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SINGLETON DRONES ON ABOUT MATTERS CULTURAL and/or SOCIAL and/or POLITICAL
A Retired Old Duffer's Blog Spot
AN INTELLECTUAL WORLD WE FOOLISHLY CAST ASIDE
July 13, 2008
Mark this rant "Cultural, with Social and Political Implications."
I argue that American intellectuals between 1877 and 1920 both embraced and rejected the implications of modernity and complexity. None were neutral, and all made modernity and complexity a central theme in their writings. They did a better job than those that have come after them, primarily because we ignored a pretty good agenda for discussion they gifted us with. Before attempting to convince you that that audacious and sweeping generalization is something you should take seriously, let me provide a bit of back story.
The Union victory in the Civil War facilitated social and economic modernization, but it did not resolve the conflict between tradition and modernity. One of the most dramatic examples of that tension ironically was not between the north and the sout. It was the clash between the New Middle Class and the Italian immigrants who worked in the factories in Buffalo, New York, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The point of contention was often neither wages nor working conditions, but new ordinances (passed by city councils and school boards dominated by the New Middle Class) which would require students to stay in school longer. The immigrant workers demanded that the age be lowered. From the perspective of the New Middle Class, the immigrants wanted to prevent their children from going to school. That simple phrase "their children" is a key to the misunderstanding between these groups. More precisely, we should say that they had no interest in having their offspring continue in school beyond a certain age. Childhood is a socio-cultural category that comes into being only when households are no longer economic units and when one or two members of the household are able to provide for the entire family. The New Middle Class had "children." The immigrant workers did not. In their culture, offspring worked in the fields in the Old Country, as had their parents, and grandparents, and.. . for generations. Now the children would work in the factories along side the parents. It was both an economic necessity and a cultural perpetuation. It was a continuation of traditional arrangements. To New Middle Class modernists, this was a wretched situation. At the municipal, state and national levels, the New Middle Class attempted to enact Child Labor Laws. Their efforts were always met with resistance from the immigrant/worker population. In addition to, and perhaps more important than, the obvious economic objections, the various immigrant populations (judging from the rhetoric of the foreign-language press at the time) perceived the New Middle Class as WASPs disrupting traditional patterns and attempting to force their offspring into Protestant dominated schools.
The period I am discussing was one in which moderns attempted, often through legislation, to reduce the tendency of groups to express distinctiveness (as the traditional groups did). There were things to be done, institutions to be built, and organizational structures to be rationalized. Traditionalists resisted (and subverted) any measures that threatened the integrity of their social structures and cultures. The result was a federation of social and cultural forms, some traditional and some modern, coexisting in tension under modern organizational structures.
This is complexity enough, but the reality behind the abstraction is more complex still. The problem is that, with very few exceptions, most moderns were still a bit traditional and most traditionalists were already a bit modern.
This was the social reality of the intellectuals we will now consider.
For as complex as American History is, it has been subjected to a large number of surprisingly simple analyses. This is especially true of intellectual development in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There are two prevailing interpretations. According to the older of the two, the United States experienced an intellectual "watershed" in the 1890s that divided traditional from modern America. During the decade a new American mentality was formed, emancipated from the past, and reflected in the works of such authors as William James (particularly his Pragmatism and The Varieties of Religious Experience).
According to a more recent interpretation, the same group of authors is seen as the last representatives of a dying age, presided over by William Dean Howells (editor of Harper's Magazine and President of Harper & Brothers Publishers). When aged representatives of this rather naive intellectual tradition met on March 3, 1912, in New York City to honor Howells on his 75th birthday, it was the death knoll of genteel conformity in American thought.
The latter interpretation glosses over some of the more important biographical facts about the alleged leader of late 19th-century intellectual establishment. While it is true that Howells urged authors to concentrate on the "smiling aspects of American life." he was also the publisher who encouraged Theodore Dreisser and made the words of Fyodor Dostoevsky available to an American audience. Both the man and his times were far more complex than the advocates of the latter interpretation admit.
The first interpretation overlooks the simple fact that those who wrote in the 1890s and following were not born in their adult years. The previous sentence is seemingly unnecessary, but unfortunately far too many historians deal with intellectuals only in their adult years and often ignore possible childhood influences. The intellectuals of the turn of the century were born and came to maturity during that period of remarkable change in American society we discussed during the first week of class. That simple observation has many implications. Just one will suffice to understand the importance of this simple fact of shared biography. Some of these intellectuals, such as Samuel Clemens (1835-1910), were born into a world where travel by foot or beast of burden were still the norm and died after the development of a practical mode of powered flight. His generation experienced in one lifetime the profound transformation of the nineteenth century.
These intellectuals were the first generation of Americans to conform to Christopher Lasch's still useful definition of intellectuals as those for whom the act of thinking fulfills at once the function of both work and play (see the Preface to The New Radicalism). Earlier American intellectuals were not able to earn a living by thinking and writing. Jonathan Edwards was a pastor. Benjamin Franklin was a businessman. Nathaniel Hawthorne was a customs house clerk. Herman Melville was first a sailor and then a minor business functionary on Wall Street. The intelligentsia of the late-nineteenth century, however, were often paid to write, either as academics or as members of that new profession, "author." Although there are obviously differences between the individuals in that generation, their lives form a profile remarkable for the relatively little variation from the norm. They were the products of families of modest means born in small towns and rural areas, but they came to maturity in cities. They were overwhelmingly from Protestant backgrounds, overwhelmingly white, and overwhelmingly male. They were, with rare exception, Northerners or Westerners.
They were, that is to say, from that portion of the population that had most to gain from supporting the status quo, but they were often the most vocal critics of the status quo.
The gross generalization in the paragraph above can be most clearly demonstrated by considering one of the largest groups of this generation of intellectuals: academics. This is related to the transformation of higher education during this period. The simple transmission of received wisdom from one generation to another in the Colleges gave way to the more radical intellectual tasks of the new universities, where critical evaluation of old ideas and the creation of new ideas were the order of the day. College faculty before this time were not expected to conduct research and write. By the 1880s, university professors were required to research and write. This led immediately to specialization, and we can most easily trace the development of academic intellectual life by looking a given discipline, and History will do as well as any and better than some.
As with all academic fields, History was a creature of the generation of intellectuals we are considering. History was, indeed, the pre-eminent filed in late 19th-century universities. The first great center of graduate education in the United States was Johns Hopkins University, built around its Seminar in History. The first Professor of History at Hopkins, Herbert Baxter Adams, brought the doctrine of rigorous and disciplined scientific method back from his doctoral studies in German. However, Adams spent his childhood reading English and French novelists, and he presented the findings of his research in a traditional literary narrative rather than modern analytical style. It is as if modern methods of inquiry were melded to traditional rhetoric. As a result, the discipline did not initially develop a self-critical style, in which the way in which research is presented tests the assumptions of the research method. With the modern methods of inquiry and traditional narrative blended, we have the assumption that if one simply reads the documents, the "facts" will speak for themselves. Since there was no self-criticism, Adams and other "scientific" historians created an intellectual world that was a strange blend of fact and traditional fancy. Put another way, they did not have a theoretical structure that would allow them to clearly differentiate between their assumptions and their facts. The two were woven together, often in order glorify the traditional world from which their own flowed. The great changes occurring around them did not capture their imaginations. It was the past, sometimes primordial, that gave them the key to the present. Thus, Adams found the origins of Anglo-American identity in the hypothesized culture of his Teutonic forbears in the pre-historic Schwarzwald (Black Forest). Adams supported his scholarship with a great deal of documentation, but the initial premise was not documented, nor documentable. The Teutonic, nurtured in England and matured in America, was created without evidence, and was therefore more literature than scholarship.
Ironically, it was Adams' student, Frederick Jackson Turner, who divested the new modern discipline of some of Adams romantic traditionalism. In 1893, Turner presented a paper before the American Historical Association that would transform the discipline: "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." In it, Turner noted the announcement by the bureau of the Census in 1890 that the frontier no longer existed. Turner then asked the simple question. In what ways, if any, did the frontier make the American experience different from the European experience? That question was central to the work of a significant portion of the discipline, for the next eight decades. Like all good analytical devices, the question did not predict the answer, and admitted of more than one plausible answer.
History was concerned with change caused by transition as well as the continuity between tradition and modernity, and Turner recognized the tension between the two, and indicated some awareness of resultant contradictions. Two other disciplines are illustrative of other approaches that perhaps give evidence of even greater awareness of contradictions.
One of the earliest Geologists and Paleontologists in the United States was John Wesley Powell. He was born in a Methodist Parsonage in rural Iowa, but later abandoned the faith of his father. He went to several German universities, became a naturalist, and accepted the implications of Darwin's theory of evolution for his own field. While it might seem that Powell was a complete modern without a trace of the traditional about him, one finds mystical assumptions about the universe in his writings. Although Powell dismissed any concept of God, he constantly uses the word "sacred" when referring to natural processes. He exhorted others to recognize the sacred quality of that nature and to work in harmony with it. Nature, in cooperation with our species, he though, could redeem the world. This made of the natural sciences a secular replacement for theology.
At quite the other end of the continuum, Josiah Royce (who received his graduate educated in Germany and at Hopkins) brought an unabashedly religious perspective into his position as the founding chair of the Philosophy Department at Harvard (a position he held from 1887 to 1916). Royce used Christian themes in his work. By this I do not mean that he used Christian images or metaphors. In fact, his language was that of modern analytical philosophy. The traditional Christian themes were in the content of his works. In order to analyze what he called the modern situation (which he saw as rootless and without well formed group identity), Royce used the Church as the pure ideal of community as the standard against which he measure for the lack of community in his own time. Inveighing against "mere individualism" as an incomplete state of being, he recognized the problem of social bonding in an increasingly mobile and fragmented nation. Atomistic and hermetic individualism, therefore, was a constant danger. In place of the traditional localistic village, Royce proposed a modern counterpart: a community of interpretation. Unlike older forms of society that needed mutual dependence, the community he envisioned as the antidote to modern individualism would be volitional and would exist when individuals interpret themselves as a collectivity. The community, in turn, becomes something greater than a collection of individuals. The Church (as an idea, but not as the historical reality) was for Royce the prime example of this sense of community. Individuals responding to the Holy Spirit became part of a greater whole. This whole could be expanded to embrace all, as indicated by a sentence from his The Religious Aspects of Philosophy; "The Universe is a progressively realized community of interpretation."
Two of the most popular writers of the period, Henry Adams and Samuel Clemens also shed light on the wide variety of expressions of dynamic tension, and uneasy intertwining, of modernity and tradition. The two men were contemporaries. Adams was born only three years after Clemens, and outlived him by only eight years. Beyond that, the two seem to have little in common at first glance. Adams, the Massachusetts patrician, son of an Ambassador, grandson and great-grandson of the sixth and second President of the United States, was part of the first generation of professional historians in the nation. Harvard educated, he was appointed to that faculty and became President of the American Historical Association. Clemens, a Missouri commoner, gained his education as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi and as a journalist in the mining towns of Nevada and California. Adams wrote for the scholarly and genteel audience. Clemens wrote for the masses. Adams despised the vulgar. Clemens, through his pen name Mark Twain, satirized the pretentious.
For all their differences, Adams and Twain shared a similarly difficulty in dealing with tradition and modernity. Both rejected the traditional religion of their childhood and were fascinated by science. Both recognized the implications of the emerging modern cosmology better than most, including the enthusiastic clergy who hastily slapped Darwin together with Genesis and called it a synthesis. Both criticized the narrowness of traditional peoples. For Adams, all that was loathsome about traditionalism was exemplified by the peasant mentality of the Boston Irish. For Twain, it was the smug piety and petty folkways of small-town Protestants.
But Adams and Twain both came to be as disdainful of modernity as they were dismissive of traditionalism. For Adams, the advent of new technology was in some vague way tied to the decline of statecraft and the emergence of corrupt and uninspired politics. For Twain, the technology was symbolic of a mechanistic universe in which one had only the illusion of freedom. The situation was characterized for Adams by the politics of the Reconstruction era. When considering the Presidency from Washington to Grant, he concluded that the decline was "enough to make on throw one's Darwin out the window." For Twain, the emergence of Christian Science was indicative of the way in which nonsense could be packaged and marketed in this new modern and materialistic age. The new religion would become, he wrote with some humor and some seriousness, the religion of the republic. Millions in the future, thinking they had freely chosen Christian Science, would in fact have been manipulated by a woman who knew how to work the mechanistic universe. Both Adams and Twain were cultural critics with personal axes to grind. Adams was disgruntled about a new order in which the Adams were no longer at the center of the universe. Twain was a failed business man who had lost a large investment on a new mechanical wonder, and he was furious that Christian Science and related alternatives to medicine had not saved his wife and two of his daughters from premature deaths. Some commentators have attempted to dismiss their insights because of their highly personal and idiosyncratic concerns. Such dismissal ignores the obvious fact that all intellectuals speak from a subjective position. The only question is whether the solely from that personal perspective, or whether they shed some light on the social context.
Adams and Twain both engaged the larger culture and in doing so provided powerful symbols of primordial traditionalism that rejected the actual traditionalism of their own world as well as the modernity they could not escape. For Adams, the symbol was the Virgin Mary. For Twain it was the more ancient agency of water. In the power of the Virgin expressed for Adams in the grace and strength of the Cathedral at Chartres, and in Twain's use of the cleansing and eternally running water of the Mississippi, they found identities beyond the quagmire of tradition and modernity. These two were strangely spiritual for agnostics.
Two final examples illustrate the great diversity of style in this generation of intellectuals: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Charles Erskine Scott Wood. The former was a genteel lawyer, Harvard Professor, and U. S. Supreme Court Justice. His book, Common Law, contained equal parts of modernity, derived primarily from the English Utilitarians, and tradition, expressed through his reverence for the ancient and persistent nature of legal principles. Wood was a maverick. A West Point graduate, he became disillusioned by the action of the Army in the western Indian campaigns, resigned his commission, became a lawyer, later a wine grower, and by World War I was a sexagenarian radical. Wood, like Twain, rejected the meanness of traditionalism in Christian culture. Much of the horror of the world, however, he attributed to modern obsessions with profits and individualism. In his more tender moments Wood rhapsodized about the traditionalism of Native Americans.
Most of this generation of intellectuals experienced personal and often dramatic confrontations with both tradition and modernity. They were hardly oblivious to the contradiction in that tension. That tension, however, was not new with this first generation of "professional" intellectuals. It was at least incipient in the writings of a previous "amateur" generation. That is to say, the generation of Turner, Powell, Royce, Adams, Twain, Holmes and Wood was not born into an either/or universe. Tradition was not their only inheritance, nor was modernity their only existential reality. The "amateur" intellectuals earlier in the century had also been plagued by the contradictions. Edgar Allan Poe, for example, never was certain whether to explain human behavior in terms of environmental and psychological factors, or as the result of the supernatural world filled with, in one of his favorite words, "phantasmagoria." Nathaniel Hawthorne felt the persistent burden of his Puritan ancestry and explored both the loneliness and nobility of the individual separated from traditional community. Like Adams, years later, he sought some solace in the contemplation of Medieval Catholicism. Like Twain, he also flirted, intellectually with more primitive traditions. Walt Whitman mixed traditional and modern images throughout Leaves of Grass. His poem, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," contains a remarkably successful use of the modern locomotive in what is essentially a traditional pastoral lament. It was perhaps Melville who wrote the most direct treatments of the contradiction prior to the "professional" generation of intellectuals. In his early novels (Omoo, White Jacket, Redburn, and Mardi), the traditional South Seas are invaded and corrupted by modern shipping empires. In his first clearly metaphysical work, Moby-Dick, the whaling ship is both a traditional village and a modern factory. The three harpooners--African, Native American and South Sea Aborigine--all represent traditional cultures. By contrast, Captain Ahab is a driven capitalist. But it is Ishmael who is the most American character. Neither traditional nor modern (or perhaps both), Ishmael is often on the periphery of both worlds.
In all of their works, the "amateur" generation concentrated on the theme of the isolated individual, and that theme was taken up by the "professional generation. It can be found, for example, in the author-narrator of The Education of Henry Adams as well as Twain's Huckleberry Finn. Just think about some of the earlier comments about the representative "professional" intellectuals and you are sure the see the theme clearly threaded through their concerns.
The post-Civil War intellectuals, then, were heirs to a problem that became critical in their own time. The structure of the cultural establishment that nourished them did change dramatically as their era drew to a close. There is not doubt that William Dean Howells presided over the first generation of professional intellectuals as a benevolent despot. After his death, and the passing of that generation, we more clearly see a pluralism of intellectual styles. It would be foolish, however, to think that the passing of that generation meant the decline of a singular mind-set. As a group, and as individuals, they evidenced contradictory tendencies. They lived through a remarkable set of changes. They reworked a dilemma they inherited in a way to make sense of their own context. In doing so, they passed on to us a remarkable set of expressions of the continuing contradiction. They issued statements about our cultural confusion more profound, and perhaps more accurate, than any analysis of more recent vintage. We have inherited the problem and have usually dealt with it less successfully than they. More often, we have ignored it.
I leave it to the reader to compare this summary with American intellectual life in our own time. If you find a more useful approach to dealing with the perpetual tension between the individual and socieity in our own time, please write.
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