Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s
Under the gleaming neon sign that reads HONEST JOHN, USED CAR SALESMAN you’re sure of at least one thing. Nobody advertises himself or his product as “honest” who doesn’t have very good reason to know that people will expect the contrary. Ann Douglas of Columbia University titles her new book Terrible Honesty; she is referring to New York City in the decade of the 1920s. That decade began with the Volstead Act, which provoked widespread hypocrisy and atrocious lawlessness throughout the nation; it ended with the Wall Street crash and the Great Depression, which forced a profound reconsideration of all the values of the preceding decade. There were of course honesty and dishonesty aplenty during the 1920s, as there have been in every period of American history. Perhaps the eras that give us the greatest impression of outraged vociferous honesty were those that provoked it by the most shameless displays of dishonesty. Myself having lived through a lot of decades, including Ms. Douglas’s mongrel Twenties, I am not instantly persuaded by the thesis that they were marked by unusual honesty, either private or public.
There is no mistaking Ms. Douglas’s determination: she wants to “catch the American psyche in perhaps its most revealing moment, the decade after the Great War, when America seized the economic and cultural leadership of the West.” The details, to be sure, don’t quite check out. The three presidents who led the nation in this moment of ultimate truth—Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover—hardly lit up the intellectual skies. On the international scene we were represented by the likes of Senators Smoot and Borah, suspicious standpatters. A spectacular display of national boobery was provided by the much publicized Scopes trial. The country intervened, most unsuccessfully, in the affairs of Mexico, Nicaragua, and Cuba. Prohibition worsened the problem it was intended to solve.
The coming of the tabloid newspaper, the explosion of the publicrelations industry, and the advent of predigested books and magazines hardly offered much hope for terrible honesty. The career of Aimee Semple McPherson provided new chapters in the history of American hypocrisy, and Bruce Barton taught his readers to combine (however improbably) the principles of Jesus Christ with those of hucksterism. John P. O’Brien, exmayor of New York, charmed his way into the headlines by explaining that he got his unexplained wealth by taking the money out of “a little tin box.” Throughout the 1920s, Ulysses was banned from America, and birth control as advocated by Margaret Sanger had to fight a lonely war against puritanical censorship.
To do her justice, Ms. Douglas imposes no sharp definitions or limits on her “terrible honesty.” Her perspective is not limited to “intellectuals” like Edna Millay and the Algonquin wits; without hesitation she moves outside the limits of the five boroughs, a long way beyond the decade specified in her title, and up and down Tin Pan Alley. A core element of her argument is the coming together of modernism—with its roots in prewar Europe—and a Black Renaisance riding the crest of a migration out of the rural south.
This is historically true, particularly in retrospect, and particularly when we think of ragtime, jazz, the blues, and artists such as Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. But at the time, if memory serves, it was much less distinct than the formula makes it. Sunday afternoons white slummers from regions like West End Avenue and the Village might take a cab over to the Savoy Ballroom to watch the black dancers disport themselves. Columbia boys might on occasion stop in at the Apollo Theater on 125th Street or even venture fearfully to test the dangerous drugs known as “speed.” But that comes under the head of cultural mingling only in the shallowest sense of the term. Few of the people who ventured up to the Harlem entertainment spots ever prowled down the Harlem streets late at night. Hardly any of them would have endured a black tenant in their apartment house.
The line between black and white residential districts was strict, occasionally rigid. Blacks were forbidden entrance to hear Duke Ellington and other black performers at the Cotton Club. Harlem stopped at 110th Street on the south and at the upper rim of Morningside Park on the west. I’m not sure if it’s still that way, but until a few years ago it was. I was born on Morningside Avenue on the very rim of Harlem, and remember to this day a few details of the railroad flat in which I passed my early years. But though I would recognize the building, I don’t think I would dare to revisit it these days.
In the 1920s, terribly honest though they were, it wasn’t easy or natural for a black man to walk down an American street outside “his” district. When the Columbia track team, of which I was a member, went to West Point to run against the Cadets, our star performer was a black sprinter named Ben Johnson. He was one of the best in the world, but his presence nearly created a diplomatic crisis. The Army sprinters felt they would be degrading their social class by running against him. Fortunately, one or another of the Army coaches possessed, in addition to a southern background, a touch of urbane humor. “Look,” he told his charges, “you aren’t going to get even a glimpse of this guy. Two seconds after the race starts, he’s already going to be out of your sight. So when you go to the starting line, just take a pebble in one hand, and make believe you’re chasing a nigger down the main street of your home town.”
They did as he said, they lost the race decisively, the civilized amenities were preserved—sort of. But was that an instance of racial integration? It was not just the New York Athletic Club that, notoriously, would not admit Jews; the hotels around the city were better than hotels in the country at large, but someone with a “Jewish” name or nose was well advised to make close preliminary inquiries if he wanted to avoid humiliation and embarrassment. Professor Douglas must be aware of the ugly reputation her own university bore in areas of academic freedom at a time when painful honesty was supposed to be at its height.
As befits a cultural history describing the various disorderly events of a city over an arbitrary period of time, Ms. Douglas’s book inevitably gives the impression of helter-skelter. Material changes in the organization of the city are not very interesting, and get neglected; changes in the psychological orientation of the intelligentsia are boldly overstated. During the 1920s, the subway system was expanded, airport facilities enlarged, the operation of New York harbor systematized. But Ms. Douglas is so intent on demonstrating that “white middle-class women had seized the reins of national culture” in the period preceding the war that she goes on to describe “the virtual stranglehold of America’s women authors on the fiction market.”
Overstated though it was, this in fact comprised the central thesis of her first book, The Feminization of American Culture,* which combined an overview of sentimental fiction written by and for middle-class ladies with an examination of liberal Protestant clergymen in the last half of the nineteenth century. By concentrating on these pallid groups rather than on more stalwart types (such as Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Jack London, H.L. Mencken, and other such), one can make a case for the feminization (however temporary) of a particular part of American culture.
The present book on terrible honesty quite reverses the procedure without fully explaining the reason for the change. Most accounts lay emphasis on events like the Paris riots over The Rite of Spring and the slightly earlier introduction of Post-Impressionist art by Roger Fry in 1910–1911. Murmurings and muffled explosions were heard from insurrectionaries like Marinetti and Ezra Pound about the same time. But these are aspects of developing modernism into which Ms. Douglas does not delve, her interests being focused on New York City in the 1920s, and mostly on the phenomena of popular culture.
Ms. Douglas lays great emphasis on the war as an incentive to terrible honesty, though there is much evidence to indicate that it often worked the other way. Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, and other friends of Hemingway often felt it was great to be part of “the big show”; they wouldn’t have missed it for anything. Again, it is a big part of Ms. Douglas’s thesis that Freudian values, which “eclipsed the Protestant pieties,” played a major part in developing a new intellectual rigor. But the evidence for this is nothing more substantial than the fact that lawyers in the Gray-Snyder murder trial whipped up some claptrap pseudo-psychology to try to get their clients off.
Both Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mary Baker Eddy fall well outside Ms. Douglas’s self-defined chronological limits, but both climb back irresistibly into the argument. Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald make numerous cameo appearances, not always to reconcilable effect. For much of the book Hemingway is a model of the new stripped veracity. But later it turns out that this same writing is a tissue of abject lies about the war and himself and his family that readers should have seen through long before they did. Both Hemingway and Hart Crane, it appears, suffered from dangerous and complex confusions between patriarchal and matriarchal hostilities in their Freudian prehistory. Why and how these mysterious influences could have been transmitted across the centuries to strike unerringly a couple of thinkers of the Saturday Evening Post ilk is hard to imagine. If the theories did in fact shed instant light on dark places, their doubtful provenance might not matter, but mostly their effect is to confuse what is fairly apparent already.
The various versions of Freudian doctrine and the recent accumulation of severely anti-Freudian critiques (summarized in recent articles by Frederick Crews in this journal) might, one would think, make it hard to present Freudianism as a monolithic body of belief and the foundation stone of a cult of terrible honesty. But as her book writes its way down to the last sections on popular music, Ms. Douglas passes by the various Freudian sects and lets terrible honesty quietly slip from sight. Without being directly repudiated, the book’s basic thesis silently crumbles away.
Terrible Honesty is not without its charms, and many of them stem from what the serious-minded will see as flaws. There is a cheerful carelessness about its careering from one topic to another and then back again. Walter Winchell is here by the same right as Wrong-Way Corrigan should be, and Peaches Browning. Someone asked a little boy in Muncie, Indiana, what temptation we have that Jesus didn’t have, and his answer, “Speed,” becomes part of the record. (A few years later the same monosyllable would have meant something quite different.) Occasionally, the volume feels like a scrapbook, but for anyone who lived through the period it describes, that’s all to the good. Many people may remember, as I do, an enchanting walk up Riverside Drive to where the George Washington Bridge was delicately, improbably being spun high in the air between its huge pylons. That was one of several humongous projects, brought to completion perhaps in the early Thirties, but conceived, designed, financed, and engineered in the late Twenties, and spiritually of that age. Once when the Atlantic fleet or a big part of it came to moor in the Hudson off lower Riverside Drive, that section of the city blossomed suddenly as a thousand gaudy hookers gathered to take advantage of the military presence.
These are adornments to Douglas’s story that she has not purposely attached to it, but that memory brings thronging. Only think, for example, of the way the shad fishermen used to spread their nets across the river every spring near the Jersey shore. The summer concerts at Lewisohn Stadium with the orchestra being drowned out every so often by planes swooping in low on their way to land at LaGuardia. (Perhaps the planes didn’t really arrive in any numbers till the 1930s and 1940s, but we heard them in the dusky skies of the 1920s, proleptically.) Ginkgo trees growing out of the solid asphalt! Moskowitz and Lupowitz on the Lower East Side! I didn’t properly appreciate their kasha, but I patronized their restaurant for the romance of the name.
Like all cities built around the basic inventions of the subway and the elevator, New York as it has become in the last century gives a strong impression of cold and oppressive efficiency. Already in the 1920s the town was scaring people with its array of deep geometrical canyons, its buried lines of communication. Well-off folk who didn’t have to be in town five days of the seven might arrange a very comfortable existence in the farther suburbs; and in even earlier days we used to move out to the deep country, as much as fifty miles from Times Square, and settle there for the summer. Idyllic dappled days, courtesy of just two short rides on the New York, New Haven, and Hartford! People who didn’t have to be at the downtown office every day could lounge on the lawn writing dreamy, playful books in which the suburban milieu didn’t have to be presented to be felt. Long Island Sound unrolled people, relaxing their spirits. People who had a world within them, bursting to get down on paper, might borrow an apartment from a kindly editor and hole up in owlish isolation to capture their vision intact.
Ms. Douglas does not have many patches of vivid description; her Manhattan is, perhaps appropriately, gray and businesslike. She quotes a fine colorful passage descriptive of Hemingway’s progress across St. Germain des Prés:
It was an event when [Hemingway] passed the sidewalk tables at the Dôme. Arms waved in greeting and friends ran out to urge him to sit down with them…Hemingway would be striding toward the Montparnasse railroad station… and he wouldn’t quite recognize whoever greeted him. Then suddenly his beautiful smile appeared that made those watching him also smile…He put out his hands and warmly greeted his acquaintances, who, overcome by this reception, simply glowed and returned with him to the table as if with an overwhelming prize.
The hilarity and exuberance of this scene stand out in the book, whether Hemingway qualifies or not for the honesty award. (Actually, it appears the first recorder of the scene was Nathan Asch, who retailed it to Malcolm Cowley, who passed it along to Denis Brian, through whom it reached Ann Douglas. But hardly anybody in this chain of reminiscences seems to have thought concentrated honesty was anywhere involved.)
After the splurge of pseudo-Freudian explanatory theory devoted to Crane and Hemingway, it’s pleasant to report that the book settles down to a straightforward recital of biographical events. Nancy Cunard and Charlotte Mason were white ladies possessing a lot of money with which they alternately plagued and patronized black authors. Mrs. Mason tried to fasten onto the relatively independent Langston Hughes, but Nancy Cunard, who arrived in Harlem with a heavy load of hatred for her mother, spent a long time badgering a mediocre jazz pianist and singer named Henry Crowder. Neither these women nor their protégés qualify in any sense as exponents of terrible honesty. The world they lived in was a messy, make-believe collection of crossovers and as-ifs, a mixture of pseudo-genders and quasi-classes which in the absence of terrible honesty often slid into the easy disguises of masquerade. Pretendblackness, as in the recitations of Vachel Lindsay and some of the music of George Gershwin, was a recognized genre, and it didn’t take much critical digging to recognize elements of so-called “jazz poetry” in the work of T.S. Eliot. But the direction of Terrible Honesty draws it toward Harlem as in its own right a residential, entertainment, and cultural district.
The story of Harlem as a parcel of land owned by individuals, corporations, neighborhood businesses, and investors from outside the community is an indispensable preliminary to this piece of cultural history; and while it’s only partly told here, the telling leaves an inquisitive reader eager to know more. Who nowadays owns Harlem? Columbia University and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, as big private investors, would be objects of special interest. But whoever they turn out to be, one would like to know who owns the place these days, and how much do they get out of it.
For the purposes of Ms. Douglas the story seems about to culminate in the big figures of the Harlem Renaissance—James Weldon Johnson, Bert Williams, Ethel Waters, and Countee Cullen. But they are not analyzed in much detail; it’s unclear why not. The Depression mutilated some careers, others simply withered away. Ms. Douglas is content with a couple of vapid comparisons aligning America’s cultural stature with that of the world as a whole. And then, without much apparent sense of transition, she moves on to an extended if blurred appraisal of Irving Berlin. The “serious” musical scenes of opera, symphony, chamber music, and recitals, like the ever-changing world of painting, sculpture, and to a lesser degree, of architecture, are pretty well ignored.
In the final section of the book Ms. Douglas recounts the repeal of the Prohibition amendment and the multiple illusions that perished with the stock-market crash. In many ways it’s a bigger subject than her entire book to this point, but she does not spend much time searching through the debris of the 1920s. That very little was left to build on after 1929 she indicates; but the many different reconstruction programs can’t be fully discussed without considering the immense topic of World War II and its economic consequences. I don’t hold any brief for the exalted honesty of the later age, and if I did I wouldn’t look for it on Tin Pan Alley or in tabloid journalism. When I lived on Elizabeth Street, just one block off the Bowery, there was just about as much squalor covered over with unadulterated hypocrisy as the spirit could stand. Honesty could be found here and there, but mostly it was in very short supply. From what I hear it’s still not overplentiful.
The book, which I gather from its publicity was fifteen years in the making, was clearly a mighty task to oversee, and the labor of a couple of diligent copy editors would have improved it perceptibly. The “Harlem boxer” known as Joe Louis was no doubt the Alabama native using the same nom de boxe Joe Louis (p. 479); only a few pages away is the wellknown organizer of the CIO John E. (actually L.) Lewis; Ferdinand Léger the French artist will be more familiar as Fernand Léger. Some of the book’s more spectacular statistics (as that by 1925 the Ford line could assemble a car in ten seconds, p. 187) defy probability. All sorts of things get “reified” in the course of the book (pp. 127, 136, 184); on page 272, people are “infantilized.” Sentences often flow on far beyond the power of rare verbs to sustain them. On page 133 there is a sentence which runs on for 242 words, all depending on a single verb. It is a book that often falls short, not so much of terrible honesty, as of elemental accuracy. It will, in all probability, not be much cited as a source of authentic information. But a lot of New York’s brassy reality has rubbed off on it, and people who remember Jimmy Hines, fight night at old Saint Nick’s, and Wingy Manone on West 52nd Street will find something to enjoy in it.
Knopf, 1977; Anchor, 1988.↩
Knopf, 1977; Anchor, 1988.↩