Here is a response to the snarky “Letter to a Rising Generation” by the old-fogey C.A. Comer. Bourne was a university student when he wrote this. His style is a bit flowery but it was done for effect. My comments following.
This Older Generation
I read with ever-increasing wonder the guarded defenses and discreet apologies for the older generation which keep filtering through the essays of [this magazine]. I can even seem to detect a growing decision of tone, a definite assurance of conviction, which seems to imply that a rally has been undertaken against the accusations which the younger generation, in its self-assurance, its irreverence for the old conventions and moralities, its passion for the novel and startling, seemed to be bringing against them. The first faint twinges of conscience felt by the older generation have given place to renewed homily. There is an evident anxiety to get itself put on record as perfectly satisfied with its world, and desirous that its sons and daughters should learn anew of those peculiar beauties in which it has lived. Swept off its feet by the call to social service and social reform, it is slowly regaining its foundation, and, slightly flushed, and with garments somewhat awry, it proclaims again its belief in the eternal verities of Protestant religion and conventional New England morality.
It is always an encouraging sign when people are rendered self-conscious and are forced to examine the basis of their ideals. The demand that they explain them to skeptics always makes for clarity. When the older generation is put on the defensive, it must first discover what convictions it has, and then sharpen them to their finest point in order to present them convincingly. There are always too many unquestioned things in the world, and for a person or class to have to scurry about to find reasons for its prejudices is about as healthy an exercise as one could wish for either of them. To be sure, the reasons are rarely any more than ex post facto excuses &mdash supports and justifications for the prejudices rather than the causes thereof. Reason itself is very seldom more than that. The important point is that one should feel the need of a reason. This always indicates that something has begun to slide, that the world is no longer so secure as it was, that obvious truths no longer are obvious, that the world has begun to bristle with question marks.
One of the basic grievances of this older generation against the younger of today, with its social agitation, its religious heresy, its presumptive individuality, its economic restlessness, is that all this makes it uncomfortable. When you have found growing older to be a process of the reconciliation of the spirit to life, it is decidedly disconcerting to have some youngster come along and point out the irreconcilable things in the universe. Just as you have made a tacit agreement to call certain things non-existent, it is highly discommoding to have somebody shout with strident tones that they are very real and significant. When, after much struggling and compromise, you have got your world clamped down, it is discouraging to have a gale arise, which threatens to blow over all your structure. Through so much of the current writing runs this quiet note of disapprobation. These agnostic professors who unsettle the faith of our youth, these” intellectuals who stick a finger in everybody’s pie in the name of social justice,” these sensation-mongers who unveil great masses of political and social corruption, these remorseless scientists who would reveal so many of our reticences &mdash why can’t they let us alone? Can they not see that God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world?
Now I know this older generation, which doth protest so much. I have lived with it for the last fifteen years, ever since I began to wonder whether all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds. I was educated by it, grew up with it. I doubt if any generation ever had a more docile pupil than I. What they taught me, I find they still believe, or at least so many of them as have not gone over to the enemy, or been captured by the militant youth of to-day. Or, as seems rather likely, they no longer precisely believe, but they want their own arguments to convince themselves. It is probable that, when we really believe a thing with all our hearts, we do not attempt to justify it. Justification comes only when we are beginning to doubt it.
By this older generation, I mean, of course, the mothers and fathers and uncles and aunts of the youth of both sexes between twenty and thirty who are beginning their professional or business life. And I refer of course to the comfortable or fairly comfortable American middle class. Now this older generation has had a religion, a metaphysics, an ethics, and a political and social philosophy, which have reigned practically undisputed until the appearance of the present generation. It has at least never felt called upon to justify itself. It has never been directly challenged, as it is to-day. In order to localize this generation still further, we must see it in its typical setting of the small town or city, clustered about the institutions of church and family. If we have any society which can be called “America,” it is this society. Its psychology is American psychology; its soul is America’s soul.
This older generation, which I have known so well for fifteen years, has a religion which is on the whole as pleasant and easy as could be devised. Though its members are the descendants of the stern and rugged old Puritans, who wrestled with the devil and stripped their world of all that might seduce them from the awful service of God, they have succeeded in straining away by a long process all the repellent attitudes in the old philosophy of life. It is unfair s to say that the older generation believes in dogmas and creeds. It would be more accurate to say that it does not disbelieve. It retains them as a sort of guaranty of the stability of the faith, but leaves them rather severely alone. It does not even make more than feeble efforts to reinterpret them in the light of modern knowledge. They are useless, but necessary.
The foundation of this religion may be religious, but the superstructure is almost entirely ethical. Most sermons of to-day are little more than pious exhortations to good conduct. By good conduct is meant that sort of action which will least disturb the normal routine of modem middle-class life: common honesty in business life, faithfulness to duty, ambition in business and profession, filial obligation, the use of talents, and always and everywhere simple human kindness and love. The old Puritan ethics, which saw in the least issue of conduct a struggle between God and the devil, has become a mere code for facilitating the daily friction of conventional life.
Now one would indeed be churlish to find fault with this devout belief in simple goodness, which characterizes the older generation. It is only when these humble virtues are raised up into an all-inclusive programme for social reform and into a philosophy of life that one begins to question, and to feel afar the deep hostility of the older generation to the new faith.
Simple kindness, common honesty, filial obedience, it is evidently still felt, will solve all the difficulties of personal and social life. The most popular novels of the day are those in which the characters do the most good to each other. The enormous success with the older generation of “The Inside of the Cup,” “Queed,” and “V.V.’s Eyes” is based primarily on the fact that these books represent a sublimated form of the good old American melodramatic moral sense.
And now comes along Mr. Gerald Stanley Lee with his “Crowds,” &mdash what a funny, individualized, personalresponsibility crowd he gives us, to be sure, &mdash and his panacea for modern social ills by the old solution of applied personal virtue. Never a word about removing the barriers of caste and race and economic inequality, but only an urging to step over them. Never a trumpet-call to level the ramparts of privilege, or build up the heights of opportunity, but only an appeal to extend the charitable hand from the ramparts of heaven, or offer the kindly patronage to the less fortunate, or &mdash most dazzling of all &mdash throw away, in a frenzy of abandonment, life and fortune. Not to construct a business organization where dishonesty would be meaningless, but to be utopianly honest against the business world. In other words, the older generation believes in getting all the luxury of the virtue of goodness, while conserving all the advantages of being in a vicious society.
If there is any one characteristic that distinguishes the older generation, it is this belief that social ills may be cured by personal virtue. Its highest moral ideals are sacrifice and service. But the older generation can never see how intensely selfish these ideals are, in the most complete sense of the word selfish. What they mean always is, “I sacrifice myself for you,” ” I serve you,” not,” We cooperate in working ceaselessly toward an ideal where all may be free and none may be served or serve.” These ideals of sacrifice and service are utterly selfish, because they take account only of the satisfaction and moral consolidation of the doer. They enhance his moral value; but what of the person who is served or sacrificed for? What of the person who is done good to? If the feelings of sacrifice and service were in any sense altruistic, the moral enhancement of the receiver would be the object sought. But can it not be said that for every individual virtuous merit secured by an act of sacrifice or service on the part of the doer, there is a corresponding depression on the part of the receiver? Do we not universally recognize this by calling a person who is not conscious of this depression a parasite, and the person who is no longer capable of depression a pauper? It is exactly those free gifts, such as schools, libraries, and so forth, which are impersonal or social, that we can accept gratefully and gladly; and it is exactly because the ministrations of a Charity Organization Society are impersonal and businesslike, that they can be received willingly, and without moral depression, by the poor.
The ideal of duty is equally open to attack. The great complaint of the younger against the older generation has to do with the rigidity of the social relationships into which the younger find themselves born. The world seems to be full of what may be called canalized emotions. One is “supposed” to love one’s aunt or one’s grandfather in a certain definite way, at the risk of being “unnatural.” One gets almost a sense of the quantitative measurement of emotion. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of family life is the useless energy that is expended by the dutiful in keeping these artificial channels open, and the correct amount of current running. It is exactly this that produces most infallibly the rebellion of the younger generation. To hear that one ought to love this or that person; or to hear loyalty spoken of, as the older generation so often speaks of it, as if it consisted in an allegiance to something which one no longer believes in &mdash this is what soonest liberates those forces of madness and revolt that bewilder spiritual teachers and guides. It is those dry channels of duty and obligation through which no living waters of emotion flow that it is the ideal of the younger generation to break up. They will have no network of emotional canals that are not brimming, no duties that are not equally loves.
But when they are loves, you have duty no longer meaning very much. Duty, like sacrifice and service, always implies a personal relation of individuals. You are always doing your duty to somebody or something. Always the taint of inequality comes in. You are morally superior to the person who has duty done to him. If that duty is not filled with good-will and desire, it is morally hateful, or at very best, a necessary evil &mdash one of those compromises with the world which must be made in order to get through it at all. But duty without good-will is a compromise with our present state of inequality, and to raise duty to the level of a virtue is to consecrate that state of inequality forevermore.
It is the same thing with service. The older generation has attempted an insidious compromise with the new social democracy by combining the words “social” and “service.” Under cover of the ideal of service, it tries to appropriate to itself the glory of social work, and succeeds in almost convincing itself and the world that its Christianity has always held the same ideal. The faithful are urged to extend their activities. The assumption is that, by doing good to more individuals, you are thereby becoming social. But to speak of “social democracy,” &mdash which of course means a freely cooperating, freely reciprocating society of equals &mdash and “service,” together, is a contradiction of terms. For, when you serve people or do good to them, you thereby render yourself unequal with them. You insult the democratic ideal. If the service is compulsory, it is menial and you are inferior. If voluntary, you are superior. The difference, however, is only academic. The entire Christian scheme is a clever but unsuccessful attempt to cure the evils of inequality by transposing the values. The slave serves gladly instead of servilely. That is, he turns his master into a slave. That is why good Christian people can never get over the idea that Socialism means simply the triumph of one class over another. To-day the proletarian is down, the capitalist up. To-morrow the proletarian will be up and the capitalist down. To pull down the mighty from their seats and exalt them of low degree is the highest pitch to which Christian ethics ever attained. The failure of the older generation to recognize a higher ethic, the ethic of democracy, is the cause of all the trouble.
The notorious Victorian era, which in its secret heart this older generation still admires so much, accentuated all the latent individualism of Christian ethics, and produced a code which, without the rebellion of the younger generation, would have spiritually guaranteed forever all moral caste divisions and inequalities of modern society. The Protestant Church, in which this exaggerated ethic was enshrined, is now paying heavily the price of this debauch of ethical power. Its rapidly declining numbers showthat human nature has an invincible objection to being individually saved. The Catholic Church, which saves men as members of the Beloved Community, and not as individuals, flourishes. When one is saved by Catholicism, one becomes a democrat, and not a spiritual snob and aristocrat, as one does through Calvinism. The older generation can never understand that superb loyalty which is loyalty to a community &mdash a loyalty which, paradoxical as it may seem, nourishes the true social personality in proportion as the individual sense is lessened. The Protestant Church, in its tenacious devotion to the personal ideal of a Divine Master, &mdash the highest and most popular Christian ideal of to-day, &mdash shows how very far it still is away from the ideals and ethics of a social democracy, a life lived in the Beloved Community.
The sense of self-respect is the very keystone of the personality in whose defense all this individualistic philosophy has been carefully built up. The Christian virtues date from ages when there was a vastly greater number of morally depressed people than there is now. The tenacious survival of these virtues can be due only to the fact that they were valuable to the moral prestige of some class. Our older generation, with its emphasis on duty, sacrifice, and service, shows us very clearly what those interests were. I deliberately accuse the older generation of conserving and greatly strengthening these ideals, as a defensive measure. Morals are always the product of a situation; they reflect a certain organization of human relations, which some class or group wishes to preserve. A moral code or set of ideals is always the invisible spiritual sign of a visible social grace. In an effort to retain the status quo of that world of inequalities and conventions in which they most comfortably and prosperously live, the older generation has stamped, through all its agencies of family, church, and school, upon the younger generation, just those seductive ideals which would preserve its position. These old virtues, upon which, however, the younger generation is already making guerilla warfare, are simply the moral support with which the older generation buttresses its social situation.
The natural barriers and prejudices by which our elders are cut off from a freely flowing democracy are thus given a spiritual justification, and there is added for our elders the almost sensual luxury of leaping, by free grace, the barriers, and giving themselves away. But the price has to be paid. Just as profits, in the socialist philosophy, are taken to be an abstraction from wages, through the economic power which one class has over another, so the virtues of the older generation may be said to be an abstraction from the virtue of other classes less favorably situated from a moral or personal point of view. Their swollen self-respect is at the expense of others.
How well we know the type of man in the older generation who has been doing good all his life! How his personality has thriven on it! How he has ceaselessly been storing away moral fat in every cranny of his soul! His goodness has been meat to him. The need and depression of other people have been, all unconsciously to him, the air that he has breathed. Without their compensating misfortune or sin, his goodness would have wilted and died. If good people would earnestly set to work to make the world uniformly healthy, courageous, beautiful, and prosperous, the field of their vocation would be constantly limited, and finally destroyed. That they so stoutly resist all philosophies and movements which have these ends primarily in view is convincing evidence of the fierce and jealous egoism which animates their so plausibly altruistic spirit. One suspects that the older generation does not want its vocation destroyed. It takes an heroic type of goodness to undermine all the foundations on which our virtue rests.
If then I object to the ethical philosophy of the older generation, on the ground that it is too individualistic, and, under the pretense of altruism, too egoistic, I object to its general intellectuality as not individual enough. Intellectually the older generation seems to me to lead far too vegetative a life. It may be that this life has been lived on the heights, that these souls have passed through fires and glories, but there is generally too little objective evidence of this subjective fact. If the intuition that accompanies experience has verified all the data regarding God, the soul, the family, and so forth, &mdash to quote one of the stanchest defenders of the generation, &mdash this verification seems to have been obtained rather that the issues might be promptly disposed of and forgotten. Certainly the older generation is rarely interested in the profounder issues of life. It never speaks of death &mdash the suggestion makes it uncomfortable. It shies in panic at hints of sex-issues. It seems resolute to keep life on as objective a plane as possible. It is no longer curious about the motives and feelings of people. It seems singularly to lack the psychological sense. If it gossips, it recounts actions, effects; it rarely seeks to interpret. It tends more and more to treat human beings as moving masses of matter instead of as personalities filled with potent influence, or as absorbingly interesting social types, as I am sure the younger generation does.
The older generation seems no longer to generalize &mdash although it gives every evidence of having once prodigiously generalized, for its world is all hardened and definite. There are the good and the criminal, and the poor, the people who can be called nice, and the ordinary people. The world is already plotted out. Now I am sure that the generalizations of . the truly philosophical mind are very fluid and ephemeral. They are no sooner made than the mind sees their insufficiency and has to break them up. A new cutting is made, only in turn to be shaken and rearranged. This keeps the philosopher thinking all the time, and it makes his world a very uncertain place. But he at least runs no risk of hardening, and he has his eyes open to most experience.
I am often impressed with the fact that the older generation has grown weary of thinking. It has simply put up the bars in its intellectual shop-windows and gone off home to rest. It may well be that this is because it has felt so much sorrow that it does not want to talk about sorrow, or so much love that to interpret love tires it, or repulsed so many rude blows of destiny that it has no interest in speaking of destiny. Its flame may be low for the very reason that it has burned so intensely. But how many of the younger generation would eagerly long for such interpretations if the older would only reveal them! And how little plausible is that experience when it is occasionally interpreted! No, enthusiasm, passion for ideas, sensuality, religious fervor &mdash all the heated weapons with which the younger generation attacks the world, seem only to make the older generation uneasy. The spirit, in becoming reconciled to life, has lost life itself.
As I see the older generation going through its daily round of business, church, and family life, I cannot help feeling that its influence is profoundly pernicious. It has signally failed to broaden its institutions for the larger horizon of the time. The church remains a private club of comfortable middle-class families, while outside there grows up, without spiritual inspiration, a heterogeneous mass of people without ties, roots, or principles. The town changes from a village to an industrial centre, and church and school go through their time-honored and listless motions. The world widens, society expands, formidable crises appear, but the older generation does not broaden; or, if it does, the broadening is in no adequate proportion to our needs. The older generation still uses the old ideas for the new problem. Whatever new wine it finds must be poured into the old bottles.
Where are the leaders among the older generation in America who, with luminous faith and intelligence, are rallying around them the disintegrated numbers of idealistic youth, as Bergson and Barres and Jaures have done in France? A few years ago there seemed to be a promise of a forward movement toward Democracy, led by battled veterans in a war against privilege. But how soon the older generation became wearied in the march! What is left now of that shining army and its leader? Must the younger generation eternally wait for the sign?
The answer is, of course, that it will not wait. It must shoulder the gigantic task of putting into practice its ideals and revolutionary points of view as wholeheartedly and successfully as our great-grandfathers applied theirs and tightened the philosophy of life which imprisons the older generation. The shuddering fear that we in turn may become weary, complacent, evasive, should be the best preventive of that stagnation. We shall never have done looking for the miracle, that it shall be given us to lighten, cheer, and purify our “younger generation,” even as our older has depressed and disintegrated us.
If you haven’t figured it out, I misrepresented this piece: it is a reply in the The Atlantic, but from 1911. That’s right: it’s 100 years old this year. I found this in a collection that Dick Strauss and Neil Howe put together. I was indiscriminately reading from piece to piece, as much of the book was about Baby Boomers, who are inherently uninteresting. I started reading this without introduction and it took awhile for me to figure out that this was not written in 1991 but 80 years earlier. The flowery language surprised me but I thought it was for effect, as I said above. The women’s roles stuff is what got me going “Wait &mdash what?”
Bourne is an infamous/famous writer and socialist (I’d never heard of him), but that would come later that decade. (He died of influenza in the 1918 pandemic.) He’s just some college kid at this point, albeit one who is considered something of a marvel.
He was part of what is known today as “The Lost Generation” of Americans. No generation after them had as many problems &mdash until Generation X. You may recall that GenX had the largest percentage in child labor since &mdash wait for it &mdash the Lost Generation.
The Lost Generation is us, 100 years ago. We will end up like them. Because that’s what our fate is.
Just so you know, that didn’t turn out that well for them.
The question we have is whether or not we can reject fate and the will of the Generations Before Us (everything about Boomers has to be capitalized). There has to be a new way that uses fated situations to bring about real change.
Regardless, it won’t be change that benefits us. It will be us taking upon ourselves the sins of our fathers so that our children’s future can be restored.
Yes, that is a picture of me from a Christmas break when I was in college.
Image Credit: ADLER typewriter Model n°7 (Frankfurt / Germany). Unknown model date (probably ~1930/40). © Dake. (CC BY-SA 2.5)