The Promise of American Lives:

Heroic Individualism in the Writings of Herbert Croly

[Page 6]

Kevin C. Murphy, Columbia University
(Copyright 2003-2013, All Rights Reserved)

I. Introduction
II. Crolian Ends: Corrosive Individualism and Creative Individuality
III. Crolian Means: Artisanal Fulfillment and Heroic Exemplars
IV. Crolian Virtues: Independence
V. Crolian Virtues: Sociability
VI. Crolian Virtues: Vitality
VII. "Something of a Saint and Something of a Hero": Lincoln and Roosevelt
VIII. The Overlooked Promise of Croly's Promise

Crolian Virtues: Vitality

While both intellectual independence and democratic sociability are integral to Croly's vision of the polity, alone they are not enough. Willpower, or vitality, is also a virtue worthy of emulation by the Crolian democrat. Finding this vitality particularly common in the ideological heirs of Jefferson (most notably Andrew Jackson,) Croly argues that the Democratic party dominated American politics through the antebellum era, a time when "prevailing conditions were inimical to men whose strength lay more in their intelligence than in their will," because "Jackson and his followers...were simple, energetic, efficient, and strong:
At bottom, of course, the difference between the two parties was a difference in vitality. All the contemporary conditions worked in favor of the strong narrow man with prodigious force of will like Andrew Jackson, and against men like Henry Clay and Daniel Webster who had more intelligence, but were deficient in force of character and singleness of purpose."58
As Croly's preoccupations with independence and social solidarity mark him as one of a piece with his early progressive contemporaries, his emphasis on preserving vitality speaks to what is arguably the central concern of his time. As the earlier-discussed embrace of the heroic ideal suggests, no other issue seemed to resonate so broadly and deeply with Croly's generation as this seeming disappearance of vitality.

For one, the rise of Theodore Roosevelt to the leadership of that generation, and his almost excessively virile public persona, can in many ways be read as an expression of this deep-seated cultural concern over vitality. As many historians have noted, fin-de-siecle men experienced a "crisis of masculinity," an anxious disruption of gender roles that accompanied both women's organized entrance into the public sphere and the loss of economic independence occasioned by the rise of corporations. "As middle-class men's anxieties about their manliness intensified," writes George Chauncey, "a preoccupation with threats to manhood and with proving one's manhood became central to the rhetoric of national purpose. Theodore Roosevelt epitomized this tendency...[he] was the most famous advocate of the 'strenuous life' of muscularity, rough sports, prizefighting, and hunting as an antidote" to this withering away of American manliness.59 And Gail Bederman, among others, has argued that Roosevelt explicitly molded his public image from effeminate weakling to virile huntsman to take advantage of this all-consuming late-nineteenth century preoccupation with vitality and virility.60

Yet, while this "crisis of the male" is an intriguing concept that is currently propelling a great deal of insightful historical work about the concerns of Croly's progressive generation, such a gender-specific understanding of vitality does not seem the best window onto the concerns animating Croly himself. For while Croly's own description of Theodore Roosevelt as "a Thor wielding with power and effect a sledge-hammer in the cause of national righteousness" may beg for a gendered reading, most of Croly's Promise seems studiously gender-neutral -- at no point in the text does Croly suggest that his virtues were meant for male emulation alone.61 And, indeed, as the work of John Higham, T.J. Jackson Lears and others suggest, the anxiety surrounding the loss of vitality took many cultural forms during the early progressive period -- from "a boom in sports and recreation" to "a revitalized interest in untamed nature" to "a quickening of popular music" -- that were shared by both men and women alike.62

In Lears' view, the omnipresent fear of dwindling vitality that characterizes Croly's cultural milieu represented not so much a crisis of masculinity as a crisis of the bourgeois Victorian self. According to this line of thought, the growth of industrial capitalism and the increasing secularization of nineteenth-century life conspired to create a fearsome sense of "weightlessness" in the nineteenth-century American mind. "For the late-Victorian bourgeoisie," Lears writes, "intense experience -- whether physical or emotional -- seemed a lost possibility. There was no longer the opportunity for bodily testing provided by rural life, no longer the swift alternation of despair and exhilaration which characterized the old-style Protestant conversion."63

This psychically debilitating distance from the "real" world was further exacerbated by all of the luxuries afforded by modern industrial life. In the anxious words of Jane Addams, "You do not know what life means when all the difficulties are removed! I am simply smothered and sickened with advantages. It is like eating a sweet dessert the first thing in the morning."64 Or, as Theodore Roosevelt put it in his career-defining 1899 speech on "The Strenuous Life," a "life of slothful ease, a life of that peace which springs merely from lack either of desire or of power to strive after great things, is as little worthy of a nation as of an individual."65 In sum, both male and female elites of the late nineteenth century came to lament the debilitating psychic consequences of luxury and "overcivilization."

Perhaps the best example of this all-consuming concern with overcivilization -- and one that possibly bears on Croly's own experience -- is the neurasthenia epidemic of the 1880s and 1890s. Neurasthenia, a term coined by Dr. George M. Beard in 1881, was a catch-all "nervous malady characterized by ‘lack of nerve force'" and attributed to both the intolerable dissonance and oppressive ease of modern industrial life. The list of famous neurasthenics in Croly's generation reads like a Who's Who of early progressive intellectuals, including William James, Jane Addams, and even Theodore Roosevelt. Indeed, by one historian's estimate, this list "could go on until it included the majority of well-known cultural producers of the time."66

Indeed, this list might also include Croly himself, for, though the causes are still unknown, he suffered a nervous breakdown in January of 1893 that resulted in his dropping out of Harvard University.67 While Croly biographer David Levy insists that it "is impossible to be sure what caused the collapse," there's good reason to suggest that Croly became gripped by an intellectual paralysis not unlike the one that afflicted and ultimately inspired William James in his "Will to Believe."68 In his unfinished and unpublished autobiography, Croly would later bemoan his "lack of dialectical ability" that prevented him in his early years from "thinking out satisfactory reasons for choosing among conflicting doctrines" and thus made him a "victim of an incoherent eclecticism."69 When Croly lamented the otherwise intelligent Whigs in Promise who, lacking vitality, were "deficient in force of character and singleness of purpose," he may also have been casting aspersions at himself for his forty years in the intellectual wilderness.

Although the virtue of vitality, and fear of overcivilization animating it, plays less of a role in the tradition of civic republicanism than does independence and sociability, some overlap is present here as well. As J.G.A. Pocock and Bernard Bailyn have noted, the leaders of the revolutionary generation were also heavily preoccupied with the effects of undue luxury and overcivilization on citizens' virtue and the fledgling republic. "Have you ever found in history, one single example of a Nation thoroughly corrupted that was afterwards restored to virtue?" queried John Adams of Thomas Jefferson in their later years. "Will you tell me how to prevent luxury from producing effeminacy, intoxication, extravagance, vice and folly?"70 As Adams' concern about effeminacy suggests, the founders also believed the American republic must work to preserve the manhood of its republican citizens, in keeping with the classical martial virtues that lingered on despite the rise of sociability. As historian Linda Kerber put it, "female qualities were commonly made the measure of what a good republican ought to avoid...[Effeminacy] was associated with luxury and self-indulgence." In sum, she concludes, "the overtones of [republican] virtue were male, and those of corruption, female."71 Turning to the days of the early republic for comparison, we can now see that the pervasive progressive anxiety about vitality -- in Croly as in elsewhere -- is in part a republican revival of sorts, an ideological response to the threat to independence posed by industrial capitalism.72

Continue to Part VII: "'Something of a Saint and Something of a Hero': Lincoln and Roosevelt."

Return to Part V: "Crolian Virtues: Sociability."

58. Croly, 69-71.
59. George Chauncey. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994), 111-113.
60. Gail Bederman, Manliness and Civilization (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 170-171
61. Croly, 174. Of course, one could argue that Croly doesn't explicitly posit a difference between male and female democratic citizens because he doesn't have to -- women do not yet have the vote and are thus outside the bounds of his argument. Nevertheless, I think this would be a misreading of Croly, particularly since the New Republic became an active proponent of women's suffrage under his auspices. Rather, I think Croly believed that independence, sociability, and vitality were as beneficial to female democratic selves as they were for males, or perhaps more likely, he didn't reflect upon the issue of gender with the same rigor as he had the rest of his argument. Forcey, 212.
62. John Higham. Writing American History: Essays on Modern Scholarship (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970), 79-80. This is not to say that the work of Chauncey and Bederman and the writings of Higham and Lears are mutually exclusive. In many ways, these two historical explanations for the fin-de-siecle cultural crisis complement and reinforce each other, as when Higham discusses the "unsettling of the condition of women," or when Lears argues that "the sense that modernity meant encroaching impotence was the most important psychic impetus for Arts and Crafts ideology." Lears, 70.
63. Lears, 48.
64. Lears, 70.
65. Theodore Roosevelt. The Strenuous Life: Essays and Addresses (New York: The Century Co., 1902,) 1.
66. Lears, 48. Tom Lutz. American Nervousness, 1903: An Anecdotal History (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), 19
67. Croly never completed the requirements for graduation, but would receive an honorary degree from Harvard after publication of ZThe Promise of American Life.
68. Levy, 78. Cotkin, 77. "‘I am a victim of neurasthenia,' James wrote in 1895, ‘and of the sense of hollowness and unreality that goes with it.'" Cotkin goes on to argue that James offered his own pantheon of heroic exemplars in a way not dissimilar to Croly. "In numerous popular essays, most of which were initially delivered as public lectures, James returned to the question of heroism," argues Cotkin, "as he attempted to illustrate and explain its reality and possibility in the modern world. At times, he noted the presence of heroism within the lives of average men and women. Elsewhere, he discussed how habit and training might open up the individual to reserves of energy that he or she had previously thought unavailable." Cotkin, 108.
69. James Kloppenberg. Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 1870-1920 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 313.
70. John Adams. "Letter to Thomas Jefferson, Dec. 21, 1819."
71. Linda Kerber. Women of the Republic: Intellect & Ideology in Revolutionary America (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1980), 31.
72. It is important to note here that Croly is no republican, luxury-despising ascetic -- as Charles Forcey points out, Croly "liked good wines and food and smoked only the best cigars. He was devoted to the theater...addicted to both poker and bridge," and flouted Prohibition in the twenties. Nevertheless, in suggesting an inverse relationship between intelligence and will, wherein "simple" and "narrow" men have a surfeit of will while more intelligent men suffer a pronounced lack thereof, Croly clearly seems influenced by the overcivilization thesis so prevalent at the time. Indeed, citing a similar romanticization of the vitality of "simple" persons in William James' work, Cotkin cites a contention of Phillip Rieff that "intellectuals frequently endowed the lower class with a vitality...they habitually found lacking among themselves." This contention appears to conform with Croly's Promise. Forcey, 8.

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