Cracks in the New American Culture
The pre- World War I years in New York City marked a revolt against the genteel tradition and in favor of decidedly modern values. In fact, they produced a miniature renaissance marked by greater realism in arts and letters, the emergence of modern drama and dance, and increased cultural nationalism in all realms of expression. The exponents of this modern culture abandoned the Victorian precept that art should serve the ends of moral uplift, that it should inculcate the mass with the ideals of an unquestioned elite. Instead new radicals stressed the liberating functions of art: it should be spontaneous, cosmopolitan, tolerant, democratic. In short, art should assist in the cultural transformation necessary to effect meaningful social change.
The early twentieth century saw a spate of innovations in theater, education, poetry, painting, psychology, and politics, which Arthur Frank Wertheim has chronicled admirably in The New York Little Renaissance: Iconoclasm, Modernism, and Nationalism in American Culture, 1908-1917 ( 1976), a work in which he seeks to provide a comprehensive view of the era's transformation of art and ideology.1 Examining groups as distinctive as the anarchists, Wobblies, Freudians, feminists, the Others Group in poetry, the Stieglitz Group in photography and art, the Independent movement in painting, the little theater movement, the cultural nationalists, and the writers affiliated with H. L. Mencken, Theodore Dreiser, and The Smart Set, Wertheim concludes that all of these disparate Little Renaissance participants were bound by a common commitment to demolish the genteel tradition in order to create a new American culture in its place.2
However, in seeking uniformity in the Little Renaissance, claiming that its participants shared a common spirit of "iconoclasm, modernism, and cultural nationalism," Wertheim belies the era's true diversity. Much of the iconoclasm he cites was a matter more of style than of substance. Hutchins Hapgood was not alone in being "a Victorian in the modern world." As William L. O'Neill