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Temptations of the Cultural Historian

O Strange New World American Culture: The Formative Years

by Howard Mumford Jones
Viking, 464 pp., $8.50

Professor Howard Mumford Jones could probably best be described as a cultural historian. That, at any rate, is how he is described on the dust jacket of his recent book, O Strange New World. The chief interest of this book may well lie in certain questions it raises implicitly, and leaves unresolved, about the nature of cultural history itself. I know of no attempt to make a neat and succinct formulation of its problems and goals comparable to the late A. O. Lovejoy’s essay on “The Historiography of Ideas.” No doubt the reason is that the general term cultural history is too broad, and admits of too many approaches, to tolerate a definition or even a description that would be adequately or usefully delimiting. Nevertheless, cultural history demands, even more than political, military, or economic history, a rigorously defined perspective, a firmly held criterion of relevance, and a keenly developed sensibility that has been trained in literature and the arts. Cultural history more than any other kind exercises the creative faculty and makes the heaviest demands on critical discrimination. Scholarship and breadth of erudition are by no means secondary, but they are pointless without these other qualities that can put them effectively to work.

Jacob Burckhardt’s History of Greek Culture, recently translated into English for the first time, is a masterpiece of cultural history because Burckhardt possessed all these qualities in a superb degree, and was thus able to move from aesthetic criticism to political, social, and religious analysis with wonderful assurance and tact. The result is that he defines the quality of mind and evokes the very spirit of the Greek city state with conviction and vividness. Alexandre Beljame’s Men of Letters and the English Public in the Eighteenth Century, which undertook to show how English writers in the period earned their living, may not contain literary criticism of the first order, but Beljame possessed abundantly that quality of relevance mentioned above, which permitted him to coordinate social and economic factors with English literature and the theater, thus giving us a picture of Literary London between Dryden and Pope that is still useful and delightful after more than eighty years. Even a limited and often inept cultural historian like Vernon Louis Parrington was so dominated by his rather charming faith in the Jeffersonian surmise in the American soul that his intellectual passion gives imaginative unity to his work, and sheds a sweet and innocent light by which to recognize the critical distortions of American literature he never dreamed he was making.

O Strange New World appears to be almost disastrously lacking in all these qualities. In the concluding paragraph of his book, Professor Jones asks: “Who was this new man, this American? We do not yet know. But finding an answer to Crèvecoeur’s famous query dominates our cultural history for decades.” This, I suppose, is the question on which the ten chapters composing the body of this book converge, and the chapters are to be taken as separate but related essays, each treating a distinct component or factor in the tradition that, beginning with the sixteenth century, has gone to make up this still unknown quantity—an American.

When Crèvecoeur first asked this question in the 1780s it had a good deal of point; but although it has been asked so often in this century that it is in some danger of becoming a chestnut, one wonders if there is much sense left in asking it at all. If we still do not know what an American is, as Professor Jones says, it may be because the question is not absolute in itself, and carries as many possible answers as there are persons to address themselves to it, and historical perspectives in which to frame it. O Strange New World adopts the paradoxical strategy of exploring and illuminating the character and reality of this still unknown American by sifting a mass of historical evidence from the sixteenth century to the mid-nineteenth—thereby using the unrevealed as the criterion of relevance by which to select and discriminate among the limitless clutter of facts. As a result, the figure of this American sometimes seems more in danger of being buried under information than excavated from it. In the end, neither a sharper definition of the American essence, nor a new illumination of our historical past, is achieved. Instead, we are given facts whose inter-relationships are examined under somewhat arbitrary chapter headings that may, indeed, shackle them together, but nowhere succeed in revealing an organic or living unity among them.

Professor Jones undertakes to show us the slowly evolving American against the largest possible geographical and temporal background. In theory this is admirable, for every moment of time is, in one sense, rooted in all the ages. In practice, however, this plan soon encounters difficulties. There is a distinct limit to the amount of material on which a scholar, who is not also a greatly gifted creative mind, can impose form and imaginative order. Professor Jones is of course a scholar of large erudition in his field, but it is an erudition that sometimes behaves on wanton associationist principles in this book.

Space does not permit a detailed analysis of the material in any one chapter, but one might consider the opening ten-page section of Chapter VIII, “Roman Virtue,” in which the impact of the classical tradition on the new nation is considered. After being told that we were never part of the Roman empire, and that “no battered statues are dug up in America as they are dug up in Greece or Israel or Italy,” we are given a description of the classical motifs on the great scal of the United States, and something is said of classical iconography on early American coins and medals. We are told in considerable detail about the Latin mottoes on the great seals of twenty states, and this somehow moves into a discussion of James Russell Lowell’s “Commemoration Ode” of 1865. Several pages are then devoted to the recovery of classical antiquity during the Renaissance, with selected anecdotes, and after a paragraph on Ivan III, who, by marrying in 1472 the niece of Constantine Paleologus, last emperor of Byzantium, projected the idea of Moscow as the third Rome, we are shown George Washington, “the Cincinnatus of the West,” who “took his oath of office on the balcony of the ‘classical’ United States building in New York City and became president of a new republic eight times as large as the Republic of Rome when Rome included all Italy.” The next two pages concern themselves with the vitality of the classical tradition from the fifteenth century. We are in at the excavation of the “Laocoön,” see the Apollo Belvedere set up in the Vatican, hear words of praise for Elizabethan translations of the classics, are reminded that Spenser “portrays English rustics conversing as he thought Roman or Greek shepherds might have talked,” and that “Ralegh’s History of the World comes down to the period when Macedonia became a Roman province.” On the next page we are shown Jefferson in Paris designing the Virginia capitol in the classical manner, are told of the popularity of Piranesi etching of Roman ruins with wealthy Americans, are referred to Healy’s “charming, if sentimental, picture of Longfellow and his daughter Edith under the arch of Titus,” and after additional references to Byron, Hawthorne, and Mark Twain, are informed that “the long, continuous emotional thrust of antiquity into the United States [is] not quite validated by Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra.” This is cultural history as Leonard Lyons might write it up, and it is not surprising that the index runs to thirty columns of very small type.

Although the last three sections of Chapter VIII are a little more concentrated, the general impression is of facts as thick as crab grass across the lawn of history. But more serious than their proliferation is the occasional doubt one feels about Professor Jones’s dealings with them. He is, for example, much concerned with the idea of a Machiavellian tradition in the New World. One agrees with him of course in rejecting those older writers who tried to suggest that the nastier aspects of human nature were washed away by the sea spray when the white man first invaded this continent; but an elaborate theory about Machiavelli and America, which the facts hardly seem to support, is not necessary to explain why human behavior remained constant. Professor Jones seems to me to have erred in requiring what is at best a pseudo-idea to bear a weight in his argument that is beyond its strength. As part of his strategy for integrating America with the European past, his development of the Machiavellian tradition in the American wilderness invites a closer glance.

Machiavelli is carefully prepared for in the text by several pages on the horrifying crimes of the Italian tyrants that might have been torn out of J. A. Symonds’ The Age of the Despots, and Machiavelli is given in his own person as much space as John Adams, twice as much as Alexander Hamilton, a third more than George Washington, and only slightly less than Jefferson. Professor Jones is of course arguing that the conditions of the New World, remote from royal authority and control, called for qualities of force, ruthlessness, and duplicity of leadership that had been recommended in Il Principe. It is well known that Raleg was a serious student of Machiavell but apart from him there is virtuall no evidence that any of the conquista dors, buccaneers, explorers, and from tiersmen whom Professor Jones puts i the tradition had ever read him. Certainly none of the Indians, who are also placed in the tradition, had done so: and although Professor Jones, will less than ringing clarity, asserts that “some knowledge however slight, or such Renaissance authors as Machiavelli, Cervantes, and Shakespeare” persisted through the colonial period, it is difficult to suppose that Henry Morgar or Captain Kidd was much influenced by the dubious Florentine. Yet repeatedly Professor Jones implies, without affirming, the existence of a very palpable tradition of Machiavellianism in America. He sees it (p. 145) as somehow involved “in California during the gold rush to the Klondike.”

The existence of this tradition is never established by anything approaching a demonstration, but by a curious performance of scholarly legerdemain it is insistently present. One cannot even be sure of the kind of claims for it because his prose, when he speaks of it, is kept at a level of baffling ambiguity:

The lack of any definitive study of the vogue of Machiavelli in North America seems to indicate that Il Principle has no such influence as the cult of the gentleman. But the central issue is, as I have said, not one of influence but of conduct, and it seems unlikely that the powerful traditions we have been discussing died out and left no aftermath. What happened was that the Machiavelian theory of power, so far as the mainland colonies were concerned, seemed to split into two parts. One has to do with terror as an instrument of policy, and the other with cunning.

I do not know what any of this means. If American conduct on the frontier and in the wilderness grew directly out of the environment and its dangers, then the question of Machiavelli’s “influence” is irrelevant, and probably non-existent, and need not be raised. For a moment this seems to be what Professor Jones is saying. But then he speaks at once of the “Machiavellian theory of power” splitting into two parts, and we are back on the level of “influence” again rather than of conduct, and certainly in the presence of a tangible tradition. This sounds like double-talk, and the rather sly reference to the nineteenth-century cult of the gentleman, which certainly did exist, seems to be introduced chiefly for the sake of conferring by association some of its reality on the cult of the “Machiavels,” whose existence Professor Jones has certainly not proved.

The existence of this tradition becomes even more questionable as we advance towards the present. Professor Jones admits he does not know whether Frank Norris ever read Machiavelli, but it would be “a nice exercise in logical discrimination” to distinguish between Machiavelli’s concept of power and Norris’s concept of force in The Octopus. Mentioning the novelist Winston Churchill, whose fictional character, Jethro Bass, manipulates the New Hampshire legislature in a way that reminds him of Cesare Borgia, Professor Jones remarks: “Machiavellianism, whether as finesse, fraud, or force, has long been a standard component of American political life.”

I said earlier that Machiavellianism in America seems in this book to be less an idea than a pseudo-idea; but even worse, it becomes at last little more than the abuse of a word. One regrets that a scholar of Professor Jones’s stature and erudition should have written a case book illustrating the peculiar temptations and dangers that beset the modern cultural historian, but it appears to me that he has.

Letters

Letters December 17, 1964

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