The Age of Trump has pushed irony once again to the forefront of our cultural conversation. In a 2016 essay published in the New York Times, Christy Wampole argued that the “Age of Irony ended abruptly on Nov. 9, 2016” with the election of Donald Trump. The corrosive irony that had inundated the “blue bubbles of educated, left-leaning, white middle-class people in cities, suburbia, and college towns,” evaporated in the face of the “cataclysmic election.” Wampole suggests an America split between those who live “defensively” and those who live earnestly. In a December 2017 essay for Salon, Sophia A. McClennan suggests just the reverse: that Trump’s deliberately imprecise use of language has turned all political discourse ironic—the only important question is how that irony is being used. But we have been here before. An historical excursion can help clarify today’s debate. During World War II, American politicians, academics, and writers using the language of “morale” were similarly concerned with issues of irony and sincerity: did Americans sincerely believe in the fight, in the pronouncements of its politicians and military officials? Did irony end with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor? There was never a clear answer then, or now, because we have been, and continue to be, a culture both thoroughly ironic and unabashedly sentimental.
The bestselling American novel of the World War II years was written by a then 65-year old Congregational clergyman, Dr. Lloyd C. Douglas. Published in October of 1942, The Robe tells the story of Marcellus, a young Roman soldier, who participates in Christ’s crucifixion and then wins his robe in a dice game. Marcellus’s encounters with Christ’s garment are dramatic, at first deranging him and then healing him. A transformed Marcellus, accompanied by his Greek slave Demetrius, search out information about Jesus, his teachings, and his followers.
It is not surprising that Americans—at least the white middle-class readership that was Douglas’ primary audience—would seek wartime comfort in a spiritually uplifting story of personal transformation. The first year of American involvement in the war was grim and uncertain, good news scarce. Who could blame readers for wanting both escape and reassurance? And although the culture was suffused with patriotism and an earnest commitment to fight, many Americans—soldiers included—remained suspicious of the war and the government officials that were directing it. The armed forces conducted many large-scale surveys of soldiers, and it is surprising to learn just how uncertain so many GI’s were about why they were fighting (these surveys were collected and analyzed in the landmark volumes of The American Soldier, published in 1949 under the direction of sociologist Samuel A. Stouffer). Ernie Pyle’s popular wartime journalism articulated one very popular version of this detached attitude: soldiers fought to get home, not to end tyranny.
In 1942, Lloyd C. Douglas was already a successful novelist. His breakthrough came with 1929’s Magnificent Obsession, a surprise bestseller about a spoiled playboy’s transformation into a selfless doctor. So it wasn’t unexpected that The Robe might sell; but the novel’s tremendous success was surprising. According to a 1946 Life profile of the author, The Robe “used up so much paper that its embarrassed publishers, Houghton Mifflin Company, were compelled to rent their rights in the property to the firm of Grosset & Dunlap.” On its release, the novel stayed on the bestseller list for nine months, was translated into 12 languages, and sold $1, 396, 000 copies. Most people today know The Robe from the grand 1953 film adaptation directed by Henry Koster and starring a young Richard Burton.
Critical reception of the novel ran from tepid—an “admirable” fusion of historical fact and fiction well told (New York Times)—to cantankerous—a “pathetic” and “vague sociological experiment” (America: A Catholic Review of the Week). In his extraordinary New Yorker review from 1944, the literary critic Edmund Wilson dismantles the novel’s literary aspirations. “It is so difficult,” Wilson writes, “when one first glances into The Robe, to imagine that any literate person with the faintest trace of literary taste could ever get through more than two pages of it for pleasure that one is astounded and terrified at the thought that seven million American have found something in it to hold their attention.” And yet, amid the snark, Wilson is clearly sympathetic to the book’s great success, its good “old-fashioned” storytelling with an uplifting message for a very dark time. “It is quite natural,” he writes, “that people should find it a relief to hear about somebody who was interested in healing the blind and the crippled rather than in blinding and crippling people, and in comforting the persecuted rather than in outlawing large groups of human beings.”
Here Wilson approaches one of the reasons—perhaps the essential one—for the book’s massive popularity: its sentimentality. Cosmopolitan magazine noted this in an editorial preface to an essay by Douglas, contrasting the book’s simple and dramatic story with the “cynical age” it inhabited. The primary characters of The Robe—Marcellus and Demetrius—through tears and struggles shed their cynicism for the satisfaction of spiritual commitment. But when I describe The Robe as sentimental I am not using that term only in its common meaning of excessive or unwarranted emotion (although it has some of that. Douglas is excessively fond of the exclamation point!). The Robe is sentimental in a specifically historical way, part of a long Anglo-American literary and philosophical tradition. In the United States that tradition is best represented by mid- 19th century novels, many of them by women, the most famous being Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World (1850) and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). The sentimental tradition emphasized the power of emotion and sympathy to morally improve ourselves and the world around us. Religion, particularly protestant religion, was central to this effort, manifested in what literary historian Claudia Stokes calls “sentimental piety,” a generalized Christian spirituality composed of prayer, Bible readings, and moral improvement (in fact, as Stokes shows, what seems so “colorless or indistinct” to us today was actually riddled with diverse, controversial theological commitments).
As a cultural force in American life, sentimentality withered along with the Victorian morality of the late 19th century. But as a set of cultural tropes— themes, images, and ideas—sentimentality lived on, thriving in 20th century modern mass culture’s novels, magazines, films, radio serials, and popular songs. In this context, The Robe’s success makes perfect sense. Sentimental piety was waxing in the early years of the war. The Robe shared the bestseller list with two other popular Christian novels (interestingly, both written by Jewish authors): Franz Werfel’s Song of Bernadette (1941) and Sholem Asch’s The Apostle (1943). One of the most popular radio “soaps” of the early 1940s, Irna Phillip’s The Guiding Light centered on a non-sectarian minister named John Rutledge and the Five Points community he served. The show’s title and opening music—a ringing church organ—set the pious tone, a contrast to the sordid problems faced by the shows’s characters. Bing Crosby, the bestselling American musical artist of the era, had hits with songs such as 1944’s “Just a Prayer Away” and, most famously, Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” (1942).
Crosby also carried sentimental piety to the screen, portraying easy-going Father O’Malley in Going My Way (1944) and the Bells of St. Mary (1945). Both films were massive commercial and critical successes that solidified Crosby as the era’s defining celebrity. The character of Father O’Malley drew closely on the actor’s star persona—a down-to-earth, slightly mischievous, everyman. O’Malley is a believer but he is also modern—he likes to play golf and watch baseball—and he wears his religion lightly. Both films, despite their setting, are not specifically religious. In fact, it is O’Malley’s secular musical abilities that save the church in Going My Way. These films’ portrayal of a generalized Christian faith strongly echoed 19th-century sentimental piety with its emphasis on prayer, Bible reading, and faith. Like Douglas’ novel, the Father O’Malley films studiously avoided controversial theological ideas.
Next to radio soap operas, Christmas songs, and affable Hollywood priests, Douglas’s novel may seem the odd one out. But despite its more overt religiosity—telling the story of Christ’s crucifixion and the early years of the church—the novel is deliberately ecumenical. The main characters—Marcellus and Demetrius—are pragmatic, hard-headed, and rational people. They take an ambivalent stand on the miraculous nature of the Robe (Douglas nearly always capitalizes the noun), rationalizing its power in distinctly modern psychological terms. When Marcellus finally accepts the truth of Jesus’ miracles, he reluctantly acknowledges that reason has failed him: “There’s no use trying to explain…I gathered up the Robe in my hand—and it healed my mind.” For the majority of the novel Marcellus remains a hardboiled pragmatist, skeptical of people’s motives and frequently doubting the truth of what he hears from Roman and Jew alike. At least until his total spiritual transformation, Marcellus lives “defensively,” using irony as way to navigate his often deceitful world.
The Robe then is simply a different perspective on the same cultural dynamic—the revival of sentimental piety as counterweight to the era’s hardboiled cynicism: just as Irna Philips and Bing Crosby infused sentimental popular mass culture with a generalized religiosity, Douglas modernized Protestant piety for the hardboiled wartime American masses. As with any popular cultural text, the novel undoubtedly meant many things to its diverse readership. The novel reads as a thinly veiled critique of the materialism and decadence of modern American life. And it certainly had a strong resonance with the war and its many atrocities, some of which had already been reported on. But The Robe is, above all, classically sentimental, focused on the emotional and tearful transformations of its central characters. When the distraught Marcellus finally touches the Robe for a second time, he is flooded with emotion—a “curious elation,” “an indefinable sense of relief from everything.” During World War II Americans wanted to read stories of Ernie Pyle’s battle-hardened GI’s as much as they also yearned for the joyful rapture of sincere emotional catharsis: “He wasn’t afraid any more! Hot tears gathered in his eyes and overflowed.” Despite its distance from our postmodern moment, The Robe traces some very familiar cultural terrain: the concern that irony saps moral certainty and political action. But the novel is also a reminder of the enormous influence of the sentimental tradition, a persistent companion to Americans’ ironic habit. Between irony and sincerity, Americans continue to choose both.