Review of Lisa Szefel’s The Gospel of Beauty in the Progressive Era: Reforming American Verse and Values (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011). ISBN: 978-0-230-11284-1. 280 pages.
Reviewed by Amy Wood
Illinois State University
In a 1991 essay titled “Can Poetry Matter?” poet Dana Gioia lamented the withering relevance of poetry in contemporary America. (The essay, originally published in the Atlantic Monthly, became the basis for a 1992 book by the same name). Despite the fact that poetry was the object of unprecedented support, through published anthologies and literary magazines, fellowships and prizes, and professorships and creative writing programs, poets nevertheless constituted an isolated subculture in American arts. Poetry in the late twentieth century, he bemoaned, had become inaccessible and esoteric, as poets increasingly secluded themselves within clubby academic circles and wrote their verse no longer for a larger educated readership, but, really, only for each other. Gioia looked nostalgically back to a mid-century poetic heyday when figures like Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Langston Hughes, and John Berryman, to name a few, were prominent voices in American intellectual life. In addition to poetry, they wrote essays and criticism that broadened their intellectual reach. I don’t think the situation is much different twenty years later. Intellectuals and educated readers tend to be familiar with the leading historians, philosophers, critics, and novelists of the day, but would be hard pressed to name more than one or two contemporary poets.
This is a shame because, as Gioia contends, good poetry can offer particular aesthetic pleasures, pleasures that can, to paraphrase Wallace Stevens, contribute to our happiness. Children, of course, intuitively recognize the enjoyment to be found in verse, as anyone who has read and re-read the same nursery rhyme or Dr. Seuss story to a child knows. But Gioia also glimpses significant political consequences to the declining importance of poetry in contemporary life. Poetry, he says, “is the art of using words charged with their utmost meaning.” A healthy society depends upon a literate citizenry who can appreciate and grasp the power of language, if only to guard against its manipulations and distortions from their political leaders. As George Orwell warned, the deterioration of language walks hand in hand with political turmoil. Gioia’s call for a renewed awareness of the craft of poetic language has even more salience now, when there is so much intellectual lamentation that our Twitter and texting culture has flattened language and reduced it to cloying abbreviations and emoticons. Gioia ends his essay by calling for poets to come out of their self-inflicted seclusion, form much-needed alliances with other artists and intellectuals, and use their talent to speak to humanity’s greatest concerns. As it had in the past, a reinvigorated and socially relevant poetic culture could provide a small bulwark against the technocratic and materialist mindsets that dominate our society.
In The Gospel of Beauty in the Progressive Era, Lisa Szefel illuminates a time when American poets became committed to the notion that poetry should matter, that it should speak to the greatest concerns of the day. In this original and elegantly written account, Szefel traces the rise of a progressive-minded poetry movement that, between 1910 and 1920, developed alongside the social reform efforts of the era. These poets sought to break away from the genteel elitism of Victorian poetry and produce works that reflected the experiences of ordinary Americans and addressed the woes and sorrows that unmanaged capitalism had wrought. They believed that socially relevant poetry could strike readers’ moral imaginations and spur social action. With the help of sympathetic editors and readers, they created a flourishing literary community, which built the “cultural infrastructure” (p. 2) that later allowed the famous mid-century poets that Gioia celebrates to thrive.
Well-known poets such as Amy Lowell, Carl Sandberg, and Robert Frost enter her story, but Szefel gives us an appreciated introduction to more obscure figures like Edwin Markham, Harriet Monroe, and William Stanley Braithwaite. In doing so, she welcomes us into a circle of poets largely neglected in American cultural histories of the period. After all, when we think of literary output in the Progressive era, we think of the social realism of Upton Sinclair or the literary naturalism of Theodore Dreiser and others who wrote with vivid and shocking clarity about social injustice and human suffering in modern America. And when we think of a twentieth-century renaissance in American poetry, the great poets of the Harlem Renaissance or the high modernists like T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams come to mind. In drawing attention to the poets who preceded and even anticipated these movements, Szefel has filled an enormous gap in literary and intellectual histories of the Progressive era.
One reason why historians have tended to overlook these poets is that amidst the reformist ethos of the era, poetry could appear indulgent and twee. The spirit of the time seemed more suited to the gritty realism that other artistic media like fiction or photography could more readily provide. Progressive poets struggled with this very problem of form. They sought to portray the ugly realities of urban industrial life through verse, while at the same time they embraced a “gospel of beauty” rooted in Victorian sensibilities. Szefel presents them as transitional figures, awkwardly straddling the chasm between the Victorian and the modern. Disturbed by the disruption and corruption of modern life, they remained deeply wedded to the Platonic idealism of nineteenth-century romanticism and transcendentalism, believing that poetry, as the pure expression of beauty, could serve as an antidote to the rationalization and materialism of the day by allowing for subjective expression and self-revelation. Poetry thus provided spiritual nourishment, representing a space in the human soul where true freedom resides, apart from social constraints. That ennobling element could in turn cultivate moral goodness in readers by sparking their empathetic imaginations and attuning them to the sufferings of others. Their gospel of beauty, in this way, Szefel argues, shared much in common with the Social Gospel movement. (It is telling marker of these poets’ transitional status that Gioia does not mention the expression of beauty as a purpose of poetry, but instead focuses on personal happiness.)
Yet these poets chafed against the rigid conventions of the Victorian poetry that dominated the pages of both literary journals and middlebrow magazines at the turn of the century. They considered the genteel idealism of that poetry, with its focus on pastoral themes, to be both stale and effete. This new generation poets saw themselves as part of an avant-garde who would reinvigorate poetry – i.e. inject it with manly vigor – to articulate the “messiness” of modern life and animate the “mundane and mechanical” about it (p. 45). Though still committed to poetry’s aesthetic purpose, they wanted to shift the meaning of beauty to find it in common places, on city streets, in dockyards and skyscrapers, and in the haggard bodies of laborers.
By emphasizing their social purposefulness, Szefel sets the sensibilities of these poets apart from the anti-modernism of other artists and intellectuals of the period, as characterized by T. Jackson Lears in No Place of Grace. Lears argued that figures like Charles Eliot Norton, Frank Norris and Henry Adams retreated to the arts or to spirituality as a repudiation of the modern industrial order and as a counterweight to the sense of meaninglessness that they felt in it. But ultimately their bourgeois rejection of capitalism was toothless. It offered them personal rejuvenation and therapeutic release, but it did not disrupt their class hegemony or challenge the existing order in any meaningful way; in fact, their retreat constituted an accommodation to the very values that repelled them, and the onslaught of modernity continued uninterrupted. Szefel, however, wants to see her poets in a more favorable light, as sincere in their desire to change the world. Art for them could create bonds of solidarity that were crucial to the “discernment of meaning, value, and individual freedom” in modern life (p 45).
Yet, although Szefel demonstrates the commitment that progressive poets had to infuse poetry with a social conscience, it is less evident how exactly their poems operated as political or social commentary. Part of the reason for this is that Szefel is more attentive to the motivations of her figures and the complex relationships between them than she is with the poetry itself. To be fair, the book is one of literary history, not literary analysis. But to make the claim, as she does, that poetry can help to cultivate human sympathy for others and motivate social action requires attention to the form and content of the verse itself. Szefel references the work of Elaine Scarry, Martha Nussbaum, and Richard Rorty, who have emphasized the importance of “aesthetic sensibilities” and “narrative imagination” to the development of empathetic understanding (p. 11). I found myself longing for her to apply that theoretical work more directly to the poems under study.
What’s more, throughout her richly detailed account of their careers, Szefel reveals that her poets were much more ambivalent about reform than her larger argument suggests. It is never made clear how exactly their poetry linked up to progressive politics or reform efforts; the connections between them appear nebulous, a matter of vague aspiration rather than specific intent. And ultimately, the movement’s adherence to the gospel of beauty led poets and editors to recoil against works that focused on human suffering and social turmoil for fear that they would only lead to hopelessness. For example, Edwin Markham’s 1898 poem, “Man with a Hoe,” with its unsentimental depiction of an overburdened laborer, was a breakthrough piece that shocked readers and reflected the belief that the “moral power of art could temper avarice and induce charity” (p. 60). At the same time, as Szefel concedes, the poem refrains from any direct critique of capitalism and maintains a spiritual, optimistic sensibility, so that his portrait of the farmer appears more romantic than reformist. Szefel devotes a wonderful chapter to Amy Lowell, an extraordinarily fascinating figure, but Lowell’s imagiste poetry, with its focus on vivid imagery and direct language, was more concerned with breaking down Victorian ornamentation and reconfiguring conventions of poetic expression and form than with politics. In fact, she believed that poetry should remain a “serf to beauty” and not act as a “voice of protest” (p. 184). Similarly, although poet and editor Harriet Monroe promoted poets like Carl Sandberg and Edgar Lee Masters, who dealt with startling realities in their verse, she eschewed poetry that would appear propagandistic. Even the editor of the socialist magazine, The Masses, Max Eastman, comes off as tepid in his conception of poetry’s political role. (Szefel surprisingly pays only scant attention to socialist poets like Clement Wood and Mike Gold).
Compared to the work of people like Upton Sinclair or Lewis Hine, the reformist ethos of these poets appears weak and hesitant. Indeed, with their abiding faith in aesthetics as a means to self-fulfillment and moral truth, they appear closer to Lears’ bourgeois anti-modernists than the zealous social reformers that Szefel claims them to be. Their ambivalence is, of course, also part of Szefel’s point that these poets were part of a complex transition in the poetic arts from Victorian romanticism to modernism. And there is no doubt, after reading Szefel’s book, that these poets, through their experimentation with free verse and commonplace themes, played a critical role in developing modern poetry. Still, one is left wondering how much poetry did in fact matter to Progressive-era politics. If it did matter, it seemed to do so much in the way Gioia hopes it would today – as snapshots of everyday moments and expressions of real feeling in an otherwise harried and soulless age.