Edmund Wilson

EVERYTHING is gray today. From a distance, the dome of the Capitol looks like gray polished granite, and against this bleak sky of March, it has a sort of steel-engraving distinction. Seen close to, in this weather, it seems a replica of itself in white rubber; clouds in colorless light are threatening snow or rain. An aluminum blimp hangs below them.

The people seem dreary, even apathetic. The Washington banks have closed, the banks throughout the country are closing; and, though the newspapers are trying to conceal the news that New York and Illinois have given up, there creeps over us, through all the activity and pomp, a numbness of life running out. The prosperity of America has vanished; even the banks do not know where the money is; even the banks say they have not got it; so they are simply shutting up, no more checks cashed; general dismay and blankness. And- what somehow seems of special bad omen- the most popular member of the Cabinet, Thomas Walsh, on the eve of taking office, has suddenly died.

The crowd waits in front of the Capitol. "What are those things that look like little cages?" "Machine-guns," says a woman with a giggle. They wait until Roosevelt's figure appears dimly on the platform on the Capitol steps, till they dimly hear the accents of his voice- then the crowd rapidly thins.

But even when one reads them later, the phrases of this speech seem shadowy- the echoes of Woodrow Wilson's eloquence without Wilson's exaltation behind them. The old unctuousness, the old pulpit vagueness: "in every dark hour of our national life," "and yet our distress comes from no failure of substance- we are stricken by no plague of locusts," "where there is no vision the people perish," "the moneychangers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization," "our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men." The old Wilsonian professions of plain-speaking followed by the old abstractions: "I am certain that on this day my fellow Americans expect that . . . I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our people impels. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly," etc. What then? In finance, he tells us, we must "restore to the ancient truths" the temple from which the money-changers have fled; and in the field of foreign affairs, he "would dedicate this nation to the policy of the good neighbor."

There is a suggestion, itself rather vague, of a possible dictatorship.

The first part of the parade is respectable.

Preceded by well-drilled motorcycles and a squadron of khaki cavalry, leaning forward as they briskly canter with their sabers against their shoulders, the silk hats and the admiral's gold-braided bicorne roll along in open cars on their way from the Capitol to the White House. The new President smiles his smug public smile, doffing his high hat and calling back to greetings from the crowd. "He looks like Wilson, doesn't he?" says a woman. "The glasses and pointed nose look like Wilson." "He looks so aristocratic, I think!" another woman says to her neighbor, as she shows her a picture of Roosevelt graciously receiving Hoover. Mrs. Roosevelt sits beside her husband, looking small, dark and unpretentious, smiling, her little round black hat tilted fashionably over one ear.

An interim of waiting; the weather grows colder. The parade proper now begins. The branches of the service pass first. Chief of Staff, General Douglas MacArthur, who drove the veterans out of Washington last summer; the flare of flags of the First Division; the ranks of Knickerbocker Cadets, tall and rigid and gray; marines in clean white caps and gaiters, with a red and yellow rattlesnake flag; bluejackets; Negroes in khaki, always with a white officer at their head; khaki trucks, khaki anti-aircraft guns; a new kind of short black machine-gun as shiny and perfect as the little screw-out pencils that people used to wear on watch-chains; stretchers; a drum-major in a white shako; the blue Richmond Blues, the gray Richmond Grays, and the red and gray Richmond Howitzers, all with white plumes and pre-Civil-War uniforms. It is inspiriting to hear The West Point Cadets' March and The Stars and Stripes Forever- they bring back the America of boyhood: the imperial Roosevelt, the Spanish War. And the airplanes against the dark sky, flying in groups of nine and moving as they reach the reviewing stand into exact little patterns like jackstones, awaken a moment's pride in American technical precision.

But from this early point on- and there are something like three hours of it still to pass- the procession degenerates crazily. It first recalls those college reunions for which the classes dress in fancy costumes, but then proceeds to lengths of absurdity that make the carnival at Nice look decorous.

It is the militarizing girls from the provinces who introduce the musical-comedy element. The delegation from Atlanta Tech High is headed by a pretty girl in a red coat and white pants, with a white overseas cap and a white Sam Browne belt. Another in high heels leads a company of girls in gray and blue. The John Marshall Cadet Corps from Richmond are handsome in long gray coats and red cloaks.

Now the governors of the states are coming, sandwiched in between bands. Delaware Post Number One have shine steel trench helmets, sky-blue coats, white breeches and black puttees. Gifford Pinchot, in an open car, bows and takes off his hat in response to the cheers that follow him, with gestures willowy and courtly like the White Knight turned politician. But the next sound we hear is a breeze of laughter. One of the bands has a funny drum-major, whose specialty is hip-wiggling and mincing: he puts one hand to his waist, holds it out marking the time with wrist limp and little finger extended, turns sideways and, with a rumbadancer's rhythm, pretends to make billiard-shots with a naughtily phallic baton. And the effect of the pansy drummajor is to impart to the features that come after a circus-parade effect of clowning. He is followed immediately by Governor Ritchie, who looks like a silk-hatted Mr. Woodchuck out of the Bedtime Stories of Thornton Burgess; he shakes howdy with one gloved paw, and you expect to see the automobile go off with a blaze and a bang, and the silk hats tumbling in the sawdust.

There follows a strange little closed car, which displays, on the radiator, the blue Lone Star of Texas. It has the streamlines of a small goblin army tank; and the spectators murmur as it passes that it cost ten thousand, thirty thousand dollars. The Green Trojans of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, are frog-green with bersaglieri's feathered bonnets. The Veterans of the Indian Wars are old men in a big green bus.

And as the weather grows darker and more ominous, the parade becomes more fantastic. The American Legion Posts, which dominate the later sections, startle, trouble and shock. Are these the implacable guardians of an Americanism tempered by battle? There are legionnaires with bright blue coats and trench helmets of canary yellow; legionnaires as hussars in orange; legionnaire drum-and-bugle corps, weaving fancy evolutions as they march. A great many women among them. One detachment of patriotic ladies wears red cloaks and blue and white plumes. The circus illusion is heightened by a cute-kid cowboy on a donkey and by a man who walks all alone made up as Abraham Lincoln and whom you expect to see stop for some comic trick-puff smoke, perhaps, out of his stovepipe hat.

Now the spectacle grows phantasmagoric. Comic lodges and marching clubs pass. Men appear in curled-up shoes and fezzes, dressed in hideous greens, purples and reds. Indians, terribly fat, with terribly made-up squaws. A very large loose old Negro in a purple fez and yellow-edged cloak, carrying the prong of an antler as if it were the Golden Bough. The airplanes overhead have at the present stage been replaced by an insect-like autogyro, which trails a big advertising banner: "Re-Tire with Lee's Tires." The Negro lady-hussars wear gorgeous bright purple stockings. The Spirit of '76 are evidently more or less cockeyed: one of the trio is always getting behind and then running to catch up with the others. Real Cherokees in white-fringed suits and headdresses of pink-tipped feathers; one rides a horse, bareback, and sends a murmur through the crowd, who remark that he is practically naked.

A passage of real dignity and gravity ensues. The cornets of the New York Police Band, who march in a dense blue formation and announce they "fear no music written," make an attention-compelling impact for the solid ranks of silk hats of Tammany, which go on and on like an army. No fantasy and no frivolity: each marches in a dark coat and with a white carnation in his buttonhole. A1 Smith, with a red face, is in the front line with John F. Curry, and gives rise to a high wave of cheering. They are followed by a comic Dutchman wheeling a red, white and blue keg, and Miss Columbia leading the Queens County donkey.

But a mutter of expectation now agitates the crowd. Al Smith has had his ovation; but he is now to be eclipsed by Tom Mix.* Not even the President is so popular. They catch sight of his white suit and sombrero while he is still several blocks away, and they go wild with delight as he passes by, making his beautiful little pony- jet-black in its silver harness-dance. He has come on as a part of the publicity for a new film called 42nd Street- arriving in a royally appointed and electric-bulb-studded train, "The Better Times Gold and Silver Leaf Special," with an assortment of Hollywood beauties.

These beauties are presented on a "Better Times Float," which resembles a merry-go-round. As it is pulled along, it revolves, exhibiting the waving girls, who- in front of a background of giant tulips and under a canopy of yellow and red- are posing on wicker couches as summery as Beverly Hills.

But Hollywood is nothing to the marching clubs. A faint uncanny music now tickles the ear, and ambiguous figures loom, out of Little Nemo's Adventures in Slumberland. Some seem half-Indian, half-angel, with feather headdresses that sweep to the ground; others- who get great applause- wear hoods with spiky dorsal fins, like Martians in the barbershop weeklies; and all are clad in pale flowing female robes, tinted with celestial pinks and blues and making an effect of unpleasant iridescence such as sweat sometimes leaves on white shirts. As they move, they tease mosquito-buzzing dance music out of xylophones, banjos, violins and guitars. Interspersed are the Loew's Theaters Cadet Band; a drummajor who can juggle two batons; and a drunk with Leon Errol rubber legs, who ricochets back and forth and shakes hands with the people on the sidelines.

A small group from the Virgin Islands, soberly uniformed and quietly behaved, and a float of chilly-looking trained nurses incongruously end the procession.

If the parade went on any longer, it would be too dark to see, too cold to stay out. And you are glad when it is over, anyway. The America it represented has burst with the bursting of the boom, and you realized, as you watched the marchers, how abysmally silly it was. This delirium is the ghost it has given up.

* A favorite moving-picture actor.

March 1933

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