Archibald MacLeish—”macarchibald maclapdog macleish,” e.e. cummings dubbed him—wondered, from his sinecure as Librarian of Congress in 1940, why “the writers of our generation in America” had such a provincial indifference to the war in Europe. They seemed, in Bernard De Voto’s phrase, more interested in Paris, Illinois, than in Paris, France. The reaction to this poetaster’s question—indeed, the fact that it was asked at all—tells us much about the lost America of prewar days. MacLeish was jeered by his peers and taken to task by his more talented and “acutely isolationist” coeval Edmund Wilson, who harrumphed that MacLeish “has a good deal to say about liberty . . . but he makes it perfectly plain that he believes that, as a matter of policy, certain kinds of dissentient writers should be discouraged from expressing their ideas.”
This has ever been true, as those who chorus loudest in the pews of Democracy jam the decapitated heads of heretics in the sacristy, but in Wilson’s day the dissentients had moxie enough to protest. I am reminded of a reporter who traveled recently to Wilson’s hometown of Talcottville, New York. The visitor asked the locals for their recollections of the great man; typical was the woman who remembered, as a girl, walking home from school past Wilson’s Old Stone House every day, and every day a stout stuttering drunk would emerge onto the porch to holler “G-g-g-get the hell out of here!” This is curmudgeonliness beyond the call of duty, but the proprietary principle underlying Wilson’s bile is valuable: the lawn (and this country) belonged to him, and he would not allow interlopers to defile it.
Edmund Wilson had plenty of company. Citizens of the United States have accepted the myth that American writers— make that all persons of intelligence and worth—had rallied to the banner of Mars by 1940. Oh, there were exceptions, we suppose—for instance the insane Jew-baiting fascist Ezra Pound or the Germanophile poet George Sylvester Viereck—but they merely confirm the rule. In fact, the MacLeishes were outnumbered (and outwritten) by the Wilsons, and for every Edna St. Vincent Millay versifying the magnificence of mass slaughter there was a Robinson Jeffers issuing dark warnings that war carried the pod of the empire that would replace our perishing Republic. Indeed, it is useful to think of Jeffers and Wilson and company as the men fighting to stay human in Don Siegel’s classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. If they are sometimes hysterical, so was Wilson’s brother-in-law Kevin McCarthy, whose idyllic Santa Mira was remade as thoroughly as our America.
American writers were once citizens of the Republic first and foremost, and they participated in the nation’s governance as such. The best were by and large Jeffersonians: figures as disparate as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman called themselves “Loco Focos,” the libertarian purists of the Jacksonian era. The dominant political coloring of American writers has been “petty-bourgeois anarchist,” in Ursula Le Guin’s self-description. You can trace a straight line and it connects the unlikeliest dots, from Emerson (“Massachusetts, in its heroic day, had no government—was an anarchy. Every man stood on his own feet, was his own governor; and there was no breach of peace from Cape Cod to Mount Hoosac”) to Hemingway (“I hate tyranny and, I suppose, government. . . . No larger unit than the village can exist without things being impossible”).
When in 1898 a confused William McKinley ignored the sound Ohio advice of his front-porch advisors Mark Hanna and William Rufus “Good” Day and plunged us into war with Spain, a wide variety of men of letters opposed our splendid little misadventure, among them William Dean Howells, Mark Twain, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Hamlin Garland, and William Graham Sumner. They were a politically diverse lot, ranging from the mild Ohio socialism of Howells to Professor Sumner’s Yale laissez-faire capitalism, and though Theodore Roosevelt called them “unhung traitors,” they were patriots of the Republic who despaired at “seeing the America of my youthful dreams vanish from mv sight,” in E.L. Godkin’s plangent words.
Four decades later the imperial reveries of the Roosevelt of Oyster Bay were materializing under his fifth cousin from Hyde Park. This time, even more American writers went into opposition: Sherwood Anderson, e.e. cummings, Kathleen Norris, Theodore Dreiser, William Saroyan, Louise Bogan, Edgar Lee Masters, Henry Miller, Henry W. Clune, Sinclair Lewis, Samuel Hopkins Adams, and Dwight Macdonald, among others. How perfect that Lewis, Anderson, and Masters, the Midwestern trio that led what was (mistakenly) termed “the revolt from the village”—in fact each sought to revive the village—were isolationist defenders of the old America.
Masters, the crotchety elder of the bunch, could have told them what was in store for those who object to a holy war. I’he Spoon River poet had had a picturesque Illinois boyhood that endowed him with a confident Americanism. As a lad. Masters had known Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, and John McNamar, the man who dumped Ann Rutledge into melancholy Abe’s lap. Cussedly independent. Masters became a vituperative critic of Father Abraham and a poetic champion of his state’s unfavorite son, Stephen Douglas. His hostile Life of Lincoln (1931) provoked critical vitriol, which spattered the poet’s oeuvre; his reputation, already tarnished by his uneven work since Spoon River Anthology in 1915, sunk to the level of Edgar Guest.
Sure, Masters could be sour and splenetic, but he was also a sentimental Jeffersonian who as a young man loathed the Spanish-American War and insisted that his hero William Jennings Bryan “hold America to its noble path, its primal vision.” Forty years later the primal vision was dimming, and Masters slipped into senectitude, bitter about the leitmotif of American history, that of the good guys—Douglas and Bryan and Masters—losing, time after time, and getting clobbered by the history books withal.
Not all of these writers who fought and mourned the Republic’s demise were of a high order. Samuel Hopkins Adams, for instance, the feisty muckraker of Lake Owasco, fits Vernon Parrington’s assessment of William Cullen Bryant: “He may not have been a great poet, but he was a great American.” Such a description also applies to Kathleen Norris, the prolific ladies’ novelist who spoke frequently at America First gatherings. Mrs. Norris spent her girlhood among the redwoods in Mill Valley, California, where, as she describes in her charming autobiographical sketch Noon (1925), her father “read us the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address, and talked to us of the glories of our own nation.”
Of our own nation. What a pregnant locution. It was our nation, these writers knew, and they were not afraid to raise their voices when the political leadership acted foolishly or malevolently. Sinclair Lewis would have scoffed at Norris’s claim that “the happiest life in the world” was “the life of American women in a small American town,” but that is because he seriously believed that Gopher Prairie, which he loved beyond measure, should be an American Athens. The decentralist populism implicit in Mrs. Norris’s formulation provided the only real alternative to the New Deal. Its political expression was articulated by such men as Senators Burton K. Wheeler, Gerald P. Nye, and Hiram Johnson; it looked to the plains towns and tidy villages, to the shopowners and farmers and artisans and anyone else who, like Edmund Wilson, “thinks up his own notions and signs his own name.”
The mighty cities were falling, and the dreams had taken to the hinterlands. From Carmel, Robinson Jeffers wrote:
But for my children, I would have them keep their
distance from the thickening center; corruption
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the
monster’s feet there are left the mountains.
The specter of regimentation bothered even the more perceptive interventionists. Playwright Maxwell Anderson, a reluctant hawk, warned that “participation in a modern war means dictatorship, even for us, and the abrogation of our liberties. Dictatorships are hard to get rid of, liberties are hard to win back.”
Anderson was an ornery Pennsylvanian. His Pulitzer Prizewinning play Both Your Houses (1933) featured a fresh young congressman so naive he makes Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith look like Dan Rostenkowski. The honest tyro quickly learns that “the sole business of government is graft, special privilege and corruption.” Despite his rough baptism he remains an optimist, convinced that sooner or later the People will revolt, but a wiser hack delivers a prescient postscript: “They’re just learning to pay taxes,” he says of the suckers beyond the Potomac. “In a few more years you’ll really give ’em taxes to pay.” Anderson was a peculiarly American sort of crank who refused to fill out his Social Security application on the grounds that it infringed upon his rights as a freeman. (Governments are “run by pimps who get kicked out of hothouses for picking the customers’ pockets,” a rebel soldier says in the playwright’s superb 1934 verse drama. Valley Forge.)
Maxwell Anderson learned firsthand the narrowing limits of dissent in the brave new Republic. His original script for Knickerbocker Holiday (1938), a collaboration with Kurt Weill, contained numerous pungent references to FDR until his fellow members of The Playwrights Company—rugged recusants all, they would tell you, carefree bohemian seekers of the truth—pressured him to soften the satire. So toothless was his revised script that the President himself heartily enjoyed a D.C. production of the play. Anderson did, however, refuse to attend a cast party at the White House—the ultimate humiliation for a proud heterodox man.
Anderson-like submission was never an option for an obstreperous Armenian boy from Fresno, William Saroyan. As a lad he was a dreamy foe of nationalism; his early story Antranik of Armenia rages against the futility of war: “It is always people, not nations, because it is all one nation, the living, so why . . . kill one another?” Yet he was also a proud son of the diaspora. Carol Marcus, the snotty deb who married Saroyan twice and has since spent five decades knocking him, wrote, “You could not spend more than five minutes with Bill without know ing not only that he was Armenian, but that he was THE Armenian. You learned in a half hour the entire history of the Armenian people and even a few words of their language.” Sarovan was a patriot in the Mark Twain sense of “loyalty to one’s country, not to its institutions or its office-holders.”
Carol, the model for Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly (and now married to the fine rumpled actor Walter Matthau), recalls that Saroyan’s fire was damped when he was drafted in 1942. Rejecting her comforting thought that things would soon return to normal, he said, “It will never be the same.” Carol adds, “And he wasn’t. He never got over the war. It ruined his life.” William Saroyan was not killed or maimed in combat; he never so much as sliced his finger doing KP duty. He was ruined because he was a gregarious anarchist, a free Armenian-American spirit at a time when the country had been taken over by men like MacLeish, who had “the soul of a meat axe and the mind of a commissar,” to swipe Clare Boothe Luce’s description of Harold Ickes.
Lousy at soldiering, miserable in his London billet, Saroyan struck a deal with Kentucky agrarian-turned-superhawk Herbert Agar in the Office of War Information. He would churn out a patriotic novel in exchange for a month-long furlough in New York with Carol and his infant son. The novel The Adventures of Wesley Jackson may well be the best thing Saroyan ever wrote. It is a charming tale of a shy 19-year-old draftee from San Francisco with a Saroyanesque kind heart who comes to feel that “our own Army was the enemy.” Wesley Jackson chooses loyalty to his drunken Pop and waif of a wife and shambling pals over obedience to the authorities. “There is no truth excepting it is from love,” he learns, and the knowledge fills him with contempt for the liars and poltroons who run his country. Attached to a unit of writers and directors making training films, Wesley comes to despise these intellectuals who are “full of the lust to kill, full of hate for the dirty little yellowbelly Japs or the cowardly Germans, and full of a most astonishing and superhuman courage in the face of death. But they always drove out to the country in the evening, and when everybody else got shipped overseas they were still writing scenarios for films encouraging ever) body else to face death like a scenario writer.”
Imagine Commissar Herbert Agar’s face as he reads this manuscript, ostensibly a propaganda job, which ends, “Human beings must not murder one another. They must wait for God to take them in His own good time.” Agar and his fellow educated censors were furious. They rejected the novel, canceled the leave, and even threatened the author with court-martial.
>When the book was finally published in 1946, Saroyan earned his time on the cross. “He uses fantasy and sentimentality for a dangerous and sinful purpose—to discredit the causes in which we fought and the men who did the fighting,” fumed Irwin Shaw in the New York Times Book Review. Actually, the “men who did the fighting” come off quite well, as ordinary people always do in Saroyan’s works.
No matter. Overnight, the immensely popular Saroyan went into one of those eclipses that we later profess to be inexplicable but whose causes are in fact plain even to the purblind. His new country had become unrecognizable, so he retreated, in spirit, to the old. He grew a walrus mustache and played the part of Armen Armenian to perfection. His only outlets were the small and experimental presses, and even the worthy episodic memoirs he gave us in his final years attracted little notice. The daring young man had fallen from the trapeze, and to a scornful clerisy he was just a bloated Armenian elder sipping arrack in the taverns of Fresno.
Saroyan became a bitter old man beside whom Edmund Wilson seemed a mellow, cuddly teddy bear. He wrote a brilliant obit for Carl Sandburg, observing that the People, Yes! poet “had no failure or frustration, had never been accused of treason, never committed to a hospital for the insane, never been hated, despised, held in contempt, abandoned, hounded, misunderstood, misinterpreted, scorned, belittled, dishonored.” Like Maxwell Anderson, Saroyan committed lese majesty. He later loved to boast that he and James Thurber, alone among a throng of artists being schmoozed at Hyde Park by the First Family, refused to shake FDR’s hand. Petty and ungentlemanly or a defiant act of conscience: you make the call.
William Saroyan stood as resolute and upright as he could while the arrows whizzed by his head. He was not imperturbable like Charles Lindbergh, but then Lindy had the love of Anne Morrow, and Bill was being dumped by a spoiled brat. Against the New York Times and the U.S. Army, a bibulous, garrulous Armenian anarchist hadn’t a chance.
Nor did Robinson Jeffers, however popular his poetry, however impregnable Tor House, the stone cottage he built with his own hands. Jeffers had seen “the dance of the Dream-led masses down the dark mountain” a quarter-century before, and like other American republicans he feared a replay. Jeffers suffered the indignity of a publisher’s disclaimer prefacing his volume The Double Axe (1948). Affixed by Bennett Cerf, it stated, “Random House feels compelled to go on record with its disagreement over some of the political views pronounced by the poet.” Cerf congratulated himself for recognizing “the writer’s freedom to express his convictions boldly and forthrightly” but refrained from mentioning that ten poems had been expurgated from the book. (One of the suppressed poems had FDR meeting Woodrow Wilson in Hell; another envisioned bombers dropping “wreaths of roses” upon a cheerful village whose boys hang “Hitler and Roosevelt in one tree, / Painlessly, in effigy.” No one ever accused Jeffers of obliqueness.)
The poet—”an old-fashioned Jeffersonian republican . . . defender of the spartan and honest American commonweal against the thickening of the empire,” in Robert Hass’s phrase—had prescience, which we often confuse with pessimism. As early as 1943 he predicted:
Two bloody summers from now (I suppose) we shall have
to take up the corrupting burden and curse of victory.
We shall have to hold half the earth; we shall be sick
And hated by friend and foe, and hold half the earth—
or let it go, and go down with it. Here is a burden
We are not fit for. We are not like Romans and
Bullies by instinct—but we have to bear it. Who has
kissed Fate on the mouth, and blown out the lamp—
must lie with her.
For his prevision and refusal to jettison his anachronistic beliefs, Jeffers “put his signature on a death warrant,” William Everson has written. Critics who one year earlier had lauded Jeffers’ adaptation of Medea as a major achievement in American drama now spat upon the pariah. A “necrophilic nightmare!” Time kecked at The Double Axe. Jeffers’ eclipse was as complete as Sarovan’s—though, happily, a later generation of naturalists revived the man who loved avian hawks and detested the human kind.
The antiwar writers were not, in the main, pacifists. They were American patriots who understood that war and the resultant empire would bury the American Republic and corrupt the American people. This was true even of the pedigreed conscientious objector Robert Lowell. The Great Descendant had an endearing New England proprietary patriotism. Like a true Brahmin, he sent President Roosevelt a “Declaration of Personal Responsibility,” which explained that “in 1943 we are collaborating with the most unscrupulous and powerful of totalitarian dictators to destroy law, freedom, democracy, and above all, our continued national sovereignty.” A Massachusetts eccentric and hater of cant, Lowell would have no part of a crusade-in-arms with Stalin. The poet won a stint behind the metal of honor for his resistance. (Twenty-five years later Lowell accompanied one of the last of the American republicans. Senator Eugene McCarthy, on his suicidal challenge to the Democratic establishment. The painfully earnest young liberals who surrounded McCarthy regarded Lowell as a debilitating distraction: in Lowell’s company, the candidate would joke and drink and compose irreverent doggerel and act altogether human and unworthy of ADA support.)
Despite the widespread anti-FDR sentiment one finds among American writers, disappointingly few novelists wrote explicitly political books about the ways in which the New Deal and the Good War were changing America. John Dos Passos contributed a diffuse novel, The Grand Design (1949), which follows two well-meaning mid-level New Dealers from the First One Hundred Days to the onset of war as they try “to make America over from Portland, Oregon, to Brownsville on the Rio Grande.”
Halfway through the novel Dos Passos abandons his story and runs off to scrawl placards denouncing manipulative communists who dupe lonely single career gals into spilling state secrets. This is the dreary internal world of someone who has sat through way too many sectarian left taffy-pulls. If only he had been indifferent to the Spanish Civil War, as most good Americans were, he would not have cluttered his books with such urgent sloganeering, and we would be more convinced when Dos Passos concludes The Grand Design with this adjuration:
we must learn
to found again
Dos Passos’ friend Edmund Wilson thought The Grand Design a decent novel that was poorly received because it “shocked people as blasphemy against the Great White Father.” Dos Passos was a good amateur historian who understood what was up in his changing country, and the knowledge accounts for the miry funk into which his midcentury fiction fell. Wilson, too, kenned our predicament, which is why he, almost alone among major critics, paid respectful attention to Dos Passos’ “right-wing” novels.
The amiable dispute between these two old pals tells us much about the crazy skew of American politics. They agreed on almost all the big issues: but for the lack of italicized prose poetry, Wilson’s The Cold War and the Income Tax (1963) could be taken for a terser Dos Passos in a foul mood. Alas, the white noise of the left-right din deafened them to the harmony of their views, and they quarreled over trifling matters such as Dos Passos’ ardor for Barry Goldwater, which Wilson called “too girlish for words.”
More effective than Dos Passos at limning the ways in which America had been remade was John P. Marquand, who by 1941 had adopted a public pose of political ambiguity, thus avoiding—partly—the calumny heaped upon more forthright isolationists. Mrs. Adelaide Marquand was the America Firster, and while her husband was sympathetic he didn’t need a weatherman to tell him which way the wind blew. John P. told a friend in 1939 that the monies raised at his Harvard class reunion should be put to “keeping America out of the European war,” but a year later he was throwing up his hands: “I find myself in the uncomfortable position of not being able to decide what the United States ought to do in this war.” He permitted the America First Committee to hold dinners at his apartment, where he hobnobbed with Norman Thomas and Charles Lindbergh, but he assured his interventionist friends, “Don’t bother about Adelaide’s America First stuff—an activity with which I have never been wholly in sympathy, and less now than ever before.” Marquand straddled the fence, a good Republican, a “non-New Dealer” who insisted, “There has never been any isolationist sentiment to speak of . . . among those who are in the New England tradition.”
But his skillful novels make plain the author’s sympathies. So Little Time, published in 1943, is a requiem for the old America, disappearing in the smoke and clangor of wartime. B.F.’s Daughter (1946), which the author called “a novel of manners” drawn from his wartime service in Washington, contains a scoffing portrait of a New Deal speechwriter, Tom Brett, demotic on the surface but walking evidence that “all liberals were turning into self-righteous, complacent social snobs.” Tom marries the daughter of a headstrong but honest titan of industry who, as one fatuous radio chickenhawk puts it, “represented a way of life and a mechanism of life that is completely gone. . . . It’s gone, and I don’t know where it went, and what’s more, I can’t entirely remember what it was, although we all lived in it. We’re like fish being moved from one aquarium to another.”
This idea (minus the piscine metaphor) recurs throughout the novel. The war is changing America: indeed, “nothing matters that happened before the war.” A new order is at hand, drab and grey and conformist. “No one seems to be an individual anymore,” one spirited lady complains, even as the air is thick with platitudes about the Four Freedoms and the coming More Abundant Life. “Personally, I thought the world we used to live in, cockeyed though it was, was better,” says one of Marquand’s gentlemen. So did many Americans.
By the 1950’s it was all over. America was remade, from sea to shining sea, and though the Beats noticed this and raised a fuss (“America was invested with wild self-believing individuality and this had begun to disappear around the end of World War II with so many great guys dead,” fretted Jack Kerouac), they were condemned as barbarians and then ridiculed and then honored for all the wrong reasons, and finally these holy fools were dealt the coup de grace of postwar America: they got tenure and won NEA grants.
By 1963 Edmund Wilson, despairing that “our country has become today a huge blundering power unit controlled more and more by bureaucracies whose rule is making it more and more difficult to carry on the tradition of American individualism,” had concluded that “this country, whether or not 1 continue to live in it, is no longer any place for me.” Wilson stayed, though no one much cared, and in his final years he retreated to Talcottville, as secluded a fastness as any Jeffers mountain. He died deeply in debt to the IRS, which needed the money to fill up yet another blood-lake.
Wilson was one of the lucky ones. He was treated indulgently, as a kind of national village crank, but even the Presidential Medal of Freedom that his fellow America Firster John F. Kennedy awarded him could not keep Wilson from falling— with Masters and Saroyan and the rest—into the slough of despond. The Republic had perished, and these men were quite unable to revive it. They left us only road maps, soiled upon issue and now yellowed from years of neglect, but readable just the same.