Victorian America was controlled by a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite. This is arguably the biggest difference between Victorian America and Modern America. Protestantism used to dominate American culture before the rise of the mass media and mass culture in the 1920s.
The following excerpt comes from Robert M. Crunden’s book A Brief History of American Culture:
“Historians have coined two terms to deal with the basic assumptions concerning mental illness before psychoanalysis. The “civilized morality” was the complex of moral values that Protestant America accepted without public questioning. Roman Catholics and Jews were quite as capable of such a morality, but in America, Protestants set the dominant tone until well into the twentieth century, and Protestants had developed a number of assumptions appropriate to the demands of a bourgeois culture. Men were to find themselves in business and to control their sexual appetites until they had the financial ability to support a wife and child in comfortable circumstances. Sexual activity outside marriage was immoral for men and unthinkable for women, and to uphold such abstinence society refused to tolerate public discussion of exceptional circumstances, or relevant topics like abortion or contraception. Men might learn the facts of life in a manner that would not bear close examination, but women should marry young and learn what they had to learn from their husbands. To protect them, novels and poems had to be purged of references to nonconforming behavior, and doctors learned to behave with great circumspection in anything relevant to the intimate details of a patient’s life.”
This sounds incredible.
Did Americans really used to live this way? Yes, what was known at the time as “free love” was a radical anarchist idea that had yet to triumph in American culture. In Victorian times, women did not go out to nightclubs, get drunk and do drugs and have sex with random people, particularly with blacks. To be sure, there were prostitutes who wore makeup, but these were not respectable women.
As we have seen, there was a strong national consensus in America on national identity, morality and culture in 1912, which was the year the Titanic sank. Americans believed in traditional moral values, progress and the values of Anglo-American literary culture. The old WASP culture of Victorian America sank like the Titanic between 1912 and 1950. By 1950, the American intelligentsia was half Jewish and American identity had been stripped of its White Anglo-Saxon Protestant character.
What happened in these years that decisively changed American culture and created our world? It is the Victorian-to-Modern transition that we have been studying in recent weeks.
The following excerpt comes from Christine Stansell’s book American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century:
“Ultimately, these tensions would lead to a break between radical and liberal versions of free-speech politics, a break that produced the particular aesthetic of talk that characterized the moderns. The story of Greenwich Village’s first institution for free speech and the conflicts within it shows the rupture. Founded in 1912, the Liberal Club briefly brought together older progressives and younger bohemians for debate and lectures. But the radical uses to which the bohemians turned the club unnerved the older people. A rift developed over talking – what to talk about, who could speak – separating the advocates of mankind’s steady improvement from the champions of a thoroughgoing revolt. …”
It is the year 1912.
The Liberal Club has been founded in the heart of Greenwich Village. It is a forum for these bohemian modernists who were pooling there. These people are the insurgents who challenged Victorian culture and who were the precursors of the Modern mainstream that emerged in the 1920s after this noisy crowd of modernists toppled their Genteel predecessors in New York.
“The third incarnation of the Liberal Club, now controlled by the champions of open membership and feminism, set up in a brownstone on narrow, decrepit Macdougal Street, south of Washington Square, in the heart of Greenwich Village. The new club blossomed with heterosexual conviviality and emancipated talk. “A Meeting Place for Those Interested in New Ideas,” the letterhead advised – the casualness of “meeting place” as opposed to “club” advertising a come-hither sociability. The decor stressed this club’s difference from other clubs: bare floors, wooden tables, cubist and fauve art on the walls. Bright colors were the fashion for furniture, fiery “futurist” oranges and acid yellows rather than the somber wooden surfaces and florid wallpaper of Victorian decor. The circulation between the clubrooms, Polly Holladay’s restaurant downstairs, and the Boni brothers’ bookstore next door undermined any interest in exclusivity that might have lingered. Weekly dances (not mannerly waltzes but the turkey trot and the shimmy, imported from “low,” working-class dance halls), unceasing ragtime on the player piano, masquerade balls, and amateur theatricals further erased the boundaries between those who belonged and those who didn’t, so that the Liberal Club hosted a free-floating clientele. A cast of drifters – “girls who had run away from their parents, women who husbands had left them, Jewish anarchists, professional beggars of the intellectual order, visiting celebrities, Russian revolutionaries,” as one poet described the crowd, surrounded the core of leftish intellectuals, writers, and theater people, the stalwarts dubbed by the curmudgeon H.L. Mencken “all the tin pot revolutionaries and sophomoric advanced thinkers in New York.” People began to gather in the late afternoon and stayed on, talking, dancing, and drifting downstairs to eat at Polly Holladay’s plain board tables.
And drinking. It is not overstating the case to say that Greenwich Village initiated a long infatuation of American writers and artists with alcohol, a love affair that began to subside only in the 1970s, if then. The generation of the 1920s – Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker – is better known for its booziness, but as it turns out, they were following in the footsteps of their bohemian predecessors. Blowsy paeans to alcohol billowed up from the moment. “An elementary thing like the sea: a universal solvent,” Floyd Dell crooned about liquor. Everyone drank hard, ventured Mabel Dodge, who doesn’t seem to have drank much herself. “But it was a very superior kind of excess that stimulated the kindliness of hearts and brought out all the pleasure,” she averred. “The idea that anybody would drink too much was unthought of,” Dell recalled of his Jackson Park threads. Drinking was virtually a social duty.”
If you were in Brooklyn today in the year 2020, it wouldn’t strike you as odd to see a hipster walking around in a flannel shirt and drinking craft beer. Free love, casual dress and experimentation in drugs is so woven into the fabric of Modern culture that it is difficult to see our age as a distinct epoch. There used to be a vitalist ideology drawn from Nietzsche, Bergson and H.G. Wells behind this that is now all but forgotten. It was part of celebrating “life” and seeking intense “experience” which is central to Modernism.
Malcolm Cowley summed up Greenwich Village-ism:
- The idea of self-expression – Each man’s, each woman’s, purpose in life is to express himself, to realize his full individuality through creative work and beautiful living in beautiful surroundings.
- The idea of paganism – The body is a temple in which there is nothing unclean, a shrine to be adorned for the ritual of love.
- The idea of living for the moment – It is stupid to pile up treasures that we can enjoy only in old age, when we have lost the capacity for enjoyment. Better to seize the moment as it comes, to dwell in it intensely, even at the cost of future suffering. Better to live extravagantly, gather June rosebuds, “burn my candle at both ends … It gives a lovely light.”
- The idea of liberty – Every law, convention or rule of art that prevents self-expression or the full enjoyment of the moment should be shattered and abolished. Puritanism is the great enemy. The crusade against puritanism is the only crusade with which free individuals are justified in allying themselves.
Click through to read the rest of his eight points. This is quite a departure from Protestantism and the Victorian consensus. Previously, the idea that you should “live for the moment” was considered ridiculous. In fact, virtually everything the Moderns believed in was abhorrent to Victorians.
“Part of the allure was that men and women could drink together. It was as if in this bracing modern space, hard drinking shed its connotations of sodden gentlemen’s maunderings or, alternatively, masculine barroom bonhomie to become an elixir of modernity. “The women worked quite regularly, even when they, too, drank,” Mabel Dodge observed brightly, meaning, probably, that the women still cleaned up and put the children to bed. There are only scraps of evidence to go about the New Women and drinking, but it’s intriguing to piece something together. Most certainly, hard drinking was a token of emancipation, like sex before marriage and talking about sex; it was understood as a constructive act of affiliation. Morphine addiction is what the women appear to have viewed as the feminine debasement to be avoided. But whiskey – so vigorous and proletarian! – and wine – so sophisticated and Continental! – must have seemed potions of transcendence into a genderless life or, even more loftily, a domain of profound community, it touch with the mysteries, to put it in the neo-pagan terms that Jig Cook was wont to use.”
This was a new thing.
It was an act of affiliation with the transgression and cultural liberation of Modernism: single men and women gathered in the same place, drinking lots of alcohol, having sex before marriage, women using birth control and bobbing their hair, engaging in free love (Margaret Sanger, for example, had sex with H.G. Wells and Havelock Ellis and multiple other men) and later smoking cigarettes in the 1920s.
“The Liberal Club’s conviviality was at once cozily domestic and racy, as men and women glowing with emancipated fervor and lubricated with liquor discussed subjects formerly taboo. “The most energetically freeloving den in Greenwich Village,” a proud member called the place. Love affairs materialized among the crowd, and spouses cast off traditional roles to dance and debate as comrades, friends, and colleagues. There were different circles of interest, all which incorporated men and women, amateurs and professionals. The extensive cast of characters makes it worth listing a few. There were the poets, a set that included Dadaist Alfred Kreymborg and Edna St. Vincent Millay. The club’s theatricals attracted a devoted, hard working group, among them Floyd Dell, who found a role as drama impresario when he arrived from Chicago, the set designer Robert Edmond Jones (one of the Harvard men), Princeton dropout Eugene O’Neill, Ida Rauh, a suffragist and lawyer, and Stella Cominsky, Emma Goldman’s niece. The writers were the largest contingent. A number were already established: Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair, Steffens, Hapgood, Sherwood Anderson, and John Reed; others were still struggling their way out of the newspapers and the leftist press: Neith Boyce, Louise Bryant, Anna Strunsky Walling, Jig Cook, and Max Eastman. Around these cliques circulated an eclectic set of professionals: a psychoanalysis, a civil engineer, publishers, liberal lawyers, bookseller Albert Boni, and teacher/troublemaker Henrietta Rodman.”
In other words, a roll call of the Young Intellectuals.
The hunchback Randolph Bourne was about to show up in the Village.
The Jewish comrades from the Lower East Side were also there. Ethnicity and religion was less important to these people than their commitment to socialism, anarchism and modernism.
“Emma Goldman gave some of her spicier talks, like “Is Man a Varietist or Monogamist?” on humanity’s need for free love, and “The Intermediate Sex,” on homosexuality; Carl Jung lectured, too. There were discussions of the slit skirt, nudism, and the music of Richard Strauss.”
The Jews, Anglos and European ethnics that met in the Liberal Club in Greenwich Village in the 1910s came together as the New York avant-garde which became the Modern mainstream which is the root cause of virtually everything that is now wrong with America and the reason why it is collapsing.
Note: Last night, I was talking about this with my wife on the way home from an Irish restaurant and it reminded her of this 1960s song. She asked me if this was an example of Modernism. Yes, I explained this was the second wave of Modernism when it hit critical mass with the Boomers. This is why they believe all the absurd things they do and why the country has declined.