Copyright, 1947, by Lloyd R. Morris
All rights reserved under International and
Pan-American Copyright Conventions
Published in New York by Random House, Inc.,
and simultaneously in Toronto, Canada,
by Random House of Canada, Ltd., 1947
Designed by Meyer Wagman
The story of the American mind and heart during the past fifty years, told with ironic wit and deep nostalgia; a book to make you enjoy the past and understand the present; a cavalcade of America that both recreates and interprets the most extraordinary era of our history.
In 1896, Americans serenely faced the future. They were moving along the highroad of progress, and moving fast. Just beyond the horizon lay the promised land. They differed chiefly about the best means of reaching what was so obviously attainable. Under the circumstances to be a pessimist was to be a queer fish.
In 1946 their mood was very different. During the interval, their physical and social environment had been completely transformed. They had advanced, as no other nation in history, toward power, wealth, and material possessions. In the common view, these were what made existence more secure and more satisfying. But few Americans considered life as secure and satisfying as it had been fifty years earlier. Confidence and faith had evaporated. Skepticism was commonplace. Pessimism. was no longer eccentric. The weather had shifted from fair to overcast, and the American dream had taken on the quality of a mirage.
The parallel developments of unexampled progress and deepening disillusion are the subject of this book. It surveys the radical changes that have occurred in our lifethe revolution ,in customs, manners, and moralsin terms of the journalists, writers, philosophers, and religious and social leaders who have shaped our contemporary culture and helped make the moral weather in which we are living today.
Lloyd Morris, teacher, critic, and man of letters, is best known for
his biography of Hawthorne (The Rebellious Puritan); his collaboration
with John van Druten in The Damask Cheek; and his autobiography, Threshold
in the Sun, which both the New Yorker and the New York Times compared to
that American classic, The Education of Henry Adams. By the publication
of Postscript to Yesterday he takes his place as one of the foremost social
historians of this generation. (Electronic Information Network entry on Lloyd R. Morris, 1893 - 1954)
ISADORA DUNCAN's love affairs were numerous and she embarked on every one as if it were destined to be perfect and permanent. She was less promiscuous than psychically virginal. Men failed her with tedious unanimity. She asked nothing of them - except perfection.
Short, stocky, exceedingly plain, EMMA GOLDMAN looked like a strong-minded, respectable housewife. She was strong-minded, no housewife, and anything but respectable. Her Prim white shirtwaist and black skirt disguised a proletarian Aspasia whose tempestuous love affairs, whatever their private Passion, were always public demonstrations of a theory. Emma Goldman loved theories with an indiscriminate ardor. The violence of her affection for ideas was equaled only by the violence of her antipathy to capitalists and reformers. As she was convinced that every attractive idea ought to be adopted, her life-except for intervals spent in prison-held few vacant moments. In the phrase of the day, she "believed in experience". So her path was littered with abandoned lovers and discarded philosophies. To all of them she had been faithful, in her fashion. Each had seemed irresistible-for a while.
DUTCH SCHULTZ performed a traditionally approved economic function. By effecting the consolidation of independent units, he eliminated waste, promoted efficiency and replaced the disorder of an obsolete individualism with rigorous discipline.... He cheerfully recognized the "right of the inefficient to die" and made himself its willing instrument. Death solved the problem of competition.
Like Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, MISS TEXAS GUINAN wished to redeem her world from the cardinal sin of dullness. Like Mrs. Fish, she was singularly free of illusions and possessed a notable talent for imaginative insult. Seated in the center of her nightly bedlam, her diamonds blazing and her gown shining with sequins, armed with a clapper and police whistle to ward off any intolerable momentary silence, she, would welcome patrons with a-, loud, cheerful, full-throated "Hello, sucker! ". . . . Life, as she saw it from her table, had the look of madness and she took a malicious pleasure in abusing it, making it more wacky, stepping up its frenzy.... By nature, she was a small-town woman, inclined to simple decencies.
There was a characteristically American irony in the fact that the most notable exponent of sexual freedorn was, like Miss Addams, a puritan -though unaware of being one. Yet it was not as a puritan that the American public saw Isadora Duncan when, fresh from European triumphs, she first toured the United States. Her small lovely head laurel-crowned, her nude body scarcely veiled, her feet bare, she danced her way across the continent. This was in the era of muffling fabrics, whaleboned morality. The mantelpiece had not yet shed its lambrequin, or the piano its pall. The female form had been invisible for nearly a century -a biological convenience designed, like the clothes tree, to support layered deposits of stuffs. Famous, beautiful and utterly fearless, Isadora challenged prudery. Wearing only a tunic, she restored to the living flesh its ancient authority.
She danced to the accompaniment of an orchestra conducted by Walter Damrosch. Parting the blue draperies of an empty stage, she entered like a figure from Greek sculpture, animated by the music of Gluck or Beethoven. Her dancing evoked chaste memories of classical antiquity. The purity of Greek art was obvious, especially to Americans who had never read their Plato. Isadora, returning to her native land as an evangelist of culture, inspired it to adopt her as a cult.
She had become a cult in Europe, also. There she was among the most widely known of all Americans, identified, like royalty, by her first name alone. Her beauty captivated and distracted great artists. Rodin made countless drawings of her body; so did Maillol and Bourdelle. She moved in a world of celebrities: actresses, writers, Russian princes, German philosophers, the leaders of society in London and Paris. Rumor was busy with her spendthrift extravagance, her successive infatuations. The legend which would long survive her was already in the making. The legend was false. Isadora was genuinely and ingenuously American, at heart a puritan bent upon improving the world. It was this simplicity which, to Europeans, made her seem so exceptionally complex.
She had a gipsylike childhood in San Francisco, where her mother, a divorced woman, supported a family in precarious respectability by teaching the piano. She wheedled credit from skeptical tradesmen, and taught dancing to neighborhood children to add to the family income. Sent to a master of ballet, she took three lessons and refused to continue: the exercises were ugly, and against nature. She escaped from school, as quickly as possible, in the same way. All during her life she was to resent any discipline, and dislike making any difficult intellectual effort. Like the heroine of "The Siege of London," she might have protested that these things didn't matter: "If I once get there, I shall be perfect." It was the common faith of the women of her day, and in her case it was justified.
As a girl, she read indiscriminately. Books afforded an escape from unlovely fact. From all her haphazard fluttering of pages she emerged with a distaste for reality, a tendency to mistake the obscure for the profound, and a cluster of wistful preferences. She had already decided that she would live to fight against marriage, and for the emancipation of women. She felt a constant spirit of revolt against the narrowness of the society in which she lived, against the limitations of life, and a growing desire to fly eastward, to a life which might be broader. Two generations of American artists, under the spur of the same discontent, were to follow her, reversing the tide of migration. Meanwhile, she had acquired some local reputation as a teacher: she called hers a new system of dancing, but in reality there was no system. Yet it was enough to give her a sense of vocation.
At eighteen, she set out eastward, to conquer the world. Untrained, uneducated, with nothing more than a strong conviction of her own talent, her purpose was quite clear. She would not study and master an art. She had invented one for herself; she would practice and teach it. Had she not "discovered the dance"? This was in the pioneer tradition of her forefathers, who had crossed the continent in a covered wagon. But it also expressed the puritan spirit. contemptuous of the accumulated experience of the past; concerned with the new and untried; intent only upon the future upon what may be and ought to be. Isadora's way led her, briefly, through Chicago and New York, where no welcome detained her. Then, on a cattleboat, to Europe.
Like James' Isabel Archer she brought to Europe little more than her meager knowledge, her inflated ideals, her confidence at once innocent and dogmatic, her temper at once exacting and indulgent. It was with these slender resources that, in her day, women were trying to make the world over. What wonder that they made a virtue of fumbling, or that they thought experience a continuous experiment? Isadora was no exception. She was unique only in carrying the prevailing attitude to its extreme consequences.
After five years of privation -sometimes she spent her days in museums, her nights in a public park- success came, as she had always known that it must. For had she not crossed the Atlantic, as she told a bewildered impresario, to bring about a renaissance of religion by means of the dance? Was she not a real American? The real American, she was certain, was not a gold chaser, or a money lover, as the legend classed him, but an idealist and a mystic. One needed only to listen to one's "inner voice", follow the gleam of one's "inner light" and share the resulting revelation. For experiment was, or should be, the most eloquent evangelism.
No less a reformer than Jane Addams and the others, she aspired to produce change over a wide realm of human affairs. 1 was never able to understand," she said, "why, if one wanted to do a thing, one should not do it." She wanted to revolutionize the art of the dance, and she did. She wanted to reform the early education of children; her schools had some effect upon later "progressive" methods. She wanted to make women cultivate their bodies, and adopt a new freedom in clothes. But, above all, she hoped to make the world accept a new gospel of sexual freedom, and a new ideal of maternity.
Her love affairs were numerous, and many were spectacular. Though they sprang from passion, Isadora conducted them on principle; they furnished a medium for her personal evangelic. Every new development in her life seemed to promise the beginning of an absolutely hew life. So she embarked on every love as if it were destined to be perfect and permanent. She was less promiscuous than psychically virginal. None of the major loves to which she gave herself brought her more than a transient happiness. Men failed her with a tedious unanimity. She asked nothing of them -except perfection. That passion was so often accompanied by a torrent of capitalized, abstract nouns did not, on the whole, make it easier for men to understand her. Most of them, captivated by her beauty, her fame, or her art, were soon disconcerted by her ideals, which they were expected to share but seldom even grasped. They wanted an adventure, and were offered an education. She was the victim of her conscience. Over love, the inner light burned perpetually. It was a prodigal contriver of mirages.
Isadora was always attracted by genius -or what she took to be genius. Sometimes, she was just attracted, and then the discovery of genius followed automatically. In either case, it led to trouble. There was, for example, Gordon Craig, the son of her friend, the great actress Ellen Terry. They met in Russia, where Isadora, already famous, was having a sensational success. Craig was on the threshold of his career as a designer of scenery for the theater. Young and extravagantly handsome, he was -like Isadora- supremely confident of his ability to revolutionize theatrical art. He, too, was deeply aware of a messianic vocation.
There were some months of wild, impassioned lovemaking, during which she made an effort to advance his career, while he endured, and tried, to fulfill, her exorbitant ambitions for him. Then there began the fiercest battle ever known, between the genius of Gordon Craig and the inspiration of her art.
There was, at a later stage, Paris Singer -she called him "Lohengrin" - the expatriate heir to a great American fortune. He entered her life when the expenses of her fabulous school in Paris were draining her equally fabulous earnings. It had always been her hope to have her school, and her art, subsidized by the state; the insecurity of her childhood inclined her to a vague kind of socialism. "Failing this, I must find a millionaire," she had said in jest. When Lohengrin offered to finance the school and provide her with her own theater, Isadora could think of him nothing less than a modern Lorenzo de Medici. And had not Lorenzo been a genius too? Soon, they became lovers. There opened the period of her legendary, expansive splendor. But Lohengrin had never been disciplined to the responsibilities of a Renaissance prince. He enjoyed the luxurious, selfish, meaningless existence of the modern rich. He was improbably generous, but did he, did he really, understand her art, share her ideals? He professed to, but could she be certain ? In endowing the artist, was he not merely indulging the mistress? Was this to be endured? Not by the inner light. Not by Isadora.
In her attraction to "genius" there was a large element of principle. Disbelieving in marriage from childhood, she had an exalted concept of maternity. She believed sexual freedom to be an inalienable right, and felt herself obliged to make society acknowledge it as such. Free unions opened new possibilities in maternity; above all, the exercise of eugenic selection in the choice of the father. Through such selection, society might deliberately produce great artists, philosophers, scientists. The dedicated moral will of women might bring about another golden age. In these circumstances, was it not also her obligation to illustrate the noblest use to which sex freedom could be put? On this theory she bore, and tragically lost, three children by different fathers. Two were accidentally drowned; one was born dead. She had conceived them as her hostages to faith. They were to have been her most eloquent argument for the need to make the world over. She never recovered from their loss. "A part of me," she said long afterward, "died with them."
In middle age, when her fortunes touched their lowest ebb and her public career appeared to be finished, there came to Isadora the opportunity for which she had always hoped. The government of the Soviet Union invited her to Moscow. She was to establish, and direct, a school to be maintained by the state. Her knowledge of the doctrines of Marx and Lenin was superficial. But the Russian experiment made claims upon her diffuse idealism, and it was easy for her to see in it the architecture of a future world order. She accepted the invitation enthusiastically. She would devote the rest of her life to creating a new proletarian art. The venture was to prove the most disastrous of her many projects.
Among other disillusions, it led to the last of her major love affairs the only one which, in the end, left her baffled and humiliated. Her lover was Serge Alexandreivitch Essenine, one of the literary discoveries hailed by the new Russia. He was a poet of doubtful merit. A blond peasant youth, still in his early twenties, he had been a violent Partisan of the revolution, and had turned to writing verse about the life of the proletariat. The subject matter of his poems made their popularity inevitable. His work went through many editions. He was, officially, proclaimed to be a genius.
This valuation Essenine was not disposed to question. Nor was Isadora, though their first meeting should have forecast what was in store for her. He came to her studio with a group of drunken comrades. She danced for him. When she had finished, he made a remark which provoked coarse laughter. Puzzled, Isadora asked for an explanation. Someone translated, in obvious embarrassment, "He says it was awful. . . . and that he can do better than that himself." Whereupon Essenine stumbled to his feet and began dancing about the studio like a crazy man.
He was an alcoholic, given to uncontrollable rages; perhaps in the early stages of an insanity which later led to his suicide. His brawling and his quarrels were among the favorite legends of Moscow's bohemia. But whatever tales rumor brought to Isadora she chose to ignore. She knew no Russian, and could not read his work. He knew no other language, and could not translate it for her. Could she doubt his genius? Apparently she detected in Essenine, awkwardly striving to invent an art of poetry, some spiritual affinity to the girl who, in a distant past, had determined to invent a new art of the dance. By this time, the Soviet government had withdrawn its promised financial support from her school. Characteristically, she decided to carry it on unaided. In order to raist money, she secured official permission to make a foreign tour. Arrangements were made for her to appear in Germany and the United States, and there were plans for engagements in France. She proposed to take Essenine with her, to show him all that Europe had of beauty, and all that America had of wonder. Under Soviet law, this was impossible unless he became her husband. Despite her lifelong prejudice against marriage, she married him.
The private misery of her tour was equalled only by its professional failure. In a letter to his coterie, Essenine outlined a poetic creed. "Let us be Asiatics. Let us smell evilly. Let us shamelessly scratch our backsides in front of everybody." This, he proceeded to apply to life with single-minded devotion. There were drunken rages, and much smashing of furniture in palace hotels. There were constant visits from the police, who always reduced him to meekness. There was a day when, finding Isadora weeping over the photographs of her drowned children, he tore them away from her and flung them into the fire. There was the discovery that he had stolen most of her clothing, which he destined as a gift to his mother and sister in Russia. There were daily scenes; there was daily public humiliation.
When they arrived in the United States, anti-Soviet sentiment was running high. They were detained at Ellis Island on the suspicion of being political agents. Isadora's indignation vented itself in an ill-advised speech at her first performance in New York. The press raised a hue and cry. In Boston, she used a red scarf in one dance; when complaint was made, she berated the audience from the stage. By this time, the charge of revolutionary activity had become a public sensation. In Indianapolis the police refused to permit Isadora' s appearance, but were persuaded to remain in the wings, ready to interrupt any seditious exhibition. The American portion of her tour collapsed in disaster.
After further scandals in France, Isadora returned to Russia, and was persuaded to divorce Essenine. Her belief in his genius was unshaken. She was able to forgive all the indignity to which he had subjected her. She could not forgive her failure to save him from himself. This cut deeply, as the sequel demonstrated. Some years later, Essenine committed suicide. Isadora was then in France, and completely destitute. The Soviet government proposed to transfer to her Essenine's funds, amounting to more than a quarter of a million francs. She refused to accept the money.
For two more years she existed in poverty and obscurity. Of her beauty, there remained only a melancholy ruin. Of her art, there remained only a memory. She continued to look hopefully to the future, She wrote her memoirs and, in a studio at Nice, worked at an art of mime which, she believed,would liberate her from dependence upon physical grace and the lost loveliness of youth. One day word was brought to her that Lohengrin, from whom she had long been estranged, had determined to come to her assistance.
At a nearby garage, there was a handsome youth who owned a small, low-slung car which he drove for tourists who made excursions in the vicinity. To celebrate her good fortune, Isadora sent him word to bring his car: she would make an expedition to a nearby hill town. She wound a bright scarf over her head and about her throat. She waited with a friend at her door, the long scarf trailing on the ground. The car came, and she took her seat. Jestingly, she said to her friend, "Je vais a la gloire."
The car sped forward. Her scarf flew out in the breeze like a banner.Then it dropped, tangled in a wheel, and her neck was broken. The youth, returning with her body, became hysterical. "I have killed the Madonna," he kept repeating.
The Madonna? In its paradoxical truth, the image might have pleased Isadora. But did it not have a wider application? The Madonna concentrated in herself the whole rebellion of man against fate, and the whole unutterable fury of human nature beating itself against the walls of its prison house. She was above law; she took feminine pleasure in turning hell into an ornament; she delighted in trampling on every social distinction in this world and the next.
And had not they, too, shared this emotion all the grave, troubled ones who, in the American "paradise of women," devotedly interceded to procure remission of the sins of men?