Thursday, November 25, 2004

Melville & The American Adam

Now, as promised, in the last installment about The American Adam, I’ll talk about “Melville: The Apotheosis of Adam.” I’ve said before that I’m no fan of Melville. I’ve learned already in my American studies reading that Melville was not a popular writer of his time—and the reasons why are obvious: his writing is HORRIBLE. It isn’t easy to read and many of his subjects are utterly unappealing to anyone other than White men with lots of time on their hands. But that said, I have to admit that learning more about him has made me more interested in his work. For example, knowing more about the diversity in Benito Cereno has made me more interested in knowing about it and reading it. And “Bartleby the Scrivener” is a work of genius that I’ve only learned to like since I managed people.

Lewis begins here by saying that American fiction’s idea of “the prince or king in the long tradition of classical drama” is “the Adamic hero” (128). But the “telling distinction is one of strategic distance: the distance at the outset between the hero and the world he must cope with” (128). So if the classical hero starts “at the center of the world,” on the other hand, “the American hero as Adam takes his start outside the world, remote or on the verges” (128) The American hero’s job is to learn about the world from “its power, its fashions, and its history” (128).

Another important point about the Adamic hero is that he is “an outsider.” This idea goes along with what Fiedler was saying. I think of Natty Bumppo or any of Hemingway’s protagonists. Really, Holden Caulfield fits that bill, or … just think … the man in the gray flannel suit…any of the people who come to mind. Lewis would add Huck Finn, Daisy Miller, and Jay Gatsby to my list. Anyway, Lewis says that this hero is “outside in a curiously staunch and artistically demanding manner” because he has to be “distinguished from the kind of outsider—the dispossessed, the superfluous, the alienated, the exiled—who began to enter European fiction in the nineteenth century” (128).

So what this type of hero reveals about America, says Lewis, is “a kind of resistance [...] to the painful process of growing up, something mirrored and perhaps buttressed by our writers, expressing itself in repeated efforts to revert to a lost childhood and a vanished Eden and issuing repeatedly in a series of outcries at the freshly discovered capacity of the world to injure” (129).

However, what of this perpetually “growing up” hero? Lewis says it “has been said that America is always coming of age; but it might be more fairly maintained that America has come of age in sections, here and there—whenever its implicit myth of the American Adam has been a defining part of the writer’s consciousness. When this has happened, the emergent mythology of the new world has been recognized and exploited as a stable resource” (129). Ultimately, the result is what Lewis calls “cultural maturity” (129). So perhaps America is become culturally mature?

Lewis goes on to discuss Melville’s works specifically, something I already mentioned I wasn’t going to enjoy. But he does make an observation about Billy Budd that captures even my flagging attention. He talks about how we (as readers) expect that our tragic characters will change, so when Billy Budd doesn’t change in the book, it begins to seem as though Melville has failed as a writer (151). But this failure, says Lewis, is where Melville’s real skill can be found because “the change effected in the story has to do with the reader” though we have to assume here that it’s the reader who cares “as representative of the onlooking world: with the perception forced on him of the indestructible and in some sense the absolute value of ‘the pristine virtues’” (162). So, we change because we see Billy’s innocence and realize their value more intensely in light of the events in the novel. It’s actually a very clever theme, if it is indeed what Melville meant. I’m not entirely convinced. It’s still impressive for Lewis to have thought of it. Again, though, I remind you, reader, that at the time of his writing, Melville wasn’t a popular author because he was as unreadable then as he is today. Hmmmm….

Anyway, Lewis moves on here to discuss Henry James’s novels, which he says reflect “the peculiar American rhythm of the Adamic experience: the birth of the innocent, the foray into the unknown world, the collision with that world, ‘the fortunate fall,’ the wisdom and the maturity which suffering produced” (153). I follow Lewis’s ideas here, but not later when he says that James’s fiction was “a series of expert violations of the Adamic idea,” which seems to imply, then, that his work was NOT reflective of the Adamic myth (155). So I’m a little lost.

Now the next chapter is where Lewis applies the idea of the Adamic myth to history and theology, and here I’m lost still further. Since I’m not an expert in either historiography or theology, not much Lewis said about either made a lick of sense to me.

The Epilogue is a little more interesting because here Lewis tries to relate his general ideas to the twentieth century. Lewis talks about the twentieth century phenomenon of Irony, saying that has become “fertile and alive” and “one of the modes of death,” a sort of “new hopelessness” (196). But as such, it is “paradoxically, as simple-minded as innocence; and it is opposed only by that parody of hope which consists in an appeal for ‘positive thinking’” (196).

So that’s it for The American Adam. I guess I found more to say about it than I originally thought I would. But I think I’ll find more to say about the next few books, which already are proving quite interesting.

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