U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Herbert Croly, Unleavened Bread, and Progressivism in the Age of Charisma

[Editorial note: the following essay is a guest post by Jeremy C. Young.]

Herbert Croly, Unleavened Bread, and Progressivism in the Age of Charisma

by Jeremy C. Young

When it appeared in 1909, Herbert David Croly’s The Promise of American Life was a revelation in American political life.  Croly, the forty-year-old editor of the Architectural Review, seemed to emerge out of nowhere with a fully-realized vision of a progressive society.  Every wing of the fractious progressive movement could find something of value in The Promise; Croly seemed to have discovered the underlying principles on which all their policy platforms rested.  The book helped encourage Theodore Roosevelt to mount a presidential campaign in 1912, and both Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson later borrowed phrases from Croly in their subsequent political activities (“New Nationalism” for Roosevelt; “peace without victory” for Wilson).  Vanderbilt heirs Willard and Dorothy Straight so admired the book that they installed Croly as editor-in-chief of their new magazine, The New Republic; Croly hired Walter Lippmann, Walter Weyl, Randolph Bourne, and a host of other brilliant journalists, and together they fashioned the publication into America’s most influential progressive journal.

What inspired Croly to write The Promise of American Life?  Croly addressed the question just once, and his answer has baffled generations of Gilded Age and Progressive Era scholars.  “The idea which lies at the basis of ‘The Promise of American Life,’” he wrote in The World’s Work in June 1910, “first occurred to me about ten years ago, during a reading of Judge Robert Grant’s novel, ‘Unleavened Bread.’  In that story the author has ingeniously wrought out the contradiction subsisting between certain aspects of the American democratic tradition and the methods and aspirations which dominate contemporary American intellectual work.  It struck me as deplorable that American patriotic formulas could be used with even the slightest plausibility to discourage competent and specialized individual intellectual effort, and I began to consider the origin and meaning of this contradiction, and the best method of overcoming it without doing violence to that which was best in the American democratic tradition.”[1]

The idea that Croly wrote the most influential political tract in a generation because he read what one scholar described frankly as “a rather bad novel” has not sat well with historians.[2]  Croly’s biographer David Levy essentially dismissed the claim, saying that Croly “incorrectly assessed the importance of Grant’s novel and the questions it raised” and that he was “reading into the novel more than it contained.”[3]  To Levy, the real intellectual influences on The Promise were Croly’s father David, David’s hero Auguste Comte, and Herbert’s Harvard professors: Josiah Royce, William James, and John Dewey.  Charles Forcey, who wrote another significant book on Croly, took the role of Unleavened Bread more seriously.  Forcey’s analysis focused on the novel’s hero, the architect Wilbur Littleton, whom he assumed Croly had identified with given Croly’s work at the Architectural Review.  Forced by circumstance to design crassly commercial projects rather than upholding the artistic standards he believes in, Littleton eventually dies of overwork.  “To Croly,” wrote Forcey, “Wilbur Littleton’s saga seemed a symbol for the central tragedy of American life.  For Littleton had been destroyed…by America’s most cherished ‘patriotic formulas.’  The United States, argued Croly, was a country in which empty individualism had run riot, where individual merit was measured only in cash. … Croly’s vital concern for the intellectual in America goes far toward explaining both the origin and the essential meaning of The Promise of American Life.”[4]

Forcey’s interpretation is a thoughtful one, and it has been influential among later historians; Edward Stettner, for instance, adopted it wholesale in his book on Croly.[5]  Nevertheless, Forcey may not have grasped the entire connection between Unleavened Bread and The Promise.  After all, Croly’s book is not really about artists and intellectuals; it is about progressive policies and how best to enact them.  Its most memorable passages focus on charismatic leadership as a source of national “regeneration” (a term Croly borrowed from William James): Chapter 6, in which Croly cycles through possible contenders for national Progressive leadership and eventually settles on Theodore Roosevelt as “the best available type of national reformer,” and the last chapter, in which Croly famously calls for “some democratic evangelist – some imitator of Jesus” to make progressivism a reality.[6]  Ultimately, Croly was a political thinker who wanted to influence presidents and win elections, and any explanation for the link between Croly and Unleavened Bread must show how Croly drew inspiration for this more practical element of his message.

A reexamination of Unleavened Bread reveals that there was indeed a clear connection between Croly’s views on charismatic political leadership and the characters in Grant’s novel.

Grant’s complex volume skewers a number of facets of American culture, including social climbing, divorce, rampant individualism, and the commercialization of art.[7]  One of its most significant targets, however, was political corruption, personified by the figure of James O. Lyons.  Lyons was a fictional charismatic leader, politician, senator, and governor, “a large, full-bodied man…impressive and slightly pontifical; his voice resonant and engaging.”[8]  Like Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan, James Blaine, and other charismatic figures with whom Croly was familiar, Lyons knew how to win over a crowd: “His speech flowed with the musical sweep of a master of platform oratory. …The audience listened in absorbed silence, spell-bound by the magnetism of his delivery.”[9]  Lyons’s speeches were particularly strong in their nationalism, “for he entertained…an abiding faith in the superiority of everything American.”[10]  But Lyons was as corrupt as he was charismatic.  “Instead of fighting corporations,” Grant wrote, Lyons “was now the close adviser of a score of them…the confidential attorney who was consulted in regard to their vital interests, and who charged them liberal sums for his services.”[11]

It is Lyons, not Wilbur Littleton, who figures prominently at the climax of Unleavened Bread.  A political opponent reveals that Lyons has accepted corporate bribes; the sly Lyons avoids public censure by voting against the corporation’s interests, breaking his word to the corporation in order to appear honest to the voters.  And it is Lyons, not Littleton, on whom the book focuses at its conclusion.  The charismatic politician, now a U.S. senator-elect, addresses a cheering crowd with a visage bearing “the effect of a patriarch, or of one inspired.”  “Your past has been ever glorious,” Lyons tells his followers; “your future looms big with destiny. … I take up the work which you have given me to do, pledged to remain a democrat of the democrats, an American of the Americans.”[12]

Viewing James O. Lyons, rather than Wilbur Littleton, as the primary inspiration for The Promise of American Life fundamentally alters our interpretation of Croly’s text.  When Croly criticized the misuse of “patriotic formulas,” he was discussing not the vague capitalist impulse at the heart of the American Dream but the actual faux-patriotic statements Lyons used to win office; it was politics, not intellectual life, that needed to change in order to achieve national regeneration.  A progressive society was possible, Croly believed, only if progressives could harness Lyons’ charismatic abilities while decoupling them from his questionable morals.  “The American people are absolutely right in insisting that an aspirant for popular eminence shall be compelled to make himself interesting to them,” Croly insisted.  “The people…will rally to the good thing, only because the good thing has been made to look good to them.”  Certainly men such as Lyons might use their charismatic ability to defraud Americans.  “But better the risk,” Croly believed, “than sham battles and unearned victories;” if a charismatic leader chose to “haul down the flag [of his ideals] in order to obtain popular appreciation and reward, it is he who is unworthy to lead, not they who are unworthy of being led.”  Instead, “the soil [must] be prepared for the crowning work of some democratic Saint Francis” – a truly moral charismatic leader who alone could bring about a progressive society.[13]

What Croly learned from Unleavened Bread was not (at least not primarily) that intellectuals must be safeguarded against capitalism, but that charismatic leadership was an unstoppable political force that could be used for good or for ill.  The effect of The Promise of American Life was to bind progressivism’s future firmly to charismatic techniques.  After 1909, virtually every progressive politician attempted to harness charismatic techniques to achieve victory at the ballot box.  Theodore Roosevelt sought to win the presidency with a charismatic campaign in 1912; Woodrow Wilson tried to pass the Versailles Treaty in 1919 by embarking on a charismatic speaking tour.  More than any other group in the early twentieth century, the progressives believed in charisma’s ability to change the fundamental circumstances of American politics.  Much of that belief can be traced back to Herbert Croly and his reading of Unleavened Bread.

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[1] Herbert Croly, “Why I Wrote My Latest Book: My Aim in ‘The Promise of American Life,’” The World’s Work, 20 (June 1910), 13086.

[2] Charles Forcey, The Crossroads of Liberalism: Croly, Weyl, Lippmann, and the Progressive Era, 1900-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961), 22.

[3] David W. Levy, Herbert Croly of The New Republic: The Life and Thought of an American Progressive (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 92, 118.

[4] Forcey, The Crossroads of Liberalism, 22-23.

[5] Edward A. Stettner, Shaping Modern Liberalism: Herbert Croly and Progressive Thought (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1993), 28-29.

[6] Herbert Croly, The Promise of American Life (New York: Macmillan, 1909), 175, 453.

[7] Christopher P. Wilson, “‘Unleavened Bread’: The Representation of Robert Grant,” American Literary Realism, 1870-1910, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Spring 1990), 26-33; Charles Forcey, The Crossroads of Liberalism: Croly, Weyl, Lippmann, and the Progressive Era, 1900-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961), 22-23.

[8] Robert Grant, Unleavened Bread (New York: Scribner, 1900), 85.

[9] Ibid., 282.

[10] Ibid., 284.

[11] Ibid., 285.

[12] Ibid., 430-431.

[13] Croly, The Promise of American Life, 442-443.

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Jeremy C. Young is an assistant professor of history at Dixie State University and the author of The Age of Charisma: Leaders, Followers, and Emotions in American Society, 1870-1940 (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Fantastic post, and a nice bibliography for students of Croly. Just one nitpick: Dewey never taught at Harvard.

  2. “Charismatic leadership was an unstoppable political force that could be used for good or for ill”
    The danger of faux-patriotic sentiments is now all too obvious and social media served to harness Trumps charismatic abilities whilst decoupling them from his questionable morals.
    Hitler had considerable charisma and first achieved victory through the ballot box. The dangers of the public not making a more moral appraisal of a would-be leader should be obvious.

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