The impulse, to look back upon halcyon days—to seize upon a treasured moment in history when every promise of an ardently desired change in all aspects of life seemed not only infinitely fulfillable but virtually irresistible—is one that we are all prone to in periods of disillusionment and disarray. But some sensibilities are more susceptible than others to this tendency to locate in a distant past the moment of optimum possibility, and it is my impression, anyway, that nowadays it is our aging radicals who find this impulse both especially tempting and especially necessary. For it is in the nature of the radical dream to be defeated by the realities of life, and the longer radicals live with that dream the more reason they have to regret its atrocious consequences. Yet the dream itself cannot be abandoned by the faithful, for it is, in essence, a dream of salvation—and so refuge must be taken in some Eden of history where motives are seen to be pure and actions are seen to remain innocent of evil consequence. Which is one of the reasons, I suppose, why the Left has lately been so immensely productive in giving us histories and biographies that celebrate the origins of radical causes and apotheosize the heroes and heroines that remain its sainted figures.
I was reminded of this phenomenon yet again when I read in Alfred Kazin’s review of Dorothy Gallagher’s new biography of Carlo Tresca—it appeared in The New York Times Book Review of October 2—still another invocation to what Mr. Kazin called “an ancient radicalism—intransigent, far-out, relatively ‘pure’—that still evokes the most stirring associations with early 20th-century labor, with a time of great cultural renewal in American thought and with a great company of freely thinking, freely moving, freely loving men and women whose descendants are probably now embarrassed by them.” Mr. Kazin was certainly right about the “stirring associations” which this “ancient radicalism”—by which he means, I gather, pre-Gulag radicalism—continues to evoke in the hearts and minds of the political Left. But he was wrong about the embarrassment he attributed to the descendants of the “ancient” radicals. Far from suffering any embarrassment over all those “freely thinking, freely moving, freely loving men and women” who served the cause of that “ancient radicalism,” their descendants are now actively and passionately engaged in the task of beatifying them. What these descendants of the “ancient” radicals really feel about them is a combination of envy and nostalgia. They envy the political illusions that later historical horrors— horrors so often committed in the name of the very radicalism they espouse—have effectively denied to all but the commissars and knaves among them; and they feel a deep, intractable nostalgia for the kind of innocence that once made it possible to believe in the radical ideal without any concern for or even awareness of the immense human catastrophes that, as we now know, inevitably follow in its wake.
It is this combination of envy and nostalgia, moreover, that has made so many of the historical and biographical studies of this “ancient radicalism” so egregiously sentimental. For a certain sentimentality is absolutely essential to this literature, which seeks to exalt illusion and innocence at the expense of reality and knowledge. In a literature designed to succor the faithful as well as win new converts to its ranks, sentimentality isn’t so much an option as it is a structural necessity. It is, in any case, the affective medium from which this literature draws its energy and spirit.
Even so, few studies of this “ancient radicalism” have been as open in their expression of envy or as unabashed in their embrace of nostalgia as the book that Martin Green has now given us in New York 1913. Ostensibly a book about art and politics—the two principal events it focuses on are the Armory Show that introduced the American public to modernist art and the Paterson Strike Pageant that turned an historic labor dispute into a symbol of cultural emancipation—New York 1913 is in reality a kind of historical tableau designed to celebrate what Mr. Green calls the “spirituality or transcendence” that, in his view, characterized not only the two events under study here but the larger aspiration which he believes they were created to serve. Tableaux of this sort are not, perhaps, the finest instruments for dealing with the materials of history, for they turn everything they touch into a species of metaphor, allegory, and romance. For this reason Mr. Green’s claim to be writing “a richer and more material history” in New Tork 1913 is not one that is supported in the book he has actually given us. But both the claim and the book itself have much to tell us about what happens to the writing of history when it is made the vehicle of a nostalgia for innocence.
My guess is that the principal inspiration for this book, if not indeed its model, was the movie Reds, which combined fantasy and history in a similar fashion and which was Hollywood’s contribution to the same kind of retrospective yearning. It certainly shares with Reds the dual function of idealizing an earlier period of radical inspiration while at the same time according to more recent radical developments—those of the Sixties and its aftermath—an honorific lineage. We are again reminded that almost every account of the radical past that nowadays comes out of the Left is, in one way or another, a defense of the Sixties. One can say for Mr. Green, at least, that he makes no attempt to disguise this aspect of his project. Toward the end of the book he sadly announces that “not perhaps until the late 1960s was there any equivalent” of the spirit he has discerned in the New York of 1913, and it is in order to offer us a more innocent and more picturesque version of the Sixties that he has apparently written this book.
As was the case in Reds, Mr. Green’s historical tableau features many familiar figures, of course—personalities as diverse as Marcel Duchamp and Elizabeth Gurley Hynn, Gertrude Stein and Big Bill Haywood, John Sloan and Theodore Roosevelt and Mabel Dodge—and about none of them, it must be said, does the author have anything new to tell us. This isn’t his purpose, to be sure. In creating this tableau Mr. Green isn’t as interested in breaking new ground as he is in staging his own pageant, complete with banners and bunting and two-dimensional effigies, upon an historical scaffold that is already very well-known.
To lend a plausible air of coherence and novelty and uplift to this pageant, Mr. Green has erected as his standard a banner bearing the words, “the spirit of 1913,” thereby reassuring his readers that what they are being offered on this occasion is an account of a bright new dawn—what he describes as “the atmosphere of hope and confidence which so many people in New York in 1913 had been creating for each other.” By drawing the line at 1913, Mr. Green is very deliberately and knowingly isolating this bright dawn from the very dark days that followed it. He readily acknowledges that with the coming of the First World War, “the damage done to what I have called the spirit of 1913 was fatal.” He is even willing to recognize that “the post-1917 history of Bolshevik rule in Russia is one of the bitterest human legends for those who believed in revolution as a spiritual project,” though—oddly enough—the historical reality of the 1917 Revolution does nothing to diminish his admiration for what he calls the “bursts of energy, and many acts of heroism, individual and group,” which for him define the very ethos of the revolutionary spirit (as they often do for those who are not its victims). What Mr. Green especially cherishes in both art and revolution are the “brilliant feats which drew others to invest their own energies in comparable work,” and it is these “brilliant feats” that we are invited to lavish our nostalgia upon in this pageant of the “spirit of 1913.” Never mind that, in politics at least, it all turned out so badly. As a “spiritual project,” even the most dubious and deplorable aspects of this alleged “spirit of 1913” offered its privileged participants the requisite portion of existential gratification, and that is what really counts for Martin Green. That is also what makes this book about 1913 so recognizably a valentine to the late 1960s.
About the chronicle of the Armory Show that is given us in New York 1913, it need only be observed that it is so fragmentary and tendentious—so scripted, as we might say, to conform to Mr. Green’s own “spiritual project”—that it is all but worthless to any reader looking for a reliable account of this historic event. Mr. Green does not appear to know very much about art. He knows only what he has read about it, and what he has mainly read in this case is Milton W. Brown’s The Story of the Armory Show (1963), which is an excellent book in many ways but not one in urgent need of a tendentious abridgement twenty-five years after publication. About the emergence of the modern movement in America, Mr. Green is simply naive and uninformed. His notion that modernism was something that “an elite American class in touch with Europe” had “imposed... on American art” sounds a lot like the kind of thing that Thomas Craven and Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton used to say in the 1930s and that Tom Wolfe has been saying again for some years now, but sheer repetition doesn’t make the claim any less false.
The truth is that the Armory Show “imposed” nothing; but it revealed much, and it was on the basis of its revelations that certain isolated—and for the most part powerless—figures, both artists and others, began their long uphill labor to acquire for modernist art the kind of attention it deserved.
It is, moreover, the sheerest nonsense to claim that Picasso and Matisse conducted “a guerrilla war against the bourgeois class and its hegemony” or that “they denied reality via their denial of realism.” This is nothing but the old—and long discredited—bourgeois philistinism reorchestrated to serve the purposes of a radical “spiritual project.” About the art in question it is extremely obtuse, and about the whole art-historical epoch it purports to explain it is woefully ignorant. When we find Mr. Green writing of what he calls Cézanne’s “famous pictures of apples” that “he [Cézanne] offered his viewers the ontology or archetypal essence of, for instance, pieces of fruit,” we can see straightaway that he is out of his depth. It is shocking that an academic of Mr. Green’s standing should prove to be so inept in dealing with the commonplaces of art-historical discourse.
He is no better, in my opinion, when it comes to dealing with the history of labor, yet on this subject—at least as it pertains to the Paterson Strike of 1913—Mr. Green’s failure is less one of historical perception than it is of moral intelligence. He knows very well that for the silk workers who actually went out on strike in Paterson, New Jersey, and for whose benefit the Paterson Strike Pageant was allegedly organized, the Pageant was a costly fiasco. He duly reports that the strike itself “came to an inglorious end,” and even provides something of an epitaph:
By July 29 most employees were back at work; twenty-five hundred went elsewhere, two thousand more were blacklisted by Paterson employers. The wages lost in the strike were estimated at $5,500,000, and the owners were supposed to have lost an equivalent amount. Landlords lost two to five months rent, and special police cost the town ten thousand dollars. There were fifteen hundred arrests and five deaths. Paterson was never again a prosperous textile center.
Yet in the face of this debacle Mr. Green writes about the Paterson Strike Pageant as the kind of “spiritual project” he believes we have reason to admire and emulate even now. Which prompts one to observe that it is not only about art that the author of New York 1913 is so egregiously obtuse.
What, then, was the Paterson Strike Pageant? It was a theatrical event, preceded by a parade, staged in the old Madison Square Garden ostensibly for the benefit of the striking workers in the Paterson textile industry. John Reed was its principal impresario and script-writer, Big Bill Haywood its principal mentor, and the writers, artists, publicists, and hangers-on who frequented Mabel Dodge’s Greenwich Village salon its principal cheerleaders and fund-raisers. For everyone but the workers it was an immense success. Certainly for Reed and many others in Mabel Dodge’s circle it was a heady triumph. One writer even called the Pageant “a new cultural form,” and Mr. Green appears to agree with this. Haywood was also said to feel, as Mr. Green writes, “that the Pageant was the greatest personal triumph of his career.” Note the word “personal” for in fact the Pageant marked the beginning of the end of the I.W.W.— the radical workers movement that Haywood headed and that was never again a force in the American labor movement. The I.W.W. was indeed a major factor in providing the Pageant with its particular ethos, but the real task of organizing labor quickly passed into the hands of more responsible and less romantic parties.
As soon as the Pageant was over, John Reed and Mabel Dodge took off for Europe for the purpose of consummating their love affair. “This sudden disappearance,” Mr. Green writes in what is my favorite sentence in this book, “must have reinforced suspicions among the strikers of some inauthenticity in the commitment of their Village friends.” The strike was lost, the IW.W. was all but dead, the striking workers were abandoned, but John Reed and Mabel Dodge had been provided with a suitably exciting prelude to the romance that they then pursued at her villa in Florence. I wonder if I am alone in wondering why Mr. Green should believe that anyone will want to admire such a repulsive combination of facile self deception and romantic cynicism, much less regard it as some sort of “spirituality or transcendence” to be emulated?
Frankly, though I thought the movie Reds was an outrageous example of mendacious fantasy, I have to say that I prefer it to a book like
- New York 1913: The Armory Show and the Paterson Strike Pageant, by Martin Green; Charles Scribner’s Sons, 320 pages, $24.95. Go back to the text.