In recent weeks, I have been writing about the 1910s and trying to give you a sense of what Victorian America looked like on the eve of the cultural revolution. It was a White, Anglo-Saxon (in culture), Protestant nation that also happened to be liberal and republican in principles.
In our own times, we are used to thinking of America in terms of a deracinated civic nationalism. America is a “Nation of Immigrants.” It is liberal, antiracist, cosmopolitan, modernist. It is based on the “American Creed.” The country is based on nothing more than liberalism. We are trying to live up to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr’s Dream where all Americans are judged, not by their race, but by “the content of their character.” American national identity has been stripped of its racial, ethnic, cultural and religious markers. We have become an ideological antiracist, modernist and cosmopolitan nation.
When did that happen? Why did it happen? How did that happen? What explains this incredible change in national identity and culture between 1910 and 1950?
The following excerpt comes from David A. Hollinger’s book In The American Province: Studies in the History and Historiography of Ideas:
“This essay identifies the cosmopolitan ideal as the most powerful ideological agent in the integration of a single but scattered community of American intellectuals. Although the essay takes for granted that values and interests more specific than cosmopolitanism inevitably informed senses of what was or was not “cosmopolitan,” I wish I had more explicitly acknowledged that one person’s expanded horizons can be another’s confinement. Just how the cosmopolitan ideal was interpreted, and how it was then translated into concrete undergraduate curriculums, ideological persuasions, agendas for disciplines, and the like, is the substance of much of the unwritten history of American intellectuals during the mid-century decades.”
In these decisive years, the American intelligentsia became cosmopolitan.
“For all its susceptibility to different interpretations, the cosmopolitan ideal is definite enough to be distinguished from the cultural pluralism associated with the name of Horace Kallen. I was so certain of this when I wrote that I sketched the distinction quite casually, only to learn from others after publication that the distinction had often been missed, and that my point was thus more important than I had realized. What distinguishes cultural pluralism from cosmopolitanism is the commitment of the former to the survival and nurturing of the ethnic group as such. While cosmopolitanism is inherently suspicious of ethnic particularism, cultural pluralism actually prescribes it and envisions a society full of particular groups, each respecting one another. Adherents of the cosmopolitan ideal have often made supportive references to cultural pluralism in the interests of promoting the common cause of “tolerance.” But such support has generally been offered when society as a whole, rather than an intellectual elite, is being discussed. Full-blown cosmopolitanism, as defined in the essay below, was understood to be a realistic ideal for intellectuals. Not every citizen could be expected to become as multitudinous as Margaret Mead or Lionel Trilling, but all Americans needed to be protected from the hated ethnocentrism of the long-dominant Anglo-Saxons. Cultural pluralism was understood as a potential brake on this uniquely threatening variety of provincialism.”
In other words, David A. Hollinger is saying that the norm in Victorian America had been “Anglo-conformity.” European immigrants came to the United States and were expected to assimilate and join the American ethnic nation by embracing English culture. This is what had happened with the Irish, French Huguenots, Germans and Scandinavians in the 19th century. Anglo-Saxons were the dominant ethnic group in America and assimilated other groups like the Turks or the Hungarians.
In the late 19th century and early 20th century, Reform Jews like Felix Adler and Horace Kallen had begun to advocate cultural pluralism. This idea gained traction with the liberal wing of the Progressive movement. America should become a federation of ethnic groups. Jews and other European ethnic groups like the Italians should retain their own culture. The critical difference between “cultural pluralism” and “cosmopolitanism” is that the former preserved the host culture while the latter did not.
“In 1916 Randolph Bourne expressed the hope that ethnic diversity would enable the United States to develop a style of life and thought more fulfilling than that of the single, national cultures of Europe and America. Exactly at the point in history when the majority of native-born Americans were the most anxious about the cultural effects of massive immigration from Central and Eastern Europe, Bourne depicted this immigration as a unique opportunity for Americans to liberate themselves from “parochialism,” and to develop in themselves a truly “cosmopolitan spirit.” His denunciation of contemporary chauvinism was of virtually no importance in the national political context; public policy was influenced rather by those who wanted to assimilate immigrants into a preexisting American norm, and to drastically limit additional immigration. Yet Bourne’s articulation of the cosmopolitan ideal was with, rather than against, the drift of history when his efforts are viewed in another context: the emergence of a national, secular, ethnically diverse, left-of-center intelligentsia.”
As I have been arguing for a month now, the Victorian mainstream died in the wake of World War I and was replaced by this “national, secular, ethnically diverse, left-of-center intelligentsia” based in New York which is our current “mainstream.” The roots of the modern Left trace back to the Young Intellectuals in Greenwich Village who fused modernism with progressive liberalism – the result being cultural liberalism – in the years before World War I. The spiteful mutant Randolph Bourne, of course, was their mouthpiece and he was the first American writer to articulate the new ideal of cosmopolitanism.
“This intelligentsia had become a prominent feature in American life by the end of the 1940s. Its most obvious leaders included Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, and Dwight MacDonald, among men of letters; David Riesman and Daniel Bell among social scientists; and Reinhold Niebuhr and Sidney Hook among philosophical essayists. The discourse of this intelligentsia was largely institutionalized in the liberal arts divisions of several major universities and in such journals of opinion as the New Republic, the Partisan Review, Commentary, the Nation, and, more recently, the New York Review of Books and the New York Times Book Review. So influential was this intelligentsia in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s that most Americans who thought of themselves as “intellectuals” were either members of it, or part of its audience. Although the precise extent of this community of discourse can be a matter for argument, persons who identify with it recognize one another so readily that some sociologists have described “intellectuals” as virtually an “ethnic group.” The analogy is ironic in view of the diversity of the actual ethnic origins of these intellectuals. In Bourne’s time, leaders of American high culture were predominantly Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, not only in their origin but in their sense of what it meant to be an American; by mid-century, this leadership was approximately half Jewish and half “WASP,” and its two halves worked in concert to serve values that were distinctly aloof from conventional ethnic particularism of any species. Indeed, the potentially obvious, but rarely spelled-out cosmopolitanism of the mid-century intelligentsia is the key to the latter’s historical development.”
By 1950, the American intelligentsia was based in New York and was half Jewish and half WASP and united behind the ideal of cosmopolitanism, which encourages the preservation of foreign cultures and the deconstruction of America’s traditional Anglo-Saxon culture.
The New York avant-garde and its dominance over America is where Jews, liberalism and modernism came together into one explosive molotov cocktail. Its values of liberalism, modernism, cosmopolitanism and antiracism were established as a national consensus after World War II and were inculcated in the public by the new technologies of the mainstream media and higher education. Over the course of a century from 1920 to 2020, these values have put down deeper and deeper roots in the process shattering American culture which has led directly to our present crisis of national disintegration.
“The intellectuals who gathered in Greenwich Village in the 1910s celebrated creative individuality over social adjustment, urban diversity and turmoil over middle-class assimilation and tidiness, radical dissent over bureaucratic regulation, improvisation over expertise, artistic vision over political pragmatism.
A Legacy of Pluralism
Their traditions have since inspired the American Left, old and new; movements for women’s and sexual emancipations; the artistic avant-garde, to the extent that one has existed in America; and many of the ensuing efforts to redefine American culture as pluralistic, diverse, and cosmopolitan. These struggles have included movements for civil rights, civil liberties, and increased democratic participation by all members of our society — regardless of race, class, gender, or sexuality.
New York City
These rebels are often referred to as “the Greenwich Village Left” — although there were other and earlier centers of rebellion, notably Chicago in the first decade of the century. Still, by 1912 or so, most of the cultural radicals of this generation had made their way to New York, and many stayed on for the next five or more years, before disbanding for Paris, Moscow, Taos, Croton-on-Hudson, Provincetown, or the more disciplined socialist community on New York’s Lower East Side. The names of some of the leading participants suggest the variety of careers and backgrounds that came together in this “rebellion”: Max Eastman, Crystal Eastman, John Reed, Emma Goldman, Floyd Dell, Mabel Dodge, Alfred Stieglitz, Margaret Sanger, John Sloan, Hutchins Hapgood, Dorothy Day, Randolph Bourne.
A Sense of Alienation
What drew this community of artists, journalists, activists, poets, organizers, and malcontents together and to the Village in the years after 1910? Most came from elsewhere — the majority of the rebels grew up in provincial American towns, children of respectable but often marginal or even downwardly mobile parents. Some historians have suggested that a characteristic shared experience of the rebels, male as well as female, was that they grew up in mother-dominated homes, with absent or failed fathers. Even if such circumstances were not as unusual in late-Victorian America as some historians would make them seem, there is merit to the speculation that such an upbringing produced in the children, especially the sons, a sense of alienation from the more traditional male modes of success in late-nineteenth-century America, as well as an unusual willingness in both genders to accept the possible equality of women.
Combining Politics and Art
Although many of the male rebels were products of Ivy League educations (Eastman, Reed, Bourne, Van Wyck Brooks) and several had continued on to advanced graduate work, most shunned the newly emerging routes to professional success — whether through university appointments, government service, the professions, or even conventional journalism. Instead, they sought to combine politics and art, advocacy and poetry, life and work — to reject predictable careers and to improvise. That explains, in large part, the appeal of the Village, where rents were still cheap, studio space and a sense of community still possible, and where the ethnic diversity and marginality of the neighborhood might shelter the “bohemian rebels” from the prying eyes of disapproving bourgeois neighbors. (The Italian immigrants in the Village disapproved, too, but their opinions clearly carried less sanctioning weight.) The women rebels were more likely to be professionals — lawyers, social workers — than were the men, but for a woman to enter these professions in 1910 was hardly to surrender to conventionality. In their private lives, these women defied more conventions than did their male comrades, as they challenged the double standard of Victorian sexual morality; advocated birth control, woman suffrage, and an end to traditional marriage and the conventional sexual division of labor; and probably to a greater degree than the men, experimented with homosexual and homoerotic relations as well as heterosexual liaisons. These experiments were not without their complications and emotional costs; conventional mores may be flouted while still maintaining a powerful hold on people’s imaginations, fears, and aspirations.
In Need of Revolution
Perhaps the most characteristic unifying belief of the rebels, an idea that united people as different as Max Eastman and Emma Goldman and movement organs as various as The Masses and the Seven Arts, was their linking of artistic experiments — modernism — and an eclectic array of radical political positions — generally some variation on anarcho-socialism — in a sweeping belief in the primary necessity of a revolution in consciousness. In so doing, many rejected the means if not always the goal of the Marxist socialists’ more disciplined advocacy of organization toward a class revolution fueled by the inescapable contradictions of capitalism. Simultaneously and more consistently, the Greenwich Village intellectuals criticized the Progressives’ liberal faith in adjustment, expertise, and reform from within the existing political and economic arrangements. Crucial to this faith in the transformation of consciousness was the rebels’ sense that the individual consciousness would be the source of revolutionary (usually nonviolent) action. Modern art, liberated sexual energies, cultural criticism, and intellectual dissent would inspire the rejection of materialism, conventional morality, traditional gender relations, and the political status quo. This transformed consciousness would ignite a revolution that would somehow liberate both the individual genius and the oppressed classes of the world. Writers, artists, poets, intellectuals, and critics, of course, would play a defining role in any such reconstruction of consciousness, since they were already exploring the revolutionary implications of modernist literature and syndicalism, surrealism and feminism, Freud (in an often distortedly optimistic and therapeutic sense), and the connections between free love and the demise of private property. These radical aspirations clearly appealed as much to the various personal discontents of these writers, artists, and intellectuals as they did to the larger problem of a transformed social order. To the rebels, this would not have indicted their intentions but justified them, since personal disaffection and unhappiness were-as social scientists had taught them-a direct product of social alienation, political oppression, and economic dislocation. The famous Paterson Pageant of 1913, a rally for striking silk-workers of the Industrial Workers of the World orchestrated by John Reed and other Masses writers, was just one example of the Villagers’ effort to join their political and artistic ideals, their personal desires and social commitments.
In the ensuing decades of [the twentieth] century and for several different generations of the American Left, Greenwich Village has had a continuing and storied importance. But for the celebrated generation of radicals who gave the Greenwich Village “rebellion” its name, the First World War, brought an end to this phase of the history of the Left in the Village. With the federal government’s wartime suppression of dissent, including the Post Office’s battle against the Masses in 1917-1918, with the imprisonment of pacifists and the deportations of alien radicals like Emma Goldman, many of the Village rebels lost heart. Often they found their already fragmented and improvised political positions increasingly under attack or untenable, and turned to private lives and solutions, to art for its own sake, to postwar Paris or revolutionary Moscow, but in most cases away from the faith in the spontaneous liberation of human consciousness that had once united and inspired them.
Excerpt from Buhle, Mari Jo, Paul Buhle, and Dan Georgakas, eds. The Encyclopedia of the American Left. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Reprinted with permission.
Note: PBS has a documentary on Emma Goldman who was the most famous anarchist in America and champion of free love. While she was deported during World War I, her friends in Greenwich Village created the modern Left. The queen of the anarchists lived there herself.