Chapter III: Two Generations, Two Views

 

In 1937 a volume of essays appeared in which some American critics,, most of them young, discussed the work and careers of the major American writers of the previous thirty years. The volume was titled After the Genteel Tradition, and the novelists and poets discussed ranged from Theodore Dreiser to Thomas Wolfe. Malcolm Cowley edited the collection and it was dedicated to Van Wyck Brooks, who it was said “will not agree with some of our ideas, but who nevertheless helped us to reach them.”

After the Genteel Tradition was a work of homage as well as criticism, a collective tribute to those writers who in overthrowing one tradition had established another which, as the title of the volume implied, as yet had no name. How appropriate, therefore, that Malcolm Cowley, who had written Exile’s Return, the memoir of the expatriate generation of the Twenties, and who now presided over the book section of the New Republic, should edit the volume, and how right that it should be dedicated to Van Wyck Brooks, the most eloquent voice of the pre-War rebellion. For it was Brooks, more than any other man of letters, who seemed in retrospect to have encouraged and even presided over the transformations that had established the new tradition, if in recent years from a cautious distance and with more than a few misgivings. Hence the balance struck in the dedication between the claim of discipleship and the acknowledgment of difference. 1

From the perspective of 1937 the American modern movement from the beginning of the century to the present appeared to be all of a piece. Yet there had been a time, not so many years before—just around 1920—when the easy fellowship between older and younger men which such a view assumed had not existed. As Cowley observed in the postscript to After the Genteel Tradition, the young men who came of age during or shortly after the Great War had felt themselves at the time “to be separated not so much by years as by light-years from the writers who had shared the political hopes of Wilson’s first administration, before being permanently disillusioned.” 2

It is difficult to think of any pre-1917 writers of significance, whether political journalists, literary radicals, or pets, to whom this description would apply, but if Cowley’s designation is taken as a kind of casual and none-too-precise shorthand, an allusion to a prevalent state of mind rather than to a political attitude, it might be broadly applied to all of those who participated in what Henry F. May has called the “innocent rebellion” of the pre-War years. 4 All at least hoped, and most were disillusioned. It would apply especially to the small group of intellectuals who edited and wrote for the Seven Arts magazine during its brief existence in 1916 and 1917—Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, James Oppenheim, Randolph Bourne and Paul Rosenfeld. When Brooks accepted the literary editorship of Albert Jay Nock’s the Freeman in 1920, a sort of successor-group to the Seven Arts writers formed at the Freeman consisting of Brooks, Harold Stearns and Lewis Mumford. It was Brooks, Stearns and Mumford who, meeting together over table wine at Stearns’ apartment, conceived the idea of a collaborative overview of American life which became, under Stearns’ editorship, Civilization in the United States. 5 The three most important essays in that volume were those written by Stearns (“The Intellectual Life”), Brooks (“The Literary Life”), an Mumford (“The City”). It was this volume and these essays in particular which for Cowley and his friends defined the point of view of the “disillusioned” pre-War writers. Significantly, Cowley’s main complaint  against these writers, as he expressed it in Exile’s Return, was that they “were ridiculously ignorant of the younger generation.” 6

That seems an odd complaint; when Civilization in the United States was published in 1922, Stearns was thirty-one years old, and Mumford a mere twenty-seven. If they were not representative of the “younger generation,” then who was? This was precisely the issue Cowley meant to illuminate in his satirical sketch “Young Mr. Elkins,” which appeared in the avant-garde magazine Broom at the end of that year. “Young Mr. Elkins,” Cowley wrote, had gone to Harvard with the class of Walter Lippmann and had there written “such articles on puritanism as would have shocked his forebears.” He had been presumed by his elders ever since to speak on behalf of “youth.” Always he was referred to in the critical columns as young Mr. Elkins, although in fact he was born in 1888, had lines under his eyes, and looked about forty. And what could be funnier than the wan hopefulness for American literature in Mr. Elkins’ recent essays: “The new feeling that is in America, it is only an infant. It is no more than a puny child born in the nadir of the year, a helpless, naked mite. In all the grey winter of the land, under the leaden immeasurable vault, it is a nigh invisible fleck. And still, somehow, it is there, born.” 7

Judging from the meagre biographical data supplied, the target of Cowley’s satire might have been either Brooks (born in 1886) or Stearns (born in 1891), both of whom had gone to Harvard and both of whom wrote about the prospects of American literature in roughly the manner of Elkins. In fact, the target was Stearns. It was not Cowley’s intention, however, simply to ridicule Harold Stearns, but to expose the absurdity of assuming that the lugubrious musings of an Elkins represented the faith of the young. While America’s attentions had been directed elsewhere, a younger generation, a really youthful generation, had arrived. And this generation, Cowley suggested, regarded that dreadful Puritanism as old-hat and the obsession of so many writers with it as a joke. Who were the members of Cowley’s younger generation? They were those who after Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises would be known as the “lost generation”—writers born between 1894 and 1900, most of whom were in military service during the First World War, and some of whom saw action on the Western or Italian Fronts; writers who broke into print in the years between 1920 and 1924, usually but not in all cases in the little magazines of the time such as the Dial, Broom, Secession, and the Little Review. Cowley’s younger generation would include Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Hart Crane, Kenneth Burke, Slater Brown, E.E. Cummings, Allen Tate, Edmund Wilson, Matthew Josephson and Cowley himself.

There were profound differences in style, vision and purpose between the “Young America” whose existence Brooks proclaimed in 1918 and the slightly younger America that came along after the War, between men born in the late Eighties and early Nineties and men born in the mid-to-late Nineties. Lewis Mumford, who was born in 1895, felt in the early Twenties that a decision had been thrust upon him as to which side he should join. “In the realignment of the generations which took place in the 1920’s,” he later wrote, “I found myself by education and natural sympathy on the side of men like Randolph Bourne [who had, of course, died before Mumford joined the group], Waldo Frank, Van Wyck Brooks ... and [Paul] Rosenfeld, who were four to ten years my senior, rather than with people like Edmund Wilson, Scott Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Hemingway, or E. E. Cummings, those disillusioned romantics who came forth presently as the lost leaders of a lost generation.” 8

That both Mumford and Cowley perceived the other’s “generation” as above all “disillusioned” is an indication that by the time they wrote of those days the word had become a meaningless epithet, a way of saying “you’re another,” but it also points to the truth of the situation—that each generation thought the other was fundamentally mistaken in its views and was writing wrong things in wrong ways. The issues which separated them were not personal, although in some cases they resulted in personal quarrels, and they were only in the first instance aesthetic. They were, rather, cultural issues, the focus of which in each case was on the role of the writer. At issue were the relationship of contemporary American art and literature to an American tradition; the relation of the American writer to Europe; the relation of higher culture to popular culture, and of both to industrialism. The relationship of art to politics, a subject usually of concern to intellectuals, did not arise because when debate was joined it had already been settled by events: Randolph Bourne’s essay on “The State” spoke eloquently on that subject for both groups; it was in this sense alone that the word “disillusioned” might be said to apply accurately, equally and fully to both generations. 9 It was not only that neither group saw much if anything to be gained by an involvement with conventional politics, or socialist politics either, for that matter; their indifference to politics—relative in the case of the older men, complete in the case of the younger—was also a measure of their conviction that the dominant tendencies of the age, the “machine age,” as almost everyone called it in the Twenties, were industrial, financial, and demographic—the movement into the cities, the creation of a consumer society. These were the great facts which the American intellectual would find himself confronting on every hand, and the questions he would have to answer after some fashion were therefore these: what was he to think of these tendencies, and what responsibilities, if any, should he feel in relation to them?

In regard to all of these questions, the older writers were, just before America’s entry into the War, under the burden of a paradox. On the one hand, with varying degrees of fervency, they all hoped for and even expected soon to witness some kind of renaissance of national culture, a kind of boot-strings operation which might begin with the arts but which, to be even a qualified success, must also affect national life generally. On the other hand, all of these writers—Bourne, Brooks, Frank, Rosenfeld, and, later, Stearns and Mumford—were deeply disturbed by what they saw as a pervasive degradation of national culture under the aegis of industrial capitalism. Bourne, for example, spoke in 1916 of the “downward undertow of our civilization with its leering cheapness and falseness of taste and spiritual outlook, the absence of mind and sincere feeling which we see in our slovenly towns, our vapid moving pictures, our popular novels, and in the vacuous faces of the crowds on the city street.” To see these things was to see “the cultural wreckage of our time,” and to be made aware of the fact that in “our loose, free country, no constraining national purpose, no tenacious folk-tradition and folk-style hold the people to a line.” 10

Bourne’s series of deplorable tendencies might have been pulled whole from Whitman’s Democratic Vistas, and the measure which the Seven Arts writers proposed to remedy the situation might have come from that essay as well: it was (in Whitman’s words, not theirs) a “force-infusion” for purposes of spiritualization. As the Seven Arts editors asserted in a circular letter to American writers sent out on the eve of their venture, it was their faith that they were living in “the first days of a renascent period,” a time of “that national self-consciousness which is the beginning of greatness.” In such a period “the arts cease to be private matters,” and it was therefore the aim of the Seven Arts “to become a channel for the flow of these new tendencies: an expression of our American arts which shall be fundamentally an expression of our American life.” 11 The Seven Arts was not simply to be an outlet for writers, but an “expression of artists for the community,” as the magazine’s masthead proclaimed in its first few issues, and beyond that a means of enhancing and rejuvenating national life.

When Brooks, Frank, and James Oppenheim founded the Seven Arts in 1916, there was among these men a shared hope for American letters, American culture, American democracy. But there was also a shared sense of suspense, of crisis. The moment must be seized not only because it was propitious but because it was perilous as well. The role of critic accordingly became an extremely important one. The critic, the man of letters, must somehow contrive to affect history directly, to set it on a new path away from mindless industrial elaboration and toward spiritual development. This was really the ambition which underlay the project of the Seven Arts, an ambition so grand that the editors themselves only obliquely acknowledged it. The truly responsible critic, Brooks wrote in Letters and Leadership, which first appeared in serial form in the Seven Arts’ pages, must not only observe the creative life of the present with sympathy and demanding severity, he must participate actively in it and impart to it something of his own spirit, must summon his resources of courage for the “heroic measures our life notoriously demands.” 12 Frank put it more forthrightly in the opening pages of Our America. “Quite as naturally as the leaders of a yesterday given up to physical discovery and exploitation were politicians, the leaders of a tomorrow forced to spiritual discovery are men of letters.” 13 That the America of tomorrow would be forced to spiritual discovery, that the mere machinery of life must somehow be transcended, was the central conviction underlying the whole enterprise.

Clearly, however, they must be something more than men of letters if they would fulfil the demanding office of spiritual leadership. They must take not only literature, but the whole of American life as their province and concern. And it would therefore follow that they must come to some clear notion of what they thought of American popular culture. As we have seen, Bourne feared the consequences of a lack of folk-tradition. Brooks, for his part, referred to the folk culture of Lessing’s Germany as a “firm sub-soil” out of which a genuine national art had naturally grown, and asked himself if America possessed any sort of equivalent. 13

It was a painful question not only for Bourne and Brooks but for the rest of the Seven Arts men as well. They were the aspirant prophets and leaders of an American democracy which had become, with the advent of the movies, the phonograph, mass-circulation magazines and large-scale advertising, a mass culture. As a group, the Seven Arts writers—the antithesis in this respect of Robert J. Coady—tended either to deplore this fact or to ignore it altogether.

When Paul Rosenfeld referred to American music, he meant the compositions of Leo Ornstein and Edward MacDowell, never ragtime or the blues. When Brooks spoke of the “culture of industrialism” he seemed to mean, although he denied it, culture in the Arnoldian sense, the best being thought and said. Even when he referred to “the popular level” it turned out he meant “our so-called better-class magazines.” 14 Frank refused to take notice of any product of popular culture except Charlie Chaplin’s films, and even these he at first thought crude and violent, lacking in finer feeling. 15

James Oppenhelm, the editor of the Seven Arts, did on one occasion address himself to the problem of the relationship between democracy and art in an industrial age. “With the increase in democracy,” he observed, “one would naturally expect art to contact more and more of the majority.” The opposite seemed to be true. Great writers of former times—Shakespeare, Goethe—had not written for coterie audiences, but for all. They had not been afraid of burlesque, broad humor and melodrama. The artist of the present, in contrast, wrote for highbrow circles only, and produced “pure music cleansed of the dirt of thinking and image, pure painting thrice-purged of the ‘story’ and the ‘picture,’ pure novels with melodrama and incident burnt out, pure poetry all wrought of images and combed clean of sentiment and thought.

Oppenheim called for a re-infusion of the vulgar elements into art, for an unashamed admission that man was animal as well as intellect. Art should be “passion” as well as “thin abstraction.” If it came to a choice between the two, then perhaps the art of vitality and “raw appetite” was to be preferred, for there was much to be said for “the street and the mill and the saloon, and all places where life is a hot flame, and not the curling wisp of incense.” 16

Despite Oppenheim’s display of no-nonsense forthrightness, he failed to come to grips with the problem he essayed to address, the relationship between art and popular taste in a democracy. It was one thing to ask writers and painters to draw upon vulgar life for thematic material, and quite another to ask them to write and paint for the masses. John Sloan might paint pictures of shop-girls on Broadway but Sloan’s paintings appealed only to connoisseurs, and to very few of those; the masses preferred James Montgomery Flagg and, even then, Norman Rockwell. One found in the popular fiction of the day not the “raw appetites” that the highbrows supposedly spurned, but middle-class romantic fantasies. Redbook was more genteel than Henry James.

At only one point in his essay did Oppenheim face this reality. Opposed to the “purism” of the coterie writers, he said, was the pure trash of the democracy, “stories that are all plot, snap, ginger, and wish-fulfilment: cheap fairytales of business and adventure, turned out as if by machinery.” Behind Oppenheim’s democratic sentimentalism and his pretence that life among the masses was a hot flame, one senses he knew the truth of the matter: it was the literary avant-garde and the young highbrows who formed the Seven Arts’ limited audience who were receptive to that in art which was vivid and real. Oppenheim’s masses were a fiction, a “people” got from Whitman, not from experience.

There was, however, at least one serious debate in the Seven Arts on the value of contemporary popular culture. The issue was ragtime music, and the debaters were Hiram Kelly Moderwell, who took it seriously, and Charles L. Buchanan, who did not. Moderwell, a Harvard graduate and a critic for the Boston Transcript, admitted that most ragtime music was pretty feeble stuff. But the form itself was both compelling and wholly new. “I like to think,” he wrote, “that it is the perfect expression of the American city, with its restless bustle and motion, its multitude of unrelated details, and its underlying rhythmic progress toward a vague Somewhere.” Ragtime was not only attractive music, it was, its roots in Negro spirituals and the blues considered, “the only original and characteristic music America has produced so far.” Whether it might be made the basis for an American school of serious music comparable to the Russian, Moderwell confessed he did not know. “But,” he said, “I know that there will be no great American music so long as American musicians despise our ragtime.” 17

In reply, Buchanan struck immediately at what he considered the central fallacy of Moderwell’s argument, the notion that the “obvious negligibleness” of serious American music was due to “its failure to accept and to utilize a national musical material.” Buchanan could think of “no single instance where a composition that is built out of national material has achieved a pre-eminent distinction.” But even assuming for the moment that European composers had made significant use of national folk materials, the question remained whether ragtime “supplies us with a legitimate equivalent to a Russian or a German or an Irish folk tune.” Buchanan, who confessed that he enjoyed ragtime “as heartily as I enjoy a good laugh,” thought not. Really, far from being “an inevitable reflex of our...character,” was not ragtime “in the last analysis, a mere excrescence on the troubled surface of our national life”? There was an immense difference between “a people’s song that has grown out of an unsophisticated soil and a patois of the pavement that has grown out of vaudevilles and cabarets.” 18

The exchange between Moderwell and Buchanan laid down the terms for what might have developed into a significant debate on a subject of direct relevance to the purposes of the magazine and, presumably, of vital concern to its editors and leading contributors. Moderwell’s and Buchanan’s arguments staked out real positions. They were cogent, and cogency was not a quality to be found in excessive amounts in Seven Arts editorial statements. Was “serious” art autonomous and international, as Buchanan insisted, the creation and property of a cosmopolitan elite owing nothing to the provincial, the popular and the contemporary, or was it, as Moderwell said, national and necessarily related to the popular arts? The debate was not joined in the Seven Arts because, with the exception of Kenneth MacGowan, the film critic, the Seven Arts men were so deeply uncertain of their own position. They were on the whole in agreement with Moderwell. that the materials of an authentic American art must be found in the mainstream of national life, but they were not prepared to recognize the claims of ragtime or vaudeville or film comedy to a legitimate place in that life. The Seven Arts almost wholly failed to examine sympathetically, really to examine at all, the culture of the people in whose behalf it presumed to speak. For ragtime was, just as Moderwell said, the perfect expression of the American city, and American culture was now, like it or not, increasingly an urban culture. The only possible conclusion to be derived from this would be stated a few years later by the young critic Gilbert Seldes: “If we refuse to call our ragtime folk music, then we must face the fact that we are at a moment in history when folk songs simply do not occur.” 19

In that sentence, the fundamental problem underlying the enterprise in affirmation that the Seven Arts represented was revealed with  the neatness of an epigram. The hopes of these men for American literature and hence for American culture depended upon a sentimental conception of the country which was increasingly at odds with what the country was becoming. Their authentic America would be a place whose spiritual essence would find expression in the words of redemptive folk bards, not in the music of Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths. Here was one reason why Frank and Rosenfeld were so exhilarated by their discovery of Sherwood Anderson—shambling, rough, shy, mystical, intuitive, and therefore an indisputable proof that despite all they had feared, the American heartland was still capable of producing untutored geniuses. 20

But such lofty and tenuous hopes could not for long be sustained. In the years after the Armistice, the older generation writers veered between open confessions of despair at the state of American literature and its prospects, and renewed attempts to impose as if by fiat their own literary requirements and purposes on the generation coming up. Thus Brooks found American literature to be on the whole a “sterile, supine, and inferior phenomenon” in 1922, which was only a reflection of the larger fact that. “life itself has been, thus far, in modern America, a failure.” 21 There must be a “complete transvaluation of values” in America, Harold Stearns wrote in America and the Young Intellectual, “and it may actually be that we are incapable of making that transvaluation.” We must, he went on, “look to the artist for our greatest help.” But America was in a fallow period artistically, “and it is reasonable to suppose that this eminently unsatisfactory condition may continue for two or three generations to come.” 22

Henry F. May has observed that the pre-War generation found two characteristic attitudes of the Twenties particularly unsettling, real pessimism and real frivolity. 24 This was certainly true of Brooks, Frank, and Mumford. To them, the one meant moral cowardice and the other fatuity; hence the first was to be denied, especially when one detected signs of it in oneself, and the second was to be forthrightly condemned. Evidences of such cowardice and fatuity were everywhere to be seen in the Twenties, and the surviving members of the older generation went forth to route them. In 1924, Frank proudly recalled the dark days of 1917 when he and his colleagues had scanned the skies for signs “that the ranks should serry and the true fight begin” in the war for a new literature, a new consciousness. Like an old soldier sure at least of his own battle-tested courage, Frank urged upon the young intellectuals “the joy of consecrated war” against “the forms and languages of a dying culture.” 25

What such a war would require of the young was indicated by Mumford in his 1926 study of the literature of pre-Civil War America, The Golden Day. It was a pathbreaking book, and one of the direct sources of F. 0. Matthiessen’s monumental American Renaissance, but what should not be forgotten is that The Golden Day was not merely a study of the literature of a past era. 26 Mumford in that work presented his generation with a “usable past,” in Brooks’ phrase, a past, moreover, that was to he revered before used. It was axiomatic to Mumford as it was to Brooks that the starting point for the renascence of the creative spirit in America must be Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. “That world,” said Mumford of the 1850’s, the decade of the Leaves and Melville’s Moby Dick, “was the climax of the American experience.” 27

 

What preceded it led up to it: what followed, dwindled away from it; and we who think and write to-day are either continuing the first exploration, or we are disheartened, and relapse into some stale formula, or console ourselves with empty gestures of frivolity.

 

In these words, intended to inspire the young to better things, was contained the implicit condemnation which the Seven Arts writers would visit upon the “lost generation”—men who, in Mumford’s bitter words, “shrank from their original faith with the bawling outrage of an infant who finds that the lovely golden ball he has grasped is a hot electric bulb.” 28

Ernest Hemingway, to the older writers representative of everything wrong with the Twenties, replied in kind for his generation. It was Hemingway who said that American literature did not begin with Leaves of Grass, but with Huckleberry Finn; who satirized Sherwood Anderson’s unconsciously mannered Dark Laughter in The Torrents of Spring, and who in Death in the Afternoon pronounced over Waldo Frank perhaps the harshest verdict any American writer has ever passed on another: Frank was a bad writer, said Hemingway, bad in the worst way, because simply and completely a fake. 29 There is another remark of Hemingway’s that deserves to be recalled, this spoken offhandedly by Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises. “So many young men,” says Jake, speaking here of the hapless Robert Cohn, “get their likes and dislikes from Mencken.” “I guess he’s all right,” says Jake of Mencken. “I just can’t read him.” 30

The young writers of the Twenties just couldn’t read most older American writers because they had the feeling that the twentieth century began with themselves. “A vast change, the result of the first World War, was taking place all over America,” Allen Tate later recalled. “The nineteenth century was at an end. And the shock of this realization affected every writer of the 1920’s whether he was aware or not of what the change meant historically. The change affected the imaginative writer at his nerve-ends. He began to see the world differently. His sensibility was altered.” 31

Tate’s words convey the sense of a change so profound as to be almost unutterable: one simply felt it at the nerve-ends. The legend of the lost generation in its simplest form holds that the change they experienced was a loss of ideals—that they were a generation “grown up to find all gods dead,” in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s oft-recalled words, “all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken....” But after those memorable lines toward the end of This Side of Paradise, Amory Blaine reflects that “the waters of disillusion had left a deposit on his soul, responsibility and a love of life, the faint stirrings of old ambitions and unrealized dreams.” 32 To be disillusioned in this sense would seem to mean only to be free of illusions (or to think oneself free of illusions), hardly to be in despair.

As to the War, one would think that nine months or a year spent in France, usually driving ambulances, could not have had the same effect upon these young American volunteers as three or four years in the trenches had upon Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and their German and French contemporaries. The horror of war, if not too long endured, might be conceived of as an education, an experience of the real thing. “I am going to do something some day, but first I must see,” says Martin Howe, the protagonist of John Dos Passos’ One Man’s Initiation-1917 (a novel truer to Dos Passos’ own experience than his later Three Soldiers) “I want to be initiated in all the circles of hell.” 33 Even confinement in a military prison might be an exhilarating experience, as E. E. Cummings demonstrated in The Enormous Room.

As for the state of mind of the lost generation after the War, one has only to read such memoirs as Dos Passos’ The Best Times or Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast to be persuaded that for most of these writers, young, sure of their talent, convinced of their worth, the early Twenties were a good time in which to be alive. Almost unanimously, the lost generation denied that they had ever been lost. Even Hemingway, who put the phrase into print in The Sun Also Rises, later renounced it as a “dirty, easy label.” For the rest, one might call the roll of the lost generation and receive nothing but nays. Allen Tate later protested that a lost generation was “precisely what they were not.” “How did this misleading nomenclature come into such wide usage?” Matthew Josephson would ask. It was “nonsense to hold that a generation of American youth were ‘lost’ or driven to despair as a result of that brief war.” E. E. Cummings confessed years afterward that he had been “no worthy specimen” of the so-called lost generation, and neither had any of his friends. “I don’t think we enjoyed courting disaster,” he said. “I do feel we liked being born.” The members of his generation, Malcolm Cowley recalled, came of age “with a feeling that the new century had been placed in their charge; it was like a business in financial straits that could now be rescued by a change of management.” Above all, the “famous ‘postwar mood of aristocratic disillusionment’ was a mood we had never really shared.” 34

The war had profoundly affected them, but it had not produced despair. One kind of difference it made may be discerned in Dos Passos’ memoir, where he records a letter he wrote home from France in 1917 describing the amusingly incongruous sight of his Harvard friend and fellow ambulance driver Robert Hillyer, who in college had been “mad for Elizabethan lyrics,” now “on his back in the mud under his car, garbed in blue overalls, a gob of grease on his nose, and a black and grimy belt uplifted in his hand.” 35 At another point, Dos Passos says that although he had first loved Italy for her ancient towns and Giotto frescoes, he “came to admire a certain classic simplicity in the Fiat motor.” 36 The War, this is to suggest, was not only an experience of “hell” but a kind of initiation into the world of machines for writers like Dos Passos who had had no direct experience of these things before. Whether they put in their time shuttling ambulances between the front and the field hospitals, or drilling and washing windows in some camp in New Jersey or Alabama, the experience of violence, death, noise, or simply finding oneself to be one serviceman among millions of others required a kind of subtle retuning of the nervous system. Sherwood Anderson, attempting to explain in a letter to his son just what it was that separated him from younger men who had gone through the war, struggled through snarled syntax to a kind of revelation: 37

 

Thousand[s] of men, everywhere, jerked out of the old individualistic life, plenty of machinery to jerk them out fast . . . hurled into a new mass 1 life.... The old individualist—the man of the pre-War period, who was a young man then, who got his sharp impressions then (most of us continue all our lives to live in the impressions of youth; the men, the young men who got their sharp impressions in the War will probably continue to live in those impressions the rest of their lives)—the old individualist type of man—well, you see where he was.

 

He was, as Anderson saw it, simply left behind—an individualist in a new mass society or, in Tate’s terms, a nineteenth century man in the twentieth.

Nor was it only the war which would produce such a division. The lost generation, most of whom were born just before the turn of the century, were the first to grow up with movies and automobiles; at around the age of twenty they greeted what Siegfried Giedion has called the period of “full mechanization” in America—the age of  bathroom appliances, refrigerators, and the improved phonograph. 38 The typical young writer of his generation, Cowley later observed, had become an initiate of the world of machines while still in high school. “He drove the family car; he repaired the family washing machine in the basement, and, in the attic, he had a crude radio set on which he once received a message from Omaha . Born in an era of machines, he was no more disturbed by their presence than is a farmboy by the cows he drives to pasture or the horses he rides.” 39 Such experiences were by no means shared by all members of the lost generation. Cummings, Dos Passos and Edmund Wilson, all Easterners, all raised in comfortable circumstances, led youthful lives fully as “sheltered” as those of Brooks, Frank and Rosenfeld—and far more so than those of Bourne, Stearns and Mumford—but the lost generation writers then underwent the generational rite of passage, the war, and were changed by it. 40 In one way or another, all of the writers of the lost generation were plunged into that “new mass life” at about the same age, and the experience was enough to form them as a generation just as the “real” beginning of the twentieth century was taking place. To identify with the literary and cultural aspirations of the pre-war generation after everything that had happened to them required a kind of formal renunciation of generational ties that, of all the young writers, only Lewis Mumford chose to make.

One misconception about the lost generation is that they were participants in the great urban-versus-rural Kulturkampf of the Twenties—the opposition of the more sophisticated and urbanized elements of the population to the traditional and repressive values of Main Street, the revolt against the village: Darrow versus Bryan, bohemians against assorted Ku Kluxers, Rotarians, immigration restrictionists, drys, and fundamentalists. 41 In fact, the lost generation took scarcely any notice of these things at all (Hemingway did, of course, in The Sun Also Rises, but in the jokey talk of Jake Barnes and Bill Gorton about the Scopes trial and Bryan’s death, Bryan and Mencken are both seen as comic grotesques). The revolt against the village and the flight from the provinces to the freedom of Chicago and New York were both phenomena largely of the pre-war generation. Sinclair Lewis exposed the hypocrisy and conformity of Zenith in Babbitt; F. Scott Fitzgerald, in the person of Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, wistfully recalled St. Paul as a place of some decency and order in the world, whose conventions served to constrain the wilfulness of the likes of Tom Buchanan. Those members of the lost generation who had come from small towns and provincial cities had not so much fled from them—so they came to feel—as they had been displaced from them. 42 The Twenties were for most members of the lost generation an overwhelmingly urban decade—and “urban,” in every case, meant New York City. From their point of view the obvious, the significant cultural struggle of the decade was not between the city and the country, or the metropolis and the provinces: it was being played out within the city itself. Their cultural enemies, the targets of their satires, were not bible-wallopers and hardware dealers, but corporate bigshots, advertising men, and bondsalesmen.

Some members of the lost generation did not write about the city at all, but it figures centrally in the sketches, essays, poems and fiction of a number of them: Matthew Josephson, Kenneth Burke, Malcolm Cowley, Slater Brown, Hart Crane, John Dos Passos, F. Scott Fitzgerald, E. E. Cummings and Edmund Wilson. The great change of which Tate spoke was registered in many ways—the greatly increased production of motorcars, the boom in skyscraper construction the coming of the movie palace and the nightclub, the beginning of commercial radio broadcasting, and the explosive growth of advertising. A whole new ensemble of sights, sounds and sensations had been created during the lifetime of the lost generation. 42a Experiencing these things, it would be impossible for them to respond to the “Machine Age” as their immediate elders had done in the 1910’s. The received and poetically authenticated images of industrialism and urbanism, the inherited Whitmanian icons, had been superceded and rendered obsolete, and whatever the comic strip, the color advertisement, the fast roadster, and jazz signified, they clearly did not signify the triumph of industrial democracy. What meanings, then, were to be discerned in these things, how should they be interpreted, how should one respond to them? Each writer would formulate his own response, or rather, would register in his work a series of complex responses, but there were some things they all shared. First, they would not condemn this new environment out of hand, as Bourne, Frank, Rosenfeld and Brooks had done; they would recognize the futility of Brooks’ advice when he was asked in 1927 how the modern artist should adapt to the Machine age: “he must somehow contrive to live outside it.” 43 Second, most members of the lost generation were as fascinated by popular culture as the pre-war generation had been repelled by it. They did not necessarily approve of these things; they were all ambivalent, and some regarded themselves as enemies of the new culture of the city. But they were all deeply affected by it, and the result was more important than approval: something of the language and sensibility of the new mass culture entered into their style. Third, most of them would seek to come to terms with their ambivalence, to contain and sublimate it, by employing satire.

One possible response was simply to accept it all, and it was acceptance which formed the basis of the editorial policy of Broom, an avant-garde monthly produced between 1921 and 1923 which advertised itself as a journal fit for “The Age of the Machine,” as one subscription appeal had it, featuring a new art and a new literature “spring[ing] sturdily from the machine civilization.” 44 Broom began as the joint venture of Alfred Kreymborg and Harold Loeb. Kreymborg, who had been a leading figure on the New York literary scene for a decade, was to supply the necessary literary connections, and Loeb, through his wealthy in-laws, the money. Loeb, however, saw himself as something more than a financial angel and pro forma editor; he had literary aspirations of his own to fulfil and saw Broom as the means to do so. There was friction between the two men almost immediately. Kreymborg was devoted to Van Wyck Brooks and Paul, Rosenfeld, who in Kreymborg’s opinion represented “criticism at its highest;” he conceived of Broom as a journal which should be congenial to their point of view. 45 Loeb suspected, however, that Brooks and Rosenfeld were passé. “I had come to feel,” he later wrote, “that most of the older intellectuals lacked perspective. They moaned because man was being enslaved by the machine, but failed to notice that the machine had freed vast numbers of men and women who before had been enslaved.” 46 Loeb eased Kreymborg out, and thereafter sought to identify himself and Broom with what he took to be the outlook of the post-war younger generation. “They may like bill posters no more than does Van Wyck Brooks,” Loeb wrote of the “American writers of the youngest generation” in one Broom editorial, but “they do not contend that such things are done better in Europe. Rather they hold that there is a great deal to be said for the American system of going the limit if you are going to go it at all.”

47

Broom was descended from Robert J. Coady’s The Soil, but was different from Coady’s journal both in the kind of machinery it celebrated and in its manner of affirmation. 48 Industrial machinery had symbolized for Coady the genius of a free-spirited democratic people. Broom took no notice of industrial machinery, and “the people” was a concept not to be found in its vocabulary. Rather paradoxically, Broom celebrated what might be called the supportive machinery of the new urban, middle-class style of life—roadsters, the American bathroom, and so forth—and at the same time stood for a militantly anti-bourgeois form of art. The journal’s theoretician on these matters was Matthew Josephson, a young poet from Brooklyn lately resident in Paris. From Josephson’s point of view, both the robust populism of The Soil and the anxious quasi-populism of the Seven Arts were to be scorned. Artists who sought to reach a mass audience, or to express the aspirations or spirit of such an audience, he said, ran the risk of producing within a year “something solid and nourishing, something only a shade different from Harper’s or the Atlantic Monthly. Vulgarization, eclecticism.” Good art made demands; it was as difficult to understand as it was to create. If the artist were faithful to this credo, the gap between himself and the public must widen. Was this to be regretted? In France, Josephson reported, “I have been assured again and again by young writers that the gulf between the great public and themselves is wider then ever before.” 49 It hardly needed to be added that these young writers, the Dadaists, had no regrets about this situation whatever—would not, indeed, have it any other way.

The great audience, then, was not “the people,” a sentimental conception, but “the public,” the middle class, and to write for them was to pander. Most of what followed in Josephson’s program was derived from this conviction, and from his determination to make as decisive a break as possible with the pre-war generation. If the Seven Arts writers and the contributors to Civilization in the United States had lamented the course of American development, then the militant young artist must welcome it; if they loathed skyscrapers, he must love them; if they detested advertising, he must celebrate it; if they feared the machine’s ravages, he must delight in its triumphs. Above all, there was one stupid and pernicious notion he must squelch for good. The machine was not “crushing” anybody: 50

 

The machine is our magnificent slave, our fraternal genius. We are a new and hardier race, friend to the sky-scraper and the subterranean railway as well. We are at home in the sea as well as in the air, and we can sing and laugh as heartily under these transformed conditions. The whole scene, strangely enough, is more provocative of mirth than of condemnation.

 

The very style of Josephson’s essays was meant to confound the older writers. If they insisted on being messianic and solemn, the new writer must be witty, elliptical, and calculatingly frivolous. If they deplored the lack of authentic folk expression in contemporary life, he would, with mock ingenuousness, direct their attention to the billboards and advertising pages, there to discover the fables of the dawning machine age. if one desired the real poetry of today, then one must look to panegyrics on Buick 8’s, and if one wanted symbols, there was Heinz 57. Was not “MEATY MARROWY OXTAIL JOINTS,” the creation of some anonymous genius for Campbell’s soups, quite as good in its way as Keats’ “With beaded bubbles winking at the brim?” 51

Those who spoke glumly of the cheapening of American life, Josephson’s essays asserted, had missed the truth that American industrialism had created a new and exciting environment, an immensely expanded arena for human action. A suggestion of these possibilities and a portent of the art forms of the future was to be found in advertising, “the most daring and ingenuous [sic.] literature of the age.” The real significance of advertising, Josephson said, was not that it sold products but that it implanted in the national consciousness the hope of achieving an unprecedented style of life, the romantic style of machine-age man. This new man, whatever his profession, assembled his identity from the materials of the age. He lived completely in the moving present. He felt at ease in any environment because he was rooted in none. He was “bronzed, handsome, genial,” a “lover of unwarlike violence and motion.” He loved elegance, sported an Arrow collar, and was fastidious about his shoes. Above all, he possessed assurance; he was the incarnation of poise in motion. 52

Josephson’s essays suggested an expatriate’s rosy vision of his homeland, and also reflected the influence of the Parisian Dadaists whom Josephson had befriended—young men who in their revulsion from everything traditional and European, everything that had brought on the First World War, professed to adore all that was new and American. But for all the good-humored exuberance of Josephson’s essays, there was something slightly hysterical about his enthusiasm for the new, an hysteria that burst forth in his call for the election of Henry Ford for president with the words “Let him assemble us all into his machine .... Let us be properly assembled.” 53

However, there was something salutary in Josephson’s insistence that the artist need not be cast into the ditch by the Juggernaut of industrialism. “Whatever we may think of the social injustice wrought by the machine,” he said in one his soberer moments, “it has certainly turned up an amazing store of fresh artistic material.” If artists could manage “not to get bashed by it all,” they might acquire “a large romanticism which can outleap the nervous Zeitgeist,” a romanticism possessing “a daring and freedom in the quality of its speculation which surpasses that of our scientists and financiers.” 54 This was to concede that the situation of man in the age of mechanism was more tricky than Josephson was usually willing to admit.

The artist, he was saying, was compelled by his situation to snatch the materials of the age from the hands of the machine’s masters. To ignore the existence of those materials, to refuse to utilize them, was to guarantee the victory of the scientists and financiers by default. If that were to happen, then the artist and all he stood for might indeed be run over by the machine.

Certainly there was sense in this, and it might be said that Josephson’s hope for a romanticism appropriate to the age was fulfilled in the stories and novels of an artist who was equally fascinated by the Zeitgeist and far more comprehending of its pathos. Anthony Patch, the hero of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned, was just such a negligent young man as Josephson apparently envisioned, and Jay Gatsby was that romantic hero raised to tragic significance—Gatsby, the man of unknown profession, the “sportsman” who abolished his past as he proceeded and who fashioned his persona out of the dreamstuffs of the decade, the lover who could present to his beloved no surer token of his adoration than a pile of his gorgeous shirts. But Josephson’s call for an endorsement by artists of the tendencies of the age did not meet a positive response from his colleagues. Hart Crane, who was working in a New York advertising agency at the time and detested the job, was astonished that Josephson could confuse the “gross materialism” of advertising with art. 55 Yet, if no one else was ready to respond to the New Era as Josephson recommended, several were intrigued by that “amazing store of fresh material;” art had uses for advertising after all—satirical uses.

Josephson’s fellow expatriate Malcolm Cowley demonstrated what could be done with advertising in “Portrait by Leyendecker,” a word-collage assembled from the advertisements in one issue of the Saturday Evening Post. The Leyendecker of the title was Joseph C. Leyendecker, the brilliant advertising illustrator who created the Arrow collar man, a clean-jawed youth with penetrating blue eyes who was the very image of Josephson’s ideal. Cowley’s subject, however, bore only an outward resemblance to Josephson’s hero. Inwardly, Charles Wesley Brown (“Charley Brown—C. Wesley Brown—Wes Brown—Brownie”) was one of T. S. Eliot’s hollow men . “A Daily Dozen before the open window, after which he dressed with the energetic but unhurried efficiency which characterizes the smallest acts of his daily life,” began the description of this incredibly successful executive of a halfdozen corporations, among them Duplicator, Inc.:

 

We take a smile—a winning smile—the sort of smile that wins success, and by our patented method we duplicate it on ten million lips. By the same process we duplicate words—habits of thought—the cut of a cravat-a chin-dimple—a method of sales approach. It is thanks to Duplicator, Inc. that America has become a nation of standardized business executives. This is my proudest boast.

 

Charley’s wife Bess is The Kind of Girl You Stop to Look At, but communication between the two of them is limited. Charley’s one phrase of domestic conversation is “Beats me, Bess. I don’t see how you ever found such a good-looking rug for only $16.20.” Toward the end, whispered suggestions of future disaster insinuate their way into Charley’s brain—“Are you the ten-pin or the ball? IS YOUR BODY TEN YEARS OLDER THAN YOU ARE? Do you like fine things? Are you covered[?]”—until, seized by panic, he exclaims, “I am choking, dry. I want a drink .... Have any of you gentlemen a pocket flask? I want a drink of water, whiskey....ginger ale the Anytime .... drink...choking....for God’s sake give me a drink.” 56

Business executives were also made to experience moments of horror in the short stories of Kenneth Burke. Most of Burke’s stories in those years were of other realms and other times—dense, formal and brief dream sequences, fables and parables from which traditional narrative techniques were excluded. Far from wishing to record or describe any part of the “American scene,” Burke almost from the outset was a fantasist employing exotic, vaguely Chinese or Persian names and themes (Prince Llan, Kajn Tafha, Yul), creating his own Arabian nights. However, Burke would occasionally employ his talent for surreal, disturbing evocation to reveal in a phrase the malaise of the decade (“Christ,” thinks one executive at a ghastly banquet of the All American Corporation while enduring the windbag oratory of his boss, “they have even burned out our pessimism!”), 57 and in one short story owing more to the techniques of Mack Sennett than to any other source, a Wall Street bigshot is, with relish, given a ghastly fate. After receiving the obsequious farewells of his employees at the end of another successful day at the office, Mr. Dougherty takes the subway home. All is as it should be until the train emerges from the ground just north of 116th Street, when it is attacked by a swarm of airplanes containing, to Dougherty’s horror, madly painted wild Indians. The Indians shoot out the window directly in front of Dougherty, lasso him, haul him rudely into an airplane, and carry him off to a deserted South Sea island, where they kill and eat him. 58 The effect—the subway turned into a wagon train, the faces of the Indians hideously distorted by warwhoops that cannot be heard—is of a silent film comedy gone homicidally berserk.

That several members of the lost generation indulged such revenge fantasies, and that on the whole they portrayed urban life in the New Era as a nightmare, was obscured by the fact that two of the journals most receptive to their work, Broom and the Little Review, were pro-machine, and by implication, at least, pro-New Era, in their attitude. This was especially true of the Little Review, which in the Twenties was edited by Jane Heap, a machine zealot. 59 “The present epoch,” Heap wrote in one issue, “is in many ways the most energetic and significant in Western history.” Artists had at last broken with “man’s infatuation for the beef and vegetable kingdom,” and the time had come when something very interesting might be written about “the Machine as a religious expression as great if not greater than the great cathedrals.” 60

Heap the machine proselytizer featured in the Little Review’s pages a section of George Antheill’s “Airplane Sonata,” and two serialized essays on the aesthetics of the machine by the French painter Fernan Léger and the Italian Futurist theoretician Enrico Prampolini. one issue of the Little Review was devoted entirely to expressionist theater in Europe and the United States, and included photographs of appropriate stage sets and robot-like costumes for such militant dramas as “Gas,” “Machine-Vengeance,.and “Destroyed by Machines.” 61 America was proclaimed as the land in which the machine and the skyscraper had wonderfully come into their own in an exultant essay by the Russian-American Constructivist painter Louis Lozowick. 62 But Heap’s authentic triumph was a Machine-Age Exposition in New York in 1927, the first of its kind, which featured paintings and sculpture by such European and American moderns as Léger, Lozowick, Jacques Lipchitz, Naum Gabo, Man Ray and Charles Sheeler, along with Hugh Ferriss’ skyscraper renderings; a stunning photographic review of modern European domestic and industrial architecture; and finally some beautifully photographed examples of current American industrial design. 63

It is one of the anomalies of the 1920’s avant-garde that Heap should have opened the doors of this little shrine to the machine gods to young Americans who, once inside, threw stones at all the idols. Slater Brown observed in one sketch in the Little Review that according to statistics, over 600 million passengers had taken the New York subway in 1921. Brown mused that if the total had in fact represented that many separate individuals, and if they might “somehow or other be got into a mortar, brayed into a pulp of semi-liquid consistency, and then plastered over the sun,” the goo would be of such an opacity and depth that not the tiniest twinkle of light would peep through. “WHAT A TERRIBLE CALAMITY that would be!” 64

 

For denied its most important source of heat and light, the world would most certainly freeze. Business would collapse, stocks fall to unprecedented levels, and with all its telephones ringing unanswered, the earth would spin forever through the stars, as cold and naked as a door knob.

 

Josephson’s observation that the situation of man in the machine age was “provocative of mirth” was borne out in the works of his colleagues, but what provoked most of them to mirth, or to grim satisfaction, was the contemplation of scenarios of disaster, of death and ruin. The Atlantis theme, for example, recurs in the work of Kenneth Burke, and whereas in Crane’s The Bridge, Atlantis symbolizes redemption, the rebirth out of the sea of a final shore beyond desire, in Burke’s poems and stories Atlantis means final submergence. in one story, a dream comes to a man standing in Central Park one night, looking across “to the lights of the apartments along the edge.” The man dreams of an eleventh city (ten lie beneath it, all filled with corpses) in which the streets are long straight lines, with other long straight lines a drawn perpendicular, and in which “the same is consistently true of the architecture.” The man at first thinks the city is “in the bottom of the sea” and lived in “by extremely cultivated fishes,” but, no, it is not in the sea, not even near it, but stands “bulky and dead, in the middle of a plain , silhouetted against the sky, and cold.” 65 In Burke’s novel, Towards a Better Life, the narrator recalls cities in which he has lived, and tells us that “In the most strident of these cities, I now am.” In the passage following, the narrator evokes the gentleness of the natural landscape “standing without the din,” and then envisions a comparable peace in the city. “If it must sink to the bottom of the sea before peace descends upon it,” he thinks, “may it sink then into deep waters, that subsequent races approach it from above and pry into dimnessess where we are now harassed by glare.” 66

A similar vision occurs in Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer when a crooked big businessman fleeing to Europe looks back from the deck of a moving oceanliner to see a “steaming towering city that gathered itself into a pyramid and began to sink mistily into the browngreen water of the bay.” 67 It is not peace that Dos Passos dreams of, however, but divine punishment; in the same chapter of the novel, the last, an old tramp appropriately named Jonah, recalling the destruction of Babylon and Nineveh, prophesies a similar fate for New York: “But it’s terrible to think of, folks, the fire an brimstone an the earthquake an the tidal wave an the tall buildins crashing together.” 68

The skyscrapers of Manhattan were not resented only by Dos Passos. “Of their pride/ We are the squalor,” said Burke of them in one poem, and Cowley called them creations of Lucifer, proclaiming in their arrogance that “Sea and Sky are ours,/ and yours, 0 man, the shadow of our shade.” 69 Yet for the most part these poets and novelists who moved in the shadow of skyscrapers and indulged their dreams of disaster and their expressions of hate, or, as they saw it, of contempt returned for contempt, retained remarkably high spirits while doing so.

In the meantime, they had the freedom of the city—were free to create their own spaces and sanctuaries within the city’s walls, their own networks of complicity and shared purpose, and to avail themselves of the rich array of “subterranean” compensations and pleasures which the city in its carelessness afforded them. 70 Even Dos Passos, the implacable enemy of New York, could write in an unguarded moment to Robert Hillyer in 1920, “New York is silly and rather stupendous—I mean skies—buildings—garbage cans,” and seven years later invite Ernest Hemingway to “come out of those Parisian swamps;” New York, Dos Passos said cheerfully, “is getting to be just like Paris—only more exciting and really synthetic gin isn’t a damn bit worse than Anis Deloso....” 71

If there was perhaps a strain of self-conscious heartiness in Dos Passos’ invitation to Hemingway, there was nothing faked about the ease in city surroundings demonstrated by the “I” of E. E. Cummings’ “Sonnets Realities” and other poems of the Twenties. There might be a better world “next door,” as Cummings said in his most anthologized poem, but the poet himself seemed perfectly at home in this one, down there among the Greenwich Village speakeasies, blowing Bronx cheers at the bourgeoisie, taking things, experiences, and women as they came, a buoyant, streetwise descendent of Francois Villon. Cummings was born and raised in genteel Cambridge, Massachusetts, adored birds and flowers, took pride in his New England ancestry, and in later life, as his biographer tells us, loved his farm, despised radio and TV, possessed neither, was against “progress,” and was anti-scientific. 72 Yet it is impossible to think of the Cummings of the Twenties as possessing any sort of past, let alone rural allegiances. To the lover of Cummings’ sonnets, “reality” extends neither back to the past nor forward to a future; it is a glowing present—a room somewhere in the city, a bed, a woman, and the poet—from which all troublesome or complicating emotions have been excluded. The lover feels adoration towards the woman’s body for the ecstasy it gives him, and a triumphant and grateful narcissism (“I like my body when it is with your body...”).73 Each moment is new, and only desire is honest. About everything except sex, Cummings is “mockingly negative,” as David Weimer has said, “anti-respectability, anti-solemnity, anti-marriage, anti-patriotism, anti-commercialism, anti-fraudulence, anti-prudery, anti-bourgeois decorum”—all in all, a range of attitudes it is hardly possible to have, let alone cheerfully and defiantly to broadcast, except in a city. 74

Cummings is also a creature of the city in his instinctive scorn for the tradition-approved metaphors and allusions of conventional verse, things which, as he says in POEM, OR BEAUTY HURTS MR. VINAL, have been rendered “radically defunct” in what is now the “land of the Cluett/ Shirt Boston Garter and Spearmint/ Girl With The Wrigley Eyes,” the “land above all of Just Add Hot Water and Serve—.” What anachronisms, therefore, are those “crepuscular violinists among my and your/ skyscrapers.” 75 And who, before 1920, could have turned lovemaking into a car race, as Cummings did in “she being Brand”? 76

The young men of the Twenties had been formed by the machine age and knew themselves to be implicated in its fate. They were not immune to its attractions, and they felt a responsibility both to the age and to themselves to form their art out of the materials it offered them. At the same time, they knew it to be bogus—an age of fraud, exploitation, cynical manipulation, false promises, and paper profits. Given these contradictory perceptions, they would have to develop their artistic strategies in the space they could clear between the two poles of attraction and repulsion; authenticity would require a kind of seismic registering of ambivalence. Kenneth Burke indicated in a phrase the essential attitude of most members of his generation. “When in Rome,” he advised, “do as the Greeks.” In his Counter-Statement, Burke spelled out a “Program” for artists which assumed a necessary mutual antagonism between art and industrialism. Rejection of the machine age was not advised. The artist must be sensitive to both the surviving and the emergent factors in his situation, Burke said, and “the artist wholly awake to the contemporary will embody a mixture of retentions and innovations.” The artist must be open to the experience of the age, even accepting of it, although acceptance was not the same thing as acquiescence. “One may accept a situation,” he explained, “in thundering against it.” 77 Most members of the Lost Generation accepted their situation in just this way, and expressed that acceptance in mockery, satire, surreal distortion, and a form of parody expressing both admiration and hatred for the thing parodied.

Of them all, F. Scott Fitzgerald was most completely of the age—which for him was the Jazz Age—and Fitzgerald was the only member of the Lost Generation, probably, in whom the impulse never arose to condemn the age or to “thunder against it. “ The negative pole of Fitzgerald’s ambivalence was an ironically comprehending and tender disapproval, as when Nick Carraway, knowing of Gatsby’s “corruption” says, “I disapproved of him from beginning to end” 78—as if to confide to us, “Don’t make the mistake of thinking I was ever taken in; I have my standards, you know.” He had his standards, but he also believed as none of the others did in money and fame and romance and all the rewards with which the Jazz Age beckoned, and while they walked within the shadows of the skyscrapers, Fitzgerald, the city’s young prince, enjoyed surveying his domain from the Plaza Roof. 78a

Thus his fable The Great Gatsby is elaborated over the pathetic contradiction between true faith and its meretricious object. That passage at the novel’s end about the Dutch sailors’ first sight of the “fresh, green breast of the new world” is probably as familiar as any in American literature: in that image, we know, is the true significance of Gatsby’s love for Daisy. But there is another, similar passage about half way into the novel that should also be recalled, a passage which confirms that for Fitzgerald, the new world was New York City. The city of this novel is a place of speakeasies, greasy luncheonettes, disastrous parties in hot apartments, and of squalid affairs--not so very different, really, from the New York of Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer, published in the same year. But to be truly comprehended, Fitzgerald’s city, like Whitman’s crowd, must be viewed from another perspective: 79

 

Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.

 

New York, the siren city, is meretricious, but true, for it invites true ardor; is only a city, but contains the promise of the world. It was the illusory nature of that promise, as Fitzgerald tells us in “My Lost City,” that was blessedly hidden from him until one day long after the Crash when he went to the top of the Empire State Building and saw for the first time that the city had limits, and his “splendid mirage” disappeared. 80 The Twenties had come to an end.

At a stroke, the Crash and the great depression brought the two generations into a new relationship with one another. It was like a hurricane that shifts buildings about, and deposits fishing boats in factory yards. Suddenly, they were all on the same side. Of the two generations, it would at first seem that the men of the 1920’s had been changed most by the depression. Cowley, to whom the stance of the politically agnostic poet had once seemed as natural as breathing, turned in the Thirties to writing essays on “What the Revolutionary Movement Can Do For a Writer.” 81 Josephson, who had once asked in the pages of Broom who now bothered to read Zola, that tiresome propagandist, had even before the Crash published a study of Zola’s art, life, and politics. 82 Furthermore, having been the machine’s leading cheerleader, he was by the end of the Twenties experiencing grave misgivings. Although he still felt that an “era of quantity production” provided “singularly great opportunities” for the creative artist, there was yet something in him that screamed for a halt to the whole process. “This warping of natural emotions, resulting from a thoroughly mechanized order,” Josephson wrote in 1930, “can only bring some form of reaction or revulsion.” 83 He continues:

 

Is it not time, then, to hope, to begin calculating the chances, for a kind of moral revolution? Men may grow tired of surviving as mere automatons .... As for the idea of speed, to be accelerated always, one ends by finding that absurd and indecent on the face of it....

 

Gone too from Josephson, as from Cowley and Burke, was the old contempt for the benighted audience. As Josephson later recalled, sounding oddly like one of James Oppenheim’s editorials for the Seven Arts, “Instead of writing poems for a select circle of connoisseurs, or snobs, I intended to communicate with a large public”—and there followed those massive and popular studies, The Robber Barons and The Politicos. 84

The older writers might find it satisfying to reflect that their belief in the necessity of reaching a broad audience had been vindicated by events, but they too had given up much. Their old belief in a Whitmanian democracy of the spirit was now gone. or at least drastically altered. It had been essentially a religious concept, and was therefore hard to reconcile to the hardnosed radicalism of the early Thirties. The Seven Arts men had always been socialists of a kind, but theirs had been the socialism of William Morris, not Karl Marx.

The greatest sacrifice to the time for some members of both generations—Frank, Stearns, to some extent Mumford, and Dos Passos—was their repudiation of the old anti-machine bias. That renunciation would never be complete, and the old bias would later reassert itself, somewhat subdued for its exile. In the meantime all would be Marxists, or at least Veblenites, making distinctions between the corporate superstructure of American finance capitalism and its technological base. The machine itself would be exonerated, if only because in a period of mass deprivation opposition to it would seem fatuous if not reactionary.

Along with these developments there were the necessary acts of personal reconciliation between members of the two generations. The basis for this reconcilation would be largely political in the Thirties—aid to miners in Harlan County, Kentucky, the cause of political prisoners, the American Writers’ Congresses during the United Front period—but it had begun in the Twenties with the publication of the first American Caravan in 1927, a thick volume edited by Mumford, Kreymborg, Rosenfeld and (by proxy) Brooks, dedicated to Alfred Stieglitz, and containing poems and stories by, among others, Hemingway, Cowley, Dos Passos, Edmund Wilson and Hart Crane. 85 Frank, Mumford and Brooks had by the late 1920’s pretty much given up hope for American literature as a redemptive force in the nation’s life, but for the moment at least they had made peace with it. Only Rosenfeld, who had never fully shared the high hopes of his old Seven Arts colleagues anyway, was able to summon any enthusiasm for the writers of the Twenties. 86 By the time After the Genteel Tradition appeared in 1937, a new younger generation had come along, most members of the lost generation had reached forty, the older writers were approaching or had passed fifty, and the divisions of youth and the controversies that had provoked them were history. 87

 

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