As we have already seen, the cultural revolution of the 1910s and 1920s which was the end of Victorian America and the beginning of Modern America transformed almost every aspect of American life. Nothing was left untouched by it. I could write a book alone on how “antiracism” triumphed over “racism” or how cosmopolitanism triumphed over provincialism in this era, but I would rather zoom out and look at the bigger picture and show how all these changes in American culture are related.
The intellectual roots of the Sexual Revolution which ended the love-based male breadwinner marriage in the counter-culture of the 1960s can also be traced back to this period.
The following excerpt comes from Nathan Miller’s book New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America:
“Professional “viewers with alarm” were convinced that a sexual revolution had exploded in the Twenties. While it was believed that the war had turned traditional standards and morals upside down, the process of change had actually begun before the turn of the century. Sigmund Freud’s lectures at Clark University in 1909 were only the most dramatic of a long series of importations of radically new ideas about sex from Europe. The explorations of sexuality by Havelock Ellis, Edward Carpenter, and Richard Krafft-Ebing were known in the United States before the war, and the Swedish feminist Ellen Kay was arguing that marriages denying women sexual satisfaction should be dissolved.”
Nathan Miller is referring to what Henry F. May calls the “Liberation” which is when Modernism swept into the United States in the 1910s. The ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, H.G. Wells, Henri Bergson and others along with Modern art gained traction in America.
The following excerpt comes from Henry F. May’s book The End of American Innocence, 1912-1917:
“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 …”
These young people would have an extraordinary impact on American culture. H.L. Mencken was born in 1880. Margaret Sanger was born in 1879. Max Eastman was born in 1883. Sinclair Lewis was born in 1885. Randolph Bourne was born in 1886. Floyd Dell was born in 1887.
Back to Miller:
“The more progressive sponsors of moralistic social purity campaigns against prostitution and venereal disease sometimes advocated more open discussion of sexual matters, on grounds that education would help the fight against these problems. Elements of the free love ethic of Greenwich Village bohemia, including a faint tolerance for premarital sex, the acknowledgement of female sexuality, and the acceptance of birth control, had infiltrated mainstream culture. As the magazine Current Opinion put it in 1913, the nation had “struck sex o’clock.”
“The young people danced. The fox trot, the sexy tango popularized by Valentino – both requiring very close bodily contact – and, above all, the Charleston. For them jazz and wild dancing were symbolic, another badge of their rejection of traditional behavior standards. Pigeon-toed dancers knocked their knees together and gyrated, according to scandalized critics, like drunken chickens. In Cincinnati in 1926, the Salvation Army sought an injunction barring the erection of a movie theater adjoining the Catherine Booth Home for Girls, on grounds that “jazz emanating from the theater would implant ‘jazz emotions’ in the babies being born at the home.” …
Young people acted as if they had invented sex. Recording something so intimate as premarital intercourse is difficult, but the Kinsey Report of the 1950s indicated an increase in such activity during the Twenties. Women born after the turn of the century were twice as likely to have lost their virginity before they married as women of the previous generation. With the availability of contraception, the hazards of illicit intercourse were slighter than ever before, and the rate of illegitimate births remained fairly low. A 1928 study found approximately 25 percent of all American men and women admitted to at least one adulterous affair.”
In the 1920s, the birthrate dropped, family size shrank and divorce and marriage rates went up. Premarital sex also went up. It is not difficult to see why given the lifestyle that was being glamorized by Hollywood movies, encouraged by jazz and the new dances like the Charleston, acted out at the new nightclubs and speakeasies where the separate spheres of Victorianism had dissolved and was intellectually justified by Sigmund Freud, H.G. Wells and Havelock Ellis who argued against sexual repression or by the vitalist philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and Henri Bergson.
“The 1920s saw the emergence of a national cult of “romantic love” – popularized by films, radio serials, and magazines – and women were not only demanding equality outside the home but in the bedroom as well. Hollywood produced such films as Sinners in Silk, The Price She Paid, and Alimony about “brilliant me, beautiful jazz babies, champagne baths, midnight travels, petting parties in the purple dawn, all ending in one terrific smashing climax that makes you gasp.” Freud’s ideas, which were spreading rapidly, undermined the view that sex was “dirty” or that a sexual appetite was unusual. Repression of the sex drive only produced guilt, anxiety, and mental illness, according to the Freudians. Behaviorism, a competing theory advanced by psychologist John B. Watson that was also popular, minimized the ability of men and women to consciously control their behavior.”
Women now believed that sexual relations with their spouses were not simply a means of procreation, as their mothers had been taught, but the culmination of romantic love and a pleasurable experience in itself. “Sex-love and happiness in marriage … do not just happen,” wrote Margaret Sanger, the birth control pioneer, in her 1926 book, Happiness in Marriage. “Eternal vigilance is the price of marital happiness … the nuptial relation must be kept romantic.” For a dime, a woman could obtain a copy of How I Kept My Husband, a sex manual with a plain brown wrapper that gave instructions on sexual positions and oral sex. Thus, the real sexual revolution of the Twenties was not a revolution against marriage; it was a revolution within marriage.”
The blowjob returned to America from France with the Losters who had discovered it during World War I. As we shall see, American culture reunified with European culture in the 1920s and 1930s, particularly with French culture due to all the Losters who colonized Paris and the Riviera.
Guess who else was a member of the Liberal Club in Greenwich Village in the 1910s? She was the most well known American feminist of her generation.
“Margaret married a bright young architect and aspiring painter named William Sanger and the couple settled in Hastings-on-Hudson, a Westchester County suburb of New York City, and had three children. Suburban life did not satisfy them. Bill Sanger decided in 1910 to give up his job for the life of an artist in Greenwich Village. He became a rising star in bohemia and ran for alderman on the Socialist Party ticket. Margaret was friends with Emma Goldman, Mabel Dodge, John Reed, and Bill Haywood, was active in the Liberal Club, which met in a loft on MacDougal Street, embraced the direct action doctrine of the anarchists, and took part in demonstrations staged by the IWW. …
Sanger’s sense of mission was strengthed by her exposure to the ideas of European radicals, and she was influenced by Havelock Ellis and his theories of female sexuality. Broadening her arguments, she now claimed that birth control would uncouple sex and procreation and provide women with both economic independence and erotic freedom. …”
I’m shocked that Margaret Sanger was a product of the modernist and bohemian culture of Greenwich Village in the 1910s where she rubbed shoulders with Emma Goldman and the Young Intellectuals and soaked up the ideas of Sigmund Freud, Havelock Ellis, H.G. Wells, etc.
“Sanger divorced her husband and, in keeping with her views on sexual liberation, had numerous affairs, with, among others, Havelock Ellis and H.G. Wells. Men adored her. Her “green eyes were flecked with amber, her hair a shiny auburn hue, her smile always warm and charming, her hands perpetually beckoning to strangers,” writes Ellen Chesler, one of her biographers.”
Margaret Sanger is best known as the founder of Planned Parenthood. She founded the American Birth Control League which was its predecessors. Sanger divorced her husband and had sex with Havelock Ellis and H.G. Wells from whom she got her free love doctrine.
H.G. Wells was a modernist who was obsessed with reducing the human population and destroying the masses in his novels. More than anyone else, it was Wells who popularized free love. He practiced what he preached in his own lifestyle. Margaret Sanger was one of his many conquests.
Margaret Sanger was a Greenwich Village modernist.
In the 1920s, Victorian culture started to dissolve and was replaced by Modern culture. Elite attitudes changed and the culture war between modernists and traditionalists began. Women gained the right to vote with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment and increasingly entered the workforce. The separate spheres of Victorianism which had segregated male and female spaces crumbled. New Women could now be found at speakeasies and nightclubs drinking cocktails, smoking, going on “dates” and listening to jazz. It is difficult to overstate how new and shocking this was at the time.
In this period, however, the young Losters who embraced Modernism shrank from embracing the full bohemian cultural package of feminism, sexual liberation, casual dress and experimentation in drugs. As Coontz points out in her book, even the radicals who advocated free love like Floyd Dell who was the editor of The Masses in Greenwich Village before World War I became more conservative as they aged and were satisfied with ending Victorian excesses. Also, the Great Depression and World War II plunged the nation into a fiery crisis, which overshadowed every other issue for a generation. It wasn’t until the postwar era that normal life resumed in America and the logic of Modernism – now aided by the television and higher education – could resume eroding the love-based male breadwinner marriage. The torch was passed to the Baby Boomers who embraced the aspects of Modernism the Losters had cut out.
The following excerpt comes from Stephanie Coontz’s book Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage:
“By the end of the 1920s advocates of “modern” marriage had reason for cautious optimism. Early twentieth-century transformations in sexuality, gender relations, and youth culture had updated Victorian marriage, making it possible for more people to place marriage at the center of their emotional lives. Love and marriage had become vital to most people’s sense of sense of identity, with attachments to parents, siblings, and friends paling by comparison. In most countries, people married earlier and died later, so more people spent more of their lives married than ever before, despite the rise in divorce rates. The separation of spheres between men and women had eroded without unleashing the “excesses” of feminism. And although women were joining the workforce in increasing numbers, more wives and mothers devoted themselves to full-time homemaking than ever before.
Still, as the 1920s came to a close, many observers worried that the contradictions and tensions of the love-based marriage could not be contained indefinitely. In 1929, Samuel Schmalhausen, an ardent supporter of modernity and one of the few unrepentant advocates of the right to engage in sex outside of marriage, wrote: “The old values are gone. Irrevocably. The new values are feverishly in the making. We live in a state of molten confusion. Instability rides modernity like a crazy sportsman. Civilization is caught in a cluster of contradictions that threaten to strangle it.”
“Modern” marriage is an egalitarian partnership based on the quest of two free and equal partners in self-realization and self-fulfillment. Religion and morality have been subtracted. Singleness, fornication and most forms of sexual deviancy are no longer stigmatized. The parents and the community have been subtracted. Procreation and economics have been subtracted. Emotional stability has been subtracted. All that is left to hold together marriage is romanticizing the subjective inner self and its expression. In other words, marriage is now based on nothing but the hyper individualism of Modernism.