Conclusion

 

A common theme in the writings of members of both literary generations in the 1920’s was the frantic, nearly demented pace of life in New York City. The capital of machine‑age culture was a place where the past was voraciously consumed, where things were used up, destroyed, discarded and replaced. Van Wyck Brooks spoke of the spinning, angry centers of cities. Paul Rosenfeld likened the pace of the machine civilization to the spinning of a wheel on a derailed locomotive. Matthew Josephson protested in 1930 against the indignity of being accelerated always. Malcolm Cowley in his “Four Horological Poems” of 1920 depicted the denizens of the great city as skeletons, their flesh excoriated by clock‑time: 1

 

And observe if you please the action

Of time upon the pedestrian world,

It runs lightly over the faces and scrawls its signature in twisted lines under the eyes ...

 

it leaves

nothing but a structure of bones      two hundred

bones

               strutting down the street in a business suit

 

Waldo Frank wrote of New Yorkers as having been “polished off by all the polishing machines of the Modernist Machine Age,” and whereas Ezra Pound a decade earlier had seen the New York crowd as Whitman, the crowd’s poet, had seen it, Frank in the 1920’s saw through the eyes of Whitman the critic: “I have never seen faces more sullen, more dehumanized, than those of New Yorkers.” 2

The garbage man of Dos Passos’ play of that title is a symbolic figure, part sardonic devil, part spirit of the machine, but also the spirit of time in the machine age, a garbage man sweeping up refuse. What is time? Time, says one character in the play, speaking for the author, is “a gray ash dropping from the souls of fat men in swivel chairs.” 3

 

And all the typewriters and all the tickers and all the little heels of errand girls tapping on hard pavements go clicking faster and faster to catch up to the ticktock of the clocks.

 

Time has his undertaking establishment on every block and drives his coffin nails faster than the steam riveters rivet or the stenographers type or the tickers tick out fours and eights and dollars signs and ciphers.

 

For some members of the lost generation there was a kind of exhilaration to be experienced in the momentum of the decade. F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example, spoke of the Twenties as a time of giddy sensations: “the Jazz Age... raced along under its own power, served by great filling stations full of money.” 4 But for others there was the sense that a whole sequence of time had simply been lopped off around 1919. Edmund Wilson described the shock of his return from France in 1920. It was not the Statue of Liberty. He said, “that first met our eyes as the symbol of the country to which we were returning, it was the black chimneys of factories that soiled the very summer dawn, shedding darkness from their up-thrust arms as the Status could never shed light.” 5 The passage calls to mind Henry Adams’ shock at the transformation of the Rhine Valley between 1860 and 1900, and the abolition of the medieval past during his lifetime. But Adams had been away from Germany for forty years; Wilson was returning to America after only two. What, one wonders curiously, did he expect to see—a green landscape?

When Lewis Mumford came to write his great study of the development of technics between 1000 A.D. and the twentieth century, the invention which seemed to him the most significant of the whole period‑‑‑and this was one of the great insights of the book, one to which his own experience instinctively led him‑‑‑was not the steam engine, but the clock. Here was the precondition of industrialism, the conceptualization of time as a series of divisible units: time to be “spent” and “saved” and used; time as money. 6

For all these similarities of experience and perception between the two generations, however, they differed in one crucial respect: the members of the lost generation knew in their bones that the jig was up, clock time had replaced organic time, and the future belonged with the machine; Brooks, Frank and Mumford, each in his own way and after his own fashion, refused to concede that this was so. The members of the lost generation, as we have seen, did indulge fantasies of the smashup of the machine or an apocalyptic ending for New York, but even when such fantasies were presented as prophecies, as in Cowley’s poem “Ten Good Farms,” in which New York is portrayed in ruins, and where it is said “where slaughterhouses flourished/ and one day fell—our gardens will be there,” one knows that this is an exercise in malediction, a curse hurled in defiance, satisfying in itself, but changing nothing. 7 Even Dos. Passos, among all members of the lost generation the closest to Frank, Brooks and Mumford in his hatred of the machine, of capitalism, of “them,” knows that “they” have won. Martin Howe, the hero of One Man’s Initiation—1917, tells some French soldiers that before America’s entry into the war, he had hoped that his country might escape the “gangrenous past” represented by Europe, but now realizes that such hopes are idle: History operates just as relentlessly, as blindly, in the New World as in the Old. 8 The futility of protest is insisted upon again in 1919 when Joe Williams encounters some American Red Cross ambulance drivers on the Genoa docks one night, and the seaman and the ambulance drivers sit on a balustrade below a stone lion, drinking from a bottle of cognac by the light of flames from a burning tanker in the harbor. Joe, drunk, tells the drivers that the whole war is a goldbrick, crooked from A to Z, and no matter how it comes out, “fellers like us gets the shitty end of the stick, see?” Then, yelling “To hell widem I say,” Joe throws the empty bottle with all his might against the head of the stone lion. And as Dos Passos writes, “The Genoese lion went on staring ahead with glassy doglike eyes.” 9 The stupid, doglike lion—Europe, the gangrenous, “painsmeared” past, History—is unseeing, unmovable, and unmoved.

Brooks, Frank and Mumford sought ways out of this cul‑de‑sac, this historical dead end. The American past, the New World promise, still might be restored. Thus the strategy of Brooks’ Makers and Finders series: the reimposition of the past upon the present, the encirclement of the moderns by the “affirmative” writers of an earlier and worthier time—Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau and William James. When Waldo Frank had Columbus seeing the crumbling of the skyscrapers at the end of Virgin Spain, the rebirth of the real New World out of the ruins of the false, that is what he really meant. Mumford, for one brief moment in the early 1930’s, actually succeeded in persuading himself that the great historical turning was taking place. After describing the frenzied growth of New York City from 1865 to 1929, he noted that just recently a 7‑story building at 60th and Madison had been torn down to make way for a 2‑story building. “The nightmare was over,” he said. “The human scale had begun to return.” Rockefeller Center, that “last gesture of the impotent,” was already an “aftermath.” 10

Both Frank and Mumford sought to promote the ascendancy in the New World of man‑in‑nature over man the technologist. Both were frustrated by the undeniable fact that technics had provided indispensable aid in the discovery and settlement of the New World. On the one hand, as Frank wrote in The Re‑Discovery of America, the machine “literally embodied” the isolated and destructive will; on the other hand, the railroad had made possible the settlement of the North American interior in the nineteenth century, provided the basis for what national consciousness Americans possessed, and served to replace in the New World the “communicable bond ... of church and monarch.” 11 Mumford, from The Golden Day of 1926 on, was torn between two interpretations of the American experience. The vast gap between the hope of the Romantic movement and the facts of the pioneer experience, he wrote in that book, was “one of the most sardonic jests in history.” On one side there was that vision of bucolic innocence in the West, and over against it, “the epic march of the covered wagons, leaving behind it deserted villages, bleak cities... and sick and exhausted souls.” The cold truth was that the pioneer never really faced Nature, “he merely avoided society.” And yet, Mumford insisted at another point, the pioneer trek was after all “an experimental investigation of Nature, Solitude, the Primitive Life; and at no stage of the journey, however much the story may be obscured by land‑booms and Indian massacres and gold rushes, did these things drop out of the pioneer’s mind.” 12

What verdict, then, should one finally pass on this experience? Was it the case, as the historian Perry Miller would angrily insist near the end of his life, that the pioneers “were not fleeing the machine; they were opening the areas in which it could operate”? 13 As long as openings from Europe had existed on the frontier and at sea, Mumford wrote in 1944, “the machine could not completely subdue or depress the human spirit;” rather, under those conditions its effect had been just the opposite: “it pushed men into adventure and even provided the few mechanical accessories, guns. compasses,” that made pioneering and seafaring possible. 14 In 1956, Mumford came back to the same theme, the same problem. if only the pioneer effort to “produce a human culture in closer relationship... to nature...had had time to take root,” he thought, “it might have regenerated the Old World no less than the New: sufficiently to direct mechanical improvement, when it came, to large human ends.” But that “if,” Mumford reminded himself, was a vain one: “the very discovery of the New World was itself an achievement of science and technics.”15 Such thoughts were finally compressed, in The Pentagon of Power, into a terse epigram: “New World man, if one may put the case paradoxically, dug his own grave before he was out of the cradle.” 16

But this was Mumford in his old age, frankly and perhaps justifiably soured on the world and mordant in all of his judgements. His amplest and most poignant statement on the subject was contained in a new preface to The Golden Day written in 1955. If he had the book to write over again, Mumford said, he would introduce a concept which had taken him “the better part of a lifetime to formulate.” Specifically, he would introduce 17

 

a fresh interpretation of both the romantic and the mechanistic‑utilitarian movements; for it seems to me that their coining together in North America created, for a brief period, a new kind of character, that which 1 have lately in The Transformations of Man called New World man.... Under this interpretation I would regard the march of the pioneer as an attempt... to find a new way out from the repetitive impasses of “civilization” by making a fresh start on a more primitive basis.... Unfortunately for the ultimate success of the effort, the New World was opened with the aid of scientific and mechanical tools... and...the mechanical side of New World man took precedence over the romantic side.... Properly interpreted, it now seems to me, the rise and fall of New World man is a more significant drama than anyone has yet portrayed... for there was, in this muffing of a unique opportunity, an element of wanton tragedy.

 

Thus the sardonic jest, the tragedy, the aborted hope: in Mumford’s books one finds first a restatement and finally a denial of the prophecy contained in Whitman’s “Passage to India ” that in the end, Science would honor Myth, and that after the inventors and the scientists would come the poet, singing his songs. It was not for nothing that the younger Mumford had ended The Golden Day with a WhitmanesqueAllons! the road is before us!”

The restatement of the prophecy of the ascendency of the poet over the inventor, of the romantic over the mechanical side of New World man, was contained in Technics and Civilization. In the biotechnic future envisioned in that book, clock‑time was again to be subordinated to organic time, and agriculture and industry were to be brought into a harmonious relationship with one another. The “rhythms of the two occupations,” Mumford wrote, “will approach each other and modify each other,” so that a “spring rush in mechanical industry, when the fields are beckoning, may be treated not merely as a mark of inefficient planning but as an essential sacrilege.” 18 In some ways that is perhaps a sentimental vision, and yet it is that vision of harmony restored to the world which is one of the chief claims of Technics and Civilization to continuing relevance. Technics and Civilization is one of the great source books, and all of the environmental handbooks, guides to alternative energy sources and ecological primers of thirty and forty years later were in its debt.

In the early 1920’s, the characteristic attitudes of the two generations seemed to place them in diametrical opposition to one another. The older men perceived the lost generation as fundamentally unserious and obedient to the whims of foreign fashions. The younger men saw Brooks, Frank, Rosenfeld and Mumford as solemn, pedantic and out of touch. But in retrospect we see that their strengths were complementary: each generation contributed its full share to the literature, and general culture of America, and itself provided later generations that for which Brooks had searched, a “usable past.”

Here I am thinking of a particular work in which it seems to me the influences of the two converge and in which the past has been put to good use, Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night. No other contemporary American writer has been so consciously in the debt of the lost generation as Mailer. In Armies of the Night, a book in which the shadows of precursors are everywhere evident, and one steeped in twentieth century American literary culture, Mailer finds occasion to recall four of them—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Cummings, and Thomas Wolfe. As a young first novelist, Mailer wrote within the tradition of American naturalism as it had recently been developed by Dos Passos and James T. Farrell (Red Valsen, the “wandering minstrel” of The Naked and the Dead, is one of Dos Passos, young drifters ten years on, as Gallagher, the Boston Irishman, is one of Farrell’s pathetic street toughs). Armies of the Night is, of course, the work of a writer who has evolved his own complex and instantly recognizable style, but there is something of a Dos Passos influence, one suspects, in the very idea of the work, in the conflict between the two armies, each the representative force of one of the two nations whose existence Dos Passos bitterly proclaimed at the end of U.S.A.

But if Dos Passos was secure in his loyalties in U.S.A. and portrayed the “nation” which met defeat in the electrocution of Sacco and Vanzetti as wholly sympathetic and their enemies—the politicians, bosses, judges and deputies—as the corrupt and brutal representatives of power, Mailer is not quite so secure in his identification with the war protestors. With some reluctance he takes to the field with the motley army of insurrectionists in this symbolic siege of the Pentagon, and even persuades himself that he is some sort of leader, yet the conservative in him does not like their LSD, the man of reason is ambivalent about their sportive faith in magic, and the novelist, the caretaker of the language, mulls over the phrase “do your own thing” and thinks, “one did not look forward to a revolution which would substitute ‘thing’ for better words.” 19 As the allusion to Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” contained in the book’s title would indicate, the novelist at least entertains the possibility that the army with which he has allied himself may be almost as “ignorant” as its opponent. Mailer writing on the excesses of the Left of the Sixties expressed an instinctive reproach which brought to mind similar expressions by Mumford (both, for example, regarded the Living Theater of New York as barbarous and perhaps fascistic). 20

Just as Mailer is the heir of the lost generation in his instinctively satirical attitude towards the powers that be, so is he an apparently unknowing descendent of Brooks, Frank and Mumford in his loathing of what he calls “Technology Land,” and in the hopes he indulges for some sort of revolution of consciousness, some restoration of balance and sanity in the national psyche. And surely it is of some significance that Mailer’s “History as a Novel” is an account of a siege of the Pentagon, and that Mumford’s last work on technics has the title The Pentagon of Power. Finally, Armies of the Night, in its self‑consciousness, its historical sweep, its humor, its eccentricity, its beautifully modulated ambivalence, and its patriotism, recalls Whitman,

Mailer is a writer in the main national tradition. There are others, unlikely writers it might seem, in whose work the preoccupations of the two generations also appear, if in forms so different that they seem wholly original conceptions. The Black writer Ishmael Reed invents in his novel Mumbo Jumbo a fantasy history of America in the Twenties in which an “anti‑plague” called “Jes Grew” comes up the river from New Orleans, sweeps through Harlem, and comes within an ace of overturning American culture completely and releasing all sorts of disapproved libidinous impulses before it is ruthlessly stamped out by the super‑secret Wallflower Order, the military arm of the dreaded Atonal Path, the millennium‑old guardian of European values. 22 Perhaps Reed’s funky Jes Grew has nothing at all in common with Mumford’s romantic New World consciousness, but both have the same enemy, a history which brought the malaise of European technical‑mindedness to the New World and would not permit a fresh start. And if it is difficult to think of American writers less sympathetic to jazz than Mumford and Frank, the lost generation of the Twenties felt the music’s power. Cowley wrote a poem about the Harlem dancer Florence Mills, and the poet Kenneth Rexroth, a veteran of the New York scene of the Twenties, wrote some years ago of the jazz of that decade that “no protest is more profound and more vital than a sexual one, for the simple reason that it involves the very vitals of the members of society”—exactly Reed’s point. 23

As a final and even more improbably example, consider the reminder of Walt Whitman’s faith in sheer, unbounded possibility provided by Imamu Amiri Baraka’s vision of a wholly new Black-created technology with soul, a technology as different from “white” technology as Whitman’s or Mumford’s New World was from the Old, which might produce an “expression‑scriber” instead of a typewriter—a magical instrument to be played and carried “like a speaking singing constantly communicating charm.” 24 In the face of history and the confining counsels of reason, dreams of new beginnings in America persist.

 

NOTES

 

RETURN TO PAYNTER INDEX