The Clare Spark Blog

January 28, 2012

Popular sovereignty on the ropes

I restarted my study of the making of the Constitution last summer, by reading the Federalist papers. I was very excited by Hamilton’s insistence on popular sovereignty as the fountain of authority that must guide the entire national government. (See “…The fabric of American empire ought to rest on the solid basis of THE CONSENT OF THE PEOPLE. The streams of national power ought to flow immediately from that pure, original fountain of all legitimate authority.” [Federalist #22. Hamilton’s emphasis, pp. 106, 110, The Federalist, edited by Max Beloff, 1948, second ed. 1987]  Hamilton stressed the power of the House of Representatives as the most direct route to popular control of government.  I was somewhat shocked as the prevalent [Jeffersonian] line on Hamilton is that he was an aristocratic thinker, a quasi-monarchist, who declared at a banquet that the people were “a great beast.” This latter slap at popular sovereignty was disseminated by medievalist Henry Adams and no one has found any source to confirm Adams’s claim. And unlike Stephen Douglas (1813-1861), Lincoln’s opponent in the election of 1860, Hamilton was an abolitionist, and would not have approved Douglas’s version of popular sovereignty as a route to the expansion of slavery.

So popular sovereignty is linked, not to Rousseau’s notion of the general/popular will (an idea taken up by the Jacobins and by many leftists today), but to the deliberations of a representative republic in which, presumably, the House of Representatives is recognized by the other branches of government as the “pure, original fountain of all legitimate authority.”

We find ourselves in campaign season 2012, in a condition where “the consent of the people” is a dream. In this polarized polity, characterized by a mish-mash of religious, class, ethnic, and gender politics, plus a stunning ignorance of political science, economics, and American and European history and its bevy of authoritarian social movements, “the people” is a convenient fiction of demagoguery, trotted out as counterpoint to special interests/”the nanny state.”

What is a writer with a popular audience to do? What can educators, including parents do to instill the mental habits that would make a representative republic more than a recruiting slogan for conservatives wishing to restore the divine origin of such innovations as the separation of powers and checks and balances, all treated in The Federalist? “God” is barely summoned in The Federalist; rather these pamphlets were a scientific, materialist proposal and defense of an unprecedented national government that would halt the slide to chaos and failure under the Articles of Confederation. In other words, the U.S. Constitution, and before that, the Declaration of Independence were products of the Enlightenment. “We” were “Nature’s nation” and for many, bearers of a providential mission to lead the world in political democracy. When Charles Sumner asked “Are We A Nation?” in 1867, he envisioned “the people” as the repository of those rights laid out in the Declaration of Independence, and these “human rights” were universal, and, quoting James Otis, “without distinction of color.” (Sumner also nodded to The Federalist and Alexander Hamilton). For more on Providence and American mission, see  Rooseveltian internationalists, leaders of the American Studies movement, were fond of trouncing the Founders and Herman Melville’s character Captain Ahab as messianic and rabidly imperialistic. Thus “American exceptionalism” has come to signify the overweening desire to dominate the globe, rather than the invention of a nation grounded in natural, i.e., universal human rights: life, liberty, and property. However guided by “Providence,” Sumner, echoing Hamilton, insisted that “We the people,” not “We the States” were the source of legitimacy for the Constitution.

Although the President, along with the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has called for the beefing up of “education,” neither one suggested a debate about the curriculum, particularly who decides what is the proper training for would-be citizens. And by citizenship, I refer to a person with the critical tools to read the messages that affect all our choices. Here is where “protestant pluralism” founders on the rocks of neo-tribalism, “local control,” anti-intellectualism, populism, proto-fascism, and other man-traps. We are cathected to leaders who pander to our pre-existent prejudices or to reverence for ancestors, to the fear of an eternity in hell, to the presidential horse-race that the media promote, and to groupiness and partisanship in general. (See We are constantly agitated and may enjoy the inner turmoil and suspense that a political campaign offers. Or we may feel helpless and permanently unrepresented in both high and popular culture, so turn inward to self, or to family, friends, employment, sports, and sex/personal appearance as primary sources of identity and purpose. Patriotism is taken to be a tic of “the Right,” not exemplary loyalty to human rights without distinction of color.

What I complain about here regarding our distorted and irrational political culture may seem so cosmic, so impossible to rectify, that a sane person must give up on this country and its survival as a representative republic. Indeed, the powerful historian Edmund S. Morgan denies that we ever had anything resembling popular rule, nor does he appear to be sanguine as to its prospects. (See his 1988 publication: Inventing the People, in which he concludes that we have moved from the politics of deference to the politics of leadership, i.e., the manipulation of public opinion.) So to be concrete, I suggest that each person concerned with her or his child’s education, encourage that child to look up the phrase “popular sovereignty” and to urge her or his teachers to discuss it in the appropriate grades. But first, look inside, and what do you see?  A terrified conformist, a romantic renegade, or a competent voter–a faithful seeker after truth, the universal truth that is the foundation of human rights and the glory of American nationality?  Captain Ahab, arousing his crew to find and fight Leviathan, echoed Milton’s Satan in Book 9 of Paradise Lost, when Ahab/Satan declared “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.” Are We a Nation? For more on Alexander Hamilton and the search for truth see (retitled Limbaugh v. Fluke).


January 2, 2011

The Watchbird State

I object to the term “nanny state” as sexist. Here is an argument for “Watchbird State” as alternative, taken from chapter 9 of my book Hunting Captain Ahab. The powerful social psychologists I cite here viewed themselves as “moderate conservatives”. Today, they occupy the “left,” having purified the republic of the dangerous extremists who once perched on our shoulders.  The watchbird was an invention of Munro Leaf, and during the 1950s, was a familiar cartoon figure.  (For a related blog, preparing the reader for this one, see

[book excerpt:]    Pragmatic Harvard social psychologists appropriated Madisonian pluralist politics, ignoring the libertarian, anti-corporative* aspect of their theoretical underpinnings. For the new moderates, social stability was achieved when triumphalist factions (instigated by religious enthusiasm or other forms of zealotry such as an inordinate love of gain), were replaced by amoral interest groups; relieved of (Hume’s) plundering or leveling extremists, bargains could be struck, reconciling private interest with public good: the moderates would have clambered onto solidly “mobile-middle ground.”[i]

Reading Madison in Federalist #10, they could infer that free speech was a safety valve, circumscribed spatially and irrelevant to political processes with realistic goals.[ii] Having banished irrationality from their own procedures, the Harvard clique could see themselves as resolutely antifascist, for it was the mob-driven Nazi movement (likened by Talcott Parsons to romantic puritans in other writing of 1942) that was pathological. Ritual rebellions could be safely confined within psychiatrists’ offices or the pages of Typee (or in the bed Ishmael shared with Queequeg). Parsons’ contribution appeared in Psychiatry along with a germinal article “Hitler’s Imagery and German Youth,” by Erik Homburger Erikson, another colleague of Murray’s at Harvard. Erikson presented Hitler as a “great adventurer” possessed of “borderline traits”; he was the perennial adolescent, a big brother to other unyielding gangsters. Erikson held that broken-spirited German fathers lacking inner integration and authority were responsible for the (hysterical) romantic revolt of the sons.[iii] Erikson’s identity politics owed more to Henry A. Murray and the romantic conservative Jung, a theorist of racial character, than to the cosmopolitan and bourgeois Freud. Soon the Jungian analyst Murray (who admired the Wandering Jew Freud’s eyes that penetrated walled-up areas of the psyche) would be advising President Roosevelt that Hitler, the autodidact Id-man, the Dionysiac Man of the Crowd who had overcome big Capital, was an “arch-Romantic,” a composite of Lord Byron and Al Capone, a paranoid schizophrenic, a homosexual, and probably a carrier of Jewish blood through his father; ergo Hitler’s “uncanny knowledge of the average man” should “be appropriated to good advantage.” Disillusion with the Führer was perilous; Murray argued for “a profound conversion of Germany’s attitude” after the Allied victory:

“Disorganization and confusion will be general, creating breeding ground for cults of extreme individualism. A considerable part of the population will be weighted down with a heavy sense of guilt, which should lead to a revival of religion. The soil will be laid [sic] for a spiritual regeneration; and perhaps the Germans, not we, will inherit the future.[iv]

Harold Lasswell and Murray, both progressives, thought as one. In his Power and Personality (1948), Lasswell contemplated the continuing plausibility of Marxist analysis, worried about “paranoids” with their fingers on nuclear buttons, and urged “genuine democrats to expose the dubious and dangerous expectation of democracy through mass revolution.” The world revolution of the twentieth century would probably culminate in mutually annihilating technocratic garrison states unless “the scientists of democracy” intervened to create the “sociocapitalist” “free man’s commonwealth.” Murray’s personality tests (developed in the mid-1930s and during his stint with the OSS during the war) fertilized Lasswell’s febrile, holistic imagination. While deploying the concepts of accountability and openness that for John Locke had been indispensable to the functioning of popular sovereignty, Lasswell, with Murray’s personnel assessment tests in tow, had turned Locke upside down:

One of the practical means by which tensions arising from provocativeness can be reduced is by the selection of leaders from among non-destructive, genuinely democratic characters…. This has already gone far in appointive jobs. Several businesses are accustomed to promote executives not only on the basis of the general administrative record but according to scientific methods of personality appraisal. The aim is to discern whether factors in the personality structure counterindicate the placing of heavier responsibilities on the person.

“To a limited extent selection procedures in army, navy and civil administration have been directed to the same end. But the procedure is not yet applied to elective office. What is needed is a National Personnel Assessment Board set up by citizens of unimpeachable integrity which will select and supervise the work of competent experts in the description of democratic and antidemocratic personality. The Assessment Board can maintain continuing inquiry into the most useful tests and provide direct services of certifications of testers. When this institution has been developed it will slowly gather prestige and acceptance. Sooner or later candidates for elective office will have enough sense of responsibility to submit voluntarily to an investigation by the board, which would say only that the candidate has, or has not, met certain defined minimum standards. Gradually, the practice of basic personality disclosure can spread throughout all spheres of life, including not only local, state, national or inter-nation government personnel, but political parties, trade unions, trade associations, churches and other volunteer associations.

“It is an axiom of democratic polity that rational opinion depends upon access to pertinent facts and interpretations. Surely no facts are more pertinent than those pertaining to character structure of candidates for leadership. Progressive democratization calls for the development of such new institutions as the Assessment Board for the purpose of modernizing our methods of self-government.[v]

The National Personnel Assessment Board set up by citizens of unimpeachable integrity,” “gradually” penetrating every institution, would control definitions of acceptable rational opinion. And yet Lasswell was no friend to totalitarian regimes; as member of the Research Advisory Board and spokesman for the Committee For Economic Development (CED), he condemned loyalty investigations. Instead of imitating sleazy witch-hunters on the Right or the “negative” tactics of the ACLU on the Left, he called for an overhaul of leaders and the led (the latter ultimately responsible for protecting First Amendment freedoms). A balance would be struck between national security and individual freedom through formation of community discussion groups, to be fed by appropriately cautious government experts supplying an interactive (but “expert”-controlled) free press and public broadcasting system. [vi] In the 1950s, Lasswell’s study of political symbols helped social scientists refine their tools in the surveillance of blooming political dissidents. Murray’s OSS recruitment test of 1943 could weed potentially disloyal government employees, while his Thematic Apperception Test (1935) could enhance content-analysis of mass communications. Lasswell frankly explained the purposes that infused the new discipline of communications studies, said to be relevant to literary scholars and historians; indeed he decoded authoritarian styles of discourse throughout. [vii]

Watchbird sights bad boy

Modern preventive politics did not begin with the machinations of Lasswell & Co. but with Humean or Burkean autopsies of the regicidal English and French Revolutions. According to the reform-or-ruin school of preventive hygiene, foul winds and cancers appear when aristocrats allow vices to ferment in the bowels; the social bond is broken, virtue and vice trade places.[viii] Through alert planning (like education and sports for the masses and psychoanalysis for their betters), elites would become more flexible while containing their passion for libertine excess and luxurious display; meanwhile the People would have healthy outlets for their discontent and desirousness–like libertine excess and luxurious display especially in the mass media. Thus Reason, Conscience, and the State would be brought into congruence. The reform-or-ruin strategy of social hygiene and preventive politics would dominate the political science and social psychology created by moderate conservatives. Understrapping their dreams of thoroughgoing surveillance, the watchbird watched everybody, leaders and the led.

*Corporative does not signify a state in cahoots with big business and Wall Street (as New Leftists and OWS folk would have it), but rather organizing representation by occupation, such as Mussolini’s “corporative state” where the state regulated relations between the sindicati, imposing harmony from above and erasing the conception of the dissenting individual.


[i]               21. Richard Chase, “New vs. Ordealist,” Kenyon Review, 11 (1949): 12-13, cited again below.

[ii]               22. See discussion of Madison and the Whigs, Daniel Walker Howe, Political Culture of the American Whigs, 90-91. As I interpret the Federalist Papers, the authors (Jay, Hamilton, and Madison) defined their republicanism against all feudal and corporatist entities– the sources of imbecility, war and anarchy. Liberty was a quality of the rational individual. Collectivities were fictions necessarily sustained by myth, not political science. Their interest groups corresponded to economic interest alone; there was no talk of national “identity.” The idea of using (irrationalist) propaganda to obtain consensus would or should have been anathema. Madison’s Federalist #10 does not discuss free speech directly. Addressing men of property alarmed by Shays Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, and demands for several separate confederacies, the acutely class-conscious essay distinguished the benefits of a balanced republic controlling a large territory as compared with the vulnerabilities of small states and the confiscating propensities of small-scale popular democracies. The more interest groups the better, since no one group, unified by economic interest, could attain a legislative majority to oppress other citizens. Madison’s view of human nature does not include moral categories as such: individuals differ in their capacities to acquire property. Men of property, properly chosen (elected) to represent their constituencies for their inner  poise and sense of justice, would be fair to contending parties, abiding by the rule of law–rules that were the same for rich and poor alike. These may be the moderate men interrogated by Melville’s dark characters.

 [iii]             22. Erik Homburger Erikson, “Hitler’s Imagery and German Youth,” Psychiatry 5 (Nov. 1942): 475-493. On 30 Nov. 1952,  Murray sent Erikson a copy of his paper on Ahab, In Nomine Diaboli. On 4 Mar. 1952, Murray asked for a copy of Erikson’s paper “Growth and Crises of the Personality.” On 30 Nov. 1962, Talcott Parsons invited Erikson to present a study of Max Weber in the style of his Luther psychobiography for the 1964 meeting of the American Sociological Association, noting Weber’s “great creative contributions to our culture.” Erikson Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

[iv]              23. The register of the Murray Papers at Harvard state that his analysis of Hitler’s psyche was in process since 1938: it is possible that Murray influenced Erikson, not vice versa. See Henry A. Murray, “Analysis of the personality of Adolph [sic] Hitler with predictions of his future behavior and suggestions for dealing with him now and after Germany’s surrender,” October 1943, 5-7, 31, 46-53, 83, 143, 145, 211 and passim. Declassified confidential report, FDR Library, Hyde Park, quoted with permission. Cf. Anton T. Boisen, “The Form and Content of Schizophrenic Thinking,” Psychiatry 5 (Nov. 1942): 23-33 (the same issue contained the Parsons article on propaganda). Primitives, children, romantic explorers, materialists, individualists, modern artists, and persons undergoing “conversion” experiences are conflated and diagnosed as anxious, fragmenting (“hebephrenic”) schizophrenics. Also see Charles Kligerman’s diagnosis of Melville’s paranoid schizophrenia in “The Psychology of Herman Melville,” Psychoanalytic Review 40 (Apr. 1953): 125-143.

[v]               24. Harold D. Lasswell, Power and Personality (New York: Norton, 1948), 222, 211, 186-187.

[vi]              25. Harold D. Lasswell, National Security and Individual Freedom (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1950). Howard B. Myers of CED wrote the brief forward which explained that “This report examines the problems that confront us in seeking national security without forfeit of the basic values and principles of American life.”

[vii]             26. Harold D. Lasswell, Daniel Lerner, Ithiel de Sola Pool, The Comparative Study of Symbols, 24-25. Murray may have gotten the term “apperception” from Goethe’s comments on the rigid moralist Dr. Stilling (aka Jung), an example of a God-intoxicated type, overly impressed by “experience,” that Goethe described in his Auto-biography: “The things sympathetic persons of this kind love most to talk of, are, the so-called awakenings and conversions, to which we will not deny a certain psychological value. They are properly what we call in scientific and poet matters, an “aperçu;” the perception of a great maxim, which is always a genius-like operation of the mind; we arrive at it by pure intuition, that is, by reflection, neither by learning or tradition. In the cases before us it is the perception of the moral power, which anchors in faith, and thus feels itself in proud security in the midst of the waves.” (Truth and Poetry, Vol. II, 75).

[viii]             27. See Richard A. Soloway, “Reform or Ruin: English Moral Thought During The First French Republic,” Review of Politics (Jan. 1963): 110-127.

November 13, 2009

Supermen wanted: early “Freudians” and the Mob

Image (90)

William Blake, Laocoon

What follows is an excerpt from chapter 7 of my book, Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival (Kent State UP, 2001, 2006).

[Publius, Federalist #10:] “Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principle task of modern legislation and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of government….

“If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote. It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution. When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interests both the public good and the rights of other citizens. To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed.” (my emph.)

[Overman Committee Report, Revolutionary Radicalism, 1920:] “If the great forces which have been set in motion are not checked and the movements redirected into constructive and lawful channels, the country faces the most serious problems that it has had to meet since the establishment of this Republic…It is time that we awoke to the fact that the lack of religious and moral training which distinguishes this generation has given full swing to the baser instincts. What can be done to re-create right standard [sic] of right and wrong, of subordination of private to public good; to stimulate mutual understanding by frankness and the application of new standards of justice and mutual confidence. Knowledge of the facts is the first step in dispelling distrust. This knowledge we aim to suggest in this part of the report.”

[Publius, Federalist #10, cont.:] “The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than in a particular member of it, in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district than an entire State.”

[Revolutionary Radicalism, “Epilogue”:] “In this rapid survey of a new and important educational idea we have carried Marja, the immigrant girl, from king and caste-ridden Europe to America, the land of hope and opportunity. We have seen her struggle with an unknown tongue and with ways of life unfamiliar to her. In the end we see her transformed, reborn–no longer foreign and illiterate, but educated and self-respecting. Later she will marry and her children, though they may have traditions of another land and another blood, will be Americans in education and ideals of life, government and progress. It was been worth while that one man has broken through this barrier and made the road clear for others to follow.

“All real education has the development of discipline as its basis. Poise, self-control and self-esteem are characteristic of the well-ordered mind, and the growth of these in the industrial worker makes for efficient service and better wages. Gradually there is an awakening of social consciousness–the awareness of one’s place in society and the obligations such membership entails upon the individual in respect to the group or racial mass, with a constantly developing sense of one’s personal responsibility in all human relationships.

“In conclusion, the higher significance of this work means that we must descend the shaft and share the lives of those that dwell in the lower strata–the teeming populations that never see the stars or the green grass, scent the flowers or hear the birds sing–the huddled, hopeless foreign folk of the tenements. We are living in the Age of Service, and are growing into a conviction that life is not a matter of favored races or small, exclusive social groups, but embraces all humanity and reaches back to God. To those of prophetic soul comes a vision of the day that haunted Tennyson when

‘The war-drum throbbed no longer and the battle flags were furled/ In the Parliament of Man, the Federation of the World.’ ” [i]

[Marianna speaking, in “The Piazza,” 1856:] ” …An old house. They went West, and are long dead, they say, who built it. A mountain house. In winter no fox could den in it. That chimney-place has been blocked up with snow, just like a hollow stump.”

Laocoön sighs softly, advised Lessing. Conservative social theorists responding to the Age of Revolution formulated a model of reason and balance that was objectively mad in its project to impose order upon the doubly bound; for James Madison “popular government” was both there and not there. Were the non-propertied interests to become the new majority, “the spirit and form of popular government” would be preserved even as the wicked majority was “dispersed” by rational and virtuous citizens better attuned to “the public good.” Speaking through Isabel and Marianna,[ii] Melville had identified authority as strange and wandering; his literal history of a permanently wounded, wild and wooly psyche was intolerable; Melville could not be a quasi-lunatic fending off madness fostered by mixed-messages, but the prophet of social dissolution.

Disillusion with the idea of Progress supposedly explains Melville’s sudden acceptability in the twentieth century; it was Melville’s all-too-graphic disintegration, though, that frightened his critics. His (apparent) corrective flights to corporatism were promoted by Nietzschean radicals such as Van Wyck Brooks or Lewis Mumford defining themselves against a mechanistic and alien mass culture. In concert with the Frenchman Gustave LeBon, Dr. Wilfred Trotter (1872-1939) had earlier laid out the premises and ambitions of a rectified Freudian “mass psychology” that could intervene in the headlong rush to oblivion, for “the so-called normal type of mind” “being in exclusive command of directing power in the world, is a danger to civilisation.”[iii]

Trotter’s influential essays, Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War, first published in Sociological Review in 1908 and 1909, were updated and reprinted to comment upon the Great War in 1919, then brought out by Macmillan in fifteen printings by 1947. Freud, according to this “sometime Honorary Surgeon to the King,” though the architect of “a great edifice” was bringing “a certain harshness in his grasp of facts and even a trace of narrowness in his outlook” along with a pervasive and repellent “odour of humanity” (78, 80). “The Freudian system” had developed “a psychology of knowledge” rather than a “psychology of power”; what was needed was an unveiling of “the sources of a director power over the human mind” so that “the full capacity of the mind for foresight and progress” could be developed (93, 94). Trotter addressed an elite audience sharing his belief in instincts and will power, understanding that war is “a contest of moral forces” and heeding his call for a “practical psychology,” mobilizing “science” to achieve “a satisfactory morale…[which] gives smoothness of working energy, and enterprise to the whole national machine, while from the individual it ensures the maximum outflow of effort with a minimum interference from such egoistic passions as anxiety, impatience, and discontent.”

Methods and standards of elite recruitment and performance would have to change; old leadership “types” of “a class which is in essence relatively insensitive towards new combinations of experience” were unfit and obsolete (56); radical doctrines could be redesigned to fit new conditions:

[Trotter:] “If the effective intrusion of the intellect into social affairs does happily occur, it will come from no organ of society now recognisable, but through a slow elevation of the general standard of consciousness up to the level at which will be possible a kind of freemasonry and syndicalism of the intellect. Under such circumstances free communication through class barriers would be possible, and an orientation of feeling quite independent of the current social segregation would become manifest (269-270).”

Thus “true progress” will replace “oscillation” and wars will cease:

[Trotter:] The only way in which society can be made safe from disruption or decay is by the intervention of the conscious and instructed intellect as a factor among the forces ruling its development…Nowhere has been and is the domination of the herd more absolute than in the field of speculation concerning man’s general position and fate, and in consequence prodigies of genius have been expended in obscuring the simple truth that there is no responsibility for man’s destiny anywhere at all outside his own responsibility, and that there is no remedy for his ills outside his own efforts. Western civilization has recently lost ten millions of its best lives as a result of the exclusion of the intellect from the general direction of society. So terrific an object lesson has made it plain enough how easy it is for man, all undirected and unwarned as he is, to sink to the irresponsible destructiveness of the monkey… No direction can be effective in the way needed for the preservation of society unless it comes from minds broad in outlook, deep in sympathy, sensitive to the new and strange in experience, capable of resisting habit, convention, and other sterilising influences of the herd, deeply learned in the human mind and vividly aware of the world (my emph., 6, 7, 266, 267).”

For Van Wyck Brooks, Melville was a fog-horn, not a role-model for Trotter’s New Mind-Manager; that honor went to his best friend Lewis Mumford, the source of “human renewal” poetically aligned with William Morris: “He had caught in England the last rays of the morning glow of William Morris’s poetic socialism, and he was to remain a vitalist in a world of mechanists, behaviourists, determinists, Marxians and so on.” Melville’s appeal to youthful cynics of the “lost generation was limited” whereas

“Lewis… knew that the optimists of the machine had forgotten that there was madness and night and that mankind had mystery to contend with, coexisting with universal literacy, science, and daylight, and why, because they ignored the darker side of the nature of man, they had been unprepared for the catastrophe that followed. He could see why it was that a grimly senescent youth confronted the still youthful senescents of the older generation, and having, along with Emerson and Whitman, read Pascal and Saint Augustine, he was fully able to enter their state of mind. Writers like Melville and Dostoievsky, with their sense of the presence of evil, had fitted him to grasp the post-war scene, the disintegrated world in which humankind, convinced of its inadequacy, ceased to believe in its own powers of self-renewal…[W]ith his feeling for the inner life, he was convinced that the problem of our time was to restore the lost respect for this. For Western man had forgotten it in his concentration on the improvement of the machine. In a world obsessed by determinism, the human person must come back to the centre of the stage, he said, as actor and hero, summoning the forces of life to take part in a new drama.”

Mumford had deepened his prewar “liking for brass buttons, music and drums” with “the consciousness of evil”; newly balanced he could steer clear of shallow optimists and sour apples alike, the latter including Melville and “Wilson, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Hemingway and Cummings”: no vitalist renewal in either corner. It was Mumford and his circle, less innocent, but no less confident, who had guided orphans through the mine-fields of modernity; Melville, however salutary as a corrective to rationalist naiveté, was not a proper dramaturg, but an Isabel: the madness, night, and mystery “humankind” (imagined as one organism) “had to contend with.” Brooks distanced himself from his Harvard teacher Irving Babbit’s bullying, negativity, sectarianism, and disdain for “the desire for the masses for their place in the sun”; still, Brooks was grateful that Babbitt and Harvard had introduced him to “the writings of Renan, Taine, and above all, Sainte-Beuve, who had almost all the qualities I admired so greatly…How enlightening were Saint-Beuve’s phrases about the master faculty,–the ruling trait in characters,–and families of minds, with his “group” method in criticism and his unfailing literary tact, his erudition subdued by the imagination. How wonderfully he maintained his poise between the romantic and the classic.[iv]

Similarly, Floyd Dell, novelist, poet, and associate editor of The Masses, was appalled by “intellectual vagabondage,” a symptom of “shell-shock” that followed the collapse of idealism after the war. Hoping to clear away the rubble of ugliness and chaos he saw in modernist renderings of “the unconscious” drawn from Freud, Dell (ambivalently?) recommended [ego psychology] as a new source of order:

“The scientific activities of mankind, unlike its imaginative activities, have not suffered from shell-shock; and we do not find the students of the human mind rejoicing in the chaos of the “unconscious” as an excuse for their failure to form a good working theory of it. On the contrary, we find that the “unconscious” is to them no chaos at all, but a realm in whose apparent disorder they have found a definite kind of order; in fact, they have been enabled by what they have found in the “unconscious” to correlate and explain all sorts of bewildering and painful discrepancies in outward conduct, previously inexplicable; they have created an intelligible and practically demonstrable theoretic unity out of just those aspects of human life which have for fictional and other artistic purposes seemed in the past a hopeless jangle of contradictions. And finally, they actually undertake therapeutically the task of bringing harmony, order and happiness into inharmonious, disorderly and futile lives. The imaginative artist need not be asked to “believe” in this; it may appear as alien to his own tasks as belief or disbelief in the new theory of electrons. But it is significant that such fiction as has undertaken to use these new concepts in the interpretation of life has met with no wide response from the intelligentsia–while on the contrary such fiction as has enriched its data with mere confusing and terrifying (one might say “bloody and stinking”) disjecta membra of psycho-analytic research, has had the reward of our enormous applause and admiration. It is evident that we, at this moment in history, do not want life to seem capable of being interpreted and understood, because that would be a reproach to us for our own failure to undertake the task of reconstructing our social, political and economic theories, and in general, and in consonance with these, our ideals of a good life.[v]

The moderated neo-classicism of New Humanism was growing in influence in the late 1920s; its practitioners were viewed by left-liberals as allied to political fascism, not just the “literary” variety.[vi] In the case of radical Floyd Dell, we see an abuse of scientific method typical of the conservative “Freudians” I am discussing: “the unconscious” may not disclose ugliness and chaos, the “bloody and stinking” gobbets of memory that revolted him. Science and art are good only when they order and fully explain experience, building morale for social reconstruction: axe the pessimists. Dell does not ask whether the “vagabonds” he criticizes are accurately depicting economic contradictions (which may or may not be relieved), but blames the victims for childishness and social irresponsibility, as if the eternal conflict between “the individual” and “society” were the sources of “romantic” pain and ambivalence, not revulsion against hypocrisy and the quietism of upper-class allegiance. The “disillusionment” theory for the Melville Revival seems part of the arsenal of conservative mind-managers defending themselves against history, materialism and critical Reason by promoting mystical notions of national character and group mind, with passions of “egoism” (i.e., distance from “the folk”) postulated as the source of social friction and decay.

The aristocratic radicals were responding to the Bolshevik Revolution, an undeserved triumph perpetrated by returning exiles, intellectuals opportunistically seizing power amidst the chaos of impending defeat. And wars are made by hidebound and greedy old fogies who misshape the national character by enforcing state worship: “War is the health of the state,” as Randolph Bourne famously protested. Brooks, Mumford and Murray, writing in this great tradition of Progressive reproach, were pasting a piece of Melville to their projects while lengthily railing against the evils of “machines.” Like Trotter, they believed (mechanistically) that a tiny elite of Supermen could rescue the masses from themselves.[vii]

[i]               12. N.Y. State Legislature. Joint Committee Investigating Seditious Activities, Revolutionary radicalism: its history, purpose and tactics with an exposition and discussion of the steps being taken and required to curb it, being the report of the joint legislative committee investigating seditious activities filed April 24, 1920 in the Senate of the State of New York(Albany: J.B. Lyon, 1920), 2014, 2201, 3136-3137.

[ii]               14. Marianna is the sad seamstress (another Isabel) who tells the narrator of “The Piazza” that her “strange fancies” (as the narrator defines them) “but reflect the things.” The Jungian critic E.L. Grant Watson, a contributor to London Mercury, inverted Isabel’s identical point in “Melville’s Pierre,” New England Quarterly 3 (Apr. 1930): 195-234, praising Pierre as HM’s greatest book; I know of no correction to this revealing gaffe in the Melville scholarship, though Watson is frequently mentioned. On p.207 Watson characterized Isabel’s “collective unconscious” as transmitter of the “strangely demented people” that Melville’s Isabel clearly identified with real world authority during her stay in the [unnamable institution/asylum]. Stanley T. Williams was an editor of NEQ.

[iii]              15. Wilfred Trotter, Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War (New York: Macmillan, 1947), 94. The scientistic “Publishers’ Note” to the 1947 edition reads: “The aftermath of the Second World War, bringing with it the application of Atomic Energy and the need to prevent aggression (an indulgence now realised to have within its reach the power to do even greater harm to civilisation)–these are the considerations either at the front or the back of everyone’s thinking. In Europe they apply to the Peace Settlement yet to be made with Germany, and the future part to be played by her strange and able people…[Trotter’s] conclusions can be tested by the evidence of two great wars. Incidentally, they offer one explanation of the German political and social mentality which the British and the American mind find so incomprehensible.” The O.S.S. explanation for the rise of Hitler, as purveyed by Murray, for instance, was rooted in a similar organicist theory of history, with its notions of national character and group mind. Trotter’s publishers, Macmillan, avid disseminators of Anglo-American culture, also published Richard Chase’s Jungian study of Melville in 1949. Other publishers of Trotter’s book include T.F. Unwin, The Scientific Book Club, and Oxford University Press.

[iv]              16. Van Wyck Brooks, An Autobiography, Foreword by John Hall Wheelock. Introduction by Malcolm Cowley(New York, Dutton, 1965), 407-410, 125-26. See Meyer Schapiro review of Mumford, The Culture of Cities, “Looking Forward to Looking Backward,” Partisan Review (June 1938): 12-24, for analysis of Mumford’s reactionary organicism.

[v]               17. Floyd Dell, Intellectual Vagabondage (New York: Doran, 1926), 247-249 (Doran published Weaver). See Daniel Aaron, Writers on the Left (New York: Oxford Univ. Press paperback, 1977), 102-107 for discussion of Dell’s and Joseph Freeman’s critique of bohemian symbiosis with puritan middle-classes, the babyishness of the bohemian rebel. Such magisterial critiques of romantic infantilism ignore the real hypocrisies and incompatible demands and expectations that have driven “bohemians” into flight and withdrawal. Dell’s interest in Nietzsche, Ignatius Donnelly, G.K. Chesterton and Ezra Pound bears looking into.

[vi]              18. Daniel Aaron, Writers On The Left, 233-243. And see photographs at UCLA Special Collections of D.H. Lawrence and Frieda in the Southwest, 1922-1923: Lawrence in tie and (usually) three-piece suit, Frieda above him, framed in a black window; elsewhere always dressed in ethnic clothing, Indian or Mexican, earth mother and duende, i.e., Isabel.

[vii]             19. See The Van Wyck Brooks-Lewis Mumford Letters: the record of a literary friendship, 1921-1963, edited by Robert Spiller (New York: Dutton, 1970), passim. Henry A. Murray said he hoped that I would be able to solve the problem of violence and war, since he had failed (Interview, Nov. 4, 1987). Matthiessen denounced the Nietzschean Superman as protofascist while maintaining his reverence for the genius of poets who would, through adherence to organicist aesthetic theory, revitalize and unify culture; see discussion of American Renaissance, below, keeping in mind the taming of “Marja.”

Create a free website or blog at