In Civilization in the United States (1921), Harold E. Stearns and the Moderns summed up their indictment of American culture.
The following excerpt comes from Nathan Miller’s New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America:
“A Harvard graduate and contributor to intellectual journals, the thirty-year-old Stearns was, in the spring of 1921, putting the final touches on Civilization in the United States, a symposium by thirty-three contributors that ranged over the breadth of American society.
To no one’s surprise, these writers took a bleak view of the subject. Many had been suggested by Mencken, who was contemptuous of American culture, and Van Wyck Brooks, a literary critic who held that a joyless puritanism had a stranglehold on the American psyche. Life in the United States, said the contributors, was colorless, standardized, tawdry, uncreative, repressive, and given over to the worship of wealth and machinery. The nation’s moral conscience had been drowned in bathtub gin, and Americans could express human feelings only in the lyrics of pop tunes. America offered no new horizons, no more promises …”
Of course, it was a cultural wasteland full of George Babbitts and the sort of Fundamentalist yokels that Mencken would later mock while covering the Scopes Monkey Trial. It was a place you escaped from whether it was to move to New York or even better to Paris and the South of France.
“Civilization in the United States created “a tremendous pother in its day,” Mencken later recalled, and Carl Van Doren, literary editor of The Nation, deemed it important enough to devote an entire book section to it. Nevertheless, the writers included in the volume had a blinkered vision of the civilization they evaluated so bitingly. Mostly Easterners, they ignored what Scott Fitzgerald called “that vast obscurity beyond the city.” They knew nothing about rural or small town life and most of the country west of the Hudson “where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night” was terra incognita. They had no insight into the lives of either the wealthy or the industrial proletariat.”
Clearly, we are in Modern America now that this Modernist worldview of the American Heartland is starting to crystallize in the novels of Sinclair Lewis like Main Street, Babbitt and Elmer Gantry, Mencken covering the Scopes Monkey Trial, the Middletown study and Ernest Hemingway escaping from “the wide lawns and narrow minds of Oak Park, Illinois.” This is the Greenwich Village view of the America. It was the Modernist view of the Bloomsbury set which was its counterpart in Britain.
This is the best line in Nathan Miller’s book. It is a footnote. I’ve quoted extensively from it and will be reviewing it soon.
“In Paris, Stearns wrote little and drank much and became a racetrack tout and handicapper for the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune under the name “Peter Pickem.” Mencken later described him as “the champion drunk of the American colony.” Someone seeing him passed out at a café table joked: “There lies civilization in the United States.” He appears briefly in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises as Harvey Stone, a drunk and a deadbeat.”
While the Moderns had a point that the business civilization of Victorian America could be crude, crass and materialistic like George Babbitt, they were hardly an improvement on it.
The following excerpt comes from George Donelson Moss’s book The Rise of Modern America: A History of the American People, 1890-1945:
“Fundamentalists like Sunday and McPherson provoked laughter and ridicule from modernists who considered them mountebanks and their followers antiquated morons. Fundamentalists responded to their critics by calling them sinners and infidels, who lived degenerate lives while on this earth and were doomed to spend eternity suffering the everlasting torments of hellfire and damnation.”
A century after the publication of Main Street, the basic contours of the cultural divide are the same although now the social fabric has eroded to the point where the fault line is on the precipice of violence.