YOU'D ASK YOUR MOTHER, "What was it like in the olden days?"
Not the cavalcade of treaties and earthquakes, the history book stuff, but what it felt like to be alive then.
How could she explain . . . the dusty heat of '50s television sets . . . men who whistled (with trills) and wore hats tipped to one side and got killed in wars . . . the champagne disenchantment of the '20s . . . what it felt like . . .
Second in a series
Years later, Virginia Woolf would write: "On or about December, 1910, human character changed. I am not saying that one went out, as one might into a garden, and there saw that a rose had flowered, or that a hen had laid an egg. The change was not sudden and definite like that."
Virginia Woolf was a little crazy, of course.
On the other hand, look at the photographs.
Before 1910--the Roosevelt Years, the Age of Confidence--men with mustaches stare at the camera with the hard focus of self-command. Women look at it the way they'd look at an annoying policeman. Sometimes, lost in a focusless world of love or sublimity, they seem not to see it at all.
After 1910--the Belle Epoque and the Great War, an Age of Reform--men shave off their mustaches and try to capture the look of college boys, full of coy self-awareness and infinite possibility. Sometimes, with their cocked straw hats and feet on the running board, they look a little weaselly, like salesmen who aren't ashamed of themselves anymore.
Women ignore their mothers' lessons on how a lady appears in public. They slowly jettison corsets, shed chaperons and hike their hemlines over their ankles. They face the camera with an amused wise-guy wariness. Sometimes, for mischief, they pose with cigarettes. The face of sublimity starts to become the face of sexuality.
What you want is personality, not character. You want the frankness of Freud, and the freedom of the Model T Ford. You want the nimbleness and passion of the movies, a mistake-free world where Douglas Fairbanks is always graceful, and good and evil have given way to peril and desire, as in "The Perils of Pauline" and the seductions of Theda Bara, the original vamp.
The idea is to be up-to-date, to get aboard the Progress Train, to put an end to greed, ignorance, inequality, disease, addiction, autocracy and the glooms of Victorian neurasthenia.
"I tried that alpine skiing and broke my leg."
"Say, Ted, we're in mixed company."
"Alice doesn't mind if I say 'leg' instead of 'limb,' Dexter."
"I think it's poor taste."
"Well, aren't you a sketch?"
A new look, a new ideal. You admire it in the face of Hobey Baker, hero of WASPdom and Princeton football and hockey, fighter pilot in World War I. Or John Reed, the Harvard revolutionary buried in the Kremlin Wall with Bolshevik heroes. Or even President Woodrow Wilson, former president of Princeton, smooth-faced and idealistic, a reformer.
He says: "I am a vague, conjectural personality, more made up of opinions and academic prepossessions than of human traits and red corpuscles." In short, he is not Teddy Roosevelt.
Pep. Adaptability. The gross national product triples in 10 years. The national debt goes from $1 billion to $24 billion. Oh, boy. You just watch your Uncle Dudley, Mac, 'cause these United States are going to it. Child labor laws. Pure food laws. Free verse (Amy Lowell, Carl Sandburg) and free love (Isadora Duncan, Max Eastman). Prohibition of alcoholic beverages. Sending troops to put the Mexicans in their place. Doing the Daily Dozen exercises invented by Walter Camp, the Yale football coach. Suffragettes singing "Everybody's Doin' It Now" as they march up Fifth Avenue in their big 1912 hats and dresses.
"Doin' it, doin' it."
Youthfulness is a moral virtue. John Dewey, the progressive educator, attacks parents who "look with impatience upon immaturity, regarding it as something to be got over as rapidly as possible."
Max Eastman, the boy-faced editor, promises what youth always promises--that his publication, The Masses, will be "frank, arrogant, impertinent, searching for the true causes; a magazine directed against rigidity wherever it is found."
America is having one of its episodes of reforming its soul in the name of the American Dream--being very rich and very good at the same time. New soldiers of virtue called the Boy Scouts do a good deed every day. The educated classes listen to the renewal myths of Wagner. The whole country listens to a poem by Sarah Norcliffe Cleghorn:
The golf links lie so near the mill
That almost every day
The laboring children can look out
And watch the men at play.
College girls are the epitome of wholesomeness and progress. At the middlebrow cultural revivals called chautauquas, they tell stories to children, they wear kilts and perform with "Walter Eccles and the Four College Girls."
In the ocher air of a huge chautauqua tent, jawsmith Harry "Gatling Gun" Fogleman goes into his umpire's crouch and shouts at 300 words a minute: "A negative thought is a poison as deadly as arsenic. Every morning now when I wake up I think positive thoughts and say, 'Fogleman, get out and get to it.' " Dr. Russell H. Conwell bullies the lag-behinds: "I say you ought to be rich; you have no right to be poor."
Conwell and Fogleman sell themselves. They sell their audience on itself. "Sell" has new meanings. More than just money and goods, it displays a personality and magnetism that moves cars, birth control, educational toys, stock in land-scheme companies. Men who can sell are models for the masses with their appeals to pep, progress and positive thinking. They are missionaries for the new religion of consumption, and for casting off the dark thrift and doughtiness of 19th-century production, all that old stuff about "a penny saved is a penny earned."
Henry Ford is a hero despite his assembly-line speedups and his antisemitism. He more than doubles his workers' pay to $5 a day. He senses that higher wages mean more buying. He has a puzzled innocence that movie audiences will someday find in Gary Cooper--the youthful, roll-up-your-sleeves face of a man who lives only in the present. Ford says: "History is more or less bunk."
That's what the Great War will prove by demolishing the old order.
What a good idea demolishing the old order seems until it actually happens.
Before then, though, things are swell. You just play at demolishing the old order, never really suspecting you'll succeed.
You dance the tango even--or especially--if the city fathers ban it. Ragtime is popular even though--or because--it comes from blacks.
Honey, honey, can't you hear
funny, funny, music, dear? . . .
Everybody's doin' it, doin' it.
You puzzle over Marcel Duchamp's painting titled "Nude Descending a Staircase."
"I saw where a fellow in the newspaper called it 'Explosion in a Shingle Factory.' "
"He's just jealous of a charming Frenchman. All you boys are."
"The Germans send us socialism, the Italians send us anarchism. The French send us this thing."
You sing Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band." You hunt, golf and toboggan in a craze for outdoor sports. Your Protestant work ethic worries about this but a magazine called The Survey reassures you: "Recreation changes leisure hours from liabilities to assets."
Ah, the metaphor of economics--who can gainsay the truths of the dismal science? Or any other science? Or progress? Or the Marxist forces of history? Or automobile companies instead of the village horse trader?
You get smaller in the swelling landscape of factories, dynamos, acts of Congress. You're part of a machine controlled by horns and whistles, bells summoning you in offices and at home, time-and-motion experts watching you on the assembly line.
You feel like Nobody. You look for Somebody to represent you in the legislature of the Republic of Modernity: movie stars, baseball players, radicals, Ziegfeld girls, the Barrymores, union leaders, industrialists, Albert Einstein, inventors like Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone, authors like Booth Tarkington, who writes about youth in his "Penrod" stories.
You join the YMCA, or the swimming club where girls get to race in suits like the boys', or the crusade for Prohibition or groups thrashing over the agnosticism of Robert Ingersoll. You stop saying grace at meals. You buy a car. You wire your house for electricity. There is so much energy in the air. Who can resist it?
The upper classes try. Yale and Princeton have built Gothic fortresses against modernity. They don't work, as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Princeton '17, proves. The rich retreat to country seats in Far Hills, N.J., or Middleburg, Va. They don't work, either. Fitzgerald, an Irish Catholic, would write of an upstart character viewing the uppers: "He knew the sort of men they were--the men who when he first went to college had entered from the great prep schools with graceful clothes and the deep tan of healthy summers. He had seen that, in one sense, he was better than these men. He was newer and stronger."
The rich used to be celebrities. Mrs. O.H.P. Belmont's ineffable Chinese Ball at Newport! Now the diamond-decked dowagers are dreary. Immigrants take commerce and city governments away from them. The new rich buy their way into Pullman cars and hotels.
The upper-class Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge has warned for years that a million immigrants a year would cause "a great and perilous change in the very fabric of our race."
Robert Bacon--Harvard athlete, partner of J.P. Morgan--goes to the war saying, "This world--our world--is not lucky enough to be snuffed out as was Pompeii. We have got to go through a long sickening decadence."
The war starts in Europe in August 1914.
We're too busy with our reforms, we're too moral, we're "too proud to fight," as Wilson says. The Wabash (Ind.) Plain Dealer writes: "We never appreciated so keenly as now the foresight exercised by our fathers in emigrating to America." In 1915 people sing: "I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier."
In 1916, Wilson runs and wins with the slogan "He Kept Us Out of War." The war, though, is another huge, impersonal force, doin' it, doin' it. The Germans sink the Lusitania, killing 128 Americans. They send the Zimmerman Telegram, offering to help Mexico reclaim lost territories in the United States.
Huns. Fritzies. Krauts.
On April 6, 1917, we declare. Everything changes. Americans can hardly wait for rationing, regimentation, censorship, the draft. Like working on Ford's assembly line, or doing locomotive cheers for Yale, the war makes us pieces of a machine. In boot camps, draftees march in uniform, having checked their individuality at the gate. Various days of the week are wheatless, meatless, gasless and heatless. Women work in factories. Hemlines keep rising. Northern factory owners send agents to hire Southern blacks.
Wilson sells the war as the biggest reform movement of them all, the war to end all wars, to make the world safe for democracy. It's an easy sell. Is it ever.
Doin' it, doin' it.
George Creel, head of Wilson's Committee on Public Information, calls his job "a plain publicity proposition, a vast enterprise in salesmanship, the world's greatest adventure in advertising."
You stand at attention in restaurants whenever the band plays "The Star-Spangled Banner," which it does a lot, and there's a punch in the nose waiting for any man who doesn't. Sauerkraut becomes "liberty cabbage." German measles are "liberty measles." Boche books burn. A big movie is "The Kaiser, Beast of Berlin." People see spies everywhere. Congress outlaws criticism of the government, the flag, the Red Cross, the YMCA or any of our allies; 1,500 people are sentenced to jail. The Wobblies, a radical leftist union, are decimated by a thousand arrests, setting up the Red Scare to come.
"Like most reformers, Wilson had a fierce and unlovely side," says Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard for 40 years.
In 19 months, America sends 2 million troops to Europe, after turning them into a fighting machine. "Over There," as George M. Cohan writes: "Send the word, send the word Over There. That the Yanks are coming." The Yanks fight well. They are noted for their aggressiveness. About 54,000 are killed in combat. More die of disease. The rest come back with memories of gas, barbed wire hung with corpses, a condition called "trench foot," typhoid, vermin (called cooties) and foreigners a lot of them don't particularly like. Froggies. Limeys. Krauts.
There are big parades, but few statues, no generals running for president. In city squares, pigeons will continue to sit on likenesses of Grant, Lee, Sherman and Jackson, not Pershing. Wilson makes an idealistic fool of himself in treaty negotiations, the Bolshevik Revolution rages in Russia, the Senate refuses to let America join the League of Nations. The war hasn't ended all wars and the world isn't safe for democracy.
Everybody is sick of reform, idealism, promises, pep, and doin' it, doin' it. There are: disillusion, xenophobia, paranoia, persecution, propaganda, bomb-throwing, strikes, lockouts and race riots. About 550,000 Americans die of the Spanish flu, perhaps 40 million people around the world. Blacks who fought in France come home to race riots. Anarchists mail dynamite bombs to public men. The government rounds up radicals in the "Red Scare." Teddy Roosevelt--frustrated, angry, grieving a son's death in the war--dies at 61 in 1919.
You are appalled when eight players for the Chicago White Sox are charged with conspiring to throw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. All are acquitted, but all are barred from baseball for life.
Outside the courtroom a small boy confronts "Shoeless Joe" Jackson: "Say it ain't so, Joe."
This is what all the energy and reform come to. Virginia Woolf counsels that the newly changed human character must "tolerate the spasmodic, the obscure, the fragmentary, the failure." And: "We must reflect that where so much strength is spent on finding a way of telling the truth the truth itself is bound to reach us in rather an exhausted and chaotic condition."
CAPTION: World War I and the passing of the Victorian era occasioned a seismic shift in the country's sensibilities. Landmarks along the fault line included an Army recruiting poster, the German sinking of the ocean liner Lusitania, the writings of Virginia Woolf, and Woodrow Wilson's much-maligned idealism.
CAPTION: Though he wielded nothing more formidable than a cane, the dapper George M. Cohan wrote, "Send the word, send the word Over There. That the Yanks are coming." Later it was the (Cincinnati) Reds who were coming, and Chicago White Sox outfielder "Shoeless Joe" Jackson was indicted for conspiring to throw the 1919 World Series to them. "Newsies" in St. Louis may not have been actors in the national drama but served as a kind of underage, cigarette-smoking chorus; suffragettes marched on the White House in 1917.