In 1928, D.H. Lawrence wrote a poem entitled “How Beastly the Bourgeois Is” in which he compared the middle class to a “fungus, living on the remains of a bygone life/sucking his life out of the dead leaves of greater life than his own.” Lawrence’s contempt for the bourgeoisie was part of an intellectual tradition dating back to the 19th century, when English aesthetes such as John Ruskin and Oscar Wilde, German sociologists such as Ferdinand Tonnies and Georg Simmel, and French litterateurs such as Charles Baudelaire and Gustave Flaubert made careers out of flaying the middle class. They defined it as comprising, in the words of the great French historian Francois Furet, “petty, ugly, miserly, laborious, stick-in-the-muds, while artists were great, beautiful, brilliant and bohemian.” Flaubert, for one, argued against democracy on the grounds that “the whole dream of democracy is to raise the proletarian to the level of stupidity attained by the bourgeois.”
It was only in the 1920s, the same decade in which Lawrence wrote his poem, that such contempt for the bourgeoisie—and with it a deep hostility toward the United States’s position as the quintessentially middle-class, democratic, and capitalist nation—found a wide audience in this country through a new generation of writers such as Sinclair Lewis and H.?L. Mencken. Weaned on the work of H.?G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw and their loathing for conventional mores, Lewis and his confreres became the dominant force in American letters, and their views went largely unchallenged in the literary world. It was left to a critic named Bernard DeVoto to issue the first serious and meaningful challenge to their worldview—the opening salvo in a brave and lonely battle that still resonates, even though DeVoto and the book in which he took up arms for the United States against its own intellectuals are both forgotten.
A self-described “literary department store” who published essays and histories and novels, DeVoto was best-known in his lifetime as the author of the Easy Chair column for Harper’s, which he inaugurated in 1935 and wrote monthly until his death in 1955. During that time, he won a Pulitzer Prize for Across the Wide Missouri, an account of how the Mountain West was settled, and edited a bestselling abridgment of the journals of Lewis and Clark. He first made his mark in 1932 in Mark Twain’s America, in which he challenged the depiction of Mark Twain by Van Wyck Brooks, an intellectual mentor to writers of the 1920s, as a mere humorist and literary failure who had been hamstrung by America’s Puritan tradition.
Brooks and his ilk, DeVoto vehemently argued in what he called “an essay in the correction of ideas,” misunderstood the genius of Twain’s vernacular writing because they misunderstood America. In 1944, DeVoto published The Literary Fallacy, his most important book, expanding on the ideas he had first laid out in defending Twain’s American voice 12 years earlier—and in so doing, he illuminated the inner life of modern liberalism as no one had before or since.
The literary fallacy, DeVoto explained, is the claim, new to America in the 1920s, that a culture can be judged solely or even largely in terms of its literature. America, the argument went, had failed to producegreat writers, and that failure demonstrated the inherent inferiority of American life. DeVoto described the efforts of a coterie of writers (Lewis, Mencken, Brooks, as well as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sherwood Anderson, among others) and their denunciations of American society. Their villains were “the Puritan and the Pioneer,” whom they believed were the source of America’s dreary commercial culture.
These two archetypes—the holier-than-thou believer and the unwashed land grabber—had, the coterie believed, crushed the creative life on these shores. Even worse, America’s decision to enter the First World War and the Red Scare of 1919 that followed had, they argued, discredited the American democratic experiment. And it was not just American democracy that had been discredited: the prosperity of the 1920s had even invalidated capitalism, which had produced, in the words of literary critic Malcolm Cowley, a “repressive progress.”
The upbeat public mood of the 1920s, buoyed not only by prosperity but also by the arrival of electricity, the automobile, and the radio, was the coterie’s Calvary. Even the new breed of sports celebrity was a mark of cultural rot. “Baseball,” explained the essayist Waldo Frank, is a “mechanism” run by a “mastermind (the manager) who sits on the bench.. . .The Babe’s home run is an effort on the part of the machine to connect with the crowd.. . .Babe Ruth is the demagogue of baseball.”
The creative class was being crucified, asserted Mencken, by the inferior breeds of humanity who had presumptuously betrayed their proper role as peasants in Europe past by crossing the Atlantic and breeding each other into idiocy. Mencken and his fellows grew ever more vitriolic in their criticisms of the United States even though, as DeVoto observed, American writers had become “more widely read, more enthusiastically applauded, and rewarded with greater wealth and public honors” than ever before. But still “something oppressed them,” DeVoto quoted Cowley as saying. “Some force was preventing them from doing their best work.” What was this force? It was, Cowley said, “the stupidity of the crowd, it was hurry and haste, it was Mass Production, Babbittry, Our Business Civilization, or perhaps it was the machine.”
Cowley’s cenacle, DeVoto noted, spoke of a materialist “conspiracy against the good life,” as their heirs in the 1930s would speak of a “capitalist conspiracy.” Americans, they said, were “morbid” and “bloodless”; their existence was, in the words of Van Wyck Brooks, “death in life.” The ideal was Europe’s hierarchical social order, in which writers such as themselves were an academy empowered, as they understood it, to set the standards of society. Mencken found his ideal in the Kaiser’s Germany; others were drawn to France, where some of the post–World War I generation took up exile from these barbaric shores. Innocents abroad, they were largely unaware of the ugly undercurrents that would burst forth in the 1930s. Their motto was, in effect, “they do it better in Europe.” Their Europe, DeVoto wrote, was the place where “thought is free?.?.?.?art is the universal goal of human effort, writers are universally respected, and human life has a claim on the interest of literary men which in America it assuredly has not.”
These writers were to be America’s “awakeners,” as they saw it:
They are to break our trance, refine away our dross, purge us of unworthiness and evil and Philistinism and materialism and the profit system, bind us together in the collective life we have never had, give us grace and thoughtfulness and health and spirituality, exorcise the Puritan and Pioneer, vitalize our experience, lead us to the great society. . .at last.
In The Literary Fallacy, DeVoto did not pass aesthetic judgment on the writers of the 1920s. The decade proved to be, he acknowledged, “one of the great periods of American literature, and probably the most colorful, vigorous, and exciting period.” DeVoto’s objection was to the “ignorance” of American history and life displayed by his targets. They threw around a term like “Puritan” as an epithet while knowing little of the development of religion in America. They confused Puritans with their rivals, the evangelicals, who were in fact the primary object of their ire in the 1920s, as evidenced by Lewis’s 1926 novel, Elmer Gantry (DeVoto had himself, as a young man, written a not-very-successful novel about evangelicalism).
As for the pioneers, their supposed individualism was one of the coterie’s bêtes noires. But DeVoto explained convincingly that the dry lands of the Mountain West from which he himself had hailed—he was born in Utah to a Catholic father and a Mormon mother—required not individualism but a cooperative effort to cultivate the land. The literary intellectuals presumed knowledge they simply did not possess about the country they felt free to criticize so confidently.
Thus, even as Mencken and Lewis were inveighing against the Puritan-Pioneer influence of their time, they seemed unaware that they were living through a period of unprecedented upheaval in which technological change was fast untethering the country from its past. As DeVoto explained, the advent of the automobile and the radio meant that even as “space shrank and man had a new freedom,” long-rooted traditions and the certainty of a social order governed by local authorities, from preachers to politicians, had been diminished. “All freedoms,” he insisted, “have a price and the modern world has found that its freedoms must be paid for with strains.” The coterie was thus blind to the vitality, tensions, and dynamism of American life—the very complexities that could offer a thriving literary culture just the subject matter it longed for.
Sinclair Lewis, America’s first Nobel laureate, saw his writing, in DeVoto’s words, “as an exercise in expressing the contemptibility of small town American life.” But what, DeVoto wondered, was Lewis’s point of reference? The novelist was never able to extract an ethic from his negative aesthetics other than to imply that those who recognize the ugliness of American life thereby constituted the carriers of a higher morality that entitled them to lead. “It appears,” DeVoto wrote with stinging sarcasm, “that the Village Virus which has poisoned America consists of the failure of small towns to support productions of the one-act plays of Eugene O’Neill, to provide candlelight at dinner, and to sanction lounging pajamas as evening wear for housewives.”
Referring to Ernest Hemingway and the poet Robinson Jeffers, DeVoto argued that while some of the coterie made a fetish of American inadequacy—businessmen, for instance, were viewed as impotent, barely able to reproduce—another branch, led by Jeffers, went so far as to describe them as inferior to animals. “It is a short step,” DeVoto asserts, “from thinking of the mob to thinking of the wolf pack, from the praise of instinct to war against reason, from art’s vision of man as contemptible to dictatorship’s vision of men as slaves.”
DeVoto saw both strands reaching a literary culmination in T.S. Eliot’s poems “The Waste Land” (1922) and “The Hollow Men” (1925). “This entire movement,” he argues, “agreed to find its age expressed in The Waste Land.” The masses depicted in “The Waste Land” are personified by the repellent old man “with wrinkled breasts” and “the young man carbuncular”—the first unnatural, the second diseased. In “The Hollow Men,” Eliot could see only an ignominious end—“Not with a bang but a whimper”—for these forsaken people.
But, DeVoto argued, when the end of the world nearly came with World War II, “no whimpering was to be heard.” The “young man carbuncular” decided that the world should not end. “When the bombers came over London” and “the shock of Pearl Harbor traveled across this country,” he wrote, such men proved themselves anything but hollow. “War,” DeVoto observed, “provided an appeal of judgment. The typist and the clerk had fortitude, sacrifice, fellowship; they were willing to die as an act of faith for the preservation of hope.”
DeVoto insisted on “the democratic view of life. . .that holds quite simply that the dignity of man is unalienable.” What the courage and sacrifice of World War II demonstrated was that the word bankruptcy best described not the lives of most Americans but rather the ideas of the literary culture that had so cavalierly pronounced judgment on the freedoms of modernity. It was ordinary men and women steeped in a way of life supposedly not worth saving who stepped forward to defend the freedoms on which the literary men depended.
The writers made famous by the 1920s not only “failed to safeguard our democracy between the two great wars”; they had, DeVoto believed, given aid and comfort to our enemies. “There is,” an angry DeVoto told his readers, “a striking correspondence between the Spenglerian description of America” as a decadent mechanized mass of festering foolishness and “the description of America embodied in American literature of the 1920’s.”
As late as 1932, the architecture critic Lewis Mumford returned from Germany enthralled by that nation’s anti-technological “cult of the sun.” DeVoto noted that by 1941, some of the coterie, Brooks and Mumford in particular, had changed their minds and enthusiastically supported America in its war against Hitler. Mumford, in his newfound ardor born of guilt for his early philo-Germanism, wanted to suppress the free speech of the anti-interventionists. DeVoto would have none of this. “I cannot believe,” he wrote, “that ignorant love is more stable than ignorant contempt.” He saw that their embrace of America was probably but a passing moment:
The literary man associating himself as with brothers of one heart with the democracy who were yesterday the boobs, the suckers, the fall guys, the Rotarians, the course-souled materialists of all the world. Well, maybe. . .but probably not for long. [Soon enough,] one eyed literary folk will once more be beholding the land of broken promises, inhabited only by inferior people who destroy individuality and break the Artist’s heart.
A thoroughgoing iconoclast, DeVoto was certainly no conservative, judging by the meaning of the term in his own time. In the 1930s, he gave the New Deal critical support even as he skewered Communism. In the 1940s, he flayed neo-Confederates like the poet and critic Allan Tate, who tried to paint the old South in a lustrous light. In the early 1950s, DeVoto taunted both J. Edgar Hoover and Senator Joseph McCarthy with gleeful abandon. An angry man, he was allergic to dogma and profoundly disgusted by any effort to silence unpopular views.
The rhetorical tropes fashioned in the 1920s, and restated repeatedly over the decades since, were reflections, DeVoto made clear, not so much of America as of a funhouse-mirror version of it, a distorted refraction based on aesthetic conceits and social pretensions. DeVoto died in 1955, so he never saw his fears realized by the rebirth of the anti-American intellectual in the 1960s. Today that spirit can be found in precincts both high and low—from the hallways of academe to late-night infotainment comics such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who traffic in a knowing snarkiness that confers an unearned sense of superiority on their viewers. Now, as then, angered by the impertinence of the masses in their increasing rejection of the hope and change promised them in 2008, liberals, as in the title of a recent article in the online magazine Slate, raise themselves up by shouting, “Down with the People!”