Written by: Ramona Hosu Early Twentieth Century Poetry in America
The literary work offers an answer to those oppositions and polarities that are at the very basis of a historical situation. “The literary response represents a solution for the dilemma of certain historical periods; it is solidary with the anxieties and uncertainties of people, it purifies and balances them, transforming them into the Greek urn”, as Virgin Nemoianu stated in A Theory of the Secondary (Nemoianu 1997: 17). Harmony and order are reactionary, producing historical disorder and social movements. Instead of denying, as historical progress does, art combines.
Literature is twice vitiated because of its own nature. First of all, it contains certain elements of the “old” in its trying to rebalance the most opposite ideologies of the time. Ideology in Nemoianu’s words is the “theoretical justification of a social, political trend, an intellectual discourse that, unlike philosophy, remains connected to the concrete orientations of history, without being able to stray from them” (Nemoianu 1997: 17). If literature is both compromise and synthesis, than it is, because of its nature, a balance of oppositions. Secondly, by the time literature appears, it will have already been “old” because historical movement will have surpassed ideological contradictions that have already been given solutions. The synthesis between the old regime and the modern epoch represents a reservoir of both conservative and progressive ideologies. However, from the perspective of its own epoch, it is profoundly conservative because of being dominated by aesthetic impulses.
Is art reactionary? Does the reactionary have a dialectic structure? According to Frederic Jameson, romantic and later conservatory criticism on the 19th century culture summarizes the Marxist diagnosis of alienation, of the transformation into goods. The great modernists of the 20th century summarize in advance the impending criticism on the epoch of socializing and communitarianism. As soon as historical progress embraces a negative direction, the contradictory impulses of the artistic creation places it on the “right way”, which is to be defined later on and accepted by posterity. Sociologists and structuralists have considered literature a huge linguistic reservoir of mental and discursive structures. This conservative feature of poetry ascertains its progressive role in two ways. First, the refuge of ideology in poetry establishes profitable contrivances that are not contingent on the immediate; ideology dives in the literary and later it will appear as progressive in politics. Second, the dialectics of social-historical development and of poetry seems to be a counterpoint; thus, if a work is conservative in its immediate historical context, it will become progressive one or two generations later. The relationship between poetry and ideology is a complex system of counterpoints and of reciprocal influences (Nemoianu 1997: 21). When social progress is speeded and it exerts pressure, literature curbs its advance and a so-called dissident literature appears. When certain solutions are not accepted by social realities, the literary work activates a series of intellectual overthrows. The personal world becomes the public world. Dissident literary discourses are both alternatives and obstacles: they change by not referring to the present or the future, but to the past. To react means to resist chaos, occurrence, to transfer past experiences into present impulses and thus to advance in orderly progress (Paul Elmer More in Nemoianu 1997: 32). If there is a tendency in the practice of history to lose its substance by discharging its major goals, than the dialectics of the contrary, or of the secondary, is necessary. Its aim would be to select and order, to retrieve and totalise potential losses: all those secondary problems that history has ignored in its vigorous advance. This tendency of retrieving strengthens progress by enriching its substance. The literary work exposes and undermines its dominant ideology ensuring the preservation and circulation of values, the continuity of historical progress and the “thickening” of cultural existence. To do this, literature comes to proclaim foreign and contrary ideals meant to enlighten the structures of the future because of preserving and reorganizing the past.
What would be the effect of the aesthetic and the imaginary on political, historical and scientific attitudes and discourses? Does such an influence exist? Is it more than an intercession with reality by means of language? Society patterns, in the view of the same aesthete (Nemoianu 1997: 73) are literary constructs that filter and mould reality in literary texts, and indirectly in language. Literature and the aesthetic approach intercede with reality on behalf of the progress.
It is to be seen how much of ideology was transcended by means of the principal, i.e. history, the social, economics, politics, and by means of the secondary, i.e. literature, implicitly culture, because twenties and thirties America experienced the most influential economic, political and cultural change.
In his American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony, Samuel P. Huntington explains that in order to define the American identity, one needs something measurable and identifiable: the political and national values and beliefs (Huntington 1994: 26-27). Thus, beginning with the second half of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century, some fundamental political ideas formulating the “American Credo” started to exist: liberty, equality, individualism, democracy and the supremacy of justice – all of these materialized in the Declaration of Independence and The Constitution of the USA. These inaugural acts are a means of a group needing to represent itself, which is, according to Paul Ricoeur, the first step in formulating an ideology (Ricoeur 1995:208). The perpetuating of this initial energy beyond the period of effervescence enabled this American credo to strengthen itself with constructed images and interpretations of certain social, economical and cultural metamorphoses of the American idiom. In some periods in the American history, the passion for this credo was generated by the discrepancy between ideal (ideology) and praxis. The values of the credo needed to be re-considered in the 20s and the 30s when people woke up and started to do politics. In a modern society the individual is not content because one does not find sense in the simple fight with nature and in the eulogy of effective estimation. The technical and economic plan of life in society satisfies only the rational. That is why the individual looks for the reasonable in a concrete universe which is politics.
The advocates of liberalism in economy and the Marxists founded two ideologies that are at the basis of two great systems: the socialist and the capitalist one. Economy in West-European countries means a compromise between capitalism and socialism. The “mixed economy” (Mattei Dogan and Dominique Pelassy) has its roots in the moments of crises of capitalist-liberal societies, when the state stops being absent in order to get involved in economic problems.
In the 1st decades of the 20th century we assisted the suffocation of the “impartial” state, the liberal one concerned with respecting the rules of free-market economy. This type of state was replaced with the “Providential” State, The disfavoured social groups are those that ask for the intervention of the State. The dichotomy liberty-equality is the dilemma of any modern society. There are 2 ways in which social equality is to be reached: the equal access to the opportunity of succeeding in life and that of ensuring equal incomes. The equality of chances was less important in the periods of economic depressions as compared to the problem of the equality of incomes. Capitalism as a product of liberal-economical doctrines made steps towards socialism, thus being the promontory of the welfare state principles. Such aspects are to be found in any capitalist democratic system because democratic ideals are not at all compatible with human sufferings or with social inequalities of any kind. (Ebenstein 1991: 865). The welfare state required social reformist legislators that refused any kind of inequalities, recognizing unions, introducing gradual taxes.
In the closing days of the 1928 campaign, Herbert Hoover expressed his belief in “the American system of rugged individualism”. The great prosperity of America, he said, was based on three factors: self-government through local agencies, individual freedom and equality of opportunity. The true role of government was that of an “empire instead of a player in the economic game”. (Bragdon, McCutchen 1964:744). Once the federal government invaded the fields of business, democracy would be threatened, since it depended on “decentralization” and personal liberty would be endangered because it depended on economic freedom. It took the Great Depression to test the limits of dual federalism. No other had had a greater effect on the thinking and the institutions of government in the 20th century. This was the moment when ideological values were questioned. Various influences appeared, offering to lead the country out the wilderness of poverty and stagnation into the promised land of plenty and full employment. In his speech accepting the presidential nomination at the 1932 Democratic National Convention, Franklin D. Roosevelt made a promise: “I pledge you, I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people”.
The New Deal programmes were opportunistic; they were not guided by a single political or economic theory. They aimed at relief for the needy, recovery for the nation, a reform for the economy. The Government could no longer rely on either the decentralized political structures of federalism or the market forces of laissez-faire capitalism to bring the country out of its decline. The New Deal embodied the belief that a complex economy, a mixed one, required centralized government control. The poor and not poor agreed that government should protect its citizens against the risks that they are powerless to combat. The label “Welfare State” reflects this protective role of government. Some call the New deal era “revolutionary” or “reactionary”. But perhaps the most significant change was in the way Americans thought about their problems and the role of the national government in solving them. Difficulties that at one time had been seen as personal now became national problems, requiring national solutions. The general welfare, broadly defined, had become a legitimate concern of the national government.
If we are to “secondariate” culture to economics and politics, we should go further on by analysing the ideology of culture. Once reform is recognized in all its conditions, it becomes clear that American history may not be viewed as a flat backdrop of apathy and reaction against which a few decades of passionate hyperactivity are cast.
Since social protest implies discontent, the great conflict is in the way in which the experiencing of reform denies the primacy of individualism, self-reliance and the pursuit of material success. This tradition substitutes altruism, a concern for the communal well-being  and the commitment to groups action. Both individualism and collective action are important, or as Walt Whitman said articulating both sides of the conflict: “One of the problems presented in America these times is, how to combine one’s duty and policy as a member of associations, societies, brotherhoods or what not, and one’s obligation to the State and Nation, with essential freedom as an individual personality, without which freedom a man cannot grow or expand, or be full, modern, heroic, democratic, American. With all the necessities and benefits of association (and the world cannot get along without it), the true mobility and satisfaction of a man consist in his thinking and acting for himself. The problem, I say, is to combine the two so as not to ignore either.” (Luedtke 1992: 378)
The dilemma permeating the American character was defined in 1911 by philosopher George Santayana in his essay “The Genteel Tradition”. The basic conflict was that the United States was a young country with an old mentality. For him, it was a country of two mentalities, “one a survival of the beliefs and standards of the fathers, the other and expression of the instincts, practice, and discoveries of the younger generations”. Thus, “One half of the American mind, that not occupied by intensely in practical affaire, has remained… slightly becalmed; it has floated gently in the backwater, while alongside, in invention and industry and social organization, the other half of mind was leaping down a sort of a Niagara Rapids. This division may be found symbolized in American architecture: a neat reproduction of the colonial mansion – with some modern comforts introduced surreptitiously – stands beside the skyscraper. The American Will inhabits the skyscraper, the American Intellect inhabits the colonial mansion… The one is all aggressive enterprise; the other is all genteel tradition”. (Luedtke 1992: 165)
To take into account the significance of culture in understanding the social problems doesn’t mean to consider that the political and economic problems were less important; just that culture offered a certain point of view in order to estimate the narrow commercialism in society, generally speaking.
For the critics of the 20th century, culture was a system made up of some middling values that could not follow the economic progress.
In his Theory of the Leisure Class, the sociologist Thornstein Veblen sustained that culture was in fact nothing else than eccentric “cult”. This “pecuniary culture” would appreciate what was useless: dead languages, the vapid philosophies, fancy literature. All these qualities praised by the humanists were nothing but traps of the “regime of the ranks”. (Perry 1995: 229) In this system, the real merit was suppressed and a collective and efficient life under the modern industrial conditions became impossible. To this culture of the rich, Veblen opposed the impersonal, efficient and democratic science. The glory of culture relied on the ethical detachment from the development of commerce and industry. Veblen turned this distinction upside down considering that what was closer to the economic life was better. He was followed in 1911 by Santayana’s Genteel Tradition at Bay. Both Santayana, the philosopher, and Veblen, the sociologist, associated intellectual vitality with contemporary evolution in economy. With Veblen and his Theory, the humanist disciplines were elitist, not scientific, and irrelevant for the modern problems. Santayana considered that the critic of the American literacy past meant a path to understand religious economic behavior or, in one word, the American civilization. The philosopher admitted that one should evaluate the mentality of the Americans studying their writers.
Suspicion became an intellectual position, a very alluring one defining itself as a reaction to a previous époque within which many convictions and habits had been considered “truths”. Most of the sign of subversion were evident even before World War I. In poetry, poets like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound or William Carlos Williams tested the free forms of versification which shocked the critics of the genteel taste because of defying the ideals and he canons respected by them. America, which was not anymore “on the edge of civilization” as Henry James said, offered a fertile place for the appearance of a fragmental and syncopated culture with an aesthetics that replaced declamation with interrogation – the source of anxiety.
Further on, besides renewal in poetry and essay, some editorial offices in New York promoted magazines that represented the young intellectual, the new intelligence: “Masses” (1911) a “Revolutionary Magazine without Respect for Those Respectable” published works of some literary socialists, “New Republic” offered a programme for some young who resorted to Sigmund Freud’s psycho-analysis in order to attack the sterile political rationalism. All of them represented a new generation of claimants for an American renaissance or cultural rebirth that would overthrow the sterile genteel tradition. They were all modernists because of rejecting the Victorian conception about world, named the ideology of culture and because of reformulating Santayana’s critic about the discrepancy between the finical idealism and the essential realities of social life.
The economic depression hastened the greatest national collapse after the Secession War. The crash was a real literary and political challenge addressed to the writers of the thirties. Their duty was well formulated in social and political terms. The crises brought about explicit reactions, politically implied. Most of the writers joined the left. The label applied to the thirties, The Red Scare, determined Edmund Wilson, Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos or Malcolm Cowley to consider that the capitalist system was “a house which was to crumble” and as a result they should unite the workers rejecting the madness of opportunism, of racketeers, of irresponsible and absurd business-men.
The embryos of anti-intellectualism and of suspicion upon art directed the course of political and cultural events towards the overthrowing of the genteel tradition. If the twenties are to be seen as a époque marked by intellectual alienation, youthful immorality and political dryness, creating suspicion about real political, social and cultural values, the thirties meant the contrary. Intellectual influences, popular radicalism and political leadership determined the search for a new perception of culture from non-Western positions and from those of modernist experiments: social, political and cultural experimental practice followed by expectancies.

  • Bragdon, Henry W. and Samuel P. McCutchen, History of a Free People, MacMillan, New York, 1964;
  • Dogan, Mattei and Dominique Pelassy, Economia mixtă, Editura Amacord, Bucureşti, 1992;
  • Ebenstein, William and Alan O. Ebenstein, Great Political Thinkers, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1991;
  • Huntington, Samuel P., Viaţa politică americană, Editura Humanitas, Bucureşti, 1994;
  • Luedtke, Luther S., Making America, United States Information Agency, Washington, 1992;
  • Nemoianu, Virgil, O teorie a secundarului, Editura Univers, Bucureşti,1997;
  • Perry, Lewis, Viaţa intelectuală în America, Editura Dacia, Cluj-Napoca, 1995;
  • Ricoeur, Paul, Eseuri de hermeneutică, Editura Humanitas, Bucureşti, 1995.