History 47
#11 The Innocent Rebellion, the Cosmopolitan Ideal, and the Origins of American Modernism

*rev. H47 for 2/24/98
*although literary Realism and Pragmatism challenged key tenets of the Victorian dominant consensus, they did not significantly undermine its fundamental tenets [as characterized in Henry May, The End of American Innocence (1959)]: belief in the "free," self-determining individual; the certainty of a moral order; progress; and a common "culture." Between ca, 1907 and the outbreak of W.W.I in 1914-17, Victorianism was seriously undermined by various developments, some of which led to "modernism," others to "scientism." Although opposed at the extremes (e.g. the "modernism" of Henry Adams, The Education (written 1907, published 1918) and the "behaviorism" of John B. Watson, the two often merged (on this point see David Hollinger, "The Knower and the Artificer," American Quarterly, 39 (1987). At these extremes, however, they represented two quite different ways of coping with modernity: (a) modernism by exploring the resources of the autonomous self, (b)behaviorism by making the self a creature of environment ("conditioning").
**from the perspective of (a) "internalist" intellectual history, the story of America modernism can be told by the dissemination of new ideas from Europe that finally reached America in the decade before W.W.I, e.g. Freud (conference at Clark University, Worcester, Mass. in 1909); Nietzsche (H.L. Mencken popularizes in book 1907, followed by first significant English translations); Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, which was popular in intellectual circles ca 1911. To these could be added the syndicalist ideas of Sorel, and various other writers who stressed the role of "irrationality" in human affairs. For politics, an influential work was Graham Wallas, Human Nature in Politics (ca. 1909), the work of an Englishman who taught at Harvard as a visitor in 1909, and influenced a number of "younger intellectuals," among them Walter Lippmann, who with Herbert Croly and Walter Weyl founded the New Republic in 1914; (B)
From the "externalist" perspective the same story may be told in terms of the ways new technologies (e.g. railway, the movies) invited new ways of seeing and feeling.
****definition of "modernism (summary of Daniel Singal, "American Modernism," American Quarterly 39 (1987( and Morris Dickstein, Gates of Eden.
1. many observers see "modernism" rather narrowly as avant guard, "bohemian" movements in the arts. But Singal, following Peter Gay, Freud, Jews and Other Germans (1978) says it describes a broader movement, that characterizes an historical period comparable to "Enlightenment" or similar labels. In the U.S. roughly, 1910-1950s.
2. Its starting point was radical assault on the "innocence" of Victorians culture as embodied in its tendency to dichotomize experience in to "higher" and "lower" (civilization-savagery, reason-emotion, e.g.) Drawing on Darwin, Freud et al., it was an "interrelated system of ideas, attitudes, myths, and institutions that enable a given social group to make sense of its environment and to give order to its society."
3. No "litmus test" fpr modernism but various "signs": recognition of human irrationality; acceptance of open and unpredictable universe; critical temperament; tolerance of uncertainty.
4.[although Singal doesn't mention, the "cosmopolitan ideal" also seems to have been part of it. Worth keeping in mind that, although it was a break with Genteel Tradition in many respects, it was also adopting yet another wave of Europe thought and artistic practice.]
5. Just as other phases of thought ossify and grow "conservative" so modernism by the 1950s had become a new orthodoxy, with its often stultifying rituals. Dickstein, Gates of Eden p. 62-63: "In retrospect, we can see that--apart from the repressive politics of the age...--the fifties were less a distinct cultural period than the last phase, the decadent academic phase of the modernist sensibility of the twenties."
For purposes of this course "modernism" and "postmodernism" may be schematically contrasted as follows:


1. personal identity problematic; solutions=autonomy, minimal man, anti-hero

2. primacy of art (a) life a "work of art"; artist hero (b) sacralization of culture 

3. authenticity
4. positive view of conflict 

5. willingness to live with uncertainty; self-
consciousness (individual) as goal


1. id problematic but find solution in relationships, community,"socialization of authority"

2. valorization of popular culture; breakdown life/art distinction; overcomes the antipathy of modernism to mass culture as"inauthentic"

3. imitation; quoting icons of mass cult; pastiche

4. elimination of conflict (see concluding
portions of Gergen, Saturated Self)

5. seek security ; obliteration of self; anti-individualism of modernism

*Singal: "Where Americans once sought an antidote to excessive repression, they may now be searching out a remedy for excessive liberation."
****moderism vs. modernization. (cf. Lears, anti-modernism) . Varous terminological confusions
#this class and the next will explore these roots, and the social context in which American modernism first developed with reference to: : Henry Adams ; the trio of essays/literary critics (Bourne, Cowley, and V.W.Brooks; and the filmmaker D.W. Griffiths (briefly); . Of these only Adams was a "true" modernist. But the careers of the others reveal the forces--intellectual and sociological--that prepared the way for the development of an American "modernism."

I. Henry Adams (1840-1918)
* Adams in the Education works his way through the tensions and problems of modernity in a fashion that is recognizably "modernist" as Singal defines the term. The "Henry Adams" of the Education is thus the first authentic "modernist" in American writing, give or take an Ishmael or two.
**central paradox of the Education is its projection of "failure" of a life than was, by most conventional standards a great success. If George Bush "finds himself on third base and thinks he has hit a triple" --as the line concerning his background has it-- then Henry Adams hit a homer but couldn't get to first base. [details of life and background)
***Nature of "autobiography" (analysis of "Preface" of Education) [class handout]
A. The central dilemma of the Education (and of Adams life) is the plight of the religious sensibility in a modern "demystified" world.
1. Medieval Christianity had a "unity" in Adams view that has been replaced by modern "multiplicity."
2. problem traced by to Protestantism which alienates man from God, while denying spiritual force of symbolic representations that give the sense of ones with God a tangible immediacy. Throws individual back on self with all resulting anxieties.
3. Education as search for new unity through science, and symbols to replace those of Christianity (Dynamo for Virgin).
B. The structure and argument of the Education nicely illustrates Singal's view of modernism, as Adams explores all the unresolved contradictions of Victorian culture, while rejecting all the easy ways the Victorians attempted to ignore or dissolve the tensions in their experience. Use of "Darwinism" in Education illustrates.
C. In "Dynamo and Virgin" chapter Adams finds what for the moment seems an appropriate symbol for the unity that science promises. Analysis of Adams, "Dynamo and the Virgin, "H&C, selection
D. In subsequent chapters, however, he attempts once again to translate this religious "vision" into the language of intellect, and ends in despair-or almost. At close, the "manikin," a reduced by still persevering Adams, looks forward to a world which sensitive creatures could observe without a "shudder."
Note: discussion raises issues of whether "history" was possible given Adams views of discontinuity; sources, examples, and motives behind his insistence on disjunctures in experience. View of history re: recent post-modernist theorists, e.g. Hayden White.
*see Lears, No Place of Grace ch. 7 for parallel reading of Adams, with nice Freudian twist.

Written by Robert Bannister, for classroom use in History 47, Swarthmore College2/24/98. May be reproduced in whole or part for educational purposes, but not copied or distributed for profit.