• Email
  • Print

Bearers of Bad Tidings: Writers and the American Dream

I

Thomas Jefferson never applied the word democrat to himself, nor does the word democracy appear in the Declaration of Independence. In that time the word was, in fact, almost synonymous with riot and anarchy. But Jefferson did envisage a society in which free men—of independent self—would exercise their franchise in the light of reason.

The dream of Jefferson, the aristocrat, the scion of the Enlightenment, was to assume, some eighty years after he had penned his Declaration, a new formulation at the hands of a plebeian son of Romanticism, who was a homosexual mystic. Jefferson might have recognized certain ideas in Whitman’s formulation as continuators of his own, but he, as a social man, in the eighteenth-century sense, would probably have been befuddled by the tone of the opening lines of “Song of Myself”:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

And Jefferson would have been equally befuddled when Whitman, in “Long, Too Long America,” demanded of America:

For who except myself has yet conceiv’d what your children en-masse really are?

But well before Whitman’s first hymning of himself and of America as somehow forming a mystic unity, the political system of the Founding Fathers had been democratized, with universal manhood suffrage (“universal” meaning white, of course), and with the “tumultuous populace of large cities,” which Washington had declared is always to be “dreaded,” now multiplied many fold. The Jeffersonian dream had assumed the shape of what, to many Americans, was the Jacksonian nightmare. The most famous report of the nightmare shape may be the following quotation from Emerson:

Leave this hypocritical prating about the masses. Masses are rude, lame, unmade, pernicious in their demands and influence…. I wish not to concede anything to them, but to tame, drill, divide, and break them up, and draw individuals out of them…. I do not wish any mass at all, but honest men only…and no shovel-handed, narrow-brained, gin-drinking million stockingers or lazzaroni at all…. Away with this hurrah of masses, and let us have the considered vote of single men spoken on their honor and their conscience.

But Emerson and Whitman, for all the differences between them, are still Jeffersonians. If Emerson berated his fellow citizens for accepting a democracy of shovel-handed, gin-drinking lazzaroni, what he wanted was to have the “considered vote of single men spoken on their honor and their conscience.” In other words, Emerson did have some hope for a democracy of responsible individuals, or selves, to be drawn from the masses—even if he, bemused in his neo-Platonism and rapt—to borrow the phrase which Keats applied to Wordsworth—in the “egotistical sublime,” was sometimes not quite sure of the reality of the objective world.

There were, however, certain other democrats who had views different from those of Emerson and Whitman. James Fenimore Cooper, who declared himself a democrat, was one, we may say, faute de mieux. Cooper, after observing the various “defective systems of government of the human race,” was “far from saying,” as he put it, “that our own, with all its flagrant and obvious defects, will be the worst.” The defects he observed, like those noted by Tocqueville, were lack of standards of taste and conduct, a craven conformity to popular prejudice, a contempt for, paradoxically, both individual dignity and the social good, the tyranny of majority rule, the corrupting influence of plutocracy, and the rape of, and alienation from, nature.

Plutocracy would strike, Cooper said, at the very roots of democracy by the use of demagogic perversions of the language of democracy, and by the press that, “as soon as the money principle is applied to it,” would convert facts “into articles for the market.” It is Cooper’s hatred of plutocracy that informs the characters Hutter and Hurry Harry in The Deer-slayer. Hutter is an ex-pirate now driven inland to hole up on Lake Glimmerglass and Hurry Harry is, as the name suggests, a frontier exemplar of the “go-getter.” It is this pair who try to persuade the young Leather-stocking to raid an unprotected Indian camp to take scalps from the women and children for the bounty money that white law would pay. So piracy and “go-getter-ism” go hand in hand.

As for the rape of nature and the alienation of man from nature, the theme is nowhere better dramatized than in The Pioneers, in which, on the one hand, the aged Natty Bumppo, who kills only for meat, is tried for violating the new-fangled game law, while, on the other hand, the entire village turns out, even with a cannon, for the wanton slaughter of a vast flock of passenger pigeons. This theme is, indeed, a central concern of the Leatherstocking saga, and Natty Bumppo himself is a complex embodiment of it; he mediates between the pole of nature and that of civilization, between that of natural freedom and that of law, between that of reverence for nature and that of the use of nature.

Leatherstocking is, we may say, the mythical image of the perfect democrat, morally self-disciplined to respect both nature and man—in a sense the vessel of the virtues of the “democratic gentleman,” which Cooper takes to provide the standards of society. For Cooper, the ideal brand of democrat, whether Leatherstocking or the “gentleman,” was most clearly a “self”—more clearly, free-standingly, and magnanimously a “self” than even Jefferson, Emerson, or Whitman dared to dream. And all of Cooper’s criticisms of democracy are directed to the end of making a democracy of “selves.”

Somehow, with whatever fragility, the Jeffersonian dream, based on the assumption of a responsible self, did survive the actualities of American life. The dream survived even the enemies it carried in its own womb, creatures as diverse as Hutter, the ex-pirate, and Hurry Harry, the “go-getter,” at one end of the spectrum, and Henry David Thoreau at the other—Thoreau, who struck at the root of the democratic process when he declared that “Any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one”—and even at the root of all society when he declared to the world that he wanted no part of its “dirty institutions.” The Jeffersonian dream not only survived but, with the Civil War and the apotheosis of Lincoln in martyrdom, seemed to find vindication in actuality—the common man perfected in artistic sensibility, folk humor, courage, compassion, and humility—the self perfected in selflessness.

But something went wrong. Melville was the first American writer to sniff the dead rat behind the baseboard. He, one of the old breed of giants from before the flood, had dreamed the heroic lineaments of Ahab etched against a lightning-split firmament. But now, though a good Unionist, Melville harbored the unhappy suspicion that the Civil War, even if it had been fought for the “Right,” might have deeper and more ambiguous meanings. In the poem “The Conflict of Convictions,” in Battle-Pieces (1866), a volume in the form of a poetic log of the war, Melville predicted that with the victory of Federal arms,

Power unanointed may come—
Dominion (unsought by the free)
And the Iron Dome,
Stronger for stress and strain,
Fling her huge shadow athwart the main;
But the Founders’ dream shall flee.

History, in other words, “spins against the way it drives.” Even Whitman, in fact, was beginning to find this out, for a few years later, in Democratic Vistas, he could ask if, in the victorious North, there were now, “indeed men…, worthy of the name.” And his answer was that he found only a “sort of dry and flat Sahara” and cities “crowded with petty grotesques, malformations, phantoms, playing meaningless antics.”

Already, before Melville’s poem, the very young Henry Adams, a secretary to his father, the wartime minister at the Court of Saint James’s, had written, “My philosophy teaches me…, that the laws that govern animated beings will ultimately be found to be at bottom the same with those that rule inanimate matter.” Even with this strictly naturalistic philosophy, the young Adams could assert his belief that the “great principle of democracy, is still capable of rewarding a conscientious servant”; and after the war, as late as 1868, he could come to Washington to set up as a philosophic critic and mentor for virtue in the midst of the political hurly-burly.

But the world, presumably driven by those forces that rule animate as well as inanimate matter, swept on its way, leaving him to teach medieval history at Harvard and then write his novel Democracy (1880). In the novel, the Lincolnesque Senator Silas P. Ratcliff, the “Prairie Giant of Peonia, the Favorite Son of Illinois,” generally taken to be the embodiment of democratic virtue, is revealed as a crook, and the heroine, an idealistic lady who, like the young Adams, had come to Washington to validate her hope for her country, and who is on the verge of marrying the senator, must ruefully admit that democracy has “shaken” her “nerves to pieces.” And here we note that corruption is spawned not in the slums of the great cities that George Washington had feared, but comes, in the mask of Lincoln, from the heartland of America and the class that Jefferson had assumed to be the core of the democratic faith.

Historical determinism, positivism, Darwinism, pragmatism, Marxism—it was an age of new “isms,” and all of them, reasonably or unreasonably, in a sophisticated or vulgar form, called into question the old romantic mystique of democracy. Obviously something had happened when the younger, not yet Justice, Holmes could say that man is only an “experiment” of nature and, as of the present moment, a “predatory animal,” and that “society rests on the death of men.” This did not mean that Holmes (even though an excessively self-conscious aristocrat, who held that of the population of the world “only a few thousand may be called civilized”) was not a good and faithful servant of democracy—even if he served with his philosophical fingers crossed. Democracy was not for him a divine, or even a historical, revelation. It was—as to Cooper and Melville—simply a social and political arrangement, not a mystique, ultimately a gamble.* Once this has been said, the old religious devotion to democracy is undercut, and Jefferson and Whitman seem strangely callow, along with Lincoln, to whom, according to Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, the Union, that embodiment of democracy, had risen to the sublimity of religious mysticism.

Now this is not to say that a pragmatist (and this is what Holmes and even Melville, along with William James, were) may not have a patriot’s devotion. It is, however, to say that such devotion to a mere arrangement, a gamble, an experiment, is likely to be caviar to the general. It is not what you tell the sixth-grade civics class or the electorate.

No, I have stated the matter badly. For all the differences between the philosophers and “the general,” they sprang from the same seedbed. Some of the same elements in the American experience that had led to the new philosophy of speculative men like Adams, Holmes, and William James, had led, even, to the new kind of behavior in men of action. After the war, Charles Francis Adams the younger, the brother of Henry, remarked of the new breed:

The great operations of war, the handling of large masses of men, the influence of discipline, the lavish expenditures of unprecedented sums of money, the immense financial operations, the possibilities of effective cooperation were lessons not likely to be lost on men quick to receive and to apply new ideas.

The lessons were not lost, and by 1879, William H. Vanderbilt (the son of the old Commodore), testifying before a congressional committee, described his contemporaries:

You can’t keep such men down…. I don’t believe that by any legislative enactment or anything else, through any of the States or all of the States, you can keep such men down. You can’t do it.

So here we have the young Henry Adams’s theory that “the laws that govern animated beings” are the same—and equally as amoral—as “those which rule inanimate matter.” And have, too, an example of Melville’s notion that history may spin against the way it drives—may, that is, in the “spin” give a war for freedom, and in the “drive”a war to create Jim Fisk, the “Skunk of Wall Street.” And remotely over the scene we may envision the appalled face of Emerson who, in one of his more striking paradoxes, had declared: “Money…is in its effects and laws as beautiful as roses. Property keeps the accounts of the world and is always moral.” The declaration had come true in a way the Sage of Concord could scarcely have envisaged, and was to be paraphrased, as a summarizing philosophy of the Age of the Robber Barons, by Bishop Lawrence of Massachusetts: “Godliness is in league with riches…. Material prosperity is helping to make the national character sweeter, more joyous, more unselfish, more Christlike.”

So the Emersonian self suffered a transformation: into Hurry Harry as vestryman.

II

I have touched on such figures as Adams, William James, Holmes, Vanderbilt, and Bishop Lawrence, none of whom is a poet even by the utmost wrenching of the term, because in their various ways they represent the atmosphere which the “poets,” the “makers,” of the time did breathe. As for such “makers” as Henry James and William Dean Howells, they are much to our purpose of showing the shift in feeling of writers toward their country. James’s life embodied profound and tangled ambivalences about America, and actually he would have agreed with Hawthorne’s remark that “the United States are fit for many excellent purposes, but they are certainly not fit to live in.”

The case of Howells is more dramatic. For years he was a stanch Republican who, as a young man on the make, had written the campaign biography for Lincoln; and years later, when Cleveland became the first Democratic president after 1860, he could mourn: “A great cycle has come to a close; the rule of the best in politics for a quarter of a century has ended.”

In other words, Howells’s party loyalty knew no bounds; but something was going on in the deeper recesses of his being, and soon he was to write The Rise of Silas Lapham, a story of American success, and was reading Tolstoy—two not unrelated events that were to lead to his sudden vision of the degradation and misery within the shell of the new plutocracy that had proved so kind to the boy from Jefferson, Ohio. Howells even considered taking penitential refuge in some village to lead the life of a Tolstoyan peasant.

It is, however, Mark Twain who most deeply embodied the tensions of his time. Certainly, there must have been tensions in a man who, in his last coma, talked of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. His relation to the issues of his age is full of extraordinary ambivalences. For instance, he repudiated the historical past (including his father and the South), but the telling and retelling of his personal past, directly or indirectly, became his chief stock-in-trade. But his attitudes toward the personal past were a tangle, too. Clearly he knew the worst about Hannibal, Missouri, the poverty, violence, and despair. And to a boyhood friend of Hannibal days, who looked back nostalgically to the lost time, Twain wrote:

As to the past, there is but one good thing about it…that it is past…. I can see by your manner of speech, that for more than twenty years you have stood dead still in the midst of the dreaminess, the melancholy, the romance, the heroics, of sweet but happy sixteen. Now, do you know that this is simply mental and moral masturbation.

The divided mind of Twain is clearly indicated by the fact that this no-nonsense utterance occurs in 1876, the very year when he was publishing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which, in a very different mood, he called “simply a hymn, put into prose to give it a worldly air.” It was indeed a hymn to boyhood and innocence; but the dream of innocence took, for him, many disguises. There was the vision of moonlight on the Mississippi as seen from the Texas deck of a steam boat, where the pilot reigned in lonely glory. The dream of innocence could appear, too, in his image of himself as above the prevalent lust for Grab; for instance, when he described himself as “not much fired with a mania for money-getting.” Or he might strike forth in righteous anger against the corruption of the age, as in a public letter to Vanderbilt after one of the Commodore’s more outrageous exploits: “All I wish to urge you now, is that you crush out your native instincts and do something worthy of praise…. Go boldly, proudly, nobly, and give four dollars to some worthy charity.”

Yet all the while Twain’s passion for wealth and the company of nabobs went undiminished. Obsessed with the Paige typesetting machine, he bent every effort to become a nabob himself; until bankruptcy snapped that hope and he had to be rescued by one H. H. Rogers of the Standard Oil Company. But he still nourished such schemes; even at the time when, in “The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg,” he was exhibiting the moral consequences of the American dream of quick and stupendous wealth.

The ambivalences, the tensions, were central to Twain’s being, but in his most famous book, Huckleberry Finn, one of the impulses seems to have been to resolve them. The basic conflict in the novel is, of course, between the life on the river, where Huck finds innocence, brotherhood, and communion with nature, and life ashore, where, stage by stage, he discovers the corruption of society, a process that comes to climax when conscience itself is exhibited as the creature of society, embodying its most cruel mandates. As Huck gradually develops a new “consciousness” to replace the old “conscience,” the reader’s expectation rises that Huck may find for himself—and for us—a way to redeem life ashore, to create a life in which the “real”of the shore and the “ideal” of the river may meet, or at least enter some fruitful relation. But nothing of the sort occurs. At the end, Huck finds himself conniving in the famously brutal joke, at Nigger Jim’s expense, that undercuts all the moral discovery on the river.

To cap the climax, he finds himself caught in the very trap of society from which he had sought escape on the river, with his only comfort now in the vague notion that he may cut out for the “territory”—and Twain well knew what the “territory” would become in the course of winning the West. So we are left with the irremediable split—and presumably an unredeemable world and a self that, as long as it is of that world, is unredeemable, too.

But it is A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court that most nakedly exhibits the unresolvable issues that had lain behind the struggle to complete the earlier novel. When Twain began it, he had in mind little more than a savage joke at the expense of the romantic cult of medievalism and more indirectly at the expense of the late Confederate states, under whose flag Samuel Clemens had briefly and ineffectually borne arms. But soon, to the savage jest at the expense of the past, there was joined not a “hymn” to boyhood and innocence but a “hymn” to modernity. Hank Morgan, a superintendent at the Colt Arms Company, who, in his technician’s pride, asserts that he can “invent, contrive, create” anything, sets out to introduce the natives of Arthurian Britain, in which he mysteriously finds himself, to the blessings of technological civilization. This mission of humanitarian improvement goes hand in glove, however, with Hank’s program to become the “Boss”; that is, in an unconscious parody of imperialism and strange forerunner of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the role of human civilizer and that of the exploiter merge. Or to put the matter another way, the establishing of a rational order demands centralized authority, and ironically the effort to free man ends in a new form of tyranny.

In any case, Hank becomes the Boss, surrounded by a corps of young Janizaries devoted to technology and to him. In the last battle against the forces of darkness clad in clanking armor, he unveils his masterpiece of inventiveness and human liberation, and his mines fill the air with “a steady drizzle of microscopic fragments of knights and hardware and horse-flesh”—to use the phrase Hank applies to an earlier exploit with a simple “dynamite bomb.” So, with this drizzle, the myth of progress and the hymn to redemptive modernity wind up with the Boss and his Janizaries victorious but fatally imprisoned by ramparts of the putrescent dead. They wind up with Hank sunk in a cynical contempt for what he now calls “human muck,” the very people he had hoped to redeem by reason and technology; and with the phrase “human muck” we find the death knell of the faith in the common sense of the common man. As for Hank himself, he is left, when translated back to his proper century, with a hatred of life lightened only, in a last delirium, by a wistful backward look on the love of his wife Sandy, in the midst of the beauty of the green world of Britain before he had blessed it with the victory of modernity at the Battle of the Sand Belt.

In the course of writing his book, the joke on the past had backfired on Twain to become a joke on the future, and when the book was finished, he wrote Howells: “If it [the book] were only to write over again,” it “would require…a pen warmed up in hell.”

If A Connecticut Yankee is fraught with dire forebodings about democracy in general and, more appalling, about modern industrial-technological democracy in particular, that grimness is as nothing compared to what was to come, after our Philippine operetta of imperialism, in “To a Person Sitting in Darkness.” Or in this passage from Letters from the Earth:

But it was impossible to save the Great Republic. She was rotten to the heart. Lust of Conquest had long since done its work; trampling upon the helpless abroad had taught her, by a natural process, to endure with apathy the like at home…. The government was irrevocably in the hands of the prodigiously rich and their hangers-on; the suffrage was to become a mere machine…. There was no principle but commercialism, no patriotism but of the pocket.

To compound this gloomy prophecy for American democracy, Twain had come to agree with Hank that the human race was “muck.” Or if not muck, it was wicked vermin, as in The Mysterious Stranger, where Satan, who, to please the boy Theodor, has molded some little creatures of clay, picks up a couple who had got to fighting and with his fingers crushes them and flings the miniscule bodies aside and then wipes away the blood smear on his handkerchief, meanwhile pursuing his conversation. Man’s infinite capacity for folly and infinite capacity for wickedness, in the face of all his shabby pretenses, is Twain’s final theme, and the fact that American democracy is, by his standards, one of the shabbier pretensions gets almost forgotten.

No, this is not Twain’s final theme. The final theme even more drastically undercuts the whole concept of a democratic—or any other kind of—social order, and therefore renders irrelevant any criticism of, or hope for, man. All is illusion—a “fever-dream.” As he writes in a letter to his sister-in-law Sue Crane:

I dreamed that I was born and grew up and was a pilot on the Mississippi and a miner and a journalist in Nevada and a pilgrim in the Quaker City, and had a wife and children and went to live in a villa at Florence—and this dream goes on and on and sometimes seems so real that I almost believe it is real.

If nothing is real, there is no guilt. And there are no problems of politics, society, justice, or history. Except those of spooks. Who, of course, have no “self” to cast a vote “spoken on their honor and their conscience.”

At the very moment when Twain had his first success, Theodore Dreiser was born—that is, in 1871. Dreiser, with almost schematic precision, embodied in his life, and dramatized in his work, the same issues that obsessed Twain, and brought them forward into the terms of our century. Dreiser was a child of the Gilded Age, but, unlike Twain, he had no happy recollection of boyhood in the old agrarian America, however mythical. Dreiser was not only the son of poverty and failure, but also the son of an immigrant with the immigrant’s psychology. He was the born outsider, the born yearner, ugly, uncouth, poorly educated, the ferocious masturbator, dreaming of some girl both beautiful and rich, incapable of love, fearful of impotence, but a ruthless womanizer, a self-absorbed and ambitious believer in a reductive social Darwinism who, nevertheless, was a moralist—and a genius.

The work of this genius revolved around two related themes—the central themes of his age—the nature of success and the nature of the self. Sister Carrie—of his first novel—is, as he calls her, “a little soldier of fortune,” the ignorant farm girl with no education and no firm principle, who comes to the new booming Chicago and ends as a famous actress in New York. Sex is her weapon, but she is the classic example of the gold-digger to whom sex means little or nothing in itself. Furthermore she has the most meager talent. She simply stumbles into a society which demands nothing of her except that she be precisely what she is. The story is, in general, about success as a mechanical process, and in the end is about the blankness of success. We last see Carrie, sitting in her rich apartment in the Waldorf, with a copy of Le Père Goriot on her knee. And Balzac’s novel, we remember, is the story of another arriviste, whose career, like hers, is as amoral as a chemical experiment. Here the Alger story, beloved of every red-blooded American boy, is turned upside down.

In Dreiser’s vast work on American business, “The Trilogy of Desire” (which includes The Financier and The Titan), the name of the hero carries, too, an ironical echo of the Alger myth—Frank Algernon Cowperwood: Algernon = not Alger. But Cowperwood, except for the fact of success, has scarcely anything in common with honest little Horatio. Cowperwood’s notion of honesty, to begin with, is purely relative, and to take a phrase from Justice Holmes’s sardonic definition of “right,” is dependent only on the “municipal jurisdiction.” True, Cowperwood does do a hitch in the pen, but that is, in his society and in his own mind, little more than an industrial accident, and does not impede his world-shaking success. His honesty, after all, is appropriate to the “municipal jurisdiction” in which he operates, that is, post-Civil War America.

Cowperwood differs, too, from the little Horatio who reverences womanhood, and especially American womanhood. Cowperwood is the ruthless womanizer, with a blue stare, as blazing as a Bunsen burner, and no female can withstand it. Furthermore, Cowperwood collects art as well as women, but oddly enough both art and women represent some very un-Horatio-like spiritual yearnings, never to be gratified. And this leads to the paradox in Cowperwood.

Cowperwood is a philosopher and his philosophy is a social Darwinism as amoral as the goings-on in a jungle, a philosophy that he sums up as “I please myself.” The paradox is that, by pleasing himself, he, the superman, has no self. He is, as Dreiser finally describes him, a prince of dreams, the victim of illusion, and the last illusion is that of the self. What his blazing and unfulfilled career “demonstrates” is, as Dreiser says, “the wonder and terror of individuality.”

Of “individuality”—but we may substitute the word individualism and we have, then, by extension, the proposition that the prime example of individualism, the man of will who says “I please myself,” is the victim of the last illusion: he can have no self. Why? Because the true self, among the many varieties of fictive selves, can develop only in a vital relation between the individual, a unitary person, and the group. That is, the self is possible only in a community—a community as distinguished from a mere society, a mere functional organization.

Meanwhile we have An American Tragedy. For present purposes we can deal briefly with this complex masterpiece. Briefly, because it is an extension of Dreiser’s earlier work into a new moment of American society. But, at least, we must look at its historical context.

The period after the Civil War was one of intense development. The “barbaric wealth” of the Barons, and their hangers-on, was a wealth from production, and the looting and stock-jobbery by which some wealth was notoriously accumulated was an extension of the more basic activity. But America was still a debtor nation. By 1918, however, we had become the great creditor nation—even if the fact was not visible in some regions—with a very different psychology. Fluidity, mobility, and the middle class were on the increase, with an appetite for pleasure and a pervasive appetite for speculation in the market. There was, in fact, a shift from the psychology of production to that of consumption. Modern advertising was born, to create a new dream. Here was, indeed, a new phase of the American dream.

Clyde Griffiths, son of old America with old values, with, significantly, street preachers for parents, is, however, the born consumer, with the passivity of the consumer. In his passivity he is the polar opposite of Cowperwood, the man of will. If Cowperwood’s motto is “I please myself,” that of Clyde is, “I want you to please me.” In contrast to Cowperwood’s blazing, masterful gaze, we find Clyde’s dark, yearning, “poetic” eyes. Before Cowperwood’s eyes women shudder in fear and delight; before Clyde’s they feel the impulse to help, to give. One is a ruthless taker, the other the cringing blackmailer. One uses women, the other all women use and command—except Roberta (and here we may recall that Dreiser confessed that he never made his way with women, that they always made their way with him). Significantly, Clyde “murders” Roberta only when she, the only woman whom he had ever sexually mastered, asserts her own will.

But does he “murder” her? He never knows. The event is ambiguous; and Clyde goes to the electric chair not knowing the nature of his act, nor knowing whether he has truly repented and now trusts God. His whole life has been a shadowy pursuit of fictive selves. The only constant content of his life has been yearning, and the belief in some magic, some genie to do his will: he has no self, and the changing of his name along the way is significant. Cowperwood is a “prince of dreams”; Clyde is the slave of dreams. Neither has a self in the final sense; but Cowperwood powerfully enacts his illusions; Clyde suffers his. Both represent the poles of the “tragedy” of America, a land of fictive values seized, or yearned after, by fictive selves.

The literature of the period from 1920 to World War II is shot through by the same theme of self. We see how in The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald sought a solution for the problem. Gatsby is the individual who, seeking by will to create an ideal self (as Clyde Griffiths, in his passivity, had yearned to do), ends in delusion and death; but the narrator Nick Carraway, who, like Gatsby, has entered into the world of fictive selves, goes back to the Middle West, where he—and Ftizgerald apparently—assumes that a moral identity and a right relation to society are still possible. Nick’s dream is as absurdly ironical as Huck Finn’s dream of escaping to the “territory.” We all know that the Middle West was “civilized,” too.

As for Faulkner, his myth of Yoknapatawpha County recurringly bears on the question of self, the most famous instances, among many, being Popeye in Sanctuary and Joe Christmas in Light in August. Faulkner, with his historical sense, dramatizes over and over again the necessary relation of self to the community, to a society which, more than the agglomeration of units, embodies a sense of vital relations among individuals, an ethos. Furthermore, the Faulknerian myth sees the modern world of finance, capitalism, and technology as converting the human being into the machine, as best exemplified in Flem Snopes of The Hamlet and, again, Popeye. And, to look further, the myth sees man’s relation to nature as an underpinning of man’s relation to man.

If Faulkner could, in his Nobel speech, voice a faith in man’s capacity to endure as man, Hemingway’s indictment of modernity was more desperate, more radical, and more contemptuous. The image of World War I is, for Hemingway, the image of a catastrophic bankruptcy of Western civilization, and the collapse of all traditional values, and those who do not understand this fact are victims of the big words that have become obscene—“sacred” and “not in vain.” When Frederic Henry, in A Farewell to Arms, leaps into the swollen Tagliamento River to escape the Italian battle police, he is baptized into a new condition, that of the total outsider, the man who has resigned from society: he must create—in a strange inversion of the story of Clyde Griffiths—the stoic ethic of the lonely hero.

The image of the lonely hero hypnotized a generation; rather, it brought into consciousness an attitude that was, in that age, struggling for utterance. It flattered the maimed self, maimed because it had lost its moorings in society, with the dream of the superman—a variant of the dream that Dreiser had presented in Cowperwood. Hemingway’s attitude, like Dreiser’s, seems to imply the creation of a self in a world of nonselves. The lonely hero seeks, indeed, to create a self, but if the valid self derives from a relation of the individual and society, then the absolute individualism of the lonely hero can only result in the creation of another fictive self. Hemingway is, as a matter of fact, a late and more hairy manifestation of Emerson’s infantile vision of the infinitude and omnipotence of the self—of the “egotistical sublime.” Hemingway is the end product of transcendentalism—or waste product.

The list of writers after World War I whose work embodies this basic issue of the nature of the “self” would include almost every distinguished practitioner of the art. Obviously, Eliot and Pound are fundamentally important, and even the work of Frost, more indirectly but characteristically, involves the same issue. And when we come to the writers after World War II, we find the old theme compounded by the sense of the human being set against a maimed and even sadistic society, and find more and more a general spirit of protest, despair, aimlessness, violence, and amoral transactions at all levels.

III

Let us pause and look back. In one perspective our history seems little short of miraculous. Two hundred years ago a handful of men on the Atlantic seaboard, with a wild continent behind them, risked their necks and their sacred honor to found a new kind of nation, and thus unleashed an unprecedented energy that succeeded to a power and prosperity beyond their most fantastic dreams. Our “poetry” has, indeed, celebrated this miraculous feat, and has been in itself—and let me emphasize this fact—a manifestation of that same untamable energy that seized and occupied the continent.

Poetry, especially strong poetry, is not, however, more than superficially concerned with the celebration of objective victories. Greek tragedy, though it sprang from the energy and will that made Marathon and Samothrace possible, does not celebrate those victories, any more than Hamlet and Lear celebrate the defeat of the Spanish Armada. What poetry most significantly celebrates is the capacity of man to face the deep, dark inwardness of his nature and his fate. At the same time that we have seized and occupied our continent, our poets have explored the crisis of the American spirit grappling with its destiny. They have faced, sometimes unconsciously, the tragic ambiguity of the fact that the spirit of the nation we had promised to create has often been the victim of our astounding objective success, and that, in our success, we have put at pawn the very essence of the nation we had promised to create—that essence being the concept of the free man, the responsible self.

In other words, our poetry, in fulfilling its function of bringing us face to face with our nature and our fate, has told us, directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously, that we are driving toward the destruction of the very assumption on which our nation is presumably founded.

A bearer of bad tidings—and that is what our poetry, in one dimension, is—is generally regarded as the guilty perpetrator of the tidings brought. Why, then, has our literature been taught in schools and colleges, been accepted, been applauded?

One simple answer is that a nation is supposed to have a literature and this is the only literature America has. But perhaps there is a complex of answers. There may be the answer that readers—readers in general, that is—do not really read our literature for its deeper motives. It may be, too, that readers rarely confront our literature in a lump, its meaning as a whole. Furthermore we must recognize that very few people in our population read such books as I have been talking about. Certainly, at the upper end of the spectrum, men of practicality and power, the men who run society, do not read such books, but indulgently or contemptuously leave such toys to women, children, unformed college students, eggheads, longhairs, professors, and effete aesthetes.

There is, however, a more comforting reflection, a reflection made possible by our history. In America alienation, and all that is thereby implied for the state of the self, has a background somewhat different from that found in Europe. The difference derives from two facts. First, in so far as the alienation in Europe was a reflex to the sudden rise of the industrial order, it was enormously exacerbated by the fact of the city as prison. The country man, lured to the city in the hope of liberation, might find a new and more dehumanized prison, one in which none of the old sustaining sanctions and values would apply; worse, the industrial city lay at the end of his road, the door was shut and the key was turned. In America, on the contrary, there was the West, infinite space, free land, and the dream of the possibility—however delusive—colored actuality; the sense of entrapment came very late, with the industrial development after the Civil War, and with the massive immigration of the period.

Second, the concept of the significant self had become official here, proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and embodied in the very structure of a government which was to depend upon the vote of “single men spoken on their honor and their conscience.” As for the social order, it was assumed to be open and fluid, a world in which the self might fulfill its possibilities.

Certainly, the real did not precisely conform to the ideal. Not many members of the “tumultuous populace of the large cities” of Washington’s time managed to escape to an Eden over the mountains to be regenerated as Jeffersonian “selves”; even in the days of romantic democracy, neither government nor society fulfilled man’s best hope; and after the Civil War, the industrial order, with the depersonalizing rigor that had traumatized the European soul, began to flourish here like the green bay tree. Granted all that, the general reaction, from the laborer on up to the philosopher or artist, was vastly different from that of, say, Gautier, who, in 1835, in the famous preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin, had already proclaimed the bourgeoisie, with their passion for respectability, religion of utilitarianism, and philosophy of progress, to be as dull as dishwater and as blunt-souled as brutes, and the incorrigible enemy of art and the human spirit.

For Gautier, as for generations thereafter in Europe, there was only an irreconcilable quarrel between the artist and his world. But for the American writer, at least until the First World War, the quarrel was not so much with his world as with what had been made of his world. He was not alienated from the premise of his world, from what might be thought of as the spiritual reality of his world, and even when alienated from its actuality, he managed to cling to some hope that it might be redeemed. It should be remembered, too, that the United States, not the England of soap-boilers, was the bourgeois nation par excellence, in which, it might be said, the values of trade had been transmogrified into the ideals of freedom; and it should be remembered, too, that the European slogans have always sounded somewhat exotic here, and often irrelevant. It might sound very romantic to shout “Down with the bourgeoisie!” But who, exactly, would the shouter be shouting about? He would be shouting about almost everybody he knew, including, certainly, the majority of the American “proletariat,” with its passion for freezers, color TV, and eight-cylinder cars. And to compound confusion, he would be shouting about a segment of his own soul—and, in a long-range view, about the very forces that, ironically, had given him the freedom to shout.

Long before the bad news from France and the exquisites of fin-de-siècle London had reached us, we had patented our own version of alienation. Even after it had become fashionable to refer to Rimbaud and Hart Crane in the same breath, we still had to admit that Eliot, and even Pound at his nuttiest, were concerned with the fate of society in a way that would have been totally incomprehensible to Gautier or Rimbaud. And in such a connection, who would ever think of Dreiser, Frost, or Ransom—men who, finally, were of metaphysical rather than social bent? Even after our provincialism had been instructed, most Americans, including the writers, clung to our home-grown variety of grief and a quaint, sneaking hope of reconciliation.

We may congratulate ourselves that this quaint hope survives. We may also congratulate ourselves that a certain number of our citizens do yearn for the enrichment and invigoration that poetry can afford even in the role of the bad tidings of great joy. In fact, the number of such citizens seems to be on the increase and some politicians are now inclined to speak well of the arts along with motherhood, the Constitution, and American individualism.

Let us not, however, rest at ease in Zion. If we congratulate ourselves on public recognition and support of the arts, we must remember that much private support is drying up, and more will probably dry up, as a result not merely of the unhealthy state of the economy but also of public policy, for instance the attack on foundations. Furthermore, in the colleges and universities there is an organized reaction against the arts and humanities as impractical and “elitist.” But let us turn to a document of more general relevance, a passage from the White House tapes. Here the former president and his closest adviser are discussing how the president’s daughters should spend their time before the opening of the Republican Convention of 1972:

President: For example—now the worst thing [unintelligible] is to go to anything that has to do with the Arts.

Haldeman: Ya, see that—it was [unintelligible] Julie giving [given?] that time in the Museum in Jacksonville.

President: The Arts you know—they’re Jews, they’re left wing—in other words stay away.

The passage is, clearly, the utterance of a paranoid, power-bit Philistine of little imagination, no generosity of spirit, and an education of the most limited technical sort—the blind striking out against whole dimensions of life which, because incomprehensible to him, seem to be not only an affront to his vanity but a sinister attack on his very being. But it is more, a symptom of more general significance. In fact, the very forces that make for the disintegration of the notion of the self as reported by, and dramatized in, our literature may be more powerful than ever, and the most powerful may spring not from evil or stupid men but from the vast impersonal processes of our civilization. The inevitable consequence of this will be a literature—and an art in general—more critical, more alienated than ever before in the face of the dominant drive of the age; it will be a poetry more acutely manifesting what Martin Buber has called “the most intimate of all resistances—resistance to mass or collective loneliness.”

What the powers of the technotronic age will make of such subversive voices remains to be seen.

  • Historians have indeed pointed out that the Founding Fathers frequently used the word experiment in reference to the new government they sought to establish, as when Madison called it the “experiment of an extended republic.” But there was a difference here from what is meant by Holmes. Madison, Adams, Franklin, et al. were simply referring to the practicality of the mechanism they were trying to contrive; they had little doubt about the values they aimed at. Holmes’s skepticism involved values: the “good” depends on the “municipal jurisdiction.”
    • Email
    • Print