The Spree

Frank Kermode

  • The Feminisation of American Culture by Ann Douglas
    Papermac, 403 pp, £10.00, February 1996, ISBN 0 333 65421 8
  • Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the Twenties by Ann Douglas
    Picador, 606 pp, £20.00, February 1996, ISBN 0 330 34683 0

Ann Douglas’s The Feminisation of American Culture, first published in 1977, now appears in Britain at the same moment as its long-delayed successor, Terrible Honesty. Looking back at the earlier book, Douglas remarks that her ‘excavation and re-evaluation of American feminine 19th-century literature’ has been continued by many other historians, mostly women, who have rebelled against what she calls, in tones more civil than those of some of her successors, a literary canon consisting ‘of almost exclusively male-authored, conspicuously shaped and achieved works’. She herself merely wants to give to other books (not necessarily all by women) the same measure of attention accorded to those more celebrated achievements. In her new book she claims to have taken another emancipatory step, for she will henceforth consider examples of ‘mass’ as well as of ‘élite’ art, thus admitting into the discussion many more writers and performers, male and female, black and white.

Feminisation proved very influential, even though its estimate of many 19th-century American female authors, suffering by comparison with the great men of the period, and especially Melville, was cooler than the fashion was soon to dictate. The main argument was that women had compensated for their virtual exclusion from the daily life of a male-dominated industrial society by exploiting the extraordinary deference with which men paid them off, in the process creating a soft and euphemistic culture. Vast quantities of feminine fiction (most of it, she thinks, banal) consolidated this feminisation.

In her good concluding chapter Douglas represented Melville as presaging a revolt against this enervating fashion. Pierre is a bristlingly harsh challenge to the readers of such books, and the posthumous Billy Budd takes its place with other less literary protests against virtual matriarchy – for instance, muscular Christianity, macho college sports, Social Darwinism and Theodore Roosevelt’s big stick. Douglas is a feminist, but in an unusually moderate and judicious fashion; for example, she doesn’t hesitate to comment severely on the racism of contemporary women’s movements. Naturally she doesn’t unequivocally admire all those flamboyant male reactions against the feminine genteel, but she continues nevertheless to attribute to the era of feminisation a fundamental anti-intellectual tradition in American culture, a tradition against which the Twenties staged a powerful ethical and intellectual protest.

She doesn’t miss the opportunity of pointing out that the Melville revival (heralded by D.H. Lawrence, in his remarkable Studies in Classic American Literature) took place in that decade. It is certainly one of the weirder facts of literary and cultural history that Moby-Dick should have been almost totally ignored for over half a genteel century, almost as if a consciousness of dependence on Europe made it seem risky to assert the existence of a great indigenous novel, indeed of a great and, as Lawrence called it, a classic literature. It is one of Douglas’s achievements that she provides a credible explanation of this timidity, and describes the end of it, brought about by the revolt against matriarchy and by a remarkable though not complete coming together of mass and élite culture, of black and white, and of men and women, in the New York of the Twenties.

The two books are similar in method. Although she always has a thesis to defend or support, Douglas proceeds by producing a veritable blizzard of fact and anecdote, so that the reading of Terrible Honesty calls for patience, and for a certain generosity in accepting the relation between much that reads like intelligent gossip and the grand historical theses it is intended to support. These can be summarised thus: the revolt against the inhibitions of feminine power; the importance of black art and the much-needed gift to American culture of an authentic pre-literate tradition; and the understanding that the economic power of the United States after the Great War made possible achievements that at least in part depended on its independence, belatedly proclaimed, of the European past.

This last point, on which Douglas strongly insists, may provoke some opposition. For example, she says more than once that Hemingway proved to be a better writer about the war than Robert Graves or Siegfried Sassoon, even though they saw a lot more fighting than he did, precisely because he was not, as they were, hampered by a literary education and training in ‘conventional strategies of expression’. A similar point is made about the jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke, who had to ‘dislearn’ a lot in order to play the way he did. These artists purged themselves, by a willed ignorance, of European techniques and methods. And these artistic gestures of triumphant alienation from the old world reflected the larger political and economic situation: ‘due to specific historical conditions that made the fast development of innovative, aggressive capitalism the only logical mode of economic development, 19th-century America initiated, not 19th-century culture as it was conceived and on view in Europe and Britain, but 20th-century culture, a culture as yet only in Europe’s future.’ Gertrude Stein called America ‘the oldest country in the world’ because its 20th century began after the Civil War, while Europe had to wait for the industrial impetus of the 1914 conflict. As Scott Fitzgerald wisely observed, culture follows money, so by the time he was enjoying the Twenties and dunking Zelda in the Plaza fountain New York was where it was at.

Manhattan is not New York, and New York, as people fall asleep telling you, is not America, but for the purposes of this enquiry it is. The city lacked the glorious past of Boston and of the South; its inhabitants had played no leading part in the Revolutionary wars. Professor Douglas, who teaches at Columbia, sadly notes that fewer Columbia students fought in the Civil War than men from Harvard and Yale. The city showed a preference for lively, corrupt officials like Mayor Jimmy Walker, ousted by the incorruptible but less amusing F.D. Roosevelt. They revelled in their ruthless bad manners, boasted about their skill in rat-racing; and they still do. I have before me an ad for a New York weekly journal which says: ‘Our magazine is a lot like the average New Yorker. It’ll tell you where you can go and what you can do with yourself.’ Skyscrapers, which understandably fascinate Douglas, proclaimed the phallic audacity of capital as well as its thrilled interest in technological excess. Money, followed by culture, moved in. Publishers, now tough businessmen, stole most of the book trade and the authors from Boston. Popular music, early radio, all reflected the pre-eminence of the city: ‘very little happens anywhere unless someone in New York pushes a button.’ The real work was done in cities like Detroit, Pittsburgh and Chicago (where the skyscrapers were all the more amazing since there was no foundation of rock on which to build them) but New York pushed the buttons and, in the end, spent or invested most of the money.

That the city was, as it has remained, in constant change, the history of Harlem makes plain. After the abolition of slavery, when the semi-skilled black population moved north to the industrial cities, the artists went to New York. Harlem, largely a middle-class white suburb, quickly became a black community, in the Twenties much visited by white people as a centre of entertainment. Douglas’s own university had moved uptown from what is now the Rockefeller Center to semi-rural Morningside Heights on the Harlem borders long before it could have been predicted that its environment was to become a virtual ghetto, with consequences that were not manifest until the Columbia riots of 1968. A black population had moved up from Greenwich Village, and the determination of residents to ‘repel the black hordes’ – by sharply raising rents, for example – did not prevail; so the whites moved out. Between 1910 and 1930 the population doubled and Harlem became a black homeland.

Harlem today, black though it remains, is not the same place that staged ‘the Harlem Renaissance’ of the Twenties. It is hard to believe, as you drive from the West Side down 125th Street en route for Kennedy, that it was ever a glamorous place. It is now generally thought to be dangerous; drivers lock their car doors at traffic-lights and dread the ‘squeegee merchants’ – I daresay that trade, so irksome to Mr Straw, had its origins in New York City. But in the Twenties it was the centre of a black-white culture, a jazz culture, giving America, as it were by hindsight, an indigenous music, especially the blues, and indigenous singers and instrumentalists of high quality. Douglas sketches the careers of such performers as Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington and Josephine Baker, and of many literary figures, some of whom, like Zora Neale Hurston, have more recently become famous again. Not that the pathology of apartheid had ceased to exist; after abolition there was a racist backlash, which intensified after the Great War and of course is still not played out. Even jazz groups in which there was one black player would seat him apart from the others.

Well-off whites – Carl van Vechten, author of Nigger Heaven, was one – patronised black artists, or, like Nancy Cunard, specialised in black lovers. But blacks were making and spending money of their own, and building self-confidence. They shared in what Douglas, again after Fitzgerald, calls ‘the terrible honesty’ of the decade. What this seems to have meant was the abandonment of restrictive social and ethical constraints and customs, a certain hedonism and, in the case of successful African Americans, an apparently rational calculation of their future chances of developing and exploiting black culture in a white-dominated world. These artists were often dissolute, though hardly more so than their white contemporaries in more southerly parts of Manhattan, who were succumbing in droves to alcohol, while the blacks were on the whole more temperate in that respect.

Douglas regards their efforts at artistic autonomy as more successful than their political initiatives, which included Marcus Garvey’s campaign for a mass return to Africa, and a new claim, subsequently reinforced, to be originators rather than imitators of American culture. She records with considerable vivacity the effect of their arts on the culture at large, and has good pages on ‘black English’, considered as an independent language, with its own syntax and lexicon, rather than a mere dialect.

New York as a whole was on a spree fostered and fed by racketeers. ‘For a few giddy and glorious moments in the Twenties New York held out to its new inhabitants an extraordinary promise of freedom and creative self-expression.’ The war, according to one of Douglas’s more dubious speculations, had made it unnecessary for writers to follow the old realist conventions; hence Gertrude Stein and Hemingway. New styles of architecture, new styles of advertising, also signalled the change of heart. Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew, became the presiding genius of Madison Avenue; he made cigarette advertising sexy, and persuaded women to smoke Lucky Strikes. The age of euphemism gave way to the age of dysphemism; sex, suppressed by the matriarchs, came out into the open. Edna St Vincent Millay had so many lovers that they considered holding reunions; Louise Brooks, in search of ‘the truth, the full sexual truth’, roundly announced that what she liked best was ‘to drink and fuck’, and it seems reasonable to say that the age of feminine reticence was over. Douglas cites Freud’s essay ‘Thoughts for the Times on War and Death’ in support of her view that ‘America, as the most imitative, hypocritical and feminised nation among the world’s major powers, might also be the one most clearly marked and ready for an explosive and masculinised liberation into cultural originality.’ Having taken the cultural lead America could now export what William Carlos Williams called its ‘rich regenerative violence’ to the rest of the civilised world.

This isn’t the usual history of the modern, and it could be contested: the three cities of Dada are Zurich, Paris and New York, in that chronological order, and in other respects the claim of Americans to leadership in the business of making it new would have to establish, to name but a few, the belatedness of Joyce, Proust and Kafka, Picasso and Schönberg. Still, the vigour of the American revolt against feminisation no doubt had its effect elsewhere.

The period of Freud’s major American influence was still in the future, but he was already much talked about, and presumably had some influence on the defeminisation process. It is interesting to learn that Samuel Goldwyn offered him $100,000 to script a love story – an imaginative proposal, even if Goldwyn would hardly have got what he was bargaining for. Freud, though he needed money, declined; a shame, for his script would surely have been more lively than, say, his life of Woodrow Wilson. He has his due place in this book. But so does William James, rather a hero of Douglas’s, and rightly, though it cannot please feminists that he always ran away from home when his wife was about to give birth, and returned only when calm was restored. Here we see the other face of masculinisation. Another mind-healer, Mary Baker Eddy, also gets some serious pages.

The principal literary exhibits are the mother-bedevilled Hemingway and Hart Crane. Hemingway’s mother kicked him out of her house for staying out all night, explaining to him in a letter that a mother’s love is a bank, but that Ernest had overdrawn. He was 21 at the time, and according to Douglas all his writing can be seen as an answer to that letter, or perhaps as an attempt to restore his credit. Crane’s mother was a fervent Christian Scientist and ‘pathologically histrionic’; an only child, he sided with her when his parents divorced, but when she reproached him for being homosexual he left her house. She deprived him of a legacy from his grandmother, and what with one thing and another Crane became, like Hemingway, an alcoholic and a suicide. It seems that hating mother, desiring matricide, however necessary to liberty and modernity, is a dangerous practice that can hoist the son with his own petard. Just so the slaying of ‘the Titaness, the Mother God of the Victorian era’ in the interest of ‘terrible honesty’ exacted retribution from the masculine liberators.

‘The gaudiest spree in history’ ended with the stockmarket crash of 1929, though Fitzgerald dated it 1923-7. Douglas offers the history of the spree in some depth, rejoicing in the bizarre exploits of such as Hubert Fauntleroy Julian, the incredibly handsome black aviator, pilot to Haile Selassie, who once dropped by parachute into Harlem wearing a devil’s costume and playing a saxophone. He neither smoked nor drank, and believed (Douglas says ‘but believed’) that ‘taking a maiden a day was good for a man’s health’. His purpose in life, he said, was ‘to make the world a more fundamental place’. He was born in 1897 and nobody knows when, or if, he died.

This book contains biographical material of comparable interest about well over a hundred characters, making it quite a gaudy spree in itself. It ends with a 90-page bibliography and discography, which emphasises that it is also serious. And it defends the theses I have mentioned, sometimes going over the top in ways I’ve suggested; but the defence is permitted a measure of extravagance, and it is that bravura rather than the total persuasiveness of its arguments that makes the book memorable.