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III/ American Commitments

Modernist Commitments and American National Cultural Identity in the Interwar Period



Dans les années 1910 et au début des années 1920 émergent différentes représentations de l’identité culturelle américaine qui témoignent de la capacité de l’intelligentsia américaine à critiquer et à dépasser de manière créative la « genteel tradition » des années antérieures, et à répondre au complexe d’infériorité que de nombreux intellectuels américains nourrissent envers l’Europe. Parmi ces réactions, le Modernisme localiste, et en particulier celui de William Carlos Williams, propose l’une des conceptions les plus intéressantes de ce que pourrait être l’apport spécifique du Modernisme américain. A la fin des années 1920 et au début des années 1930, le débat sur l’identité culturelle américaine prend une nouvelle direction alors que les avant-gardes européennes déclinent et que le Modernisme localiste se renforce sous la poussée d’une nouvelle avant-garde politique. Une nouvelle étape est franchie lorsque, sous Roosevelt, l’état contribue activement, et de manière inédite, à la définition d’une identité culturelle américaine.

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Introduction. Challenging the Genteel Tradition: Rethinking American Cultural Identity

1Looking back on the twenties in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize he was offered in 1930, Sinclair Lewis made it clear that he owed his achievement—it was the first time that a Nobel Prize for Literature was granted to an American—to a whole generation of writers, including Theodore Dreiser, Eugene O’Neill, Willa Cather, H.L. Mencken, Sherwood Anderson, Upton Sinclair, and Ernest Hemingway. As Malcolm Cowley wrote in his 1937 essay “The Revolt against Gentility”, “it seemed to Lewis that all these authors were united into one crusading army by their revolt against the genteel tradition” (Cowley 9). Today, associating Dreiser and O’Neill, Hemingway and Mencken might sound strange. However, I would like to follow Lewis’s suggestion, and examine how all these writers of the twenties addressed the same issue, though in different ways: behind the “revolt against gentility”, American national cultural identity was—once more—at stake.

2Although the U.S. had been leading the Western world since the beginning of the 20th century at least, and was increasingly defining its modernity, the interwar period was a time of strong cultural anxiety. As evidenced by the broad spectrum of intellectual and artistic responses to the Machine Age, modernity was both an incentive for modernist creation and a source of intense confusion. Moreover, at a time when American artists and intellectuals increasingly questioned the conservatism of the U.S., the radical art of the European avant-gardes displayed on the old continent and increasingly on the American soil—at the 1913 Armory Show and in subsequent exhibitions—came as a shock. Faced with such instability as to its cultural status, and no longer able to rely on the simplistic answers provided by the genteel tradition, a new generation of intellectuals felt the need to reinvent its national romance.

3In the teens and early twenties, various notions of American cultural identity emerged, testifying to the creativity of the American intelligentsia in criticizing and overcoming the genteel tradition. Among these responses, localist Modernism, and in particular William Carlos Williams’s Modernism shaped one of the most progressive conceptions of American national cultural identity that developed in the interwar period. In the late twenties and early thirties, the debate over American national cultural identity took a new direction as the European avant-gardes declined and indigenous Modernism strengthened with the rise of a new political avant-garde. A new step was reached when under Roosevelt, the state actively contributed to the definition of the cultural identity of the nation, to an extent and along lines that had never been imagined before.

41908 is a crucial date, both for expatriate and indigenous Modernisms. Pound left the U.S. and started publishing in 1908. 1908 is also the launching date of The New York Little Renaissance, “a revolt of prominent artists and writers motivated by the ideas and spirit of iconoclasm, Modernism and nationalism” (Wertheim xi). In 1908, Van Wyck Brooks, known for coining such phrases as “a usable past” and “highbrow and lowbrow”, published The Wine of the Puritans and Mencken joined the staff of The Smart Set. Pound, and the fellow expatriates who soon followed, as well as the artists and intellectuals of the New York Little Renaissance shared the same negative vision of American culture, a vision that they expressed throughout the teens and the twenties. According to them, American culture was still dominated by the most unattractive, conservative aspects of American life, such as Puritanism, colonialism, and censorship. As a result, they found American literature sentimental and escapist. Bourgeois conventionality was at its worst in the American small town, which Sinclair Lewis described in Main Street and Babbitt in 1920 and 1922.

5America’s Coming of Age by Van Wyck Brooks in 1915, Randolph Bourne’s The Puritan’s Will to Power and H.L. Mencken’s A Book of Prefaces in 1917, Waldo Frank’s Our America in 1919, and Harold Stearns’ Civilization in the United States in 1921 are some of the critical landmarks that helped express the frustration that many American intellectuals had been developing towards their country. Van Wyck Brooks wrote about the failure of American culture. For William Carlos Williams in a 1921 editorial of Contact magazine, America had become “an artistic desert” out of “ignorance” (qtd. in Bruccoli and Trogdon 139). In “On Being an American”, in 1922, Mencken saw the U.S. as “essentially a commonwealth of third-rate men” (Mencken 22). All these comments expanded on what philosopher George Santayana had already stated in a 1911 talk entitled “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy”: “America is a young country with an old mentality: it has enjoyed the advantages of a child carefully brought up, and thoroughly indoctrinated; it has been a wise child. But a wise child, an old head on young shoulders, always has a comic and an unpromising side […] so much so that Mr Bernard Shaw finds that America is a hundred years behind the times.” (Santayana 3) All these critics felt contempt for the genteel tradition, “where all plots ended on a note of hope and progress both moral and material” (Meigs 88), and where the leading magazines of the era, Scribner’s, Harper’s, The Century, and The Atlantic Monthly left “a need for intellectual communication” as Pound remarked in a 1908 essay on little magazines (Pound 690).

Transnationalism: Expatriate and Localist Modernisms

  • 1 Stearns later adopted a more positive vision of the U.S. in Rediscovering America (1934), America, (...)

6As a response to this shared analysis of America’s cultural plight, various constructions of American cultural identity developed. I would like to mention three. The most obvious if not the most representative response to the disillusionment with American culture was expatriation. Stein and Pound led the way, and many more followed as the criticism of America’s genteel tradition expanded. The publication of Civilization in the United States in 1921 seems to have played a crucial role: according to Kerin R. Sarason and Ruth L. Strickland, it was “the book that inspired many dissatisfied young Americans to go abroad” (Sarason and Strickland 358). In 1927, 40,000 Americans lived in Paris. For some, like Harold Stearns, expatriation materialized in their rejection of the U.S. In 1928, at a time when many expatriates were returning to the U.S., Stearns refused to come back and in an open letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald, he justified his decision by writing that “in the U.S. you are not free.” (Stearns 197)1 However, for many, expatriation was not a rejection of American identity, but created a distance which allowed them to deal with their relationship to their own country, as Stein did in The Making of Americans. For others, like William Carlos Williams, John Dos Passos or Nathanael West, expatriation also allowed for finding inspiration from other cultural models (and European avant-gardes in particular). What this conception of American identity rejected was the tenets of nationalism. And the cosmopolitan and nonrepresentational art that flourished in Europe favored the expression of the “universals that transcend national boundaries” (Noble 167). American exiled little magazines constituted privileged venues for artists and writers who wished to look beyond national borders. They created an international community of contributors and were usually characterized by a rejection of nationalism, of American provincialism and of realism. However, it would be misleading to stick to this representation alone. A case in point is transition, a late modernist magazine created and directed by Eugene Jolas, a Franco-American journalist and poet who had spent very little time in the U.S. transition adopted the avant-garde radical discourse of the tabula rasa, expressed in particular in various manifestos. However, a closer study of the magazine reveals traces of neo-romantic discourses and a craving for organic unity shared with, and probably borrowed from, the cultural nationalists back home.

7The cultural nationalists were one of the coteries of the Little Renaissance. Literary and social critics associated with The Seven Arts and The New Republic magazines led this group: Van Wyck Brooks, Randolph Bourne, Waldo Frank, James Oppenheim, Paul Rosenfeld and Herbert Croly. They promoted the new American school of social realists (Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, and Edgar Lee Masters) and rallied around the need to create a genuinely national culture which would bind the “highbrow” and the “lowbrow”, the idealists and the materialists, into a spiritual, organic unity. Opposing the inorganic nature of British colonial culture, the cultural nationalists believed that the most sacred moment in the history of the U.S. was the period between 1830 and 1860, when the national landscape had produced a literature free from European influence, and they hoped to renew an American sense of unity as a nation through art and spiritual values. The agenda of the cultural nationalists was later echoed in a very influential history book, Charles and Mary Beard’s The Rise of American Civilization, published in four volumes between 1927 and 1942—and whose title might be understood as a response to Stearns’s book. As Noble indicates, this extremely popular synthesis of U.S. history reconstructed a national romance around the idea that the only permanent reality that existed in the world was the nation (Noble 24).

8Although cultural nationalists were not primarily modernists, their role is essential in understanding the localist Modernism of another Little Renaissance group, which included the poets published in Others magazine (such as Kreymborg, Williams and Moore), and later in Contact, The Little Review, Blues and Pagany, the Stieglitz circle of artists and the members of various little theatre movements such as the Provincetown Players. As Eric White recalls in his recent book on little magazines and localist Modernism, “localism—the specificities of place, time, nationality, region and milieu—emerged as component of (rather than as a trend opposed to) the transnationalism generally taken to characterise literary Modernism.” (White 1) As White specifies, localism has nothing to do with an American regionalist, antimodernist tradition represented by painters such as John Steuart Curry, Grant Wood, and Thomas Hart Benton. Localism is not a question of place in the traditional sense of the word. It is not about “local color” or representation, but it rather signals a deep attachment to actual experience, as Williams himself suggests (Bennett 278), and relies on John Dewey’s notion that the locality is the only universal.

9A major exponent of localist Modernism was William Carlos Williams. Localism for Williams is about America’s invention of its own artistic idiom. Williams makes it clear in the first series of Contact that “Americans are still too prone to admire and to copy the very thing which should not be copied, the thing which is French or Irish alone.” (qtd. in Bruccoli and Trogdon 139) Williams’s idea of writing is to start from one’s own experience to “ascend to a plane of almost abstract design”, which consists in “liberat[ing] literature from reference, or representation”, that is to say “liberat[ing] its medium, words, from the associations and contexts of past usage—in short, from history.” (Bennett 273). In order to create a new language, something uniquely American, Williams did use dadaist and surrealist strategies; in other words, he was influenced by European avant-gardes, even though he tended to deny it. The slogan of the second series of Contact magazine in 1932 was “Cutting a trail in the American jungle without the use of a European compass”. But two years before, in transition magazine, he had published extracts from A Novelette, a piece strongly influenced by French Dadaism and Surrealism. The result however was unmistakably American: A Novelette is one of the best American surrealist experiments of the interwar period (Mansanti 2007). Williams’s approach of American identity is anything but nationalist. When writing a history of the U.S. from Eric the Red to Lincoln in In the American Grain, Williams combines what could be called national literature with formal, abstract experimentalism and unexpected, personal, cosmopolitan, present-day incursions: halfway through the book, in the chapter entitled “Père Sebastian Rasles”, the author steps in as a first-person narrator to relate events that occurred during a six-week trip in Paris where he met Picasso, Braque, Stein, Tzara and many others (Williams 105).

10Williams’s conception of American national identity is marked by pluralism and porosity. So are the various conceptions of American national identity I have tried to sketch so far. Expatriate Modernism, cultural nationalism and localist Modernism share more than they would appear at first. I already underlined the porosity of the frontiers between expatriate Modernism and the cultural nationalists’ neo-romantic longing for organic unity. But the same applies to expatriate and localist Modernisms. Localist modernists such as Kreymborg, Williams and Moore did travel to Europe. Many little magazines, such as Broom, Secession and The Little Review, crossed the ocean during the course of their publication. Indigenous and expatriate modernists were published both in American and expatriate little magazines, and both published the works of the international avant-gardes. “Staying at home was a conscious choice which did not necessarily imply withdrawal from the international context of the modernist movement.” (Ickstadt 19) A fruitful dialogue took place between the various conceptions of American national cultural identities that emerged from 1908 on.

  • 2 See Eric White’s analysis of the poem in White, 125.

11Localist Modernism, and in particular Williams’s Modernism seeks to redefine American national cultural identity. Interestingly, this conception shares a lot with the basic tenets of Modernism. As Bennett wrote about Williams, “the ‘American’ imperative—to begin again, to reopen history by borrowing or repeating nothing—is the imperative of the modern itself.” (Bennett 278) Williams’s definition of American cultural identity shares with Modernism an aesthetic of instability or flexibility. For Williams, America doesn’t have a set identity; it is only defined by its possibility to redefine itself from scratch through constant linguistic reinvention. Relativity, not essentiality, characterizes it. It is, as Pound wrote, a country which “has no center” (Pound 12), an interesting echo to Yeats’s description of the order of things in his post-war modernist poem “The Second Coming”: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”. The provisional status of the country is constantly recalled: as Williams stated in his Prologue to Kora in Hell, “Americans have the parts and the colors but not the completions before them” (Williams 27). American cultural identity, just like American Modernism, is characterized by an “opened-ended, unfinished and unfinishable project” (Ickstadt 24). Pluralism is one of the defining features of Williams’s America, whether it is in In the American Grain or in a poem like “St Francis Einstein of the Daffodils” written to celebrate Einstein’s 1921 trip to the U.S.2 Williams’s pluralist and provisional notion of American identity contradicts that of the cultural nationalists who lamented America’s lack of cohesion. Expatriate Modernism, cultural nationalism, and localist Modernism present together various constructions of American cultural identity that tend to intertwine to create an even broader spectrum of definitions. On this spectrum, Williams’s notion of American identity seems to work as a projection of the characteristics of the modernist self. Nonrepresentationalism, relativity and porosity allow for an inclusiveness that sharply contrasts with the political isolationist tendencies of the post-war period.

America as “the Centre of Things”: The Return of the Expatriates

12Throughout the teens and twenties, many American intellectuals had seen the U.S. as peripheral and “arrière-garde” compared to Europe. As early as 1923, in a letter to Kenneth Burke, Malcolm Cowley had rejected this vision, denouncing the

inferiority complex [that America shares] with Germany. Not about machinery or living standards, but about Art. Secession is less important than Literature because it is published in New York. Marin, being American, is a minor figure even beside such a minor French watercolourist as Dunoyer de Segonzac. The only excuse for living two years in France is to remove this complex, and to discover, for example, that Tzara, who resembles you like two drops of water, talks a shade less intelligently than you. To discover that the Dada crowd has more fun than the Secession crowd because the former, strangely, has more American pep (Cowley 1923 135).

13With the decline of the European avant-gardes in the second half of the twenties, the 1929 Crash which cut down on the expatriates’ financial resources, and the approach of World War II in Europe in the 1930s, more and more expatriates came to share Cowley’s early vision. Vitality was now on the American side, disillusionment on the European one. This is what Stearns’s open letter to Fitzgerald suggests in 1928:

Why not return and be part of this vitality that is shaping a new world? Why live in an old and disillusioned continent, where everything that is progress is but imitation of things American and where all the changes that look to the future are changes nearer our image? Why not be back in the centre of things and be part of them? (Stearns 196)

14The U.S. could finally be seen as “the centre of things”, or at least one of them. If Stearns chose to stay in Paris, many expatriates decided to go back to the U.S. Such was the case of Matthew Josephson, Malcolm Cowley, John Herrmann, Josephine Herbst, Herman Spector, Norman Macleod, Bob Brown, and others. Some moved more symbolically, losing interest in the exile experiments and more generally turning away from high European culture to focus instead on the new political, proletarian avant-garde—what Michael Denning called The Cultural Front—developing in the U.S. around little magazines like New Masses, Blast, Anvil, Dynamo, Partisan Review, and Left Front. Such was the case of Kenneth Fearing, Louis Lozowick, William Slater Brown, Sherwood Anderson, James Agee, Stanley Burnshaw, Isidor Schneider, Alfred Kreymborg, William Closson Emory, Bernard Smith, and others.

15The integration of the commercial culture of the U.S. into the artistic production of the country was seen by some of the former expatriates—as well as by some of the modernists who had stayed home—as a way of creating a distinctive, democratic American art, “the unifying glue in the American public sphere” as Mark Morrisson wrote (Morrisson 194). The enthusiasm for the marketplace was not new. In the teens, Kreymborg and the Greenwich Village as well as the editors of the Masses had already turned to commercial culture in an attempt to democratize access to art (White 22). But in the twenties, as the expatriates were coming back home, the use of the commercial culture also became a way of countering the elitism of high European Modernism—and of acknowledging the modern specificities of American society. In the 1923 letter to Burke that I already quoted, Cowley wrote, in capital letters: “THE ONLY SALVATION FOR AMERICAN LITERATURE IS TO BORROW A LITTLE PUNCH AND CONFIDENCE FROM AMERICAN BUSINESS.” And then: “A single electric light on Broadway has the same value as a single lower-case ‘e’ in Hamlet.” (Cowley 1923 135) Cowley’s long-time friend Matthew Josephson was less positive about the capacity of America’s materialist culture to renew American art. But in the “New York 1928” manifesto he and others (including Kenneth Burke, William Slater Brown, Malcolm Cowley, Robert Myron Coates and Nathan Asch) published in transition, he did call for a return to the U.S., considering that materialism and mass culture should be accepted:

We may become centurions of Soap for a time, pro-consuls of hydro-electricity; we may sing before the microphone; dance before the television box. A period of training, a phase of discipline will elapse, and in the end the force of mind will leaven this society which has known only material preoccupations (transition 102).

16The culture of “American business” potentially contained an energy that contrasted with the apathy of the European intellectual shut in his ivory tower. But mass culture and the symbols of American modernity were also used in less contrastive contexts, for example by Hart Crane in The Bridge or John Dos Passos in U.S.A.

A Political Emphasis on the Collective: The New Deal and the Cultural Front

17With the emergence of the Cultural Front, a space opened for a redefinition—or redefinitions of American national cultural identity. Part of the energy of the Cultural Front survived in—and in some cases was fuelled by—the creation of Federal One (which gathered the cultural projects of the New Deal, such as the Federal Writers’ Project, the Federal Art Project, and many others). Orson Welles, Pare Lorentz, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Chester Himes, Nelson Algren, Tillie Olsen, Ralph Ellison, Arna Bontemps, Richard Wright, Philip Rahv, and Claude McKay are some of the artists and writers of the Cultural Front who received money from the cultural agencies of the New Deal, allowing them to continue their work. But the continuities between the Cultural Front and the New Deal were not only based on the possibility to help some of their contributors survive. One central aspect of the continuities between the Cultural Front and the New Deal was the political emphasis on the collective. On an institutional level, the John Reed Clubs allowed the Cultural Front artists and writers to share their ideas and experiences. Aesthetically, Cowley opposed the collective novel—exploring a wide social context through a decentered narrative—to the art novel of the expatriates—featuring the opposition between the Poet and the World. More generally, the proletarian avant-garde derived its strength from its insistence on the collective, rather than on the individual. In this respect, the New Deal took the matter a step further. Authorship became collective, as Holger Cahill, the director of the Federal Art Project, underlined: “it is not solitary genius but a sound general movement which maintains art as a vital functioning part of any cultural scheme. Art is not a matter of rare occasional masterpieces. The emphasis on masterpieces is a 19th-century phenomenon. It is primarily a collector’s idea and has little relation to an art movement.” (Szalay 65) Even more strikingly, the arch-author of the art projects was the government. Harry Hopkins, one of the architects of the New Deal, commented that the principal goal of the Federal Writers’ Project was to have the government “appear in the role of an author” in a way that “would have been considered fantastic a few years ago” (Szalay 74). In other words, the question of American national cultural identity was now addressed for the first time by the federal government itself, which also provided concrete answers in the form of national art projects (such as didactic murals in post-offices and other public buildings throughout the country), able to foster a feeling of national unity.

18I will conclude on the continuities between the beginning of our time period and its end, between expatriation and the emergence of the New York Little Renaissance on the one hand and the creation of Federal One. With hindsight, Federal One curiously echoes the plea made by cultural nationalist Herbert Croly in 1902: “what the U.S. needs is a nationalization of their intellectual life comparable to the nationalizing, now under way, of their industry and politics” (Croly 153). Even though both projects were very different, this parallel speaks for the intensity of the debate over cultural national identity in the interwar period. So does the fact that a rather important group of writers can be traced from the expatriates of the early 1920s to the committed writers of the late twenties and early 1930s to the employees of Federal One. Malcolm Cowley, Edward Dahlberg, John Herrmann, Samuel Putnam, Stuart Davis, Harold Rosenberg, Herman Spector are among the artists and writers who travelled all the way from expatriate Modernism to the Cultural Front to Federal One, showing that the same generation could go through very different experiences of the notion of national cultural identity. In 1941, an extract from Lamps at High Noon, a proletarian novel about a strike in the St. Louis office of the Missouri Writers’ Project, responds to the despair that many American intellectuals felt as they criticized the cultural state of their country in the early teens. In Lamps at High Noon, an enthusiast of the New Deal exclaims: “America will have, for always, things now that it could never afford: Hospitals, schools, roads, books, theatre, most of all, a research, a consciousness and a possession of culture of”—he broke off. “Paradoxical, isn’t it? In the midst of a depression we are allowed to hand ourselves riches we could never afford” (Balch 229). America was no longer the artistic desert that so many complained of in the previous decades; however, the question of American cultural identity may have shifted from “what is America?” to “what does America have?” Capitalism had survived the Great Depression and for many this was a new reason for despair, as their ideal of a truly democratic society seemed to vanish away.

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1 Stearns later adopted a more positive vision of the U.S. in Rediscovering America (1934), America, A Re-appraisal (1937) and America Now, An Enquiry into Civilization in the U.S. (1938).

2 See Eric White’s analysis of the poem in White, 125.

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Céline MANSANTI, « Modernist Commitments and American National Cultural Identity in the Interwar Period », E-rea [En ligne], 13.2 | 2016, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2016, consulté le 24 septembre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Université de Picardie Jules Verne
Céline Mansanti est MCF à l’Université de Picardie Jules Verne à Amiens. Elle travaille sur le Modernisme anglo-américain et européen, essentiellement par le biais des revues. Elle a publié de nombreux articles sur ce sujet, ainsi que l’ouvrage issu de sa thèse La Revue transition, 1927-1938, le modernisme historique en devenir (PUR, 2009).

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