Russia/USA Culture

Intellectuals and Public Culture:
Some Parallels in the Russian and American Experiences

© 2007 Alan Kimball [email]

Table of Contents
Alfred Kazin on Cultural Disenchantment with Industrial Civilization
Van Wyck Brooks, for Example

Alfred Kazin on Cultural Disenchantment with Industrial Civilization

The great American cultural historian and critic, Alfred Kazin, in his 1942 book On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature, described how Americans were influenced by Edward Bellamy's utopian themes [ID]. Bellamy's concept of

superhuman centralization of vast interlocking combines ... provoked a remarkably copious Utopian literature which has no parallel in other periods or literatures. Looking Backward stimulated hundreds of 'Nationalist' clubs to spread its gospel, sold hundreds of thousands of copies a week in the late eighties [1880s| Anchor paperback:16]

Kazin continued =

The significance of these Utopian novels (even Howells wrote two, and the literary-minded Populist [ID], Ignatius Donnelly, one) lies not only in the startling immediacy of their response to a transformed civilization or the avidity with which the middle class devoured them, but in the simplicity with which Bellamy and his many imitators accepted the industrial era as the herald of a beneficent Socialist totalitarianism. Though they proved themselves as vulgar on occasion as any manufacturer worshiping his machine, and antedated the American advertising mystics of the latest gadget, they were -- like all their generation -- children playing with fire. Like the late Utopian novelist Bradford Peck, who entitled his thriller The World a Department Store, they took the most inane or sinister implications of a profit economy on trust, and asked only to be allowed the destruction of "institutions." So Bellamy, whose state was built like a corporation, unconsciously anticipated the conscripted labor armies of the GPU and the Nazi Labor Front [ID] in his suggestion that labor could be organized into an industrial army.

Among those who picked up on these utopian themes, William Dean Howells [ID] struck a new note. He shifted from popular, trivial and genteel subject matter to edgy social criticism. Earlier, Howells saw the world through conventional eyes. He was a comfortable in the community of establishment intellectuals of his generation, like his friend John Hay [ID] and the gad-fly intellectual Henry Adams.

Kazin went on to describe how, after the Haymarket trial [ID], Howells shifted toward more critical or vastly more all-encompassing points of view. He

introduced German Marxists [ID] and Tolstoyan Communists [ID], speculative intellectuals and hungry radicals who argued out the imperfections of the human race amidst the clamor of New York elevated trains [ID] [Kazin:26]

Now Howells began to show some of the traits of the remarkable "Progressive Era" [ID] of US history.

Rampant commercialism and economic inequality, ubiquitous products of economic modernization, appalled Howells. He has one of his characters, a banker, describe in outline a brief history of greatness in USA. In Revolutionary times [ID], "the great politician, the publicist, the statesman" was the ideal. These heroes were followed by certain great literary figures. After the Civil War "the soldier" came to the fore. Howells meant by this "the general" (U.S. Grant), and he did not think this latest hero represented a progressive transition.

By 1890, as Kazin:30 explained it, the US ideal of heroism had experienced yet further evolution =

the big fortunes began to tower up, and heroes of another sort began to appeal to our admiration. I don't think there is any doubt but the millionaire is now the American ideal [ID]. It isn't very pleasant to think so, even for people who have got on, but it can't very hopefully be denied. It is the man with the most money who now takes the prize in our national cake-walk.

 

Van Wyck Brooks and the Critique of "Mass Culture"

*1913:1917; Alfred Kazin identified these years, just preceding the entry of USA into WW1, as a "joyous season" of relentless critical acuity and high hopes among American cultural figures [Kazin:134 f]. Randolph Bourne crusaded against US involvement in WW1. He later died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. Yet another, Lewis Mumford, lived on to shape US consciousness for decades to come (NB! his The Story of Utopias [1923]).

Van Wyck Brooks expressed regret and disappointment with the accomplishments of modern "mass culture".

Van Wyck Brooks is especially interesting to us because he so well illustrates some parallels in the evolution of "public intellectuals" in Russia and USA.

Literary historian Kazin referred to Brooks and his cohort as "nihilists". Kazin didn't explain just what he meant. Certainly he might have meant the radicalism of certain Russian cultural figures a half century earlier, the "nihilists" in the Russian 1860s [ID]. The expression originated there and spread throughout the European vocabulary. Specifically Kazin could have meant Dmitrii Pisarev [ID].

Kazin's use of the word "nihilism" risks serious misunderstanding since its meaning in everyday usage evolved from the original popular definition in Ivan Turgenev's novel Fathers and Children (1862) to a later altogether negative epithet, not at all Turgenev's intention. Turgenev had his character Bazarov explain that the nihilist refuses to accept any truth solely on the authority of the source or on the customary presumption of truth. Instead, the nihilist subjects all phenomena to rigorous logical and empirical test. Within a very short time after the novel appeared, the word "nihilist" was used mainly as a term of abuse, implying scruffy personal habits, social marginality, childish rejection of the wisdom of elders, and a frightening inclination toward deranged political scheming. The word "nihilist" was transformed in Russian political culture much as the word "counterculture" or "hippy" was transformed in USA.

Kazin's use was consistent with Turgenev's original intent. Kazin could not have sympathized with the pejorative distortion that followed. Kazin meant "nihilist" in Turgenev's more complex and nuanced sense, but that did not stand in his way as he subjected the figures of the USA "joyous season" to serious critical analysis.

More on Van Wyck Brooks

*1918:Brooks published Letters and Leadership [citations here are to the 1958:Doubleday paperback]. The word "letters" in the title referred to educated literary professionals, and the word "leadership" suggested the need for writers and intellectuals to exert a new public or political influence in US national affairs. His more famous long essay, America's Coming of Age (1915) had already helped establish a critical point of view on US commercial culture with its lowbrow intellectual perspectives.

The appropriateness of Kazin's parallel analysis of USA and Russia was confirmed many times over in Brooks' writings. The tone and ethos of the Russian intelligentsia [ID] as they criticized their Russia was replicated in Brooks' criticism of the USA.

Brooks popularized the notion of "high-brow" and "low-brow" culture, and he admired neither. The tawdry pretentiousness of the wealthy ("high-brows") and the brute ignorance of the laboring masses (low-brows) required a third element to heal them, to bring them together in a whole and wholesome American civilization. That was the task of leadership placed on the shoulders of "letters" as outlined in his 1915 essay.

American "intellectual types", Brooks felt, had so far done poorly.

With immense difficulty our intellectual types forge for themselves a point of view with which they confront the world, but like a suit of armor it permits no further expansion. [...] In short, I think we are driven to the conclusion that our life is, on all its levels, in a state of arrested development, that it has lost, if indeed it has ever possessed, the principle of growth. [96-7]

USA had become the symbol of "the worship of size, mass, quantity and numbers". Industrialization represented a technical and economic revolution, one that had so far worked profound and harmful effects on the human spirit.

For three generations the most sensitive minds in Europe -- Renan, Ruskin, Nietzsche [ID], to name none more recent -- have summed up their mistrust of the future in that one word; and it is because, altogether externalized ourselves, we have typified the universally externalizing influence of modern industrialism. The shame of this is a national shame, and one that the world war [WW1], with all the wealth it has brought us, has infinitely accentuated. [102]

All combatants in WW1, with the astonishing exception of USA, had been destroyed or nearly destroyed and now lay in economic ruin. Europeans reaped destruction, USA investors reaped a massive (but only temporary) prosperity [ID]. Brooks was dismissive and distrustful of that prosperity. USA showed itself again no more than a consumer, maybe even an exploiter, of a rich world culture, but it did not understand the inner spiritual meaning of this rich culture, had no interest in its deeper intent. And thus US culture had nothing to give back to world culture, nothing to say to Renan, Ruskin, and Nietzsche.

Only the creative mind can really apprehend the expressions of the creative mind. And it is because our field of action has been preempted by our acquisitive instincts, because in short we have no national fabric of spiritual experience, that we are so unable today to think and feel in international terms. Having ever considered it our prerogative to pluck the fruits of the spirit without undergoing the travail of generating them [...], we have been able to feed ourselves with the sugarcoating of all the bitter pills of the rest of mankind, accepting the achievements of their creative life as effects which presuppose in us no causal relationships. [108]

American financiers on holiday swept up great art collections in Europe and brought them back to ostentatious palaces in USA. Brooks hurled this accusation at his generation's "fathers". They

upholstered their lives with everything that is best in history, with all mankind's most sumptuous effects quite sanitarily purged of their ugly and awkward organic relationships.

Brooks offered a contrast to illustrate US alienation from authenticity and disenchantment with life's wonders. English artist, writer and social-democrat William Morris [ID] could hardly differ more from US labor-efficiency expert Frederick Winslow Taylor [ID]. Brooks contrasted "love and fine thinking" with "Pragmatism" [ID], "arts and crafts" with "the Taylor System" [ID]. Brooks asked,

Is it not a sufficient comment on our pragmatic awakeners that, possessing no infectious ideal of 'joy in labor', the best they can do is to publish unleavened studies on the control of fatigue? [146]

He then replied to his own question.

No, they [commercial-culture pragmatists] can do one thing better; they can evade reality altogether and say with Henry Ford that "no man can take pride in his work until he gets something for it, until he has leisure to enjoy life." In this way, throwing up the sponge altogether, accepting machinery and more machinery and still more machinery as a fait accompli, and giving up all hope of determining the rational place of machinery in life, they can tell their countrymen to seek reality in anything else than their work -- in driving about the country in Ford cars, on Sunday, for example, with their mouths open." [150; bold face added]

Beneath these words we detect the Marxist concept of "alienation" [ID]. That's a very different thing from our current casual psychological meaning. Alienation of the Marxist sort occurs when laborers craft all the things we value but have the profit from that taken by employers. The value of labor is "alienated" from laborers. Workers are "alienated" from the value of their work. And the concept reaches deeper than economic exploitation = Real creative and productive values are subverted in a capitalist culture and an abstract dollar value is substituted for authentic human values, artificial values displace authentic values.

Brooks made no explicit reference to Russia quite yet, but he shaped his arguments about the American historical experience in harmony with certain standard views on the Russian experience. The Oxford historian of Russia B. H. Summers, in his Peter the Great and the Emergence of Russia, was not reaching as far as Brooks, but he saw that the modernizing Emperor Peter I [ID] "did not explore the springs and motive forces of this western achievement" [42]. In other words, Summers perceived in Peter the Great, as Brooks perceived in US elites, a nouveau-riche superficiality, a clumsy imitation of an abstractly valorized dream-region, "The West" [ID].

Such a critique of Russian high culture echoed in Russia itself through the epochs that followed Peter the Great. It was not just Slavophiles [ID] who railed at the pseudo-Europeanization of Russian "high-brow" culture. The thin glaze of European manners over the deep, crude instincts of the aristocratic and service elites was a nearly universal theme of Russian cultural/social criticism in the century prior to 1918. "High-brow" grandees were still in the grip of Russia's native "low-brow" sensibilities. One finds this turn of thought made most dramatic in Petr Chaadaev [ID].

In the USA, culture was becoming entertainment. Brooks formulated the problem in a way that would later be made famous in Aldous Huxley's anti-utopian Brave New World [ID]. Brooks' words were also almost prescient criticism of Stalinist cultural policy called "Socialist Realism" [ID]. But Brooks was complaining about a much earlier state of affairs (1918) and in a wholly different place (the USA), where

the function of art is to turn aside the problems of life from the current of emotional experience and create in its audience a condition of cheerfulness that is not organically derived from experience but added from the outside [111].

American cultural "fathers", for example William Dean Howells, falsified the "vision of reality in the interests of popular entertainment". Brooks was disgusted when Howells asserted that Russian novels touch on varieties of experience unknown to Americans. Howells was content to say that "the more smiling aspects of life" were "the more American". In reaction, Brooks spat out, "Could one ask for a more essential declaration of artistic bankruptcy than that?"

But Brooks was less interested in personal blame than in the critique of a whole culture. He did not want to scold Howells so much as to transform America. Writers in the USA were

victims of the universal taboo which the ideal of material success, of the acquisitive life, has placed upon experience.

In other words it might be said that Brooks detected an unofficial but still censorious "Capitalist Realism" at work in USA, parallel to -- but fifteen years before -- "Socialist Realism" became Soviet artistic dogma [ID].

Brooks was inspired by the same disdain of rampant, aggressive, oppressive tastelessness that motivated his Soviet Russian contemporary Evgenyi Zamiatin [ID]. More clearly than Zamiatin, Brooks sensed the broad dimensions of his problem.

When I speak of the culture of industrialism, I do not mean to imply that it has been peculiar to us. Everywhere the industrial process has devitalized men and produced a poor quality of human nature. By virtue of this process, the culture of the whole Western world fell too [,] largely during the nineteenth century, into the hands of the prig [low-brow] and the aesthete [high-brow], those two sick blossoms of the same sapless stalk [...]. But in Europe the great traditional culture, the culture that has ever held up the flame of the human spirit, has never quite gutted out [118; boldface added].

In USA, Puritanism [ID] undermined the ability to survive industrialization of culture, but Europe still produced Nietzsche and Renan, Morris and Rodin, Marx and Mill [ID], all of whom in different ways were able "to assimilate for human uses the positive by-products of industrialism itself, science and democracy" [119]. The symbol of USA failure in this respect was the fact that Abraham Lincoln's son became president of the Pullman Company [ID]. The father was the great emancipator; the son exploited black labor, now "freed" from slavery. [Brooks was perhaps unaware of the emancipator's pre-presidential career as corporate lawyer in the hire of Union Pacific.]

Brooks sometimes took positions reminiscent of the rural nostalgia that gripped so many in his time [ID]. But he did not so much look backward as forward. He welcomed the industrial and scientific future, but not under conditions of "high brow" management of the "low brow" masses. Instead, he visualized a future managed by what must be called a "Europeanized" creative "intelligentsia". Brooks sounds a whole lot like the extreme Russian "Westernizers", except that he was contrasting a vibrant European culture with stagnant USA culture. (Europe is, strictly speaking, east of USA; thus Brooks would have to be called an "Easternizer", if we indulged in such meaningless compass-point cultural references.)

USA was, however, not producing properly "Easternized" public leadership. USA was breeding a generation of disoriented Hamlets, said Brooks, the likes of which the world had not seen since mid-19th century Russia. Here Brooks cast a glance not just at the Russian intelligentsia, but at the Russian social structure that nurtured them. And he saw parallels with USA. "Nothing is more remarkable than the similarity in this respect between the two immense inchoate populations that flank Europe on east and west." Brooks acknowledged that the famous characters in Russian fiction -- Oblomov in Goncharov's novel [ID], Bazarov in Turgenev's novel [ID], Levin in Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina [ID], and Dmitri Rudin in Turgenev's story [ID] -- were in many ways universal characters, like Hamlet himself.

But for every one Hamlet whom a healthy civilization with "an outlet for every talent" might produce, twenty Hamlets were produced in Russia or America. Why? Because both Russia and America had "no use for highly developed types".

In the USA

the gradual commercialization of all the professions [...] has all but entirely destroyed the possibility of personal growth along the lines that our society provides....

Thus,

the more sensitive minds of the younger generation drift almost inevitably into a state of internal anarchism that finds outlet, where it finds outlet at all, in a hundred unproductive forms [121].

Brooks extended his comparison of Russia and USA. He expanded the notion that industrialization, modernization in general, might be dangerous. But he did not believe that industrialization could be reversed. Brooks was not yearning for some pastoral restoration, a new Eden, a peaceable kingdom, a "good morning America" agrophilia. He, like so many Russian intelligenty, sought to save his modernizing society from the sorry evolutionary path it was currently on. In both Russia and America,

the social fabric is too simple to be able to cope with the complicated strain that has been suddenly put upon it by a radical change in the conditions of life [i.e., industrialization, modernization, "Westernization/Easternization"]. Yet in each case the complexities have developed along just the lines most necessary for the [121/122] rounded well-being of society. The Hamlets of Russian fiction, generally speaking, are social idealists, wrapped up in dreams of agricultural and educational reform; they long to revolutionize their country estates and ameliorate the lot of their peasantry, and they lose their will and their vision because there is no social machinery of which they can avail themselves: thrown as they are upon their own unaided resources, their task overwhelms them at the outset with a sense of futility. Turn the tables about, and we have the situation of the corresponding class in America. They find the machinery of education and social welfare in a state as highly developed as the life of the spirit is in Russia; it is the spiritual technique that is wanting, a living culture, a complicated scheme of ideal objectives, upheld by society at large, enabling them to submerge their liberties in their loyalties and to unite in the task of building up a civilization. [Bold face added]

With approval, Brooks quoted "Professor Brueckner" in some history of Russian literature (without any clear citation) =

the direct transition from uncultured strata to strenuous mental activity is wont to avenge itself: the individual succumbs sooner or later to the unwonted burden.

Aleksandr Brückner wrote several histories of Russian literature, for example, Geschichte der russischen litteratur (Leipzig: 1905). Some of his titles have been translated into English, but it is unclear what text Brooks cited. Whatever the precise text, Brooks concluded in harmony with Brückner that common folk who have been so long uneducated or unrefined cannot be made otherwise very quickly. Ordinary people are just not as able as professors or culture critics, for example, to bear up under the massive weight of high culture. [Here we find Brooks exploring a role for educated leadership that later cultural critics called "mediation" (ID) ]

Brooks accepted this self-satisfied, self-congratulatory and oddly "high-brow" judgment about lately educated peoples and feared that it might with justice be applied to America as well as to Russia. For one thing, USA had "no student class united in a common discipline and forming a sort of natural breeding-ground for the leadership that we desire". [156] Furthermore,

Americans have seldom dreamed of a radically more beautiful civilization, our Utopias having been so generally of the nature of Edward Bellamy's [ID], complex and ingenious mechanisms, liberating the soul into a vacuum of ennui. [157]

In USA, "a prodigious amount of energy has been thrown out of employment" because society is unable to accept it and set it to work. Now that energy "has begun to pour itself out in a vast flood of undisciplined emotionalism that goes -- how often! -- to waste" [122]. It is too restricted in its self-expression and it is blighted by the "individualism of the past" [123].

Brooks everywhere blurred the lines between literary, cultural and social criticism. But his insights resonated with those of other critics who tried to understand the plight of the Russian well educated, "the intelligentsia". It is possible that Brooks was familiar with Alexander Herzen's remarkable Byloe i dumy [Past and Thoughts] [ID] and Ivan Turgenev's lecture on Hamlet and Don Quixote [ID], each of which adumbrated and reinforced Brooks' argument about the effects of a blighted and spirit-grinding national environment and the subsequent wastage of national talent. [Consider these nine paragraphs, including quotes from Herzen's Byloe i dumy (TXT) ]

However, Brooks was encouraged by signs in his time that things might change. Mazzini and the "Young Italy" movement [ID] cropped up here and there in Brooks' essay in order to suggest that an American variation on that European theme was possible. In much the same way, Russians earlier dreamt of a "Young Russia" [ID]. Brooks recommended creation of a Young America. He sought a new America,

not like the America of today, grande et riche, mais désordonnée, [powerful and rich, but unorganized, disordered] as Turgenev said of Russia, but harmonious and beneficent, a great America that knows how to use the finest of its gifts! [157-8]

In Brooks' view, the finest gift was, of course, the educated elite. That's who he represented, after all. But it won't be easy =

Too many of the best minds of our own younger generation have already, owing to the aridity of our cultural soil, fallen victims to the creeping paralysis of the mechanistic view of life. Too many, more poetically endowed, have lost themselves in a confused and feeble anarchism. Too few Americans are able even to imagine what it means to be employed by civilization. [158]

These obstacles were not insurmountable. "Has there ever been a time when masses of men have conceived these desires without leaders appearing to formulate them and press them home?" [159]

There breathes here more than a touch of Russian enthusiasm for a new leadership from the ranks of the highly educated, a self-serving but visionary faith in dedicated, organized, well-trained and progressive elites. That's what inspired Nikolai Chernyshevskii [ID] and, more to the point, Dmitrii Pisarev [ID] in the Russian 1860s. The same vision was made iron-clad and unimaginably more rigorous in the ideology and political practice of Brooks' contemporary, Vladimir Il'ich Lenin [ID].

But there might be as much of the radical right as of the radical left in Brooks' call for cultural mobilization ="To live creatively, to live completely, to live in behalf of some great corporate purpose -- that is the desire" [124; boldface added].

How uncomfortable we might feel looking back at Brooks from the 21st century and reading that glad hope for "leaders appearing" and that expressed desire for "some great corporate purpose", issued on the eve of the rise of European Fascism and the rise of Stalinist statism. Brooks was not alone among post-WW1 Americans in his inclination toward "corporatism" [EG]. Discomfort is not later relieved when Brooks stated in bold conclusion, "An organized higher life: that is what the world demands of us, that is what we have at last come to demand of ourselves". [154]

Discomfort, yes, but the critique of commercial culture has still a powerful ring of truth to it, and the ridicule of high-brow superficiality and low-brow crudity might still seem trenchant in our times. The expressed desire to help create a powerful public culture able to link the esthetic, moral, spiritual needs of the most refined with those of the general population, united in mutual edification, might still inspire our time with benefit. Brooks might still challenge the mental torpor of our time, perpetuated by a spell-binding corporate-owned mass media.

But after all, Van Wyck Brooks, just as many representatives of the Russian intelligentsia, was just scribbling away with no authentic effort at creating an active public or political organization. Russian and American pundits long entertained themselves with eloquent grousing about low-brow culture suffocating them and high-brow culture oppressing them without in fact doing anything strenuous about it, beyond fluent complaint.

For example =

1998au30:The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer Transcript| Essayist Richard Rodriguez of the Pacific News Service had this to say on the occasion of Alfred Kazin's death = "Alfred Kazin, the great literary critic and cultural historian, died in June [1998] on his 83rd birthday. The passing of an intellectual like Mr. Kazin is probably of less moment now than in any time in our history, such is the roar or the din of pop culture, [that] more notice is taken of the drug overdose of a rock star."

The themes laid out by Van Wyck Brooks continued to resonate through the 20th century. Here, for example, are some further reactions to the decline of "traditional values" in the face of "commercial culture" =