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Custodians of Culture

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This was America in 1912.

It was the year the RMS Titanic sank.

The following excerpt comes from Henry F. May’s book The End of American Innocence, 1912-1917:

“The third article of the standard American credo, the belief in culture, was weaker than the other two. We can think of the three as a triptych, an altarpiece made of three pictures, framed in gold and hinged together. In the center, of course, is moralism, painted in the bold and sure colors used by Roosevelt or Lyman Abbott. On the left, joined to the center by a rivet that keeps coming apart, is progress. On the right, a little smaller and dimmer if one looks closely, is culture. In the revolution we are talking about, when the mob broke in it smashed the right-hand panel most thoroughly. The others did not look the same without it.

Culture, to most Americans in 1912, did not mean what it was beginning to mean to anthropologists, the sum of a particular area’s customs and institutions. It was not so much a way of describing how people behaved as an idea of how they ought to behave and did not. More specifically, culture in America meant a particular part of the heritage from the European past, including polite manners, respect for traditional learning, appreciation of the arts, and above all an informed and devoted love of standard literature. Standard usually meant British: culture might imply a vague knowledge of the classical and Renaissance traditions, but for the most part it was something that had come via England. This was part of the trouble; Americans for a long time had wanted to construct their own tradition, yet the European and English past was the only past that was available.”

May is describing the Victorian mainstream: the American trinity of moralism, the belief in progress and culture. It is this third part of the national credo that was smashed beyond recognition.

“The hardiness of tradition in much high-school education is suggested by John Franklin Brown’s The American High School, a well-known conservative account published in 1909. Constant attention and respect for authority were fundamental; all subjects must be studied in terms of rules and principles. Literature, art, history, and science must all be taught with a view to inculcating the higher ideals of the race:

“In no case should either the course of study or the spirit of work in the high school be such as to subordinate the culture ideal to any other.”

And as for manners:

“The rule of the school is “Be a gentleman, a lady …”

This was the world of the old WASP elite.


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