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 James Livingston
This is a likable and usable book if you want to turn political slogans into periodizing devices—“Normalcy,” “New Era,” “New Deal,” “Cold War,” “Old Left,” “Third Way,” and so forth, as if journalism really is the First Draft of History, or rather, as if your task as an historian is to reproduce the past. Or if you think undergraduates will read this book just because you’ve assigned it. Otherwise you might have some objections to the project as such, and that project is History as we know it—as we do it.
I will offer my objections in the form of questions.
Begin with the premise. What is the point of this book? What audience outside of USIH will pay attention, and why? Don’t get me wrong, I’ve written a book for the same series—I don’t have any answers, my book is far less readable, less enjoyable, and less important than this one. But I think it’s time we started asking the questions. They are miniatures or components of the question we’re addressing when we contemplate the bleak future of the university, or, for that matter, the death of The Professor, the learned, solemn sidekick of the modern slapstick individual. The Professor is of course the guy who explains shit after you experience it, or, as the straight man, while you’re at it.
Then, the very idea of modernism. “However, modernism was, first and foremost, 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.” Hello? Modernism was what? OK, there was that “fragile bridge” between the new working class and the new middle class before the Great War, but both parties to the bargain were just that—new. You might want to argue that modernism was the intellectuals’ way of coming to terms with exile, but then you’d have to explain the phenomenon of intellectuals, this strange new 20th-century stratum of purposefully superfluous individuals, and you’d have to locate their country of origin, the place they fled or the people that expelled them. You’d have to address Pound, Eliot, Yeats, and Stein, then explain why William Carlos Williams stayed home.
And speaking of gaps between the intellectuals and the masses, let Paul Murphy introduce you to technology as the deus ex machina we all recognize as a magic trick: “in a larger sense, the battle was over what force would shape change—industrial and technological progress or culture.” Really? Technology is not itself a social and cultural artifact? Historians still get to ask questions as mystifying as this: “Would the nation be defined by purely industrial and commercial imperatives or humanistic ones?” The favorite metaphor of writers, artists, and intellectuals in the 1920s (and after) was “the machine”—it regulates Middletown, among other landmarks of that decade. But these writer, artists, and intellectuals weren’t for or against: this was not a sporting event, regardless of how much we would like to read contemporary intellectual contests into the circumstances of a formative moment from the past. You can’t have it both ways, saying on the one hand that we’re still speaking their language and on the other that they didn’t quite get it. Well, OK, you can, but sooner or later readers will notice the autobiographical—or is it Oedipal?—integument.
How can you say that “after the 1920s, culture became the essential terrain of social and political action” if you’re not willing to ask why—and then venture an explanation? The intellectuals of that decade certainly did, Lewis Mumford and W.E.B. Du Bois among them, but their explanations were derived from studies of the political economy of their own time. Like the young Herbert Marcuse, they didn’t think that technological progress was the enemy of artistic achievement; they thought instead that such progress would liberate us from necessary labor, and thus free us from what mutilated every imagination. But however you define culture, for then or for now—them or us—you’d better be prepared to understand what they did.
Also, the Harlem Renaissance. Are we still willing to “explain” its failure rather than interrogate the assumption that it did fail—because those rarified uptown intellectuals never connected to the masses inside or outside Manhattan? Or are we now with Houston A. Baker, Jr., Ann Douglas, Cheryl Wall, and George Hutchinson, thus willing to say that, Randolph Bourne notwithstanding, the promise of American life was fulfilled in Harlem in the 1920s and 30s, not postponed by the Great War? There’s no answer in this book, just fair and balanced reporting. How is that even possible unless the author aspires to be the writer of a textbook, or unless he assumes that the distance between the college boys and the proles—sorry, the gap between intellectuals and the masses—can’t be crossed?
And while we’re at it, now that we’re experiencing something, what about the huge differences between Mumford, the hero of the book, and almost everybody else (apart of course from Van Wyck Brooks, the mentor)? Of course it’s true that Mumford, Brooks, and the “Young Americans”—Waldo Frank, Harold Stearns, Paul Rosenfeld, Floyd Dell, among many others—sought an “organic” linkage to a usable past that would enable an inhabitable future, and that in doing so they were trying to ground their criticisms of the present in a cultural tradition, as Warren Susman and Martin Sklar convincingly argued long ago. Who didn’t seek this grounding then? Who doesn’t now?
The sorry fact is that Mumford’s usable past, not to mention those conjured by Brooks, Frank, and Dell, had more in common with the Agrarians—and with T. S. Eliot’s notion of civilization—than with the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, who, by and large, embraced the possibilities of modern technology (oops) and, as a result, were better able to discover and appreciate their “roots” in antebellum America—and that would be the historical moment of slavery’s apogee—than the young intellectuals who gathered around the little magazines. Mumford couldn’t find anything worth admiring in American culture after 1860, and so, like Alan Tate, William Yandell Elliott, Robert Penn Warren, and other luminaries of the very Old School convened at Vanderbilt, he valorized the 1850s, the “Golden Day” when Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Hawthorne, and Melville created the terms of literary debate.
So what? Why object to such a good, even brilliant book? Who cares? I’ll play The Professor, you go ahead and play along, answer at will, and get as angry as you want.
This shit doesn’t matter anymore! Isn’t it clear by now that finely wrought books like Paul Murphy’s are monuments to a comically Nietzschean will to believe—mere vestiges of the urge to make sense in the Present and of the Future by citation of the Past? Aren’t these books just oddly-shaped things that are soon to be placed in dioramas, alongside frogs and other endangered amphibians? Or will they always exist as the material evidence of a deeper urge to get tenure—live forever and all that—which, as we all well know, is already a thing of the Past (not the urge, the thing itself)?
What follows? I don’t know, that’s not in my script, no matter how many times we’ve congratulated ourselves, as professional historians, for saying that the Future can’t be navigated without some map of the Past. What a joke! For now, I know that the congratulations are not yet in order, and that the joke is on us. For too long, we have been merely reproducing the Past, as if we were well-educated preservationists with the right quotation. It’s time we learned how to get over it, and told our fellow citizens why we did.
Tags: .USIH Roundtable