Saturday, 22 November 2014

Understanding Americans - Some Key Texts

The cultured English mind, until recently, could be defined as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton and Bunyan, the Romantic Poets, the English Novel and the War Poets with Kipling, Sherlock Holmes and HG Wells added to taste. But Americans are not Englishman. Although there is a common linguistic culture and both cultures are being transformed radically by the internet-driven shift from word to image, there is a cultural continuity in liberal America that outsiders need to understand before they accept or contest it.

Nathaniel Hawthorne
There are key texts that emerged from within American culture and took hold of the American imagination in a way that helped define this curious half-idealistic empire. Political texts such as the Declaration of Independence or the Gettysburg Address and general journalism and propaganda (which is the origin of the Federalist Papers) are taken as read. Similarly, we are speaking mostly of language although we include three films in our mini-canon.

Like all cultures, American culture is multi-faceted. Every generation produces its unique masterpieces and its defining forms but what we are interested in are the pivotal points where an entire culture shifts direction rather than sanctify some text which liberates or changes just a component of it. In that context, I suggest that there are three key phases in the formation of the American liberal mind which must be seen in the context both of official ideology (the political texts) and an equally important 'intellectual silence' from the conservative Right, seen as anti-intellectual by liberals but also representative of a small town and conservative culture of doing and believing.

The First Phase: The 1850s - Setting the Texts for the Cultural War Against The South

The surge of creative writing in this period (we must not forget the genre-creating work earlier of Poe) may now be seen as a concentrated revolt against puritan authority that was inherited from, but out of time with, English mores of 150 years previously - not in the direction of European materialism (Marx) and existentialism (Kierkegaard) but towards transcendentalism.

This is the point at which the Northern (but not the Southern) culture of the United States moves from being a dialectical variant of European culture into something new and distinctive. It is the point at which American idealism and commitment to absolute moral values turns from aspirational political theory into cultural reality.We may take the major texts, read in schools later, as these five:

  • Nathaniel Hawthorne - The Scarlet Letter (1850): Questions are raised about communitarian authority.
  • Herman Melville - Moby-Dick, or The Whale (1851): The intensity of questions of good and evil.
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe - Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852): Sentimentalism in the cause of the good.
  • Henry David Thoreau - Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854): American individualism bonds with the land and with the ideal.
  • Walt Whitman - Leaves of Grass (1855): The poetic lauding of American earthiness

This immense flourishing of literature on the US East Coast in scarcely half a decade represented an America that was still an offshoot of British culture but that now asserted a distinctive urban liberal and democratic mentality that, in parts, and mostly unintended, helped to fuel the moral fervour behind a bloody war of conquest that was to be touted as a war of liberation after the fact.

This culture was later to invert itself somewhat into philosophical pragmatism as a result of horror at that war (as ably outlined by Louis Menand in 'The Metaphysical Club') and react against populist enthusiasm for moral absolutes but both the belief in force as agent of moral right and a measured antinomian belief in justice and rights over the forms of law has been a persistent value that drives American political action at home and overseas even today.

The Second Phase - From The Late Nineteenth Century to The Mid-Twentieth Century - Understanding & Reforming The Imperium

The first phase was a concentrated burst of generational energy based on an idealistic response to imposed authority from above. It ended in a brutal war that was pursued, albeit not always idealistically in practice, increasingly for 'moral' ends as it moved forward.

Henry James
The next phase is a coming to terms with the expansionary but increasingly anomic ever-expanding federal state that emerged from the crisis. It consisted of two  parts - a mainstream concern with American exceptionalism and how to make it moral, increasingly through a progressive discourse, and an attempt in relation to the South to include a still-alien culture in the whole.

Again, the critiques of capitalism in America are wholly unlike that in Europe. In Europe, there is a war against capitalism as a fundamental socially organising concept from both the Catholic or Fascist Right and the Socialist Left but, in the US, progressives are not arguing against capitalism but against 'bad' capitalism, against monopolies and for smallholders and the 'little man'. The attitude is more one of observation for reform than rage for revolution.

The texts to be read in schools today tell us that, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, the US is not all that it could be in the eyes of thinking liberal men.

It is flawed but it is exceptional and it could be better by returning to its original intentions, the intentions, in a strange piece of patriarchal conservatism, of the Founding Fathers or the free-born settler. This is a liberalism that might be considered very conservative and nostalgic in Europe:


  • Henry James - Works (1871-1911): Anglo-American subtleties and differences
  • Mark Twain - Adventures of Huckleberry Fin (1884): A nostalgia for freedom
  • Frank Norris - The Octopus (1901): The progressive critique of big business
  • Sinclair Lewis - Main Street (1921): The dead weight of small town America
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald - The Great Gatsby (1925): The corruption under the glitter
  • Norman Mailer - The Naked & The Dead (1948): Americans at war

The Southern Response

The 'Southern Response' is not so much a response by the South, which is a cultural back-water, but about the South. A choice is made in the early twentieth century not to integrate the black people who live there and in the Northern cities but to mythologise the culture romantically as a lost cause, a cavalier planter culture beaten (as they should have been even in Marxist theory) by kinder bourgeois roundheads. In doing so, the South is pickled in aspic in order to be integrated into Yankeedom while remaining segregated at home:


It is no accident that the process is book-ended by two major block-busting films. The first rewrites the civil war as a war of resistance on the lines of other doomed tales of resistance much loved by Anglo-Saxons - from Hereward the Wake onwards - and the second shows the romantic but wrong culture of the feudal South as ultimately ill-fitted to the modern world: 'frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn!'

Distracted first by war and reconstruction, the nation-creating liberal texts of this middle phase displace resentments in the defeated South and divert a troubled national liberal culture, confused by its own victories at times, into hand-maiden to a State that could ambiguously be an agent for or against the people.

The Third Phase - The Sixties - The Creation of the New Liberal Mind: Fear, Anger & Guilt

The final phase is the one most of us are familiar with. Like the 1850s, it represents a point of concentrated energy that shifts the ground within the culture, creating the Democrat Party of today and the resentments of small-town conservatism that fuel Republican revolts. The texts below cover the three key psychological developments that rule liberal thinking today - environmentalism, feminism and a passion for indigenous movements as somehow more pure than urban man. These are three centres of contemporary radical thinking in politics and the media.

Notice that the works of sexual and 'negro' liberation - though important to those communities - are not on the list because these were primarily matters of direct action and not texts, though the texts were many. And we have two women on the list for the first time - third phase liberalism is increasingly driven by women and women's values to the extent that the crisis of support emerging today lies in the alienation of working class men who could be taken for granted in the first two phases as supportive of their bourgeois betters' aspirations for rights and reform.

Rachel Carson
And there is one film on the list that has almost been forgotten now but, at the time, brought the message of Dee Brown about forgotten history into exceptionally gory focus for a mass population:

  • Rachel Carson - Silent Spring (1962): An environmentalist ur-text
  • Betty Friedan - The Feminist Mystique (1963): Hardline quasi-Marxist introduction to feminism
  • Paul Ehrlich - The Population Bomb (1968): Existential panic over scarce resources
  • Dee Brown - Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee (1970): Guilt at the genocide of the indigenes
  • Film - Soldier Blue (1970)

The sixties are rightly regarded as a cultural watershed. These types of text and film helped to create a new liberal ideology of rights (especially for women and then for a range of other identity groups based on gender and orientation), imperial guilt and existential fear that drove the babyboomer political project and the opposing conservative communitarian reaction to contest each other right up until the age of the internet.

For those who have not spent time in the American school system (as I have) and are puzzled by the American liberal response to the world, a world which such liberals persist in not trying to understand in its complexity, these three phases may help comprehension of what they are dealing with.

The first phase gives us a genuinely liberal moral absolutism and sentimentality that the world is not what it should be and can be put right by individual endeavour and sentimental good will.

The second long phase shows a determined commitment to mythologising history in order to make things right, a progressive optimism that struggle will return the world to what it should have been if there had been no 'fall' and periodic, latterly apocalyptic, despair at the world as it is.

The last phase focuses on the moral wrongs that are to be found everywhere - in the world as a whole and not just the american world - and that our environment, equality and protection of the vulnerable are 'causes' where, perhaps, facts are not the issue but the will to change things ... which brings us back to the impetus behind the transcendentalism of the 1850s.

And the rest, as they say, is history ...