The Shortage of Supermen

A 1922 New York Times Magazine article posited that, compared to prior eras, there was now an “unquestionable sterility of the twentieth century in the production of very great men.”

The anonymous author cites multiple examples from previous centuries of those who exhibited “dazzling and outstanding genius,” including (among others) William Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Isaac Newton, Napoleon Bonaparte, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Leonardo da Vinci.

How many men alive at this moment can with complete justice to the giants of the past be named as ranking absolutely as their equals? I am not certain that by even a generous computation as many as twelve could be named.

The author than suggests people alive in 1922 who may possibly qualify, either because he personally believes so or because much of the public might. Most of these nominees have now been largely forgotten by the masses, including:

  • Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun, who’s largely shunned today for being a Nazi sympathizer
  • U.K. Prime Minister Lloyd George. Perhaps most Brits may still know his name, but most Americans surely don’t β€” especially not compared to more iconic 20th century British leaders like Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher.
  • French poet, novelist, and journalist Anatole France 
  • Italian poet and playwright Gabriele D’Annunzio 
  • Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck
  • French general Marshal Foch
  • Norwegian novelist Johan Bojer
  • German novelist Gerhart Hauptmann

Some of the article’s other nomination for “great men” from 1922 still remain famous (or at least semi-famous) to the general masses in 2022, including:

  • Thomas Edison
  • English writer Rudyard Kipling, best remembered for 1894’s story collection The Jungle Book. Although, to be honest, Disney’s 1967 animated film and 2016 live-action remake are both far better known among the masses today than anything Kipling himself did.
  • English novelist Thomas Hardy, best remembered for 1891’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles

A few surprising names were not listed as towering men of true greatness from 1922. Off the top of my head:

  • The most obvious omission, by far: Albert Einstein. The man’s last name has literally becoming a synonym for “genius” in the popular vernacular.
  • Henry Ford. If Thomas Edison was nominated, why not Ford?
  • Orville Wright. (His brother Wilbur had already died by 1922.)
  • Nikola Tesla
  • Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of radio
  • Alexander Graham Bell. (Who technically died in August 1922, three and a half months before this article was originally published, but still.)
  • Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes? Last year, the website SCOTUSblog.com named him as the second-greatest Supreme Court justice of all time, behind only John Marshall.

As far as writers and novelists, many of the most iconic men of words from the 1920s wouldn’t truly hit their stride until later in the decade after 1922, such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner. Nonetheless, it seems like a few more figures from the arts could have been nominated as well.

The Shortage of Supermen

Published: Sunday, November 26, 1922

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