December 4, 2009

Personal essay: "Genteel literature and the tricky nature of artistic movements."

The Chicago Renaissance in American Letters

(Every day, I like to post at least a thousand words of original content to the CCLaP website; on the days I don't have a review of a book or movie ready, I thought I would try other material, such as this series of personal essays, looking at a topic in the arts from my life that I think you might find relevant or entertaining too. You can click here for a master list of all personal essays now written, if you're interested.)

Like any other bibliophile, my library contains a whole stack of older, more obscure titles that are many times discovered for free or nearly so, at yard sales and in giveaway boxes outside used bookstores and the like; one in my library right now, for example, is Bernard Duffy's 1954 The Chicago Renaissance In American Letters: A Critical History, a nonfiction guide to the group of novelists and poets and newspaper columnists who made up the city's very first literary circle, back at the end of the Victorian Age when American literature in general came into its own for the first time. I was reading through some of this book the other day, in fact, when I came across a whole chapter arguing something specific about this community -- that the first writers in Chicago to really gain fame and fortune were those willing to embrace what the book calls the "Genteel Movement" which was apparently very popular at the time, and that in fact it was the Industrial-Age metropolises of the Midwest that ironically dragged out the popularity of the east-coast-started, mannered and moral Genteel movement, all the way to the beginning of Modernism and beyond.

And this threw me for kind of a loop when I first read it; because as regular readers know, for the last two years I've been doing this series of classics essays called the "CCLaP 100," and in all the research and reading I've now done for this series regarding the history of literature, not once had I ever before come across this term "Genteel Movement" that this 1954 book is claiming was the most popular form of the arts in America from roughly the 1870s to 1920s. And in fact I discovered that Genteel literature doesn't even have an entry at Wikipedia, a pretty serious statement indeed for a publication that has a full write-up of every Star Trek episode ever made; and so this got me even more curious about the term than ever, in that one thing I'm an endless sucker for is forgotten minor artistic movements of the Modern Age. Ah, but if there's one group destined to never forget the minor artistic movements of history, that'd be the academes, and indeed a simple Google search brought up a whole gaggle of academic papers on the subject of the Genteel arts, many of which are now available online for free. At the end of this essay I'm including a hyperlinked list of the ones I in particular read, and you can assume that much of the stuff I talk about below is paraphrased from these originals.

Turns out that Genteel literature worked pretty much how it sounds -- it was the kind of frilly, flowery, overly moralistic stuff coming out at the end of the Victorian Age and on through the Edwardian one, the kind of stuff you can consider the absolute worst of Romanticism and that gave that movement such a bad reputation all through the rest of the 20th century. See, for those who don't know, there were basically four very similar schools of thought that fueled much of the arts during the first half of the 1800s -- Romanticism, Victorianism, Transcendentalism and Impressionism -- each of which overlapped the others in telling ways, adding up by the end to this youthful and liberal exuberance over nature, emotions, the supernatural, the triumph of human civility over the chaos of the wild, and more. What the Genteel Movement was, then, was simply the natural consequence of these ideas being around for half a century and becoming the accepted mainstream norm; it was the conservative, safe, many ways backward expression of these once radical and challenging Victorian ideas, basically what you get when you take the refined, nature-embracing work of Thoreau or Emerson and add the hunger for empty, pretty nostalgia that the horrific Civil War produced in most Americans in the latter half of the 19th century. Or as Ellery Sedgwick puts it more eloquently than I can, it was basically Victorianism with all the fun sucked out of it...

...There was less emphasis on self-reliance -- for Emerson the chief source of all values -- and more on adherence to established cultural norms and traditions. Further, both the values and the tone in which they were transmitted now tended to be repressive rather than expansive, prescriptive rather than inspirational, nostalgic rather than progressive. While the Emersonian faith in moral and cultural progress was still proposed as a dogma...genteel literature reflects a powerful and paradoxical longing for the past.

Sheesh, no wonder Romanticism left such a bad taste in people's mouths by the time World War One was over, and no wonder society in general was so overwhelmingly ready to embrace the experimental Modernist movement at this point. And no wonder a term like "Genteel literature" has been utterly forgotten by society at this point in history, to the extent that it doesn't even warrant an entry in the world's largest encyclopedia -- it sounds like the intellectuals of the early 1900s deliberately worked to make it so, after having this outdated frilliness shoved down their throats for decades by the Edwardian version of soccer moms, bluebloods and conservative politicians. And no wonder, I think, that Chicagoans and other Midwesterners were to so whole-heartedly pick up the Genteel mantle at the end of the Victorian Age, right when the east-coasters who had made it famous first started embracing Modernist attitudes instead; because back in the late 1800s, the suddenly rich mercantile immigrants of the Industrial-Age Midwest were busily in the process of trying to legitimize themselves, to appear just as cultured and refined as all the "old money" on the Eastern Seaboard, instead of the dumb pig-slaughtering hayseeds they actually were, and what better way to pull this off than to embrace the surface-level accrouchements of the college-educated Europhiles of the east coast? And thus did you suddenly have millions of middle-class Polish factory managers and their housekeeper wives embracing the exact worst elements of the Victorian Age, ironically right at the moment that it was being rejected by those they were trying the hardest to impress.

It's had me thinking a lot this week about the whole subject of "movements" within the arts in general -- major versus minor ones, how we define the difference, how the same ideas will manifest themselves differently based on where geographically you are, how the general consensus of when a "movement" even occurs comes about, and of course how we determine which are most important to future history and which aren't. For example, back in the '80s, it wasn't just punk and New Wave music I was listening to, but also the beginnings of what's come to be known as "alt-country," and my daily listening habits back then included just as much Lone Justice and Uncle Tupelo as anything else; yet when we as a society collectively think back on the early '80s now, it seems sometimes that synthesizer-based pop is the only thing remembered, even though alt-country is currently at its highest point of popularity in its entire history. So why is this? Is it that New Wave music fits better into how we like to think of the early '80s in general? Is it that it's easier to feel nostalgic about frothy, simple songs than serious, complex ones? Is it because alt-country simply didn't have the same kind of cultural impact on mainstream society as New Wave or punk did, and therefore legitimately deserves to be remembered less?

When we actually live through the times, we like to think that we know the answers, and that simple popularity makes it patently obvious what is going to be most remembered about that age in the future. But as I was reminded of again this week, that's certainly not really the case at all, with it entirely possible like we've seen here for the single most popular influence on the arts from just a hundred years ago to be nearly completely and utterly forgotten by just a hundred years later. It makes me think -- a hundred years from now, will anyone even remember that during this time, it was popular among a certain crowd for nerdy white males to grow unruly beards and sing plaintive songs about how sad they are? For artists to combine poetry, theatre and hiphop, and go perform their pieces in bars in the middle of the night? Who knows which activities of today are going to be fondly remembered as a defining detail in another century, and which supposedly unstoppable forces will have disappeared? It's just one of the many things I find fascinating about the arts in general, and yet another aspect of it all that I try to keep in mind while reading older books myself.

For further reading on the Genteel Movement:

"Literature: Storming the Genteel." American Decades. The Gale Group, Inc. 2001.

"The Iron Madonna and American Criticism in the Genteel Era." Modern Language Quarterly. Duke University Press. 1954.

"The American Genteel Tradition in the Early Twentieth Century." Ellery Sedgwick III, academic paper for Longwood College (PDF only).

"A Genteel Endeavor: American Culture and Politics in the Gilded Age." John Tomsich. Stanford University Press, 1971.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:53 PM, December 4, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Profiles |