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This Vulgarity of Ours

Condensed from Harper's Magazine (July '26)
Katharine Fullerton Gerould

ANY of our fellow-countrymen -and keenest critics-spend a lot of time accusing modern America of vulgarity. Mr. Sinclair Lewis, for example, makes American vulgarity the chief theme of his bestsellers, and Mr. Mencken tells us all about it once a month. To cry out in denial is in itself "vulgar"; which turns behavior into a vicious circle. What is vulgarity? A good deal of the every-day talk about vulgarity refers only to a lack of superficial sophistication in other people, and is based on the conviction that what is good in the eyes of the many must, for the sake of their personal distinction, be despised by the few. Snobbishness, in other words. One must have a better basis than that to go on-in a democracy.

"Vulgarity is one of the forms of death," Ruskin says somewhere. The value of Ruskin's statement lies in its vague reference to moral and spiritual and aesthetic values, to something more vital than superficial manners and customs. That which makes against veritable life, that which is necessarily impermanent, having no hold on eternal laws, that which destroys the spirit--what else could Ruskin have meant us to infer from his statement?

And that must be something more vital than patent rockers or gumchewing or illiterate speech. Ruskin would have included all these, no doubt, since they are crimes against beauty, and beauty is one of the handmaids of God. I think we might assume that in anything properly called vulgar there is some vital untruth, some profound inaccuracy.

What does the average American desire most? Are the objects of his desire worthy? That is how we must find out whether the average Ameri

can is vulgar or not. The fact is-and it is at the root of most of our real vulgarity—that we are servants of Mammon. We want, as a people, I believe, to serve God; yet we are forever attempting the double servitude which we were told, nearly 2000 years ago, was impossible. We worship money without knowing very well what money is good for. We worship, that is, an unknown god. The quick fortune always makes for vulgarity; "new-rich" has, for decades been, in all civilized countries, a synonym for "vulgar”. Owing to our vastness and resources, we have created more of these sudden fortunes than any other nation. The average American hopes, if he does not exactly expect, to be rich before he dies. I doubt if you could say that of the citizen of any other country. He wants money-and other things afterwards. Bécause the American begins, very young, to work for money, he does not have time, by the way, to consider how best to use the money when he finally gets it. He tends to think that the most expensive thing is necessarily the best. That is why so much of man-made America is ugly. Good taste is, alas! unless it is inborn, the fruit of leisure, of gazing and comparing. What American has time for that? With our worship of specialization and "efficiency," it is not expected that a man should know about reciprocating engines and also about architecture or furniture. When his reciprocating engines give him money enough to play with, he employs some man who has capitalized his real or pretended knowledge of beauty. As the other man is also out to make money, the results often offend the eye. Nothing is sadder than the rich man desirous of purchasing

beauty and purchasing ugliness because he does not know.

In so far as vulgarity is a question of aesthetics alone, we perhaps tend to be vulgar. Yet I believe it to be true that our public buildings, our houses, our decoratious in general are better than the corresponding inventions in Europe. European towns, houses, people have been fortunate in keeping a great deal of beauty over from periods when people seemingly knew more about it. If in Europe


could isolate and collect the authentic achievements of the last 50 years-see, in an English, a French, an Italian town only the product that is contemporary with most of oursI fancy we should have no reason to be ashamed of America. The nouveau riche in Europe acquires a beautiful old house, and puts in electric light, central heating, and a few rooms. His aesthetic success is ready-made for him, and he contributes only comfort. We cannot do that; we must achieve from the ground up. And there can be no question, I think, that we do that better than Europe does.

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The modern American house is apt to be much better than the modern European villa. As for our civic centers, parks squares, our commemorative monuments, do they not tend to be better than the Albert Memorial, the Hindenburg statue, the manuel monument?




We have been handicapped. have not had the past to guide us at every turn; we have not an inherited aristocracy to imitate closely. We are migratory, and our fortunes are as shifting as our habitat. Large sections of our country are devoid of striking natural beauty to assist and inspire. Yet I venture to say that there is more desire for beauty and resolution to achieve it in the average American heart than in the average heart of any other civilized people. We have admirable architects, and a great many of them. And decorators flourish nowhere as in the

United States, though the decorators are not so admirable as the archi tects.

So much for "taste" in the ordinary sense. If Mammon has been at once the foe and the friend of aesthetic values (for sometimes the rich man trusts the right expert) Mammon has unquestionably been the foe of taste in other and deeper respects. The by-products of Christianity have been, on the whole good, as no one will deny who contemplates history from the fourth century onward. But the by-products of Mammon-worship are almost altogether bad. The average American, caring really more about money than about anything else, recognizing no hierarchy save that of wealth, and believing that if he is rich all things will be added unto him, none the less has to talk and behave as if he were a member of a Christian civilization. He is still trying to reconcile God and Mammon.

That the dishonesty inevitably resulting is vulgar no one could deny. Honest religion, no matter what some people say, never made anybody vulgar. The worship of money, on the other hand, has always bred vulgarity. When the Israelites, weary of waiting for Moses' return, and forgetful in his absence of Jehovah, melted up their earrings to make a golden calf, and then proceeded to worship it, they did precisely what we are doing now. They treated as a god something that was not a god. When people revere money for itself, they become idolaters. You have only to realize that the man who is most respected in America is the man who has more money than he can possibly spend, to see the way in which we have come to falsify values. Formerly a man was respected for his fortunes because of what his fortune brought him: his way of life, his education, his comfortable home, his practical wisdom, the advantages he could give his children. Now it suffices that he should be able to buy these things:

It is not necessary that he should buy them. When we see a man with more money than he can apply, we stop questioning; we are too dazzled even to assume; we simply goggle with admiration.

That goggling, I venture to say, is vulgar. Nor can it be denied that it is general. We all know whom Babbitt admires and would like to model himself upon: the man of great wealth.

A real religion does not take all a man's time, though it may influence all his life. Mammon, however, comes very near taking all a man's time. Hence the fact we were notIng, that the average American does not have time to civilize himself completely. Leisure is not his; and the leisure that he gets, he is too tired to employ in any valuable way. His experience shows him that neither art nor letters, neither history nor philosophy, neither music nor sport, will help him to make money. Therefore, he has no time for them -only time for the kind of relaxation to which he does not have to contribute anything except cash: a drive in the car, a movie to look at, a radio to listen to, a game to watch where professionals do the work. It is a commonplace that the successful American business man goes pieces when he retires because he has not kept in reserve other interests. The American business man on European holiday has given our comic artists and our satiric novelsts a great deal of material. Surey the explanation of that absurd igure is not any fundamental lack of quality in his class or race but he tragic thing his life has been: orced as he has been into cashcquiring too young to have learned other things, kept at it so arduously hat he has lost the habit of leisure And the power to use it, and necesarily proud of this state of things Jecause the service of Mammon is upposed to be virtuous.


Mammon imposes no duty on his ervants save the rigorous duty of

success. Without any illusions as to the founders of great families in older countries, one may none the less say that a recognized aristocracy is a little more apt to cherish a tradition than an unrecognized one. When only wealth counts, there is no guarantee of an inherited tradition, since wealth notoriously passes. "From shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves in three generations" was never, in America, an absolute rule, but it was always a strong probability. The rich man who was made a peer, on the other hand, was inducted into a group that stood, in part, for something besides mere wealth. No one would desire, now or ever, to establish an hereditary aristocracy on American soil, even could it be done. But it is good for us to remember that a society is worth nothing unless it discriminates, and that the whole validity of democracy lies in its power to discriminate not according to birth or wealth, but according to real and proved superiority. * * *

All that it comes to is this: that no doubt the average American is in some ways vulgar, as the average citizen of any nation is in some ways vulgar; but that his vulgarity has perhaps, of late, been overemphasized. Our novelists, for example, have tended in the last 20 years, to select vulgar people to portray, and to declare them typical. I myself, admire Babbitt more than anything else Mr. Lewis has written. It comes very near being great satire. I am not able to admire Mr. Sherwood Anderson's accounts of the men he considers average citizens. One has known the pecple Mr. Lewis is satirizing: one has not known the people Mr. Anderson is sentimentalizing. I cannot help believing that the American average is nearer gentility, finds real gentility easier to achieve, than most national averages.

Americans, we are sometimes told, are the greatest idealists in the world. At any rate, a degree of idealism must be granted us. If facts of earthquake, disease, cruelty, dire

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We are not prevailingly an aesthetic breed-the stock we came from is not prevailingly aesthetic. Yet I sometimes wonder if justice is done by the critics to the thousands upon thousands of lovely lovely rooms, lovely gardens scattered through the land from Maine to California. I think, too, of the spontaneous kindness of man to man in America. A large part of the mess we are in is due, as we have said, to our materialism. We have been so preoccupied with making money that we have not paid proper attention to the other duties of the citizen. We have let our politics, our manners, our mental processes go bad, all for lack of attention.


average American tends to believe what he is told; he is carried away by clever phrases; he tends to confuse issues; and, above all, being uneducated in political theory, he considers legislation a panacea rather than an expedient. The average American runs to the refuge of a bill or a statute as a child to its mother's lap; he believes that in passing a law he is not simply policing the Devil but exorcising him, not merely influencing human conduct but improving human nature.

In so far as we are materialists, content to see in anything its cash value, we are, of course, vulgar. But I believe that no one can deny that the average American has in his heart genuine aspirations, in many fields, to what is lovely and of good report. We carry, I believe, fewer of the seeds of vulgarity in us than many other peoples. Taking us in the mass, we are more conscious of the claims of beauty than we were some decades ago... and if we would but once realize that the golden cali was made (as in Exodus) out of ou! own earrings, with no validity be yond his mere substance, we should find ourselves making more accurat equations of every sort.



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Whither Leads Standardization?

Condensed from The Century Magazine (June '26)

Charles Edward Russell


S' step, already under way, is

strictly to root out our superfluous plants and duplicated organizations. If there was no sense in maintaining 62 kinds of paving-brick we used to make and did not need, there is no sense in maintaining 62 plants and overheads that we need as little. When we had 44 factories making 44 kinds of ear-muffs the theory was that each of these kinds was better than the rest and must have a plant to itself. When we reduce all ear-muffs to one we junk that theory and may as well junk a line of plants to go with it. Why have 57 plants, 57 interest-charges, insurance-charges, inrentories, staffs, payrolls, advertising Accounts, labor contracts, when you can get along with, say, seven, or five, or three of each of these varieties of Crouble and expense?

Reason in all things. In the Department of Commerce hope springs Eternal that standardization may yet work to preserve the small plant. So

A hundred years ago men might have loped the railroad would preserve the tage-coach. While they hope, before heir eyes the small plant dries up nd blows away.

As Exhibit A, we file Plants That Tanufacture Newspapers. The popution increases; the number of ewspapers steadily declines. It is ne mutation inevitable. Chicago has NO morning newspapers. When it ad much less than half of its present opulation it had seven. Detroit with 00,000 people had three morning ewspapers; with more than a million eople it has but one morning newsper. When this generation was ung New York City rejoiced in 11 these morning luminaries; today has five, although it numbers three mes the population of 1890. Where

are the others? Standardized out of existence. Why print something under one name in one street and then print it under another name in another street?

The same thing has been going on with less noise in other lines of production. How many smaller concerns have been combined into the great General Motors? Easily and often unnoted, once flourishing corporations disappear from view into a system unified for efficiency and economy. Hardly a week passes without the announcement of some other combination, big or little, swept together by the same fateful hand. Recently, for example, four old, well known, long prosperous companies engaged in the making of motor omnibuses were united in one great concern. Production will be standardized, costs cut, duplicated efforts eliminated. Do not overlook the significant fact that 30 years ago there would have gone up the wild piercing cry, “A Trust! A Trust!" and government would have been implored to save us from the octopus. Nobody trembles now. Trusts are increased efficiency, greater economy.

The same irresistible power has produced the chain-store and made railroad consolidation a policy of governments. In Great Britain one day there were 137 railroad companies; next day there were only four. We move the same way; witness the huge railroad combinations reported every few weeks. In ten years we shall have not more than 15 real railroad companies in all the United States, and there will be a happy end to even the pretense of competition.

Or for another exhibit, take banks. All about the country bank consolidations fall in faster than they can be noted. Why have five banks when one

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