Review of Paul V. Murphy’s The New Era: American Thought and Culture in the 1920s (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2012). ISBN: 9780742549258. 267 pages.
Reviewed by Lynn Dumenil, Robert Glass Cleland Professor of American History
Paul V. Murphy’s The New Era: American Thought and Culture in the 1920s is an ambitious history of American intellectuals in the 1920s. One of its most valuable contributions is the two dozen or so short portraits of key members of the intelligentsia, a diverse group that includes Mary Follett, Margaret Mead, Robert Lynd, Jean Toomer, Nella Larsen, Walter Lippmann, H.L. Mencken, and Malcolm Cowley. These individuals made their mark on the “new era” as they grappled with the meaning of a radically transformed “modern” society. Murphy’s starting point is the end of the “genteel tradition” whereby intellectuals viewed themselves, and were viewed as, cultural arbiters and moral exemplars. Massive industrial development, a voracious consumer culture, and omnipresent mass media disrupted older values, with World War I putting the finishing touches to the old order.
At the center of Murphy’s analysis is his argument that the response of intellectuals led the new sense of modernism, which he defines as “an internal discussion among artists and writers about their own precarious social status, which resulted from a loss of a vital connection between themselves and the masses” (p. 5). A new notion of culture as a people’s way of being reinforced this bifurcation – a point Murphy makes well in his discussion of the powerful ideas of anthropologists Franz Boas and Margaret Mead, and sociologist William F. Ogburn (the originator of the concept of “culture lag”). This point also emerges clearly in his assessment of Robert and Helen Merrell Lynd’s approach in Middletown. Armed with this notion of culture, intellectuals viewed themselves as the interpreters of cultural change, and Murphy argues, many sought to construct solutions based on tolerance, critical inquiry, and personal fulfillment, to the dilemmas modern mass society had created.
A number of chapters offer compelling evidence of Murphy’s assessment of the gap between intellectuals and the people and their effort to close it. In chapter 3, “The Bridge,” which is a wide-ranging discussion that also includes H.L. Mencken, Hart Crane, Joseph Stella, and Ernest Hemingway, he examines the conflicting approach of two groups of cultural critics for resolving this bifurcation. On the one hand, he presents the self-styled “Young Americans” like Lewis Mumford and Alfred Stieglitz, who “aimed to tap into American cultural roots.” As Murphy writes of Mumford, he called upon the modern writer “not to depict the ‘blank reality’ of the universe but to create the veils that sustain humans in their faith and work; to undertake the task of building culture, not to recreate exile; to halt the pioneering and instead cultivate, recover and retrieve past forms; and to create the symbols that would endow a new age of personality” (p. 88). On the other hand, opposed to this organic approach rooted in the past, Murphy argues, were the Dadaists. These French-influenced “anti-art” artists and critics reveled in mass and mechanical culture. As critic Matthew Josephson wrote, “’We must write for our age…the poets should be no less daring or inventive than the mechanical engineers of wartime; our literature should reflect the influences of the cinema…the saxophone’”(p. 97).
Another arena of conflict between intellectuals seeking to bridge the chasm between themselves and the wider public was in public policy. Here, Murphy impressively tackles the well-known issue of intellectuals’ retreat from progressive reform in the aftermath of World War I. He argues that 1920s post-progressive reformers “spent the decade reimagining a liberal politics shaped now by a recognition of the bifurcation between reform-minded elites and an indifferent, innervated, or simply ‘eclipsed’ public” (p. 15 3). Murphy posits two new roles that political analysts developed in the 1920s to address the problem of the “eclipsed public.” One focused on social science experts’ potential for training leaders to educate the public. Walter Lippmann, with his interest in the power of propaganda and the challenge it brought to democracy, was an exemplar of this approach, with Murphy describing him as a modern Machiavelli, who proposed molding public opinion through the “creation of a new cadre of expert intelligence workers, many of whom were already working in research bureaus, legislative reference libraries, specialized lobbied funded by corporations and unions, advocacy groups, watchdog publications, and foundations” (p. 158). In contrast, a “group of academics, educators, social welfare workers, and ministers,” were more optimistic about democracy and “imagined new forms of small-group, democratic decision making” (p. 152). Here, Murphy focuses on the work of Mary Parker Follett, who called for improved social integration based on small group interaction. Whatever the approach of these liberal reformers, Murphy notes that for both groups the “public became an abstract thing, a topic of study as well as a subject of analysis,” a clear indicating of the “yawning gap” separating intellectuals and the public (p. 179).
While all of Murphy’s chapters offer provocative insights into aspects of intellectual history of the 1920s, including his discussions on cultural pluralism, the Harlem Renaissance, the fundamentalist controversy, Chicago school sociologists, blues and hillbilly music, and the1920s roots of contemporary conservative intellectuals, in some places the arguments seem to be missing connective tissue. The chapter on mass culture, which includes an interesting analysis of the silent comedies of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Charlie Chaplin and their attention to the vulnerable “little man,” doesn’t offer enough commentary on intellectuals’ response to mass media to sustain Murphy’s argument about the gap between them and the masses. Similarly, while the assessment of new roles of women and changing sexual and marital patterns is well done, a lengthy discussion of the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment is not obviously related to the book’s thesis about intellectuals and modernism. At times the chapters are choppy, perhaps a result of the effort to fit too many subjects and ideas into the book’s overarching theme.
These quibbles aside, readers will find valuable assessments throughout the book. Murphy does not offer evidence for his concluding claim that “The critical concerns of the 1920s – conformity, intolerance, materialism, mass culture, propaganda, cultural repression, censorship – and the liberal values proffered in response – sexual equality, free expression, personal fulfillment, pluralism, tolerance, critical inquiry, scientific rationality, and open-mindedness – came to define the next forty years of American intellectual life,” but the book does provide an imaginative framework for understanding the intellectual life of the 1920s.(p. 209).
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