Gloom, Gloom, Gloom, And Scarce One Ray Of Light

PrintPrintEmailEmail

It used to be said in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that all the dogs in town wailed mournfully whenever E. L. Godkin and Charles Eliot Norton got together to exchange their gloomy views on the state of the nation. In the summer of 1897 Norton wrote Godkin that he had recently been forced to put his paper aside one evening “because with each note or article the gloom deepened till it grew darker than it used to be even in my study when after an evening of talk you declared that it was enough to make Rome howl.” For more than thirty years Godkin and Norton sustained and fed each other’s pessimism, sorely disappointed as they both were with developments in post-Civil War America. They believed that American morality had declined precipitately since the early days of the republic. They lamented the lack of good men in politics and the domination of the public service by men of coarse and corrupt nature. They watched with jaundiced eyes as millions of immigrants poured into their country. They took in the “General Grant” architecture, read the new literature, deplored the new wealth, saw successful businessmen gain entrance to their private clubs, faced America’s plunge into imperialism and the glaring headlines of the yellow press—and declared it an age of vulgarity and a nation of “chromo-civilization.”

There have always been such men, convinced in the core of their being that what had been in their youth a world of gold had lately turned to dross. In the era of industrialism and mass democracy these Jeremiahs have more often than not come from the ranks of the old landed, learned, or professional elites most in danger of being superseded or ignored by a democratic and acquisitive society. The quicker the rate of change and the fresher the memory of better times, the greater the likelihood that these gentle Brahmins would deplore the life around them. The rapidly changing America which emerged from the Civil War provoked just such an outcry of genteel despair—a dismay eloquently expressed by E. L. Godkin and Charles Eliot Norton. Both men placed the blame for their unhappiness on precisely those features of American civilization which were most highly valued by the majority of their countrymen: material prosperity and democratic government.

Edwin Lawrence Godkin was born in Moyne, County Wicklow, Ireland, on October 2, 1831. His father was a Presbyterian clergyman who became a political journalist after being ejected from the pulpit for his advocacy of home rule for Ireland. Young Edwin, too, went into journalism after making an indifferent record at Oueen’s College, Belfast. Already the youthful author of a history of Hungary, Godkin left for the Crimea in 1853 as a war correspondent for the London Daily News. Upon his return two years later he resolved to emigrate to the United States. In November of 1856 he reached America, where for nearly a decade (except for a short period spent in Ireland and Europe) he occupied himself with law studies and writing letters on American affairs for the London Daily News. His early friends included a number of important eastern Republicans, and in 1865, when they decided to found a journal that would reflect their political and economic views, they established the weekly Nation and selected to edit it the thirty-four-year-old Godkin. One of the prime backers of the enterprise and a close friend of the new editor was Charles Eliot Norton.

Godkin’s sharp and authoritative editorials quickly made the Nation a habit for thousands of readers (one would be hard put to recognize it in the Nation that is published today); later on, his work performed the same service for the daily New York Evening Post (equally unrecognizable in the modern Post), whose editor he became in 1881 while retaining his position on the Nation. The critical tone of the Nation made it seem to some a “weekly judgment day,” and neither it nor the Evening Post attracted a large circulation. Both, however, exercised wide influence. College students adopted Godkin’s opinions for their own the way later generations of students would parrot H. L. Mencken and Walter Lippmann. And other newspapermen paid close attention to Godkin’s editorials. Once when New York’s Democratic Governor David B. Hill was under attack by the Evening Post he remarked: “I don’t care anything about the handful of Mugwumps who read it in New York [City]. The trouble with the damned sheet is that every editor in New York State reads it.”

Yet Godkin had formidable critics. The most vehement among them was Theodore Roosevelt, who called Godkin almost every disagreeable epithet that came to his fertile mind. To him Godkin was an unpatriotic man, “a malignant and dishonest liar” who suffered from “a species of moral myopia, complicated with intellectual strabismus.” Lincoln Steffens, who worked for a short time with Godkin, thought that his editorials were “clever, forceful, [and] ripping” but also “personal and not very thoughtful.” The Boston banker and philanthropist Henry L. Higginson believed that as Godkin’s career unfolded, his words became “so twisted and stained by great conceit, arrogance, evil temper, that they lost their fairness, their perspicacity, their virtue and therefore their value.”