The Degenerate Muse: American Nature, Modernist Poetry, and the Problem of Cultural Hygiene. By Robin G. Schulze. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. 309 pp. Illustration, notes, bibliography, and index. Cloth $65.00.
Published in 1895, Max Simon Nordau’s Degeneration argued that over-civilization, progress, and wealth were destroying Western culture. He found examples of such decadence in the work of western artists, correlating what he perceived to be a decay of their vigor with mental illness. In the early years of the twentieth century, fears of such dangers inherent in industrialization triggered a back-to-nature movement in the United States that many historians have attributed to a rejection of the artificial, modern world of smoke-belching factories, undesirable immigrants, and stultifying cities that left their inhabitants feeling detached from any meaningful interaction with the real natural world. Through a careful analysis of the published and unpublished works and correspondence of modernist poets Harriet Monroe, Marianne Moore, and Ezra Pound, Robin Schulze argues an alternative interpretation of the back-to-nature movement in The Degenerate Muse. Her three main subjects were not romantic pastoralists who hoped to educate or inspire their readers with rousing literary vistas of natural wonders. Instead, as Schulze concludes, they argued for a hard-boiled back-to-nature aesthetic that embraced — not rejected — modernity by using the natural world as an antidote to degeneration. They appreciated the benefits that industrialization bestowed on society, but sought to mitigate its negative cultural and racial effects with an invigorating dose of nature. There was no need, in their eyes, to throw out the progressive, prosperous, modernist baby with the degenerative bathwater.
The trio may have shared a broad understanding of how nature could invigorate art and solve Nordau’s dilemma, but Schulze skillfully delineates the considerable nuances and diversity among them. For example, each of the three arrived at the conclusion that nature could solve the predicament of degeneration from very different points. Monroe’s epiphany occurred as the result of trips to Europe in 1897 and Arizona in 1899. Following a path charted earlier by Thomas Jefferson, she concluded that the raw nature of America could save it from the advanced cultural decay evident in Europe. Pound, who made, it seems, almost no personal attempt to commune directly with the outdoors, understood the importance of nature after he witnessed degeneration occurring in London before his own eyes. He viewed the heart of the British Empire as an artificial place that turned its inhabitants into mindless automatons. Moore was influenced by Charles Darwin and how evolution drew humans into the animal kingdom. This newfound brotherhood with other species inspired her appreciation of the natural world. Pound focused more on racial decline and “hygiene,” the ugly underside of theory of degeneration, than the other two poets, a perspective that led him to praise Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s policies in the 1930s. Moore, on the other hand, appreciated the importance of diversity and individuality, which put corporate concepts like race beyond her ken. It is interesting to note that they did not always see each other as allies in a common cause. For example, Monroe, the editor of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, never believed that she and Moore occupied any common ground, an assumption that Pound attempted unsuccessfully to disabuse her of. Whatever their differences, their effort, Schulze concludes in the final sentence of The Degenerate Muse, “made nature modern.” (p. 239)
By expanding the scope of the back-to-nature movement beyond the physical and educational experiences found in bird days, camping, hunting, and primitive crafts, and into artistic intellectual expression, Schulze has demonstrated how profoundly deep the concerns about the growing gap between urban life and nature were in the first two decades of the twentieth century. The Degenerate Muse is well argued and the main points are clear and convincing. In keeping with an academic work published by a scholarly press, it contains lengthy end notes, complete with historiographical comments and dialogues on the works of others. However, a few illustrations would have been a nice addition. Cultural, intellectual, and environmental historians with a strong interest in the literature and poetry of period will find this book useful.