The Tradition and Destiny of American Literature

Author: Christopher Dawson

The Tradition and Destiny of American Literature

By Christopher Dawson

The greatest obstacle to international understanding is the barrier of language. Modern internationalism attempts to eliminate this by the techniques of simultaneous translation but this is an unsatisfactory solution: indeed nowhere is one more conscious of the curse of Babel than in an international conference in which a hundred different nations are discussing the same subject in a dozen different languages. In order to understand the mind of another people it is necessary to hear them thinking aloud, not arguing with us, and the best way to do this is still to read their books: the books that they have written, the books that they read and the books that they love.

Unfortunately modern education with all its advantages does little to help us here and the average man leaves college without much knowledge of any language or literature except his own -- and sometimes not much of that. That is why I regard the existence of two literary traditions within the frontiers of a single language as one of the most precious possessions of the English-speaking peoples. Here are two literatures, two distinct fields of historic and aesthetic experience, two spiritual worlds open to all of us on both sides of the Atlantic at no trouble or expense. We have, most of us, taken this privilege so much as a matter of course that we have failed to appreciate its full value. When we have read a literature all our lives -- in the nursery, in the schoolroom, at college, for relaxation in leisure hours, and as a subject of serious study -- we are apt to forget that it is not our own: we see only the particular book or author and overlook the profound differences of national tradition and culture that lie behind them.

It is true that earlier American writers wrote under the eye of the European critic and were not averse to being accepted as citizens of the European republic of letters; but for all that they remained essentially American, and even expatriates like Henry James were no less preoccupied with the American theme than were the official spokesmen of the American way of life. It is this preoccupation which is the distinctive note of American literature. American writers are concerned with America in an entirely different way from that in which English writers are concerned with Great Britain. No doubt it is impossible to conceive of writers like Fielding or Trollope or Surtees being anything but English even in their sleep, but they never try to define their Englishry or to ask what England means. But in America it is just the opposite. Every writer is highly conscious of his Americanism and he feels, as Santayana said, that "to be an American is of itself almost a moral condition, an education and a career."

It is easy to see the reason for this. Unlike other peoples the United States found their origin in a deliberate act of corporate self-assertion, and ever since the Revolution every little American has been taught to associate himself personally with this creative act. Nor was it enough for the Americans to assert their independence from the Old World: they had also to impose their will on a virgin continent, to fell the forest and plough the prairie and burst the barriers that separated them from the Western Ocean.

A Tradition of Public Oratory

Now the American writer had little share in this achievement. He was left behind on the coasts of New England and New York in the old colonial atmosphere. The new nation had no time to write books. Nevertheless it was one of the most literate nations that has ever existed and nothing impressed foreign observers like de Tocqueville more than the way in which the men of the log cabins who owned nothing but an axe and a gun were assiduous readers of the newspapers, which somehow followed them into the wilderness. Thus, though the Americans were not a people of writers, they were a people of readers and still more of speakers. The eighteenth century tradition of public oratory which played such a great part in the Revolution continued to flourish in the new world beyond the Alleghenies and produced its typical representatives through the nineteenth century from Henry Clay in Kentucky to Bryan in Nebraska. These were the real spokesmen of the new culture. The men of letters, the artists and contemplaters held a somewhat peripheral and insecure position in American society and were sometimes isolated and neglected in the triumphant forward march of American democracy. Yet for all that they all felt themselves to be deeply involved in the American situation and sometimes as charged with a charismatic mission to the American people as its teachers, prophets or interpreters.

This no doubt has its roots in the history of American culture. From the beginning the Bible was the basic classic for all Americans, and the spread of higher education in the West was mainly the work of the denominational colleges whose primary function was the training of the ministry. The American writer was the natural heir of this ministerial tradition. In the case of Emerson the vocation was literally an hereditary one; and it would be tedious to name all the writers who were the sons or grandsons of ministers. In any case this sense of mission which sets the writer apart from his fellow citizens has always been characteristic of the American literary tradition. But it expresses itself in two different ways. On the one hand there are the writers like Emerson and Walt Whitman who consciously accept the prophetic role; and on the other there are the critics and questioners, like Thoreau and Herman Melville and also Henry James and Henry Adams who were disturbed by the prevailing trends in American society and who tried to maintain or restore a certain standard of moral or civilized values.

These tendencies are not explained entirely by the spirit of the age which produced writers like Carlyle and Ruskin and Matthew Arnold on the eastern side of the Atlantic. The tendencies are more than that, since their influence is to be seen as clearly among American writers of the present age. There are still sons of the prophets among them, even though, like Robinson Jeffers, their message may be one of unrelieved denunciation and doom: and in the other direction the critical examination of the American conscience has never been so stringent and far-reaching as it has been during the last thirty years.

This is due in part to a change in the conditions of American culture, to the intensive study of literature in the universities and to the growth of a new learned class of professional scholars. (It is remarkable how many of the younger American poets and critics are professors or teachers of literature in the universities.) No doubt this has tended to accentuate the separation of the American intellectual from the rest of society which, as we have seen, has been characteristic of American letters from the beginning; and it may even lead to a sharp revulsion against the American theme, as with Karl Shapiro who has denounced "the synthetic myth of the Emersonian and Whitmanian bards" and speaks of "America" as "the word that is the chief enemy of modern poetry . " But on the whole the age of criticism has led not to a turning away from American themes, but to a deeper and wider understanding of them.

This is to be seen most clearly in the case of the new Southern literature, the origins of which are closely related to the contemporary critical movement of the Southern agrarian group. This literature makes a special appeal to the English reader since it resembles his own literature in its consciousness of the past and of the inescapable burden of social tradition, while at the same time it gives him a new experience -- an invitation into a world which is intensely real and yet utterly different from anything that he has known.

This strangeness is due above all to the racial dualism of Southern culture -- the existence of an underworld of culture with its own social and spiritual traditions. This racial and cultural dualism is one of the dominant issues of the age which confronts us alike in Africa and in Asia, but it is only in American Southern literature, and especially in the writings of William Faulkner, that we can feel the full impact of the problem in its incarnate reality. Moreover this exploration of the depths of the social consciousness has also given the Southern writer a remarkable gift for understanding and interpreting the different worlds of spiritual experience that still exist under the superficial uniformity of modern secular civilization: not only the racial underworld of the Negro, but the economic underworld of the peasant and the religious underworld of the Protestant sects. There are few aspects of American culture more difficult for the English observer to comprehend, than the way in which the familiar forms of traditional English Protestantism have undergone a change and speak a language that is strange and disconcerting. Wesley we know and Whitfield and even Asbury, but who are these? Now American literature in general does not help us here. The Elmer Gantries only increase our mystification, and even so civilized and sympathetic a writer as Thornton Wilder in his masterly picture of the salesman saint in writes from outside with humorous detachment. It is only in a Southern writer like Robert Penn Warren that we seem to hear an authentic voice from the forgotten world of popular religious experience. Nothing is more difficult than for a novelist to write convincingly or even inoffensively of supernatural or paranormal religious states and experiences. Bernanos attempted it again and again with great force and eloquence, but his work is marred by its sensationalism and literary bravura. But Warren's story of the poor mountain mystic Ashby Wyndham (in ) never strikes a false note and carries conviction in spite (or perhaps partly because) of the handicap of its unfamiliar vernacular idiom.

A Strong Regional Literature

No doubt types like Ashby Wyndham are archaeological survivals in the modern American world, and the same may be said of many of Faulkner's most convincing characters. It is as though the social backwardness of the South was a necessary condition of its literary fowardness. Yet this only means that one cannot have a strong regional literature without a relatively stable background of social and historical tradition. New England had this in the past and New England produced a rich literary harvest. But the great Western area which is the heart of modern America has never had it, because it has never ceased to change. Its writers, like Mark Twain, have written of the West that they knew, but it had already ceased to exist. The West had become a myth before it had achieved full social reality.

It is true that this Western myth had an epic quality which might well have found literary expression if it had been allowed to mature. But the West did not last long enough. Its folk myths and heroes became stage properties of Hollywood before the poets had begun to get to work on them.

The literature of the modern West from in 1891 to in 1939 had no contact with this legendary past. It is a literature of disillusionment. Today there is perhaps a tendency for writers to go back to the old Western themes in a more literary spirit, following in the steps of historians like Bernard de Voto and poets like Stephen Benet. But this is a nostalgic mood like that of MacLeish's which also strives to evoke another. older. Western theme:

Old . . . an old man sickened and near death:

And the West is gone now: the West is

the ocean sky....

When a European reads American literature and still more the popular historians of literature like Dr. Van Wyck Brooks, he is surprised to find that the tendency to romantic nostalgia is even stronger in the New World than in the Old. But perhaps this is the inevitable result of the speed with which American culture has developed. There has been no time for the development of a central common American literary tradition. In the course of a single century America has leapt from the old rural regional cultures of Thoreau's New England and the Old South to the super-urban technocratic mass culture of the mid-20th century. Such a situation imposes an almost intolerable burden on a man of letters since this new mass civilization seems to demand new literary forms that have yet to be created -- unless indeed its only expression is to be found in the new non-literary media of mass communication. All the literatures of the past, including that of the United States during their first century, have been the work of a small educated class and have been addressed to a relatively restricted public. It is only in the present century that we find societies of more than a hundred million that are almost entirely literate and in which the writers do not belong to any definite social class or milieu.

It is true that one great American writer of the past, Walt Whitman, was fully aware of the "massive" continental character of American culture and spent his life celebrating its glories and infinite possibilities. But he did not see the America that was growing up under his eyes. He envisaged a great spontaneous unbuttoned open-air democracy, after the pattern of the Western armies of the Republic in the Civil War. He did not see Main Street and Middle Town and the endless expansion of the great urban agglomerations. Above all he did not realize that a democratic mass civilization imposes a stricter discipline on the individual than any of the feudal or peasant cultures of the past. There has been no lack of novels about business life or discussions of the tensions that arise from the pressure of modern mass society on the individual personality. But the writer, unless he is a professional journalist, is not really at home in this new world. His art of its very nature is so highly individualized that he cannot become fully integrated in a business civilization. Consequently the writer tends either to turn back and re-explore the depths and undercurrents of the folk mind and the regional traditions, or else to write of the present predicament of the individual in a mass society, and especially to make himself the spokesman of the inarticulate and maladjusted types -- alcoholics, delinquents and neurotics - who are furthest removed from the patterns of social conformity.

This literary schizophrenia between the nostalgic acceptance of a vanished tradition and a defiant revolt against the conformist pressure of a managerial order, can hardly be more than a transitory phenomenon. No society lies nearer to the cyclonic path of the forces of world change than the United States, and few societies are more intellectually aware of the nature of the issues that have to be faced.

American literature has never been content to be just one among the many literatures of the Western World. It has always aspired to be the literature not only of a new continent but of a New World. The adventure of Western Man which created America has now come full circle and the geographical New World is becoming merged in an historical new age which is global or universal.

Now American literature since the time of Melville and Whitman has been taught to face these universal issues and meanwhile it has become the organ of one of the most cosmopolitan and manifold societies that has ever existed. Consequently on both counts it seems to me that in the long run no literature is more fitted to deal with the new themes of the new age.

(First published in "THE CRITIC", Nov. 1957 issue)

This article was taken from "The Dawson Newsletter," Fall 1994, P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702, $8.00 per year.