The Century That Stammered

A classic history of American cranks and radicals comes back into print.


The Stammering Century, by Gilbert Seldes, New York Review of Books, 414 pages, $18.95.

There are fine books which do not, in the end, quite come together. Gilbert Seldes' The Stammering Century should probably be included in that number. Originally published in 1928 and recently reissued in the New York Review of Books Classics series, it is an entertaining work, gathering a rich collection of characters and episodes from the 19th century and weaving them into a history of the development—or rather the "steady decay"—of perfectionism as a major current in American culture.

Perfectionism is the doctrine that it is possible to free oneself from sin through the action of the will; it has fed movements ranging from Christian revivalism to the secular cult of "positive thinking." Seldes, a cultural critic whose work challenged the easy division of culture into "high" and "low" elements, traces this current from the "high, clear sources" of thinkers like Jonathan Edwards at the beginning of the century to the "intellectual muddiness" of New Thought and Christian Science at its end. He makes an anecdotal case that the supply of would-be saviors in America has steadily declined in quality, illustrated by a series of case studies of figures like John Humphrey Noyes, the prophet of the communist Oneida colony; Matthais, a self-proclaimed messiah and possible murderer; the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison; the prohibitionist Carry Nation; the Christian Scientist Mary Baker Eddy; the spiritualist Fox sisters; and many others. This narrative is, however, crossed and sometimes undercut by Seldes' ambivalence about his subjects.

In the book's opening, Seldes distinguished his project from superficially similar volumes on the proverbial "madness of crowds." His was not a tale of lowbrows, idiots, or fools. "The astounding thing about almost all of the quackeries, fads, and movements of the past hundred years in America," he wrote, "is that they were first accepted by superior people, by men and women of education, intelligence, breeding, wealth, and experience." Seldes wanted to avoid the kind of class-narrative he associated with H.L. Mencken, reminding us that the elite minority are as credulous, in their own way, as the masses. "There are, of course, superior human beings, marked by independence," he emphasized. "These, however, are not a class, but individuals, capable of resisting both the majority and the minority, untouched by suggestion, resisting or following the current as they choose."

But as we enter the history itself, it is not always clear who these "superior human beings" were. And that emphasis on the ability to choose, on the power of the individual will, is, in fact, at the heart of perfectionism. There are hints throughout the work that Seldes had perhaps gone native, at least a bit. In the introduction to this new edition, the critic and cultural historian Greil Marcus emphasizes the "skeptical empathy" that Seldes displays for his characters. The description is apt, but it doesn't go to the bottom of the real ambivalence that runs through the text. Seldes himself, in the opening, admits that, having started with "a timid protest against the arrogance of reformers in general," he "came gradually to want to prove nothing."

It is clear that at least part of what he ended up producing was a defense of "radicalism"—vaguely defined, but certainly closely allied to that individualism he championed—against the decline he perceived. Sometimes his empathy dissolves in the heat of that defense. The second section of the work, which focuses on New Thought, Christian Science, and other ideas we might recognize as the beginnings of "New Age" philosophy, opens with the epigraph: "There is nothing too stupid for intelligent people to believe." That section ends with a helpful, if not always consistent, analysis of "The Complex of Radicalism," which draws some bold conclusions. For example: "The one significant thing to be said in favor of the American radical is that, crackbrained or perverse as he was, he did not submit entirely to the dominant purpose." And it is that purpose, described as "the system of 'make-money,'" which seems to draw most of Seldes' ire.

Whether or not Seldes knew it, he was repeating a refrain that might have been uttered by any number of the figures he was studying. In 1834, for example, the French socialist Pierre Leroux—who might easily have been described as a sort of perfectionist—gave the words "individualism" and "socialism" their formal introduction into the French language. He did this in an essay lamenting the loss of a certain "grandeur" in the violence then occurring in the streets of Paris, a development he blamed on a narrow focus on "material interests." Leroux rejected both individualism and socialism as undesirable extremes, and Seldes similarly seems to have been caught between his aversion to class conformity and his realization that the radical individualism he studied seemed generally to lead to undignified failure, often by way of madness and suffering. In the case of the later reformers, his "timid protest" was actually rather impatient and bold, but his treatment of the early period—where Emerson and Garrison are examined alongside Noyes and Nation—is more often a reluctant and conflicted sort of celebration.

For readers specifically concerned with American libertarian traditions, the book features some familiar figures, some welcome lesser-known inclusions, and some curious omissions. We pass through New Harmony, for example, without encountering the "first American anarchist" Josiah Warren, who was active in the community; we glimpse the Long Island colony called Modern Times without learning the community's individualist-anarchist basis or meeting its co-founder Stephen Pearl Andrews. Seldes himself was raised in the Alliance Colony, in New Jersey, which Marcus describes as an "anarchist utopia community," and his father is described in the introduction as a friend of the anarcho-communist Emma Goldman and the Industrial Workers of the World leader Bill Haywood, so we are left to wonder if this exposé of reformers and utopias was ultimately written because of, or despite, his own radical upbringing. It may be that the more political elements he might have included would have only further complicated an already conflict-ridden account.

In any event, students of anarchist and libertarian history will find useful context here, as well as a collection of episodes well worth reading for their own sake. Seldes has not just assembled a well-researched survey of some of the 19th century's most fascinating figures: He has traced out the beginnings of trajectories that extend into our own time.