Modernism arrived in the United States in the 1910s.
The culture war between Moderns and Victorians began in the 1920s.
If we were to go back to the 1920s, we would find that H.L. Mencken was unquestionably the single most important figure in defining the culture war. Who inspired H.L. Mencken’s culture war?
The following excerpt comes from Eric P. Kaufmann’s book The Rise and Fall of Anglo-America:
“By its very nature, New York modernism was in conflict with puritanical Protestantism, which, as one of the WASP cultural markers, implicated American dominant ethnicity. The tradition of expressivist opposition to Anglo-Protestant ethnicity probably began with H.L. Mencken, a “muck-raking” social critic who assailed Puritanism as moralistic, aesthetically barren, and an impediment to American intellectual development. Mencken also took on the Anglo-Saxons, describing them as meddlers and moralizers with no culture. As Charles Alexander writes, “by the twenties Mencken’s diatribes against American conventions had made him virtually the high priest of the continuing revolt against the Genteel Tradition” (Alexander 1980: 34-35, 111).
Mencken’s anti-WASP sentiment had two sources: his German background and, probably more important, his sympathy with modernists such as James Huneker, whose M’lle New York was a formative influence on Mencken (Bender 1987: 221). Mencken’s line is easily identified in the writing of many Young Intellectuals like Floyd Dell, who in 1906 proclaimed that Puritanism (which he identified with Anglo-Saxonism) was stifling man’s inner nature: “Amusement is a law of life. We must accept or ignore it. If we ignore it, we must suffer the consequences” (Fishbein 1982: 34). Randolph Bourne, a central figure in American cosmopolitanism, was another pre-World War I Villager who heaped scorn on his ethnic tradition, equating “Anglo-Saxondom” with “masculine domination.” Feminism, he hoped, with its soft, emotional style, would act as an instrument of liberation for the “hard, hierarchical, overorganized nature of Anglo-American society (Abrahams 1986: 69).”
H.L. Mencken was inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche.
The following excerpt comes from Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s book American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas:
“No author did more to establish the persona of Friedrich Nietzsche in America than H.L. Mencken. His 1908 study, The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche – the first English-language book on Nietzsche written for a general audience in America – offered a rollicking master narrative about Nietzsche’s religious upbringing, his intellectual path from parsonage to public enemy, his battle with poor health, and his warfare on the slave morality of modern Christianity. Nietzsche’s dramatic life story and personality were for Mencken no sideline attraction: they were relevant for understanding the pulsating “will to power” marking every page of his writings. Mencken’s Nietzsche “hurled his javelin” at the “authority” of God, of transcendent morality, and of universal truth. He brought his own “assertive ‘ich‘” to the center of his reality, and onto the pages of his books. Mencken tried to ventriloquize Nietzsche’s voice” “I condemn Christianity. I have given to mankind … I think … I say … I do …” According to Mencken, because Nietzsche’s books revealed his assumption of authority in the first person, each could be read as a personal confession of their author.
Mencken’s monograph, which he wrote when he was twenty-seven years old, was just the beginning of his Nietzscheana. He continued to write extensively about him – in his 1910 compendium of Nietzsche’s aphorisms, The Gist of Nietzsche, his 1920 translation of The Antichrist, and in countless essays and articles on him for the Baltimore Sun, Atlantic Monthly, and the two journals under his editorship, The Smart Set and American Mercury. When Mencken was not writing about Nietzsche, he was borrowing liberally from his artillery of concepts, peppering his own texts with “slave morality,” “herd morality,” ressentiment,” and “will to power” in order to articulate his displeasure with American democratic culture. Nietzsche’s inventive use of language emboldened Mencken to manufacture some terms of his own, most famously “booboisie” and “boobus Americanus.” Nietzsche’s philological criticisms inspired his own linguistic genealogy, The American Language (1919), and his last work, Minority Report (1956), shows the inspiration of Nietzsche’s aphoristic warfare. Throughout his career, he also drew on Nietzsche’s model of the oppositional intellect. Nietzsche’s ideas and usage – his exaltation of the Übermensch, his warning about the perils of democracy, and his insights about the “slave morality” inherent in Christianity would animate Mencken’s own intellectual biography. As he later told a friend, the ideas that would become part of his sustained assault on American culture ” were plainly based on Nietzsche; without him, I’d never have come to them.” In addition, Mencken remarked that he had learned a new style of thought by working on his Nietzsche book. “After that I was a critic of ideas,” he wrote, and I have remained one ever since.”
H.L. Mencken was a libertarian.
More than anyone else, it was H.L. Mencken who created the stereotype of the repressive Anglo-Protestant Puritan. America needed to be culturally liberated from the backward “puritanism” of Anglo-Saxon boobs. For years, Mencken railed about “bigotry” and “Ku Kluxery” and “Fundamentalists.”
The lines of influence run from Darwin through T.H. Huxley to Mencken’s naturalism and from Nietzsche to Mencken’s aestheticism and from H.L. Mencken’s editorials to young upper middle class Losters on college campuses via the Baltimore Sun, The Smart Set and American Mercury. We can similarly draw a line straight from Nietzsche to Randolph Bourne, Walter Lippmann, Van Wyck Brooks, Floyd Dell, Sherwood Anderson, Emma Goldman and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He was one the biggest formative influences on these people in the 1910s and 1920s and more so with Mencken than the rest of them.
It was primarily H.L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis who created this negative stereotype of the Anglo-Protestant Heartland in the 1920s. As the Übermensch of Baltimore, Mencken was inspired by Nietzsche’s hatred of Christian slave morality and his contempt for the herd animals. After the Crash of 1929 and the start of the Great Depression discredited conservatism for a generation, Sinclair Lewis and H.L. Mencken’s audience of young Losters became middle-aged New Dealers in the 1930s.
Nietzsche was just one influence on young Losters.
“The Liberation, the movement of thought which reached America in the prewar years, is easy to taste and observe, but hard to define. Pervasive and vigorous, it was over very quickly. Iridescent and shifting, insistently gay (its critics would say irresponsible), it was based not so much on a theory as on a way of getting along without theories. One understands it most easily through characteristic episodes recalled in memoirs or described in the press – the explosion of popular poetry in new modes, the excitement of the Armory Show, the dramatic succession of intellectual fashions, the way Bergson and Wells and Freud became crazes like the Turkey Trot or the Tango. To see the Liberation in its dazzling colors – the colors of the Russian Ballet and Matisse, one must place it for contrast against the solid true-blue background of the Progressive Era.
If the Liberation had a characteristic doctrine, it was a simple and old one, very close to the central assertion of earlier romantic periods, the assertion that life transcends thought. The dogmas of the nineteenth century, idealist and still more scientific naturalist, were dead; the twentieth century was to have no place for any dogmas at all. Nothing, especially nothing depressing, had been proven; science had suddenly become wide-open at the ends, and the arguments of philosophers had cancelled each other out. Therefore the road was clear for the creative intuition: one could believe almost whatever one wanted. Traditional values, like traditional means of establishing them, were highly doubtful; it was permissible to prefer violence to peace, creative destruction to building, primitivism to civilization. The only thing that was not permissible was fear, especially fear of change or of the future.
The Liberation reached America some time not long before 1910 and it was clearly over by 1917. It directly affected only certain small groups of young people, and yet its influence was pervasive during these years. Because it was so brief, historians of thought and literature have often failed to describe it clearly. Sometimes they have confused it with earlier tendencies, more often its fugitive note has been drowned out by the brass bands of the twenties. A distant movement in itself, the Liberation was related to what went before, and it opened the way to all that came after …”
Darwin, Marx, Freud and Nietzsche were like the Four Horsemen of 20th century Modernism. As Professor Harry Oldmeadow aptly describes their impact in the video below, they closed the minds of men to what was above them and opened their minds to what was below them.
Note: In the next post, we will start with Freud.