From the beginning of the country, there has been an American fear of moral and mental decline that was always rooted in the physical, involving issues of vitality of land and health of the body, and built on an ancient divide between the urban and rural. Over time, it grew into a fever pitch of moral panic about degeneration and degradation of the WASP culture, the white race, and maybe civilization itself. Some saw the end was near, maybe being able to hold out for another few generations before finally succumbing to disease and weakness. The need for revitalization and rebirth became a collective project (Jackson Lears, Rebirth of a Nation), which sadly fed into ethno-nationalist bigotry and imperialistic war-mongering — Make America Great Again!
A major point of crisis, of course, was the the Civil War. Racial ideology became predominant, not only because of slavery but maybe moreso because of mass immigration, the latter being the main reason the North won. Racial tensions merged with the developing scientific mindset of Darwinism and out of this mix came eugenics. For all we can now dismiss this kind of simplistic ignorance and with hindsight see the danger it led to, the underlying anxieties were real. Urbanization and industrialization were having an obvious impact on public health that was observed by many, and it wasn’t limited to mere physical ailments. “Cancer, like insanity, seems to increase with the progress of civilization,” noted Stanislas Tanchou, a mid-19th century French physician.
The diseases of civilization, including mental sickness, have been spreading for centuries (millennia, actually, considering the ‘modern’ chronic health conditions were first detected in the mummies of the agricultural Egyptians). Consider how talk of depression suddenly showed up in written accounts with the ending of feudalism (Barbara Ehrenreich, Dancing in the Street). That era included the enclosure movement that forced millions of then landless serfs into the desperate conditions of crowded cities and colonies where they faced stress, hunger, malnutrition, and disease. The loss of rural life hit Europe much earlier than America, but it eventually came here as well. The majority of white Americans were urban by the beginning of the 20th century and the majority of black Americans were urban by the 1970s. There has been a consistent pattern of mass problems following urbanization, everywhere it happens. It still is happening. The younger generation, more urbanized than any generation before, are seeing rising rates of psychosis that is specifically concentrated in the most urbanized areas.
In the United States, it was the last decades of the 19th century that was the turning point, the period of the first truly big cities. Into this milieu, Weston A. Price was born (1870) in a small rural village in Canada. As an adult, he became a dentist and sought work in Cleveland, Ohio (1893). Initially, most of his patients probably had, like him, grown up in rural areas. But over the decades, he increasingly was exposed to the younger generations having spent their entire lives in the city. Lierre Keith puts Price’s early observations in context, after pointing out that he started his career in 1893: “This date is important, as he entered the field just prior to the glut of industrial food. Over the course of the next thirty years, he watched children’s dentition — and indeed their overall health deteriorate. There was suddenly children whose teeth didn’t fit in their mouths, children with foreshortened jaws, children with lots of cavities. Not only were their dental arches too small, but he noticed their nasal passages were also too narrow, and they had poor health overall; asthma, allergies, behavioral problems” (The Vegetarian Myth, p. 187). This was at the time when the industrialization of farming and food had reached a new level, far beyond the limited availability of canned foods that in the mid-to-late 1800s when most Americans still relied on a heavy amount of wild-sourced meat, fish, nuts, etc. Even city-dwellers in early America had ready access to wild game because of the abundance of surrounding wilderness areas. In fact, in the 19th century, the average American ate more meat (mostly hunted) than bread.
We are once again coming back to the ever recurrent moral panic about the civilizational project. The same fears given voice in the late 19th to early 20th century are being repeated again. For example, Dr. Leonard Sax alerts us to how girls are sexually maturing early (1% of female infants showing signs of puberty), whereas boys are maturing later. As a comparison, hunter-gatherers don’t have such a large gender disparity of puberty nor do they experience puberty so early for girls, instead both genders typically coming to puberty around 18 years old with sex, pregnancy, and marriage happening more or less simultaneously. Dr. Sax, along with others, speculates about a number of reasons. Common causes that are held responsible include health factors, from diet to chemicals. Beyond altered puberty, many other examples could be added: heart disease, autoimmune disorders, mood disorders, autism, ADHD, etc; all of them increasing and worsening with each generation (e.g., type 2 diabetes used to be known as adult onset diabetes but now is regularly diagnosed in young children; the youngest victim recorded recently was three years old when diagnosed).
In the past, Americans responded to moral panic with genocide of Native Americans, Prohibition targeting ethnic (hyphenated) Americans and the poor, and immigrant restrictions to keep the bad sort out; the spread of racism and vigilantism such as KKK and Jim Crow and sundown towns and redlining, forced assimilation such as English only laws and public schools, and internment camps for not only Japanese-Americans but also German-Americans and Italian-Americans; implementation of citizen-making projects like national park systems, Boy Scouts, WPA, and CCC; promotion of eugenics, war on poverty (i.e., war on the poor), imperial expansionism, neo-colonial exploitation, and world wars; et cetera. The cure sought was often something to be forced onto the population by a paternalistic elite, that is to say rich white males, most specifically WASPs of the capitalist class.
Eugenics was, of course, one of the main focuses as it carried the stamp of science (or rather scientism). Yet at the same time, there were those challenging biological determinism and race realism, as views shifted toward environmental explanations. The anthropologists were at the front lines of this battle, but there were also Social Christians who changed their minds after having seen poverty firsthand. Weston A. Price, however, didn’t come to this from a consciously ideological position or religious motivation. He was simply a dentist who couldn’t ignore the severe health issues of his patients. So, he decided to travel the world in order to find healthy populations to study, in the hope of explaining why the change had occurred (Nutrition and Physical Degeneration).
Although familiar with eugenics literature, what Price observed in ‘primitive’ communities (including isolated villages in Europe) did not conform to eugenicist thought. It didn’t matter which population he looked at. Those who ate traditional diets were healthy and those who ate an industrialized Western diet were not. And it was a broad pattern that he saw everywhere he went, not only physical health but also neurocognitive health as indicated by happiness, low anxiety, and moral character. Instead of blaming individuals or races, he saw the common explanation as nutrition and he made a strong case by scientifically analyzing the nutrition of available foods.
In reading about traditional foods, paleo diet/lifestyle and functional medicine, Price’s work comes up quite often. He took many photographs that compared people from healthy and unhealthy populations. The contrast is stark. But what really stands out is how few people in the modern world look close to as healthy as those from the healthiest societies of the past. I live in a fairly wealthy college and medical town where there is a far above average concern for health along with access to healthcare. Even so, I now can’t help noticing how many people around me show signs of stunted or perturbed development of the exact kind Price observed in great detail: thin bone structure, sunken chests, sloping shoulders, narrow facial features, asymmetry, etc. That is even with modern healthcare correcting some of the worst conditions: cavities, underbites, pigeon-toes, etc. My fellow residents in this town are among the most privileged people in the world and, nonetheless, their state of health is a sad state of affairs in what it says about humanity at present.
It makes me wonder, as it made Price wonder, what consequences this has on neurocognitive health for individuals and the moral health of society. Taken alone, it isn’t enough to get excited about. But put in a larger context of looming catastrophes and it does become concerning. It’s not clear that our health will be up to the task of the problems we need to solve. We are a sickly population, far more sickly than when moral panic took hold in past generations.
As important, there is the personal component. I’m at a point where I’m not going to worry too much about decline and maybe collapse of civilization. I’m kind of hoping the American Empire will meet its demise. Still, that leaves us with many who suffer, no matter what happens to society as a whole. I take that personally, as one who has struggled with physical and mental health issues. And I’ve come around to Price’s view of nutrition as being key. I see these problems in other members of my family and it saddens me to watch as health conditions seem to get worse from one generation to the next.
It’s far from being a new problem, the central point I’m trying to make here. Talking to my mother, she has a clear sense of the differences on the two sides of her family. Her mother’s family came from rural areas and, even after moving to a larger city for work, they continued to hunt on a daily basis as there were nearby fields and woods that made that possible. They were a healthy, happy, and hard-working lot. They got along well as a family. Her father’s side of the family was far different. They had been living in towns and cities for several generations by the time she was born. They didn’t hunt at all. They were known for being surly, holding grudges, and being mean drunks. They also had underbites (i.e., underdeveloped jaw structure) and seemed to have had learning disabilities, though no one was diagnosing such conditions back then. Related to this difference, my mother’s father raised rabbits whereas my mother’s mother’s family hunted rabbits (and other wild game). This makes a big difference in terms of nutrition, as wild game has higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins, all of which are key to optimal health and development.
What my mother observed in her family is basically the same as what Price observed in hundreds of communities in multiple countries on every continent. And I now observe the same pattern repeating. I grew up with an underbite. My brothers and I all required orthodontic work, as do so many now. I was diagnosed with a learning disability when young. Maybe not a learning disability, but behavioral issues were apparent when my oldest brother was young, likely related to his mildew allergies and probably an underlying autoimmune condition. I know I had food allergies as a child, as I think my other brother did as well. All of us have had neurocognitive and psychological issues of a fair diversity, besides learning disabilities: stuttering, depression, anxiety, and maybe some Asperger’s.
Now another generation is coming along with increasing rates of major physical and mental health issues. My nieces and nephews are sick all the time. They don’t eat well and are probably malnourished. During a medical checkup for my nephew, my mother asked the doctor about his extremely unhealthy diet, consisting mostly of white bread and sugar. The doctor bizarrely dismissed it as ‘normal’ in that, as she claimed, no kid eats healthy. If that is the new normal, maybe we should be in a moral panic.
* * *
Violent Behavior: A Solution in Plain Sight
by Sylvia Onusic
Nutrition and Mental Development
by Sally Fallon Morell
While practicing in his Cleveland office, Dr. Price noticed an increase in dental problems among the younger generations. These issues included the obvious dental caries (cavities) as well as improper jaw development leading to crowded, crooked teeth. In fact, the relatively new orthodontics industry was at that time beginning to gain popularity. Perplexed by these modern problems that seemed to be affecting a greater and greater portion of the population, Dr. Price set about to research the issue by examining people who did not display such problems. He suspected (correctly, as he would later find) that many of the dental problems, as well as other degenerative health problems, that were plaguing modern society were the result of inadequate nutrition owing to the increasing use of refined, processed foods.
Nasty, Brutish and Short?
by Sally Fallon Morell
It seems as if the twentieth century will exit with a crescendo of disease. Things were not so bad back in the 1930’s, but the situation was already serious enough to cause one Cleveland, Ohio dentist to be concerned. Dr. Weston Price was reluctant to accept the conditions exhibited by his patients as normal. Rarely did an examination of an adult patient reveal anything but rampant decay, often accompanied by serious problems elsewhere in the body, such as arthritis, osteoporosis, diabetes, intestinal complaints and chronic fatigue. (They called it neurasthenia in Price’s day.) But it was the dentition of younger patients that alarmed him most. Price observed that crowded, crooked teeth were becoming more and more common, along with what he called “facial deformities”-overbites, narrowed faces, underdevelopment of the nose, lack of well-defined cheekbones and pinched nostrils. Such children invariably suffered from one or more complaints that sound all too familiar to mothers of the 1990’s: frequent infections, allergies, anemia, asthma, poor vision, lack of coordination, fatigue and behavioral problems. Price did not believe that such “physical degeneration” was God’s plan for mankind. He was rather inclined to believe that the Creator intended physical perfection for all human beings, and that children should grow up free of ailments.
Is it Mental or is it Dental?
by Raymond Silkman
The widely held model of orthodontics, which considers developmental problems in the jaws and head to be genetic in origin, never made sense to me. Since they are wedded to the genetic model, orthodontists dealing with crowded teeth end up treating the condition with tooth extraction in a majority of the cases. Even though I did not resort to pulling teeth in my practice, and I was using appliances to widen the jaws and getting the craniums to look as they should, I still could not come up with the answer as to why my patients looked the way they did. I couldn’t believe that the Creator had given them a terrible blueprint –it just did not make sense. In four years of college education, four years of dental school education and almost three years of post-graduate orthodontic training, students never hear a mention of Dr. Price, so they never learn the true reasons for these malformations. I have had the opportunity to work with a lot of very knowledgeable doctors in various fields of allopathic and alternative healthcare who still do not know about Dr. Price and his critical findings.
These knowledgeable doctors have not stared in awe at the beautiful facial development that Price captured in the photographs he took of primitive peoples throughout the globe and in so doing was able to answer this most important question: What do humans look like in health? And how have humans been able to carry on throughout history and populate such varied geographical and physical environments on the earth without our modern machines and tools?
The answer that Dr. Price was able to illuminate came through his photographs of beautiful, healthy human beings with magnificent physical form and mental development, living in harmony with their environments. […]
People who are not well oxygenated and who have poor posture often suffer from fatigue and fibromyalgia symptoms, they snore and have sleep apnea, they have sinusitis and frequent ear infections. Life becomes psychologically and physically challenging for them and they end up with long-term dependence on medications—and all of that just from the seemingly simple condition of crowded teeth.
In other words, people with poor facial development are not going to live very happily. […]
While very few people have heard of the work of Weston Price these days, we haven’t lost our ability to recognize proper facial form. To make it in today’s society, you must have good facial development. You’re not going to see a general or a president with a weak chin, you’re not going to see coaches with weak chins, you’re not going to see a lot of well-to-do personalities in the media with underdeveloped faces and chins. You don’t see athletes and newscasters with narrow palates and crooked teeth.
Weston A. Price: An Unorthodox Dentist
by Nourishing Israel
Price discovered that the native foods eaten by the isolated populations were far more nutrient dense than the modern foods. In the first generation that changed their diet there was noticeable tooth decay; in subsequent generations the dental and facial bone structure changed, as well as other changes that were seen in American and European families and previously considered to be the result of interracial marriage.
By studying the different routes that the same populations had taken – traditional versus modern diet – he saw that the health of the children is directly related to the health of the parents and the germ plasms that they provide, and are as important to the child’s makeup as the health of the mother before and during pregnancy.
Price also found that primitive populations were very conscious of the importance of the mothers’ health and many populations made sure that girls were given a special diet for several months before they were allowed to marry.
Another interesting finding was that although genetic makeup was important, it did not have as great a degree of influence on a person’s development and health as was thought, but that a lot of individual characteristics, including brain development and brain function, where due to environmental influence, what he called “intercepted heredity”.
The origin of personality and character appear in the light of the newer date to be biologic products and to a much less degree than usually considered pure hereditary traits. Since these various factors are biologic, being directly related to both the nutrition of the parents and to the nutritional environment of the individuals in the formative and growth period any common contributing factor such as food deficiencies due to soil depletion will be seen to produce degeneration of the masses of people due to a common cause. Mass behavior therefore, in this new light becomes the result of natural forces, the expression of which may not be modified by propaganda but will require correction at the source.  …
It will be easy for the reader to be prejudiced since many of the applications suggested are not orthodox. I suggest that conclusions be deferred until the new approach has been used to survey the physical and mental status of the reader’s own family, of his brothers and sisters, of associated families, and finally, of the mass of people met in business and on the street. Almost everyone who studies the matter will be surprised that such clear-cut evidence of a decline in modern reproductive efficiency could be all about us and not have been previously noted and reviewed.
From Nutrition and Physical Degeneration by Weston Price
Food Freedom – Nourishing Raw Milk
by Lisa Virtue
In 1931 Price visited the people of the Loetschental Valley in the Swiss Alps. Their diet consisted of rye bread, milk, cheese and butter, including meat once a week (Price, 25). The milk was collected from pastured cows, and was consumed raw: unpasteurized, unhomogenized (Schmid, 9).
Price described these people as having “stalwart physical development and high moral character…superior types of manhood, womanhood and childhood that Nature has been able to produce from a suitable diet and…environment” (Price, 29). At this time, Tuberculosis had taken more lives in Switzerland than any other disease. The Swiss government ordered an inspection of the valley, revealing not a single case. No deaths had been recorded from Tuberculosis in the history of the Loetschental people (Shmid, 8). Upon return home, Price had dairy samples from the valley sent to him throughout the year. These samples were higher in minerals and vitamins than samples from commercial (thus pasteurized) dairy products in America and the rest of Europe. The Loetschental milk was particularly high in fat soluble vitamin D (Schmid, 9).
The daily intake of calcium and phosphorous, as well as fat soluble vitamins would have been higher than average North American children. These children were strong and sturdy, playing barefoot in the glacial waters into the late chilly evenings. Of all the children in the valley eating primitive foods, cavities were detected at an average of 0.3 per child (Price, 25). This without visiting a dentist or physician, for the valley had none, seeing as there was no need (Price, 23). To offer some perspective, the rate of cavities per child between the ages of 6-19 in the United States has been recorded to be 3.25, over 10 times the rate seen in Loetschental (Nagel).
Price offers some perspective on a society subsisting mainly on raw dairy products: “One immediately wonders if there is not something in the life-giving vitamins and minerals of the food that builds not only great physical structures within which their souls reside, but builds minds and hearts capable of a higher type of manhood…” (Price, 26).
100 Years Before Weston Price
by Nancy Henderson
Like Price, Catlin was struck by the beauty, strength and demeanor of the Native Americans. “The several tribes of Indians inhabiting the regions of the Upper Missouri. . . are undoubtedly the finest looking, best equipped, and most beautifully costumed of any on the Continent.” Writing of the Blackfoot and Crow, tribes who hunted buffalo on the rich glaciated soils of the American plains, “They are the happiest races of Indian I have met—picturesque and handsome, almost beyond description.”
“The very use of the word savage,” wrote Catlin, “as it is applied in its general sense, I am inclined to believe is an abuse of the word, and the people to whom it is applied.” […]
As did Weston A. Price one hundred years later, Catlin noted the fact that moral and physical degeneration came together with the advent of civilized society. In his late 1830s portrait of “Pigeon’s Egg Head (The Light) Going to and Returning from Washington” Catlin painted him corrupted with “gifts of the great white father” upon his return to his native homeland. Those gifts including two bottles of whiskey in his pockets. […]
Like Price, Catlin discusses the issue of heredity versus environment. “No diseases are natural,” he writes, “and deformities, mental and physical, are neither hereditary nor natural, but purely the result of accidents or habits.”
So wrote Dr. Price: “Neither heredity nor environment alone cause our juvenile delinquents and mental defectives. They are cripples, physically, mentally and morally, which could have and should have been prevented by adequate education and by adequate parental nutrition. Their protoplasm was not normally organized.”
The Right Price
by Weston A. Price Foundation
Many commentators have criticized Price for attributing “decline in moral character” to malnutrition. But it is important to realize that the subject of “moral character” was very much on the minds of commentators of his day. As with changes in facial structure, observers in the first half of the 20th century blamed “badness” in people to race mixing, or to genetic defects. Price quotes A.C. Jacobson, author of a 1926 publication entitled Genius (Some Revaluations),35 who stated that “The Jekyll-Hydes of our common life are ethnic hybrids.” Said Jacobson, “Aside from the effects of environment, it may safely be assumed that when two strains of blood will not mix well a kind of ‘molecular insult’ occurs which the biologists may some day be able to detect beforehand, just as blood is now tested and matched for transfusion.” The implied conclusion to this assertion is that “degenerates” can be identified through genetic testing and “weeded out” by sterilizing the unfit–something that was imposed on many women during the period and endorsed by powerful individuals, including Oliver Wendell Holmes.
It is greatly to Price’s credit that he objected to this arrogant point of view: “Most current interpretations are fatalistic and leave practically no escape from our succession of modern physical, mental and moral cripples. . . If our modern degeneration were largely the result of incompatible racial stocks as indicated by these premises, the outlook would be gloomy in the extreme.”36 Price argued that nutritional deficiencies affecting the physical structure of the body can also affect the brain and nervous system; and that while “bad” character may be the result of many influences–poverty, upbringing, displacement, etc.–good nutrition also plays a role in creating a society of cheerful, compassionate individuals.36
Rebirth of a Nation:
The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920
By Jackson Lears
By the late nineteenth century, dreams of rebirth were acquiring new meanings. Republican moralists going back to Jefferson’s time had long fretted about “overcivilization,” but the word took on sharper meaning among the middle and upper classes in the later decades of the nineteenth century. During the postwar decades, “overcivilization” became not merely a social but an individual condition, with a psychiatric diagnosis. In American Nervousness (1880), the neurologist George Miller Beard identified “neurasthenia,” or “lack of nerve force,” as the disease of the age. Neurasthenia encompassed a bewildering variety of symptoms (dyspepsia, insomnia, nocturnal emissions, tooth decay, “fear of responsibility, of open places or closed places, fear of society, fear of being alone, fear of fears, fear of contamination, fear of everything, deficient mental control, lack of decision in trifling matters, hopelessness”), but they all pointed to a single overriding effect: a paralysis of the will.
The malady identified by Beard was an extreme version of a broader cultural malaise—a growing sense that the Protestant ethic of disciplined achievement had reached the end of its tether, had become entangled in the structures of an increasingly organized capitalist society. Ralph Waldo Emerson unwittingly predicted the fin de siècle situation. “Every spirit makes its house,” he wrote in “Fate” (1851), “but afterwards the house confines the spirit.” The statement presciently summarized the history of nineteenth-century industrial capitalism, on both sides of the Atlantic.
By 1904, the German sociologist Max Weber could put Emerson’s proposition more precisely. The Protestant ethic of disciplined work for godly ends had created an “iron cage” of organizations dedicated to the mass production and distribution of worldly goods, Weber argued. The individual striver was caught in a trap of his own making. The movement from farm to factory and office, and from physical labor outdoors to sedentary work indoors, meant that more Europeans and North Americans were insulated from primary processes of making and growing. They were also caught up in subtle cultural changes—the softening of Protestantism into platitudes; the growing suspicion that familiar moral prescriptions had become mere desiccated, arbitrary social conventions. With the decline of Christianity, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “it will seem for a time as though all things had become weightless.”
Alarmists saw these tendencies as symptoms of moral degeneration. But a more common reaction was a diffuse but powerful feeling among the middle and upper classes—a sense that they had somehow lost contact with the palpitating actuality of “real life.” The phrase acquired unprecedented emotional freight during the years around the turn of the century, when reality became something to be pursued rather than simply experienced. This was another key moment in the history of longing, a swerve toward the secular. Longings for this-worldly regeneration intensified when people with Protestant habits of mind (if not Protestant beliefs) confronted a novel cultural situation: a sense that their way of life was being stifled by its own success.
On both sides of the Atlantic, the drive to recapture “real life” took myriad cultural forms. It animated popular psychotherapy and municipal reform as well as avant-garde art and literature, but its chief institutional expression was regeneration through military force. As J. A. Hobson observed in Imperialism (1902), the vicarious identification with war energized jingoism and militarism. By the early twentieth century, in many minds, war (or the fantasy of it) had become the way to keep men morally and physically fit. The rise of total war between the Civil War and World War I was rooted in longings for release from bourgeois normality into a realm of heroic struggle. This was the desperate anxiety, the yearning for rebirth, that lay behind official ideologies of romantic nationalism, imperial progress, and civilizing mission—and that led to the trenches of the Western Front.
Americans were immersed in this turmoil in peculiarly American ways. As the historian Richard Slotkin has brilliantly shown, since the early colonial era a faith in regeneration through violence underlay the mythos of the American frontier. With the closing of the frontier (announced by the U.S. census in 1890), violence turned outward, toward empire. But there was more going on than the refashioning of frontier mythology. American longings for renewal continued to be shaped by persistent evangelical traditions, and overshadowed by the shattering experience of the Civil War. American seekers merged Protestant dreams of spiritual rebirth with secular projects of purification—cleansing the body politic of secessionist treason during the war and political corruption afterward, reasserting elite power against restive farmers and workers, taming capital in the name of the public good, reviving individual and national vitality by banning the use of alcohol, granting women the right to vote, disenfranchising African-Americans, restricting the flow of immigrants, and acquiring an overseas empire.
Of course not all these goals were compatible. Advocates of various versions of rebirth—bodybuilders and Prohibitionists, Populists and Progressives, Social Christians and Imperialists—all laid claims to legitimacy. Their crusades met various ends, but overall they relieved the disease of the fin de siècle by injecting some visceral vitality into a modern culture that had seemed brittle and about to collapse. Yearning for intense experience, many seekers celebrated Force and Energy as ends in themselves. Such celebrations could reinforce militarist fantasies but could also lead in more interesting directions—toward new pathways in literature and the arts and sciences. Knowledge could be revitalized, too. William James, as well as Houdini and Roosevelt, was a symbol of the age.
The most popular forms of regeneration had a moral dimension.
But for many other observers, too many American youths—especially among the upper classes—had succumbed to the vices of commerce: the worship of Mammon, the love of ease. Since the Founding Fathers’ generation, republican ideologues had fretted about the corrupting effects of commercial life. Norton and other moralists, North and South, had imagined war would provide an antidote. During the Gilded Age those fears acquired a peculiarly palpable intensity. The specter of “overcivilization”—invoked by republican orators since Jefferson’s time—developed a sharper focus: the figure of the overcivilized businessman became a stock figure in social criticism. Flabby, ineffectual, anxious, possibly even neurasthenic, he embodied bourgeois vulnerability to the new challenges posed by restive, angry workers and waves of strange new immigrants. “Is American Stamina Declining?” asked William Blaikie, a former Harvard athlete and author of How to Get Strong and Stay So, in Harper’s in 1889. Among white-collar “brain-workers,” legions of worried observers were asking similar questions. Throughout the country, metropolitan life for the comfortable classes was becoming a staid indoor affair. Blaikie caught the larger contours of the change:
“A hundred years ago, there was more done to make our men and women hale and vigorous than there is to-day. Over eighty per cent of all our men then were farming, hunting, or fishing, rising early, out all day in the pure, bracing air, giving many muscles very active work, eating wholesome food, retiring early, and so laying in a good stock of vitality and health. But now hardly forty per cent are farmers, and nearly all the rest are at callings—mercantile, mechanical, or professional—which do almost nothing to make one sturdy and enduring.”
This was the sort of anxiety that set men (and more than a few women) to pedaling about on bicycles, lifting weights, and in general pursuing fitness with unprecedented zeal. But for most Americans, fitness was not merely a matter of physical strength. What was equally essential was character, which they defined as adherence to Protestant morality. Body and soul would be saved together.
This was not a gender-neutral project. Since the antebellum era, purveyors of conventional wisdom had assigned respectable women a certain fragility. So the emerging sense of physical vulnerability was especially novel and threatening to men. Manliness, always an issue in Victorian culture, had by the 1880s become an obsession. Older elements of moral character continued to define the manly man, but a new emphasis on physical vitality began to assert itself as well. Concern about the over-soft socialization of the young promoted the popularity of college athletics. During the 1880s, waves of muscular Christianity began to wash over campuses.
NOT MANY AMERICAN men, even among the comparatively prosperous classes, were as able as Carnegie and Rockefeller to master the tensions at the core of their culture. Success manuals acknowledged the persistent problem of indiscipline, the need to channel passion to productive ends. Often the language of advice literature was sexually charged. In The Imperial Highway (1881), Jerome Bates advised:
[K]eep cool, have your resources well in hand, and reserve your strength until the proper time arrives to exert it. There is hardly any trait of character or faculty of intellect more valuable than the power of self-possession, or presence of mind. The man who is always “going off” unexpectedly, like an old rusty firearm, who is easily fluttered and discomposed at the appearance of some unforeseen emergency; who has no control over himself or his powers, is just the one who is always in trouble and is never successful or happy.
The assumptions behind this language are fascinating and important to an understanding of middle-and upper-class Americans in the Gilded Age. Like many other purveyors of conventional wisdom—ministers, physicians, journalists, health reformers—authors of self-help books assumed a psychic economy of scarcity. For men, this broad consensus of popular psychology had sexual implications: the scarce resource in question was seminal fluid, and one had best not be diddling it away in masturbation or even nocturnal emissions. This was easier said than done, of course, as Bates indicated, since men were constantly addled by insatiable urges, always on the verge of losing self-control—the struggle to keep it was an endless battle with one’s own darker self. Spiritual, psychic, and physical health converged. What Freud called “‘civilized’ sexual morality” fed directly into the “precious bodily fluids” school of health management. The man who was always “‘going off’ unexpectedly, like an old rusty firearm,” would probably be sickly as well as unsuccessful—sallow, sunken-chested, afflicted by languorous indecision (which was how Victorian health literature depicted the typical victim of what was called “self-abuse”).
But as this profile of the chronic masturbator suggests, scarcity psychology had implications beyond familiar admonitions to sexual restraint. Sexual scarcity was part of a broader psychology of scarcity; the need to conserve semen was only the most insistently physical part of a much more capacious need to conserve psychic energy. As Bates advised, the cultivation of “self-possession” allowed you to “keep your resources well in hand, and reserve your strength until the proper time arrives to exert it.” The implication was that there was only so much strength available to meet demanding circumstances and achieve success in life. The rhetoric of “self-possession” had financial as well as sexual connotations. To preserve a cool, unruffled presence of mind (to emulate Rockefeller, in effect) was one way to stay afloat on the storm surges of the business cycle.
The object of this exercise, at least for men, was personal autonomy—the ownership of one’s self. […]
It was one thing to lament excessive wants among the working class, who were supposed to be cultivating contentment with their lot, and quite another to find the same fault among the middle class, who were supposed to be improving themselves. The critique of middle-class desire posed potentially subversive questions about the dynamic of dissatisfaction at the core of market culture, about the very possibility of sustaining a stable sense of self in a society given over to perpetual jostling for personal advantage. The ruinous results of status-striving led advocates of economic thrift to advocate psychic thrift as well.
By the 1880s, the need to conserve scarce psychic resources was a commonly voiced priority among the educated and affluent. Beard’s American Nervousness had identified “the chief and primary cause” of neurasthenia as “modern civilization,” which placed unprecedented demands on limited emotional energy. “Neurasthenia” and “nervous prostration” became catchall terms for a constellation of symptoms that today would be characterized as signs of chronic depression—anxiety, irritability, nameless fears, listlessness, loss of will. In a Protestant culture, where effective exercise of will was the key to individual selfhood, the neurasthenic was a kind of anti-self—at best a walking shadow, at worst a bedridden invalid unable to make the most trivial choices or decisions. Beard and his colleagues—neurologists, psychiatrists, and self-help writers in the popular press—all agreed that nervous prostration was the price of progress, a signal that the psychic circuitry of “brain workers” was overloaded by the demands of “modern civilization.”
While some diagnoses of this disease deployed electrical metaphors, the more common idiom was economic. Popular psychology, like popular economics, was based on assumptions of scarcity: there was only so much emotional energy (and only so much money) to go around. The most prudent strategy was the husbanding of one’s resources as a hedge against bankruptcy and breakdown. […]
Being reborn through a self-allowed regime of lassitude was idiosyncratic, though important as a limiting case. Few Americans had the leisure or the inclination to engage in this kind of Wordsworthian retreat. Most considered neurasthenia at best a temporary respite, at worst an ordeal. They strained, if ambivalently, to be back in harness.
The manic-depressive psychology of the business class mimicked the lurching ups and downs of the business cycle. In both cases, assumptions of scarcity underwrote a pervasive defensiveness, a circle-the-wagons mentality. This was the attitude that lay behind the “rest cure” devised by the psychiatrist Silas Weir Mitchell, who proposed to “fatten” and “redden” the (usually female) patient by isolating her from all mental and social stimulation. (This nearly drove the writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman crazy, and inspired her story “The Yellow Wallpaper.”) It was also the attitude that lay behind the fiscal conservatism of the “sound-money men” on Wall Street and in Washington—the bankers and bondholders who wanted to restrict the money supply by tying it to the gold standard. Among the middle and upper classes, psyche and economy alike were haunted by the common specter of scarcity. But there were many Americans for whom scarcity was a more palpable threat.
AT THE BOTTOM of the heap were the urban poor. To middle-class observers they seemed little more than a squalid mass jammed into tenements that were festering hives of “relapsing fever,” a strange malady that left its survivors depleted of strength and unable to work. The disease was “the most efficient recruiting officer pauperism ever had,” said a journalist investigating tenement life in the 1870s. Studies of “the nether side of New York” had been appearing for decades, but—in the young United States at least—never before the Gilded Age had the story of Dives and Lazarus been so dramatically played out, never before had wealth been so flagrant, or poverty been so widespread and so unavoidably appalling. The army of thin young “sewing-girls” trooping off in the icy dawn to sweatshops all over Manhattan, the legions of skilled mechanics forced by high New York rents to huddle with their families amid a crowd of lowlifes, left without even a pretense of privacy in noisome tenements that made a mockery of the Victorian cult of home—these populations began to weigh on the bourgeois imagination, creating concrete images of the worthy, working poor.
Racial animosities flared in an atmosphere of multicultural fluidity, economic scarcity, and sexual rivalry. Attitudes arising from visceral hostility acquired a veneer of scientific objectivity. Race theory was nothing new, but in the late nineteenth century it mutated into multiple forms, many of them characterized by manic urgency, sexual hysteria, and biological determinism. Taxonomists had been trying to arrange various peoples in accordance with skull shape and brain size for decades; popularized notions of natural selection accelerated the taxonomic project, investing it more deeply in anatomical details. The superiority of the Anglo-Saxon—according to John Fiske, the leading pop-evolutionary thinker—arose not only from the huge size of his brain, but also from the depth of its furrows and the plenitude of its creases. The most exalted mental events had humble somatic origins. Mind was embedded in body, and both could be passed on to the next generation.
The year 1877 marked a crucial development in this hereditarian synthesis: in that year, Richard Dugdale published the results of his investigation into the Juke family, a dull-witted crew that had produced more than its share of criminals and mental defectives. While he allowed for the influence of environment, Dugdale emphasized the importance of inherited traits in the Juke family. If mental and emotional traits could be inherited along with physical ones, then why couldn’t superior people be bred like superior dogs or horses? The dream of creating a science of eugenics, dedicated to improving and eventually even perfecting human beings, fired the reform imagination for decades. Eugenics was a kind of secular millennialism, a vision of a society where biological engineering complemented social engineering to create a managerial utopia. The intellectual respectability of eugenics, which lasted until the 1930s, when it became associated with Nazism, underscores the centrality of racialist thinking among Americans who considered themselves enlightened and progressive. Here as elsewhere, racism and modernity were twinned.
Consciousness of race increasingly pervaded American culture in the Gilded Age. Even a worldview as supple as Henry James’s revealed its moorings in conventional racial categories when, in The American (1877), James presented his protagonist, Christopher Newman, as a quintessential Anglo-Saxon but with echoes of the noble Red Man, with the same classical posture and physiognomy. There was an emerging kinship between these two groups of claimants to the title “first Americans.” The iconic American, from this view, was a blend of Anglo-Saxon refinement and native vigor. While James only hints at this, in less than a generation such younger novelists as Frank Norris and Jack London would openly celebrate the rude vitality of the contemporary Anglo-Saxon, proud descendant of the “white savages” who subdued a continent. It should come as no surprise that their heroes were always emphatically male. The rhetoric of race merged with a broader agenda of masculine revitalization.[…]
By the 1880s, muscular Christians were sweeping across the land, seeking to meld spiritual and physical renewal, establishing institutions like the Young Men’s Christian Association. The YMCA provided prayer meetings and Bible study to earnest young men with spiritual seekers’ yearnings, gyms and swimming pools to pasty young men with office workers’ midriffs. Sometimes they were the same young men. More than any other organization, the YMCA aimed to promote the symmetry of character embodied in the phrase “body, mind, spirit”—which a Y executive named Luther Gulick plucked from Deuteronomy and made the motto of the organization. The key to the Y’s appeal, a Harper’s contributor wrote in 1882, was the “overmastering conviction” of its members: “The world always respects manliness, even when it is not convinced [by theological argument]; and if the organizations did not sponsor that quality in young men, they would be entitled to no respect.” In the YMCA, manliness was officially joined to a larger agenda.
For many American Protestants, the pursuit of physical fitness merged with an encompassing vision of moral and cultural revitalization—one based on the reassertion of Protestant self-control against the threats posed to it by immigrant masses and mass-marketed temptation. […]
Science and religion seemed to point in the same direction: Progress and Providence were one.
Yet the synthesis remained precarious. Physical prowess, the basis of national supremacy, could not be taken for granted. Strong acknowledged in passing that Anglo-Saxons could be “devitalized by alcohol and tobacco.” Racial superiority could be undone by degenerate habits. Even the most triumphalist tracts contained an undercurrent of anxiety, rooted in the fear of flab. The new stress on the physical basis of identity began subtly to undermine the Protestant synthesis, to reinforce the suspicion that religion was a refuge for effeminate weaklings. The question inevitably arose, in some men’s minds: What if the YMCA and muscular Christianity were not enough to revitalize tired businessmen and college boys?
Under pressure from proliferating ideas of racial “fitness,” models of manhood became more secular. Despite the efforts of muscular Christians to reunite body and soul, the ideal man emerging among all classes by the 1890s was tougher and less introspective than his mid-Victorian predecessors. He was also less religious. Among advocates of revitalization, words like “Energy” and “Force” began to dominate discussion—often capitalized, often uncoupled from any larger frameworks of moral or spiritual meaning, and often combined with racist assumptions. […]
The emerging worship of force raised disturbing issues. Conventional morality took a backseat to the celebration of savage strength. After 1900, in the work of a pop-Nietzschean like Jack London, even criminality became a sign of racial vitality: as one of his characters says, “We whites have been land-robbers and sea-robbers from remotest time. It is in our blood, I guess, and we can’t get away from it.” This reversal of norms did not directly challenge racial hierarchies, but the assumptions behind it led toward disturbing questions. If physical prowess was the mark of racial superiority, what was one to make of the magnificent specimens of manhood produced by allegedly inferior races? Could it be that desk-bound Anglo-Saxons required an infusion of barbarian blood (or at least the “barbarian virtues” recommended by Theodore Roosevelt)? Behind these questions lay a primitivist model of regeneration, to be accomplished by incorporating the vitality of the vanquished, dark-skinned other. The question was how to do that and maintain racial purity.
Yet to emphasize the gap between country and the city was not simply an evasive exercise: dreams of bucolic stillness or urban energy stemmed from motives more complex than mere escapist sentiment. City and country were mother lodes of metaphor, sources for making sense of the urban-industrial revolution that was transforming the American countryside and creating a deep sense of discontinuity in many Americans’ lives during the decades after the Civil War. If the city epitomized the attraction of the future, the country embodied the pull of the past. For all those who had moved to town in search of excitement or opportunity, rural life was ineluctably associated with childhood and memory. The contrast between country and city was about personal experience as well as political economy. […]
REVERENCE FOR THE man of the soil was rooted in the republican tradition. In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), Jefferson articulated the antithesis that became central to agrarian politics (and to the producerist worldview in general)—the contrast between rural producers and urban parasites. “Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue,” he announced. “Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example. It is the mark set on those, who not looking up to heaven, to their own soil and industry, as does the husbandman, for their subsistence, depend for it on the casualties and caprice of customers. Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the design of ambition.” Small wonder, from this view, that urban centers of commerce seemed to menace the public good. “The mobs of great cities,” Jefferson concluded, “add just so much to the support of pure government as sores do to the strength of the human body.” Jefferson’s invidious distinctions echoed through the nineteenth century, fueling the moral passion of agrarian rebels. Watson, among many, considered himself a Jeffersonian.
There were fundamental contradictions embedded in Jefferson’s conceptions of an independent yeomanry. Outside certain remote areas in New England, most American farmers were not self-sufficient in the nineteenth century—nor did they want to be. Many were eager participants in the agricultural market economy, animated by a restless, entrepreneurial spirit. Indeed, Jefferson’s own expansionist policies, especially the Louisiana Purchase, encouraged centrifugal movement as much as permanent settlement. “What developed in America,” the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote, “was an agricultural society whose real attachment was not to the land but to land values.” The figure of the independent yeoman, furnishing enough food for himself and his family, participating in the public life of a secure community—this icon embodied longings for stability amid a maelstrom of migration.
Often the longings were tinged with a melancholy sense of loss. […] For those with Jeffersonian sympathies, abandoned farms were disturbing evidence of cultural decline. As a North American Review contributor wrote in 1888: “Once let the human race be cut off from personal contact with the soil, once let the conventionalities and artificial restrictions of so-called civilization interfere with the healthful simplicity of nature, and decay is certain.” Romantic nature-worship had flourished fitfully among intellectuals since Emerson had become a transparent eye-ball on the Concord common and Whitman had loafed among leaves of grass. By the post–Civil War decades, romantic sentiment combined with republican tradition to foster forebodings. Migration from country to city, from this view, was a symptom of disease in the body politic. Yet the migration continued. Indeed, nostalgia for rural roots was itself a product of rootlessness. A restless spirit, born of necessity and desire, spun Americans off in many directions—but mainly westward. The vision of a stable yeomanry was undercut by the prevalence of the westering pioneer.
Whether energy came from within or without, it was as limitless as electricity apparently was. The obstacles to access were not material—class barriers or economic deprivation were never mentioned by devotees of abundance psychology—they were mental and emotional. The most debilitating emotion was fear, which cropped up constantly as the core problem in diagnoses of neurasthenia. The preoccupation with freeing oneself from internal constraints undermined the older, static ideal of economic self-control at its psychological base. As one observer noted in 1902: “The root cause of thrift, which we all admire and preach because it is so convenient to the community, is fear, fear of future want; and that fear, we are convinced, when indulged overmuch by pessimist minds is the most frequent cause of miserliness….” Freedom from fear meant freedom to consume.
And consumption began at the dinner table. Woods Hutchinson claimed in 1913 that the new enthusiasm for calories was entirely appropriate to a mobile, democratic society. The old “stagnation” theory of diet merely sought to maintain the level of health and vigor; it was a diet for slaves or serfs, for people who were not supposed to rise above their station. “The new diet theory is based on the idea of progress, of continuous improvement, of never resting satisfied with things as they are,” Hutchinson wrote. “No diet is too liberal or expensive that will…yield good returns on the investment.” Economic metaphors for health began to focus on growth and process rather than stability, on consumption and investment rather than savings.
As abundance psychology spread, a new atmosphere of dynamism enveloped old prescriptions for success. After the turn of the century, money was less often seen as an inert commodity, to be gradually accumulated and tended to steady growth; and more often seen as a fluid and dynamic force. To Americans enraptured by the strenuous life, energy became an end itself—and money was a kind of energy. Success mythology reflected this subtle change. In the magazine hagiographies of business titans—as well as in the fiction of writers like Dreiser and Norris—the key to success frequently became a mastery of Force (as those novelists always capitalized it), of raw power. Norris’s The Pit (1903) was a paean to the furious economic energies concentrated in Chicago. “It was Empire, the restless subjugation of all this central world of the lakes and prairies. Here, mid-most in the land, beat the Heart of the nation, whence inevitably must come its immeasurable power, its infinite, inexhaustible vitality. Here of all her cities, throbbed the true life—the true power and spirit of America: gigantic, crude, with the crudity of youth, disdaining rivalry; sane and healthy and vigorous; brutal in its ambition, arrogant in the new-found knowledge of its giant strength, prodigal of its wealth, infinite in its desires.” This was the vitalist vision at its most breathless and jejune, the literary equivalent of Theodore Roosevelt’s adolescent antics.
The new emphasis on capital as Force translated the psychology of abundance into economic terms. The economist who did the most to popularize this translation was Simon Nelson Patten, whose The New Basis of Civilization (1907) argued that the United States had passed from an “era of scarcity” to an “era of abundance” characterized by the unprecedented availability of mass-produced goods. His argument was based on the confident assumption that human beings had learned to control the weather. “The Secretary of Agriculture recently declared that serious crop failures will occur no more,” Patten wrote. “Stable, progressive farming controls the terror, disorder, and devastation of earlier times. A new agriculture means a new civilization.” Visions of perpetual growth were in the air, promising both stability and dynamism.
The economist Edward Atkinson pointed the way to a new synthesis with a hymn to “mental energy” in the Popular Science Monthly. Like other forms of energy, it was limitless. “If…there is no conceivable limit to the power of mind over matter or to the number of conversions of force that can be developed,” he wrote, “it follows that pauperism is due to want of mental energy, not of material resources.” Redistribution of wealth was not on the agenda; positive thinking was.
TR’s policies were primarily designed to protect American corporations’ access to raw materials, investment opportunities, and sometimes markets. The timing was appropriate. In the wake of the merger wave of 1897–1903, Wall Street generated new pools of capital, while Washington provided new places to invest it. Speculative excitement seized many among the middle and upper classes who began buying stocks for the first time. Prosperity spread even among the working classes, leading Simon Nelson Patten to detect a seismic shift from an era of scarcity to an era of abundance. For him, a well-paid working population committed to ever-expanding consumption would create what he called The New Basis of Civilization (1907).
Patten understood that the mountains of newly available goods were in part the spoils of empire, but he dissolved imperial power relations in a rhetoric of technological determinism. The new abundance, he argued, depended not only on the conquest of weather but also on the annihilation of time and space—a fast, efficient distribution system that provided Americans with the most varied diet in the world, transforming what had once been luxuries into staples of even the working man’s diet. “Rapid distribution of food carries civilization with it, and the prosperity that gives us a Panama canal with which to reach untouched tropic riches is a distinctive laborer’s resource, ranking with refrigerated express and quick freight carriage.” The specific moves that led to the seizure of the Canal Zone evaporated in the abstract “prosperity that gives us a Panama Canal,” which in turn became as much a boon to the workingman as innovative transportation. Empire was everywhere, in Patten’s formulation, and yet nowhere in sight.
What Patten implied (rather than stated overtly) was that imperialism underwrote expanding mass consumption, raising standards of living for ordinary folk. “Tropic riches” became cheap foods for the masses. The once-exotic banana was now sold from pushcarts for 6 cents a dozen, “a permanent addition to the laborer’s fund of goods.” The same was true of “sugar, which years ago was too expensive to be lavishly consumed by the well-to-do,” but “now freely gives its heat to the workingman,” as Patten wrote. “The demand that will follow the developing taste for it can be met by the vast quantities latent in Porto Rico and Cuba, and beyond them by the teeming lands of South America, and beyond them by the virgin tropics of another hemisphere.” From this view, the relation between empire and consumption was reciprocal: if imperial policies helped stimulate consumer demand, consumer demand in turn promoted imperial expansion. A society committed to ever-higher levels of mass-produced abundance required empire to be a way of life.