There they were on a Sunday morning 1n the 1890’s , pedaling with determination along the New Jersey Palisades until they found a quiet stretch of river. Then they stripped off their serviceable knickerbockers and blouses, and bathed, glowing with high-minded morality, quite naked. Refreshed, they sat down to a healthy picnic of whole-meal bread, raw carrots, fruit, and nuts. They sang a few glees, mounted their bicycles , and full of virtue, pedaled back to the ferry for New York.
Men might scoff and women might scorn, but they were the avant-garde, the pioneers of a better life, the leaders of the new way, the social reformers who by shining example of their lives would help to dispel the moral squalor, the filth, the commercialization, and the sadism of their day.
Across the Atlantic, similar knots of men and women were hiking across the Chilterns or pedaling along the dusty roads of the Kentish downs. The men wore sensible clothing; tweed plus fours, open necked shirts, straw boaters. Some of the women might be hatless; all , except the youngest, were shapeless, for they disapproved of girdles, corsets, bustles, and the like. They were clothing reformers, pacifists, vegetarians, nudists; they made pots, carved wood, wove on handlooms, played recorders, did folk dances, supported civil liberties, voted socialist, opposed child labor, advocated birth control, cultivated Gypsies, explored Celtic mythology, abhorred churches, and attended seances. They were free with children and gentle to animals; they hated fox hunters, loathed fur, and despised feathered headresses. Indeed, they organized a protest movement to stop the use of birds’ feathers for clothing.
Wood fires, cold baths, wide-open bedroom windows, Japanese prints, Gothic furniture, and Morris chintz adorned their homes. On their bookshelves could be found Thoreau , Ruskin, Whitman, Morris, W.H. Hudson, Shaw, Wells, and the Webbs. The more adventurous had taken up camping, canoeing, and mountaineering in order to get close to nature, which for most of them had replaced the anthropomorphic God.
These were the faddists. Of course, they were not uniform. Some ate meat, some eschewed eggs and milk as a violation of natural diet, and many would not under any circumstances eat cooked food or drink anything but water. Some married, others refused to do so; some went nude and others would not. Most of the women were feminists, and their men supported them. Most of the men were pacifists and socialists, and their women supported them. They all belonged to dedicated societies for social protest or amelioration. Intelligentsia, Bohemians, faddists or cranks, call them what you will, they have exerted this spiritual influence to the present era.
They were numerous enough to catch the public eye and to be pilloried by the satirists of ”Punch” . Yet, they could be, and were, ignored or dismissed as fools and self-important prigs. The men of authority assumed that they were wrong-headed, at best eccentric, att anarchistic, but always a ripe target for reactionary abuse. And yet, were they wrong?
Whenever one looks in late Victorian or Edwardian England, and the same is true of America, one finds small bands of dedicated men and women, usually of upper-middle class origin, but sometimes joined by bank clerks, insurance agents, and skilled artisans , who had come together to reform the life that they detested. A typical society in England was the Fellowship of the New Life, founded by Thomas Davidson in the 1880’s, whose members believed passionately in fraternity, open air, sensible clothing, folk pastimes, and freedom of thought and were intensely suspicious of commercial and industrial society, which they felt destroyed life’s harmonies , devastated the countryside , and contaminated food , all for the sake of profit and grab. It was in this fellowship that Havelock Ellis met Edward Carpenter, who preached the virtues and naturalness of homosexual love before, and after, Oscar Wilde was clapped into jail. This same fellowship spawned the tough-minded Fabians, whose incisive criticism of society created the intellectual bone structure of the English socialist movement. These men and women reacted violently against their society, giving their enthusiasm to myriad causes that their own world thought screwball.
”Thomas Davidson (1840-1900), a peripatetic Scottish-American scholar, was part of the emergent “transatlantic community of discourse” among intellectuals in the late nineteenth century who sought a “via media,” a middle path between positivism and idealism. Davidson published ten books, at least three-dozen articles, and displayed a unique ability to arrive in a city and quickly organize local intellectuals into discussion groups and reform organizations. There is evidence that John Dewey and William James were both influenced by Davidson’s philosophy of religion and his critique of Hegel. Moreover, many British “ethical socialists” claimed Davidson inspired them to study American Transcendentalism. Yet in spite of his accomplishments, historians largely ignore Davidson today. The Romantic philosophy he so enthusiastically developed appeared unprofessional by the close of the nineteenth century as philosophy moved into the Academy.
By way of Toronto, Davidson arrived in Boston in 1867, where he fell among “Radicals with whom [he] very cordially sympathized.” The Radical Club was organized by Bronson Alcott and held its meetings at the home of Emerson in Concord. Davidson’s relationship to American Transcendentalism is complex. Though he ultimately arrived at a philosophy that was similar to Emerson’s, at this time he claimed he was under the spell of Comtean positivism. Nevertheless, Davidson was impressed by the Transcendentalists’ interest in the German higher criticism of the Bible, which led them to emphasize the mythical and spiritual teachings of Christianity. Like the Transcendentalists, Davidson argued that Christianity needed to be purged of its emphasis upon “material” events and institutions, excessive doctrinal rigidity and Biblical literalism, all of which interfered with its spiritualizing power and caused a neglect of the religious consciousness.” ( John A. Good )
Johm Galsworthy, the novelist, belonged to the stuffier upper-middle class by origin, but his sensitivity, his intelligence, and his deep sense of moral obligation drove him toward Bohemia. The causes that he supported from time to time give a fascinating insight into the huge constellation of faddist and do-gooder societies of that era, ranging as they do from politics to the protection of birds. Much that Galsworthy and his allies fought for has been one. Cats are no longer skinned alive for fun in the streets of London and New York. Children cannot be beaten insensible by their fathers with inpunity. Women no longer wear stuffed birds on their hats. Birds and beasts are protected. Wives are no longer slaves. Sex is no longer a shameful word. All these things are their victories, the result of their bravery in in withstanding social ostracism, harassment by police, sometimes, as with Carpenter and Ellis, prosecution.
Social disapproval did not deter them. They were right, overwhelmingly right; sometimes for the wrong reasons, sometimes for the right ones. But their suspicion of science, of the more artificial aspects of modern living, of the exploitation of women, children and animals, was utterly sound, and as we know to our cost, many of their battles are far from over.
But or modern protest groups rarely realize that they are the heirs of a long tradition, just as many of the late Victorians and Edwardians were ignorant of those who protested long before them. Food reformers were active before 1850, especially in America, where Sylvester Graham preached the virtues of whole-meal flour in the 1830’s and crusaded against the eating of meat. Amelia Bloomer was crusading for clothing reform in America by the middle of he century. And the back to nature cult had its apostles even before Thoreau and Ruskin.
But these early voices had been lonely. They were rarely institutionalized in clubs, societies, or fellowships until about the 1880’s when the faddists became a social, if not political force. Since then , their reputations have fluctuated, but increasingly, as we discern the violence we have done to our environment, the pollution in which we have drenched ourselves, and the crippling effect modern society has had on our emotional lives, we realize that these men and women were not really cranks, nor faddists, nor screwballs, but in large measure right.
”I think I could write a pretty strong argument in favor of female suffrage, but I do not want to do it. I never want to see the women voting, and gabbling about politics, and electioneering. There is something revolting in the thought. It would shock me inexpressibly for an angel to come down from above and ask me to take a drink with him (though I should doubtless consent); but it would shock me still more to see one of our blessed earthly angels peddling election tickets among a mob of shabby scoundrels she never saw before.
– Letter to St. Louis Missouri Democrat, March 1867
Women, go your ways! Seek not to beguile us of our imperial privileges. Content yourself with your little feminine trifles — your babies, your benevolent societies and your knitting–and let your natural bosses do the voting. Stand back — you will be wanting to go to war next. We will let you teach school as much as you want to, and we will pay you half wages for it, too, but beware! we don’t want you to crowd us too much.
– Letter to St. Louis Missouri Democrat, March 1867
Our marvelous latter-day statesmanship has invented universal suffrage. That is the finest feather in our cap. All that we require of a voter is that he shall be forked, wear pantaloons instead of petticoats, and bear a more or less humorous resemblance to the reported image of God. He need not know anything whatever; he may be wholly useless and a cumberer of the earth; he may even be known to be a consummate scoundrel. No matter. While he can steer clear of the penitentiary his vote is as weighty as the vote of a president, a bishop, a college professor, a merchant prince. We brag of our universal, unrestricted suffrage; but we are shams after all, for we restrict when we come to the women.
– “Universal Suffrage” speech delivered to the Monday Evening Club about 1875. Reprinted in Mark Twain: A Biography, edited by A. B. Paine