Civilization in the United States

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.”

So true.

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.

About Hunter Wallace 12366 Articles
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  1. I know the election is of little interest, but the press in the UK is calling the defeat of Trump, the defeat of white supremacy.

    They know that white supremacists are critical of Trump and have more or less rejected him at this point. But that’s how a loss will be understood. Its going to be open season on you all if Biden wins.

      • Trump has the middle class and working class vote wrapped up. He’s trailing badly among the very wealthy and very poor and the upper crust of the professions. The geographical breakdown will determine the result.

    • All big disasters happen because nobody listen the warnings. US situation is very similar with Russian Empire. There were warnings before 1917 but most people considered journos, intellectuals college students and other social democrats as harmless snowflakes. who can`t do anything against heavy armed WW I experienced God believing rural peasant Russia.

      Probably everybody knows how we ended up.

      For general information, our culture war lasted also nearly 100 years, started from French revolution. Napoleon made his mostly peaceful protest to Russian Empire in 1812. From there was a great divide between West oriented Eastern Europeans and local nationalists, until tensions boiled over in 1905 revolution followed by WW I and the rest id history.

  2. My memory of Babbitt is that the eponymous protagonist is a bit more modern in his life – he lives in an imaginary new city called Zenith which is dominated by some modernist-style tall buildings, he has a telephone in his bedroom, his eldest daughter goes to college, when she returns for a visit she has an argument with her slightly younger brother because both siblings want to use the family car for social purposes. Babbitt also proposes that his church adopt modern business marketing techniques. He comes across as a half-modern who has partly adapted to the new era.

  3. Speaking of “Modern America” (or post-modern America), let’s take a look at America’s leading post-modernist:

    I wonder what Richard ‘the clown’ Spencer is up to these days.

    Oh look, he’s making clown arguments that if Biden wins the election that nothing will change.

    Completely ignoring the fact Biden wants to enact section 8 on steroids regardless of zoning. Completely ignoring the fact that Marxists control Biden. Completely ignoring the fact that Biden supports shipping manufacturing overseas through bad trade deals and wants to kill American jobs through the green new deal. Completely ignoring the fact that Biden will restart Obama’s era of interventionist wars. Completely ignoring the fact that Biden wants total open-borders, opening-the-flood-gates anarchist-style immigration policy.

    What else is Richard ‘the clown’ Spencer talking about?

    Let’s take a look…oh he thinks Trump will start a war with Iran if he loses the election. Considering Trump has been a peace-nik in comparison to Obama, I have to call bullshit on that one. After the era of Obama and Bush, comparing Trump to those two on foreign intervention is just plan stupid and screams desperation.

    • You seem to be far more interested in whatever Richard Spencer is saying on any given day than anyone else here.

      I take it that you are under the mistaken impression that somehow we got our views about Donald Trump and the GOP from Richard Spencer rather than Spencer having a similar negative view on the subject. There are plenty of people here who dislike Spencer, but who dislike Trump and mainstream conservatism equally as much.

      • I know people don’t think too highly of the Daily Stormer and America First with Nick Fuentes on OD, but both of these individuals have massive audiences compared to your audience.

        Why do you think that is?

        Could it be your attitude towards subjects? Have you ever considered that?

        You’re actually a very talented editor but your defeatism makes you insufferable and annoying.

        Like I keep saying, every sane nationalist is supporting Trump. You can try to deny it all you want, but it’s true. Only the crazy people and the clowns think the outcome of the election will make no difference. Biden wants to bring section 8 to every neighborhood, restart Obama wars, totally open our borders, kill jobs with the green new deal and killer trade deals.

        This idea that Richard ‘the clown’ Spencer pushes that it ‘makes no difference’ is laughable. It has no basis in reality.

        • Guess what?

          I don’t really follow those sites.

          I want nothing to do with the “American Nationalist” movement.

          I’m not a Republican. I’m not a mainstream conservative. Have you ever considered that fact that most people who are pro-White ARE NOT Republicans or conservatives and won’t vote for Trump in the 2020 election? I’m not Andrew Anglin or Nick Fuentes. I don’t share their values, their beliefs, their strategy or their politics. Thus, I am not interested in their audience.

          There is no proof that most White Nationalists or people who are pro-White are voting for Trump and the GOP. Also, this idea that Richard Spencer has somehow convinced all these people not to vote for Trump is absurd. Just ask the commentators here. There are plenty of people who read this site who dislike Richard Spencer, but they don’t like Trump and for probably the same reasons.

      • I just want a whole lot of people to scream and cry and tear out their hair. I no longer think Trump will win, but seeing that again would be worth it. This country is in a downward spiral either way, it’s just a matter of velocity.

    • Are we talking about the same Trump who ordered air strikes on Assad? Murder of Soleimani? Failed to withdraw from any wars, including our illegal occupation of Syrian oil fields?

    • Alinor, here is yet one more reason why the Kushner-Trump administration does not deserve anyone’s vote:

      “Behind the move was pressure from the Zionist lobby. President Trump is in need of campaign funds and the lobby provides those….”

      “Babylon the Great,” the global plutocratic empire that rules and corrupts the world, must not receive any voluntary support such as casting a ballot in one of its “elections.”

    • Re: “he thinks Trump will start a war with Iran (…) Trump has been a peace-nik….”

      So what is this? See:

      “The new sanctions have hit precisely at a point in which Iran is confronting a devastating resurgence of COVID-19, being referred to by medical authorities as a ‘third wave’ of the pandemic. Within the last few days, the country has seen record numbers of new cases and daily deaths. On Oct 9, Iran’s Health Ministry confirmed 4,142 new coronavirus cases, bringing the total number of cases to nearly half a million. Over the previous 24 hours, 210 COVID-19 patients had died, bringing the country’s total death toll to 28,098. Over the past week, at least 1,500 have died. The sharp increase in COVID-19 cases has overwhelmed Iran’s hospitals, particularly in the capital of Tehran and its suburbs, which have been hardest hit by the pandemic. The doctor who heads the infectious diseases department at Tehran’s Masih Daneshvari Hospital told the state-run news agency IRINN: Due to the unavailability of beds in intensive care units and even in emergency units, ambulances go from one hospital to another to have patients admitted. Newly-arriving coronavirus patients have to wait for beds to become free. The Iranian Armed Forces have announced that they are making all of their medical facilities available to treat COVID-19 patients, while civilian hospitals have ceased all non-emergency functions to make room for those who have fallen ill with the deadly virus. Schools, which the government recklessly reopened last month, have been closed in Tehran and some other cities, as have mosques, shops, restaurants and other public venues. Initially announced as a one-week lockdown on Oct 3, the governor on Friday extended it for another week. Even before the pandemic, the US sanctions regime had deprived the Iranian health care system of essential medicines and medical equipment, leading to many preventable deaths. With the pandemic, the sanctions are taking an ever-greater toll, amounting to a massive war crime against a civilian population.”

      • Even just one of these massive war crimes, crimes against humanity, paid for with our tax dollars (and more dollars created out of thin air, our “debt”) is reason enough to not support (including not voting for) all those responsible. Of course the other partiy (the other right wing of the one-party system) is eager to do the same and more. Do not give your consent.

    • Catholics are completely ignoring the fact Biden wants to enact section 8 on steroids regardless of zoning. Completely ignoring the fact that Marxists control Biden. Completely ignoring the fact that Biden supports shipping manufacturing overseas through bad trade deals and wants to kill American jobs through the green new deal. Completely ignoring the fact that Biden will restart Obama’s era of interventionist wars. Completely ignoring the fact that Biden wants total open-borders, opening-the-flood-gates anarchist-style immigration policy.

      • you think politicians make the decisions? Think about how breathlessly earnest you come across regarding the rigged system.

  4. There always has been a gulf between City-life and Smalltown Rural life.

    Yet, the advance of technology, and the further specialization of the economy had a lot to do with the rendering of that gulf into a chasm.

    I saw this with my daddy’s Hungarian Jewish family, City-slickers to a one, and my mama’s Rural Gentile Southern folk – Rednecks to a one.

    Of course, there were some commonalities, starting with the fact that both were presided over by iron-willed matriarchs who, oddly, wound up being friends.

    That said, the two families lived and looked at things in such disparate ways it caused me a lot of pain and confusion to reconcile that as a child

    Come to think of it, I never reconciled it, for the two ways of life have very little to do with each other.

    • A Jew amongst us! Reeeeeeeeeeee!

      Meh. Whatever.

      I agree about the gulf between the classes.

      My grandfather pulled a cart full of coal through the hollers of Eastern Kentucky to deliver to the homesteads because eventually they wouldn’t let him work the mines because he was a union man. A real “red necker”.

      Our family has been too busy ever since doing what all salt of the earth people do, survive, to be bothered with intellectualism for its own sake.

      I’m the first to finish a 4 year degree in my generation. My cousins have too now, and a sibling.

      None of this crap is in our DNA. Wasting time on it is anathema to my natural tendency to common sense.

      The poor are always caught in the wake of the hubris of intellectuals, who never give a damn about us.

      Meanwhile they always fail in their endeavors because they lack any grounding in reality and just drift from abstraction to abstraction at a whim.

      Philosophy beyond logic and epistemology is fake and gay.

      • As the poet hath said, “I don’t mind that you’re ignorant, and I don’t mind that you’re proud. What I mind is that you’re proud that you’re ignorant.”

  5. There is a broad middle ground missing in the USA and in the Anglo countries on the ‘puritan’ type questions

    In Continental Europe, despite alcohol being everywhere, and the drinking age for beer and wine in some countries at age 16 – basically, if you can see over the bar – there is much less alcohol problem than in the USA or Britain, which has quite a cult of being smashed drunk in the street outside the pub

    On the Continent, children sipping small amounts of wine or beer with their parents, gives it a ‘nothing special’ aspect, and teen drunkenness is looked upon as just being foolish by other youth

    There was long a similar European ‘moderate’ attitude about sexuality, female nudity on national currency bank notes and in art etc

    Whereas the USA seems to swing more wildly, from repression to extreme debauchery

    There is a feeling that the USA was heavily populated not always by ex-European ‘freedom lovers’ but by extremists who couldn’t get along with more moderate locals

    • Perfect observation.

      US was always release valve for European lunatics bullied out by locals. I am sad to announce, but in my country local Nazis including myself also bulling communists out and when our communists, drug addicts, sexual perverts, criminals, psychopaths and other brilliant people moving out, they mostly prefer Anglo countries.

  6. Well I think he’s made his case, with voluminous evidence, that the transition from Victorianism to Modernism was a key development in America in the early 20th century. It’s also quite clear that many of the developments that social conservatives don’t like can be traced pretty directly back to Modernism.

    But Mencken wasn’t the first arrogant urbanite who hated rural people – as Ivan Turgenev says above, there has always been an urban vs. rural divide, and that goes back to literally the dawn of urbanism, which is to say, human civilization itself.

    In fact, if one takes the so-called “traditionalist” view of history, as the “Alt Right” and “NRx” types are fond of doing, as opposed to the “progressive” “Whiggish” view of history, America just went through typical historical cycles.

    But the previous 100 years, before the rise of the Modernists, did see a unique and historical change: the Industrial Revolution.

    It’s impossible to overstate how dichotomous the before and after of the Industrial Revolution are. For some tens of thousands of years, since mankind developed agriculture, thus, cities, the material conditions of humanity barely changed.

    Then, around the dawn of the 19th century, _everything_ changed, and quickly. And continued to change. Not just the fashions of the momment, but the material conditions of everyday life.

    Many of us had grandparents or great grandparents that grew up riding a horse and buggy to church and lived long enough to see space travel.

    Loose women, scantily clad, have been around forever in the cities; it only could become a fashion for the masses when you had mass media, in this era, the photography magazines. Pregnancy was always a check on sex, until the era of reliable, scientific birth control.

    Christianity, a religion based on bronze age and classical agricultural civilizations, began to lose its centrality in American culture at precisely the time that the Scientific Revolution birthed the Industrial Revolution; this is obviously not a coincidence.

    The true “red pill” is the Ted Pill.

  7. White men engineers of Log cabin settlements to the Chrysler Building with America civilization architecture in a 200 hundred time period is a statement of our impact on MODERN civilization.

    Whites on the left/right spectrum still want to preserve an architecture of colonial New England, Victoria South/Colonial, and modern high rise that stared in mid west Chicago.

    Note: I’m biases to my native region, however I think the most striking American city is Pittsburgh PA

    Check out a YouTube video of traveling by vehicle from the Fort Pitt Tunnels at Night!


  8. O’ Really, O’Riley Department: “I saw this with my daddy’s Hungarian Jewish family, City-slickers to a one.”

    • Who refers to their parents as “daddy” and “mama” in a public or semi-public forum? No one. The Ivan Turgenev bot is poorly programmed.

  9. HW,

    Got to disagree with your thesis that what you refer to as the modern period only started in the Roaring Twenties due to urbanization, youngsters rebelling, the shock of World War I, and foreign influence. Women were enfranchised in frontier Wyoming Territory in 1869 and in Utah in 1870. That was before the third wave of European immigration and WWI ended in 1918.

    Speaking of history, we can also put to rest the myth that Jim Crow always existed in the South. Jim Crow began in the late 19th century decades after the Civil War ended as a reaction to masses of blacks moving into the cities.

    Wally Wally
    Trump Trump

  10. to paraphrase, the cultural divide much the same, but now on the precipice of violence… yes, but only for those fools gathering for battle. The opposing sides are already the same groups slated for deaths of despair. Those of us with meaningful lives are pretty far removed from the armed larping.

    • uchtar ard, you bet. Notice the people, and I use the term loosely, being violent towards each other at the protests and trashing up the businesses and streets are weirdos and losers for the most part. Most decent Americans are far removed from that mess and we’re contributing to society. Only the extremist minorities on the far extremes yearn for a violent uprising, but they’re too delusional to accept that isolated pockets of disorder doesn’t equal civil war.
      Even whites in developing nonwhite majority countries move away from the chaos and try to live productive lives without resorting to violence and war.

      USA USA
      Wally George the father of combat TV and conservative TV entertainment.
      Nixon the most redpilled and pro-middle class President in recent history.
      Trump the start of a nationalist takeover of the GOP. Trump 2020

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