The Mob Spirit in Literature

A MOB — I use the word without disparagement — is one of the simplest forms of social organism. It is not a mere aggregate of individuals, but a new and distinct body, which is subject to emotions, and demeans itself as a collective body, with traits and attributes of its own. A mob may be the beginning of a higher social form, as where a political mob becomes a convention, or it may be the disintegration of a higher form, as a crew in mutiny; but, ordinarily, it is brought into existence by the coalescence of a crowd of individuals, lives fast and furiously, and then resolves itself into its constituent elements. Mobs are of several kinds, as the street mob, the political mob, the lynching mob, the religious mob, the panic-struck mob, the reading mob, etc. These species differ among themselves primarily by the character of the object which arouses the mob spirit. Minor differences split species into varieties, as a street mob may be subdivided into an anti-conscription mob, an abolitionist mob, a no-popery mob, or a reading mob into an upper middle-class and a lower middle-class mob. The street mob is the normal type; it displays in simplest form the eager emotion, the imperfect comprehension, the irrational action, that mark the mob. The principal mobbish traits may be enumerated thus: —

(1) Numbers are essential.

No two or three people, whatever their passions, desires, or acts, can constitute a mob. There must be a great congregation, so that many individuals may act and react upon one another. The greater the sum of these interactions, the more coherent, the more sensitive, the more compact, the more mobile, the body becomes. Where the number of persons is very great the new organism wholly dominates the individual members; where the number is small, the mob is of low vitality. torpid, flaccid, and exercises only a shadowy control over its members, who retain practically all their independence as individuals. The importance of numbers is best seen in a street mob, which becomes more tumultuous, more passionate, more a creature of instinct and less a creature of reason, the larger it is. So, too, the reading mob, the bigger it grows, becomes more emotional, more excited, it reads and talks with greater avidity, is increasingly vehement in its likes, dislikes, and opinions, forces the book on its neighbors with greater rigor, buys, borrows, gives, and lends more and more with the swift and sure emotions of instinct. The reading mob is, perhaps, the largest species. The numbers who read the lower bourgeois novel are fabulous. Those who read the higher bourgeois novel are very numerous. In the meridian of its glory the mob novel soars up to several hundred thousands. The Crisis, before it had run its course, had sold 405,000 copies, the Eternal City 325,000, The Leopard’s Spots, with its career before it, 94,000, When Knighthood was in Flower over quarter of a million; others have sold similar numbers.

(2) The composition of a mob is largely immaterial.

Men and women, individually governed by their own psychical laws, meet, coalesce, and form a new social body. The component individuals may be of all classes and conditions, of all occupations and businesses, of diverse education and training, of opposite sex; they may be mild-mannered or harsh, equable or capricious, sour or jovial; once united as a mob, they strip themselves of those traits, and acquire instincts and inhibitions, sensibility to stimuli and tendencies to reactions, to which as individuals they were total strangers. For example: a mob composed of the Rev. Theodore Parker, Wendell Phillips, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and other abolitionists, meets to liberate a negro slave. It hearkens to a fiery harangue, surges down the street, pounds on a prison door, defies the policeman, and displays the ordinary symptoms of the mob spirit. Colonel Higginson all alone would not have behaved so. This difference between the mob and an individual member accounts for the rejection of a genuine mob novel by a publisher’s reader, as so often happens.

The reading mob is of indiscriminate composition , except that it acquires a certain appearance of homogeneity from its division into three varieties: the proletariat reading mob which reads dime novels, the lower bourgeois reading mob which reads the novels of Albert Ross, E. P. Roe, and the like, and the upper bourgeois reading mob which reads Winston Churchill, Charles Major, Thomas Dixon, Jr., Mary Hartwell Catherwood, Hallie Erminie Rives, and others. These three varieties differ in sundry ways. Our immediate concern is with the upper bourgeois novel-reading mob, which buys its books over the book-counter of department stores, on the train, at the newsstand, from the book agent at the front door, or borrows them from circulating libraries.

(3) The locus congregandi.

Numbers by themselves are nothing. Persons might stand side by side for a hundred years, like ghosts in the Valley of Jehoshaphat, and no change take place; the individuals must affect one another, they must enter into mutual relations; they must meet and coalesce. A street mob may meet in the Place de la Concorde, on the Boston Common, or in Trafalgar Square; but the necessary condition of meeting is not physical, but psychical. In the case of a street mob, physical juxtaposition aids psychical unity, but it is only valuable as an aid. Instead of the immediate give and take of physical effluences and emanations, of pushes, shoves, shrieks, words, and animal magnetism, there may be communication at a distance, by any means capable of conveying emotions while they are still warm. Books are as serviceable as any other vehicles of emotion.

(4) The begetting cause of the mob spirit.

The fourth point to be considered is the nature of the relations between the members who compose the mob, the character of their mutual influences, of the contagion that leaps from one to the other. It is this contagion which gives birth to the mob spirit, and converts an unconnected, unrelated congregation of persons into a mob. “Hast thou considered,” says Carlyle, “how each man’s heart is so tremulously responsive to the hearts of all men?” In the case of a street mob, elbows in ribs, heels on toes, high shoulders bumping low chins, crackling with inflammatory ideas,harangued by an orator, it is easy to understand, practically, if not scientifically, the nature of this mutual influence. This chemical union, this crystallization, of the mob, depends on two things, a proper condition of receptivity and a power of suggestion,mutually acting on each other. In ordinary hypnosis it is generally agreed that there is some peculiar trance-state in the patient and some special power of suggestion in the physician. As this trance-state is often indistinguishable from ordinary waking, and suggestion from a wish or a command, and as we all, probably, are somewhat, susceptible, and all have the power of suggestion, it is likely that the influences passing to and fro among mob members are of an analogous psychical order. The miraculous cures at Lourdes, Loreto, Ste. Anne de Beaupre, are also analogous; the patient is thoroughly receptive; he is especially conscious of the sense of numbers, that he is not an isolated cripple come to be cured, but a constituent part of a miraculous circuit of true believers sensitive to the thrills of life from some great and mysterious source. He is physically alone, but psychically one of many, and reacts to the sense of numbers.

In other mobs contagion is effected by analogous means, but in a somewhat different manner. Take the “ mob of gentlemen who write with ease; ’’for instance, a mob of sonneteers of Elizabethan England. Multitudes of sonnets are written; they pass from hand to hand, from hall to hall, from salon to salon; they are read, recited, repeated again and again; everybody talks of everybody else’s sonnet. Idlers abandon their idleness, busy men forsake their business; all pick up currentideas, conceits, and rhymes, roll them up into a fourteen - line posy, and send them to spread their pollen broadcast. Such a process formed Italian sonneteers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries into the berhyming mob known as the “Arcadia.” Gentlemen and ladies met, pelted one another with distichs, canzoni, quatrains, odes, and ballate, shouting “bravo,” “brava,” “magnifico,” “bellissimo.” Apropos of this I quote from Goldoni’s memoirs the account of his experience at Pisa. “I was walking one day near the castle, when I saw a doorway with carriages stopped before it; I looked in and saw a great court with a garden at the end and a quantity of people crowding together under a sort of pergola. I went a little closer and asked a servant in livery what reason had brought so many persons together. He, most polite and well informed, did not fail to satisfy my curiosity. ‘That assembly that you see, ’ he said, ‘ is a Colony of the Arcadians of Rome, it is called the Alphean Colony, that is, the Colony of Alpheus, a very noted river of Greece, which flowed by the ancient Pisa in Aulis.’” Goldoni was passed on to a servant of the Academy, and given a seat, “where I listened to good and bad, and applauded the one and the other equally. Everybody looked at me, and seemed curious to know who I was, and I had a wish to satisfy them. The man who had brought me in was not. far from my chair, I called him and begged him to go and ask the President of the assembly, whether a stranger might express in verse the satisfaction that he felt, The President put my question to the assembly, and it acceded. I had in my head a sonnet which I had composed when a lad for a similar occasion, so I changed a few words that they might better apply to this situation, and recited my fourteen lines with tone and inflections to set off the rhymes and the sentiments. The sonnet appeared to have been composed on the spot, and was warmly applauded. Everybody got up and thronged about me.” Of course, numbers and mob contagion were necessary to produce this social phenomenon. Nobody, alone, would assume a pastoral name and declaim his own sonnet. This Arcadia is an interesting variety of mob, a kind of hybrid, combining the literary locus congregandi of the reading mob, and the physical locus congregandi of the street mob.

The reading mob exhibits the phenomena of contagion, this union of receptivity and suggestion, in its own special form. It displays expectation, fixed attention, and eagerness, — “I must get the book right away,” “You must read it at once,” — haste to get at the plot, to assimilate experience, to devour the story, the irritation of suspense. It displays a craving for emotional stimulus, and also that peculiar mobbish behavior which we detect in the difference between the perusal of a classic, Balzac or Thackeray, and that of a current novel. It shows the excitement caused by the sense of numbers, the feeling that the individual is of no consequence except as one of a crowd, represented by such phrases as “everybody is talking of it,” “everybody is reading it.” The element which, acting upon analogy, I call suggestion, comes in various ways. The most conspicuous factors are advertisements, publishers, wholesale booksellers, retail dealers, book agents, news-stands, parlorcar peddlers, and circulating libraries; but far more effective than these are the murmurous buzz and hum of question and answer, “ Have you read it ? . . . No ? you must,” repeated in boudoir, drawing room, club, in the train, at the lunchtable, over teacups, over the cigarette, under the umbrella. Expectation quickens, attention becomes rigid, and the mob novel, like a magnet, draws all to it.

The spread of contagion is extraordinary. I note some statistics. In September, 1901, The Crisis was the most read novel (of the upper bourgeois type) in Portland, Boston, New Haven, Providence, New York, Baltimore, Washington, Memphis, Atlanta, New Orleans, St. Louis, Dallas, Albany, Rochester, Toledo, Toronto, Cincinnati, Cleveland, St. Paul, Kansas City, Salt Lake City, Denver, Los Angeles, and Portland (Oregon). From the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Canada to Mexico, the whole reading mob was deep in The Crisis. The next month defervescence began, and the mob’s attention shifted to The Right of Way, which took first place in popularity, and kept the lead in November and December, January and February. During the period while The Crisis was the popular leader, The Helmet of Navarre trod on its heels in mobbish favor. In New York, Boston, and Cleveland, The Helmet of Navarre was second in the race, in New Haven, Portland (Maine), and Dallas, it was third,in Portland (Oregon) and Denver it was fourth, and in Louisville it ran ahead.

These waves of contagion sweep over the reading mob, just as contagious emotions ruffle up a street mob. But the initial cause is obscure. What does first stir the reading mob toward a particular novel ? Advertising is a factor, but the outward cause, the suggestion, is far less important than the condition of receptivity. The same is true of the street mob. The exciting cause seems inadequate to the convulsive burst into action, which is rather due to the highly explosive condition of the mob. I take as an illustration the French mob of July 14, 1789. Michelet says (Revolution Franqaise, vol. i, p. 106), “The attack on the Bastille was not a matter of reason. It was an act of faith. Nobody made a suggestion. But all had a belief and all acted. Along the streets, quays, bridges, boulevards, crowds shouted to crowds, ‘To the Bastille, to the Bastille.’ Nobody, I repeat, gave the initial push.” In the analogous situation of the reading mob, when “Read The Crisis” is shouted from Portland east to Portland west, the wave of emotional excitement rises internally,sweeps over the continent and gradually subsides. The novel itself hardly seems to shed any light on the question. In relation to the Bastille mob Michelet says (vol. i, p. 109), “Et qu’estce que la Bastille faisait à ce peuple ?” “What had those people got to do with the Bastille?” For in the Bastille aristocrats, not the people, were locked up. Yet the Bastille was chosen as appropriate to satisfy the mob appetite; the Palais Royal, the Louvre, the Palais des Tuileries, were left. It must be taken on faith that there is some element in a mob novel that arouses the mob appetite for perusal.

(5) Rudimentary intellectual life.

In a mob there is no proper division of function, no coordination of parts, no members doing diverse tasks for the common weal, no reasoning or critical faculty. A street mob, so far as reason is concerned, has the mental apparatus of a jellyfish, but it has a high emotional development, great capacity for hasty action, and is extremely sensitive to certain simple ideas. In the case of the Lord George Gordon riots, for example, the mob conception of law is shown by the fact that it rummaged for parchment so that the “skin of an innocent lamb might no longer be converted into an indictment.” The idea is simple, the emotion strong, the action vigorous. A panic-stricken mob has but the two ideas, fire and escape, but it behaves very violently. If one looks at the Arcadian mob, one will find the mob sonnet compact of exceedingly simple conceits, the red cheeks, the Aphrodite smile, the alabaster bosom, and so forth.

The intellectual development of the reading mob is well illustrated by the heroes and heroines that interest it. Of these I shall quote several examples. All are taken from mob novels of the upper bourgeois type.

Heroine: “Her skin was like velvet; a rich, clear, rosy snow, with the hot young blood glowing through it like the faint red tinge we sometimes see on the inner side of a white rose leaf. Her hair was a very light brown, almost golden, and fluffy, soft, and fine as a skein of Arras silk. She was of medium height, with a figure Venus might have envied. Her feet and hands were small, and apparently made for the sole purpose of driving mankind distracted. . . . Her greatest beauty was her glowing dark brown eyes, which shone with an ever changing lustre from beneath the shade of the longest, blackest upeurving lashes ever seen.” (When Knighthood was in Flower.)

Hero: “His were the generous features of a marked man — if he chose to become marked.” He had “a natural and merciless logic — a faculty for getting at the bottom of things. His brain did not seem to be thrown out of gear by local magnetic influences, — by beauty, for instance. Here was a grand subject to try the mettle of any woman.” His “ features were sharply marked. The will to conquer was there. Yet justice was in the mouth, and greatness of heart. Conscience was graven on the broad forehead. The eyes were the blue gray of the flint, kindly yet imperishable.” He was “trusted of men, honored of women, feared by the false.” Sometimes, once at least,”an ocean-wide tempest arose in his breast.” (The Crisis.)

A Rival has “delicately chiseled features, with their pallor, and satiety engraved there at one and twenty. . . . lazy scorn in the eyes, and the look which sleeplessness gives to the lids, . . . the willful indulgence — not of one life, but of generations — about the mouth . . . a face to dare anything and to do anything.” “ He had the carriage of a soldier, the animation and endurance of the thoroughbred when roused.” (The Crisis.)

Another heroine: “The second was a tall, beautiful girl, with an exquisite ivorylike complexion, and a wonderful crown of fluffy red hair which encircled her head like a halo of sunlit glory. I could compare its wondrous lustre to no color save that of molten gold deeply alloyed with copper. It was red, but it also was golden, as if the enamoured sun had gilded every hair with its radiance . . . [it] fringed her low, broad forehead, and upon the heavy black eyebrows, the penciled points of whose curves almost touched across the nose . . . the rosy - tinted ivory of her skin . . . the long eyes which changed chameleon - like with the shifting light, and varied with her moods from fathomless green to violet, and from violet to soft voluptuous brown,” etc. (Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall.)

Here is another: “Upon her alabaster skin, the black eyebrows, the long lashes, the faint blue veins and the curving red lips stood in exquisite relief, . . . her round snowy forearm and wrist . . . the perfect curves of her form.” (Ibid.)

Another: “A slender girl ... of that age when nature paints with her richest brush. Her hair was a wave of russet lights, with shadows of warmer brown. Her face, rose - stained, was the texture of a rose. Her mouth, below serious eyes of blended blue, gave a touch of willfulness. If there was intentness on the brow, so was there languor in the lips, red, half-ripe, the upper short and curved to smile. She was all raptures — all sapphire and rose - gold, against the dark cushion.” (Hearts Courageous.)

(6) Absence of reasoning and critical faculties.

Another marked mobbish trait or perhaps another aspect of the last trait,— low intellectual life, — is the absence of duly constituted authority. Leaders must be improvised on the spur of the moment. At the head of the two columns that attacked the Bastille were Hullin, a watchmaker from Geneva, and Elie, a soldier of fortune; they had no previous authority; their credentials were the spasmodic needs of the moment. So, too, our reading mob has no leaders, no guides. In the mob itself there is no critical faculty. Reflex action answers to peripheral stimulus; there is no pondering, no consideration, no choice of acts. If there were critics, men of natural gifts and educated taste, experienced in the humanities, there would be no mob; for the condition of headlessness, of unguidedness, is essential to a mob. But there are no American critics, except Mr. Henry James, who confines himself to a consideration of foreigners. If he would turn his mind to American criticism —

Ac, veluti magno in populo quum saepe coorta est
Seditio, saevitqe animis ignobile vulgus —

authoritative with literary piety and desert, he might become a disciplinary and coordinating force. Other writers wander about the ante-chamber of criticism,— la salle des pas perdus, — and speak sympathetically to the mob. They obey the gregarious impulse. It is so with all mob leaders. To the Bastille mob, Hullin and Elie cry, “En avant, nobles esprits!”to the religious mob the Herr Pfarrer shouts, “Gott mit uns;” to the Roman citizens Mark Antony says, “Good friends, sweet friends. ” The mob leader is infected with themob spirit, and seeks to take advantage of it, not to correct and overcome it. Our mob critics, naturally somewhat afraid of the mob, use a series of adjectives (as a drover’s boy shouts “gee” and “haw” post eventum, to conceal the fact that he follows, and does not guide, his steers), —“suggestive,” “unique,” “exclusive,” “convincing,” “vital,” “well - visualized;” or brief phrases,—“a book of distinction,” “chastity of diction,” “the touch of sureness,” etc., and then encourage the mob by one of three methods of appeal. The first is to say that the author is a good story-teller, which to the mob means, “Mob, you have excellent. judgment in plots;” the second, that the tale is highly moral, “Oh, virtuous mob!” the third, that the story is American. For instance, one critic says: “ One of the most cheerful features of the whole matter is the fact that that growth of Americanism to which we had occasion to refer last winter is becoming steadily more apparent. Of the seventyfive places held among the first selling books by the novels that we have mentioned [of the upper bourgeois sort] all but fifteen are to the credit of American authors.” This is the regular patriotic device of the mob orator. All the Roman mob orators lay stress upon the fact that their hearers are Romans. Antony says, “You gentle Romans,” and “Friends, Romans,countrymen.” Brutus says, “Romans, countrymen, and lovers.” As for morality, it is a well marked trait in a mob to esteem itself highly moral, and, in its way, to be highly moral. The Lord George Gordon mob destroyed much gold and silver plate, but stole none. The Abolitionist mob was notoriously self-righteous. Nevertheless, morality is not always characteristic of mobs, even of reading mobs, though self-imputed morality probably always is. To praise the mob, however, is certainly the safest, perhaps the only, course open to the mob orator.

Thus we see that mobbish traits consist in numbers, union, coalescence, low organic structure, imperfect functions, violent emotions, infectious actions, and the absence of any controlling or critical faculty; and, finally, that numbers and the absence of authority are the two chief characteristics. This analysis is partially but strongly confirmed by an investigation from an entirely different point of view, — from the standpoint of art.

Art is a matter based upon the experiences, not of all men, as is science, but of the few. An individual, one man out of millions in ordinary places, one out of hundreds in highly gifted communities, perceives something which disturbs his viscera, makes his heart beat faster, brings color to his cheek, brightness to his eye, buoyancy to his spirit, which kindles joy, tenderness, sentiment, triumph, exultation. Excited by his experience, he broods over it, and tries to counterfeit what he conceives to be the stimulating cause, primarily because of the felicity which comes as he busies himself with this enriching experience, partly that he may see his own sensations reflected in other faces, and incidentally that he may win honor, money,or whatever unconsidered, secondary consequences may chance to follow. This happy but solitary man, who quivers like a racehorse at what other men pass like oxen, is the artist. His experiences are the facts of art; his counterfeits of the stimulating causes are what we call works of art. The experiences of beauty, of harmony, of color, or whatever it may be, which other men have, are of a different order, and have no artistic significance. However, there are men who have direct business with the artists’ experiences; they are the critics. They may be wholly unable to counterfeit the stimulating causes, and yet they comprehend the artists’ experiences, and interpret these experiences to the many. The critic’s business is to study these experiences, compare and classify them, and render them, as far as may be, intelligible to the crowd. His mission is revelation, and his attitude must be one of authority.

Here, then, we have art, the experience of the few, and authority, the judgment of the few, both antithetical to the mob spirit, which knows neither law nor authority, and follows the gusty impulses of instinct. Art and the mob are mutually exclusive, like heat and cold. A mob cannot have its attention fixed by a work of art. When the crowd reads Hamlet or stares at the Monna Lisa, it acts in obedience to authority — to the authority of the critics; it has ceased to be a mob, it recognizes the word of command, given by Lessing, Sainte-Beuve, Matthew Arnold, or Ruskin, and marches, as to military music, rank upon rank, in orderly sequence, and salutes the world’s masterpieces. Discipline, whether it proceeds from the presence of a general, an archbishop, or a critic, is a certain sign that the crowd has passed beyond that stage of homogeneous incoherence, as Herbert Spencer would say, which is essential to a mob. This transformation is normal; a mob must either turn into a disciplined body or resolve itself into its constituent elements. As regards the reading mob, the transformation into an educated body of readers is, of course, infinitely slower than the change from a street mob into an orderly group of burghers; it will depend on the number of artists and of critics. The public schools, and our general system of education, to which we ordinarily turn in such difficulties, unfortunately supply the conditions that make a reading mob possible, and do not offer any hope of cure. Art and authority are the only remedies. In a country so large, so thickly populated, where there is so much vigor, energy, and will, it is not unreasonable to hope that artists will come; but they will require sympathy, comprehension, support, and these can be made ready only by the critic. His first task must be to tame the turbulent mob spirit, in which we Americans take so much pride and pleasure.