A Long Arc Bending Toward Reason: 1900–1960

“The way to deal with superstition is not to be polite to it, but to tackle it with all arms, and so rout it, cripple it, and make it forever infamous and ridiculous.”

—H. L. MENCKEN, in the Baltimore Evening Sun (1925)

“The early advocates of universal literacy and a free press…did not foresee…the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal….In a word, they failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”

—ALDOUS HUXLEY, Brave New World Revisited (1958)


Progress and Backlash

THE UNITED STATES IS A self-consciously modern country. During the first three decades of the first self-consciously modern century, the twentieth, rationality and reasonableness seemed to be winning the war against magical thinking and backwardness. The amazing material progress accelerated, with cars and nationwide electrification. Medical science advanced, and the American Establishment decided to put an end to large-scale quackery. The new mass-market magazine Ladies’ Home Journal stopped accepting ads for patent medicines, and Collier’s published a game-changing eleven-part investigative series on the “ ‘tonics,’ ‘blood purifiers’ and ‘cures’ ” racket—and a year later the Pure Food and Drug Act became federal law, putting most of that industry out of business. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1905 that states and towns could legally require citizens to be vaccinated against smallpox and other infectious diseases—that Americans’ constitutional right to believe and promote whatever they wished did not give “an absolute right in each person to be, in all times and in all circumstances, wholly free from restraint.”

The government established national food and public health rules and the Federal Reserve. The NAACP was founded. Fair-minded and responsible new national news media emerged. Universities thrived, and science and scientists were revered. The rest of the world acknowledged that Americans were creating world-class literature and music and art. When Henry Luce, the founder of Time in 1923, declared that the American Century had begun, it seemed inarguable.

No surprise—there was some backlash to the march of progress. Of course! It was a free country! We’d been a rough frontier nation the day before yesterday. From the turn of the century through the 1920s, new spiritual fads and kooky religious denominations arose, along with aversion to migrating hordes—Italians and Jews over from Europe, African-Americans up from the South. But to the self-confident mainstream, all those reactionary outbursts looked like last gasps, rear-guard actions by primitives, exceptions to smart-set modernity that proved the rule.

In the 1920s, Gilbert Seldes wrote The Stammering Century as a rationalist’s good-riddance epitaph for the last vestiges of America’s ridiculous magical-thinking 1800s. Psychics and séances had a revival—the young wife of a Boston socialite physician became an illustrious medium, in part because she often disrobed during séances—but spiritualism was definitively debunked during the 1920s by Houdini and other skeptics. Nearly all of the big spiritualist communities that had sprung up during the late 1800s disappeared. Theosophy, a hot turn-of-the-century American mishmash of occultism, mysticism, astrology, alchemy, and magic, splintered and declined into obscurity starting in the 1920s.

On the worldly and political front, Americans gave themselves over once again to panics about conspiratorial aliens in their midst—but the hysterias were brief. During World War I, people of German ancestry became suspect. Nearly one in ten Americans was a German immigrant or the child of one. There were riots, a lynching, and between 1910 and 1920, the miraculous disappearance of almost a million German-born Americans from the census rolls. But the sheer number of German-Americans also made it harder to indulge the panic fully, and the United States was officially at war for only nineteen months.

The first big anti-Communist panic, in the 1910s and ’20s after the Soviet Union was established, promptly edged into anti-Semitism and vice versa. And by the way, weren’t a lot of those German-Americans who worried us during the war also Jewish? Fear of Jewish influence had its American moment as soon as the Jewish population hit 2 percent—about the same threshold at which American anti-Catholic hysteria kicked in a century earlier. Henry Ford, America’s most esteemed and successful industrialist, became a superfan of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion—the Russian book originally published as fiction, now purporting to be a nonfiction account of a secret meeting of the leaders of a global Jewish conspiracy plotting world domination. In the 1920s he underwrote the U.S. publication of a half-million copies. He also conceived and published a four-volume set called The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem; the young Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler read the German translation and became Henry Ford superfans. But after Americans condemned Ford and started boycotting his company, he promptly apologized and backed off, and U.S. anti-Semitism began its steady twentieth-century decline.

THE PERNICIOUS AND complicated fantasies that underlay white supremacy were not so easily banished when the war over slavery ended. After our Civil War, the fever never entirely broke, because the losing side in its heart and mind never entirely surrendered. The North forgave, but the South didn’t, and neither side completely forgot.

You’d think the war would’ve rendered the Old South myths obsolete in the North, or at least eliminate the power of fictions of happy slaves to charm and beguile a nation that had lost almost a million sons, husbands, fathers, and friends fighting over it. But at the turn of the twentieth century, just three decades after the tragedy and the slaughter, an amazing slavery theme park was erected in Brooklyn. Its mastermind was William Cody’s producer, who installed the inaugural iteration of what he called Black America in a semirural park where he and Buffalo Bill had performed the Wild West the previous summer. His partner on Black America was a black performer and impresario who had recently staged a theatrical reenactment of the Battle of Vicksburg on Coney Island.

For Black America, they recruited five hundred “Southern Colored People”—“actual field hands from the cotton belt,” an advertisement promised—to occupy the 150 brand-new reproduction rustic slave cabins, and for two months they pretended to be enslaved, picking cotton bolls from a recently planted acre and processing them in a real cotton gin. Tens of thousands of white people watched “the labors that the Negroes of slavery days engaged in, and the happy, careless life that they lived in their cabins after work,” a New York Times reporter wrote. “A fat black mammy, with a red handkerchief on her head, sits outside one of the little cabins, knitting.” The Times also found the make-believe slaves’ make-believe talismans entertaining, the rabbits’ feet and the “musk bag” whose “mysterious ingredients…protect against…the wiles and deceptions of the Evil One.” The show included a detachment of active-duty black soldiers from a segregated U.S. Army regiment. Black America was a hit, and it toured the Northeast.

At the same moment, Robert Love Taylor, Tennessee’s former governor and future U.S. senator, was lecturing throughout the country on the glories of the Old South. “Every sunrise of summer was greeted by the laughter and songs of the darkies as they gathered in gangs and went forth in every direction to begin the labors of the day,” he’d say. “I never shall forget the white-columned mansions rising in cool, spreading groves. And stretching away to the horizon were the cotton fields, alive with the toiling slaves, who, without a single care to burden their hearts, sang as they toiled from early morn till close of day.” This was typical of the treacly, long-sigh fantasy visions of Old Dixie being propagated in the early 1900s.

Nostalgia had been turned back into a pathology. In 1915 the director D. W. Griffith released a motion picture that was more cinematically ambitious, sophisticated, and compelling than any so far—the movie of the year, of the decade, hugely profitable. It was The Birth of a Nation, a shameless three-hour-long piece of propaganda for the mythical Old South and its Ku Klux Klan redeemers. It was the first movie to be shown at the White House, and it played in New York City for almost a year. And then life proceeded to imitate art. During the next decade, the popularity of the revived Klan exploded. Along with the hideous nostalgia for unquestioned white supremacy, the Klan now had standardized spooky-fantasy-figure costumes (the white robes, the conical hats) and new fantasy nomenclature—officers were Imperial Wizards and Grand Goblins, and local Klan groups became “klaverns.” It had spread beyond the former Confederacy. As a million and a half black people migrated from South to North during the 1910s and ’20s, four of the five states with the largest Klan memberships were Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. At its peak in the early 1920s, probably 5 percent of white American men were in the KKK. But what happened next is a measure of how much the moderating, modernizing forces of reason were nevertheless in control of the culture: within just a few years, by the end of the decade, the Klan’s membership had shriveled from many millions to tens of thousands. Which reassured respectable Americans that they’d seen the farewell performance of the most fantastical and vicious bigots.

The meteoric rise and fall of the Klan aside, white Southerners’ myth of their own special goodness—honorable, honest, humane, and civilized guardians of tradition, unlike the soulless Yankees—did not wither. It endured in new forms in the new century, with Daddy’s and Granddaddy’s Civil War a noble and glorious Lost Cause that tragically failed to preserve their antebellum golden age. Slavery qua slavery? No, no, no, the war hadn’t really been about that; slavery was a detail. In fact, white Southerners had fought the war to defend their right as Americans to believe anythingthey wanted to believe, even an unsustainable fantasy, even if it meant treating a class of humanity as nonhuman.

Many Southern historians of the South agree that a defining quirk of Southerners had been a weakness for illusion and delusion. A young North Carolina journalist named Wilbur Cash in 1941 published the single most influential twentieth-century book on his region’s cultural psychology, The Mind of the South. It began as an essay for H. L. Mencken’s magazine, where Cash wrote that the South’s

salient characteristic is a magnificent incapacity for the real, a Brobdingnagian talent for the fantastic. The very legend of the Old South, for example, is warp and woof of the Southern mind….

Unpleasant realities were singularly rare, and those which existed, as, for example, slavery, lent themselves to pleasant glorification. Thus fact gave way to amiable fiction….

Everywhere [the Southerner] turns away from reality to a gaudy world of his own making.

For a century after the Civil War, writes the University of Virginia historian Paul Gaston in The New South Creed: A Study in Southern Mythmaking (1970), the conventional wisdom was “that the South would be absorbed into the mainstream [as] its socioeconomic system and moral views became standard ‘American.’ ” In other words, the vanquished would become Northernized, less myth-addled, more reality-based. Progress! As a military and legal fact, the Confederacy lost the Civil War, and the United States remained united and joined the rest of the developed world in ending slavery. But in other ways, the question of which side won is more ambiguous. Slavery’s spread was stopped, but not the nationwide spread of certain unfortunate Southern habits of mind, along with increasingly berserk versions of Christianity.

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