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New historical study illuminates
enduring culture clash

SOME SCIENTISTS FEAR that the upsurge of populism, which tends in some of its forms to be irrationalist and anti-intellectual, will obstruct research and impede progress. These commentators may or may not be comforted by a newly published analysis of American cultural history by Ann Douglas, Ph.D., Columbia professor of English and comparative literature.

Americanist Douglas, in Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1995), suggests that a major turn-of-the-century conflict, the unending struggle between rationalism and spiritualism, has come around again. The book's intepretation of the Modernist Zeitgeist draws on certain ideas that arose toward the end of the 19th century, peaked in popularity during the Jazz Age, and are still part of the American mental landscape.

Terrible Honesty has achieved a rare status for an academic book, occupying a steady place on best seller lists along with being widely (and mostly favorably) reviewed in the press. The resonance between the book's concern with the popular spiritualist movements of earlier eras and the New Age beliefs of the 1990s may explain its current popularity to some degree, although reviewers have de-emphasized this side of her work. Douglas finds this a curious discrepancy.

"That aspect has almost been the least commented-on," she says. "To me, it's central to the book." Instead, most journalists, to date, have concentrated on Terrible Honesty's discussions of white and black New Yorkers together (previous scholarship has generally considered these groups separately) and on what she calls the "theme of matricide": the Moderns' cultural resistance to styles of thought socially coded as feminine, from Victorian prudery to spiritualist sensualism. Controversies over these forms of thought are central to the book--even if most reviewers have overlooked them.

The psychologist William James, Douglas points out, was an energetic dabbler in the "mind-cure" practices of his day, including spiritualism and Christian Science--what Douglas calls the "feminine mystical mind," and what now is called "mind-body work." Intellectually, James allowed, these methods and dozens like them could not be proved, Douglas reports. But these approaches made some people, including James himself, feel better, and it never could be proved that they all were wholly fraudulent, as he sometimes suspected.

"[James] was confident--rightly so, it seems, as we look about today's therapeutic society--that the popular religions of the future would come not from the thought or beliefs of the intellectual masculine elite of his day but from the largely feminine mind-cure tradition of concrete therapeutics," Douglas writes. James sought to ally mysticism with the "scientific-academic mind," a goal that is now back in vogue. She describes James as "basically the father of the self-help groups of today."

Sigmund Freud, visiting Boston in 1909, disagreed with James, Douglas writes. Freud called the popular therapies "dangerous" and "unscientific," mere panderings to the public's "weakness" for the "mysterious." His own method, psychoanalysis, Freud declared, had "absolutely nothing mysterious about it." To which James, upon reading Freud's remarks in a newspaper, replied: "Bah!"

Historian Douglas tries not to take sides, but she does suggest that even the most individualistic thinkers, like James and Freud, are very much products of their cultures; it may not be in our stars but in our times that we are as we are. So, in populist eras, including our own, emotionally captivating if intellectually suspect beliefs may hold sway.

Douglas' historical research leads her to describe the 1920s as an impressively coherent era, in part because of its information technologies. "It was the first generation that had available to them the modern media, like records and radio. They had a sense of being a generation, living in a special time," says Douglas. "We don't have that today. We call ourselves `postmodern,' but the Moderns didn't call themselves `post-Victorian'!"

-- David R. Zimmerman

Related links...

Article in Columbia Record

Review in Boston Book Review

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