Wednesday, January 16, 2013

BOOK NOTE: “The Stammering Century” by Gilbert Seldes

The most important lesson of this book about nineteenth-century radicals may be that America has been crazy for a long, long time. 

Even the calmest of today’s bourgeoisie are in fact inheritors of traditions shaped by heretics, crackpots, cranks, radicals, and loons – and it is all too easy for conservatives or leftists to construct a whitewashed version of history in which only one or two shiny threads – a stripped-down Judaeo-Christian morality or the leftward march of Progress – is remembered. 

But Gilbert Seldes’ recently rereleased 1928 book The Stammering Century shows how closely tied both Christian revivalism and Northeastern-style reform movements were to anarchic, commune-forming movements full of utopians and would-be prophets.  It’s fitting the introduction to this edition is by Greil Marcus, best known for his free-associative tracing of the ties between medieval mystics, Dadaism, and punk rock.

(It’s also fitting the book comes recommended by both the establishment magazine New Republic and my old conservative/radical frenemy Helen Rittelmeyer, at a time when I’m increasingly aware that many, perhaps even most, of my acquaintances are radical weirdoes of one kind or another and/or that many of them, not coincidentally, may be mildly autistic as well – much like this year’s Miss Montana – and thus perhaps deserve to be cut some slack even as a wary eye is kept on them.  I suppose as of this week the test of whether they’re officially crazy will be whether they can get gun permits.  As for Helen, she’s been taking a year off in Australia, where I will assume she’s mellowed and matured and thus deserves to be placed on some interesting magazine’s staff once more, so she can fulfill her inevitable destiny of being one of her generation’s most interesting and occasionally frightening writer/editors.)

With thousands of Americans attending the Burning Man art festival out in the southwestern desert each year, and hundreds of thousands tuning in to libertarian conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, it’s tempting to think the country’s getting weirder, but Seldes, simply by cataloguing numerous mostly-failed nineteenth-century social experiments, suggests America was always this way.  He’s not entirely optimistic about it, though.  Writing during Prohibition, he laments the turn away from what he explicitly calls “libertarian” experiments in the nineteenth century toward the legally-enforced experiments imposed on the whole nation in his own century. 

I’m reminded by the book of the long second chapter of Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism, with its array of nineteenth-century political oddballs who may or may not be the direct precursors of today’s libertarians but certainly added to America’s extremist tendencies.  You could almost subtitle Seldes’ book “The Days When Christian Absolutists, Anti-Alcohol Crusaders, Free-Love Practitioners, and Even Communists Were All Libertarians.”

As Seldes describes things, both the impulse to turn toward God and the impulse to turn toward Washington, DC can be traced back to eighteenth-century fire-and-brimstone preacher Jonathan Edwards, who famously likened us all to loathsome “sinners in the hands of an angry God.”  What Edwards did not foresee was that my can-do Connecticut ancestors, bless ’em, would not take their loathsome unworthiness lying down but would instead respond to Edwards’ admonishments by launching into numerous programs of self-improvement and earthly paradise-making, egged on by Edwards-level fiery public speakers and demagogic leaders (the churchgoers in Enfield also eventually decided not to hear any more Edwards sermons, which is an important overlooked wrinkle).

As Seldes puts it, “The members of the Enfield congregation were not aware of it but, as they dispersed to their homes, they carried with them the promise of libertarian religion in New England, of religions without Hell and cults without God.”

By century’s end, there would be a few surviving, enduring will-emphasizing faiths such as Christian Science and elements of what we now call New Age, as well as a bigger self-help/spiritual aspiration vibe in the culture as a whole, but many frustrated reformers would turn to government to impose the visions they couldn’t make work on voluntary communal farms in rural Indiana or upstate New York. 

Obviously, I favor the libertarian approach over state-imposed solutions, and the nineteenth century radicals are a vivid reminder that this distinction doesn’t map easily onto the current right/left spectrum model (though, as I suggested earlier, many radicals may be on a different sort of spectrum).  The temptation to shoehorn all political and cultural disagreements into the right/left model is so great that I wouldn’t be surprised to find that many intellectuals secretly find themselves trying to decide whether, say, Cromwell, Julius Caesar, or St. Augustine count as conservatives or leftists.  But we don’t need to look back that far to find cases that don’t easily fit the current (faltering) system of classification. 

Many of America’s most popular nineteenth-century radicals, for instance, were individuals who simultaneously embraced fundamentalist Christianity, free love, voluntary communism, a belief that government should stay out of the economy, veganism, abolitionism, an avoidance of mainstream political activity, and carefully-defined gender roles.  Stick that in your spectrum, if you can, Mr./Mrs. Democrat or Republican! 

It’s tempting to see these weird folk as more fodder for my new pet theory, which is that a serious, powerful argument against Rawls or “deliberative democracy” theorists is the fact that a substantial portion of the population is nuts.  On the other hand, isn’t it wonderful that these kooks could head off and try their experiments without forcing the rest of us to do things their way? 

(It was also nice that I read Seldes’ book during a typically barely-religious Christmas visit to my parents in Connecticut, a balance of the secular and spiritual in Jonathan Edwards’ old state.  Nearby, you’ll see a photo of their dog Mac destroying his Christmas gift, a plush Frisbee, as well as pics I took of the no-dancing notice at Dionysium-hosting Muchmore’s, a tragic legacy of New York law’s enduring prohibitionist tendencies; the now-vanished fish decoration made by anti-prohibitionist Allison Oldak that for a time graced that same bar’s ceiling; and a sign that reminds us all that drinking and music is a good combo even when NYC forbids dancing.  For good measure, I’ve also posted pics I took of a living breathing Christian Science adherent I know and a prominent libertarian I saw speak recently while he was running unsuccessfully for president but winning my vote.)

Just a few quick highlights from Seldes’ very amusing book:

•Seldes, himself the product of a family of leftists and writers, begins by noting that it would be a mistake to think only the uneducated masses – Mencken’s booboisie – fell for these crazy fads.  In fact, from phrenology to mesmerism, it was usually the intellectuals (then as now) who spread new-fangled nonsense.  Think more kindly of the boobs as you read this book. 

•“The moral history of America can be traced in the changes which have come over the meaning of the word ‘reformer.’  In the middle of the nineteenth century, it meant one who wanted to give liberty to others; to-day it means, briefly, one who wants to take liberty away.”

•Seldes reports that the visiting French engineer/writer Chevalier observed how cultural, religious, and entrepreneurial innovation went together in the mind of an American: “No one assimilates a new method more rapidly; he is always ready to change his tools, his system, or his profession.  He is a mechanic in the soul.  Among us, every college boy has written his skit, or his novel, or his Constitution of an ideal republic or monarchy.  In Connecticut or Massachusetts there isn’t a farmer who hasn’t invented his machine, nor a man of reasonable means who hasn’t projected his railway or planned his city or town.”
•By an amazing coincidence (or the hand of God pushing me to found an agrarian commune), just as my parents and I were driving past Bean Hill in Norwich, CT, I read this passage from a biography of preacher Lorenzo Dow, as quoted by Seldes: “There came a day when in an open-air sermon under the great elm on Bean Hill Green in Norwich, Dow extolled the virtues of his former companion and at the end of his sermon asked, ‘Is there anyone in this congregation willing to take the place of my departed Peggy?’  Up rose Lucy Dolbeare from Montville, six feet high, and said, ‘I will.’”

•Followers were even easier to come by than new wives for that era’s messianic kooks, it seems, though most of the resulting communal societies fizzled or fissioned within a few short years, and not always in ways that showed them above financial and sexual strife.  As Seldes writes of the Rappites: “The Society, then at its maximum of 750, divided two to one in favor of the old believers but, before the dissenters could be dispossessed, the Society had to give them notes amounting to over $100,000.  With this money – which was promptly paid, a proof of the Society’s financial strength – the Leonites founded a communistic society, with marriage.  It failed miserably and, after an attempt to extort more money from Father Rapp, Count de Leon vanished for a time and presently died of cholera.”

•Seldes sees the collapse of Robert Owen’s New Harmony colony – it lasted only months – as a foreshadowing of the fates of many such experiments.  He sums up the reaction of the mainstream observers of Owen’s own time when he writes of Owen’s philosophy, “It not only did away with the principle of the just wage (the reward of labor), but with the divine principle of moral responsibility, which holds that the wages of sin is death.  Add to this the Spiritualism which became associated with Owen’s name, and his belief in an earthly (hence, non-Messianic) millennium, and you had a compost of all heresy, all licentiousness, all the excesses of the French Revolution, all the anti-Christian theories of the Illuminati – in short, Satan’s Kingdom on earth.”  Such criticism did not prevent Owen from making confident predictions about the future of the culture, including the arrival of the millennium on May 14, 1855. 

•He at least was not a murderer, like the cult leader Robert Matthews, who called himself Matthias and at times God.  He preached that he owned the entire world and was for a time committed at Bellevue, right here on Manhattan’s east side.  When he returned home, he would sometimes preach all day just to one black household servant named Isabella if she annoyed him.  Matthias believed he had the power to declare and dissolve marriages and would also sanctify barrels of water by immersing himself in them and then sprinkling the water on naked female followers.  Fine work if you can get people to pay you for it.

•Seldes observes the ease with which the desire to be “born again” bled into the more Northeastern/reformist impulse toward self-improvement.  They were not clearly opposites.  Seldes says that like psychiatrists decades later, “The revivalists were always happy to work with the nervously unbalanced.  Finney speaks of converting (curing) an insane woman and, through the literature of revivalism, we frequently find the deranged, the maniacal, the slow-witted, and the psychopathic.”

•It was widely known in New Haven that Noyes, founder of the Oneida community, was “crazy,” but that didn’t stop him from heading to New York and there combining free love, communism, and a love of the Bible, eventually coming to believe his recommended regimens would yield immortality – and starting a profitable silverware business that endures to this day.  The radical community itself dissolved shortly after Noyes, fearing intervention by the legislature in Albany, ordered everyone to adopt monogamy and abandon their experiment in complex marriage. 

A fine film could be made of the Oneida community’s rise and fall, climaxing with Noyes’ moving, humble speech (reprinted in Seldes’ book) thanking the authorities for tolerating the community’s unusual ways as long as they had.  At the end of the speech, he arbitrarily paired up members of the community – as arbitrarily as he’d previously ordered them to engage in free love and promiscuity – and told them they were now monogamously married, all except for one woman left by chance without a partner, who cried.  “A few followed Noyes to Canada.  The others scattered.  In 1886 the perfect Communist, who founded a great American business and abolished death, died self-exiled from his community, but undisturbed in his faith.”

•Seldes shows sympathy for Emerson even in his self-absorption by comparison to the busybodies of the late nineteenth century, including Temperance crusaders.  “The radicals of the 1840s and after created the type-radical of our own time.  The changes which words undergo have confused us somewhat for, in 1840, the radical was called a reformer and, in 1928, the reformer is not a radical and the radical is called a Red.  In 1914, before Prohibition and Bolshevism had blurred the picture in the back of our minds, the radical was, in our imagination, a comparatively harmless crank, given to fads, strolling about in white garments, eating nuts, talking of love and beauty.”

•“The early radical-reformer was, strangely enough, a sympathizer with the supposed motive of the modern prohibitionist...What he would have despised utterly is the prohibitionist’s method; for the 1840 radical was not a legalist.”

•The colony called Fruitland was especially prone to eccentricity: “Samuel Larned had lived one whole year on crackers and the next exclusively on apples.  One Fruitlander believed that clothes hindered spiritual growth and that the light of day was pernicious.  Another crowed like a cock at midnight if a happy thought struck him.  One, holding that words only betrayed the true spirit, greeted the rest with ‘Good morning, damn you.’”  There was an uncanny tendency for members of the community to be moved to wander the countryside preaching at times when there was work to be done at Fruitlands. 

•A similar shock greeted communists at Hopedale, who found that the least productive and least efficient members of the community were sometimes the first to lay claim to housing built by the other members. 

•Lest we merely laugh off the radicals and think their ideas disproven by experience, it is worth remembering, as Seldes notes, that the ceremonies formally ending the Civil War in 1865 featured places of honor not just for military men but for once-marginal abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and for black men singing a song in honor of slave-revolt leader John Brown (who if he were alive today might have enjoyed not only Lincoln but even more so Django Unchained, and rightly so – sometimes violent rebellion is warranted). 

•Indeed, “Three great reform movements of the 19th century were fulfilled, sooner or later, in amendments to the Constitution: abolition, prohibition, and equal suffrage.”  Seldes makes no secret of the fact that he sees the alcohol-related amendment as a mistake, and he paints Carrie Nation as a lunatic.  He is more sympathetic toward suffragettes, even as he relates amusing incidents of infighting, such as a female radical in mannish garb encountering a female radical in unusually-revealing garb (at a party right here in New York City) and each thinking the other outré.  That sort of thing still happens, of course. 

•The entire final section of the book is devoted to the late nineteenth-century turn toward more narrow, physical health quackery, like the kind I (as a skeptic) still complain about today, from phrenology (which also figured in a tense scene from Django Unchained) to Chrono-thermalism.  Americans want practical, tangible results, even from their groundless, intangible claims. 

Despite all the bubbling madness, we have somehow endured to the twenty-first century, still echoing some of those oddballs’ beliefs. 

And tomorrow, I may as well reveal the shocking truth about how one of the Seaveys, himself both a pirate and a customs enforcer, fit into the turn-of-the-century milieu.  So stay tuned for the tale of “Roaring Dan” Seavey, pirate of the Great Lakes.

1 comment:

Jake said...

There is a Fruitlands museum in Harvard, MA that is well worth a visit. Beautiful in the summer or fall. Updating this book with the cults and communes of the 60s and 70s would make an interesting comparison (says the guy born on a commune).