The Anonymous Generation
The moral is that it is probably better not to sin at all, but if some kind of sin you must be pursuing.
Well, remember to do it by doing rather than by not doing. Ogden Nash
If the trouble with the college generation of the first quarter-century was that it was lost, the trouble with ours is that it isn't. Today's young men and women seem intent, if upon anything at all, on preserving their air of absolute, rightness, polish, and balance, of belonging to the corporate body of the Shoe and the Sophisticated.
Oh, it isn't really a matter of conformity. The roar of the twenties was also a sort of conformity; the goldfish swallowing, the ukuleles, 'coon coats, and straw hats were standard gear in every college town from Des Moines of Hanover. But it was a standard of abnormally, and that was what made it delightful. The personality, the character, the eccentric were warmly welcomed in every group, on every campus. Novelty was pursued with feverish intensity; if you could discover a new way of spending time, flagpole sitting for instance, your reputation was immediately established. And, while girls were flapping and boys were growing bigger and better moustaches, the generation found itself pregnant with off-beat geniuses. In the sordid Village parties, along the unpredictable streets of the Left Banks, and even in the sedate drawing roms on Brattle and Craigie Streets, newness was cherished, cultivated, encouraged.
Perhaps it is prosperity, perhaps the War, perhaps because newness itself is no longer really new, that a generation now inhabits these same corners across whose face is engraved the indictment, Bland. However it happened, youth is no longer young. Rarely now do dormitories echo with deep belly laughs, or sincere cries of despair. Neither a laugh nor a cry; only the faceless, anonymous bunch who find comfort in their own mediocrity.
From Brookline to Brooklyn, St. Louis to Dallas, in every college in the nation, the five years from eighteen to twenty-three have become a humorless, superficially serious time. Non-conformity itself has become indeed, for some, a conscious goal. But Bohemianism has evolved into a true "ism," with its established rules and procedures. And eccentricity, on longer loved for its very absurdity, is occasionally cultivated because, for some, it has become a standard value. Like liberalism, which has become a dull and dusty set of bromides after being handed down over two centuries, non-conformity itself is becoming a hackneyed and standardized game.
But most of the college generation do not even care to play the game. Although they will vehemently deny, offendedly, they charge of being a conformist, they fail to present evidence in their defense. Beneath it all lies the content, self-as-sured attitude of fitting into the pattern, the smug satisfaction of worrying about little and caring about even less.
So-called "existentialists" would say that the present college generation suffers from acute selflessness. They renounce their own selves, their personalities. Not realizing that the self develops only in its becoming; i.e., when it is changing, they reject their own character and assume the safe characteristics of the average, the normal, the accepted and expected. But whether or not you can stomach the existentialist jargon, the fact persists that the colleges are turning out uninteresting, unoriginal, indistinguishable armies of these anonymous people.
Harvard is a little different. Here, tradition and atmosphere create a situation which to some degree obstructs the urge for self-renunciation. But here, rarely a laugh or cry, rarely the truly different. Walk along the river some warm evening.... very few people alone, thinking, worrying, wondering. Only the loving couples, a few retired professors on the benches, and a tired dog. See the species pre-media, the impersonal, mark-con-scious eyes and the pale, insipid faces. Peek into the Bick.... the white-sneaker crowd, sipping flat coffee with their flat conversation.
Our European colleagues often find considerable pleasure in hurling critical thunderbolts at our culture, or lack of it. Most of them are aimed at the so-called mass culture, the conformity and the averageness of American life. Eg: Rene MacColl, embarking for London shouts "Home soon! I am hopping away from this great, swarming ant heap of a country..." And here, in the ant heap, David Riesman states, "One thinks of ribbon-like roadside slums...man-made rural ugliness.... and the endless aesthetic atrocity of the cities." There is undeniably something to it.
The day is characterized by its lack of character. Endless rows of matchbox houses for the time-payment crowd, and for the upper sets, homes that outdo each other in picture windows, angular shininess. Except where, in the cities overflowing with decaying brownstones, in grey-flannelled Suburbia, and in the changeless and countless small towns, beauty is scarce; where there is little demand for it, there is little supply.
The highways are cluttered with custard stands sporting neon polar bears, while billboards, with their mass messages, evoke visceral responses from the more sensitive traveller. Inside the home, furniture varies from the overstuffed, confused style of Flatbush Renaissance to the cast-iron and cloth butterfly chair.
Good Part Coming
But don't accuse me too quickly of overstatement; I'm coming to the good part, where the hero gets the girl and Willis Wayde gets a title on the door.
Beneath all this tinseled ugliness, however, there is hope. And the hope rests with that very college generation whom we so passionately accused. For all is not yet dead; there is a very real and persistent current of experiment in all fields. The neophyte painters, the tyro poets, the novice novelists, who feel they must create what is not only new and polished, but also good. There is a constant effort at cultural invention, weak albeit tenacious.
And there is precisely where the hope lies. Originality, for some, has become an urgent compulsion, not merely a contemporary fad. Perhaps the efforts of these few will spur the rest to think, to act, to be themselves. Perhaps somewhere in this vacant land, the value of character and personality will again be forced to the front, to battle with the hollow-eyed crowd of Others. And the battle will be good for all of us.
And this time maybe, possibly, potentially, hopefully the result will be better. Better, richer than goldfish swallowing and flapping, better than the abortive product of the energetic twenties. This time, hopefully, there will be a meaning to uniqueness, a purpose to novelty. There is hope yet in the colleges, where, in those few spirits, the blood runs rich and the mind sharp.
There is no dearth of ambition. The drive to succeed pulses through every young heart. And it is a desire to become known (substitute: influential, accepted, wealthy), not merely to become, as an individual. It is all "outer-directed" becoming. And somehow, amidst it all, I feel the whole futile surge of energy deserves a great horse laugh. The joke is on somebody, or everybody.
Yet, the same energy, the push and persistence, is a potential source of strength. Just as our industrial wealth can become the platform for a richer culture, the ambition, channelled into other courses, can be the impetus to improvement. At least it is better than passivity, or lethargic complacency.
The Real Desert
"The great American desert," said J.S. Fox, "is not in Arizona, New Mexico, or Nevada. It lies under the hat of the average man." We optimistically anticipate a time, not too far off, when average will not be synonymous with arid, when character will loudly announce itself as itself, and not as someone else; when the mass will be so throughly revolted with the tasteless mess around it that it will act on its revulsion.
There is, undeniably, a chord of tastefulness which beats quietly beneath the loud cacophony. Aesthetic quality is recognized when presented, not immediately perhaps, but eventually. And in the colleges, the few who choose and act and invent are tacitly recognized and admired. The admiration may lead to imitation, and the imitation to experimentation, and again, possible and hopefully, a renaissance of sprit, new color appearing amidst the grey.
But it is too easy to end in an optimistic key. What I offer is primarily an accusation, a charge of contempt at a generation, of platitudes and poker-faces, of bland naivete and old mens' souls, of belts in the back and repp in the front. And if the language is sharp, it is only because I am tried to too much smoothness everywhere around.