ON THE LITERARY landscape of the 1920s Gorham Munson was a distinctly minor figure, though you certainly couldn't tell that to Gorham Munson. He was an energetic, opinionated fellow who basked in the glow of more consequential figures but emitted relatively little light of his own: the books he published are now lost in the shelves, the causes and fancies he espoused have long since been forgotten. At the time of his death in 1969 he had completed what he calls "a book of related essays on subjects that were formative of the literary period known as the Twenties in America." If you are wondering why it took a decade and a half for the book to see the light of day, the book itself provides the answer.
The Awakening Twenties is actually two books, and that is precisely its problem. The first is a relatively objective history of American literary and cultural life in the years immediately preceding the artistic explosion of the '20s, and of the first five years of the '20s themselves; there is a great deal of useful material here, much of it serving to remind us of people who played important roles before vanishing from memory. But the second is a memoir of sorts in which Munson not merely attempts to demonstrate the high regard in which he was held by others more eminent than he, but in which he goes on at interminable length about his infatuation with the teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff, a mystic who was to certain illuminati of the '20s what Leo J. Buscaglia is to certain public- television viewers of the '80s -- a merchant of comforting, self-regarding pop psychology.
In the first half Munson writes with evident and rather pleasing emotion about the coming of peace in 1918 and, with it, the sense that the young had been freed to follow what they saw as their destiny: "They were conscious of themselves as a generation in revolt against the Genteel Tradition of American letters. They saw themselves as the young generation, les jeunes, the moulders of the future. They were aware that a new period was starting with them, and very soon they voiced this awareness. Just as there was a young France, a young Ireland, a young Spain, so there was a young America emerging from the bankruptcy of man's political hopes at Versailles and launching a revival in literature and the arts."
Munson is at pains to point out, though, that the revolution of the '20s did not emerge in full bloom. It was instead the result of a shifting in the American artistic ground that can be traced back to the famous Armory Show of 1913 in New York, at which the showing of Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase" and other modernist paintings announced the coming of a new age. This was a time when "American society was well on the way from an agrarian to an urban society, and American industry was accelerating for the leap from the machine age to the power age that would take place during World War I"; that this time of change would produce a new art and a new literature was inescapable.
AMONG the pre-war influences on this process Munson singles out several little magazines, notably Others, Seven Arts and The Soil, this last the creation of the long-forgotten Robert J. Coady, who "looked for an indigenous life, for an indigenous art, for the possibilities of an indigenous art," and whose influence on better-known publications of the '20s seems to have been significant. He pays his respects to Randolph Bourne, the editor and writer who called upon his generation to explore the promise of America, and to Waldo Frank, who "spoke thrillingly of a conception of America to be created by the young writers and artists."
As the '20s begin, Munson writes with justifiable nostalgia about Greenwich Village as it then existed -- its cafes, its salons, its "revolution in manners and morals" -- and with equally justifiable anger about the death of it as a cultural Latin Quarter, "succeeded by a quarter that is solidly bourgeois with its high-rent apartment buildings and disagreeably commercial with its tourist attractions." He describes the Washington Square Book Shop, "the Greenwich Villagers' favorite shop for browsing and even for purchasing books when the price could be afforded," and then briefly characterizes the path-finding magazines to be purchased there: The New Republic, The Nation, Freeman, Dial, Little Review, Vanity Fair, Modern School, Smart Set.
Apart from magazines there were books, more and more of them issued by "some five or six young publishers, who would ultimately rejuvenate the whole industry"; these firms "welcomed the new realists, the new critical voices, the new poets -- and thereby became partners in the creation of a period." Of course there was the established firm of Scribner's, revitalized by its young editor Maxwell Perkins, but there were also the new firms that quickly came to have an incalculable influence: Alfred A. Knopf, Boni & Liveright, B.W. Huebsch, Harcourt, Brace & Howe. Munson discusses all of these, and accurately assesses their importance.
It is at this moment, unfortunately, that The Awakening Twenties veers off into self- serving personal reminiscence. A long chapter about Hart Crane exists primarily to demonstrate Munson's highly suspect theory that the poet's sudden decline can be traced to a crisis following his exposure to Gurdjieff and his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man. A chapter on Munson's relationship with Robert Frost, such as it was, is pointless, and a chapter on his nonexistent but devoutly wished-fr relationship with Charlie Chaplin is embarrassing. As for the chapter on Gurdjieff and his disciple, A.R. Orage, its main effect is to leave one wondering how it was that someone of Munson's intelligence not merely could be attracted to this twaddle as a young man but could remain dazzled by it as an old man. That what began as a perceptive and thoughtful book should end on this note is a pity, to be sure, but it is perhaps most usefully taken as a reminder that the ways of the intelligentsia can be strange indeed.