- Historic Sites
I. America’s Junction
All through the 1920s eager young emigrants left the towns and farms of America and headed for New York City. One of them recalls the magnetism of the life that pulled him there.
November 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 7
After nineteen months of supreme effort and of acceptance of such governmental controls as Americans had never known before, there was a deep yearning for a return to normalcy, in President Harding’s well-remembered phrase. Then the mood changed to anxiety and disillusionment as old values collided with sweeping social changes. A whole generation of young Americans was shaken up by contact with European manners, morals, and social attitudes, as suggested in the Army’s rollicking folk song “Mademoiselle from Armentieres” or in the question raised by “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm after They’ve Seen Paree?” Other influences were breaking up old patterns of thought and behavior: the emergence of the economically independent woman, the liberation accomplished by the automobile, the frankness of tabloid journalism, the radio, which E. B. White called “a pervading and somewhat godlike presence,” and the popularization of the Freudian revolution. The flapper in the illustrations of John Held, Jr., and her escort, caught the new mood and postures so perfectly that life seemed to be imitating art. Associated phenomena included the Charleston dance craze, the stubborn resistance to the Volstead Act, and the rise of organized crime—in short, the hedonism of the Jazz Age.
It was in New York that the new challenges reached their highest visibility. New York, always a city of contradictions: a union town with socialistic leanings, yet the world capital of capitalism; politically chaotic, yet the nation’s busiest workshop, with a symbolical beaver on its municipal seal. A place where—it was said during the years of Prohibition—the quickest way for the thirsty stranger to get a drink was to ask a police officer. Withal a fabulous metropolis of 5,839,738 people and a cultural scene of enormous richness and vitality. If the decade shaped the city, the city in turn shaped the country. As urban manners and disturbing urban ideas reached out farther and faster than ever before, New York received the credit or the blame, according to one’s point of view. Hard-shell preachers might denounce the city as a new Sodom or Gomorrah, farm journals insist that the pastoral myth of the Garden was no illusion, but both the arguments of fundamentalist religion and philosophical primitivism pointed to New York as the ultimate expression of ferment and an alarming tendency in American life.
Political folklore, too, nourished an abiding faith in the virtue of the country boy and the milieu that produced him. Then, in 1920, came a spate of books portraying the rural Arcadia as a delusion. The reality was perceived as dull conformity, the herd mentality—a pinched and sterile outlook.
This phenomenon was given a name, “the revolt of the village,” by Carl Van Doren (born at Hope, Illinois), who early on made the move to a major career in New York as a Columbia University professor, literary critic, historian, and biographer and who won a permanent place in the national letters. The coming writers attacked small-town values, the lace-curtain proprieties, Prohibition, book censorship, repression of sex and the inner life, fundamentalist religion, and political conservatism. Through these new novelistic voices the Roaring Twenties made itself heard: Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, Theodore Dreiser, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Of all this we knew something at least——we” meaning me and kindred spirits who were English majors. The prose that had the most electrifying effect for all the young protesters against the cultural norms of the Middle West came from the incandescent typewriter of H. L. Mencken.
What particularly engaged the attention of the student liberal on the Urbana campus was the literary shoot-out between HLM and our own Urbana celebrity, Professor Stuart Pratt Sherman, chairman of the English department. Sherman was my mentor and model despite the titillation of reading Mencken. Sherman did the heavy lifting for the forces known as the new humanists, who valued tradition, discipline, and the Puritan inheritance. Much of what Mencken wrote, said Sherman, “is not criticism at all but mere scurrility and blackguardism.” In riposte HLM always referred to his critic as being from Iowa. This was his generic term for dismissing all of the Midwest. “The Iowa hayseed remains in his hair…he can’t get rid of the smell of the chautauqua.” Actually, Sherman was by birth from Iowa, Iowa followed by Williams College and Harvard.
By 1924 Sherman’s views had shifted toward a more liberal position and he had discarded his earlier notion, as Van Wyck Brooks phrased it, “that the twentieth century was wholly the work of the devil.” In that year Sherman moved to New York to reach a wide, general audience as editor of the New York Herald Tribune ’s book review. Irita Van Doren was by his request the assistant editor and eventually his successor. These were developments of great importance to me, since both Sherman and Irita encouraged me to think I had potential as a writer, for by that time I too was in New York.