Up Stream, an American Chronicle

by Ludwig Lewisohn. New York: Boni & Liveright. 1922. 8vo, pp. 248. $3.00.
To read this book is to undergo a profitable ordeal. It makes a heavy drain upon one’s self-control. Yet to throw it aside in a fit of temper would be to betray one’s own provincialism, and to indulge a form of obscurantism which is far too common. Though we may be haunted throughout by a sense of inconsistency in the author, or be tempted to make neutralizing allowances for an unusually sensitive nature ‘reacting’ to his environment, the fact remains that the author has given us a warning that cannot be ignored.
The author is a thoroughgoing individualist. He urges, as the true end and aim of life, the happiness of an unfettered emotional and æsthetic self-expression in the here and now. Of course this puts him in sharp opposition to many of the teachings of Christianity, and to many of the accepted moral values of our civilization; an opposition which he candidly acknowledges. According to him, neo-puritanism is a bright upon our American life. Our Christian-Capitalistic civilization is just another method by which the few may mentally enslave the many, and so perpetuate a status quo in which their own ambitions are gratified. There is no personal liberty worthy of the name; no individual freedom of thought or speech or conduct; no encouragement to be honest, to be one’s self, and to construct original formulas of truth, beauty, and happiness. We are browbeaten by a tyrannous collectivism, which assumes that, as the experience of life is common, so the individual reaction must conform to a common type, and which punishes the rebel with its ridicule and ostracism. We dread being conspicuous; therefore we dare not be different. We are all stamped with the same die, which leaves its metallic sheen on our very faces. Thus, while our life outwardly seems vigorous and healthy, its vigor is only that of a sordid materialism, and its appearance of health is but the flush betokening an inner consumption which must ultimately prove fatal.
A score of writers have sounded the same warning, but the matter is serious enough to justify many warnings. Is our civilization doing for human life what we want it to do? We may not agree with this author in honoring what must seem to some of us a thoroughly Oriental, not to say pagan, ideal. For he would have us seek what he calls Life, the life of the finer senses, the more delicate emotions, the life of this present world at its best and richest, and seek it through an unashamed self-expression; through art and poetry and passion and feeling and beauty; yes, through a behaviorism in which yellow beer, free love, and birth-control play a not inconspicuous part. And some of us insist, with equal sincerity and after an observation as valid, that the real victories of life are to be secured only through self-discipline, through moral character, through the suppression of certain passions and the development of certain spiritual capacities that look beyond this life. But even so, the question still persists: Is our civilization helping to secure these victories? Are we any nearer the one goal than the other?
That is a question he will not allow us to ignore; and for that service he deserves unqualified gratitude. And any ordinary man who can read this book without seeing that the problem exists for him just as really as for the author simply corroborates the author’s assertion that the ordinary man has forgotten how to think.