Henry F. May, The End of American Innocence, 1912-1917
When did our own times begin?
Culturally speaking, when did Victorian 19th century America become Modern 20th century America? Why did this happen? How did this happen? What changed?
In The End of American Innocence, 1912-1917, Henry F. May argues that the transition began in New York City and Chicago in the years before World War I. It began with tiny groups of young people from the Midwest and the East who rebelled against mainstream culture and politics.
Woodrow Wilson was elected president in 1912. America was about to reach the apex of the Progressive Era. The modern Left, however, is not descended from the Progressives. The majority of Americans were Progressives. They were left-conservatives, not left-liberals. Big government was being used for socially conservative ends like Prohibition and ending child labor. The background of the Progressive Era was Social Christianity which developed out of the Social Gospel movement in the late 19th century.
Victorian America was still the country that had won the Civil War. It was controlled by Northern WASPs. They were the political and cultural establishment who controlled all the major institutions of American life. The American credo of the age was “practical idealism” and it consisted of the holy trinity of moralism, progress and culture. Moralism was synonymous with Americanism:
“The first and central article of faith in the national credo was, as it always had been, the reality, certainty, and eternity of moral values. Words like truth, justice, patriotism, unselfishness, and decency were used constantly, without embarrassment, and without any suggestion that their meaning might be only of a time and place. This central commitment entailed several corollaries, often stated and still more often taken for granted. First, most Americans were still certain that moral judgments applied with equal sureness in literature, art, politics, and all other areas. Second, it seemed clear that such judgments could be and must be applied not only to the conduct of individuals but also to the doings of trusts and labor unions, cities and nations. Finally, and this perhaps the most often stated corollary of all, the United States, as the leader in moral progress, had a special responsibility for moral judgment, even of herself.”
By moralism, May meant that virtually all Americans believed in and took for granted the existence of traditional Christian moral values. There was a national consensus on this issue in the Progressive Era. It wasn’t a matter of debate. Morality was objective, true and obvious. It also had nothing to do with the -isms and -phobias which are now considered “morality” in the 21st century.
“The second article of the dominant American faith was a belief in progress, and the most crucial task for American thinkers was to reconcile a belief in eternal moral truth with the belief in the desirability of change. In the long run this was to prove, as many Victorians had suspected, the weak point in the nineteenth-century faith. In 1912, though, the link between moralism and progress seemed not only firm but inevitable. Good was eternal, but yet developing. The progress of the world was the chief proof of its underlying goodness; the eternal moral truths pointed out a direction for social change.”
Victorians believed in optimism. Morality was objective, true, eternal, obvious and universal. The world was becoming progressively more moral. Americans differed on whether progress meant that it would inevitably work out that way without interference in the course of time or whether natural progress should be sped up by the guiding hand of an interventionist state.
“The third article of the standard American credo, the belief in culture, was weaker than the other two. We can think of the three as a triptych, an altarpiece made of three pictures, framed in gold and hinged together. In the center, of course, is moralism, painted in the bold and sure colors used by Roosevelt or Lyman Abbott. On the left, joined to the center by a rivet that keeps coming apart, is progress. On the right, a little smaller and dimmer if one looks closely, is culture. In the revolution we are talking about, when the mob broke in it smashed the right-hand panel most thoroughly. The others did not look the same without it.”
Americans had a cohesive European culture. They valued “polite manners, respect for traditional learning, appreciation of the arts, and above all an informed and devoted love of standard literature.” Americans valued their own genteel literary tradition and standard British literature.
Victorian America also had a common identity. The American was White, Anglo-Saxon (English in culture), Protestant and liberal and republican in values. European immigrants came to the United States and were expected to assimilate into the nation. They joined the nation (Anglo-conformity), not merely the state as citizens. Hopefully, they would become Protestants, but they were not coerced into doing so. America had a dominant ethnic group and was no different than France or Germany in this respect. The American elite was not cosmopolitan, modernist and antiracist as it became in the Modern era.
From the perspective of 2020, it seems incredible that Americans once had a common identity, culture and morality, which by universal agreement is acknowledged to have been lost in our own times. Even during the War Between the States, the two sides were far more alike than different. They were both White, Anglo-Saxon, evangelical Protestant and liberal and republican in principles. The North was more liberal than the South. The South was more conservative than the North. Both sides though shared the same ethnic origins, history and memory, the same holidays, the same Constitution. They differed on liberalism, their understanding of republican government, economic interest and slavery.
America was liberal in 1912, but in a different way. Progress was not defined as condemning, rejecting and tearing down our common identity, culture and morality. Liberalism had political and economic ends, not aesthetic ends. Liberals were utilitarian individualists, not expressive individualists. In the 19th century, the progress of the world had meant scientific and technological progress, economic growth, the extension of individual rights, wealth and comfort to the masses and moral uplift. In the 20th century, it came to mean cultural liberation and self expression due to the impact of Modernism.
From the perspective of the young Moderns who rebelled against the values and beliefs of Victorian America, 19th century America was crass, materialistic and grossly uncultured. It was politically and economically free, but culturally cohesive. It was bourgeois, puritanical, stifling, conformist and philistine. It was racist, sexist and nativist. It oppressed women and minorities. Europeans immigrants like the Germans and Italians enriched an otherwise bland Anglo-America which was a cultural desert. Moderns rejected nativism in favor of cosmopolitanism, racism in favor of antiracism, patriarchy in favor of feminism, Anglo-America in favor of immigrants and non-Whites, traditional religion in favor of mystical vitalism.
The values and beliefs of what May calls the Liberation arrived in the United States from Europe in the 1910s. The rebels who created the modern Left mixed the relativist ideas of the pragmatists William James and John Dewey, the radical politics of domestic anarchist and socialist movements, the culture of the Modernist avant-garde, the anthropology of Franz Boas and the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Henri Bergson and H.G. Wells. The result was a radical new aesthetic form of cultural liberalism that was elitist, cosmopolitan, vitalist and expressivist and highly critical of the Victorian mainstream.
The young Moderns who embraced the Liberation came from two sources: provincial Midwesterners who found their way to Chicago and who congregated in a bohemian enclave on the South Side near the University of Chicago and who clustered around Poetry, The Little Review and the Friday Literary Review. The Midwestern group included Floyd Dell, Sherwood Anderson, Vachel Lindsay, Carl Sandburg, Margaret Anderson, Harriet Moore and Theodore Dreiser. The Eastern group of Harvard, Yale and Columbia graduates included Randolph Bourne, Max Eastman, Van Wyck Brooks, Walter Lippmann, Waldo Frank, Mabel Dodge, Hutchins Hapgood and Alfred Stieglitz. Most of the Chicago group ended up joining the Eastern group in Greenwich Village in New York City in the 1910s and were clustered around The Masses, The Seven Arts and The New Republic.
During the “Village Renaissance,” Greenwich Village in New York City in the 1910s became the American equivalent of France’s Montmartre neighborhood on the Right Bank in Paris. Montmartre had been the site of the Paris Commune of 1871. It was the headquarters of the French avant-garde. Picasso, Matisse, Vincent van Gogh and others lived there. It was a trendy bohemian neighborhood where socialist and anarchist radicals mingled with Modernist artists. This is what Greenwich Village and Mabel Dodge’s salon in New York City became in America: a place where anarchists and socialists, more respectable progressives and trendy bohemian artists, poets and novelists mingled and influenced each other. The Village is where the culture of Modern 20th century America was born shortly before World War I.
As this was happening, Europe was already tearing itself apart in World War I. It wasn’t until 1917 that Woodrow Wilson dragged the United States into the conflict. Victorian America plunged into the war which was fiercely criticized by the Young Intellectuals as the young Moderns were coming to be known. The Masses was shutdown during the war by the government and its editors were put on trial. The Seven Arts collapsed as its financial backer pulled the plug in the chilled atmosphere of wartime America. The Victorian establishment thought that the wartime experience would reinvigorate the old values. The Civil War was remembered as an ennobling experience by the young men who fought in it.
The Crisis that was World War I had exactly the opposite effect. It discredited the old Victorian establishment and accelerated cultural change among young Americans who began to embrace the new Modernist values en masse in the 1920s. The old American credo of moralism, progress and culture became associated with Woodrow Wilson who had dragged America into the disaster that was World War I and added to the prestige of the Young Intellectuals who had rejected it. Shortly after World War I, America ratified the 18th and 19th Amendments which established Prohibition and women’s suffrage. The road was paved to an even bigger youth rebellion against Prohibition in the 1920s.
Unfortunately, The End of American Innocence is only a survey of the prewar era and how Modernism arrived in America and how young Moderns rebelled against the Progressivism of the Victorian establishment. It doesn’t carry the story into the 1920s. The H.L. Mencken of Smart Set who relished ridiculing puritanical Anglo philistines and the Nietzsche haters went on to much greater fame as the Mencken who bashed Fundamentalists in The American Mercury. The only complaint that I have about this book is that it only describes the very beginning of Modern America. The point of the book seems to have been to establish that the transition began earlier than it is generally thought to have begun.
Note: Queen Victoria died in 1901 but this complex of values, beliefs and attitudes which is associated with the mainstream of 19th century America and Britain persisted for nearly 20 years after her death.