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Intellectual Americans

ISSUE:  Spring 1942

Intellectual America: Ideas on the March. By Oscar Cargill. The Macmillan Company. $5.00. Clarence Darroxv for the Defense. By Irving Stone. Double-day, Doran and Company. $3.00. Native American. The Book of My Youth. By Ray Stannard Baker (David Grayson). Charles Scribner’s Sons. $3.00. Joseph Pulitzer and His World. By James Wyman Barrett. The Vanguard Press. $3.50. Mr. Dooley’s America. A Life of Pinley Peter Dunne. By Elmer Ellis. Alfred A. Knopf. $3.00.

Mr. oscar cargill’s “Intellectual Amer-ica” is seductive. It is a thick book of 766 pages. It discusses, frequently in some detail and at high speed, a hundred European and American writers of the past fifty years. Aided by impressive sociological terminology, it imposes order on our intellectual history, hustles the writers into their designated cages and locks them up. With an unfaltering hand the author publicly lets the air out of a number of reputations—Bernard Shaw’s as a thinker, for instance, and T. S. Eliot’s as a critic—and gives several neglected geniuses their due. I can foresee that the book will be popular with college thesis-writers looking for authority to lean on and with other readers who like to have their minds made up for them with finality. Before it gets into too trusting hands, I should like to enter a few exceptions, lest it betray more men.

It must be said at once that “Intellectual America” has merit. Its readers will never know a dull moment. To the initiated the book will be a continuous challenge to battle. Even its dubious judgments are so vigorously rendered that one cannot dismiss them with a shrug. Because the book has power its faults will not be apparent to the unwary. For this reason a reviewer is duty-bound to dwell on its shortcomings rather than its virtues.

Mr. Cargill sets forth his plan and method in a foreword labelled with the neologism “Ideodynamics.” He asserts the importance of the study of ideologies and of the results of the forces which they exert. In writing “Intellectual America” he proposed to give “an account of the European ideologies which have swept into this country in modern times.” In a volume yet to appear he will discuss “Ideas in Conflict”—the struggle between the “Leftists who hope to achieve a stable state through the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the Liberals who hope to establish a classless society so mobile that a man may move from bottom to top at a rate proportional to his usefulness to mankind.” The year 1929 will conveniently, if arbitrarily, mark the divide between the two books.

What are the imported ideas, expanding into ideologies, which Mr. Cargill considers most significant in the past half-century of American life? In his first chapter, “The Invading Forces,” he sets them down: French naturalism and decadence, German absolutism, English liberalism. With this thesis established, we should expect the remainder of the book to be an account of the migration of these three ideologies to this country. But only the influence of the first, naturalism (from which, it seems, are descended decadence, primitivism, pessimism, cynicism, scholasticism, Freudian-ism), is developed in the present volume. From the foreword one infers that the other two are to be the subject of the second volume, but this is not said explicitly. If the reader misses this hint, he will wonder why the shapers of German absolutism and English liberalism appear in the pages between 16 and 43 and are then dismissed.

If the ramifications of the Naturalistic ideology are worth instancing in hundreds of works by scores of writers, why has Mr. Cargill not defined the protean shapes of naturalism more carefully? Instead of definition he gives us elaborate accounts of the novels, plays, and poems by authors who may be called decadents or primitivists or Freudians. In spite of the suggestion in the foreword that he is not writing mere criticism but is interested primarily in ideologies, what one actually finds in “Intellectual America” is a sequence of biographies and critical pronouncements, with some incidental social history.

One would not object to Mr. Cargill’s departures from his program if the criticism were delivered with less Menckenian insolence. His frequent desire to score, to devastate, instead of indicating strength, often discloses prejudice. Often, too, it seems to make him indifferent to facts. The pages on Henry Adams best display these related faults. Mr. Cargill emphatically does not approve of Harvard graduates, men of wit, persons who have intellectual doubts, or those who are drawn to Catholicism. Henry Adams, you can foresee, was clearly in for it. In eighteen pages we trip over more than twenty-five misstatements about Adams, varying in culpability from such a slip as placing the Saint Gaudens statue in Arlington Cemetery to the absurdity of suggesting that Huysmans may be given the “credit for turning Adams’s thoughts to the Middle Ages and to religion.” So far as the evidence goes, Adams read nothing of Huysmans save “La Cathedral” and thought him a negligible writer.

Mr. Cargill’s determination to picture Adams as a dilettante and an expatriate, groping ineffectually in the chaos of the nineteenth century until he found the unity he longed for in a vision of “Woman Enthroned,” betrays itself in his use of emotive words which are demonstrably unfair to Adams. As a young man he is “effeminate in appearance, idle by habit, and empty of purpose.” He is a “wayward son”; his talk in London is “facile”; a good many people are “relieved” when he marries Miss Hooper. This faintly sneering tone furnishes an obbligato to many other passages in the book.

Though it is hardly fair to Mr. Cargill to do so—since one can match them with discerning critical judgments—I am constrained to quote a few of his shockers. They will exemplify his desire to devastate, by showing us either how foolish we have been in admiring a particular writer or how stupid in failing to appreciate some neglected work of genius. Our folly will be rebuked by such obiter dicta as these: “Mere mention of ‘Mrs. Warren’s Profession’ is still apt to produce a leer among the cognoscenti in this country.” “On the whole, one regrets these [critical] essays of Eliot, especially when one reflects that with the same expenditure of energy he might have produced a memorable poem or two.” Our stupidity is made plain to us by such an eye-opener as this: “As a piece of moral writing, [Huneker’s Tainted Veils’] is quite as significant as ‘Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres,’ though it is inferior to it as prose.”

My quarrel with Mr. Cargill’s book goes beyond the confusions of its plan and his asseverative style. I am disturbed by the total picture of the intellectual life in America which will emerge from this book and its promised sequel. Does Mr. Cargill believe that American writers and thinkers have been living entirely off the crumbs swept from Europe’s table, during the past half-century? If the second volume of “Intellectual America” is to be developed solely from the remarks on German absolutism and English liberalism in this one, then these hundreds of pages will constitute a tale half told.

Where will Mr. Cargill be able to place, for example, the careers of four important American intellectuals, Clarence Darrow, Ray Stannard Baker, Joseph Pulitzer, and Finley Peter Dunne, whose biographies happened to arrive in the package with his book? Here are four men who, living through the period surveyed by “Intellectual America,” exercised a great influence in shaping the America of this century—Darrow in the courts, Baker in the radical magazines, Pulitzer through his newspapers, Dunne through the sapient Mr, Dooley. Though of diverse origins and occupations, these four “intellectuals” had much in common. They hated sham and dishonesty. They were humanitarians, yet they were tough, not soft; realistic, not sentimental. The remarkable quality about all of them is the fine balance they maintained between healthy realism and democratic idealism. They were skeptical enough to see America as it was, yet idealistic enough never to give up the struggle to keep it out of the hands of the grafters. What gave them this balance?

What ideological influences in their youth made them the kind of intellectual leaders a democracy must have to survive?

Irving Stone’s “Clarence Darrow for the Defense” provides a sufficient answer in the case of Darrow. It makes plain that Darrow’s eager acceptance of biological determinism modified but did not weaken his native American faith in the possibility of improving the human environment. No more than Norris or London or Dreiser was he the complete naturalist. Mr. Cargill, who discusses Norris, Darrow, and Dreiser, does not seem to fathom the fact that the conflict in all these men between two ideologies, one American and one foreign, was typical of the struggle endured by many thoughtful Americans forty years ago.

Mr. Baker’s autobiography, “Native American,” shows that he was compelled to work through the same conflict to a solution. Because he is a luminous writer and an experienced biographer, he analyzes clearly the stages of this conflict. There could be no unity until he had found a dialectic which would resolve the strong frontier individualism of his father (whom he revered) and the skepticism insinuated into his thinking by his study of science under an enthusiastic teacher, the persuasions of Montaigne, and his experiences as a journalist in the Chicago of Altgeld and Yerkes.

The most baffling thing about James Wyman Barrett’s lively “Joseph Pulitzer and His World” is his failure to answer the question his readers ought to ask first. How did it happen that this ungainly Jewish immigrant boy from Central Europe should be driven all his life, like Darrow and Baker and Dunne, to fight the “seven deadly sins” of democracy? Was it the example of his employer, another famous immigrant, Carl Schurz, or the influence of his remarkable early friend Thomas Davidson which set him on the road? Mr. Barrett, who was the last city editor of the lamented World, brings back all of his story except this one important item. By contrast Elmer Ellis’s “Mr. Dooley’s America” is chiefly valuable (since the outward events of Dunne’s life are uninteresting) because it tries to discover how the creator of Mr. Dooley saw the whole of America so steadily. Mr. Ellis proves his thesis, that Dunne’s “understanding went far beyond the cynical materialism of most exponents of realism or naturalism, and while including much that was valid in their analysis, he kept his picture in clear focus by leaving in it the emotional and idealistic elements that his own experience and faith had taught him made up part of man’s life.”

Mr. Cargill’s book may lead the gullible to believe that America has been tailspinning to destruction for the past fifty years, with no one at the controls. The careers of these four men belies any such inference. When the complete story of Intellectual America is told, the teller will have to account for the pilotage we have been lucky enough to receive from men of their stamp.


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