Why should anyone bother studying this?
What relevance does it have to our own times? I would respond by saying it is worth knowing when, why and how our own age began and when, why and how the old mainstream crumbled.
The following excerpt comes from Henry F. May’s book The End of American Innocence, 1912-1917:
“The Smart Set, like its predecessors of the nineties, referred often and with admiration to the doctrines of Friedrich Nietzsche. Of all the Europeans who repudiated the nineteenth-century world of scientific progress and moral advance, Nietzsche enjoyed the greatest popularity in prewar America. The Nietzsche vogue, running from the fin-de-siècle through various byways to Mencken and beyond, is a prewar phenomenon of the middle magnitude, clearly more important than the aestheticism of the imitation Yellow Book variety.
Nietzsche began to be talked about by advanced thinkers with the appearance of the first English translations. These started in 1896, and continued sporadically through the century’s first decade. In 1909-13 came the authorized translation of the complete works, edited by Oscar Levy, and at the same time a burst of Nietzsche interpretation, praise and denunciation which continued to the war.”
This will probably sound like a strange argument.
What on earth could Friedrich Nietzsche and H.L. Mencken of all people have to do with our current mainstream? Nietzsche and Mencken were famous for heaping scorn on Christianity. They were the sworn enemies of moralizing upper middle class progressive do gooders.
“He did serve, though, to help many young people who encountered him in these years break with the whole set of ideas in which they had been brought up. He was a most effective shocker: that was the deliberate purpose of his paradoxical and aphoristic style.
And Nietzsche put H.L. Mencken, as Mencken put Nietzsche, on the American map.
In Mencken, one of the most challenging and paradoxical figures in the history of American culture, all the European influences of the late nineteenth century came together with much that was intensely native and much that was irreducibly personal. Though by no means the doughy champion of the intelligentsia that he became after the war, he was already in the early teens a well-known and disturbing voice of rebellion. In the Baltimore Sun, in the Smart Set, and in a series of books culminating in A Book of Prefaces (1917), he was already giving voice to a whole set of ideas that later became familiar. More important, his invective style, always startling, sometimes embarrassing, at its best superb, sounded already, from time to time, its full trombone and tuba blast.”
H.L. Mencken was an important bridge between American youth culture and European naturalism and aestheticism in the 1910s and 1920s.
“In Nietzsche Mencken found, for one thing, a way of combing his naturalism and aestheticism. Despite his misunderstandings, Mencken really could draw from his early master much that he needed: nobody else was so deeply versed in European tradition and yet, without being at all an uplifter, so revolutionary. Nobody else could be quoted so aptly against women, Christianity, progress, and Anglo-Saxondom. Mencken’s own idea of the Nietzschean superman, lordly and masculine, disillusioned but cheerful, a chastiser and yet a yea-sayer, may have furnished some of the model for his own role.
More completely than anybody else so far, Mencken had by the early and middle teens raised the standard of battle against all three of the main elements of the dominant American culture. His dislike of the assumptions of practical idealism was central and pervasive. Any kind of absolute morality was to him a farce, and the cheerfulness that morality found in everyday life the height of vulgarity …”
Progressive liberalism didn’t go away.
Moralism is still a part of American culture. Progress is still a part of American culture. The fusion of Modernism though with American progressive liberalism in the 1910s and 1920s changed the character of Progressivism. It was like it was microwaved and came out secular and left-libertarian whereas before under the influence of the Social Gospel movement it had been religious and left-conservative.
The elitism, cosmopolitanism, secularism, relativism and iconoclasm of Nietzsche, Mencken and Modernism more generally was fully compatible with progressive liberalism. Progressives became a bunch of elitist assholes who prioritized cultural liberation from traditional norms. They read Nietzsche and Mencken and absorbed their elitism and alienation from the masses. They read William James and John Dewey and became cosmopolitan pluralists. They read Freud and H.G. Wells and took away sexual liberation from them. They were exposed to the avant-garde and took away aestheticism or the autonomy of aesthetics from ethics. From Modern philosophy, literature, art and psychology, they took away the central idea of the exploration, expression and liberation of the autonomous self who “lives” for “experience.”
How is elitism compatible with egalitarianism? How is progress which in the 19th century had meant humanitarian reform, material comfort, science and technology and moral improvement compatible with nihilism, irrationalism and gleeful transgression against traditional morality? Modern progressives have made this work. It is what distinguishes them from their ancestors.