contrast, the modern Left is an aesthetic form of liberalism which is primarily concerned with self-expression and cultural egalitarianism. It is in perpetual rebellion against the values of a Victorian gentleman.
If you could step into H.G. Wells’ Time Machine and go back to the 19th century, you would be immediately struck by this difference. The government would seem tiny by our standards. The economy would seem anarchic. And yet, the culture would seem unbelievably less relaxed. You would step into an alien world. There would still be liberals everywhere in this world, but a very different type of liberal. You would grasp the difference between the 19th century liberal and the 20th century liberal.
How did their world evolve into our world?
This is how the Modern movement began in Chicago.
The following excerpt comes from Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane’s book Modernism: A Guide to European Literature, 1890-1930:
“The small literary community of the nineties with its clubs, polite manners, and Anglophile aestheticism (The Chap-Book, published in Chicago in 1894 and Thomas Mosher’s Bibelot, brought the Yellow Book writers to a small reading public of cognoscenti in America) was submerged in the growth of a semi-bohemian literary society drawn to the South Side by the availability of cheap housing thrown up for the Columbian Exposition. In Old Town, and in the South Side near the University, the young novelists just escaped from the village, the popular bards and the sensitive souls trapped in an unfriendly environment, found a congenial, undemanding, milieu. It was a small world, socially uniform, with a few periodicals to encourage their efforts. The ‘Renaissance’ circa 1912 had in retrospect seemed an incomplete gesture rather than an accomplished fact; the writers were not asking enough of themselves. Many turned to writing from other careers: Dreiser and Sandburg were originally journalists, Sherwood Anderson was a businessman, Edgar Lee Masters was a lawyer. The contrast with Edwin Arlington Robinson, precariously supporting himself by the patronage of a few friends in New York, is illuminating. Robinson did not turn to poetry – he was simply a poet, and would not make the slightest concession to become anymore more than that. The modern movement in Chicago stood for a new liberation, in manners and morals as well as in thought, as Sherwood Anderson wrote in his memoirs:
“Then the week ends at some little town on the lake shore six or eight of us men and women sleeping perhaps, or at least trying to sleep, under a blanket by a bonfire built on the shore of the lake, even perhaps going off in the darkness to a secluded spot to bathe, all of us in the nude, it all quite innocent enough but such a wonderful feeling in us leading a new free bold life, defying what seemed to us the terrible stodgy life out of which we had all come.”
But the revolt against the gentility of the established quarterlies and reviews soon subsided into a new kind of modern gentility. The best little magazines (the Dial and Margaret Anderson’s Little Review), and some of the writers too, moved to New York. What remained was the most famous of the Chicago magazines, Harriet Monroe’s Poetry. …
The following excerpt comes from American Salons: Encounters With European Modernism, 1885-1917:
“In contrast to Philadelphia, where modernists discovered their work and each other most often within educational institutions, in Chicago they found only the most marginal institutions helpful. Chicago modernism had only three outlets: the Friday Literary Review, Poetry, and the Little Review. The first paid its contributors in books and its staff scarcely a subsistence wage; the second paid nominal sums for contributions and relied chiefly on subsidies for capital; and the third became something of a legend even in bohemia for its fiscal marginality. In Chicago, an artist needed commissions, an outside job, or a rich mate. …
When Ezra Pound became fed up with Monroe, he turned to Margaret Anderson and her Little Review. In doing so, he attached himself to a truly bohemian journal and an editor whose commitment to modernism, from clothes and living circumstances to art and anarchism, was as strong as that of anyone in Chicago. The Review achieved fame later from printing the early chapters of Ulysses, fighting bravely both moralistic and governmental censorship. It deserves this small immortality, an important part of the cultural history of New York after 1917; but it also deserves mention from its earlier pioneering of modernist art in Chicago.
Margaret Anderson was a born rebel. She rebelled especially against her neurasthenic mother, who frittered her life and her husband’s money away on inconsequentials, all the while disapproving of Margaret’s reading as likely to cause trouble. Margaret hated bourgeois values, thought Christianity musty, and wanted self-expression above all things. She threw herself into odd jobs, working as clerk in a bookstore or as staff member of the old Dial; and she decided that she preferred a life of extremes to one of sobriety. “I am either profligate – or I can be miserly. I knew if I didn’t rush to extremes my heritage would swamp me.” She lived in poverty yet splurged once a week on quality chocolates: “Of course I could ahve bought more and cheaper candy, but the box was handsome and satisfied my hunger for luxury.” As for the larger attitude toward her life in Chicago, she was clear: “My attitude during this epoch was: Life is just one ecstasy after another.”
Ecstasy came hard. She often rented drab quarters. For the six warmest months of 1915, she lived “a North Shore gypsy life” with her extended family in tents. “We dined together under the evening sky and slept under the stars.” Her entire wardrobe consisted of “one blouse, one hat and one blue tailored suit”; she washed the blouse in the lake every second day, remarking that it was made of a material that did not need ironing. She was so pretty that men had trouble denying her, but even women were impressed. Anderson “was as beautiful as Rupert Brooke and as flaming as Inez Milholland,” Eunice Tietjens recalled. In her one suit and hat, “under which her blond hair swept like a shining bird’s wing, she stood pouring out such a flood of high-spirited enthusiasm that we were all swept after her in some dream of a magazine where Art with a capital A and Beauty with a still bigger B were to reign supreme, where ‘Life Itself’ was to blossom into some fantastic shape of incredibly warmth and vitality.”
These are the inauspicious beginnings around the turn of the 20th century in Chicago of the juggernaut we call the “mainstream.” It begins with John Dewey at the newly founded University of Chicago, Jane Addams at the Hull House settlement and the bohemians around Margaret Anderson – Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Edgar Lee Masters, and Carl Sandburg – in the “Chicago Renaissance.” The American epicenter of the Modern movement quickly shifted to New York City.
“The experimental spirit was particularly visible in Greenwich Village, an irregular hatchment of street south of West Fourteenth Street which had been the country estate of an English governor in the eighteenth century. By the 1840s it was being deserted by the wealthy – the process was later described by Henry James in Washington Square (1881) – and began to acquire a shifting bohemian and immigrant population, in the European style, based in stables and studios. ‘Early in the twentieth century,’ notes the recorder of American bohemia, Albert Parry, ‘the stage was set for America to have a huge and definite Montmartre of her own,’ and he notes that between 1910 and 1917, after the appearance of the magazine the Masses, the spirit became very novel, radical, political; its open, various milieu took in a vastly expanded new constituency of those devoted to experimentalism in politics, morals and the arts.”
Montmartre on the Right Bank of the Seine in Paris was the bohemian epicenter of Modernism in France. Picasso, Matisse, Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet and other famous artists lived there. Montmartre was the cradle of the 1871 Paris Commune.
“The salon of Mable Dodge provided, for a brief period before 1914, a place where radical politics, via John Reed and Big Bill Haywood, the I.W.W. leader, progressive cultural attitudes, and figures like Max Eastman could intermingle. As Hart Crane wrote back in Ohio, New York – especially the Village – was a uniquely auspicious place for a young writer; he was one of many who moved there to write for or edit the vast number of new little and Tendenz magazines that the Village spawned: the Liberator, Smart Set, Others, Globe, Seven Arts, New Republic, the Freeman, Nation, Masses which, with the Little Review and The Dial as émigrés from Chicago, were the base for the literary risorgimento of the 1910s and 1920s. So too were theater groups like the Provincetown (later the Greenwich Village) Players, producing O’Neill, Floyd Dell, Dreiser and Edna St. Vincent Millay, which from 1916 did a winter season in the Village, and the Washington Square Players, involving Robert Edmond Jones, Philip Moeller and others, much influenced by German developments in theater. The rampant individualism of Village life was an apparent alternative, its lifestyle and philosophy, to an acquisitive, increasingly regiments economic order. When the veterans returned in 1919 the old gay life of the Village, with its costume balls, saloons, and bohemia camaraderie, seemed inexcusably frivolous. The Left was crushed by the Palmer raids and deportations; the avant-garde, despairing of America, discovered the meaning of expatriation.”
In the 1910s, the Modernist spirit of the avant-garde entered the liberal wing of the Progressive movement and created a new aesthetic version of liberalism which was focused on elitism, cosmopolitanism, self-expression, cultural liberation, cultural relativism and cultural egalitarianism.
The following excerpt comes from Henry F. May’s book The End of American Innocence, 1912-1917:
“These young men had been deeply affected by pragmatism, and often combined James’ wide-openness to emotion and innovation with Dewey’s bold belief in social and intellectual reconstruction. They welcomed the more biting dicta of the social scientists; some of them had encountered Veblen’s astringent skepticism. Yet Wells, with his optimism and his recent semimysticism was for many of them the most important social prophet. Bergson had given new and welcome support to their confidence in their own intuitions. From Nietzsche and Ibsen and Shaw – for that matter from nearly all the literature they read – they had learned a fierce contempt for nineteenth-century bourgeois morality. Dostoevsky had revived their religious instincts, and Freud had convinced them of the necessity of sexual self-expression. All these influences had combined to produce a new kind of radicalism, passionate yet somewhat imprecise. The Young Intellectuals agreed on at least one point: they were uninterested in any plan for social improvement which was not also a program for spiritual and artistic liberation. …”