Of Babbitts and Bohemians
THE twenties in America, Elizabeth Stevenson remarks in a book about them, Babbitts & Bohemians (Macmillan, $6.95), have turned into mythology without becoming history. Certainly they have so stamped themselves on the imagination, so dramatized themselves in recollection, as often to seem romantic where merely irresponsible, and nostalgic where most unkempt. The production has been drowned in the stage lighting, the story shredded into slogans — “The Roaring Twenties,” “The Jazz Age,” “The Era of Beautiful Nonsense.” Along with other eras — the 1890s, the English Restoration — the twenties connote giddy holiday periods in history, when the Zeitgeist took to wenching, or culture lurched and hiccuped, or art swam in the nude. At the same time, what was shocking might also have style, or what was stodgy get belted by satire; while the volcano that was serving as a dance hall might suddenly overflow with lava. The twenties perhaps evoke the flask and the flesh on warm summer nights, in contrast to the bare ruined thirties that came after them: indeed, the two eras suggest a pair of Hogarthian moralities — Wantonness, shall we say, and Want.
All in all, the twenties are more easily contrasted than characterized, for though they planted many of the seeds of America’s future, the immediate future bore no good fruit; and though, during the decade, the arts were pressing ahead, life was going tipsily around in circles. Yet about it all, as Miss Stevenson says, there was a “sense of opportunity,” and an official cheerfulness; but clearly the world had been made anything but safe for democracy, and in America democracy was most notable for the evils it is particularly prone to. Yet it is things like the Babbitts and the Bohemians with their picturesque trappings that we remember best from the twenties. Such concrete recollections provide animated cartoons of any-which-way traffic, of jaywalking and barfly weaving, of Stutz Bearcats and fake hearses, of monkey trials and Elks parades that give us a bewildering map of which not even hindsight can make a quite accurate chart. But looking back, even those who lived through the period can see what gave it a permissive confusion, what still exerts a surface fascination; and can grasp how the cultural message it has left conforms to a physical law — to the fact that cream and scum equally rise to the top.
One of the best things about Babbitts & Bohemians is that it spotlights much of the 1920s that we do not readily remember. One of the key words of the period, which I don’t think turns up in the book, was debunk; and without diminishing the era’s brighter virtues Miss Stevenson has herself debunked a good deal of its mythology, which applies even to its villains. The scandals of the Harding Administration, the evils of the Capone administration, the Red Scare raids that the curtain went up on, and the stock-market crash with which it came down — these we know all too well. Miss Stevenson, however, treating Rum-running, Republicanism, and Reaction in their more legalized forms, has chronicled a more elusive iniquitousness, the scum that, at least immediately, did not rise to the top. She has also documented that sense of national aloofness which would fester into America Firstness. She has scrutinized an age of wild living and spending to record how little the population as a whole had to live on and spend; and so has reminded us that in certain vital ways the set contrast between the twenties and the thirties can be not only too emphatic, but even wrong. Thus, the decade of official destitution was much the greater one of general assistance; the New Deal, the reader concludes, gave to Labor far more than the Depression took away. For in their social thinking, the intellectuals and bohemians of the twenties could be as misguidedly apathetic as in the thirties they were misguidedly fervent.
This is of course only part of the story; and it is only part of Miss Stevenson’s. The rest of it she has done a generally good job with, confronting an era overloaded with decor and running riot in detail, but careless and amorphous in design. Chronological rather than thematic, her book keeps to how history unfolds rather than, for the hindsighted historian, it afterwards takes shape. But she has brought to it an open-minded, essentially enlightened capacity to judge, and despite a prose style not everywhere firm, a frequent gift of phrase. If the book has limitations, it is largely because its very dimensions set limits. In treating at ordinary book length and a reasonably popular level the politics and economics, the morals and manners, the culture and art, the society and humanity, the disorder and crime of the decade, Miss Stevenson has again and again had to compress, curtail, omit, throwing many subjects, notably some of the arts, a mere bone. But all in all she has allotted her space soundly and put it to good use.
BABBITTS & BOHEMIANS begins judiciously in the previous decade, in an atmosphere of Wobblies and Progressives countered by warmongers and political bosses. Woodrow Wilson was President, but Pa Ferguson and Theodore Bilbo were governors, and Frank Hague, James Michael Curley, and William Hale Thompson, mayors. Congress was not idle, whether creating Mother’s Day in 1913 or later, during the War, passing the egregious Espionage Act. The War itself saw us too proud to fight and then too pressured to refrain. After the War came a rain of strikes, from policemen (enter Calvin Coolidge) to miners, and most notoriously the steel strike: U.S. Steel’s “undivided surplus of profits” had risen from $135 million in 1914 to $493 million in 1919, while half the steelworkers worked a twelve-hour day at a third below the government’s figure for subsistence wages. Public enterprise kept pace with private, with Wilson’s Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, persecuting “alien radicals” by way of “patriotic-club” informers, and making arrests with warrants in which “the names were to be filled in after the arrests,” or with no warrants at all. Fortunately. Louis F. Post, as Acting Secretary of Labor, conscientiously read all the indictments, throwing out most of them and freeing the imprisoned men. This was 1920, when a temperance movement had waked up to be addressed as Prohibition, when a halt was called on immigration, and the great cause célèbre of the ensuing decade began with the arrest of Sacco and Vanzetti.
Despite such bequests, the expiring decade had seemed more nationally alive to progress, to publicspiritedness, to protest, than its heir would be. The least of the Harding Administration’s sins was its outright boycott of progress; so unforgettable was its corruptness that the Boston Tea Party still has a black-sheep-brother phrase in Teapot Dome. As for Galvin Coolidge, “he allowed respectability,” says Miss Stevenson, “to seem to triumph” and was in fact “part of a system of legal corruption perhaps worse than the kind Daugherty had taken part in.” (I had forgotten Cal on enforcing European debt payments: “They hired the money, didn’t they?”) With the third Republican President of the twenties, Herbert Hoover, we had a highly touted administrator whom Walter Lippmann characterized at the time as a weakling “in the presence of politics and politicians.” Nor should we forget the decade’s chill, elegant Thin Man, Andrew Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury in all three Administrations, whose “principles were two: that wealth should be encouraged to pursue its own ends and that Government in keeping to promote these ends, should retire into as small a compass as possible.” Hence the maximum surtax on incomes dropped from 65 percent in 1921 to 20 percent in 1925, and gift and inheritance taxes were in time repealed.
In view of all this, the national economy of the period, with its brash bull-market headlines and its faint, smudged small print, is not very surprising. In mid-decade, the average minister’s salary was $1622, the average federal employee’s, $1515, and nowhere during the decade did the agricultural worker reattain the $800 a year he had made in 1920. Even culturally — where in many ways the period is most dynamic and impressive — the Babbitts, to judge by an inspection I have made of the best sellers of the 1920s, scarcely gave the bohemians a look-in. The one novelist who consistently made the list was the author of Babbitt, with the book itself a two-year best seller, and with — for one year — Main Street, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, and Dodsworth. The only other novels of any consequence to join the top ten over a ten-year period were The Age of Innocence, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and All Quiet on the Western Front. Against this, Zane Grey, Harold Bell Wright, Gene Stratton Porter, and Ethel M. Dell were monotonously triumphant early in the decade; nor, though less well entrenched, were their successors much more resplendent.
IF THE period was, for all this, one to promote a legitimate mythology, and for those who lived through it, to glow in memory, so that its excesses seem a fair price for its achievements, on what grounds can this be accounted for?
Well, I, in writing of the twenties, am writing of my own twenties and doubtless with a bias that, beyond being touched with nostalgia, has stubborn roots of period sensibility. Not just my recollections but my responses and even many of my values are derived from it. This isn’t to become uncritical or even uncensorious; but certain things, perhaps, that I would not acquit I am willing to pardon. In any case, I agree with Miss Stevenson that a sense of opportunity pervaded the period; that one of its governing attitudes was “the openness of the future”; that, as she says, “there was room enough, there was time enough.” One could, accordingly, saunter; could saunter, in fact, out of step. It was an age that encouraged the individual temperament, the individualist aspiration; it would have nothing of authoritarianism; and if the bulk of those who fled the suburbs were not mindful enough of the slums, were far more concerned with art than with politics, this was from espousing a soup-stained “bohemianism” that might itself resemble the slums. Miss Stevenson’s title, at any rate in the literary sense, is well chosen, for it was because Babbittry in the twenties was so dominant and spotlighted that bohemianism could build up a heckling chorus, and itself catch the limelight and kick up its heels. The two groups were a made-to-order antithesis, a kind of running plot and subplot; were a twain that did nothing but meet — if only head-on; a twosome that the Menckens could in equal parts have fun with; and a pair of opposites that denounced the country club as a philistine desert, and the Village dive as a phonies’ swamp. Yet the country club and the Village dive were curiously made one by hooch and hangovers and rolling in the hay; even in very stuffy bourgeois circles, Prohibition sent inhibition reeling. And when, in a rambunctious bull market, moneymaking became as unhallowed and promiscuous for businessmen as lovemaking for bohemians, a whole society lost its balance, and plot and subplot swayed in unison. But where the main plot exploded in fiscal disaster, the subplot got religion, became painfully aware of the slums, the sweatshops, the strikebreakers, the state of the world. Blushing with guilt, the bohemian collectivized his ego and all too often ruined his art.
If this is to dramatize the period, it is not least because it tended to dramatize itself; almost no one, at any rate, was wholly realistic about it. There was so beckoning a sense of what lay ahead; the future, to the twenties, was much like knowing you were in your rich uncle’s will. The very frivolity of the period bespoke a kind of security, and the very opposition of Babbitts and bohemians argued unambiguous values rather than mongrel ones. In the end, indeed, the antithesis is a kind of value judgment: all in all, the ignominy of the twenties rests with the Babbitts, or with their mentors; with chicanery and corruption in high places, with meager earnings and bloated profits; and a certain luster hovers around the “bohemians,” at least in what they wrote and painted and composed; even in their small haughty defiances and the Little Magazines and the Left Bank. Today the sharpness of the antithesis seems most salubrious just because there was so little dubious middle ground. It was not simply that Business still snarled at Culture where today it labors to seduce it; but Culture had no thoughts as yet of becoming Business. Young men did not then go in for higher degrees as commercial assets, acquiring an M.A. which presumably stands for Madison Avenue. There was no television, there was nothing very cerebral about radio or sophisticated about advertising. Group journalism was cutting its milk teeth, and Hollywood was for hacks (talent only flocked there with the talkies). Hence people in the arts, whatever the lure of money, were not primarily — in jargon then unborn — money-oriented. They were much more likely to chant the old rueful Negro plaint: “Money thinks I’m dead.”
In the matter of handling human problems, there can be no sound comparing of the twenties with what is attempted today. Culturally, however, there are problems today that the twenties partly or wholly lacked. Indeed, that very sense of the future which buoyed up the twenties and gave their bohemia a seacoast has, though in rather surprising forms, proved valid — so palpably in the arts as to completely remodel their bohemianism. That the writer or painter has become far more of a businessman, with a far more lucrative business, is not in itself disturbing. But beyond their vastly improved standard of living, writers and painters now often follow a businessman’s or a rich man’s way of life. They are status-minded and publicity-minded and often publicity-mad; presumable tastemakers, they live on borrowed taste, even to their interior decorating.
That, again, people of talent in the arts should be featured today on mass media may be all to the good; but they are the smallest part of a big-money mass-media world that has created a polluted and fad-ridden culture in which talent and trash, audacity and expediency, frisson and cliché, minitruths and mammoth fictions embrace one another. Miss Stevenson speaks of the “syncopation of taste” in the twenties, but it seems very slow freight compared with today, when the last word in culture is televised to 50 million people in only faintly tinted, slightly tainted form. In the twenties, such things as Joyce’s linguistic experiments, E. E. Cummings’ typographical frolics, and a George Antheil’s Ballet Méchanique, with its refrigerators, might have their shock or novelty or exhibitionist value, but wholly on noncommercial, art-world terms. Camp and Westerns and happenings and pop art and op art and art nouveau today are largely cultural merchandise with most of them, instead of being avant-garde, hall tongue-in-cheek forms of revival.
PROBABLY the nearest thing in the twenties to today’s high-income world of the arts was the Algonquin group — Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Robert Sherwood, George S. Kaufman, Alexander Woollcott, F.P.A., Heywood Broun, and others. Displaying, many of them, a sophisticated touch and satiric wit, mirroring New York’s superior frivolities, they lived — thanks to Broadway, Hollywood, the New Yorker — expensively, and often became the pets and playmates of the kind of rich people who were bored with rich people. The two groups coalesced, on an enlarged basis, into the first generation of café society. One of the less talented Algonquinites was Alexander Woollcott, a writer and anecdotist with just two personal sources of supply, the tear duct and the bile duct. By the thirties a great radio success as the Town Crier, he made best sellers of the books he doted on — good or bad — as no mass-media commentator had done before. Yet the Algonquin group pleasantly exemplify something that the twenties were rich in and that today is not — playfulness. They made jokes, they spun yarns, they played games, they grew rich off repartee, they were not afraid to be silly, and insult was more their métier than their neurosis. They, much like the era’s wacky comics — Fanny Brice, Ed Wynn, Joe Cook, the Marx Brothers — were enliveners and entertainers of the public, and of one another.
Prohibition, which one cannot but return to, throws considerable light on what muddled the twenties, since it made lawbreakers of almost everybody, and often misbehavers as well. Without it, there must have been less cynicism, less shoot-theworks spending, less short-order sex — and far less drinking or drunkenness. The saloon, with its beer pocketbook and swing-door legality, had been for men only; the speakeasy smiled on women and picking up women, acquired social overtones and presented exorbitant tabs. Moreover, the twenties did not really end until 1934 and Repeal, which sounded taps on a long reign of rowdy gaiety and on our principal form of racketeering. Surely a very salient point is not how much less crime there would have been without Prohibition, but how much less organized crime. Miss Stevenson soundly stresses the importance of Chicago to the twenties, not least for its jazz but particularly for its unruliness, and the rise of Al Capone, which “would end the spontaneity of gang life.”
Sound about Chicago, Babbitts & Bohemians seems inadequate about New York, whose spotty side saw the rise of Dutch Schultz, Legs Diamond, and that “Morgan of the Underworld,” Arnold Rothstein. Miss Stevenson does not even mention the Algonquin group, offers the flapper without John Held, Jr., Jimmy Walker without Grover Whalen, Gilbert Seldes without the 7 Lively Arts, the Village without its favorite haunts. Yet Manhattan during the twenties was the university of all the bright young college dropouts, featuring file at firsthand in its curriculum along with freelancing and free love. For the young today, with their contempt for set forms and their concern for causes, life is in a sense a mixture of the twenties and the thirties; yet what it crucially lacks of those two eras of contradictory hopes is a hopefulness of its own.
I have said that Babbitts & Bohemians is short on some of the arts and their milieus. But in a chapter called “The Year Nothing Happened” it does epitomize the creative fruitfulness of the twenties. The year 1925 produced, in literature alone, An American Tragedy, The Great Gatsby, In Our Time, Arrowsmith, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; Marianne Moore’s Observations, Cummings’ XLI Poems, Jeffers’ Roan Stallion, Pound’s Cantos I-XVI, and William Carlos Williams’ In the American Grain. It is a very pleasant sort of paradox that during a decade when twentieth-century American life could often seem most ephemeral and adolescent, its literature proved so lasting and mature.