History is a funny thing in that it takes no prisoners. One thing American Conservatives have wrestled with since the foundation of the republic is just what it is they are supposed to be conserving. Europeans and Latin Americans were fairly clear on the point, with a rejection of the principles of the French Revolution and concomitant adherence to altar and throne. The religious patterns of our early settlement and the revolutionary origins of our government, however, made any such easy definition impossible. Complex arguments have been made both for and against the supposed “Conservatism” of the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists, of Hamilton and Jefferson, of the Whig Party and the Democratic, of the Union and the Confederacy, and of the gold standard supporters and the Silverites. Perhaps these contradictions have never been so glaring as during the Great Depression, with the work of a man named Seward Collins (1899–1952).
Heir to a national chain of tobacco shops, Collins’s privileged upbringing and education culminated in his stint at Princeton where, as an undergraduate, he became friendly with F. Scott Fitzgerald. After graduation, he threw himself into the New York literary highlife of the Roaring Twenties. At this stage of his life, he held to the fashionable Leftist Modernism in political and literary matters affected by his friends. Wanting to do something serious to encourage literature in the United States, in 1927 Collins purchased The Bookman. He continued its tradition of publishing both new fiction and literary criticism by some of the best-known writers of the time—including Sherlock Holmes’s creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
During his association with this magazine, Collins gradually moved away from his liberal views, and came increasingly to embrace the style of literary criticism originated by Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More, dubbed the “New Humanism.” As the 1920s ended and the Great Depression descended upon the United States, Collins increasingly critiqued both capitalism, which in his view had created the crisis, and communism, which sought to treat the evil with an even worse medicine. He also noted—as did many other American commentators at the time—that Mussolini’s Italy was seemingly sailing through the Depression with minimal apparent distress. This Collins came to attribute to Italian corporatism and to Mussolini’s strong leadership exercised for the common good. The “Dirty Thirties” commenced, and “fascism” as Collins understood it seemed to him to be a better and better solution.