Fascist Sympathies: On Dorothea Brande
The will-to-success books, then as now, existed alongside self-help guides that preached satisfaction over status and pleasure over power. They also suggested you were alone in your quest. Live Alone and Like It, the 1936 guide by Vogue features editor Marjorie Hillis, encouraged its single-woman readers to build happy, independent lives but warned at the outset that this would take “will-power” and was a solitary pursuit: “When you live alone, practically nobody arranges practically anything for you.” The bible of the positive psychology movement, Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, would not be published until 1952, but he started airing his radio show, The Art of Living, in 1935. On it he promoted ideas that drew heavily on New Thought, autosuggestion and the belief that the mind was more powerful than external reality—especially if that reality was unpleasant. Although Dale Carnegie’s 1936 bestseller How to Win Friends and Influence People offered social rewards over riches, it strongly hinted that professional success and power would follow. The author clearly took his own advice seriously, reinventing the spelling of his own name, from “Carnagey” to “Carnegie,” in order to imply a relationship to Napoleon Hill’s hero.
According to 1930s self-help guides, the costs of failing to conform to the self-improvement imperative were severe: they were an admission that you were one of society’s losers. The conviction that white American society was in decline was common in the 1930s, a basic tenet of the overlapping work of fascists and eugenicists. Writers like Brande accordingly urged their readers to pursue success in order to separate themselves from the herd of nobodies. The prolific Walter B. Pitkin, author of Life Begins at 40, was one of many who imagined a society divided into an elite and an underclass: his 1935 book Capitalism Carries On envisioned that society as a series of endless improvement workshops, “where the skilled and the experienced tinker with the clumsy, the young, the senile, the malicious, and the pathological precisely as mechanics now tinker with automobiles.” Brande devotes a full chapter of Wake Up and Live! to identifying the numerous and various types of failures, including the seemingly innocuous “embroiderers and knitters,” “aimless conversationalists,” and “takers of eternal post-graduate courses.” There is no call here to “tinker” with the less fortunate: the best you can do is urge them to buy the book.
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Dorothea Brande is now best remembered for her 1934 book Becoming a Writer, a briskly pragmatic guide to literary success, but in her own time she was also well known as the wife of Seward Collins, one of the leading proponents of American fascism. In the middle of the decade, she worked alongside her husband on his right-wing political journal The American Review, regularly contributing articles as she developed her self-help theories. Collins, unlike Brande, was born into money and used it to shortcut Dale Carnegie, buying friends and influencing people. When he moved to New York after Princeton, he also used it to amass a vast collection of erotica that was his pride and obsession. He bought the respected literary periodical The Bookman in 1927, where Brande first came to work for him, and his cultural influence grew within a circle of friends that included Edmund Wilson and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He had a disastrous affair with Dorothy Parker at the same time, when his politics were quite different: ”I ran off to the Riviera with a Trotskyite,” she later recalled.
When he abandoned The Bookman to start The American Review, Collins’s politics had turned from Trotskyite to Tory, and he published the English conservatives Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton alongside Allen Tate and other Southern Agrarians. Nostalgia for a lost rural past was a central theme of American conservative thought and a driving force behind several self-help bestsellers of the 1930s, chief among them Lin Yutang’s The Importance of Living (1937), which presented a mythical Chinese village as the model for contented living. Brande seems to have shared with her husband a suspicion of urban cosmopolitanism, and her writing in The American Review energetically denounced modernist literary culture. In a 1933 review of Q.D. Leavis’s Fiction and the Reading Public, Brande presents herself as one exhausted by the age: “sick to death of anti-religious prejudice, of subversive social and moral standards, of records of family hatred and morbid self-expression.” Casting euphemism aside, her review of a literary anthology by the Jewish critic Ludwig Lewisohn argues that the kind of “stupidities” that “abound” in the book were not only written by “members of Mr. Lewisohn’s race,” but “come to us oftenest and in their most extreme form from Jewish writers,” a fact that “cannot be denied.” Anti-Semitism was a deeply rooted infection in 1930s America; by itself it was no reliable indicator of fascist political sympathies, but in combination with anti-modernism, nationalist nostalgia and elitism, it became a key ingredient in the kind of fascism promoted by The American Review.
After 1933, Seward Collins swung further rightward, praising Mussolini and Hitler for their defeat of communism and writing regularly in praise of authoritarian leadership. Pressure from Jewish groups and his own disenchanted writers—as well as an embarrassing interview in the left-wing magazine FIGHT, in which Collins both declared himself a fascist and railed against indoor plumbing—led him to close The American Review in 1937. In its place he opened a bookshop for right-wing publications, which was later alleged to have been a meeting place for Nazi sympathizers, although it seems to have been more shabby than sinister. Collins and Brande went on to become increasingly fascinated by the occult and paranormal; Brande trained as a medium, and the couple were closely associated with London’s Society for Psychical Research. Despite her political commitment to Christianity, Brande shows no sign of having believed in the orthodoxy of heaven: Wake Up and Live! is driven by the urgent, fervid belief that the reader has only one life to live, so that even sleep is a waste of precious hours.
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The murky history of American fascism is populated with bizarre characters, and Seward Collins is by no means its most eccentric. Lawrence Dennis, the author of 1936’s The Coming American Fascism, could have been a poster child for ruthless self-improvement and Brande’s Nietzschean “will to succeed.” A Southern-born black man who gained fame as a boy preacher, Dennis cut all ties with his roots to move north, attend Exeter and Harvard, and pass for the rest of his life as white. Like Seward Collins, he advocated the need for a new elite to run the country, armed with what his biographer, Gerald Horne, calls the “firepower of intelligence rather than complexion.” Dennis was motivated by both anti-communism and anti-capitalism, denouncing the corruption of Wall Street’s (Jewish) bankers in the pages of The New Republic and The Nation as well as The Awakener, where he was an editor, and which shared offices with a thinly disguised Italian fascist propaganda agency. If reinventing yourself through the power of mind and indomitable will, costs be damned, was a path to success, then Dennis embodied the parallel faiths of 1930s New Thought self-help and right-wing politics.
However, the entwining of those faiths had yet to find its most influential figure—in the 1930s, she was just beginning her long climb to the apex of the American quasi-fascist self-help philosophy. Alisa Rosenbaum, the Russian immigrant who would reinvent herself as Ayn Rand, goddess of the American right wing, published her first novel, We the Living, in 1936. Rand recognized that self-help relied on the power of the imagination and that fiction could be an even more powerful means to advance an ideology. She offered not formulas but role models, encouraging readers to identify with her lonely, brilliant industrialists hamstrung by the idiocies of lesser men. Wildly elaborated versions of the “case studies” that supported the arguments of Norman Vincent Peale, Napoleon Hill and Dorothea Brande, these characters represented the potential of a self-selected, self-centered elite, propelled to power by genius alone. Her novels dramatize the conflict between the successes and the failures, the exceptional individuals and the lazy, dangerous masses, in such a way that the reader need never actually prove the theory in his or her own life … which, in the end, became self-help’s most compelling story of all.