A project for Ken Burns or someone like him

I was delighted with my visit on Saturday to the new Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, which just opened last year; it’s a fascinating and solemn reminder of the ideals and courage required to found a country like ours, and conveniently located near Independence Hall and the National Constitution Center. Though established on noble and laudable grounds, my homeland inevitably falls short of these in reality. One can spend the entire day at the museum, so all-encompassing are the exhibits, and when one considers just how far we’ve fallen in grace and courage since then — well, pride is not the word, for I didn’t do any fighting for these ideals myself, but it certainly inspires me to take these ideals more seriously in my private and public lives. Although Joe Biden attended the opening ceremonies last April and delivered the keynote address, nobody from the current administration could be bothered to attend. This should tell you scores about the current administration, too; perhaps the museum’s proximity to the National Constitution Center gave the Trump people the willies.

Of course, the shadow that falls between the idea and the reality is a fertile garden for American satire as well. I hope that one of these days Ken Burns — or somebody like him, but possessed of a sense of humor — creates one of those PBS documentary series about the history of the form in the United States; it certainly stretches from its colonial days (Ben Franklin could be particularly scabrous and scurrilous) to the present. Most neglected recently have been the satires of the pre-World War II era, and surprisingly it was one of the richest genres of American literature of the past hundred or so years. Twain (who died in 1910) kicked it off, of course, with his screeds against the Philippine–American War and the continuing practice of lynching in the south, but it did go on. Ten years earlier, in 1899, H.L. Mencken began writing for Baltimore’s Morning Herald newspaper; in 1920, Sinclair Lewis published his first masterpiece of American satire, Main Street; and in 1931, Nathanael West published the first of his four magnificent satiric novelettes, The Dream Life of Balso Snell.

By 1940 it was all over. West was dead; Mencken’s style and iconoclasm were less popular in a nation just emerging from an economic depression and preparing for war; and Lewis was succumbing to the alcoholism that would lead, in part, to his death ten years later. But those three decades between 1910 and 1940 were rich with this kind of satiric excavation, despite the fact that these authors have been eclipsed by the reputations of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner. Of the novelists, West and Lewis attacked the fraudulent nature of private and public life. West prophetically saw the catastrophes that a celebrity culture could produce in The Day of the Locust and the tragedy of maudlin sentimentalism and the sterility of New York City’s urban life in Miss Lonelyhearts; Lewis condemned the petty soullessness of the American salesman and his culture in Babbitt and the hypocrisy of cultish evangelical religion (a part of American culture since George Whitefield‘s time) in Elmer Gantry. And both novelists foresaw the dangers of a rank democracy of ignorant masses, leading to totalitarianism, in A Cool Million (West) and It Can’t Happen Here (Lewis).

The satirists of the 1950s, such as William Gaddis, Joseph Heller, and Terry Southern, built upon these foundations for their own masterpieces; without these earlier authors (and a few Europeans such as Louis-Ferdinand Celine), there’d be no The Recognitions, JR, Catch-22, or The Magic Christian.

If you want to follow the road from the ideals and stresses that gave rise to the American Revolution to the situation we’re in today, and you want to understand how we got here, you could do worse than revisit Twain, Mencken, Lewis, and West; to see how their prophecies have come true, I would recommend following these up with Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in America and Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason in a Culture of Lies (the latter was republished in paperback, with an update, earlier this year). They won’t give you hope — not least because most Americans these days can’t be bothered to read anything that doesn’t appear on a Facebook feed — but they will give you a pretty good idea of how we got here. And if you do indeed want that hope, you’ll have to go to the Museum of the American Revolution yourself, to remember that there was a time when we collectively aimed just a little higher — politically, culturally, and personally — than we do now.

And afterwards stop in for dinner at City Tavern. That doesn’t disappoint, either.

Below, a 1948 interview with that great American H.L. Mencken, conducted at the Library of Congress and the only extant recording of that author’s voice. It was recorded only a few months before a stroke incapacitated Mencken, leaving him unable to speak clearly or write at all — though aware and fully conscious — until his death eight years later, in 1956.