Wednesday, November 24, 2004

The American Adam: Innocence Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century
R.W.B. Lewis

Yes, I know it’s a classic of American Studies. On its very cover is an endorsement from Malcolm Cowley calling it, “The first really original book on the classical period in American writing that has appeared in a long time.” Well, that may be, but we have to be able to plow through the damn thing to appreciate its originality, don’t we? Lewis’s ideas might be revolutionary, original, even genius, but I find his prose to work better than an Ambien at bedtime. I did read it, but I found that reading it, paying attention to the ideas, and staying awake at the same time required no small feat of attending behavior: pacing the floor, whispering the words aloud—and even then there was no guarantee that I was comprehending Lewis’s ideas.

I wonder if part of the problem is that there simply isn’t that much to the idea. It’s the “so what?” factor. Lewis begins with some quotations. D.H. Lawrence, for example, said, “That is the truth myth of America. She starts old, old, wrinkled and writhing in an old skin. And there is a gradual sloughing off of the old skin, towards a new youth. It is the myth of America.” That’s essentially the premise of his book. The premise might even be simpler than that. The idea is that Americans tend to divorce themselves from the idea of a history. The American myth of Adam refers to the sense of newness we seem to have, that we’re the first on earth. It’s an interesting thought, and if we apply it widely, it can explain some of the behavior that mystifies (and even angers) some other countries about us. We ignore the sense of ancient history that other cultures assume automatically. The obvious example at present lies in the Middle East, but a less exotic example would be Europe or even our close relations in England. While we may speak the same language, we do not share the sense of history our European cousins do, and for that we seem oafish, and often oddly optimistic. I’m speaking here far more broadly than Lewis meant it. He really is speaking more about the literature, though.

Lewis discusses the way a cultural identity develops, saying it is “not so much through the ascendancy of one particular set of convictions as through the emergence of its peculiar and distinctive dialogues” (2). So one of the dialogues we have has to do with Adam. Lewis defines “The American Myth,” which he calls “a collective affair,” that comes from many sources (4). It could be described as “history just beginning [...] the world [...] starting up again under fresh initiative” (5). The hero of this myth was “most easily identified with Adam before the Fall. Adam was the first, the archetypal, man. His moral position was prior to experience, and in his very newness he was fundamentally innocent” (5).

Lewis goes on to discuss various examples of the ideas of Adam in works of American literature in his book, where in most parts he completely loses my interest. I did find various interesting points. For example, in the chapter, “The Case Against the Past,” Lewis discusses Thoreau, who says “everything associated with the past should be burned away” and that the “past should be cast off like dead skin” (21).

I found the chapter on “The New Adam: Holmes and Whitman” the most interesting, probably because I was reading Whitman at the time for class. Lewis calls Leaves of Grass “an exemplary celebration of novelty in America” and discusses the way in Whitman’s poetry, “innocence replaced sinfulness as the first attribute of the American character” (28). He describes Whitman in terms of “the new optimism” (30). This optimism meant that an American could be “acknowledged in his complete emancipation from the history of mankind” in what I mentioned before—making him free from any of the shackles of thousands of years of history before him (41). Thus, he was “a new Adam, miraculously free of family and race, untouched by those dismal conditions which prior tragedies and entanglements monotonously prepared for the [...] European” (41). So we can see here the roots of our disregard for European history, and in effect everyone else’s history.

Lewis speaks more specifically about elements of Leaves of Grass, observing that central to Whitman’s work are “the spirit of equality which animated the surviving catalogues of persons and things [...]; the groping after novel words to identify novel experiences; the lust for inventiveness which motivated what was for Whitman the great act, the creative act” (41). I keep discussing this idea of the new Adam as though it were a negative, and that really isn’t the way Lewis discusses it at all—nor should it be the way I take it. When one reads Whitman, it’s easy to see the infectiousness, the excitement of the idea of newness of the world. (Lewis does mention, though that Oliver Wendell Holmes said Whitman was too much for him (42) – and we can easily see why Whitman was controversial in his time.)

Whitman himself mentions Adam:

I, chanter of Adamic songs,
Through the new garden the West
The great cities calling. (qtd. in Lewis 43)

According to Lewis, Whitman wanted his ideas to be “unspoiled by memory” (45). Such was the excitement of being in a new world. And Lewis says that Whitman’s later disillusionment (in Democratic Vistas) was only when he was faced with the truth that his generation was accepting “the old and the foreign” rather than taking advantage of the “bright new highway he had mapped for it” (45).

Looking specifically at Whitman’s poems, we see the “first phase” of “Song of Myself” “was the identification of self, an act which proceeded by distinction and differentiation, separating the self from every element that in a traditional view might be supposed to be part of it: Whitman’s identity card had no space on it for the names of his ancestry” (46). He treated himself like a “member of a new species” (46).

Lewis explains that if “we want a profile of” the new Adam, “we could start with the adjectives Whitman supplies: amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary” (47). It was said that Whitman himself “was innocence personified” (48). In fact, many “of the greatest writers suggest, as Whitman does, a peculiar artistic innocence, a preadolescent wonder which permits such a poet to take in reproject whatever there is, shrinking from none of it” (48). But in Whitman, the innocence and moral innocence combined to form a new kind of person.

Whitman had one of two “dominant emotion[s],” says Lewis. “When it was not unmodified joy,” it was “simple, elemental loneliness” (49). Lewis compares these genuine and innocent emotions to the “vulgar version of the rugged individual who claims responsibility only for his own bank account” meaning, I presume, Thoreau (49). Lewis rhapsodizes so about Whitman that he believes Whitman’s “image of the evergreen ‘solitary in a wide, flat space…without a friend or lover near,’ introduced [...] the central theme of American literature [...] the theme of loneliness, dramatized [...] as the story of the hero in space” (49).

The Adamic sensibility of Whitman’s poetry, then, is that “the poet projects a world of order and meaning and identity into [...] chaos” and thus he “creates the world” (51). In the fifth section of “Song of Myself,” Lewis points out, Whitman shows his “mystical side” and (like Adam does in Genesis) names things. Lewis terms it this way, “Whitman populated and gave richness and shape to the universe by the gift of a million names” (52). By means of interpretation, Lewis says, “if section 5 of ‘Song of Myself’ means anything, it means this: a miraculous intercourse between ‘you my soul’ and ‘the other I am,’ with a world as its offspring” (52).

Lewis says that Whitman’s device is to bring together the incidental items of the world by connecting them arbitrarily, “forging the relations between them and the cluster already present, announcing at the end the accomplished whole and breathing all over it the magical command to be” (52). Another example is “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” where Whitman lists the waters of the flood, the “clouds of the west,” and says “I see/you also face to face,” listing the throngs off people, the boats and the people that have yet to come. Another important element Lewis notices is the way Whitman indicates the expansion in population by the “increasing length of the lines” (53). His exuberance makes it as though “the mystery of incarnation has been completed” (53).

Lewis’s next chapter is “The Fortunate Fall: The Elder James and Horace Bushnell.” Count this as the moment I check out of the book. In part, certainly, it’s because the only Henry James I’m familiar with is Henry James Fishman, my allergist (and he’s a genius, believe me). While the other Henry James could be every bit as genius, he doesn’t hold a candle to MINE.

Anyway, the title of the chapter indicates Lewis’s purpose. The idea of The Fall refers back to Adam, whose fall came from the whole apple and Eve thing. Now this Henry James (the philosopher) had a delightfully cynical take on the myth of Adam. He once said that “the first and highest service which Eve renders Adam is to throw him out of paradise (qtd. in Lewis 58). James thought the idea of “man as Adam in Paradise” was a bunch of “adolescent rubbish” (58). James, in fact, found this focus on Adam to be an “exclusive self-consciousness, egotism” that he classified as a “capital sin” (58). Adamism couldn’t possibly be true, said James, because if it were, man “would prove a mere dimpled nursling off the skies, without ever rising into the slightest Divine communion or fellowship, without ever realising a truly Divine manhood and dignity” (59).

The way James saw it, “Any one with half an eye [...] can see…that ‘Adam’s fall,’ as it is called, was not that stupid lapse from the divine favor which it has vulgarly been reputed to have been, but an actual rise to the normal human level” (60). So to undertake the fall is a good thing because to be human is healthy, in James’s view, anyway.

In the next section on “The Narrative Image,” Lewis deals with “The Fable of the Critics.” He begins the discussion with Emerson’s idea that “the man is only half himself, the other half is expression” (77). Here, Lewis describes “the task of the new Adam as poet,” which was to fulfill a tall order: “We want a national literature commensurate with our mountains and rivers…We want a national epic that shall correspond with the size of the country. We want a national drama in which the scope shall be given to our gigantic ideas and to the unparalleled activity of our people….In a word, we want a national literature altogether shaggy and unshorn, that shall shake the earth, like a herd of buffaloes thundering through the prairies” (79).

Lewis also in this chapter brings in what writers were thinking at the time about “the dramatic value of the Adamic vision,” or in other words, whether American life was suitable material for art (82). Hopefully at the time I’m writing today, we’ve established what that it is, but apparently in the early nineteenth century, intellectuals were not so sure. One scholar, William Ellery Channing, for example, considered the “hypothetical reasons why the novel might not ever be born” here (82). Channing thought the American mind was lacking in “romantic associations” as well as “tragic sensibility” apparent in Europe where the novel works (83).

Much later, in the mid-twentieth century, Lionel Trilling argued “that the novel may be dead—not because of an excess of peace, good will, happiness, and innocence, but because the image of evil is so overpoweringly at work in our affairs that it has crowded every other image out of our vision” (83-84).

The next chapter is “The Hero in Space: Brown, Cooper, Bird.” Lewis here says he’s “sketching the emergent fable urged by the critics on American writers” (90). In other words, he is applying this Adamic vision or myth to other American writers, here to one biggie, and two of lesser importance (at least to my mind). I don’t want to say too much about this chapter because it did not speak much to me—I’m not a big fan of Cooper’s, though I understand his importance as an American writer. The other two, I’m not that impressed with.

I am interested, though, in what Lewis says regarding American fiction in general. He says that at Cooper’s time, “the liveliest criticism [...] was persistently and even repetitiously hopeful” but “the best of our fiction has from the outset been neither exclusively hopeful nor exclusively nostalgic, because it has been both” (91). So that is an interesting point to make, particularly since it relates to American humor. The ideas of hope and nostalgia relate to idealism and idealism relates to incongruity—which is an element of humor. One of the most basic forms of American humor is the kind that surrounds the idealism about having a utopian place where society is supposed to be perfect and being faced with the imperfect (and often funny) truth. So I found that interesting.

Later, Lewis is talking specifically about Cooper’s character, Hawkeye, who is described at one point as “witnessing his own birth” (104). In a sense, says Lewis, he is experiencing “rebirth” as the “American Adam: accomplished appropriately in the forest on the edge of a lake, with no parents near at hand, no sponsors at the baptism; springing from nowhere, as Toqueville had said, standing alone in the presence of God and Nature” (104-105). This is important because nature factors in to the creation of the Adamic character, providing a Garden of Eden. Nature, as we will see in Leo Marx and Lawrence Buell, is critical in understanding American thought and American literature.

Now, the next chapter (6) is “The Return into Time: Hawthorne.” I’d like to say I understand it better than I do. I’m not a big Hawthorne fan. I haven’t even read all of Hawthorne, so that doesn’t help. But I have read enough so I understand the discussion of The Scarlet Letter and “The Artist of the Beautiful” (a great title) and “The Minister’s Black Veil” and so on. I just don’t fully understand him the way others do—and the way, obviously, Lewis does. I’ll say the same of chapter 7 on Melville in a minute.

However, Lewis does say something very interesting in the beginning of the chapter. He points out that Hawthorne’s character, Nathan Slaughter (in The Marble Faun, I gather) represented “a shift in setting, as the actual frontier scene pushed beyond the forests to the plains and the western mountains” (110). The change in place is interesting to me because of my interest in place, and I’m fascinated to note that Lewis observes that “The character of the hero changed in response to the new environment” (110). In part, Lewis attributes Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land for the credit, so I won’t go into details that I’ll just discuss later, but suffice it to say that it is interesting that Lewis mentions the change in heroes here related to the change in landscape.