"When you smile, the hole worl smile with you."
Americans copied from the whole world; every element
of the population copied, from the poorest to the most elevated.
Britain was a fertile spawner of fads, that quickly crossed
the ocean and just as quickly spread the length and breadth
of the land. If fads and modes of dress, play, food, health,
literature, entertainment, and parlor games were to be
numbered by scores, changing with each decade in many cases,
no more than a minor fraction, say one in seven, would be an
American invention. As they were in the beginning,
so Americans continued to be:
pirates of inventions and literature, including every fad.
The United States gave no copyright
or patent protection to foreign work.
(It would finally join a world agreement for the purpose. By 1995
patents increased to a stupendous and ridiculous 113,995. Somewhat
over half went to U.S. citizens. Eleven great corporations, led by
IBM, and of which eight were non-American, were as usual at the
top of the list.
Take, for instance, the teddy bear and the music box.
Or the stereoptikon, a viewer into which
you could peer to see sights in 3-D.
Gretel Steiff of Giengen, Germany, began to stuff cloth
cut into elephant shapes as toys and pin cushions
around 1880, and found a growing clientele.
Switch to America: in 1902, President Theodore "Teddy"
Roosevelt was to be discovered in Mississippi, hunting bear;
he was thereabouts to mediate settlement of a boundary
dispute between Alabama and Mississippi;
he drew a bead on a cub, but hadn't the heart to shoot it,
whereupon a cartoonist commemorated the non-event,
and a Brooklyn couple cut a bear from cloth
and stuffed it, then put the plush animal with button eyes
in their shop window, labeling it "Teddy Bear."
The response was immediate and the
Morris Michtoms made their fortune.
Many made their fortunes, including the Steiff family
that shipped over a million teddy bears by 1907.
The full craze produced, besides millions of bears,
numerous "add-ons" and "spin-offs," such as rolling-eye bears, little
bear banks, battery-operated bears, bear stationery, squeeze balls,
kiddie-cars, water pistols, card games, rubber stamps, etc. The
frenzy peaked by 1909, but millions of people
in the world would cuddle their teddy-bears forever. As to
Teddy Roosevelt, he was tickled by the whole business.
The concept of "society leaders," ladies,
took hold with the aid of the press.
Every city and small town had its society leaders
whose doings were regularly described in print.
The chief players propelled American dress and decoration
seven leagues forward, over-passing Victorian England on the way.
The Gilded Age was the first great age of American styles,
imitative for the larger part, but obsession and hype were there.
I may speak of trend-setter Rita Lydig, and of
Elsie de Wolfe, first interior decorator and fitness guru.
Lydig was a foot-fetishist - her own foot - with 150 pairs of shoes
she cared for in their individual plush-lined hand-made leather cases.
She numbered magnificent tenor Enrico Caruso among
her salon, was mobbed by admirers, spent much time in Paris
copying and enjoying. She invented the swan-neck blouse and
strapless evening gown.
Embarrassed by the dowdiness of her husband's mistress, she
arranged sessions for her with her own couturier. She ended life
working for charity and espousing women's suffrage.
De Wolfe invented light switches by doors,
parquet floors (at least the U.S. version, not the ancient),
got the cocktail party going in America and
wrote the first how-to-decorate-your-home book.
For her nursing services in World War I she picked up
a Croix de Guerre and was named to the Legion of Honor.
Would this not be sophisticated rather than popular culture?
Only because high-society dames led the movement;
after all, Jefferson was the leader of a mass democratic movement
and he was no proletarian, nor had he proletarian tastes.
The ladies were leaders, gaped at by the mob.
More shop-girls imitated them than high society women.
They were serving the democracy, like Queen Victoria
served the middle-class Englishwomen more than the aristocracy,
and so, too, her great-grand-daughter Elizabeth II.
America's "First Lady," the President's wife,
who had been called such only since mid-century,
had made no progress toward leading the women of the nation,
not since Dolley Madison, who managed the Presidential household
with distinction for both Jefferson and her husband.
But just wait, for at the first opportunity,
when President Wilson was disabled by stroke,
his wife, Edith Bolling Wilson took over
the Presidency with nary a by-your-leave, and
was deciding whatever Wilson was supposed to determine,
with despatch, and so far as anyone could tell or has told until now,
doing well at her job, completing his term in good order,
if without his lofty commanding leadership.
Let us say that she was at least as competent
as the average President. Not to mention Vice-Presidents,
whose names are dutifully reported in all textbooks,
while no book reports the names of the First Ladies.
But never did Congress get around to stipulating
what were the duties, if any, of the First Lady.
Rosalynn Smith Carter sat at Cabinet meetings,
where everyone had top secret clearances, and
the FBI had not cleared her. Too,
when Hillary Clinton came into the White House,
and was actually given appointments, unlike
Ms. Wilson or Ms. Roosevelt or Ms. Carter, no one,
not the least the courts, knew what to do with her:
what was her legal status: housewife, official,
confidential advisor, entertainer, astrologer, access peddler?
It appeared that everyone had been greatly agitated
in defining the role of the President, but had quite neglected
to define the First Lady.
Along with the adoration of the elite by the masses
and the promotion of mass-produced imitative goods
went the deterioration and elimination of most folk art.
Rural and foreign migrants to urbanizing America
left their home manufactures and art forms behind or, at best,
held on to them for a few years until lost, ridiculed to extinction,
or discarded. Knitting, carving, embroidery, painting or coloring,
rug-making, local costumes - all went out forever.
Santa Claus came as a foreigner, but was made fat and jolly and
master of reindeer by a New York City Protestant theologian,
Clement Clarke Moore, in a poem "A visit from St. Nicholas,"
written for his children in 1822, and the full caricature came from
the pen of the cartoonist, Thomas Nast, in 1860, the same who turned
the Republican Party into elephants and the
Democratic into donkeys.
The shtetls of Eastern European Jewry sent their people
with minimal belongings hardly copied in the New World.
It was easier to introduce a Yiddish language press in America,
and a Yiddish theater, than it was to carry on a cottage industry
in folk styles; it was better to start up shop in tawdry
manufactured goods for the whole population,
and thus the famed garment industry of New York came into being.
Parents and teachers of the various nations engaged in
cooperative and conflictful roles variantly.
In the U.S. the New England school teacher matured
into a proverb - independent, trained in the basics
of speech, grammar, and arithmetic.
Backed by the reputation of New England as
the intellectual bastion of America,
she (rarely he) was received and accorded the highest,
though still modest, standing that the egalitarian
and unlettered communities of the North would allow
to anyone. The schooling was doctrinaire, strongly
biased to puritanism, and ready to praise
suffering as a way of learning and life.
Germanics proved to be docile and disciplined emulators
of the New England tradition, except where, in large numbers,
they might produce promptly a corps of teachers from
amongst themselves, as in Missouri, and the Midwest
to some degree. Scandinavians followed the
same route. Standards were somewhat higher,
the more Northern European a community's population.
Education in the South and Southwest did not have to
wait for a hundred years after the Civil War
to flounder at a low level educationally.
Slave and derivative or related areas in the Northern
borderlands and elsewhere were backward from the beginning.
The French and Germanic protestant elements there
were not sufficiently potent to shape or resist
with marked success the British protestant tides.
Irish Catholics (abetted by French and Germanic cadres)
emerged slowly from an educational stupor, and
then were divided into those who attended public
schools and those who furnished pupils to the insistently growing
parochial school system. Although more tolerant of their own
culture and religion, the first two generations of
Irish-influenced public school teachers were driven by a
Catholic dogmatism that reinforced puritan education.
The only large change in educational philosophy and methods
came from highly secular science-minded pragmatists
like John Dewey and a heavy influx of Jewish teachers.
The sharp-witted and vocal Jewish influence brought in
with it sympathetic teachers, coming from a progressive
New England tradition, the Quaker tradition of the Middle States,
and new immigrant groups who could readily find in them a model
with whom to identify and who could be understood.
The West and South (at least at its fringes and in a
few Old South neighborhoods) tended to merge increasingly
with the national progressive trend.
So stood affairs as the Twentieth Century closed,
with a continuing struggle between fundamentalist
conservative local school publics and the nationally-led and
liberal large body of lower-school teachers around the nation.
De-mythologizing American History curricula
turned out to be the most controversial movement -
which essentially meant substituting, slowly, to be sure,
a more cosmopolitan, self-critical selection and
handling of materials in the place of a decadent,
ritualistic and formal approach.
Popular education was rapidly expanding in this period,
although still a tiny minority of children completed high school,
and only a minority grammar school. The children
found a set of subjects and teachers oriented to American history in
the narrowest sense; what was exaggerated in the
defeat of the British in the American Revolution
was made up for with a heavy concentration upon English example
in broader history, natural history, poetry, fiction and biography.
British immigration, it will be recalled, was continuously heavy.
By sending their children largely to their parochial schools,
the Catholics guaranteed this situation for another century,
for they felt that they could not object,
had not the political strength yet to object,
and would undermine their own position
if the public schools gave up their prejudices,
and that every proper Catholic child should be registered in a
Devoted to their own notions, often severe, our
genuine or derived New Englandish ladies had a stranglehold
on the pupils of the North and West. They saw their duty
in extirpating the "foreign" backgrounds of their charges.
Even Pennsylvania Dutch, French-Canadians, Louisiana Creoles,
and Hispanics everywhere, faced discrimination
and humiliation in the classroom. The teachers
knew little about other peoples anyway; the normal
colleges for teachers set up everywhere, beginning now,
turned out a growing throng of scantily equipped graduates
with the licenses required for teaching in their State.
With the growth of schools and the teaching corps,
more and more time was spent inculcating
chauvinistic virtues in children:
drills, salutes to the flag, obsession and compulsion
with patriotic holidays. Extreme demands were made upon the
loyalties of children whose families, whether rural or urban, were
most likely suffering frequent hardships,
any governmental attempt to alleviate which was tabooed.
Catholic schools were continually under attack by secularists
and Protestants for harboring disloyalty, and so Catholic authorities
imposed an even stronger formal patriotism upon their children.
Cardinal Gibbons in 1892 proclaimed the state
as next to God in commanding loyalty, and urged his people
to protect the country from all dangers that threatened it.
The State was nearly as abstract as God, while the dangers
that threatened the country were slightly less imaginary.
Helping unwitting to lessen the hours of labor and increase
a worker's pay in America were the purveyors of amusement.
You cannot run carnivals, circuses, movies or
operate a baseball park, sell many books and toys,
unless you have people with enough of time and money
to be your customers. It is practically certain
that this happened because secularism had broken the bonds
of the churches on Sundays.
Too, of course, the American government pretended to make
demands upon the time of citizens to study the issues,
and politicians that they were being called upon to judge.
Politics was fuss and feathers, if not fun and games,
to most Americans, with the exception of the two periods
when a large number of people became serious citizens;
that is, the rate of participation, which Tocqueville had
grotesquely exaggerated and practically all civic leaders
with him, rose from one in a hundred to
two in a hundred Americans only in the
period of turbulent progressive policies
at the turn of the century and during the New Deal,
both to be analyzed in later chapters.
Most American games came in their late form from England.
(The games of humankind for the most part originated
in dim antiquity, like the basic plots of fiction and poetry,
and the basic philosophical ideas. A very late
thin ice called America froze over this ocean.)
Hop-scotch, for instance, which became a girl's game, was ancient.
A scotch or stone is tossed onto one of ten squares on the ground,
and then, in order, the rest; the player hops in,
picks up the scotch, and hops back, and then can repeat
until she fails to execute the exercise perfectly.
Whoever "gets to heaven" first wins.
It is a religious ascent.
A large jump takes you from hop-scotch to baseball,
America's national game,
as it was called for five biological generations
until the coming to the fore of American football
(descended from French-English rugby and European soccer)
and basketball, the most striking American invention.
In America most of the games were somewhat altered.
Usually typical Americanisms peeped out of the changes.
Thus football is more technical and organized than rugby.
Baseball was thought to be an invention of Abner Doubleday,
but clearly he adapted the British game of cricket.
In the late nineteenth century baseball was professionalized
and stadia began to be built for the crowds that assembled
to watch the play, always in the afternoon
and taking over weekdays as well as Saturdays,
and finally even Sundays. (In 1890 -
foreshadowing the deadlock between owners and players of 1994 -
a labor dispute between players and owners encouraged
a league of player-owned teams;
it failed after a single poor season.)
Baseball was untypically American, for it
was a leisurely game, with minimal body-contact,
proceeding with many subtle nuances, pauses,
almost invisible details like signals of the catcher to pitcher,
requiring abnormal patience from the crowd, yet
promoting a heroic individualism of the players.
Around then, novelist Henry James looked at the spectators
at his first Harvard football game and remarked at the
"momentary gregarious emphasis" that
brought all the individualists together.
There were rough games and sports of olden times.
Horse racing remained popular among its own crowds.
Boxing was popular among men and boys; it was barefisted
until light gloves were introduced; finally
rules were generally accepted to prevent the worst tactics.
The Marquis of Queensberry devised these; like Hoyle's rules
for card games, they stopped many a raucous dispute.
A Briton visiting America felt that he should devote
a chapter to brutal pastimes, and describes such antics as
a Yale student gathered to watch a dog kill 27 rats in 6 minutes,
at which sight, the Cleveland Herald reported contentedly,
"the students danced about in wild glee."
Dog-fights to the death were cheered on everywhere.
Little by little, vulgar sports and games, and less
conspicuous pastimes, began to creep up on the deadest
day of the week for most Americans, Sunday. The struggle
to hold any event other than a religious one on Sunday
occupied a century to come; only now were the first inroads made.
Secularism alone might not have brought change, for
the authorities were held at bay by the ministers and wealthy
(who had their private domains); commercialism, the chance
to profit from staging events, was responsible for much of the
transformation of Sunday. With traveling shows of all kinds,
too, a waste day, a true holiday, meant a loss of earnings.
Proliferation of railroads and growth of cities
invited the spreading of "summer resorts." Many didn't want
to go back to the farm and many immigrants couldn't.
The suburb and the country cottage were too expensive,
hence the tradition of camps, camp meetings, and rural pleasures
could take hold; so in America, ten thousand habitats
were cheaply constructed in the woods near water,
where folk were briefly housed in rooms and cottages
and could proudly drink fresh cow's milk,
munch fresh sweet corn, catch and fry a fish, and
eat at someone else's board, dress roughly, walk in the woods,
sleep quietly to the owl's "whoo", and rock on a wooden porch.
Union laborers of New Jersey and high and mighty
entrepreneurs of San Francisco alike could relax and have fun,
with or without their families.
This was when the continental invention, the bicycle,
came to America, as a fad with limited utility -
for there weren't so many comfortable biking paths,
and distances were great; still, within a few years,
ten million bikes were to be found. Most people could not afford
a bike, but the point was that the bike was precisely
the measure of the growth of the amply-provided-for middle class.
The automobile put an end to the potential of the bike in the
1910's, and became the new mark of middling status.
It was a horseless carriage, harnessing the pull of
many horses with an internal combustion engine,
controlling constantly exploding gasoline.
The fuel could have been steam or electricity, but
these failed with the input of cheap petroleum.
The car was followed by highways, and greeted by
gas stations everywhere. Every year of the century saw
innovations in the engine, the brakes, lights, tires,
and transmissions. Highways were dictated by the automobile,
starting as dirt and ending in superhighways with
periodic curvaceous concretions like "Spaghetti Junction" of
Atlanta. The car became a continuously
transforming center of life for all Americans, whose
lives, too, were being transfigured by the vehicle.
Perhaps no invention-complex in world history had so
dominated human interest, attention, economics.< BR>
The beginnings of the urban changeover in America were now
becoming apparent in the arts. In the seventies
the city park movement began; in retrospect how retarded were the
American cities in affording modest greenswards for the populace.
In 1890 Jacob Riis' photographs,
"How the Other Half Lives," appeared,
and more of the public became more aware of majority life-style.
Robert Henri painted his street scenes of New York
("West 57th Street in 1902").
The Ashcan School of art became prominent.
Postcards became a heavy fad with rapid color printing,
cheap papermaking, and low postage rates.
They went back far in time. Mennonite and Lutheran ministers
of the eighteenth century in Pennsylvania were giving them
to worthy pupils; they (the frakturs) were hand-drawn;
hundreds of primitive artists put them out; so when the fad came,
it did not, as people thought, originate in England;
for that matter, cards had been given to bright pupils by Catholic
nuns before or at least contemporary with the Protestant
practice. Card-collecting came along.
The fad became an established custom, for all social strata and
enclaves, generalized ultimately for
every commemoration and for every city and monument
by an ever-pushy card industry.
Comic strips, as an unending set of scenarios
conducted by a recurring group of characters,
were a form of theater, using dialogue, scenery, gestures,
and manipulation of time intervals; they anticipated various
movie-making techniques, such as montage, panning, angle shots,
cutting, and framing. They appeared in daily and Sunday newspapers
like a dozen plays being performed at the same time.
Each serial play had its own audience, who might or might not
attend to the other plays.
In 1892 the San Francisco Examiner
commenced the first comic strip in America. The new medium
won immediate acceptance and before long the Yellow Kid (1896),
the Katzenjammer Kids, Skeezix, Little Orphan Annie,
Moon Mullins, and other characters were traipsing across
the pages of newspapers around the nation.
Cartoons were a European invention, perhaps the comic strip,
too, appearing in primitive form in 1824
in France with the Pellerin brothers, then found in Switzerland,
Germany in 1865 with "Max and Moritz" and in England in 1892
with Swinnerton's "Little Bears and Tigers." But the dialogue
"balloon" was American and the medium was developed and
exploited with a premier exposition at the
Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in 1922.
Foreign culture-elites professed a contempt of the medium
until the middle of the twentieth century; then, as the comic strip
culture gradually declined in America it was carried to respectable
heights in Italy, France, and elsewhere. Mickey
Mouse and Donald Duck had long since been
welcome as film visitors abroad.
Newspaper comic strips used highly varying artistic styles and plots.
Hair-raising and humdrum stories, life styles, and
practical philosophies blossomed out of the mouths of landladies,
secretaries, boys and girls, gangsters, bums, detectives,
boardinghouse residents, cowboys, space travelers, and animals. Al
Capp's L'il Abner sympathetically portrayed the Southern hill folk,
and Jerry Siegel's Superman made a powerful divine hero out of a
gentle newspaper reporter. The irony and neo-realism of
Doonesbury late in the century fascinated some of the intelligentsia.
As with jazz, it would be improper to view the comic strip -
the band dessinée, the fumetti - as popular art alone,
since it found a cordial hearth among snobs;
the "silliest" strips might run the gamut of social appeal.
Typically a fad began and begins with a discovery or importation
or a news event (increasingly manufactured or faked) that is
taken up by a few highly visible elite characters,
from sports, politics, the wealthy, spreads like wildfire
among the middle classes, descends in a cheaper format to the poor
as the more moneyed groups are sated, thereby losing much
of its glamour, and expires suddenly, to live as a retired mania
among a few or even millions of people. The crossword puzzle,
kite-flying, parchesi, monopoly, scrabble, postcards,
mystic seances, card games such as bridge,
flagpole-sitting, toy railroading, stamp-collecting,
ballroom dance marathons ("Dance until you drop!"),
popular dance steps (at least a score within half a century):
these and many more activities were popular fads
that followed the familiar course.
The urban secular middle class was the proponent and
steam engine of fads and manias. Americans of all classes
typically searched for what would make meaningful their lives,
not an easy quest if you had not been drilled in childhood.
It could have to do with every aspect - material,
topographic, psychic - of the culture.
The high social, physical, and mental mobility of Americans
led to their being more prone to crowd follies
than the people of Europe, Africa, South America
or Asia. It was basically, as we so well know by now,
prolific in the fashioning of utopias and religious cults,
especially if ecstatic. From these to more secular
engagements and pastimes of manias and fads was an easy side-slip.
Dog shows now flourished. Britain had them, and so America had to
have them bigger and better. Aquariums, too,
begun in England, traveled to America. First came a mania
for misty bowls of ferns; then fish were introduced
and it seemed that no home would be complete without one;
however, in a few years, the fad subsided
leaving a couple of millions of goldfish bowls.
Music boxes became the rage, a Swiss invention.
Music composers were not adverse to them, and some great ones
put their hand to writing music for the contrivances,
just as a century later, ambitious composers would move into the field
of computer composition and performance.
Technological advances ended the reign of the music box.
For the phonograph scratched its way into popular favor.
Small children could be employed to crank the springs that
revolved the turntable, while the mother busied herself
in housework and listened to the early dance songs.
The stereopticon developed slowly over many years until it allowed
a child to purchase a little set of picture slides
and a cardboard viewer for a few pennies. The Kodak box camera
went public in 1888, the same year that
Vincent Van Gogh, the Dutch master, painted a still life
with sunflowers. This pair could be used to signal a new turn
of the arts.
As realistic depictions could be fabricated in abundance,
by the now mass art of photography, the attention of
professional artists turned to unrealistic painting - impressionism
and so on, beginning in France and traveling, even to America
within a social generation. But then came the movies.
The film medium - photography, motion pictures, television -
brought a certain amount of universalism. Photography
was invented mostly in France with Daguerre and others.
Great photography began early in America, with the work of
Matthew Brady of Civil War times. The long exposures then
required, imposed unfortunate limitations,
best engrossing lines of soldiers stolid and solemn,
and others scattered dead on the battlefield. His slow portraits did
not support frozen smiles.
The new age of photography set in with Alfred Stieglitz,
of the next generation, who seized upon his art in Berlin,
practiced photographing the humble amidst their surroundings,
then in the United States founded the Photo-Secession
group. He made a business, too, of promoting and selling
the work of great European artists then unknown, unappreciated -
Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, Picabia, Braque, Severini and Brancusi.
He consorted for many years with Georgia O'Keefe, herself
to become a renowned painter of desert scenes and flora.
For the well-educated American of liberal and "good" taste,
there was to be no special place in the new movie industry.
The box office took it over immediately following a few sex
and experimental pictures. Rough and competent
businessmen, typically Russian-Jewish of background,
shaped the art form and focussed it upon large markets.
The arena was well-suited to them:
a completely laissez-faire political
situation, an amorphous sprawling growth
of variegated film-makers and movie houses, an initial
low-capital quick pay-out industry;
a non-traditional multi-faceted art
that could not resist continual organization
and re-organization; no entrenched interests to discriminate and
throw them out. They made the most of it,
emerging from age-old Russian confinement
beyond the Pale to a rapid American training in
their own business ventures in garment and goods production,
wholesaling, and local entertainment,
to high awareness of the possibilities of freedom, and
to a quickly obtained familiarity
with appropriate business tactics and morals -
or the lack thereof.
The spectacle of Hollywood itself was to insiders gross, debauched,
to the elites and mass outside a glittering fetching apparition.
The most bitter and prominent critics of the show of shows
were other Jews who were writers and directors;
they, too, had no place to exhibit their ideas and formats on film.
The movie moguls were famously successful in consolidating
the American film industry into several companies and
producing a continuous flow of films that aimed at, if they
did not always hit, the least common denominator
of popular taste.
They showed something else that baffled observers for a century:
that common people all around the world were the same,
and could be touched by the same vehicles, themes and characters.
Twenty-four years after the first true movie was shot in France
by the Lumiere brothers and viewed by an audience of
thirty-three persons - a short film of a puffing locomotive,
Hollywood was producing 80% of the films shown
on the screens of the world, reaching jungles as well as palaces.
It occurred to no one, not the Hollywood moguls,
not the government, not the press, not the public,
nor intelligentsia, that the tiniest wedge could be driven into this
dreary and scandalous output for films that the top half-million -
say- of the country's newspaper readers, writers,
intellectual workers, artists, teachers, and the like -
might feel to be elevating and entertaining and beautiful.
One more failure and tragedy of the United States took place.
It was the equivalent of losing a war,
with a rare condition on surrender:
the penalty was to continue indefinitely into the future.
All of the media were troubled by the demands of a mass
distribution system; forlorn special audiences faced continually
contempt and defeat.
Occasional prizes erupted in popcorn of world cinemas, as in
comedy Charlie Chaplin, W.C.Fields, and the Marx Brothers.
Within a decade of early film-making, it
became almost impossible without support from one
of the Major Studios to raise capital to produce a film and
assure its modest distribution. Rare cinemas and showings on
university campuses seemed to be the fate of creativity
and free expression in film and the media generally,
while the moguls of the media hired the most expensive legal firms
and used their captive actresses and actors to fight
for "liberty of the press".
The techniques of movie-making were well-honed; studio
organization and facilities were those of a great boatyard.
William Griffiths, a Protestant, an early master of the art,
dismayed admiring film cognoscenti by injecting vicious racism
into his movie on Civil War Reconstruction.
It was a popular hit for the wrong reasons.
Orson Welles in the next political generation sought
to revolutionize film-making and, with "Citizen Kane" in the can,
was on his way; a combination of mossbacked producers and his
own utter strivings blocked fulfillment. Most first-class Hollywood
directors were brought in from Europe, several of the
greatest of actors and actresses as well. German, then French,
then Italian movies - not American - took top honors.
Only in the late twentieth century did a kind of neo-realism,
overloaded with violence, horror, and hi-tech machinations,
commenced natively to relieve the decadence of the old scenarios.
Possibly best of late century film directors was
Stanley Kubrick, whose immense productions
carved amazing slabs of far-flung irreality:
Dr. Strangelove; Clockwork Orange; Lolita;
2001: A Space Odyssey; Barry Lindon;
Full Metal Jacket; Eyes Wide Shut.
Hollywood moguls and minions claimed that they must amuse,
not preach, but they nevertheless waxed exceedingly prosperous
propagating useless and harmful myths of America -
a false cowboy West and Daddy Warbucks elite,
a rapidly disappearing rurality with its bucolic virtuous
pretensions, evil ethnic stereotypes, materialism
and greed, jingoism and sexism: all of this not only for practically
every American but also for Berlin and Bombay,
everywhere in the world except the Soviet Union
and later Nazi Germany.
Self-improvement fads were numerous. With every quarter-hour
of new leisure or free time, and with every nickel increase in daily
pay, there was more time for fads, for the American psyche was
primed for them. Straight out of the herbalists, preachers, touring
lecturers, medicine men, and utopians of the early century
came the numerous self-improvement and self-help advisers,
including a host of astrologists, palm-readers, phrenologists,
and gurus (not yet then used as a generic term). The power
of the occult to attract devotees was as strong as it had been
when the country was young (nor need we exclude the Indians).
The paranormal and mystical were of several categories:
freaks of nature; haunted and mysterious places; transcendent
experiences not formally religious; spiritualism; religious cults
such as voodoo and Satanism; arts and techniques employing crystal
balls; tarot cards, numerology and the like; faith healing and
hypnotism; and metaphysical systems like theosophy and
rosicrucianism; many distinct practices are to be found in each
category. No statistics have ever been collected on their extent among
Americans. At least half of the adult population might be counted,
in any given mnemonic generation of American history as
practitioners of one or more occult arts
Hundreds of book titles told people how to improve in all regards.
The works of a Samuel Smiles were exemplary for developing
character; from France came the power of positive thought,
urging people to repeat incessantly, obsessively
"Every day in every way I grow better and better."
As with cards, no element in the population was free from parasites
of dedicated improvement; nor was there to be significant change in
the way special sub-fads waxed and waned,
though there were to be changes of techniques to reconcile the fad
with latest scientific, educational, political, and social theory.
The only literature available on the greatest of all
how-to-do-it subjects, sex relations, was banned;
there was, however, a popular literature on the subject, bawdy,
and directly to the point. Mark Twain, Poet Eugene Field,
and a few others, usually anonymously, turned their pens
to pornography. Coincidental with comics came
"dirty" little comic books, and girlie magazines like the
Serious and even great literature began to burst forth containing
pornographic material, most of it published in France
or Germany or Mexico. Many books and stories were blocked
from printing or distribution, merely with indications -
as with the works of Theodore Dreiser - of what ever-vigilant
authorities considered immoral conduct insufficiently punished.
Explicit sex was totally banned.
Actually erotic clandestine poetry was the only form
of poetry that was popular in America until World War II.
Unfortunately it was doggerel, such as The Rakish Rhymer,
which began a long career in print among Civil War soldiers.
It was easily a "best-seller".
If a best-seller is defined as a work that is purchased
by one in a hundred within ten years of its appearance,
only a dozen books of poetry made the grade.
Most poets published their own work,
as they have always done.
The popular book industry took generally the form it would hold
for a century and more: chap books carrying popular songs;
war stories; tall tales; fairy tales; children's stories; detective
and crime novels; spy stories; almanacs;
Bibles and bible literature; success stories,
both fiction and non-fiction; and Wild West novels.
These were a far cry from the New England literature of two
centuries before, when religious and related
pious works were practically the exclusive output:
most of the original library of Harvard College,
donated by its namesake, John Harvard, consisted
of religious literature as trashy as what we are dredging up here.
No book was more generally and devotedly read
from year to year, for 97 years until 1993, than the
Sears Roebuck Catalogue.
Corporations did not move in upon and seize control of publishing
companies as they would a century later. Companies then had the
personalities of their owners, who were usually editors as well. If by
far their production was imported or imitative or humdrum,
they were nevertheless establishing a base for the expansion
of American high culture that would occur before long.
The alter-lingua press flourished as never before or after.
Germanic newspapers and books had been part of the American
scene for a long time, so, too, French in Louisiana.
The Cherokee press had dwindled to almost nothing, and
Spanish was to be found only in Puerto Rico
and the Southwest. But now a score of languages found their
medium and audience. Not one but several Polish newspapers
appeared, one for every sizeable city;
there were Italian, Hungarian, new German, Swedish, Irish,
Chinese, and many more.
The material conveyed by the other-language press was typical
of American journalism, occasionally of high quality,
but was not carried forward into translation and publication,
therefore could not become part of the main currents of American
literature. Much of political significance was published;
perhaps the best of the anarchist and socialist writing of the times -
for all one knows, perhaps the best democratic writing -
was conveyed in abundance in the other tongues.
The American language changed greatly. Based upon
the English tongue, whence it derives half of its vocabulary
( the other mostly from Latin, Greek and Latinates),
and most of its grammar and syntax, it experienced many deletions,
accumulated different styles, idioms, variations of frequency
in the use of a great many words, changes in word usage,
tense usage, and syntax, with many variant inflections
and inventions of metaphor, vernacular, and slang forms.
Many American clichés were not understandable by Britishers.
Typical American speakers consistently had difficulty in
understanding about one-fourth of spoken English-English.
For the English, understanding Americans was even harder
because of the slurring way most Americans spoke,
agglomerating words of a sentence, dropping syllables
and conjunctions. Mutual incomprehension varied with the
dialect, education level, and ethnic origins, as today.
The situation was never much different. Not a single group
of immigrants from England spoke the King's English properly,
with the possible exception of some University men of
the great migration of the mid-1600's, - but this too
was futuristic, not current all around England, and then
a New England dialect was soon forthcoming.
So diverse was usage, that American English found no consensus.
The idea of teaching an agreed-upon tongue still found favor, an
idea more preposterous than foisting one of the
American regional dialects upon the schools.
Lack of enforcement machinery in school and pulpit and society
permitted a freedom to coin words, phrases, develop usages,
to change meanings, to invent euphemisms
(like a dozen ways to hide the divine name -
gosh, gol dang, golly, gad, jeepers, gee whiz, etc.)
Beginning with Indian, Spanish, and French importations,
the language acquired new words with every immigration,
as well as with every generation.
Linguistic jostling and accommodation began
to produce an American speech and writing
toward the end of the century.
Excluding the South, the big cities, and New England,
it engaged a general speech of the middle Northern
belt of States from Eastern Pennsylvania
West to Northern California, and into the Northwest
after reaching the Great Lakes. Migrations, later on,
made Southern accents common in the North, and Northern speech
common in Virginia, the far Southeast, and the Southwest.
Americans seemingly were compelled to coin words and phrases.
Every biological generation brought a shower of new words and
metaphors, of which few survived for more than a political
generation. With the end of the century
occurred a wholesale convection of jargon from new industrial
methods and the sciences, an unceasing process to this day.
Withal, the authoritative myth of the day was that the American
language was to proceed by proper rules, diligently enforced
by teachers, writers, and preachers, and one day a grand cleanup
campaign would be launched against the actual
speech of the population.
It was another consoling and embittering myth for a would-be elite.
The day for washing out a hundred million mouths never dawned.
Nor did it arrive for two hundred and fifty millions later on.
No one might rightly be accused of speaking correct American,
or correct English, for that matter.
We have had mere preferred linguistic reference groups
- groups to whom we defer for speaking
the American lingo that we like to hear spoken or written.
When we are hustled out of the room for our speech or prose,
we feel unjustly treated or low-class, and seek our group elsewhere.
When our gabbing group is rich and grateful, and affords us
oral indulgences, we feel better about our language.