The Politics of Bloat are over. The corruption of the developing democratic ethos which began with the Jacksonian “spoils system” has reduced itself to Watergate-San Clemente absurdity.
Indulgent historians of American ideology have cheated us by taking a Realpolitik tack on the degradation of the Jefferson-Adams consensus by King Andy. They have assured us that such is the way the emergent Party cookie crumbles in an egalitarian democracy. Tain’t necessarily so.
When the two gentlemen spent their retirements in an elegantly urgent discussion of guaranteeing a natural aristocracy of talent, they spoke more eloquently and pertinently than our burro-crats in the several National Endowments (more properly, Grants for the Professoriat, a group by and large grossly overpaid already).
More ominous than Jackson’s second winning of the Presidency in 1828 (he always felt the Virginia-Mass. axis had fiddled him out of his “first” election in 1824) was the mysterious coincidence of the two savants dying on 4 July 1826, separately but equally lost, on the Golden Jubilee of the Declaration of Independence.
It took an astringently agnostic sensibility indeed to doubt that America was obviously the apple of the Divine Eye in the Sky, a City on the Hill, which Lincoln would come to call the “world’s last, best hope.”
But Andy’s bad habits enticed an entire nation, over time, into the moral flabbiness that now confuses and confounds us. First, it was the sunshine patriots who left the word “shoddy” in our version of English because of their contemptible profiteering over the nation’s third great tragedy.
(We can no longer accept the facile notion that the Civil War was an innocent American Adam’s first brush with evil, a fratricide Fall from Eden. American Indian genocide and Black African slavery were the first and second covert losses of innocence, linking, as Melville put it with such pain. Nature’s fairest hope and history’s foulest crime.
If the Civil War was a proving ground for America’s first gaggle of plutocrats, then the Gilded Age deepened the hold of Bloat on our culture.
William Dean Howells noted ruefully that the millionaire had become the new hero of America. Horatio Alger legitimized the larceny and looting of a thousand dime-store Robber Barrons. (There is an amusing onomastic battle going on at Leland Stanford, Jr. University in Palo Alto. During the peak of Libbery, the sports of that university dropped the name “Indians.” A student election in December 1975 substituted the word “robber Barons.” University administrators titter nervously and speak darkly of (ha ha) black Undergrad humor. Let us not get too close to the truth about how and where Stanford’s endowment came from!)
How gullible the professors and artocrats were, how cheaply bought off at the turn of the century. Jack London, whose centennial we should be celebrating—in sack cloth and ashes—instead of the superTinsel Buy-Cents-tennial, told the Carnegies and Rockefellers of his days (1876–1916) that seeding libraries across the defaced face of Americas was no even deal for the twelve hour days in dirt and disaster of the New Immigrants who sweated the steel for Sandburg’s skyscrapers out of their own bodies.
See John Beecher’s remarkable Report to the Stockholders (of U.S. Steel Corporation, Birmingham, Alabama, 1920). It is no accident that Beecher is the Hugh MacDiarmid of America—those Vanderbilt Aesthetes who took their stand on a platform of benignly neglectful racism ignored him because his integrity exposes the shabbiness of their Grayflanneled Diaspora to Minnesota and Yale and Kenyon.
Rarely has a clerisy with such high pretensions been so quickly co-opted by the Snopeses of the North. They not only didn’t criticize the Bloat of the twenties and thirties—they added to it, savoring the pecks that accrue to housebroken humanists, exemplifying the truth of the old Latin aphorism that corruption of the best is worst.
Even Robert Penn Warren’s Jefferson Lecture (1974) for the National Endowment for the Humanities, though he has recanted the disgraceful racism of his essay in I’ll Take My Stand (1930), is so abstract a reading of American literature and experience that it will embarrass no one, not Richard Nixon nor Ronald Berman. It is indeed a Cass Mastersly performance of not coping with the anguish of our national history.
So if the self-appointed Clerisy of the New Criticism had no strictures in the Era of Bloat, because they were themselves so much a part of the Great Flab of supersalaries and prodigal grantsmanship, we haven’t had many calling us like we are—fat and unsassy, indifferent to the cruel lives cleaning ladies live.
Bloat rules. When the dollar-franc ratio made Paris less of a free lunch, or ex-patriot writers of the 1920s came home to a dying capitalism, to help, for a change, for a bit, it turned out. Massive leftism among our clerisy, a bit of mindlessness they would just as massively defect from during the mccarthyism episode, hiding behind the abstract vagaries of action painting and abstract inexpressivism.
Part one of four