“When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become as corrupt as Europe.”
This snowball of a book, gathering mass as it accelerates, is studded with accretions and revisions. A work of cultural criticism rather than of mere literary or even social history, it seems to make its own rules as it goes. You might say that it is about everything, and that is the best thing you could say about it—and the worst.
Perhaps we have seen this kind of book before. There have been volumes devoted to Paris and London and Vienna, as I recall, that take some of Professor Douglas’s liberties in asserting that a certain city at a certain period was where and when modernism organized and asserted itself. Carl E. Schorske’s Finde-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (1980) comes to mind perhaps first; and indeed we cannot be surprised to find in Schorske’s acknowledgments a prominent citation of Ann Douglas.
Less schematic than Schorske and working with less coherent materials, Douglas is if anything more expansive, subjective, and aggressive. Any reservations we may entertain have to do less with her exposition than with her subject, for who does not have developed opinions about New York City? After all, Manhattan has continued to be (unlike Vienna) in cultural conflict with the rest of its nation to such a degree that Senator Goldwater once memorably proposed cutting it off (along with the rest of the northeast) from America and letting it float out to sea. For some reason, his suggestion was not taken seriously, but modern technology that has made an honored prophet of Jules Verne may yet validate even the former senator from Arizona. Ann Douglas would not wish it so. Her survey of Manhattan in the 1920’s, I think, is an indirect celebration of it now, and touches on every part of our self-definition, of the national psyche, the emotional economy of the nation. Yet I should add that this celebration is highly ambivalent, a celebration keenly attuned to contradiction, to the ironies and obscurities of extremity, and to the paradoxes of the imagination.
To put it bluntly, Professor Douglas seems to see most human endeavor and behavior as psychodrama. Her highly nuanced account of Freud is nothing if not critical, vet she sees the modern era as Freudian both explicitly and by implication. She also sees the more “open” visions of William James and Gertrude Stein as alternatives that were widely accessible to the modern mind. But these presences do not, to mv own mind, seem to have connected as decisively as she claims with New York in the 1920’s. Two other presences, T.S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway, were conspicuous absences from Manhattan though not from Professor Douglas’s book, because, as she insists, they were part of modern consciousness. That’s true enough, but a bit awkward when you are defining things by a location.
Yet I suppose that she has won her point: New York is a state of mind. Still, a striking weakness of her book is one that is bound with its subject, and that is the lack of stature of the host of minor figures who peopled Manhattan in the 1920’s. Only some of them—F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hart Crane—are worth citing in the context of Freud, James, Stein, Eliot, and Hemingway. The skyscrapers she admires so much cast longer shadows than do Dorothy Parker, Elinor Wylie, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and many others of the period. At least three poets among these writers were obsessed with writing sonnets in quaint diction—defensible perhaps, but rather odd as a modernist stance.
The logic of literary ranking is swept away by Ann Douglas’s panoramic approach, which flattens the perspective so that all New York writers are just that, her broadly cultural approach equates all the arts, especially the popular arts as they become mass culture, with elite categories. Josephine Baker, whose “dancing seemed to center on shaking her rear end,” is juxtaposed with Martha Graham. Indeed, alcoholism itself seems to become a cultural statement related to the rebellion against Mother. Considering who foisted Prohibition on America, Douglas has a point—one that deserves to be extended.
But the pairing of Baker and Graham seems to me to be less productive of insight than Douglas’s repeated citation of Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew, the “Father of Public Relations” and author of Propaganda (1928). Bernays showed Madison Avenue how to exploit Freud’s theories in a way that did and does separate our world from what went before—a way that continues to offer leverage for power through all the media of expression, and identifies that manipulation with New York and its extensions. Though this defining complex is one of her strongest points, Ms. Douglas does not seem aware that it confirms much American (and international) suspicion of New York. But, as urban lingo would have it, so what? The rest of America does not have much presence in Terrible Honesty anyway, being mostly an endless source of hicks and suckers as well as an extended site of Ku Klux Klan gatherings and lynchings.
Relating her exposition to this country in some way, Professor Douglas continues her argument from The Feminization of American Culture (1977) as to the cultural ascendancy of the matriarch, and the attendant sentimentality and spurious spiritualism of the Victorian era in America. The revolt against the (s)mother was provoked and even justified by what she is right to see as the rot of liberal Protestantism. She understands the polities of smarm as well as the cost of toughness, and has related them in a unique and imposing vision. In many ways though not in all, Ms. Douglas argues from a firm grasp of the most literal definition of culture. She has a sure sense of the continuities of cultural and ultimately spiritual failure—it is rather on the point of success that many would take issue with her.
The most positive aspect of Terrible Honesty is its emphasis on sheer fun—on exuberance and zest, on theatricality, role-playing, and reversal. The account of the Jazz Age itself swings and indulges in notable riffs. The once vaunted “mongrelization of the races” fortifies Douglas’s subtitle with subtextual irony, for she shows a world in which black creativity depended on a white context, and in which white awareness required a black presence. The cultural prominence of the “New Negro” was a form of compensation for political and economic suppression. The new synthesis of mass culture arose just as the organs of the media were developed to disperse it globally—and this was a New York phenomenon, even though ragtime and blues and jazz were imported there. In this context, however, the distinction of such an artist and clown as Fats Waller is lost in the big picture that focuses on Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters. Professor Douglas’s unrelenting evenhandedness sometimes reminds me of the dreaded pieties of the matriarch she has vividly portrayed.
The best qualities of her book, I think, are two: she reminds us, in a time of resentment and resegregation, that some of the most successful American cultural innovations were produced by response and cooperation between blacks and whites. And as a feminist, she insists that “any view of women that slights social constructions and historical perspectives appears . . . misguided, self-serving, and dangerous; self-criticism must play a larger role than self-promotion in any seriously feminist enterprise.” These affirmations, remarkable today, must be commended on social, historical, political, and intellectual grounds, and also because I feel like it.
I am less satisfied, however, with other aspects of Terrible Honesty, particularly the absence of an account of the rise of organized crime in New York and in the country during Prohibition, and the penetration by organized crime of the entertainment industry. Douglas acknowledges the law-breaking style of the 20’s and implies that gangster talk and logic pervaded the language of toughness and truth-telling, but she lets the point go. It should be dwelt on, for if naughtiness is justified, then in the days of corporate capitalism, what’s wrong with a little business savvy? Jazz began in New Orleans, and so did the Mafia.
Jazz came out of whorehouses, was always connected with alcohol, became associated with drugs, and was situated in night clubs controlled by the mob. What did organized crime organize? Prostitution, gambling, alcohol, and drugs—a wink gets you in where the hot times are going on, and the tough guys get their cut. Harlem wasn’t innocent even in the old days. Dutch Schultz controlled the numbers racket there until he was shot in 1935. Joe Glaser managed Louis Armstrong and fronted for Al Capone. The Cotton Club was a mob joint that made Duke Ellington an offer he couldn’t refuse. Fats Waller once played for Al Capone for three days. But I don’t mean to attribute connections with the mob solely to the best black jazzmen.
There was in New York in the 20’s what we can call a culture of crime. Gangsters were cool. The mayor of New York, Jimmy Walker, admired by Ann Douglas and others for his style, was a crook. As Stephen Fox has indicated, Walter Winchell was not a crook, but he lived in the same apartment building as Frank Costello and accepted mob protection. Damon Runyon picked up his gangster lingo from the original sources—Al Capone and Arnold Rothstein being two of them. His stories, for all their colorful language, affirm the values of the mobsters. The mob had nothing to fear in New York from writers—quite the opposite, in fact.
Two particularly notable episodes in the New York of the Jazz Age are missing from Douglas’s account—notable, I say, because they entered everyone’s consciousness and were politically embarrassing to Jimmy Walker. One is the murder of Arnold Rothstein in 1928; another is the disappearance of Judge Crater in 1930. Arnold Rothstein, of course, actually did fix the 1919 World Series, as Meyer Wolfshiem, the gangster behind Jay Gatsby, is reputed to have done in Fitzgerald’s superb romance—the greatest literary product of its time and place.
The criminal connections had literary repercussions, and their echo should be noted in the silence. Raymond Chandler, whose phrase Douglas has taken for her title, put a bigshot mobster in every one of his seven novels. He did so not only because of the melodramatic and verbal or Runyonesque possibilities, but also because he insisted on representing his part of America as mob-connected from top to bottom. He did it because it was terribly honest, and secondly because, I believe, Fitzgerald had shown that it was mandatory.
In spite of what we might think of as the displacement of Lucky Fuciano by Gertrude Stein in Professor Douglas’s vision of New York in the old days, I am convinced that Terrible Honesty is an important work about America now (not to mention then)—and perhaps most important to those who do not share the values that may be implied by it. A dense, challenging, and subtle work, it deserves many readers and will no doubt evoke all sorts of responses. Let me add that its Bibliographical Essay is itself worth the price of admission. I know of no book that more decisively demonstrates how old modernism is, how entrenched in our minds. It is, I think, a sort of inverted handbook—an infernal guide to just about everything that is wrong with our country. Neither Mary Baker Eddy nor the revolt against her seems attractive today, but the choice was a false dilemma even then. And even in the 1920’s, there were Americans who knew it. Such a consciousness does not register in this account, but even Ann Douglas’s everything must have a stop.
Yes, we have no bananas. Her insight and energy notwithstanding, the heritage of the 1920’s does not seem to offer enough positive value to justify the emotional investment of Douglas’s study, which is best as revisionist analysis, not aesthetic advocacy. Even the discography appended to it is an admission (for the recordings are all historical) that jazz has become a museum piece, most often heard today—mostly by whites—as a recreation, The popular arts have largely become—how can I put this generously and objectively?—a coarse, boring, and industrialized mess, one largely the result of the destructive centralization packaged in that noble center of art and culture. New York in the 1920’s.
Going to the big city where Terrible Mom can’t see you get drunk and get laid is something that people have been doing since Nineveh. As an urbane classicist once pointed out to me, access to alcohol, prostitutes, and gambling is what cities have always provided, along with enough hoochie-coochie music to help you gag it down. Though the impulse to seek such services is quite understandable, it is, finally, something less than a cultural statement and even less a prescription for art. Worst of all, one result of excess is the tedious confession and sermonizing we have to endure from the survivors of it. Surveying the wreckage of a country, a culture, and a world, we would do well to look over at the emerging disaster in Eastern Europe, where freedom and Western or American culture mean alcoholism, gangsterism, pornography, swinging night clubs, and the rest of it. Sound familiar? And all of this without Christian Science!
Today nobody wants to take the A train up to Harlem anymore, and Lawrence Welk “plays” “jazz” for old geezers. The excitement of what was once a provocative beat has become the robotic manipulation of a computerized sound system. The prostitutes on Eighth Avenue actually twirl their handbags under street lamps, and being young and addicted to the hard stuff, they seem ghoulishly appealing, if that’s your taste. Skinny runaways from Podunk and Hicksville, they don’t live long, as a rule. Today we could not hope or even imagine that their pimp might be a genius like Jelly Roll Morton. But look on the bright side: today various drugs give you a better hit than booze ever did, and the bookies are still wired by the mob when they are not literally part of the state bureaucracy. Ain’t we got fun? I keep thinking of what a cultural critic more radical than Ann Douglas once said, though he didn’t say it in English and he was once rude to his mother: “Ye are the salt of the earth; but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted?”
[Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920’s, by Ann Douglas (New York Farrar, Straus & Giroux) 606 pp., $27.50]
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