American History Series: Review: Rebellion Against Victorianism

Stanley Coben, Rebellion Against Victorianism: The Impetus for Cultural Change in 1920s America

Stanley Coben’s book Rebellion Against Victorianism: The Impetus for Cultural Change in 1920s America is a brief account of how the Victorian culture of 19th century America broke down in the 1920s and was replaced by the Modern culture of 20th century America.

In the 19th century, the Victorian generations had drawn sharp distinctions between different races and nationalities and unabashedly ranked them in a hierarchy from superior to inferior. Racial inequality was taken for granted as a scientific fact. Social equality was rejected. The sexes were assigned different spheres and gender roles. The Victorians valued self-control and self-denial and repressed sexuality as a threat to both. They drew sharp distinctions between “civilized” and “savage” behavior and disdained coarse and primitive manners. Morality was religious observance and the practice of the traditional moral virtues. The home was a school were children were taught the moral virtues that collectively made up their character. Government was minimal and the economy was largely unregulated. The Victorians believed in thrift, hard work and the accumulation of capital. They believed in Romantic love and marriage as companionship. The universe was thought to be rational, orderly and predictable. Finally, the Victorians were optimists who believed in scientific, technological, material and moral progress. Their idea of liberalism was also civil rights and liberties in politics and laissez-faire in economics.

Needless to say, Victorian America is abhorrent to Modern America, which was created out of a revolt against Victorianism. If the Victorians were racists, Moderns had to be antiracists. If the Victorians were sexually repressed puritans, Moderns had to be sexually promiscuous libertines. If the Victorians had valued the “civilized” over the “savage” and rejected the “primitive,” Moderns would disdain the civilized and celebrate the primitive. If the Victorians had valued self-denial and thrift and hard work, Moderns would value self-indulgence and consumption. If the Victorians had valued realism and depicting nature in art and thought that art should have a didactic purpose, Moderns would reject realism and nature in favor of art for art’s sake. If the Victorians had believed in absolute moral truth, Moderns had to believe in moral relativism. If the Victorians had been practicing Christians, Moderns had to be secularists. If the Victorians had believed in patriarchy, the Moderns had to believe in free love and feminism. And so on it goes. The world was turned upside down in this forgotten act of adolescent rebellion.

A century later, the Victorian generations are long dead and the young Losters who were the first Moderns who rebelled against the values of their parents are also dead, but we still live in the world that they created. It was new in their time, but it is very old in our time. We no longer recognize a “Modern,” a “New Woman,” a “New Man” or a “New Negro” which have fallen out of our vocabulary. Modernism has become invisible because it has been the “mainstream” for so long. We take its assumptions and way of life for granted. In fact, a “normie” is a self-absorbed individualist immersed in American consumer culture who has become unmoored from the past and detached from any sense of collective belonging. Morality is a laundry list of -isms and -phobias derived from Freudian psychology and critical theory that inhabit our consciousness and cause us to oppress others. We are “extremists” for not thinking this way. As Moderns, we are supposed to believe that self-realization, the collection of “experience,” cultural liberation and egalitarianism and the “transformation of consciousness” are the ultimate goals in life. We are supposed to believe that there was nothing of merit in the Victorian culture that was displaced by Modernism.

According to White Nationalist folklore, America experienced a cultural catastrophe at some vague point in the early 20th century around the time that FDR was president. The WASP elite which used to rule America was vaporized and the Jewish elite that has ruled our country ever since seized the reins of political, economic and cultural power. This is precisely what happened as a result of the triumph of Modernism over Victorianism although it came about in a series of stages between the 1910s and the 1960s. By the 1950s, the American intelligentsia was half Jewish and was committed to the postwar consensus of liberalism, modernism, cosmopolitanism and antiracism which it has enforced ever since.

This is a helpful way to visualize that cultural catastrophe between the 1910s and the 1980s. Modern culture has displaced Victorian culture as its values of expressive individualism and cultural egalitarianism have steadily gained ground at the expense of traditionalists in the culture war:

Source: Eric P. Kaufmann, The Rise and Fall of Anglo-America

The Victorian generations did not value racial equality, cultural liberation, cultural egalitarianism, moral relativism, “primitivism” or expressive individualism, but by the 1920s the American intelligentsia was in revolt against the old values of the Genteel tradition.

Coben writes:

“The heart of the conflict between the intelligentsia’s values and those of the great majority of their intellectual predecessors – including Howells and Norris – lay in differing perceptions of their obligations to “truth.” To almost all the leading intellectuals of the 1920s, “truth” implied a willingness to accept evidence and to study and describe activities and emotions that would have seemed unacceptable to Victorians of high character, including almost all Victorian intellectuals.

A definitive statement of the intelligentsia’s values, applicable to the ideal objectives of most of the era’s finest poets, novelists, physical and biological scientists, and academic humanists and social scientists, was delivered in a manifesto by the poet Ezra Pound, published first in 1913 and restated by him in somewhat different phrases for over two decades thereafter:

“If an artist falsifies his report as to the nature of man, as to his own nature, as to the nature of his ideal of the perfect, as to the nature of his ideal of this, that or the other, of god, if god exists, of the life force, of the nature of good or evil, if good and bad exist, of the force with which he believes or disbelieves this, that or the other, of the degree in which he suffers or is made glad; if the artist falsifies his reports on these matters or on any other matter in order that he may conform to the taste of his time, to the proprieties of a sovereign, to the conveniences of a preconceived code of ethics, then that artist lies. If he lies out of deliberate will to lie, if he lies out of carelessness, out of laziness, out of cowardice, out of any sort of negligence whatsoever, he nevertheless lies and he should be punished or despised in proportion to the seriousness of his offense.”

The artist, Pound insisted, should utilize all information or techniques that would help him interpret his subject accurately, no matter whom this interpretation might antagonize. A similar ethic guided social scientists during the 1920s as they described terrible deficiencies in the lives of “typical” middle-class and working-class Americans. …

As in practically all human endeavor, ideals varied from practice – not only Lewis and Pound but even Loeb, his friend Franz Boas, and Boas’s student Margaret Mead sometimes slipped in practice. However, in general, in their work, by the 1920s American intellectuals acceped the primary of the ideals expressed by Pound, Hemingway, and Lewis’s Gottlieb.”

The statement above by Ezra Pound is the distilled essence of expressive individualism.

Your supreme duty in life is to be “true to yourself.” Art is about the self-expression of the artist. It should be autonomous from politics, religion, morality, nature, society, even reality itself. What matters above everything else is the narcissistic cult of the artist and the romanticization of the inner subjective world of the artist. As Nietzsche put it, “become who you are.” You need to have the space to find your “true self.” In cultural terms, the cultivation of an aesthetic lifestyle by an individual is of supreme importance and should have absolute primacy over any collective moral or religious consideration.

Théophile Gautier put it this way:

“To develop freely every intellectual fancy, whether or not it shocks taste, conventions, and rules; to hate and repulse to the utmost what Horace called the profanum vulgus, and what moustachioed, long-haired rapins mean by ‘shopkeepers,’ ‘philistines,’ or ‘bourgeois’; to celebrate the pleasures of love with a passion capable of scorching the paper on which we record them, insisting upon love as the sole end and sole means of happiness; and to sanctify and deify Art, regarded as second Creator.”

Walter Pater expressed it this way:

“Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us” – but only for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but the experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to be seen in them by the finest senses. How can we past most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces united in their purest energy?

To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain ecstasy, is success in life. Failure is to form habits; for habit is relative to a stereotyped world; meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes any two things, persons, situations–seem alike. While all melts under our feet, we may well catch at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the senses, strange dyes, strange flowers and curious odours, or work of the artist’s hands, or the face of one’s friend. Not to discriminate every moment some passion­ate attitude in those about us and in the brilliance of their gifts some tragic dividing offices on their ways, is on this short day of frost and sun to sleep before evening. With this sense of the splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch, we shall hardly have time to make theories about the things we see and touch. What we have to do is to get rid of apathy, to be for ever curiously testing opinion and courting new impressions, never acquiescing in a facile orthodoxy of Comte or of Hegel or of our own. Theories, religious or philosophical ideas, as points of view, instruments of criticism, may help us to gather up what might other­wise pass unregarded by us. ‘La philosophie,’ says Victor Hugo, ‘c’est le microscope de la pensée.’ [Philosophy is the microscope of thought.] The theory or idea or system which requires of us the sacrifice  of any part of this experience, in consideration of some interest into which we cannot enter, or some abstract morality we have not identified with ourselves, or what is only conventional, has no real claim upon us.”

In the 1920s, the American intelligentsia became modernist, which put it at odds with Victorian culture which valued self-denial. H.L. Mencken created the stereotype of the repressive Victorian puritan who supported Prohibition and lived in terror of ordinary people having a good time.

The rebellion of the Moderns was supported by “the nation’s foremost book publishers, literary and scholarly journals, and heads of philanthropic foundations.” The American intelligentsia “agreed that authors should know what they really believed and felt, making use of all available evidence, and that writers must report their beliefs faithfully. Such a group posed a powerful threat to conventional ideas, including those about a racial hierarchy and gender roles.” The Rockefeller Foundation financed Boasian anthropology which undermined racial science at Columbia University in the 1920s.

As modernist artists and intellectuals led the charge against Victorianism, black leaders like W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey challenged traditional racial norms, although they enjoyed less success than the suffragettes and feminists who broke down the separate Victorian spheres that had kept women out of the nation’s politics with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment which went into effect in 1920. Thereafter, the women’s movement disintegrated as young women became more interested in pushing the limits of expressive freedom in the Jazz Age than in pushing for an Equal Rights Amendment. Blacks had more success in breaking down racial barriers through jazz in nightclubs than in politics.

The Victorian ideal of laissez-faire came under siege in the Progressive era. In the 1920s though, labor unions began to rethink their stance on participating in partisan politics due to the success of the Labour Party in Britain and backed Robert La Follette’s 1924 third party campaign on the Progressive ticket. La Follette’s campaign attracted a broad labor coalition and the support of a who’s who list of modernist intellectuals and foreshadowed the New Deal coalition that FDR created during the Great Depression. Calvin Coolidge was easily elected president though due to the “Coolidge Prosperity” which we associate with the Roaring Twenties. The Democrats were fatally split between their rural Southern and Western wings which were Protestant and dry backed the Klan and Prohibition and their urban Eastern wing which was Catholic and wet. Al Smith also lost the 1928 election due to this cultural divide.

Finally, the Second Klan attracted millions of members during its rise in the early 1920s. This iteration of the Klan was based in the Midwest and was less about race and white supremacy than supporting Prohibition and 100% Americanism. The Second Klan was created to defend Victorian values against modernism but collapsed after it was revealed that the leader of the Indiana Klan David C. Stephenson had raped a young White woman. The Klan attracted the support of middle class Protestants and generally eschewed violence in favor of politics in this era. It was defeated by elites, particularly Protestant religious leaders, intellectuals and journalists and the business community, who opposed the Klan.

In the 1920s, Victorian ideals, values and norms in culture, morals and manners, race, sex, gender, government and economics came under siege and were destabilized by insurgent modernists. The result was the multifaceted culture war of this era which marks the beginning of our own times in which it is normal to be a deracinated, amoral, self-absorbed, uninhibited individualist who pursues hedonism and consumerism and in which the ultimate sin in our therapeutic culture is being a “racist.”

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  1. “The statement above by Ezra Pound is the distilled essence of expressive individualism.

    “Your supreme duty in life is to be ‘true to yourself.’ Art is about the self-expression of the artist. It should be autonomous from politics, religion, morality, nature, society, even reality itself.”

    I think you’ve mischaracterized what Pound said there.

  2. Being “true to self” without consideration of the effects on others is a good summary of how skewed American life has become. Pursue your own truth, because your reason is your god. You are an island, you can act in a vacuum, because you are the center of the universe You owe no one else anything. You only have rights, not responsibilities.

    Rejecting your own collective also means you can more easily accept the Other. You don’t belong with your own, anyway, those burger-chomping, beer-swilling Babbitts, right? You will be stunning and brave, and rebuild the world into the Kumbaya Utopia we could all have, if only more people had the innate wisdom you possess.

    Self-delusion>self-indulgence>self-destruction. It’s the same predictable cycle that happens when people live in their own cult of personality. Unfortunately, because they can’t see beyond the end of their nose, they can’t see the chaos they inevitably bring into others’ lives.

  3. “They believed in Romantic love and marriage as companionship. ”

    Remember this when the Usual Suspects say that the Victorians, really we Americans in general, are “sexually repressed” or “oppress women.”

    The same people saying that are the ones who openly promote sexual exploitation of both sexes (see, Portland, the world capital of strip clubs and the “pro-sex work movement”) and censor people discussing Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell’s sexual trafficking of teenage girls.

    Jeffrey Epstein said it was a “cultural distortion” that made people disapprove of what he and Maxwell were doing. We are all just “sexually repressed.”

    Compare a Christian couple with many children, and Jeffrey Epstein having to masturbate his “egg-shaped penis” in the presence of little girls, and tell me who is sexually healthy and who is sexually dysfunctional.

    From a biological perspective, there is simply no argument. The Christian couple is evolutionarily successful, while Epstein and Maxwell were sterile and spread sterility.

    If were compared two groups of animals, one which was successfully reproducing, and one which was dying off because they couldn’t reproduce, we would easily be able to tell which was healthy, and which was sick.

    They need ideology to justify their actions and beliefs, we just need basic biological reality, no ideology needed.

  4. My father decided I would be named Victoria the moment they knew my mom was pregnant. Didn’t need a test, either.

  5. Art doesn’t happen in a vacuum. You can be sure there were hundreds, possibly thousands of White Americans in the hinterland who have never been recognized as “moderns”.

  6. So I went ahead and grouped your Victorian vs. Moderns dichotomies one at a time to score which side had more premises I agreed with. I encourage other commenters to try this themselves. I suspect most of them will score in the 6-2 or 8-0 range in favor of Victorians.

    1 Victorians were racists, Moderns are antiracists.


    2 Victorians were sexually repressed puritans, Moderns are sexually promiscuous libertines.


    3 Victorians valued the “civilized” over the “savage” and rejected the “primitive,” Moderns disdain the civilized and celebrate the primitive.


    4 Victorians valued self-denial, thrift and hard work. Moderns value self-indulgence and consumption.

    Tie. This is a false dichotomy.

    5 Victorians valued realism and depicting nature in art and thought that art should have a didactic purpose, Moderns rejected realism and nature in favor of art for art’s sake.


    6 Victorians believed in absolute moral truth, Moderns believe in moral relativism.


    7 Victorians were practicing Christians, Moderns are secularists.


    8 Victorians believed in patriarchy, Moderns believe in free love and feminism.


    Score: Moderns 4, Victorians 3, Tie 1

    A couple thoughts:

    -No.3 is going to be the fatal flaw of Modernism, just like No.2 was the fatal flaw of Victorianism, as there is no way to embrace the primitive and reject the civilized while maintaining the cultural and legal structure that allows Modernism to exist in the first place. Its interesting how both Modernism and Victorianism both had there own fatal flaws.

    -There is no contradiction between hard work and consumption, as the whole purpose of working hard and being thrifty is so that consumption of goods and services is possible. We make a wage during the week so we can spend it on necessary goods like groceries and clothes, and on pleasure or entertainment such as movies and vacations. There isn’t anything wrong with consumption in itself. Moderation in everything.

    -I consider my worldview on these issues to be the Hegelian Dialectic that combines Modernism and Victorianism into a cohesive worldview that is both sensible and moral for the 21st century. We can’t “go back to Victorianism” any more than we can “return to tradition.” The White Race has long since moved on from that. Modernism has excesses and flaws that must be corrected, but there’s no version of things where Pro-Whites attain power or achieve success through rejecting the entirety of Modernism, especially its most popular parts (i.e, sexual permissiveness over sexual repression).

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