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Rogues, Hypocrites and Average Americans

ISSUE:  Winter 1927

The Dreadful Decade. Detailing some Phases in the History of the United States from Reconstruction to Re-srmption, 1869-1879. By Don C. Seitz. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Co. $3.50.

The Mauve Decade. American Life at the End of the Nineteenth Century. By Thomas Beer. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $3.00.

Our Times. The United States, 1900-1925. I. The Turn of the Century. By Mark Sullivan. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $5.00.

The alleged discoverer of the dreadful decade does

not assert that all Americans of the ‘Seventies were

rogues, but only the rascals interest him, and there were plenty of them in high places. The brilliant critic of the ‘Nineties, though he finds a few brave and honest men in the decade of mauve—a ridiculous color, pink trying to be purple—is maddened by its predominant prudery and hypocrisy. The veteran reporter who remembers and describes the dawn of the twentieth century recognizes that the average man was sovereign. What manner of men must our fathers and grandfathers have been! At the worst, they submitted to knaves and themselves were hypocrites; at best, normalcy was regnant among them.

The picture of our worst decade, as painted by Don Seitz, need not detain us. The publishers of his book describe him as having “a perfect flair for the extraordinary,” and state that the strange story of the ‘Seventies can now be told. Unfortunately, it has already been told—more than twice. He points no moral, he says. His account indeed is pointless. No noteworthy acuteness of observation or vividness of style justifies this new description of an already familiar rogues’ gallery. Mr. Seitz serves no purpose in showing the What, and makes no attempt to show the Wherefore.

It is very different with Thomas Beer’s satire on the aspiring ‘Nineties, already an assured literary and commercial success. Many a reader, fascinated by its nervous impressionism, will doubtless applaud more in it than he comprehends. It is a medley of names, brief and ill-connected items, and lightning characterizations, a blur of phrases which, whatever they are, certainly are not mauve. The flash of the rapier is so dazzling that one frequently cannot see the hapless victim. One hesitates even to be sorry for that apparently preposterous and charmless age, lest somehow he be identified with it and have that terrible weapon turned against himself.

To Beer, individualist, realist, literary artist, American life in the ‘Nineties is an incoherent mass of hypocrisy and vulgarity. Fed on the “moral pap” of Louisa May Alcott, woman was a prude who bullied husband, sons, editors, politicians, and everybody else in sight. In the West was bloodshed, together with a fair amount of commendable but vanishing frankness. The Populists madly danced to “the terrible drum of the Silver Knight.” Through the agency of the materialistic but realistic Mark Hanna, capital was evoked to save from oratory, for which Americans had a passion—though some few of the enlightened favored strangling orators at birth. Anchitecture was nothing but a malady. “After the Civil War the country-side was purifying itself in fiction and oratory,” but in nothing else. On almost every page glittering epigrams castigate mass rule and subservience to stupid conventions.

Two chapters stand out. In “Dear Harp,” speaking at times through the mouth of an Irishman himself who being less sophisticated is more clear, the author describes the problems of those “vain, charming, baffled folk,” the American Irish, with unrivaled acuteness and felicity. And in “The Unholy Host” he describes in unforgettable phrases certain great, disregarded figures of the aristocracy spiritual. While the minor moralist was recording and perpetuating superstitions, challenging no belief, imposing no value, getting nowhere, while the beauties of fact were becoming imperceptible and the cult of mere prettiness became supreme—Barrett Wendell “before the dressed beef of his class-room” protested against vulgarization, Harry Thurston Peck strove to be mundane, sophisticated in the better sense, and liberal, and William Graham Sumner, “cold, ponderous groper,” punctured superstitions and began the unsentimental study of society. “The dulcet Henry Adams,” however, with no sense of reality, ended “as a pleasing figurine on the intellectual shelf.”

Mark Sullivan views much the same period, though his kinder eyes look back through a quarter-century of “progress.” He seeks to follow the average man through a period when the average man was “pretty much the whole show”—as Mr. Beer undoubtedly would agree. The average man will like the book; it fits like an old shoe. Few Americans, perhaps, are not nearly enough average in some respects to like it. With Sullivan, one turns the pages of the family album and explores the jumble of discarded books, magazines, and furniture in the attic. To those who remember the era, the book will be a resurrection, to the youth a revelation—of much that is commonplace and absurd it may be, but of innumerable things that are interesting.

In his description of political events and leaders the author is sane and clear, with an appreciation of popular psychology which might enable Mr. Beer to understand the American people better, if not to admire them more. But the chief merit of the work is its pictorial quality, both in the visual and verbal sense. Cartoons showing the absurdities of Free Silver, illustrations from fashion books showing the diminution of the hat and the rise of the dress, photographs of leaders at various stages in their careers—Bryan with a beard, Coolidge in a derby, Wilson with the pale cast of professorial thought upon him, Roosevelt “alone in Cubia”— immature bicycles and automobiles, advertisements disclosing the alarming increase in the cost of living, diagrams and maps which summarize the progress of the great nation — these enliven pages already lively. Furthermore, the author describes the reading of the people, the song and dramatic hits, the progress of science and invention. Indeed, so far as the superficial aspects of life go, he heeds the suggestion of Mr. Dooley, from whom he gives priceless quotations. As Mr. Dooley puts it: “Historyans is like doctors. . . . Those of them that writes about their own times examines th’ tongue an’ feels the pulse an’ makes a wrong diagnosis. Th’ other kind of histhry is a post-mortem examination. It tells ye what a counthry died iv. But I’d like to know what it lived iv.”

Mr. Sullivan’s few attempts to penetrate the American mind and spirit disclose to him no alarming symptoms. He regards the people as idealistic, freed from enthrallment to the familiar, rejoicing in, and gladly granting, freedom of opportunity to every man. This is the conventional picture, which Mr. Beer regards as a mask for hypocrisy and stupid conventionality. The satirist, who refuses to accept words for realities, has gone deeper than the reporter. But the reporter undoubtedly knows more about the average man. One would do well to look at both pictures before making up his mind about his ancestors.


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