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Poets, Protesters, and Proletarians—Oddballs of the Nineteenth Century

AMERICAN HISTORY IS the history of fitful enthusiasms. “On canal boats” in the nineteenth century, Gilbert Seldes records mysteriously in the history of American fanaticism that he published in 1928, which has been reissued by NYRB Classics, “bed-linen was promiscuous.” There were fads in fashion: “Men … wore the enormous cravats which had been introduced by George the Third to hide the swelling on his neck.” Fads in food: “Carrots were scarcely used and the tomato was known as the ‘love apple’ and considered poisonous”; and a little later, “[b]roccoli had been introduced and the tomato accepted.” Fads in propriety: “At Long Branch it was correct for two girls to go into the water accompanied by one man.” Even fads in perception: “Broadway, in New York, was considered more attractive by night than by day.” The litany continues: “The beard was an object of mockery.” “The rocking-chair was in.”

Lists of such fragmentary observations, which suggest the output of a hand-cranked steampunk search engine, are salted through The Stammering Century. Seldes’s book deals primarily with the slightly narrower—but nonetheless extremely diverse—fields of religious enthusiasm and political reform. The book’s intention, he writes, “is to connect these secondary movements and figures with the primary forces of the century.” Seldes wanted to show that there was a greater logic to the apparent cacophony of nineteenth-century enthusiasms—a figure in the carpet, to paraphrase that famous American stammerer Henry James. “The voices of the century seem at first a clamor of discords,” he writes early on, “but, if we listen carefully, we discover a certain relation between the major voice of progress and the minor voice of radicalism.” Moreover, the fringes of the nineteenth century “supply a background in American history for the cults and manias of our own time.”  

In plenty of cases, though—and this, perhaps, was Seldes’s point—it is hard to separate the mainstream crazes from the “cults and manias”; previously commonplace items (like those “promiscuous” bed-linens) now appear as bizarre as the supposed oddities, or even more so. The nineteenth century’s most reviled “fanaticisms and eccentricities” included women’s suffrage, vegetarianism, and the abolition of slavery: those are not ideas that have gone the way of the cravat. In intellectual history, the relationship between figure and ground is always shifting, and what seems like madness or drollery to one decade will be the next one’s dogma or good sense. Given this consistent inconstancy, there may be worse ways to tell the story of our country than by tracking the notions that its citizens find ridiculous.

GILBERT SELDES CAME by his interest in wild ideas honestly: he was raised in an anarchist utopian community in Alliance, New Jersey, and though he subsequently tacked toward the Establishment—attending Harvard and serving as drama critic for the nonpareil high modernist little magazine The Dial—he maintained a ready sympathy for the lunatic fringe. His first (and most famous) book, The Seven Lively Arts, published in 1924, initiated the serious criticism of pop culture in the United States, declaring the greatness of Krazy Kat and Charlie Chaplin to a skeptical highbrow crowd. For his second book, he elected to inquire into the excitements of the past, and see whether or not they had extended beyond small circles of initiates.

Insofar as The Stammering Century has a master narrative, it is “the decline of the Calvinist theology brought over in the Mayflower” and the effects of that decline on the cultures of American belief. For Seldes, “nearly everything … of importance in the American mind of the nineteenth century … has its source in Jonathan Edwards,” the galvanic New England minister whose terrifying sermons (such as “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”) established a tone of extremity that generations of successors would attempt to match.

As Seldes sees it, it was not Edwards’s ideas that mattered, but the way he expressed them: “The theology of Jonathan Edwards suffered the most spectacular defeat in the history of American religious life,” he writes, but “his methods gained the greatest victory.” Edwards’s deterministic insistence on the will of God was reversed by later generations of preachers, who took “his ideas of the Will [and] gradually applied them to Man.” Or as Seldes puts it more picturesquely: “The moment the opposition of God’s will was withdrawn … the human will sprang up like a dampened fire when it has eaten its way into the air.”

Thus began  the long spiraling outward of Edwards’s influence to an amazingly diverse dramatis personae. In a series of engrossing chapters, Seldes gives us portraits of the founders of communist colonies, from the German emigrant George Rapp—who advocated total celibacy for his Rappite followers, even opposing procreation—to Bronson Alcott—vehement cattle-hater, believer in infant divinity, and father of Louisa May. He discusses the revivalist preachers Asahel Nettleton, Lyman Beecher, Dwight Lyman Moody, and Charles Grandison Finney, and the saloon-smashing Temperance activist Carry A. Nation (“a freak, slightly deranged”). He visits with Dr. Diocletian Lewis—“the beautiful bran-eating Dio,” who recommended consulting “a card on which ten key words, each representing an interesting topic, are written … [t]he moment a voluptuous revery began”—and John Alexander Dowie, who “preached a violent crusade against the eating of pork,” since “swine were possessed of the devil.” There are also respectful glances at more reputable historical figures, like William Lloyd Garrison, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Frances Willard, and delirious spins through the pseudo-scientific subcultures of Mesmerism, phrenology, and New Thought.

The most fascinating chapter may be the one on John Humphrey Noyes, the founder of the Oneida community in western New York. Noyes developed the doctrine of “Perfectionism,” which held that the Second Coming of Christ had taken place in C.E. 70, and that all Christians were thus already living without sin and free from earthly law. At Oneida, Noyes built both a successful business (which continues to this day) and one of the longer-running and more alluring utopian communities of the century. (The community’s procedures of consensual communal action resemble those recently espoused by the organizers of Occupy Wall Street.)

Oneida was also, infamously, a grand experiment in sexual relations, based on the principles of “ascending fellowship” and “complex marriage” (which, in practice, meant that younger members of the community were initiated into sexual life by older ones). Seldes, who is shadow-boxing with Freud throughout The Stammering Century, says of Noyes’s underlying sexual uneasiness: “he remained in equilibrium between his two fears: license and frigidity; and he recognized them as two forms of the same thing.” But he was also pragmatic enough that he agreed to abandon the practice of complex marriage in 1879, when the chorus of public disapproval grew too strong.

Though evangelical Christianity, in various guises, is present throughout, the primary struggle of the nineteenth century, for Seldes, is not believer versus infidel but prohibitionist versus libertarian. Over the course of the century, Seldes perceives a shift from inward to outward asceticism: “We know that the typical zealot of 1800 was a man fanatically busy about salvation,” he writes; “in the 1840’s, he was as fanatically busy about improving himself; later he turned to uplifting his fellowmen and, later still, to interfering with their pleasures.” (Seldes would go on to publish an anti-Prohibition tract, The Future of Drinking, in 1930.) The moral history of America could be found in the history of the word “reformer,” Seldes claimed: “In the middle of the nineteenth century, the word meant one who wanted to give liberty to others; to-day it means, briefly, one who wants to take liberty away.” The wildness and ecstatic release of the Methodist camp-meetings at the beginning of the century had somehow fed back into a neo-Puritan culture of censorship and repression, and Seldes—staunch defender of the “lively” in American life—wanted to find out why.

While Seldes is not above making fun of his subjects (or letting their bemused contemporaries do it for him), more often he exerts himself to understand their beliefs in the context of their time. He takes an intellectual’s rather than a satirist’s interest in human folly; what interests him is the subtlety with which ideas are developed and justified by thinkers like Noyes and Robert Owen, more than the intrinsic merits of the ideas themselves. And he is staunchly opposed to the elitist assumption, which he associates with H.L. Mencken, that it is the lower classes who are primarily receptive to ridiculous or faddish notions. His book’s second section begins with the epigraph: “there is nothing too stupid for intelligent people to believe,” and he insists from the outset that “in nearly every … case, the more gifted, the more intelligent, the more experienced classes were the first to accept an absurdity and the last to give it up.” In this Seldes was remarkably prescient; his subtle examination of the blinkered proclivities of American aristocracy—their particular susceptible to belief systems based around divine election or messianic purpose (think Scientology, for one)—rings true today.

But the ultimate significance of all these eccentrics lay not in their ability to dupe the educated classes with idealist fantasies but in their ability to awaken a material critique. Ultimately, for Seldes, the most important legacy of the “fanatics, and radicals, and mountebanks” is their anti-materialism (we would now say “anti-capitalism”). “Something was needed to break down the monotony of an exceptionally materialistic existence,” he says of the popularity of the Second Great Awakening. It was the “American radical”—“crackbrained or perverse as he was”—who most vehemently refused the culture of “make-money,” and committed himself to seeking out alternatives. “In a society peculiarly preoccupied with things, he held to ideas,” writes Seldes. When the gospel of “the spade, the rifle, and the steam-engine,” threatened domination, the radical held onto his contemplative indolence.

The ideas these radicals held to, Seldes admits, were often silly or wrongheaded; and when they were not, the radicals’ alacrity to express them was usually excessive. But even at their worst they offered something as essential to their own time as to our own: a defense of the impractical, which is another way of saying an argument for something other than moneymaking, an argument for other kinds of progress. Seldes’s subjects not only clung to this, they pioneered the practical techniques to spread their messages. The poets, protesters, and proletarians of the world can be glad they spoke up, and that someone like Seldes was listening.

Evan Kindley is the Senior Humanities Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is currently at work on a book entitled Critics and Connoisseurs: Poet-Critics and the Administration of Modernism. Follow: @evankindley