At the beginning of the 20th century, America was still in the Victorian era. American identity was White, Anglo-Saxon (in culture), Protestant and liberal and republican in principles. There was an overwhelming national consensus in support of progress, traditional moral values and the Anglo-American literary canon. The dominant aesthetic was New England and Appalachian Regionalism.
American dominant ethnicity looked something like the left hand column before the big Victorian-to-Modern cultural transition that we are exploring:
Victorian America also had its own view of race:
The following excerpt comes from Elazar Barkan’s book The Retreat of Scientific Racism: Changing Concepts of Race in Britain and the United States Between the World Wars:
“At the beginning of the twentieth century, the term “race” had a far wider meaning than at present, being used to refer to any geographical, religious, class-based or color-based grouping. Although sanctioned by science, its scientific usage was multiple, ambiguous and at times self-contradictory. The inherent confusion of the term has been recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary which notes its imprecise usage “even among anthropologists” and the resultant “almost unlimited attributes and combinations.” Despite the confusion, race was a respectable scientific category. Typologies and hierarchies of race were presented as self-evidently appropriate at the beginning of the century, and cultural analysis along racial lines conveyed no particular stigma. Although “racialism” denoting prejudice based on race difference, was introduced into the language at the turn of the century, there was little use for the term because racial differences were regarded as matters of fact, not of prejudice. Race was perceived to be a biological category, a natural phenomenon unaffected by social forces. The major social thinkers of second half of the nineteenth century did not articulate any critique of racial theories; even for self-proclaimed egalitarians, the inferiority of certain races was no more to be contested than the law of gravity to be regarded as immoral. Before any social critique of racial thinking was possible, the belief in the biological validity of race as a concept had to be undermined. This occurred in the twentieth century during the interwar years, although doubts about the validity of race were present much earlier. With the OED including such derivatives as “racism” and “racial” for the first time only in 1972, it notes that the term “racial” began to be used frequently at the end of the nineteenth century. The use of “racism” was a derogatory neologism was first recorded in English in the 1930s but again the appearance of a neologism to denote racial prejudice suggested that the debunking of race theories and their crude political analogies began sometime earlier. Certainly, little more than a decade after the end of World War I the situation changed dramatically. Although leading scientific circles in the United States and Britain, race typology as an element of casual cultural explanation became largely discredited, racial differentiation began to be limited to physical characteristics, and prejudicial action based on racial discrimination came to be viewed as racism.”
There was no such thing as “racism.”
In 1910, race was still considered an objective biological reality. There was no moral stigma attached to either White identity or the belief that racial differences exist. The development of “antiracism” was still in the future and occurred largely in New York in the 1920s and 1930s.
This was not an isolated change. It was part of a larger sweeping cultural change that unsettled and transformed everything in America in the interwar years: manners, morals, national identity, gender roles, dress, art, literature, music, dance, architecture, religion, psychology, etc.
The following excerpt comes from Christine Stansell’s book American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century:
“In the first years of the twentieth century, many Americans felt they were living through an epochal change in human history. The tides of modernity, which had washed over Paris in the 1870s and subsequently over Vienna, Prague, Munich, Berlin, and London, had finally reached American shores. Everywhere the world had changed – so people claimed in 1910, or 1912, or 1913 – faster, more entirely than it had ever changed before. “The world has changed less since the time of Jesus Christ than it has in the last thirty years,” averred the French writer Charles Péguy in 1913. “On or about December 1910,” Virginia Woolf famously insisted, “human character changed.” In the United States, too, “something was in the air,” claimed the Chicago editor Floyd Dell. “The atmosphere was electric with it.” The revolutionary pot seems to be boiling,” exulted a radical trade unionist in 1912. “The day of transformation is at hand.”
This book is about the men and women who ushered in that day of transformation in America, the people who embraced the “modern” and the “new” – big, blowsy words of the moment. The old world was finished, they believed – the world of Victorian America, with its stodgy bourgeois art, its sexual prudery and smothering patriarchal families, its crass moneymaking and deadly class exploitation. The new world, the germ of a truly modern America, would be created by those willing to repudiate the cumbersome past and experiment with form, not just in painting and literature, the touchstones of European modernism, but also in politics and love, friendship and sexual passion. This would be a modernism experienced as an artful, carefully crafted everyday life. One avid promoter, the journalist Hutchins Hapgood, cheerfully reported on how various were its manifestations. “Whether in literature, plastics art, the labor movement … we find an instinct to loosen up the old forms and traditions, to dynamite the baked and hardened earth so that fresh flowers can grow …
In this they were very much New Yorkers, inventors of a form of Manhattan self-importance that is still with us today. They are in fact part of the bigger story of New York’s ascendancy to ultimate American city in the first part of the twentieth century. New York had long been an interesting place but never one that exerted special appeal. As late as 1900, other cities held their own, rival capitals of thriving regional cultures. Boston may have begun to drift into the backwaters of gentility, but still it harbored its own bohemian set and sophisticated gay male circles. San Francisco supported a milieu of writers and painters attuned to the glorious light-washed landscape and to an aesthetic that over time would foster a distinctly West Coast secular mysticism. New Orleans was a showcase of musical experiment where African-American jazz artists created a glorious, uniquely American modernist art form. And Chicago also had a strong claim to the spirit of the age: with its huge polygot population, mammoth industrial base, and gorgeous skyscrapers, it was the newest city in the age of the new, the shock city of the early twentieth century as Manchester, England, had been the shock city of the nineteenth.
So when Herbert Croly, the editor of the Architectural Record, argued in 1903 that New York was the one American city where “something considerable may happen,” he was expressing only a distant hope. Yet by the second decade of the century Croly’s prediction had been fulfilled: all the other cities, even Chicago, had turned into provincial capitals, oriented toward New York as the arbiter of contemporary culture. Helped along by its self-conscious moderns and its phenomenally vigorous publishing and advertising industries, New York had become the source of images and texts that defined Croly’s notion of “considerable” for the rest of America.”
Before the 1910s, America was characterized by regional cultures dominated by their metropoles. Boston was the cultural capital of America. In the 1920s though, New York became the largest metropolitan area in the world and the cultural capital of the United States. It reduced other metropolitan areas into its satellites. The culture of the New York avant-garde became “mainstream” culture.
Note: Franz Boas was a professor of anthropology at Columbia University in New York City. John Dewey was a professor in the philosophy department. Randolph Bourne went to Columbia where he was strongly influenced by both Boas and Dewey.