The Imperial Self: An Essay in American Literary and Cultural History
Ever since D. H. Lawrence published his Studies in Classic American Literature in 1922, books on nineteenth-century American literature have been an ambitious form. Two generations of critics have read the classic American texts—Emerson’s essays, Poe’s stories, The Scarlet Letter, Walden, Leaves of Grass, Moby Dick—as if they were a pathologist’s slides revealing a national sickness, and have variously diagnosed them as a regressive yearning for pastoral simplicity, an incapacity for mature sexual relationships, a separation of morals from social manners, etc. Quentin Anderson, a professor of English at Columbia, has drawn on all of these ideas but seems more inspired by Lawrence himself. Lawrence argued that the American consciousness is characterized by its rejection of the European faith in the legitimacy of authority. “Henceforth be masterless” is the message that ought to have been written at the base of the Statue of Liberty. Anderson’s book attacks this anarchical, antinomian strain in the American sensibility and affirms the necessity of fathers and of the law.
In his first chapter, “The Failure of the Fathers,” Anderson argues that in the radically individualistic New England society of the 1830s, which lacked institutions outside the self, Emerson was led to take upon himself the whole burden of self-creation. His consciousness expanded to fill the space once occupied by religious and social authority; he was forced to look to his own imagination for the nourishment provided in Europe by the community. Without sustaining traditions, without the multiplicity of relations which a denser society provided, the individual was driven back upon his own unaided imagination, on which he solely depended.
In this way Emerson became the first “imperial self” in American letters. As he wrote in his Journals: “There is such an immense background to my nature that I must treat my fellows as Empire treats Empire and God God.” The problem, in Anderson’s view, is that Emerson’s egotism, his terrible self-sufficiency, his “hypertrophied consciousness” made him indifferent to the needs of society and the nourishing value of normal social relationships. His intransigent spiritual expansiveness makes him the enemy of what Anderson is speaking for, “the middle ground of work and love where activity is shared.”
Anderson applies this thesis, with some variations, to the religion of consciousness in Whitman and Henry James as well. Cooper, Poe, Thoreau, Melville, and Twain are not discussed. Hawthorne, on the other hand, is given a chapter in which he is exempted from the general indictment; Anderson praises The Scarlet Letter for demonstrating a proper sense of the claims of society and the limits of the imagination. Anderson’s middle-class Hawthorne is much closer to the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding Englishmen of Trollope’s novels than to Kafka and Dostoevsky, writers with whom he is usually linked.
Unfortunately Anderson has been influenced by Lawrence’s style as well as by his ideas. The Imperial Self is an imperial mingling of literary criticism, cultural history, spiritual autobiography, ideological polemic, and sermon. The result is a book as personal, obsessed, tendentious, repetitive, and tediously apocalyptic as Lawrence at his worst—without being nearly so original. Anderson’s writing is as inflated as the “hypertrophied consciousness” he attacks in American literature, and must sometimes be translated sentence by sentence to make sense. The portentousness usually seems empty, as when Anderson writes at the beginning of his last chapter, “Coming Out of Culture”: “The title of this chapter points to an event literally unrealizable before the last days. We still lead associated lives.” This McLuhanesque pronouncement means simply that professors of literature like Quentin Anderson are now able to attach greater credibility to the idea of society and attribute greater importance to social relationships than they were in the 1950s, when history didn’t press so hard and critics believed in the sufficiency of art.
But The Imperial Self is clearly as much a product of the confusions of our recent history, especially in the universities, as of previous scholarship. Indeed, Anderson’s excesses are comprehensible only as the expression of rage against students, who are seen as the heirs of the nineteenth-century “imperial” prophets and their twentieth-century counterparts, of whom Henry Miller, Allen Ginsberg, and Norman O. Brown are named. Not surprisingly, the book’s outraged attack on anarchy, or as Anderson calls it, “dissociation from the imaginative priority of communal life,” has caused it to be welcomed by reviewers as tired of the recent political and cultural turbulence as Anderson is. The Imperial Self is a book for embattled fathers.
In its analysis of the present social condition the book seems to me at its weakest. Anderson tries to explain cultural phenomena exclusively as “modes of consciousness,” as if the larger world of events didn’t exist. Only an oppressively literary mind could blame Emerson, Whitman, and Henry James for Woodstock and the Columbia University riots of 1968. Strangely, Anderson never once mentions the war in Vietnam as a possible cause of the “imaginative desocialization” of the young, a mistake analogous to that of historians of modern Germany who “explain” the rise of Hitler as a consequence of the philosophies of Fichte, Hegel, and Nietzsche, instead of looking to the concrete social and economic conditions of Germany in the period after Versailles.
Anderson’s imperial indifference to the political realities of the 1960s follows from his abstractedness in the twenty years preceding. Here is his account of himself and English department life in the years of the New Criticism: “A part of the rather grim comedy of the period of the 1940s and 1950s is that we were in the habit of asking ourselves anxiously why we no longer had political imaginations, political concerns.” What pride in that “we,” what pleasure even to be anxious in such company! But was nobody at Columbia reading newspapers during the 1940s? Did the world war and the cold war pass everybody by?
The Imperial Self would have been more useful if, instead of presuming to account for the present problems of society, Anderson had told the story of “us,” his own generation of literary intellectuals, in those years when criticism seemed almost a sacred calling. The story would need a lot of irony in the telling. It is an American comedy of old-fashioned cultural ambitiousness posing as “high seriousness” and the religion of art assimilated to the religion of success. But Anderson takes the comedy much too grimly, providing only occasional glimpses of his own progress, as when he writes of “our readiness to allow James to make a world for us,” or when he reveals in his oracular style: “It is a well-kept secret essential to understanding the cultural moment that those over thirty who are occupied with literature believe works of art to be more real than life.”
His chief concern is not really political or sociological but with the power of literature to lead us away from life, whose inconsequence and intractability may be so much less enticing than the neat formulations of critics and artists. He bears toward Emerson, Whitman, and James the kind of intense resentment most of us have felt only for parents, lovers, and closest friends, those who may have coerced our minds and led us away from our authentic selves. Few readers let Henry James make a world for them. What Anderson is suggesting is that to have our imagination coerced by the vision of The Golden Bowl is potentially more dangerous for our moral health than to come under the spell of, say, War and Peace, which heightens our normal sense of reality instead of by-passing it.
Similarly, in his two chapters on Whitman, Anderson describes the author of Leaves of Grass as “the prime poet of uncreation,” whose great poem is an “assault” on the specificity of objects and persons, a denial of all distinctions (between the sexes, between self and other, past and present, temporal and eternal). Instead of seeing Whitman as a great poet of celebration and love, Anderson sees him as a hostile writer who seeks “to dissolve us,” to devour “all those existences heretofore so strikingly authoritative over him.” This reading of Whitman is consistently perverse; it entirely fails to appreciate Whitman’s triumph over his terror of death and loss in great songs of love and continuity.
At its best The Imperial Self is perceptive about a pathologically regressive and narcissistic tendency in American romanticism; at its worst the author’s ideological bias leads to gross misreadings, as in the chapters on Hawthorne and Whitman. Indeed, Anderson misunderstands the function of literature and what it can do for a reader. Walt Whitman is a poet not a prophet, and it is irresponsible for a reader to surrender to him his own sense of reality or to allow Whitman to “make his world.” A reader takes from a writer what he needs. He should have something inside him with which to resist the coercive will of the artist, just as he must be capable of submission. This is not to say that American literature is not “dangerous” (as it is also liberating and strength-giving) but to urge that reading must be a dialectical relationship of equals and not a slavish quest for a substitute world to live in, a quest that must end in rebellion, disappointment, resentment, and a reaction against art itself.
In any case, Anderson’s argument is not new. Yvor Winters, another conservative critic, described the pathological side of American literature much more cogently some years ago in an essay on Emerson’s influence on Hart Crane. Winters made a fetish of reason in his attack on American romanticism; Anderson argues for society against the omnivorous imagination. But Anderson’s sense of society is only the sense of a sense; it is as thin and abstract as Emerson’s sense of Concord in 1840. Anderson is simply too angry with the kids for any kind of dispassionate analysis, literary or social. Rather his energies are devoted to polemic: The Imperial Self is less a work of literary criticism than an ideological attack on the habit of mind symbolized for Anderson by Norman O. Brown.
In Life Against Death Brown analyzes in detail the “excremental vision” which he considers the dominant form of Western consciousness since the Protestant Reformation. This mode of consciousness—the scientific habit of mind, the love of accumulation, disgust with the body—is for Brown the enemy and, he hopes, soon to be superseded. Anderson has made use of Brown’s psychohistorical method to describe an oral mode of consciousness he finds even more archaic and life-denying than the anality attacked by Brown. Anderson assigns this mode of consciousness to nineteenth-century American literature, but he is really thinking about the revolt against culture of the past ten years, in which Brown figures for him as the central symbolic force, the most “imperial” of contemporary imaginations. Anderson’s readings of Emerson, Whitman, and James are often incomprehensible when they are not simply distorted, because he sees these nineteenth-century figures as versions of Brown.
But just what does Brown stand for in Anderson’s mind, and what is an “imperial self”? In a passage criticizing certain contemporary writers who “show a strong impulse to step out of time and the constraints of associated life,” Professor Anderson declares ringingly: “But of course I have no intention of closing my Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and opening my Boehme, Blake, Frye, and Ginsberg.” Norman Brown’s name belongs after Northrop Frye and Allen Ginsberg in this list. These are the visionaries, the partisans of the autonomous imagination, the opponents of historical awareness. Anderson’s opposing team is composed of dialecticians, thinkers for whom the society and the self unfold themselves in time. For Anderson the Hegel-Marx line is committed to differentiation and development, as against the stasis and monism of those thinkers who are drawn to myth.
In setting up these opposing intellectual traditions, Anderson displays a misunderstanding of the nature of poetic imagination, which rarely belongs to one philosophic camp exclusively or all the time. Poetry, Yeats said, grows out of the imagination’s struggle with itself; in Yeats the struggle was precisely between the yearning for the eternal world of unchanging forms and the natural world which is changing all the time, between vision and history. Yeats was a great admirer of Blake and Swedenborg; yet he is enlisted by Anderson on the side of Marx and Freud. The effort to appropriate men of imagination in this way is itself wrongheaded; the great poets of modern literature have created their work out of conflict and contradiction, not out of any simple faith.
This is also true of Henry James, who, according to Anderson, consistently and consciously composed allegories based on his father’s Swedenborgian moral philosophy. Certainly the younger James made a religion of consciousness, and his late works show the influence of his father’s ideas. But James the novelist was distrustful of allegory because of its simplifications. He was profoundly worldly in his interests and aspirations, and throughout his life he was obsessed with the dangers of the moral innocence of his father’s and Emerson’s generation. James does not reproduce in his fiction the pieties of Concord; his subject is the vulnerability of those pieties. Even Emerson was far more dialectical in his awareness than Anderson allows.
The Imperial Self succeeds only when Anderson can demonstrate how one of the three nineteenth-century writers has anticipated a preoccupation of Norman O. Brown. Usually Anderson attempts to diagnose and reject not so much vision as the imaginative yearning for the original primal unity, before the differentiation of the human species into man and woman, before the division of mankind into separate orders, nations, cultures, before the fall into time and mental consciousness. This is the dream of culture unifying Brown’s more recent book, Love’s Body, whose implicit ideal of man Kai T. Erikson has accurately described as “transvestite, hermaphroditic, androgynous, polymorphous.”
This is no new dream in the history of human culture, but Anderson appears to regard it as a dangerous fact in America today. He worries at length about “the fate of genitality in this country.” The present book is largely devoted to extirpating the influence of writers like Brown and Allen Ginsberg and to attacking the tendencies of imagination that weaken the will toward separation, specific sexual identity, and defined social role. The Imperial Self bangs the drum for normalcy as if it were a new discovery or about to go out of style.
It can be said that the idea of androgyny contributes to our understanding of Whitman’s poetry and James’s late fiction. In both Whitman and James sexuality expressed itself as a diffuse, highly sublimated homoeroticism. The question is what their resistance to a specific sexuality has to do with the concept of the “imperial self” and how this contributes to our understanding of their sensibilities as writers. For it is never clear in Anderson’s book just what the “imperial self” refers to. It is variously a cultural, a psychosexual, an epistemological category. Too often it is merely a term of moral disapprobation.
As to the “failure of the fathers,” this cannot apply to James, since he is described as being all too much his father’s son. There are other lacunae. The argument is extended to cover Henry Miller and Allen Ginsberg but not Norman Mailer, who is exempted from the unhappy ranks of the “imperial” imaginations by virtue of his opposition to contraception, which, in his uncritical paraphrase of Mailer, Anderson seems to share: “Contraception robs sexual intercourse of its dialectical and sequential meaning, [taking] it out of biological time into some infantile eternity.” But Mailer’s sexual theories are as megalomaniacal as anything in Miller or Ginsberg.
Something clearly is wrong. Anderson is aware of an imaginative tendency fundamental to our national literature, but he seems capricious in his examples of it. He seems to be unable to pin down his theory of the “imperial self” and to distinguish Emerson, Whitman, and James from other Americans and Europeans also influenced by nineteenth-century transcendental idealism. Most frequently what he means by the “imperial self” seems to be a commanding will to convert manifold experience into convert manifold experience into undivided consciousness. But all writers dominate their works; the medium of all literature is the consciousness of the producer, whether Whitman or Jane Austen.
In the last few pages of his book Anderson appears to realize that the “imperial self” remains undefined, and he turns to “incorporation” as the defining attribute. Not precisely autonomous visionaries like Blake, the imperial Americans incorporate the world into themselves: “the plurality, the inconsequence, the muddiness of existence have been replaced by internalized antinomies.”
What Anderson is describing here, without an adequate psychological vocabulary, is the narcissism which causes the imagination to feed off itself. Nostalgia and hunger are the most striking features of the kind of personality he is trying to define. How many of the protagonists of American literature are yearning, ambitious, omnivorous souls, never at rest, always crying out, like Saul Bellow’s Henderson, “I want!” The so-called innocence of the heroes of American literature is often better understood as acquisitiveness, a longing to swallow the world. A psychological understanding of this oral longing would be a useful step in moving away from the chauvinistic, self-congratulatory moralism of American Studies, which sees “innocence” and “generous-spiritedness” and “greatness of soul” where a less inflated criticism might perceive emotional desolation, deprivation, and hunger.
In a brilliant essay on Huckleberry Finn, V.S. Pritchett has written of “the peculiar power of American nostalgia,” which “is not only harking back to something lost in the past, but suggests also the tragedy of a lost future.” Anderson lacks the psychological perception to understand the desire and disillusion Pritchett is referring to here, for he has been too eager to accuse to be capable of understanding. Still, he is right to call attention to the devouring narcissistic imagination in American culture; and perhaps he will be followed by others with more patience, greater sympathy, and more knowledge of the psychological terrain.