The Mucker Pose

The Mucker Pose  (1921) 
by Philip Curtiss

From "The Lion's Mouth" section of Harper's Monthly, Oct 1921.

The mucker pose is that curious state of mind which induces well-bred, intelligent people to disclaim superciliously any refinement, education, or natural good taste which heredity or opportunity may have given them, and to set themselves deliberately to the worship of the coarse or the commonplace. The mucker pose is the antonym of the "highbrow" pose. It is the "I-am-a-plain-blunt-man" sort of boast when used by a person who is really neither plain nor blunt.



WHEN Cervantes, in order to clear the atmosphere of the seventeenth century, "laughed Spain's chivalry away," and when, in order to perform the same service for the twentieth century, Gelett Burgess identified and isolated that germ of dullness known as the "Bromide," each earned the gratitude of his age. Now a third niche in the Hall of Public Benefactors awaits the man or woman who can give the deathblow to that most contemptible of present-day affectations, "the mucker pose."

This term originated, I believe, with Charles Buchanan, the music critic, who applied it to a certain attitude in discussing art; but there is no phase of modern American social or artistic life in which it is not visible in some form or other.

The mucker pose is that curious state of mind which induces well-bred, intelligent people to disclaim superciliously any refinement, education, or natural good taste which heredity or opportunity may have given them, and to set themselves deliberately to the worship of the coarse or the commonplace. The mucker pose is the antonym of the "highbrow" pose. It is the "I-am-a-plain-blunt-man" sort of boast when used by a person who is really neither plain nor blunt. It is the modern survival of that perverted ambition which induced a Roman emperor to go down into the arena of the circus and, without any danger to himself, be it noted, pose as a gladiator.

I witnessed, the other evening, a most pathetic but singularly perfect example of a person suffering from the mucker pose. The poseur was a stout, middle-aged, unmarried woman who was a guest at a country house. As one could easily see, through her smoke-screen of affectations, she was, at heart, a rather nice and well-meaning person, a gentlewoman by birth and a scholar by instinct. She was a teacher of some sort of minor art in one of the semi-endowed institutes of New York City. She was really an authority on a comparatively rare subject, and, from what our hostess was able to tell us, her private life had been the combination of bitter disappointments and precious, modest triumphs which is common to women in such careers. When, in short, she could forget her pose, she was just the kind of amiable old New England lady that one would be glad to have for an aunt, but once let her loose in a mixed gathering, especially one which was fairly young and liberal in its habits, and she became simply a pathetic old cow capering on cider apples.

It was obvious that her main idea of social verve was to be daring, although she succeeded only in being revolting. It was not so much that she swore occasionally, with those unskillful, nerve-grating, near-oaths which are far more upsetting than outright profanity from accustomed lips. It was not that she smoked a cigarette held ponderously between her fat thumb and first finger. In her, the mucker pose displayed itself most abominably in the cheap, common ideas, totally false to her background and her profession, which she felt obliged to air boisterously in the frantic effort to be "popular."

At all the old classic standards, which, I am sure, had been the backbone of the many generations of Puritan clergymen who must have preceded her, she hooted contemptuously. She prattled easily in the catch phrases of the day. At all social niceties which make life agreeable for those who can afford them, such as evening dress in the country and the offices of a butler, she railed as pure "fla-fla." Gentlewomen of the sort which must have been very dear to her mother and grandmother she dismissed in a group as "stodgy." She even upheld jazz music, although, as she had a rather fine musical education herself, she must have had to struggle hard to enjoy it.

Where this old party had acquired this hideous and most unbecoming viewpoint it was not hard to discover. It seems that, as a professional woman, she had the usual "little apartment" in Greenwich Village. Her hostess, who had known her in a happier epoch, tried to excuse her by explaining that, in New York, she was intimate with "a circle of artists, musicians, and writers."

One knew instinctively just what kind of "artists, musicians, and writers" would belong to such a "circle," but many artists, musicians, and writers who ought to know better have been woefully susceptible, of late years, to the mucker pose, either assuming it as part of their own professional armor or catering to it as one of the most profitable weaknesses of their public.

As a social manner, the mucker pose is not in itself alarming. If a man wishes to give, superficially, the impression that he is a tout or a bookmaker, or if a woman actually wishes to have people believe that she finds herself more at home among illiterates than among educated persons, that is his or her own affair. What is more insidious and more reprehensible is the manner in which the mucker pose has become a popular viewpoint in American art and intellectual life.

There are enough people in the world who really do enjoy bad music, bad art, and bad literature, without people who should know better studiedly affecting to enjoy them. Yet that is what happens to-day. I, personally, do not enjoy jazz—the incessant, nerve-racking rhythms which make up a typical restaurant concert. I have no wish to abolish them. I do not object to others enjoying them. I simply do not like them myself and cannot pretend that I do, yet that is what the mucker pose requires that I must do. If I say that I do not like jazz I am, according to the popular pose, displaying an affectation. I am "just saying that in order to be 'different.' " The vilest manifestation of the mucker pose is that, in music as in the other arts, renegade critics, seeing that the mucker pose is the popular pose, debase their own erudition to support it. They pretend to see "the folk element" or the "spontaneous note" in music which is merely trite or, more often, stolen. They pretend to see "brilliant technique" in plays which are merely perfect in their conventional inanity. They pretend to see "the born story-teller" in novelists who will halt at nothing in order to satisfy every popular misconception.

The mucker pose exercises its greatest tyranny in its attitude toward "the movies." According to the present popular viewpoint, it is heresy for any one, no matter what his training or natural tastes, to say that he does not enjoy "the movies." That is affectation according to the practitioners of the mucker pose. That also is "putting it on" just to be "different." Again I do not refer to people who really do think that the movies are gripping. I refer to that mean and hypnotized state of mind which allows persons of superior intellect to say, in private or in print, that the motion pictures in their present state are "a great art," when they know perfectly well that they have never seen a motion picture which dis =played one atom of art except good photography or possibly an honest intent to reproduce grandeur by prodigious pains and unlimited expense.

How would literature fare at the hands of the metropolitan critics if a leading publishing house should take Galsworthy's play, "[[Justice (John Galsworthy)|Justice}}," and seriously put out a novelized version of it with a comic courthouse scene, a burlesque cop for a warden, and the whole under the "improved" title of "Jailed in the Jug, or The Forger's Revenge?" Even Gopher Prairie would rock with derision.

Yet, with no serious protest, the leading producers of the movies have been permitted to take Barrie's exquisite "Admirable Crichton," call it "Male and Female," and open it with a scene "in a great English country house" in which a page, in buttons, goes to each bedroom, looks through the keyhole, then turns and winks at the audience. And still we are seriously told that we are in the presence of a great art. I have heard many explanations of this episode, all of which have been solemnly to the effect that the changes were necessary to give Barrie's story "a popular appeal." Shades of Charles Frohman! But there you are. There is no objection to satisfying a popular demand, but it is a rank case of the mucker pose to call it art with a straight face.

I believe that motion pictures can become a great art, but they are not at present. They will not be so long as it is more profitable for them to be a very bad art and especially so long as superior intelligence appears to pat them on the back and tell them that they are perfectly lovely. The motion pictures could be laughed into a better state in six months, when all the censoring and "reorganization" would not do this in ten years. The reprehensible state of mind is that which knows that it ought to laugh and yet finds it unfashionable to do so.

In American literature, happily, the mucker pose seems to be burning itself out, but only because, in every grade of fiction except the highest, it has been, for two full decades, the popular tone, not merely in style, but in subject.

Beginning twenty years ago with the swashbuckler, who was not so bad because he was generally remote in time or in country, the mucker, in some guise or other, has been the idol of popular American fiction. The illiterate, tobacco-chewing rustic who expressed his sage-wisdom by being provincial and displayed his quaint wit by being insulting, followed the swashbuckler. Then came the third-rate prize fighter, the worst type of shop girl, the worst type of chorus girl, the smart-Alec salesman, the confidence man, the gambler, the tout, and, finally, the thief and the safe-cracker, each in turn as the ideal hero or heroine of American fiction. We were not called upon to admire these characters as types drawn true to life, in which form they might have been legitimate. We were not called upon to admire them for their daring, to study them for their unfortunate estate, or for the completeness of their depravity, in any of which lights they might have been made exceedingly artistic. We were called upon to admire them for their sheer vulgarity, for their intentional distortion of English, for their contempt of anything superior to themselves, and especially for the flip insolence with which they could put "high brows" (meaning by that people who spoke correctly and bathed regularly) in their places. There have been certain writers who were surely gentle, courteous people in their private lives, but who have seemed to believe that they would commit professional suicide if they should put a rich man or a well-bred man into a story except as a butt for some mucker. If a gentleman or a man of sensitive habits of thought were introduced as the hero it must be only to show how, at the climax of the story, he "found himself" by winning a street fight or by "making good" as a commercial traveler.

"Give the public what it wants, and let us want it too," is the artistic slogan of the mucker pose, but on his own ground the amateur mucker is no match for the genuine mucker. In life as in art no one is quicker to spot the amateur mucker than the genuine mucker and for no one has he more contempt. He has far more respect for the genuine highbrow. No college boy ever got very far in a barroom by trying to pose as a bearcat, and, on the other hand, no gentleman was ever molested in a barroom so long as he remained in his own character. The intellectual writer, or painter, or musician who courts popularity by deliberately debasing his artistic standards is only too apt to make an appearance very much like that of my poor old lady who tried so hard to be frivolous. What a silly thing it is to wish to exchange gold for brass, broadcloth for shoddy; to go down into an indiscriminate mass of muckerism and pat it on the back simply for being muckerism!

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1964, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 50 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.