Deep Thoughts: anti-American literature from between the wars in Europe (that's when a lot of the anti-stuff really caught fire)
A heavy prelude to chaos
Aspects of literary anti-Americanism in the interwar years
By Jesper Gulddal/Eurozine
Despite its cultural prominence, anti-Americanism is the last European chauvinist discourse not to have fallen into general disrepute. While first emerging during the Romantic period, European anti-Americanism reached a peak during the interwar years; literature of the period represented the United States as the quintessence of a traumatic, unbridled modernity that presaged the destruction of Europe. Jesper Gulddal surveys the barely-charted territory of literary anti-Americanism.
For the past several decades much research within the humanities has aimed at exposing the inventory of chauvinist discourses that plays such a fundamental role in European culture and history. Anti-Semitism and biological racism were obvious places to begin, and over the years the scope was broadened several times so as to encompass chauvinist nationalism and discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, religion, and ethnicity. This often highly disenchanting work has made it painfully clear that European culture harbours a core of hatred and a seemingly constant need to circumscribe its identity by insisting on its differences vis-à-vis real or imagined "others". Far from leading exclusively to feelings of guilt, this insight has been able to serve as a point of departure for a cultural self-reappraisal, the gist of which has been to counter hatred with empathy and tolerance as core cultural values. That this self-reappraisal has been successful even outside the university walls is evident not only from the instances where its conclusions have been given the force of law, but also – and particularly – from the remarkable way in which the chauvinisms in question have been massively discredited in the public sphere.
Compared with these primary interests, however, the humanities have traditionally taken little account of another, equally legitimate offspring of European chauvinism: the tradition of despising the United States and the Americans. Anti-Americanism, as the phenomenon is called, has existed since before the American War of Independence. It has experienced wide diffusion, first in Europe, later in the rest of the world, and at regular intervals it has reached astonishing levels of intensity. Functionally, it has played a key role in establishing Europe's cultural self-perception. By continually representing the United States as the antithesis of Europe, anti-Americanism has helped Europeans set aside their differences and historical enmities and instead envision a common European identity – but only at the price of perpetuating at a continental level the strategies of delimitation commonly associated with the nation-state, in other words, by substituting traditional nationalism with a potentially just as chauvinist "continentalism" (Arendt 1994; Garton Ash 2004). However, in spite of its cultural prominence, anti-Americanism is today the last of the great European chauvinist discourses that has not yet been subjected to extensive study and has not fallen into general public disrepute. A handful of pioneering studies aside (e.g. Strauss 1978; Hollander 1992), it is only within the last few years, and for obvious reasons especially since 9/11, that a fuller literature on the subject has started to appear (cf. Roger 2002, Markovits 2004, Schwaabe 2003, Hollander 2004, Glucksmann 2004, Katzenstein & Keohane 2007). This literature has provided a preliminary definition of the concept of anti-Americanism and an overview of its main historical forms. However, there is still much work for future research in further developing and fleshing out these beginnings. Thus, a literary history of anti-Americanism has yet to be written. Such a work would prove a valuable contribution to the historical processing of the discourse, for it is often in literature we find the European fantasies about the United States – the dreams as well as the nightmares – in their most unadulterated and seductive versions.
This essay offers a modest contribution to such a literary history of anti-Americanism. The period discussed is the interwar years, which is indisputably one of the high-water marks in the history of European hatred of America, not only in terms of intensity, but also in terms of what might be called the discursive inventiveness. Anti-American discourse consists at any given time of both traditional and innovative elements: on the one hand it recycles and varies familiar, time-honoured motifs; on the other hand it develops new motifs, which typically target aspects of the contemporary United States, thereby bringing the discourse up to date with present-day reality. The traditional core of anti-Americanism was developed by the Romantics, who in the first half of the nineteenth century drew up a basic vocabulary of prejudices concerning the lack of history and culture, the vulgarity, the materialism, the corruption, the subtle forms of bondage, and the hypocrisy in the United States (Gulddal 2007). These notions have never lost their appeal; they have been passed on from generation to generation and were thus also repeated incessantly throughout Europe in the interwar period. At the same time, however, this period gives rise to an impressive array of new anti-American prejudices, all of which represent the United States as the quintessence of a traumatic, unbridled modernity that presages the future, if not the destruction, of Europe. It is above all these discursive novelties that are analysed in this essay from the point of view of literary history.
One of the major characteristics of anti-American discourse in the interwar period is an obsession with the new rational forms of production that revolutionised American manufacturing industry in the early years of the twentieth century and gradually also gained foothold in Europe. Two names are of particular importance in this development: Frederick W. Taylor, inventor of scientific management , an industrial production system designed to optimise productivity by dividing work routines into segments that could be timed individually, and Henry Ford, who brought assembly line production to perfection in his car factories in Detroit. Strictly speaking, neither system represented an absolute novelty, for rationalisation and specialisation had been tied inextricably to manufacturing since the beginning of industrialisation in eighteenth-century England. However, the difference in degree was considerable. The new industrial philosophies, "Taylorism" and "Fordism", represented modern, rational industrialism taken to its extreme. They made it possible to produce more, faster, and cheaper, but for the individual worker they led to a loss of overview of the production process as a whole and meant that the work itself became even more mechanical and monotonous than before.
It is worth emphasising that industrial innovations like these, by dramatically increasing productivity, were one of the driving forces behind the economic boom in the United States of the 1910s and 1920s, and that the industrial philosophies of Taylor and Ford thus contributed to creating an unprecedented wealth, which benefited not only the capitalist, but also the blue-collar worker. Ford's celebrated minimum wage of five dollars a day in a five-day, forty-hour workweek was too high to be representative, but workers in American industry were decidedly well-paid by contemporary standards and could uphold a standard of living far superior to that of their European counterparts. These counterparts still had reason to dream of America, and of course many chose to pursue this dream by purchasing a single ticket to the New World.
European intellectuals and writers did not find American prosperity nearly as alluring. It was not admired, but served rather as a source of an envy-laden contempt for the vulgar consumerism in the United States, where people had begun simply to buy new things instead of mending the old, and where the ubiquitous advertisements, which scarred the cityscape and made a mockery of the press, lured people into fritting away their savings on superfluous things. Yet the fact that industrial modernity led to rampant consumerism was not the worst, for consumerism was really only the natural continuation of the materialism that the Romantics already a century earlier had identified as the predominant feature of the American national character. It was much more disconcerting that the machinism and enthusiasm for technology threatened to destroy all that which made up the true value of human life: culture, individuality, soul. The American machine civilisation replaced quality by quantity, compassion by calculation, individuality by standardisation. In the eyes of the predominantly conservative critics of the United States, the machines had taken over as lords of the creation and were reducing men to slaves, who came to look more and more like their mechanical masters. In the words of Kate Leslie, the protagonist of D.H. Lawrence's 1926 novel The Plumed Serpent , the cult of the machines had transformed the Americans into a "mechanical cog-wheel people", who robotically performed their functions within "that horrible machine of the world" (Lawrence 1995, 90 f.). Another, equally important metaphorical paradigm describes how the machines in America had become man-eating, accumulating energy for their own functioning via a symbolic and actual devouring of the workers – as it is memorably portrayed in Fritz Lang's classic Metropolis (1926), a film which ideologically relies heavily on the European fear of machine civilisation in the United States.
The intense suspicion regarding machines and technology is a recurrent theme in the representations of America in European literature of the interwar years. The period sees the birth of a distinct literary sub-genre which not only uses American industry as its stage, but also shows the "soulless" machinism to be an essential feature of American civilisation. A favourite setting is the enormous abattoirs in Chicago, where much of the cattle from the Midwestern prairies was processed, often by means of assembly lines and industrial methods of production, which had been introduced at a very early stage. The Chicago abattoirs had already attracted critical attention in American literature, and even before the First World War they had been exposed in all their appalling nauseousness in Upton Sinclair's "muckraking" novel The Jungle (1906). Contrary to this domestic critique, which was typically directed against a single, carefully circumscribed target, European writers often went hunting for much larger prey when they as travellers or in their imagination visited the Chicago stockyards – in other words, American society and American machine civilisation as such. In Bertolt Brecht's play Die heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe (1931), the meatpacking industry is thus the stage for a ruthless struggle between capitalists, to whom the welfare and indeed survival of their workers is entirely irrelevant. The struggle obviously serves as a figural representation of what Brecht regards as America's criminal brand of capitalism, but it is an additional point in the play that this inhuman capitalism is inextricably interwoven with an equally inhuman machinism; this point is made unmistakably clear when an unfortunate worker falls into a boiling vat and literally ends up as tinned spam. In another example, the same fate nearly befalls Hergé's cartoon reporter Tintin, when he in Tintin en Amérique (1931) visits a cannery in Chicago; and in Georges Duhamel's highly essayistic novel Scènes de la vie future (1930), the English translation of which was characteristically entitled The American Menace , the narrator describes the abattoirs as a "death-factory", where the age-old compact between humans and domestic animals is rescinded and replaced by mechanical cold-bloodedness as the act of slaughtering is "reduced strictly to the proportions of an industrial process" (Duhamel 1939, 130 f.).
In purely quantitative terms, however, the literary portrayals of Chicago's abattoirs are overshadowed by the literature dealing with car manufacturing, especially with Fordism, which is seen as the epitome of what Duhamel calls the "material or mechanical civilisation" of the Americans (14). Ironically, Henry Ford, in many ways a deeply prosaic man whose philosophy was denounced by European intellectuals as an affront to everything good and valuable, became a source of inspiration for a host of European novels, short stories, and poems. The two novels presented in the following paragraphs are characteristic examples of this trend. Both focus on the consequences of Fordism, albeit the first from an individual and the second from a social point of view.
The first example is Louis-Ferdinand Céline's Voyage au bout de la nuit (1932), the American chapters of which describe American machinism as it appears from the shop floor, in the eyes of an assembly-line worker. This admittedly not particularly representative worker is Ferdinand Bardamu, the novel's idiosyncratic narrator, who decides to try his luck in the United States after having endured miseries of all kinds, first on the battlefields of the First World War, then in a wretched French colony in Africa. In the beginning Bardamu struggles along in New York, but when he runs out of money he decides to go to Detroit to seek employment with Ford. Even during the compulsory medical check, he is given a forewarning of what the factory has in store for him. When he informs the doctor that he himself is a former medical student, he is immediately snubbed:
“Your studies won't do you a bit of good around here, son. You're not here to think, you're here to make the movements you're told to. We don't need imaginative types in our factory. What we need are chimpanzees [...] Let me give you a piece of advice. Never mention your intelligence again! We'll think for you, my boy! A word to the wise.“ (Céline 1981, 215)
The doctor's advice turns out to be well-placed, for the work at the assembly line consists of a single movement that the worker has to repeat indefinitely: "My minutes, my hours, like those of the others, all my time, would go into passing linchpins to the blind man next to me, who had been calibrating these same linchpins for years." (216) It is worth noting that Céline's narrator does not dwell on what is actually produced in this particular factory. We have reason to assume that the factory is involved in car manufacturing, but it appears to be a deliberate point that it is not expressly stated: industrialism taken to its extreme does not allow the individual worker to grasp the production as a whole and thus renders the work abstract and reduces the individual to a cog in an incomprehensible production machinery. This reduction, a key element of Céline's portrayal of Fordism, is supplemented with a discouraging description of how machines rule men in Ford's factories. The work takes place in a gigantic hall, where the noise is deafening and the machines make everything vibrate. As the work pace is furthermore excessive, the hall comes to represent a massive attack not only on the sensory apparatus of the workers, but also on their ability to communicate among themselves and even to think, feel, and remember. In this environment the workers lose their humanness to the same extent to which they succumb to the might of the machines. They gradually develop a slave-like zeal to please their machine, they are punctually served their "ration of servitude" (216) at the assembly line, and everything takes places in the "earsplitting continuity of the thousands and thousands of instruments that commanded the men." (216) At Ford's, the machines are in control, the assembly line runs at its own relentless pace, and the workers can do nothing but go along with it. And if they do go along with it, if they accommodate to the rhythm of the machines, they end up becoming machines themselves:
“Everything trembled in the enormous building, and we ourselves, from our ears to the soles of our feet, were gathered into this trembling, which came from the windows, the floor, and all the clanking metal, tremors that shook the whole building from top to bottom. We ourselves became machines, our flesh trembled in the furious din, it gripped us around our heads and in our bowels and rose up to the eyes in quick continuous jolts. [...] At the machines you let yourself go with the three ideas that are wobbling about at the top of your head. And that's the end. From then on everything you look at, everything you touch, is hard. And everything you still manage to remember more or less becomes as rigid as iron and loses its savour in your thoughts.” (215)
The second example is Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932). Contrary to Céline's Voyage , this classic of science fiction literature focuses not on the effects of Fordism at the individual level, but instead pursues the ideas of the rule of the machines and the mechanisation of humanity in their ultimate civilisational consequences. The novel portrays a future society where the "World State" has assumed control of human reproduction and now produces cloned, standardised beings, who are divided into categories according to their level of intelligence and furthermore carefully indoctrinated to perform a narrowly circumscribed function within society: the Alpha group consists of the brightest individuals, who will be in charge of management, administration, and research, whereas the Gamma class consists of imbeciles, whose almost complete thoughtlessness makes them perfectly suited for mechanical work.
Brave New World is set in London, but the British capital of the future has undergone a process of radical "Americanisation". That Huxley's main source is in fact contemporary America is already implied by the title, a phrase borrowed from Shakespeare's The Tempest , which in all likelihood refers to America and clearly plays on the traditional description of the continent as the "New World". The inspiration from the United States becomes even more manifest when one considers some of the elements which the novel singles out in the world of the future: high-rise buildings, dollars, consumerism ("ending is better than mending"), synthetic music, multisensual entertainment films ("feelies", a logical next step after Hollywood's "talkies"), promiscuity, sports, conformism, ignorance of history, spiritual life, and true art (cf. Bradshaw 2004, vii ff). The relation between these aspects and the main targets of anti-American discourse in the interwar years is one of near-identity: it was novelties such as these that made a large part of the European intelligentsia regard the United States as a serious threat to European culture. However, that the "brave new world" is in fact "Americanisation" and the American cult of the machine taken to the highest degree is nowhere more obvious than in the role Henry Ford himself plays in the novel. In Huxley's Britain of the future, Ford is worshipped as a god. The point of reference of the calendar is no longer the birth of Christ, but the birth of Ford, the action of the novel taking place in the year "A.F. 632" – in other words, in the seventh century after Ford. London's Big Ben has been renamed "Big Henry", the citizens celebrate "Ford's Day", refer to their leaders as "His Fordship", use expletives such as "Oh, Ford!" and "Fordey!", and from Ford's autobiographical My Life and Work (1922), which has been raised to the status of holy writ, they extrapolate life-guiding words of wisdom such as "History is bunk" (Huxley 2004, 29).
On account of this swarm of references to Henry Ford and the United States of the interwar period, it is clearly insufficient to regard Brave New World as a sort of prophecy, a novelistic projection of tendencies that were only just becoming visible in Huxley's own time. The novel must also be read as a critique of contemporary America, a superficially camouflaged attack on the modern American society, where the machines have reduced humans to obedient, ever industrious automata, and where the discontent and the resounding inner emptiness is relieved by means of loose morals, shallow entertainment, and immoderate consumerism. For Huxley, the brave new world of tomorrow is also the American world of today – a world where technology and machines have destroyed true humanity.
Another favourite target of anti-Americanism in the interlude between the two World Wars was the big cities of the United States, not least those largest of all: New York, Chicago, and eventually Los Angeles, which had entered a period of explosive growth. Although these cities were all smaller than the largest of the metropolises in the Old World, they seemed distinctly outlandish to European observers. The American metropolis was the urban manifestation of an unbridled, inhuman modernity, where steel, asphalt, and machines had assumed power, and where the people dragged on their miserable, alienated existences in the shadow of monstrous high-rises.
The big cities of the United States were undoubtedly modern. The fact that they had been founded relatively recently had made it possible to shape them in a rationalist spirit, with broad avenues, traversing diagonals, and grids of rectilinear streets that often simply had numbers or letters instead of names. To this urban geometry, which already the Romantics had interpreted as a consequence of the country's irredeemable lack of history, a number of new developments were added in the interwar years. Owing not least to the efforts of Ford, the automotive revolution had broken out far earlier in the United States than in Europe. The introduction of industrial mass production had led to decreasing car prices, and as early as the beginning of the 1920s, the automobile had become, if not ubiquitous, then at least common and no longer just a plaything for the rich. The increase in car transportation triggered a traffic explosion that soon dramatically altered the physiognomy of the metropolis. Concomitantly, the car connected the city and the country in new and more intimate ways. By means of the rapidly expanding highway system, people living in the country gained easy access to the cities, whereas city dwellers were not only given the opportunity of going for a drive in the countryside, but also of leaving the densely populated inner cities altogether and moving to newly built suburbs, from which they could easily commute to the factories and offices in the city. This development meant that American cities early in the twentieth century started growing rapidly in terms of spatial extension.
This horizontal growth of the metropolis was accompanied by an equally dramatic vertical growth. In the second half of the nineteenth century, high property prices in the central business districts had made it economically attractive to experiment with increased construction heights. Previously, two parameters in particular had prevented the building of true high-rises: first, there was a limit to how many flights of stairs people could be persuaded to ascend; and secondly, tall buildings required very thick walls in the lower stories, which made them disproportionately expensive to erect. The first problem was overcome in the period following 1850 through a rapid development in elevator technology providing safe and functional vertical transportation. The second problem was solved gradually towards the turn of the century through the introduction of iron or steel construction elements with large load-carrying capacity. As the difficulties of construction were surmounted, the central parts of America's big cities were rapidly transformed into modern downtowns made up of multi-storeyed office and apartment buildings. In the interwar years, this development reached a temporary climax with the construction of proper skyscrapers such as the Chrysler Building (1929) and the Empire State Building (1930) in New York. It was only natural that these record-breaking buildings should seem overwhelming, presumptuous, and even arrogant to European visitors. However, it was just as much the profusion of medium-height buildings with 10-30 stories especially in New York and Chicago that – depending on the attitude towards modernity – either enraptured or shocked the observers of the interwar years.
One of the appalled observers was Danish novelist Jacob Paludan, who was anything but a friend of modernity or of the United States, which he regarded as its ultimate embodiment. In the beginning of the 1920s Paludan had spent a number of months in the country and used his early novels, not least the first three, which were later lumped together to form the trilogy From America to Denmark (1943), to process his impressions. The first novel, De vestlige Veje [The western paths] (1922), deals exhaustively with the United States and is probably the most openly and intensely anti-American novel in the Danish language. Like Céline's Voyage au bout de la nuit , it belongs to a particular tradition in European literature originating in authors such as Charles Dickens and Ferdinand Kürnberger around the mid-nineteenth century. This tradition unites the novel of disillusion with the novel of emigration, thereby creating a decidedly anti-American sub-genre, the central character of which is the disillusioned emigrant. Paludan's protagonist is precisely such a disillusioned emigrant, a Dane, whose American dreams are brutally shattered by a harsh American reality. Harry E. Rasmussen, as he is called, has settled with his American wife in the Midwest, where he tries to earn a living as a small-scale farmer. The couple being poor, Harry has to spend the winters working in a nearby town. On returning to his log cabin this particular winter, his wife has disappeared. In the second volume of the trilogy, Søgelys [Searchlight] (1923), we learn that her "artistic impulse" had driven her to New York, where she found work as a cabaret singer in a "girlie-girlie show". Here, Harry finds her again much later and subsequently commits suicide: "The Dane shot himself. Such was the nature of the excessively emancipated American woman, or such could it be." (Paludan 1923, 82) However, in De vestlige Veje , Harry is still blissfully ignorant of the fall of his "excessively emancipated" spouse. He must have had suspicions, though, for after a thorough but strikingly short search he abandons his cabin, departs for South America to find work only to re-emerge in New York in the novel's concluding third part. The description of "Metropolis", as Paludan calls the city, is persistently dystopic and focuses in particular on its complete inhumanity:
“The humans build their cities according to geometrically defensible systems; the plumb line and the horizontal plane must prevail. Away with the trees that branch out in individual freedom, let's have good, regular houses, up and down; let the avenues stretch for mile after mile without flaws or turns; we want to walk on good, hard cement, turf is sheer foolishness. Beautiful iron streetlights shine brighter than the stars, a splash of sulphurous acid and carbon in the air is a plus.” (Paludan 1922, 117)
In this ironic description, the American cityscape is read as unnatural and therefore inhuman. The city plan is rational and geometric, drawn both vertically and horizontally by the ruler, and the city is thus dominated by long, straight avenues and tall, straight buildings. Céline's Bardamu expresses the exact same critique when he speaks of New York as an erect, completely upright city, which is "not at all ready to be laid" (Céline 1981, 181), and later characterises Broadway as a "dismal gash that never ended" (188). In both cases, the critique is based on an idea of a pre-modern, village-like idyll. In Céline, the ideal is a French town that stretches along a coast or a riverbank, literally offering itself to the visitor. In Paludan, it is a Danish village with crooked streets, trees, turf, clean air, and starry skies, and it is this imaginary village, which serves implicitly as contrast to the cement, artificial lighting, and pollution in the urban nightmare of "Metropolis". New York is a "plain of stone" that assails every human sense and instinct. The traffic is overwhelming, the air is nauseating, everywhere words and thoughts are drowned by the industrial din from factories, cars, subway trains – "the song of the subdued electricity and the slaving iron" (Paludan 1922, 116). In the business district, the skyscrapers seem to "smile at their own colossal absurdity" (119), and the signs of a crude materialism that quells all rudiments of a spiritual life can be seen in every corner: "Now and then a church was seen stretching its towers in competition with the dollar temples, vainly trying to assert an immaterial principle." (122) Furthermore, Paludan's narrator – herein a child of his time – repeatedly returns to the unpleasantly racist idea that "Metropolis" is a "Babel of the peoples" (116), where races and nations intermingle in unhealthy ways, and where the national identities of the immigrants are destroyed and replaced by cosmopolitan rootlessness. However, the city primarily attacks the personal identity. Its relentless bombardment of the human sensory system is so intense that the emigrant is no longer capable of keeping himself together:
“On disembarking from the steamer he had felt like a closed entity, like a human being, but along the way a disassociation had taken place within him. In the swarm on Broadway, in the shadow of these house-monsters, he could hardly find himself. For a long time he had drifted about like an atom lost.” (117 f)
After having one's identity demolished like this, all that remains is to let oneself be swallowed up by the anonymous masses of the city, to disappear "like a black dot disappears among seven million other dots" (115).
Contrary to Paludan, Georges Duhamel's perspective on urban America is primarily aesthetic. When describing Chicago in Scènes de la vie future , Duhamel continually bases his views on a set of classicist assumptions on the essence of beauty and art. According to this view, art equals harmony, serenity, eternity, and proportions. These qualities are the object of every artistic endeavour, but if the work of art is to fully embody them, its subject matter must to a certain extent already be in possession of them – or at least it must not be contrary to them. Furthermore, the yardstick of true art is the human being and only what humans can take in and comprehend can successfully be made into an artwork:
"Everything that for centuries the artists of old Europe have painted has been in scale with man. True greatness is not a matter of absolute dimensions: it is the effect of happy proportion." (Duhamel 1939, 110) A conception of art such as this identifies art with beauty and consequently leaves no room for the sublime – for that which overwhelms the human sensory apparatus as a result of its massive dimensions or harrowing intensity. For Duhamel, the sublime lies beyond the reach of art and he can therefore turn it into the special, somewhat curious objection to the large cities of the United States that they are too immoderate to serve as material for true art. A city like Chicago cannot be painted , Duhamel claims. It is inherently un- or even anti-aesthetic: "Oh painters, my friends and brothers, you can never make anything of Chicago! You will never paint this world, for it is beyond human grasp." (109 f)
The idea that the sublime nature of the American metropolis amounts to a resistance to art and beauty can be pursued in detail in Duhamel's narrative. According to Immanuel Kant's classic distinction, the sublime comes in both a mathematical and a dynamic variety. Duhamel describes Chicago as sublime in both senses of the word. The city is mathematically sublime because of its gigantic dimensions. Stretching 45 kilometres along the bank of Lake Michigan, Chicago is already overwhelming by virtue of its extension, and the city keeps growing at such an alarming speed that Duhamel feels justified in describing it as "the tumour, the cancer, among cities" (102). Vertically, too, it transcends human understanding. Far above the street level tower the "immoderate buildings", which at night blaze "with every light that pride can invent" (107). To Duhamel, these "thousand cruel lighthouses" (104) form the peak of America's lack of moderation and harmony:
“The American people have raised their inhuman cities on a soil that never invites moderation. Lakes, valleys, rivers, forests, plains – all are huge; nothing seems made to incline man to thoughts of harmony. Everything is too big; everything discourages Apollo and Minerva.” (114)
Concurrently, Chicago is dynamically sublime because of its pace and its restless activity. Duhamel attempts to convey an impression of this overwhelming dynamism by describing a breathless drive through the city by car. The verve of the city is represented metaphorically as an interplay of furious, uncontrollable forces of nature. The traffic is a "horizontal cataract" thundering on at the insane speed of 35 mph: "Cars are turned loose there like toys that have gone mad. They seem free at last to rush against one another, to defy one another. There are no pedestrians, and no horses. That space they have conquered for themselves – for their very own." (80) Above the streets, the trains of the "Elevated" zoom by "like iron storms over an unclean and stupid crowd". Suddenly the street splits into two, and Duhamel's car scorches downwards into "a large subterranean passage full of light and noise" (105). It is in every way a shocking, nerve-racking experience.
Thus, Chicago is not only a city of unreasonable dimensions, but also a city characterised by an excess of speed, movement, light, and sound. It is both mathematically and dynamically sublime, and for precisely this reason it cannot be described, let alone purified into beautiful, harmonious art. The city is a "hell that lacks a Dante" (109), Duhamel declares, although he himself has just made a Dante-like attempt to describe the urban horror that is Chicago. The idea of the fundamental anti-aesthetical nature of the American metropolises is nevertheless defended until the end and is even shored up with racist arguments analogous to Jacob Paludan's view of the Americans as an inferior mishmash of races and nations: "In that ridiculous moral atmosphere in which swarms, not a great nation, but a confusion of peoples and races, how can one possibly find that sublime serenity which art must have if it is to quicken and flower?" (113) Unsurprisingly, Duhamel answers in the negative: the United States is a "churlish civilization, whose hostile ugliness defies description." Herein lies the ultimate reason for the country's artistic incapacity. It is well known, Duhamel claims, that the United States has never produced any eminent painters or sculptors, its foremost composers are the "monotonous Negroes", its great authors despise their native country, and everywhere you find yourself surrounded by "barbarously industrial architecture" (116). It is evidently impossible to describe an American metropolis like Chicago in "words or colors". Perhaps music is the only suitable medium? If so it would no doubt be "bitter funereal chords, a heavy prelude to chaos" (117).
The third central motif of anti-Americanism in the interwar years is a deep hostility towards the masses and mass culture, which like machinism and the modern metropolis are regarded as essentially American phenomena, invented in the United States and now en route to conquer Europe.
In the present context, the concept of the masses refers to "ordinary people" who do not distinguish themselves through any exceptional abilities or talents. According to Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, whose The Revolt of the Masses (1929) is the most influential analysis of this phenomenon published in the interwar years, the masses consist of average, "not especially qualified" individuals (Ortega y Gasset 1985, 6). Hence, the opposite of the masses is not the economical and socially privileged upper classes, but the "minorities", which are conversely made up of uniquely gifted people, who stand out due to their superior intellectual powers, their creativity, or their strong will. Every past or present society, Ortega explains, is composed of these two categories of people, but the balance of power between them is subject to historical change (6). In traditional societies, the masses normally came to terms with the secondary, purely menial role to which their qualifications entitled them and were content to leave the management of society to the elite. However, in the modern world, the masses revolt. In the course of a historical process beginning with the French Revolution, which turned ordinary people into a political force to be reckoned with, the masses have gradually become more influential and have finally – in Ortega's own time – won a complete, but also rather Pyrrhic victory. For although the rise of the masses has led to democratisation, increased political representation, more equitable distribution of wealth, rights, and privileges, these advances have come at the price of inanity and cultural mediocrity. The reigning masses are great cultural levellers. When they assume power, they force their banal ideas and bad taste upon society and repress all that is unique, creative, and deep – in other words, the traditional culture based on the pre-eminence of the minorities (3-10). As early as the mid-nineteenth century, this idea of a gradual destruction of culture through democratisation had laid the basis of the time-honoured enmity among intellectuals and writers towards the masses (Carey 1992). Thus, Søren Kierkegaard famously claimed that "the crowd is the untruth", and later in the same century Nietzsche's writings abounded with diatribes against democracy and the "democratic herd animal".
Although mass society developed just as rapidly in Europe as in the United States and often provoked far stronger and far more hostile reactions, nineteenth-century anti-American discourse was nevertheless prone to represent it as something American by nature and origin. The reason for this placement of responsibility obviously resides in the fact that the United States, contrary to most European states of this period, was a republic, where ordinary, "not especially qualified" individuals were able to exert real political influence. However, according to the often strongly conservative European critics of the United States, this sort of republicanism was tantamount to mobocracy. The ideas of democracy and equality took no heed of the qualitative differences between people and thus turned the natural order of things upside down: it was not the country's most capable men who were elected to the seats of Capitol Hill, but vulgar and corrupt ignoramuses. For the same reason – democracy and political equality – the cultural life of the United States was not dominated by the sophisticated taste one finds among the upper classes, but on the contrary delivered up to the masses, whose notorious ineptitude in matters of culture made the climate noxious to real art and literature (Gulddal 2007).
In the interwar years, the already classic question of the masses had been promoted to one of the dominant themes of the cultural debate and was now part and parcel of the cultural conservatives' repertory of emergency dispatches on the imminent end of Europe. As had also been the case in the nineteenth century, the intellectuals often neglected to look for the causes of the debacle in Europe itself and instead placed it as it were by default in the United States, where the undisputed rule of the masses had long been an entrenched part of the culture. However, in contrast to the century before, mass society was no longer seen exclusively as a deplorable side effect of democracy, although the anti-democratic tendency remained very strong. Instead, the rise of the masses was associated with modernity in all its aspects, and it became common to focus particularly on the new and increasingly effective ways in which a simple crowd could be organised into a true mass. One such way was the spread of industrial standardisation in the United States: by aiming one-sidedly at producing standardised goods, which by means of advertising could be sold to anyone without regard for individual preferences, the American manufacturers had created a homogenous mass of consumers imbued with identical desires and needs. Another means of "massification" was the increasing ubiquity of modern mass media such as the tabloid newspaper, the gramophone, the motion picture, and the radio, all of which had reached high levels of diffusion in the United States, where they further contributed to the organisation of the masses by gathering the isolated individuals to form a true mass audience.
Due to this array of new technologies and media, mass society might have a glittering front signalling prosperity and progress. However, the back was a heap of miseries. Materialism, mediocrity, and inanity, widely accepted as prominent features of the American national identity, were only the most obvious shortcomings. Far more shockingly, American mass society seemed to foster a new species of man, a mutation of homo sapiens , which in all respects was the antithesis to the renaissance ideal of the free, independent, and creative individual. The Americans were seen to be standardised beings without true individuality, who all looked the same to the point of being indistinguishable. The men had the same clean-shaven faces, the women the same doll-like movie star look – in the words of German philosopher Richard Müller-Freienfels, who raged against the "Americanization of the Soul", both sexes looked as if they had been produced on a Ford assembly line to specifications prescribed by the cinemas, theatres, and magazines (Müller-Freienfels 1929, 258). Furthermore, these perfect mediocrities all suffered from a chronic fear of setting themselves apart from the majority and were themselves merciless towards outsiders. It was evident that individuality in the United States had given way to boundless conformism. In his brilliant, highly provocative Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), D.H. Lawrence informed his readers that in the United States people were immediately lynched if they said or did anything that offended the "free mob" (Lawrence 1971, 9), and Bertolt Brecht claimed in the same vein that the loss of individuality among the Americans was now so complete that any deviation from the norm was regarded as a "dangerous lack of adaptability" (Brecht 1997, 512). Sometimes it could even be difficult to see the Americans as real people rather than "soulless automata" or "monkeys". Perhaps the insects were their closest relations, for in the world of the insects the individual was wholly subjected to the collective. An author such as Georges Duhamel employs this dehumanising comparison time after time:
“In the United States, that far Western land which has already made us aware of the promises of the future, what strikes the European traveller is the progressive approximation of human life to what we know of the way of life of insects – the same effacement of the individual, the same progressive reduction and unification of social types, the same organization of the group into special castes, the same submission of every one to those obscure exigencies which Maeterlinck names the genius of the hive or of the ant-hill.” (Duhamel 1939, 224)
Next to standardisation and de-individualisation, another important consequence of the rise of mass society was that the masses had acquired a large degree of cultural power. Mass culture was of course by no means a new phenomenon; as early as in the mid-nineteenth century, an effort can be detected to distinguish a "low" culture addressed to the masses from a "high" culture aimed at the elites (see Huyssen 1986, vii ff). In the years before and after the First World War, however, the opposition had become much more marked. The increased level of education and the rising prosperity, along with the new mass media, had transformed the masses into a numerous and commercially powerful audience with rising influence on cultural matters. This growing influence led to an even more pronounced resistance on the part of the cultural elite to being lumped with the masses and consequently to a strong emphasis on the difference between high and low culture. In the period's cultural debate, mass culture was hence often portrayed as an affront to everything true and valuable in the great European tradition. Being subject to the logic of the market, mass culture had to appeal to the broadest possible group of consumers, the notorious "lowest common denominator". This was best achieved by lowering the intellectual admission requirements, by recycling interminably a few simple templates that had proved successful in the past, by abstaining from experiments, and by staking everything on the sensational, sentimental, thoughtless, unrealistic, and above all entertaining. The result was a culinary sort of culture, which was produced industrially and consumed like tinned food. High culture had not yet sacrificed its aesthetic ambitions on the altar of profit; it demanded asceticism and concentration, but was in turn much more rewarding. Mass culture, on the other hand, was nothing but entertainment: instead of inspiring contemplation and self-development, it reduced the audience to paralysed, uncritical hedonists.
However, in the interwar years, American mass culture had become all the rage in Europe. Having previously been importers of cultural goods, the Americans now saw the cultural balance of trade turn in their favour as the enthusiasm for American films, music, and lifestyle in general gained ground in the Old World. The massive cultural influence from the United States made it seem as if mass culture itself was an American invention. The old distinction between high and low culture thereby acquired a new, geographic dimension: high culture was associated with Europe and low culture with the United States. This in turn allowed anti-American discourse to assimilate the long-standing critique of mass culture, although this had originally been a very European affair; this assimilation was all the easier as the attacks on mass culture were already in most respects in keeping with the traditional critique of the United States. While the European masses enthusiastically embraced American culture, large parts of the European elite were thus prone to interpret the coming of mass culture as an instance of "Americanisation" – as a slow but steady dismantling of the old, deep, exacting, intelligent, and serious European culture.
It would take us too far in the present context to chart the manifold and by no means exclusively negative reactions to American mass culture, especially to jazz music and Hollywood movies, in European literature of the interwar years. However, the tendency to equate mass culture and American culture had two basic consequences, which can be highlighted by means of a few characteristic examples. These consequences are of the utmost importance in that they found a new conception of the United States and American culture, which even today remains widely diffused in both Europe and the rest of the world.
The first consequence is a proneness to describe the United States as the true home of mass culture and thereby reduce the flourishing American cultural life of the interwar years to empty, meaningless entertainment. To many European intellectuals of the period, American culture was nothing but undemanding "fun", which could be used, or rather consumed, as a diversion, a stimulant, or as pure escapism, but did not demand anything of its audience and hence gave nothing in return. According to Aldous Huxley, having a strong desire for unexacting entertainment was an essential part of being American, which also had a tremendous impact on life in the large American cities. When Huxley, in the travelogue Jesting Pilate (1926), describes Los Angeles, he too notes the high-rises and the overwhelming traffic, but primarily depicts the metropolis as a stage for the American entertainment mania. The film industry in Hollywood is only a single element in an all-encompassing obsession with fun and games, which transforms the city into a playground and its inhabitants into dancing, singing, and laughing fools. Everything revolves around having a good time, around being entertained – around thoughtless, childish fun. Nothing real and deep and true can thrive in this city of round-the-clock entertainment. Reflection, doubt, taste, quality, culture, and morals are all considered things of the past. The truth is not in demand either, and God has already been found: he turned out to reside in the "brand new, million-dollar Temple", where the congregation worships not "the effetely aristocratic Lady Poverty", but "plain American Mrs. Wealth" (Huxley 1926, 268). Los Angeles might be the capital of joy, but American joy is shallow and stupid:
“Thirty years ago Los Angeles was a one-horse – a half-horse – town. In 1940 or thereabouts it is scheduled to be as big as Paris. As big and as gay. The great Joy City of the West.
And what joy! The joy of rushing about, of always being busy, of having no time to think, of being too rich to doubt. The joy of shouting and bantering, of dancing and forever dancing to the noise of savage music, of lustily singing.
(Yes, sir, she's my Baby.
No, sir, don't say 'Maybe.'
Yes, sir, she's my Baby now.)
The joy of loudly laughing and talking at the top of the voice about nothing. (For thought is barred in this City of Dreadful Joy and conversation is unknown.) The joy of drinking prohibited whiskey from enormous silver flasks, the joy of cuddling provocatively bold and pretty flappers, the joy of painting the cheeks, of rolling the eye and showing off the desirable calves and figure. The joy of going to the movies and the theatre, of sitting with one's fellows in luxurious and unexclusive clubs, of trooping out on summer evenings with fifty thousand others to listen to concerts in the open air, of being always in a crowd, never alone.” (267)
Observing the lavishly prosperous, hedonist life in the American cities, Huxley comes to think of the narratives of Gargantua and Pantagruel. However, even Rabelais' famously gluttonous heroes would die of boredom and exhaustion after a week in "The City of Dreadful Joy". For while the gluttony in Rabelais is counterbalanced by the learning in the abbey of Thélème, the citizens of Los Angeles have to make do with their insipid, vitamin-deficient joy. Their diet consists literally and metaphorically of profuse, vulgar quantities of meat, which is swallowed without any use of "mental sauce" (269). In other words: the "joy" of the Americans is something exclusively carnal; it might satisfy the lowest, most brutish needs of man, but it can never satisfy his spirit.
The second consequence of the equation: mass culture equal to American culture is an interpretation of mass culture in Europe as something brought about through a process of "Americanisation". Huxley is representative of both viewpoints: in Jesting Pilate , American culture is reduced to mass culture, whereas in Brave New World it is made abundantly clear that the rampant appetite for entertainment in the London of the future is a direct result of cultural influence from America. In the first case, American culture is identified with mass culture; in the second, the equation is inverted in such a way that mass culture comes to be seen as the essence of America.
This second variety plays a significant role in Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf (1928). The protagonist of this novel is an educated bourgeois, the somewhat neurotic Harry Haller, who is a heavy user of classic European culture, but conversely does not feel at all home in the modern culture of the masses. In the private records that make up the greater part of the novel, Haller reports that he can no longer endure going to the theatre or the cinema, that he is barely able to read a newspaper, and that he only rarely reads new books. Preferring a solitary life that involves no mingling with the masses, he fails to understand what makes people crowd to already overcrowded hotels, cafés, sports arenas, lecture rooms, variety theatres, and world exhibitions. It is important to note, however, that Haller explicitly sees these masses and their despicable culture as American, as a consequence of an ever-increasing "Americanisation" of Europe. In a key passage, in which Haller explains the concept of the "Steppenwolf", the men of the masses are conceived of as Americans, although strictly speaking they are German and European:
“And in fact, if the world is right, if this music of the cafés, these mass-enjoyments and these Americanized men who are pleased with so little are right, then I am wrong, I am crazy. I am in truth the Steppenwolf that I often call myself; that beast astray who finds neither home nor joy nor nourishment in a world that is strange and incomprehensible to him.” (Hesse 1973, 35)
Although Hesse's narrator is undoubtedly an eccentric, his situation is nevertheless typical of the take on mass culture among European intellectuals of the period. Haller represents the European man of culture, who is threatened by extinction or forced into inner exile by the unstoppable, "American" masses. According to this view, American culture is not culture, but the end of culture; it breeds stupidity and decadence and systematically erodes Europe's cultural heritage. For Haller, it is mainly jazz music which serves as a cultural wrecking ball: jazz is "music of decline", in all likelihood similar to the music played in Rome under the last emperors, and its wild rhythms, which are incidentally associated with both "the Negro" and "the American", who share a common "mood of childlike happiness", proclaim the end of everything that was formerly known as "culture, spirit, soul" (43). For a writer like Georges Duhamel, the greatest threat is rather the motion picture, more specifically "the tidal wave of Hollywood", which "Americanised" intellectuals have allowed to "smother our whole country with its froth, and to choke forever the springs of an old and noble spiritual life" (Duhamel 1939, 64). But no matter what was deemed the primary instrument, it seemed painfully clear to the cultural conservatives of the interwar years that Europe was about to succumb to American barbarism and that it was high time to drum up all good forces to make a last stand for the sake of culture.
In this idea of an all-destructive "Americanisation" of Europe, which has to be countered by means of cultural mobilisation, resides the beginning of that general scepticism towards American culture which has remained a basic ingredient of European cultural debate and cultural policy up until the present day.
The common feature of the hitherto analysed motifs of anti-Americanism in the interwar years is their attachment to a distinctly cultural conservative worldview. This is nothing new. On the contrary, anti-American discourse was slanted to the right all the way through the nineteenth century. Its foremost proponents typically belonged to the prosperous, educated elite, the members of which already by virtue of their social standing were disposed to regard the Americans as a vulgar and uncultured people, whose democratic institutions implied an unfortunate, potentially contagious undermining of social distinctions. The interwar years only strengthened this aversion among cultural conservatives: the obvious modernity of American society and its seemingly systematic dismantling of traditional values made it even easier to regard the United States as a threat to European culture.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, however, this conservative contempt for America had been supplemented by a socialist variety, which had been evolving gradually since the last decades of the previous century. The discourse of anti-Americanism was thereby split into two relatively independent parts, a rightwing and a leftwing brand, which differed fundamentally in their diagnosing of the American malaise, but nevertheless often arrived at equally negative conclusions that furthermore were often strikingly similar in terms of their cultural conservatism.
Interestingly, Karl Marx himself had held relatively favourable views on the United States, regarding it as the most advanced capitalist economy and hence also as a country that was destined to play a decisive role in the coming world revolution (Roger 2002, 300 ff; Diner 2003, 59). Marx's successors, however, were less enthusiastic. This socialist change of attitude had several different causes. First, few Marxists were able enough dialecticians to appreciate the Marxist theorem that the worst brand of capitalism was also the best, since it was closer to the ultimate collapse. Secondly, it was a major source of annoyance that American workers never embraced socialism in the same way their European colleagues had done. However, the most important reason was that the world-historical prognostics of the master had been thoroughly upset, when in 1917 the revolution chose to break out in the economically backwards, not yet fully industrialised Russia. This event required profound adjustments of the socialist worldview. Socialists now put their faith in the newly established Soviet Union and conversely began portraying the United States as the most brutal and powerful exponent of capitalism – and consequently as the main enemy in the struggle for world revolution.
In literature, the greatest and most influential voice of socialist anti-Americanism was undoubtedly Bertolt Brecht. In his early works, Brecht had taken a generally positive stance on the United States. Like many of his contemporaries, he saw the country as a dynamical counterpart to the old and enfeebled Europe, which had been thoroughly discredited by the war, and like his German compatriots in general, who embraced American mass culture like no one else, Brecht was intensely fascinated by "the American way of life", not least jazz music, films, cars, and boxing, for which he had a great passion. Around the middle of the 1920s, however, Brecht embarked on a systematic study of Marxist philosophy, and this shift towards politics triggered a corresponding shift in his attitude towards the United States. Having previously represented a promise of cultural regeneration, which Brecht had welcomed, the country now came to serve in Brecht's writings as the epitome of capitalist society (Seliger 1974). In the following years, Brecht wrote a string of plays and poems which were not only set in the United States, but put forward a Marxist interpretation of American capitalism and its destructive repercussions in American society.
With the possible exception of the already mentioned Johanna play, Brecht's propensity to equate the United States with unrestrained, inhuman capitalism is perhaps best expressed in one of the most frequently performed of his "epic operas", Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (1928/29). The story of this play is set in an unnamed American desert state, where three fortune hunters in the opening scene decide to found the city of Mahagonny. As one of them explains the name means "net city" (or "Suckerville" in W.H. Auden's and Chester Kallman's English translation), the city being erected primarily to serve as a net with which to catch passing gold diggers and other well-off persons so as to get hold of their money. The bait is entertainment. Mahagonny is a capitalist entertainment paradise, where everything is allowed and everything is for sale provided the price is right. One might regard this city as a reference to real American entertainment centres such as Las Vegas or Atlantic City – or simply to the "Dreadful Joy", which according to Huxley is the soul of the American metropolises. A precise localisation, however, would reduce the issue, for Brecht is not interested in specific places, but rather uses a fictitious place to shed a Marxist light on certain aspects of American capitalism in general. The most important aspect here is the rampant, completely unbridled materialism, which is reflected in a subordination of all values to the almighty dollar.
Brecht's critique of the brutalisation engendered by the American cult of the dollar is most vividly represented towards the end of the play, when the protagonist, former gold digger Paul Ackermann, is arrested on the charge of having failed to pay his tab in Mahagonny's saloon. The subsequent trial serves as a parody of a capitalist system of justice. At the entrance, tickets are sold as if the trial was a theatre play or a football game. The first item of the programme is the case of a man charged with "premeditated murder done to test a newly purchased revolver." (Brecht 1967, 549) By means of hand signs, the accused quickly agrees with the judge on a suitable bribe, and as no injured party steps forward ("dead men tell no tales"), he is acquitted. The unfortunate Ackermann, on the other hand, has no money for bribes, and as he is completely destitute, he has no friends either who are willing to help him. Ackermann is therefore promptly sentenced to death and executed for being unable to pay for three bottles of whiskey and a broken bar rail. This satire is evidently not only directed against the American legal system, but also the way in which dollars in capitalist America dominate all interaction between people and undermine all concepts of justice and morality: if you lose your money, you lose your friends, social status, rights, and ultimately your life. This point is hammered out in the concluding scene of the play, which tells of Mahagonny's ultimate fall, corresponding in orthodox Marxist thinking to the inevitable collapse of the capitalist social order as a result of inner contradictions and recurrent crises. In this scene, the last remaining citizens, ideological die-hards who have learned nothing from history, demonstrate in support of their ideal city. On their placards are written their capitalist credos, all praising the ruthless egoism and all-encompassing commercialisation, which according to Brecht forms the core of the capitalist American society:
FOR THE EXPROPRIATION OF OTHERS
FOR THE JUST DIVISION OF SPIRITUAL GOODS
FOR THE UNJUST DIVISION OF TEMPORAL GOODS
FOR THE BUYING AND SELLING OF LOVE
FOR THE NATURAL DISORDER OF THINGS
FOR THE PROLONGATION OF THE GOLDEN AGE” (562)
The study of Marxism had thus taught Brecht to dislike the United States, and it is therefore more than a little ironic that Brecht was to spend the period from 1941-47 as a political refugee in this country, and in the heart of its entertainment industry at that. Following Hitler's seizure of power in 1933, Brecht fled to Denmark, where he stayed until 1939, then on to Sweden and Finland, and at last all the way across the Soviet Union, where he had no wish to settle, until he reached Vladivostok, where he embarked on a steamship destined for California. His American place of residence was Santa Monica, Los Angeles, and his place of work, at least for a period, was the neighbouring Hollywood, where he found employment as a scriptwriter.
As one would expect, Brecht did not care particularly for his new hometown. In the essay "Wo ich wohne", written in the American exile, he sets out to explain his reasons for rejecting the place. From the outset he goes out of his way to stress that he – or we , as he says, including his wife Helene Weigel – strictly speaking never chose to settle in the neighbourhood of Hollywood. It just happened to be where the ship dropped them off, and as there were already other German exiles in the area, and as the Brechts had limited means, they simply found it most expedient to remain where they were. But Los Angeles is a "city without dignity". Its residents are profiteers who have acquired their wealth at the expense of the suffering Europeans. The Brechts' Santa Monica neighbours are undoubtedly friendly people, and they lack the neurotic stamp and the mixture of arrogance and subservience characteristic of the German middle classes. However, there is something fundamentally "empty and insignificant" about them, which makes Brecht think of the characters one encounters in the works of a shallow, good-natured novelist (Brecht 1997, 511). The population as a whole is poorly informed and has little real political influence, the media being controlled by a few millionaires and the elections run by "political machines", which themselves are controlled by big business. Corruption is ubiquitous; major national newspapers even hint that the president himself – Roosevelt – is in the pocket of the mob. Not even the intellectuals, a social group that in Europe has preserved a critical distance to society, can avoid being "perverted" by the insecurity and dependence on capital. They too are exceedingly conformist; they are happy, pipe-smoking optimists with both hands deeply buried in their pockets, but as intellectuals they are "superficial, anxious, and cynical" (515). Such is capitalism, and in the United States it is allowed free rein to corrupt every aspect of society:
“No wonder that there is something base, infamous, undignified to all interaction between people and that this has spread to all things, dwellings, tools, indeed to the landscape itself. [...] Everywhere you note this smell of hopeless brutality, of irredeemable violence. In five years I once saw something reminiscent of art: along the coast at Santa Monica, before the eyes of thousands of bathers, floating kite-like at the end of a thin wire, towed by a motor boat, a thin, precious image in delicate colours, an advertisement for a cosmetics firm.” (514)
If we take another glance at the situation in Denmark, we find similar expressions of socialist anti-Americanism among the "cultural radicals", a group of self-proclaimed proponents of enlightenment and modernity centred on the highly influential architect, designer, and social critic Poul Henningsen. In 1927, the movement's mouthpiece, the journal Kritisk Revy , published an issue that literally put contempt for the United States on the front page. The collage on the cover showed in the background the canon turrets of a battleship and a New York-like cityscape overshadowed by skyscrapers. In the foreground we see two monkeys sitting on stools playing violin and guitar – they are evidently playing "Negro music", or jazz. The caption reads: "It is not America we despise, but the United States of Barbarism", and Poul Henningsen's editorial on the first page continues in the same aggressive tone of voice: "Every culture is threatened by destruction. The enemy of Europe is America, whose ruling stratum has profusely demonstrated that they descend directly from the apes. But the greatest danger threatens from within: if the cultural leadership fails." (Henningsen 1927, 1) This tirade resembles, to the point of being indistinguishable, the cultural conservative anti-Americanism with its fear of the United States' aggressive, imperialist intentions. It is the same cultural pessimism, the same representation of the United States as an enemy of Europe, and the same call for cultural mobilisation we found in authors such as Duhamel, Lawrence, and Paludan. In fact it is only the reference to the "ruling stratum" which identifies the perspective as socialist, although not at all unambiguously.
The issue of Kritik Revy is not a special issue devoted exclusively to the United States; on the contrary, the articles deal with a variety of subjects ranging from modern architecture to nature conservation and air warfare. Nevertheless, and evidently at the editors' explicit request (Borberg 1927, 49), several contributors find opportunity to vent their contempt for the United States, typically in contexts that have little or no bearing on the country. Architect Edvard Heiberg thus writes on the layout and construction of single-family houses and by means of comparison, almost as an aside, casts a quick glance at the conditions in the United States. Here, small families perhaps arrange themselves in more sensible ways than in Europe, but seen from the outside, the American houses reflect the well-known American lack of culture: "But the facades! There, America's borrowed and thin cultural life manifests itself in ominous ways. It shows the practical, prosaic pioneer, who has his little spiritual life beyond reality in the serial story and the hymn book." (Heiberg 1927, 14) The contribution by theatre critic Svend Borberg – a critique of Danish theatre criticism, especially its reactions to the Copenhagen theatrical event of the season, the performance of Zola's Thérèse Raquin – has even less to do with the United States. Borberg evidently finds it difficult to turn this subject into an attack on the United States – but he manages to overcome the embarrassment by asking his readers to regard "America" as shorthand for "everything stupid and despicable" and by coining the term "America Ltd.", which briefly sums up the view on the United States of socialist anti-Americanism (Borberg 1927, 49).
However, the best and by a wide margin the most aggressive example is written by the poet Otto Gelsted. A leading figure of Danish expressionism, Gelsted had already called attention to the increasing "Americanisation" of Denmark in the poem "The Advertising Ship", in the collection Jomfru Gloriant (1923), where he had allowed his hostility towards America to degenerate into terrorist fantasies, imagining a cruise liner representing American cultural influence being blown up by an "ordinary blond Danish student" when it attempts to call at a Danish port. In the America issue of Kritisk Revy , Gelsted chooses a more concrete approach. His essay concerns the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, one of the most controversial American criminal cases of the period. The accused were Italian emigrants, both avowed anarchists, who in 1920 were arrested on the charge of murder and robbery. Whether Sacco and Vanzetti were in fact guilty, or rather victims of political persecution (as was claimed by socialists in both the United States and Europe), has never been completely clarified. In any case, the trial was full of riddles, ambiguities, and mix-ups and dragged on for years. Not until 1927 was the verdict passed. Sacco and Vanzetti both received the death sentence and were executed shortly afterwards. Gelsted reflects on this course of events in his article in Kritisk Revy . Not surprisingly, he finds the affair scandalous, mainly because the two Italians were "convicted for a civil, apolitical crime by their political mortal enemies" and hence did not receive a fair trial. This argument of course sounds perfectly reasonable, but it is framed by statements that clearly demonstrate the poet's political extremism. First, Gelsted gives an example of his cavalier attitude towards political violence: "Obviously the Americans are allowed to execute communists and other unwelcome fellow humans, just as the Soviet Union has the right to execute dangerous counterrevolutionaries." Then he goes on to call for acts of retaliation and political terror: "The men who signed the death warrants for Sacco and Vanzetti have hopefully thereby signed their own death warrants, and hopefully it is only a matter of time before someone succeeds in killing them." (Gelsted 1927, 2)
These chilling statements are perhaps primarily representative of the radicalisation of both political wings in the interwar years. For Gelsted, however, the trial against Sacco and Vanzetti presents an opportunity to rant against the United States as such. As a communist, Gelsted is convinced that the judges, the jury, and the American authorities in general belong to the "American plutocracy" and were in fact defending their own financial interest while claiming simply to defend the rule of law. As human beings, they are probably neither more nor less intelligent and humane than the average person, they are just blinded and ignorant:
“But they stand – like all of the official 100 percent-America – under the influence of mass suggestion. The spiritual darkness spreading over the United States, which completely dominates the educational system, the press, and the public life, must be regarded as the result of the will of American capital to turn the working-class population into idiots [...].
The monkey trial in Dayton gave Europe a glaring impression of a spiritual life, which is the result of a mass stupidisation organised with expenditure of immense funds. The election of Coolidge for President is just as characteristic. Anyone who bothers to read what he writes can see that he is an excellent reflection of that special brand of stupidity, which is attempted to be made standard in America.
Politics hog-tied by capital, literature reduced to magazine stories about business and love, the Sunday school put at the head of science, nationalism turned into religion and religion to social coercion – this is the modern spiritual life in America. Only in Mussolini's Italy would one be as unwilling to live as in this poisoned land. (2 f)
As this quotation makes clear, Gelsted regards the United States as the land of unbridled capitalism. When enumerating the symptoms of the American disease, he notes roughly the same features as the cultural conservatives of the period: the ignorance, the hypocrisy, the lack of culture, the illusory freedom, the de-individualisation of the individual, and the relentless organisation of the population to a mass. However, when attempting to identify the causes of the disease, Gelsted argues rather like an orthodox Marxist. The article thus presents a sort of communist conspiracy theory claiming that the American "capital" purposefully employs "mass suggestion" to reduce the population, particularly the working classes, to idiots. The result is spiritual darkness and standardised stupidity, which Gelsted – in a manner characteristic of the period and in accordance with both the issue's racist cover illustration and Poul Henningsen's bellicose editorial – can only describe as a civilisational regression to the ape stage. To the communist writer, it is evident that capitalism itself is a social system completely at odds with every standard of moral, humane behaviour. However, in the United States capitalism is much more than a system, it is the essence and nature of the country and the deepest faith of its inhabitants. Capitalism is the soul of the United States and this soul – "the American methods and the American business spirit" – is undoubtedly "one of the most hideous phenomena the history of culture has ever known." (3)
In the interwar years, anti-Americanism in a sense lost its innocence. With the political radicalisation of the period as the principal driver, the traditional European contempt for the United States was sharpened to a pronounced hatred. This aggravation reached its apex in the official, anti-American propaganda of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, which in effect rarely goes beyond accumulating and developing a string of motifs that were already widely disseminated at the time. But even in less extremist settings one can observe a dramatic sharpening of the tone of voice, which sets anti-Americanism of the interwar years apart from all its previous forms. If the scorn poured on the United States by nineteenth-century authors and intellectuals is often hard to take entirely seriously, it is not only due to the historical distance or the unfoundedness of much of the criticism. It is rather due to the fact that anti-Americanism then was only to a very small extent driven by ideas of threat and looming apocalypse. The contempt for America was still based on a surplus, a snobbish and sometimes completely illusory feeling of superiority, which called forth scorn and mirth, but rarely alarm or blind hatred. This situation changes completely in the interwar years. The First World War had turned the traditional balance of power between the Old and the New World upside down. Economically, Europe's great powers were all standing on the brink of a precipice, and the monstrous sacrifice of human lives in the war had created a feeling of moral bankruptcy, a deep pessimism with regard to the vitality of European civilisation. In the United States, on the other hand, it was not a propitious time for pessimism. At the conclusion of peace, the country had established itself as the leading great power, not only politically, technologically, and economically, but also – and to an ever-increasing extent – culturally.
In short: Europe was in a state of crisis, while the United States was rampant with energy and youth. This inversion in itself was sufficient to strengthen the European tradition for anti-Americanism: as is well known, feelings of inferiority are often accompanied by resentment towards the real or imagined superior, and the recipient of charity or assistance is not always overcome by sympathy for the giver (Arendt 1994, 413 f). However, a more important reason was the widespread feeling that Europe from the point of view of world history had gone downhill and from now on would have its future dictated to it from the outside, presumably by the dynamic, prosperous, and awfully vulgar Americans. For that reason, it was widely believed that when observing the United States, one could see how Europe would come to look within a few years. Many Europeans welcomed this American future and regarded it as an opportunity for cultural regeneration. However, the members of the elite, especially the authors and intellectuals, were rather inclined to perceive it as a cultural apocalypse. For these often strongly conservative observers, the United States was the quintessence of a political, technological, and cultural modernity threatening to annihilate European culture. According to this view, Europe represented history and tradition and the qualities forming the basis of any high culture: depth, intelligence, soul. The United States was regarded as the direct opposite of this, in other words, as a land without culture, marked by shallowness, stupidity, and materialism. The inhumanity of the country was reflected everywhere: the American cult of the machine tore out man's soul, the American metropolis tore him apart, and the all-embracing American masses devoured him and reduced him to utter mediocrity. At the same time – and not only among socialists – the United States represented the most cynical, most unbridled form of capitalism, in which all human decency was crushed by the almighty dollar. If this was really the future, then it spelt certain doom for European culture.
The intense anti-Americanism of the interwar years thus arose primarily out of a tendency in this period to equate the United States with a modernity that seemed predestined to destroy the Old World. It was this identification that created the surprisingly widespread idea of the United States as Europe's enemy in a sort of transatlantic clash of civilisations, and this idea in turn formed the basis of the astounding aggressiveness, which is characteristic of the anti-American discourse of the period: if European culture were to survive, it was necessary to set up a defence to counter the United States and the progressive "Americanisation" of Europe.
The problem with this line of reasoning is of course that modernity is not an American invention. It is not tied to a particular place or country or people, but is rooted in general historical and social dynamics, which only to a very limited extent are controllable. For this reason, it is naïve to think that modernity can be exported from one geographical area to another as part of a more or less deliberately planned, imperialist plot. Much of the anti-Americanism of the interwar years thus rested on a sort of distorted perspective: because the United States in many respects was not the most modern nation on earth, it was easy and obvious to make the Americans scapegoats for modernity. José Ortega y Gasset, although no great friend of the United States, was probably the first to identify this logic, and for this reason he insisted that the talk of the "Americanisation" of Europe was predicated on a gross simplification (Ortega 1985, 17). Like so many other European fantasies of America, including the uncritically positive ones, it primarily testified to the impotence of human concepts in the face of an overly complex reality:
“The mass of puerile judgments made on the United States in Europe is one of the most perturbing aspects of European thinking, especially when even the most cultured people are prone to them. It is a particular instance of the disproportion between the complexity of present-day problems and the capacity of our minds to deal with them.” (71)
(Jesper Gulddal is a Postdoctoral Associate at the University of Cambridge, UK)
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