Radicalism and Hygiene
by Westbrook Pegler
(From George Spelvin, American and Fireside Chats, 1942, pp. 139-142)
Miss Dorothy Day, a former rough and tumble radical who became a Catholic, has written a book called From Union Square to Rome, in which she asks herself if the old desire to be with the poor and mean and abandoned was not mixed with a distorted desire to be with the dissipated. The question has arisen in other lands, prompted by the conduct and language and the studied physical and moral frowsiness of individuals who have identified themselves with radical movements. The arts also have served as an excuse for a dirty way of life, and some artists of this type, being incompetent painters and writers, easily persuade themselves that they could command high prices if they would compromise with their principles. They become radical painters and writers to excuse their failure to themselves and to disguise it to their friends.
Greenwich Village twenty years ago was a haunt of sloppy fakers who said they desired to live their lives their own way, unfettered by middle-class desires -- which was another way of saying that they wanted to engage in some promiscuous sleeping-around and didn't like soap. They had read about the art and independent thinking in a dirty quarter of Paris, and for a time maintained a similar artistic and intellectual slum in New York, most of whose inhabitants overdrank and produced punk poetry and short stories and incoherent smears on canvas. There were quite a few young corn-fed frauds of both sexes from the Middle West, putting into effect ideas of conduct and morality which they had heard talked up on the campus, but the colony in New York, as well as the one in Paris, also included unsightly females of considerable age with small private incomes who liked to sit around nasty little joints listening to the talk and reading of the unwashed literati and squinting at distorted pictures and imagine themselves to be of the arts.
In summer groups of such people move to places in the far suburbs to go around half-naked, if not altogether nude, and the town of Westport, Conn., which did have a colony of legitimate artists, suffered from the presence of carousing counterfeits. The neighbors got an impression that art means free love, personal filth and drunkenness, and that most writers and artists were Communists, because the incompetents are likely to condemn a system which refuses to appreciate their talents.
It was not any scientific curiosity that prompted the fad of Viennese mind-probing but an appetite for horribly foul sex stuff and the hope of dirty people that some head-feeler would tell them that they could cure their nervousness only by spending a week-end in a cabin off somewhere away from it all with some other man's girl or some other woman's gentleman friend. Medical necessity might ths justify conduct which otherwise would be difficult to explain, and when both members of a domestic combination were similarly troubled the doctor's orders were likely to be regarded as law.
Radical thought and belief do not truly express themselves in filthy attire and dirty fingernails, for radicals purport to be intelligent, and it is only the ignorant who have an excuse for dirt when soap and water are almost free and whiskbrooms are a dime. Nevertheless, affected frowsiness has come to be offered as evidence of advanced thought, and profane and obscene speech is sometimes offered by women as proof that they are fighting mad at the condition of the poor or the sufferings of the Spanish Communists, and don't give a damn for the opinion of the complacent respectables who wash their smug and stupid faces.
Probably it is not so much the radical ideas but offensive personalities, and on warm days an odor as of something not quite fresh, which have made most Americans suspicious of radicalism. There is also a deterrent in the apparent though not quite real requirement that to sympathize with radical ideas one must give up hygiene, become personally filthy and, as between husband and wife each agree that the other may jump the fence whenever he or she is troubled by a dream.
Return to Westbrook Pegler home page