On the second page of his history of the first five decades of the twentieth century (The Big Change), Frederick Lewis Allen quotes from a biography of J.P. Morgan written by his son-in-law, Herbert Livingston Satterlee, presumably lamenting the end of the age of “good society”: on the first day of 1900, “New York was still a friendly, neighborly city and was a pleasant place in which to live.”
As Allen points out, the biographer’s definition of “people” must have included only the very well off, people like him, people with whom he and his family might have socialized. He does not include the poor, for whom life in New York City was not especially “pleasant” at all: whose children might die without “society” ever noticing. Allen explains why. The publishing world of the time, including the higher class of magazines (by which Allen himself had been employed for about forty years by the time he wrote this book), was interested only in the doings of the very, very rich—men like J.P. Morgan—and in a culture suited to them. A leftish or postmodern English professor might tell you that has always been the case, equally in 1900, in 1950, and 2010. Publishing, like any cultural entity in a society, serves the interests of the ruling class: in other words, the rich (in Allen’s words, “the elect”): an extreme oversimplification that needs many caveats and special cases in order to be accurate, but a useful overarching theory for many critical purposes. The age was, in Allen’s words, “complacent,” so its literature and its journalism followed rules designed to ensure they would appeal to a complacent audience.
But it would not be fair to describe those poor immigrants (doubly victimized by “European tyranny” and “American indifference,” Van Wyck Brooks wrote in The Confident Years, which Allen quotes further down on the same page) whose children accidentally drowned in the ditch behind their tenement as themselves “complacent.” The failure of the Populist and farmers’ movements did not reflect on them in any way. No more could the word be used in an accurate description of the muckraking journalists and naturalist novelists who were beginning to do their work around the same time. Or of a union activist like Eugene Debs (“[a] friendly and merciful man with an insecure grasp of logic”), whom Allen describes next. Elaborating on these counterexamples to his own argument, Allen sticks to those very same rules, restricting journalistic interest in “humanity” to the upper class, except when enumerating the results of that class’s failures of compassion.
(The pattern is continued in succeeding chapters. We learn that the big cities as well as the tiny villages were smaller in 1900 than they would be about fifty years later, and we learn that Los Angeles then had a population of about 100,000, Dallas and Houston both less than 45,000. We learn that the tallest building in Manhattan had a total of twenty-nine stories. But no data is given for any smaller towns, which indeed did change in size during the period—though in a way that would be difficult to characterize without statistical analysis and a fair degree of work. Chelmsford, Massachusetts, for example, a small town outside of Lowell—and probably very much the kind of place Allen had in mind when he promised his readers an explanation the changes in “the American way of life” that had occurred since their childhoods—had a population of less than 4000 in 1900, of just under 10,000 in 1950, and of about 34,000 in 2000. The change that had already taken place in towns like Chelmsford would have affected many more readers of a book like this than the building of the Empire State Building or the change in character of the big western cities. But the picture Allen paints of then-present day 1952 is as idealized and lacking in important detail as the image of 1900 he takes to be the starting point of the majority of his readers.)
Yet, by “complacent,” Frederick Lewis Allen means to imply that nobody at all anticipated what the United States would look like fifty years later, and this is certainly correct. Both Debs, contemplating his presidential run, or Morgan, actually not yet contemplating the formation of U.S. Steel, would have been shocked and astonished by the America actually brought into being by “a combination of varied and often warring forces” neither was able to anticipate. Morgan “contemplated . . . a bright future” with the rest of “the well born and well endowed”; Debs contemplated something different; yet both (in this respect) were wrong—presumably, because both failed to see something that would turn out to have been important.