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American Adam


Why, according to the annual Harris Poll of Americans, was John Wayne the Number One Movie Star as recently as 1995? He embodies the American myth. The archetypal American is a displaced person—arrived from a rejected past, breaking into a glorious future, on the move, fearless himself, feared by others, a killer but cleansing the world of things that “need killing,” loving but not bound down by love, rootless but carrying the Center in himself, a gyroscopic direction-setter, a traveling norm.

Other cultures begin with a fixed and social hearth, a temple, a holy city. American life begins when that enclosure is escaped. One becomes American by going out. We are a people of departures, not arrivals. To reach one place is simply to catch sight of a new Beyond. Our basic myth is that of the frontier. Our hero is the frontiersman. To become urban is to break the spirit of man. Freedom is out on the plains, under endless sky. A pent-in American ceases to be American. In his 1844 lecture on “The Young American,” Emerson said that Americans need the boundless West in order to become themselves.

Whatever events in progress shall go to disgust men with cities, and infuse into them the passion for country life, and country pleasures, will render a service to the whole face of this continent, and will further the most poetic of all the occupations of real life, the bringing out by art [of] the native but hidden graces of the landscape…. The nervous [strong-nerved], rocky West is intruding a new and continental element into the national mind, and we shall yet have an American genius [ethos]…. We must regard the land as a commanding and increasing power on the citizen, the sanative and Americanizing influence, which promises to disclose new virtues for ages to come….1

The “young American” Emerson imagined out on the horizon had the easy gait and long stride of John Wayne.

When, half a century after Emerson’s lecture, Frederick Jackson Turner gave an even more influential address announcing that the frontier was closed, that America had run out of “free land,” there was a crisis of identity in the country. Without frontiers, we were a place without freedom. If, as Emerson said, “the land is the appointed remedy for whatever is false and fantastic in our culture,” then we were left with no cure for our falsehood.2 We would become all City, after being all Frontier.

The city in the American imagination has played roughly the role of hell in Christian theology. America will cease to be virtuous, Thomas Jefferson said, when its citizens “get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe.” 3 When François Marbois inquired after the state of Virginia, Jefferson noted proudly, “We have no townships…[only] villages or hamlets.”4 His anti-city note sounds throughout our history. “A really human life is impossible in our cities,” said Henry Demarest Lloyd in 1894 (one year after Turner’s address).5

Why this fear and hatred of cities in America? Of course, people have hated cities in the past. Not many satirists can top Juvenal on the dangers of chaotic living in ancient Rome. The pastoral genre is built on the contrast between natural life in the country and the perversion of nature’s rhythms in clogged and disease-ridden towns. But the Rome from which Juvenal fled had begun in a glow of romantic myth. The gods guided Romulus and Remus to its foundation around an altar. Ovid, in his clever way, even reversed the commonplaces by saying that Rome was a good city when it started because it was that paradoxical thing, “a rustic city.”6 The cities of antiquity arose by divine favor. Poseidon built the walls of Troy and Delos, Apollo those of Thebes and Megara. Babylon’s and Mecca’s original sites were created by the gods before they made anything else. Nineveh’s plan was traced by the stars. Jerusalem was built on the central rock of the earth.7

Ancient cities had not only a sacred center—a temple, an arx (citadel), a hearth fire, an acropolis—but sacred precincts, a magic circuit of places protecting them. In fact, François de Polignac has made a strong case that all eighth-century BC Greek cities except Athens were founded from the periphery inward, rising within the sacred enclosure, with its guardian sanctuaries.8 Constantine’s Christian executors, and Saint Ambrose’s, created a similar circle of churches around Rome and Milan. The heroes’ tombs of ancient cities have parallels in the holy tombs of Italy: St. Peter’s in Rome, St. Mark’s in Venice, Ambrose’s own tomb in Milan. And where whole bodies could not be claimed for burial at sacred sites, major relics were: Saint John the Baptist’s arm, for instance, in Florence. Western culture felt this holiness of the city until the Enlightenment. Medieval Paris was the city of Our Lady and medieval London the city of Saint Paul. The city, that is, was central not only to the lives of citizens, but to the order of the cosmos itself. It was the place where heaven touched earth, where traffic with the gods was possible, where cult processions went up to the sacred place, as the psalms of ascent urged people to do.

There is no more defining note in our history than the total absence of a sacred city on our soil. We never had a central cultic place. Remnants of such a tradition exist only in names like “St. Francis” (San Francisco) or “The Angels” (Los Angeles) in Mexican territory we conquered. Our attitude toward the city is just one consequence of the greatest political innovation in our system: the separation of church and state. Even the religion to be kept separate from the state was anti-cultic. Religious sects in America have typically avoided building large, ornate churches. Congregationalist and Quaker meeting houses—not cathedrals, not shrines—have been our most authentic style. Even Episcopalians in Virginia resisted giving glebe money to religious ministers. When St. Patrick’s was built in New York, it was considered the foreign indulgence of Irish immigrants. True, St. John the Divine in New York and the so-called National Cathedral in Washington were raised, but lackadaisically, over many decades, on the fringes of American interest. Our attitude is best expressed in Henry Adams’s treatment of his friends’ work when H.H. Richardson and Oliver La Farge were creating Trinity Church in Boston’s Copley Square. He thought the whole exercise irrelevant to American culture and wrote the novel Esther to prove it. For most Americans, a church was not a structure but a body of believers, and this was so wherever they met—in a town hall, a revivalist tent, or out West in a commandeered saloon. The church as a building was not sacred of itself.9

In fact, even the body of believers mattered less than the individual soul’s lonely encounter with God. American individualism found its supreme New England expression in the practice of going off on your own to be saved, and then, after that entirely lonely experience, coming back to produce evidence for your salvation as the only credential that would allow you to join the congregation.10 You could, furthermore, save only yourself. Before the “Half-way Covenant,” children could not be considered saved just because their parents were. And New England purists denounced the Half-way Covenant as a terrible falling off from original purity.11

Just as one had to go off alone to be saved, Americans have always felt that reality will be encountered and spiritual growth will occur when we go out from society’s constrictions toward cleansing solitude, toward nature—toward Walden: “I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself…. I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars.”12 America’s religious art runs from the Hudson River painters, through Ansel Adams’s treatment of Yosemite, to John Ford’s celebration of Monument Valley. The great urge of the American imagination is to light out for the territory.

Israel’s psalmists might sing of ascent to the city. Our literature portrays the arrival in town as a dismaying fall from innocence. The classic instance is Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, where the heroine’s train trip to Chicago results in her being progressively stripped of her family, her friends, her known world, exposing her to physical disorientation, spiritual loneliness, and the first attentions of the seducer who will derail her life. Chicago, when Carrie entered it, was not an ancient holy city that had grown corrupt over time. The first generation of that city’s novelists—Henry Blake Fuller, Robert Herrick, Frank Norris, Dreiser himself—presented its founding energies as decidedly unholy.13 The place was a whirlpool of wheat, a cesspool of hog intestines, a soulless cash market. Chicago, Fuller wrote, was “the only great city in the world to which all its citizens have come for the avowed purpose only of making money.”14 He was exaggerating perhaps, but he and others obviously felt the lack of any social bond that was holier than the cash nexus.

Asked why he attacked the city so often in his novels, Herrick said he was trying to “raise this dirt pile to some dignity,” though his critics thought he was not elevating the dirt but lowering people into it. Subsequent treatments of the place by James T. Farrell, or Richard Wright, or Saul Bellow have not done much to dignify it either. Indeed, Chicago became the archetypal city of American literature because it is the midway place, the quick-growth metropolis, the truly native product. Cities on the East Coast still had some European airs, but Chicago was our very own, a place of risk identified with catastrophes: the Chicago Fire, the Haymarket bombing, the Pullman strike, the stockyard stench, the Capone mob, the Daley machine.15

Our cities are always sizzling in the American imagination and ready to boil over: the most destructive fire in American history was not the Chicago Fire, which killed about three hundred people, but the nearly simultaneous fire in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, which wiped out a whole county and killed 1,500 people.16 But who remembers Peshtigo? That was not an urban fire, and catastrophes are supposed to happen in cities. If they do not, then they do not count.

The relation of country to city was brilliantly traced in F.W Murnau’s Sunrise, the film he made at the Fox Studios, where it so impressed John Ford that he called it “the greatest picture that has been produced.”17 In that 1927 movie, the city woman comes out into the country and corrupts a Jeffersonian yeoman played by George O’Brien. At night, the two sit down on an idyllic riverbank and start talking about the city, and over this peaceful scene, up in the clouds, you suddenly see flashes of city lights, traffic, trolleys, moving things, jazz musicians, dancers. The woman is so excited, she stands up and starts dancing with the people in the clouds. O’Brien tries to pull her down but he cannot, so he lifts her up physically to the level of the visionary dancers. The next morning, of course, they leave for the city.

  1. 1

    Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Young American,” in Essays and Lectures (Library of America, 1983), pp. 216- 217.

  2. 2

    Emerson, “The Young American,” p. 214.

  3. 3

    Thomas Jefferson, letter to James Madison, December 20, 1787, in Papers, edited by Julian Boyd et al., Vol. 12 (Princeton University Press, 1955), p. 442.

  4. 4

    Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XII (Library of America, 1984), p. 233.

  5. 5

    Henry Demarest Lloyd, Wealth Against Commonwealth (Harper and Brothers, 1894), p. 499.

  6. 6

    Ovid, Ars Amatoria 3.113: “Simplicitas rudis ante fuit, nunc aurea Roma est.”

  7. 7

    Stephen Scully, Homer and the Sacred City (Cornell University Press, 1990), pp. 25, 52-53, 141-144.

  8. 8

    François de Polignac, La Naissance de la cité grecque: Cultes, espace et société (Paris: La Découverte, 1984), pp. 44-92.

  9. 9

    The exception is the Mormon Temple, fetched (like Jerusalem’s) from heaven.

  10. 10

    Edmund S. Morgan, The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop (Little, Brown, 1958), pp. 78-80.

  11. 11

    Perry Miller, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (Harvard University Press, 1967), pp. 234-236.

  12. 12

    Henry David Thoreau, Walden, or Life in the Woods (Library of America, 1985), pp. 425-426.

  13. 13

    For the Chicago novelists, see Garry Wills, “Chicago Underground” and “Sons and Daughters of Chicago,” The New York Review, October 21, 1993, and June 9, 1994.

  14. 14

    Henry B. Fuller, quoted in Carla Cappetti, Writing Chicago (Columbia University Press, 1993), p. 11.

  15. 15

    See Carl Smith, Urban Disorder and the Shape of Relief: The Great Chicago Fire, the Haymarket Riot, and the Model Town of Pullman (University of Chicago Press, 1995).

  16. 16

    Smith, Urban Disorder and the Shape of Relief, p. 282.

  17. 17

    Tag Gallagher, John Ford: The Man and His Films (University of California Press, 1986), pp. 49-50.

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