Skip to content

Robert Zaller’s Jeffer Studies Review of Charles Austin Beard

Charles A. Beard was an historian; Robinson Jeffers a poet. They never met or corresponded, and only once referred to each other in print. Yet their paths crossed fatefully in their opposition to World War II, and, although no one has hitherto sought to systematically compare them, their names remain coupled by this to the present day. Perhaps the occasion of Richard Drake’s new study, Charles Austin Beard: The Return of the Master Historian of American Imperialism (Cornell University Press, 2018), will provide impetus to do so.

Beard (1874-1948) and Jeffers, despite a half-century age difference, emerged from much the same late Victorian world and shared many of the same cultural and intellectual presuppositions. Beard’s earliest mentors were John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle, from whom he imbibed a sense of modern industrial society as a machine that leached out all human value, and, in Carlyle’s words, could only be destined to “perish in frantic suicidal dissolution.” Jeffers’ own pessimism derived from Wordsworth and Hardy, but both men felt too the long shadow of Darwin, and with it the waning of traditional religious faith that made the renewal of value a deeply problematic enterprise.

One such source of value would be Marxism, but Marx appealed neither to Beard nor Jeffers, although Jeffers wondered (rather briefly) whether the Bolshevik Revolution might be the herald of a new order. Both men would be, to borrow William Appleman Williams’ description of Beard, ‘Tory Radicals’— men of skeptical temper whose rejection of capitalist society was strong and often as trenchant as that of any committed Marxist. The lack of doctrinal ballast made them prone to inconsistencies and errors, but it also saved them from misconceiving the Soviet Union as it hardened into a system no less exploitive and even more terroristic than that of the capitalist West. For Beard, human history would be too complex and in some respects too aleatory a field to yield simple causal judgments or reliable projections of the future, while for Jeffers, with his Jeffersonian view of freedom, virtue could only be cultivated, at least on a social level, by democratically dispersed power and individual self-sufficiency. For both men, mass society, under whatever banner it flew, was inimical to a world based on properly human values.

If the appellation ‘Tory’ in some sense suited Beard—one of his late friendships was with Herbert Hoover—he came to what would be his first mature conception of politics through John A. Hobson’s pioneering study, Imperialism. For Hobson, foreign conquest was contrived by elites for their own interest and profit, at the expense not only of those subjugated but of the domestic population that paid its costs in blood, treasure, and wages depressed by servile labor from abroad. No Marxist himself, Hobson’s book influenced Lenin’s own study of imperialism. For Beard, it was an intellectual awakening that bore fruit in the work that made his reputation, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913), which described the Constitution as the product of a ruling elite determined to advance its own interests and to chart an expansionist and ultimately imperial path for the new Republic. With one brief period of exception, Beard would hold to this view for the remainder of his career, developing it both as an historian and a public intellectual. It made him an admired although never uncontroversial figure on the left, and, in his middle years, the dean of his profession.

Robinson Jeffers was never a man of the left, despite being praised and courted by it at the height of his own renown. Jeffers did allow that social justice was a rightful goal, skeptical as he was that it would ever truly prevail. In this, his views were congruent with those of Beard, who, influenced by Henry George and the so-called realist Italian school, saw oligarchy as the invariable mechanism of government, whatever forms it took. Neither man could rest content with this as a matter of principle, as Jeffers himself made clear in his 1941 Library of Congress address, “The Poet in a Democracy”; but neither could deny it as a matter of fact.

The first intriguing parallel between Beard and Jeffers, though, can be traced in their reaction to World War I. Ideologically, Beard’s embrace of Hobson’s anti-imperialism and his own construction of the American polity should have made him see the war as Eugene Debs and Robert La Follette did, as a struggle among European elites in which America had no proper stake. In part prodded by his own Anglophilia and in part by a sudden access of ‘realism’ in which he took corporate plutocracy as more amenable to reform in Britain and France than Germany, he supported America’s entry into the war on behalf of the Allies. This might have been an arguable position, but he then embraced one flatly contradictory to his previous views, namely, Woodrow Wilson’s description of the war as a crusade to make the world “safe for democracy.” As Beard had written La Follette in 1913, America had never been a democracy, and if this were true in a country notionally founded on popular sovereignty, it was even more so in England and France, the world’s leading imperial powers. Democracy could not be made safe for the simple reason that it had never actually existed.

Beard’s temporary intellectual lapse ceased with the Treaty of Versailles, and he would later regret it in print. It must be noted too that he resigned his position at Columbia University in support of colleagues who had been dismissed for expressing antiwar dissent. As for Jeffers, he had no such prominent position, and his views on the war can only be inferred from such poems as “The Alpine Christ,” in which he portrayed it in terms of a general civilizational crisis and took no sides. When America became a belligerent, however, he was suddenly eager to enlist, and persisted in attempting to do so despite being rejected for a heart murmur. His obsession with the war lingered, however, and caused serious strains in his marriage. Unlike Beard, he offered no explanation of his sentiment, and, again, we are left to construe it only from the evidences of his verse. As he would write in the Prelude to The Women at Point Sur (1927):

                                  You are tired and corrupt,
           You kept the beast under till the fountain’s poisoned.
           He drips with mange and stinks through the oubliette window.
           The promise-breaker war killed whom it freed
           And none living’s the cleaner.

What “promise” the war broke is unspecified, but the “mange” from which it arose is clearly the felt sense of cultural crisis that was its context. The promise it did keep was to ‘free’ in the only manner it could, by killing, at horrific cost and no profit to the living. Nor did the dead lie still; in The Women at Point Sur and “Resurrection,” and after World War II in “The Love and the Hate,” revenants of the slain come home to exact justice, thus confounding the idea of war altogether. All Jeffers was left with was the idea of war come home as domestic tragedy, and the conviction that the decline of the West, if not immediate, was nonetheless irreversible.

Jeffers did not rest content with this formulation, however. In “Shine, Perishing Republic,” written in 1923, he lamented the ruin of what had once been the hopes of the American republic, which had in the Great War taken its fatal step toward empire. This had been, perhaps, a fated tragedy, as he suggested in “Woodrow Wilson” (1924), which depicted Wilson as the dupe of an overreaching ideal; it was, in any case, irrevocable. Beard, himself having been seduced by Wilsonian rhetoric, would have nothing to do however with such apologetics. Empire had been built into the fabric of the republic from the beginning; the Great War was not its fateful but its final step; and America, now clearly the successor to the British and French empires, was poised to spread the plutocratic capitalism of its own elites globally. The only question was on what terms the British and the French would accommodate themselves to this, and whether any other power could compete with the world’s new hegemon.

Beard and Jeffers converged more closely as the consequences of Versailles unfolded in the rise of Hitler in the 1930s, and Japan began what Beard saw as a preemptive attempt to defend its own sphere of influence by invading China. Jeffers would still retrospectively celebrate American ideals as an expression of the core Western value of freedom in his “Shine, Republic,” and Beard, in the textbooks coauthored with his wife, Mary, would defend his own version of them as goals that, if yet unrealized, were still a vision of hope. As war loomed in Europe, they were in agreement that America must stay clear of any “kennel” quarrel between the antagonists of the Great War, the failing empires of yesteryear. If the country had had no valid interest in the previous conflict other than the Hobsonian profit of its elites, it had a very positive one for avoiding entanglement in its approaching successor. Whether one took Jeffers’ position that the American version of freedom, however imperfectly achieved, was still a commanding ideal, or Beard’s that social justice was a goal that, however unlikely, was never to be abandoned, both men felt that the only result of a new war would be a final devolution into empire whose end was necessarily collapse.

Jeffers and Beard were not alone in their views, even if few fully shared the radical pessimism of their analysis. The vast majority of Americans opposed entry in a new European war, and the Neutrality Acts of 1935-37 dictated a policy of nonintervention. At the same time, both men saw the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt as surreptitiously drawing the country toward war. For Beard, it was the old story of elites expanding profits and consolidating power, compounded by Roosevelt’s failure to end the Great Depression: prosperity, as always under capitalism, required periodic war. For Jeffers, it was the trap of empire that, having decimated Europe, would now ensnare America in a second corrupting victory. Both men concentrated particularly on Roosevelt as the catalyst of disaster. Beard saw in him both the ultimate servant of elite power and a politician of genius; Jeffers accentuated what he called his “cripple’s power-need” and depicted him as hanging in effigy between the other makers of war.

Once the war had begun, neither man wished for defeat. They could not desire ill for their countrymen in battle, nor could they imagine that America would not be victorious—Jeffers would say later that he never doubted it for a moment. He remained silent for the duration, at least in print, and although Beard continued to publish, he chiefly updated his textbooks and avoided contesting the war. Both men might have withheld their criticism permanently, as did others who had passionately opposed it before Pearl Harbor but now dared not question its success. America had won the war in 1918 but lost the peace; or so the story went. In 1945, it stood alone unshattered among the combatants. This time, it would dictate the peace, and frame a new world order. Who, but for agents from Moscow and perhaps a few worried diplomats, could doubt that this world would be a better place?

Jeffers and Beard were neither Communists nor cynics. They had neither the inevitable victory of socialism nor the verities of balance of power politics to defend. In the triumphalism of the moment, they had nothing to gain and much to lose by denouncing the war, and especially the architect of its victory. As Drake points out, they would slowly be joined by a camp of scholarly revisionists and, as the Cold War deepened, by political isolationists. But at the moment they spoke they were virtually alone, and each on a pinnacle of eminence, one academic and one literary, that made them instant lightning-rods. Both paid, and still pay, the price.

We have seen how Jeffers came to revile Roosevelt, and he would mock him again in “The Love and the Hate.” Beard devoted his last two works, American Foreign Policy in the Making, 1932-1940 and President Roosevelt and the Coming of War, 1941: A Study in Appearances and Realities, to tracing Roosevelt’s hand in slowly preparing and eventually forcing the American public into war. If for both men the larger course of events had drawn America into the web of war, Roosevelt emerged as the indispensable political actor who had knit the threads together, at first patiently but then with increasing boldness and finally all-but naked intent. And if Roosevelt had not lived long enough to see final victory, he had left the legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and, as Beard had predicted in 1939, “all the wars that [would] follow” the one for which he was then grooming America. There could, indeed, be no talk this time about a war to end all wars, as with the Great War. Rather, World War II would generate a succession of ever-more destructive conflicts. Jeffers thought so too, and in “The Inhumanist,” written in 1947, he would be the first writer to depict a third, thermonuclear world war, already imminent in his mind.

Beard’s two volumes and Jeffers’ 1948 collection, The Double Axe, which contained the antiwar poems he had suppressed until then, were treated scathingly by most critics. Beard, already ailing, would die within the year. Jeffers escaped a narrow brush with death at the same time, but he would live until 1962. He published one more collection in his lifetime, the protagonist of whose title poem, a veteran of both world wars, confronts an embodied death that is their final symbol. Politics plays relatively little part in this volume, whose perspective is wider and more detached. The obloquy that had greeted The Double Axe subsided into the quieter scorn of neglect and dismissal, and its full text, from whose original edition Jeffers had deleted ten poems after a remonstrance from his publisher, was not made available until 1977. Only then, more than thirty years after the war itself, could Jeffers’ fierce and prophetic dissent be appreciated in its full force. Beard’s reputation was left to be defended principally by Mary. It would suffer further from its posthumous association with Harry Elmer Barnes, a Holocaust denier.

As Drake points out, a third major dissent from the emerging Cold war consensus was in preparation that, had it been published, would likely have attracted even more notoriety than Beard or Jeffers did. This was Herbert Hoover’s massive study of Roosevelt’s foreign policy, Freedom Betrayed. Hoover worked on it for many years with his staff, but he refrained from putting it in print, and it was not published until 2011. Drake speculates that Hoover, who had been advised to temper his assault on Roosevelt, ultimately feared for what remained of his own reputation. Beard knew of and supported his project. What he could not do was lend him his own courage. It was left, then, to Beard and Jeffers alone among the major figures in postwar American life to decry what became and remains America’s quintessential “good war” as a tragic act of hubris, deceit, and globalized empire-building whose consequences would fatally compromise what had once been the promise of America.

Beard and Jeffers came from different worlds, however much they shared the milieu of the late nineteenth century; their paths crossed only in dissent, not in person. As Drake points out, however, they were nonetheless aware of each other. Jeffers voted to induct Beard into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1946, and the Beards cited Jeffers as one of the most important American poets of the 1930s in their America in Midpassage.

Drake’s book itself is part of a revival of interest in the anti-interventionist movement that spanned the full spectrum of American politics from the mid-1930s to Pearl Harbor. More broadly, it reflects the long debate on America’s proper role in the world that he traces back to John Quincy Adams, and which Beard himself found implicit in the Founding Fathers. In the widest perspective, it must embrace the self-perception of the Puritans themselves as a city on a hill. The question for the country has always been whether that city could serve as a simple beacon to others, or had been charged by Providence to descend from its mount and, welcome or not, spread its light.

The exceptional study Drake has given us restores the most influential American historian of the first half of the twentieth century to his proper place. It is a fine specimen of intellectual biography, but, more than that, a compelling view of Beard’s era with striking vignettes of such half-forgotten figures as Philip Gibbs, Scott Nearing, Smedley Butler, and Gerald Nye. Drake also gives due credit to Beard’s wife and close collaborator Mary, who emerges as a fine historian and a critical figure of the period in her own right. For students of Robinson Jeffers, he offers a perspective on one of the most crucial and certainly the most controversial aspect of Jeffers’ career. For all of us as citizens, enmeshed as we are in an empire whose wars and costs seem to endlessly proliferate, it recalls two prophets to their place of honor, and suggests the responsibilities we bear and the choices we still must make.

Work Cited:
Jeffers, Robinson. The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, edited by Tim Hunt, 5 vols., Stanford University Press, 1988-2001.

The above review was written by Robert Zaller and published in the Jeffers Studies Review, vol 19, 1 June 2020 with the title ‘Dissenting from the “Good War”: Beard, Jeffers, and Anti-Imperialism.’

Published inNotebook

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply