The National Genius
BY STUART P. SHERMAN
SOME people have one hobby and some another. Mine is studying the utterances of the Intelligentsia — a word by which those who think that they exhibit the latest aspect of mind designate themselves. I like to hear what our ‘young people’ say, and to read what they write; for, though they are not meek, they will, at least in a temporal sense, inherit the earth — and one is always interested in heirs. So much depends upon them.
Not long ago, progressive thinkers organized a public dinner in order to consult together for the welfare of the Republic. The marks of a progressive thinker are profound pessimism with regard to the past and infinite hope with regard to the future. Such a thinker was the toastmaster. Now, a thoughtful and progressive pessimist is a joy forever. He says for the rest of us those bitter things about history and society which we all feel at times, but hesitate to utter, not being so certain that we possess the antidote. I had long surmised that this was not the best possible of worlds, whether one considered it in its present drunken and reeling state, or whether one peered backward, through stratum after stratum of wrecked enterprises, into its iniquitous and catastrophic antiquity. Accordingly, I felt a kind of rich, tragic satisfaction when this toastmaster, in a ten-minute introduction, reviewed the entire history of the world from the time of the Cave Man to the time of the Treaty of Versailles, and concluded with a delightfully cheerful smile: —
‘Up to date civilization has been a failure. Life is tolerable only as a preparation for a state which neither we nor our sons shall enter. We shall all die in the desert,’ he continued, as the gloom thickened to emit the perorational flash; ‘but let us die like Moses, with a look into the Promised Land.’
Then he began to call upon his associates in the organization of progress.
Nino tenths of the speakers were, as is customary on such occasions, of the sort that editors include when they arrange a series of articles called ‘ Builders of Contemporary Civilization.’ They were the men who get cathedrals begun, and make universities expand, legislatures vote, armies light, money circulate, commodities exchange, and grass grow two blades for one. They spoke in a businesslike way of eliminating waste and introducing efficiency, of tapping unused resources here, of speeding up production there, of facilitating communications somewhere else. Except for the speeches of the bishop and the university president, the discourses had to my ear a somewhat mechanical twang. Yet one could not but approve and feel braced by the leading idea running through them all, which was to extend the control of man over nature and the control of a creative reason over man. All the speakers—engineer, banker, and farmer, no less than clergyman and educator — seemed to have their eyes fixed on some standard, which some internal passion for improvement urged them to approximate, or to attain. I could n’t help thinking how Franklin would have applauded the spirit of his posterity.
When, as I thought, the programme was completed, they had substituted for the present machinery of society a now outfit of the 1950 model, or perhaps of a still later date. The country, under intensive cultivation, looked like a Chinese garden. The roads, even in the spring of the year, were not merely navigable, but Fordable. Something had happened to the great smoke-producing cities; so that Chicago, for instance, shone like a jewel in clear air and sunlight. High in the heavens, innumerable merchant vessels, guarded by aerial dreadnaughts, were passing in continuous flight across the Gulf to South America. Production had been so enormously increased by the increased expertness, health, and sobriety of the producers, that a man could go to market with only a handful of silver in his pocket and return with bread and butter enough for himself and his wife, and perhaps a couple of biscuits for his dog. Every one of the teeming population, alow and aloft, male and female, was at work in uniform, a rifle and a wireless field-telephone within easy reach; for every one was both an expert workman and a soldier. But no one was fighting. Under the shield of that profound ‘preparedness,’ the land enjoyed uninterrupted peace and prosperity.
Perhaps I dreamed some of this. The speeches were long.
When I returned to a condition of critical consciousness, the toastmaster was introducing the last speaker as follows: ‘We have now provided for all matters of first-rate importance. But we have with us one of the literary leaders of the younger generation. I am going to call upon him to say a word for the way the man of the new Republic will express himself after he has been fed and clothed and housed. I shall ask him to sketch a place in our programme of democratic progress for art, music, literature, and the like — in short, for the superfluous things.’
That phrase, ‘the superfluous things,’ rang in my ear like a gong: not because it was new, but because it was old; because it struck a nerve sensitive from repeated striking; because it really summed up the values of art for this representative group of builders; because it linked itself up with a series of popularly contrasted terms— practical and liberal studies, business English and literary English, useful and ornamental arts, valuable and graceful accomplishments, necessaries and luxuries of life, chemists and professors of English, and so on ad infinitum. I myself was a professor of superfluous things, and, therefore, a superfluous professor. As I turned this uncomfortable thought over in my mind, it occurred to me that things are superfluous only with reference to particular ends; and that, in a comprehensive plan of preparation for a satisfactory national life, we might be compelled to revise the epithets conventionally applied to the arts which express our craving for beauty, harmony, happiness.
Before I had gone far in this train of thought, the literary artist was addressing the business men. His discourse was so remarkable, and yet so representative of our most conspicuous group of ‘young people,’ that I reproduce the substance of it here.
‘The young men of my generation,’ he began, ‘propose the emancipation of the arts in America. Before our time, such third-rate talents as the country produced were infected, by our institutions, and by the multitude, with a sense of their Messianic mission. Dominated by the twin incubi of Puritanism and Democracy, they servilely associated themselves with political, moral, and social programmes, and made beauty a prostitute to utility. Our generation of artists has seen through all the solemn humbug of your plans for the “welfare of the Republic.” With a clearer-eyed pessimism than that of our toastmaster, we have not merely envisaged the failure of civilization in the past: we have also foreseen its failure in the future.
‘We have talked with wiser counselors than those pious Philistines, our naïve Revolutionary Fathers. George Moore, our great contemporary, tells us t hat “Humanity is a pig-sty, where liars, hypocrites, and the obscene in spirit congregate: and it has been so since the great Jew conceived it, and it will be so till the end.” Leopardi, who in certain respects was our pioneer, declares that “all things else being vain, disgust of life represents all that is substantial and real in the life of man.” Theodore Dreiser, our profound philosophical novelist, views the matter, however, with a bit of creative hopefulness. Though God, as he has assured us, cares nothing for the pure in heart, yet God does offer a “ universe-eating career to the giant,” recking not how the lifeforce manifests itself, “so long as it achieves avid, forceful, artistic expression. From serving the middle-class American, Flaubert frees us, saying, Hatred of the bourgeois is the beginning of virtue.” Mr. Spingarn, our learned theorist, brushes away the critical cobwebs of antique poetic doctrine, and gives us a clean æsthetic basis, by his revelation that “ beauty aims neither at morals nor at truth ”;and that“it is not the purpose of poetry to further the cause of democracy, or any other practical ‘cause,’ any more than it is the purpose of bridge-building to further the cause of Esperanto.” We have had to import our philosophy in fragments from beyond the borders of Anglo-Saxonia, from Ireland, Germany, France, and Italy; and we have had to call in the quick Semitic intelligence to piece it together. But here it is; and you will recognize that it liberates us from Puritanism and from Democracy. It emancipates us from you!
‘You ask me, perhaps,’ continued the young representative of American letters, ‘what we intend to do with this new freedom, which, as Mr. Ludwig Lewisohn truly says, is our “central passion.” Well, we intend to let ourselves out. If you press me as to what I mean by that, I can refer you to the new psychology. This invaluable science, developed by great German investigators, has recently announced, as you possibly Know, an epoch-making discovery— namely, that most of the evil in the world is due to self-control. To modern inquiry, it appears that what all the moralists, especially in Anglo-Saxon countries, have tried to curb or to suppress is precisely what they should have striven to release. If you wish corroboration, let me quote the words of our talented English colleague, Mr. W. L. George, the novelist, who says, “ I suspect that it does a people no good if its preoccupations find no outlet.”
‘In passing I will remark that Mr. George, being an Englishman, shows a certain taint of inherited English Puritanism in defending letting people out in order to do them good. From the point of view of the new philosophy, letting one’s self out completely and perfectly is art, which has no purpose and therefore requires no defense.
‘ But to return: what are the preoccupations of the ordinary man? Once more Mr. George shall answer for us. “A large proportion of his thoughts run on sex if he is a live man.” French literature proves the point abundantly; American literature, as yet, very imperfectly and scantily. Consequently, a young American desiring to enlarge his sex-consciousness must import his fiction from overseas. But our own Mr. Cabell has also begun to prove the point as well as a foreigner. His release of the suppressed life is very precious. If he were encouraged, instead of being nipped by the frost of a Puritanical censorship; if a taste were developed to support him, he might do for us what George Moore is trying, subterraneously, to do for England.
‘ Our own Mr. Dreiser has been so preoccupied with this subject that he has been obliged to neglect a little his logic and his grammar. His thinking, however, runs none the less surefootedly to the conclusion reached by Mr. George. What does that remorseless artistthinker, Mr. Dreiser, say? He says: “It is the desire to enthrone and enhance, by every possible detail of ornamentation, comfort, and color, — love, sensual gratification, — that man in t he main moves, and by that alone. We do not maintain that Mr. Dreiser is a flawless writer. But if, at your leisure, you will study that sentence from his latest and ripest book, till you discover its subject, predicate, and object, and can bridge its anacoluthon, and reconcile “in the main ”with “by that alone,” then you will be in a position to grasp our leading idea for the future of the arts in America.’
When the young man resumed his seat, there was a ripple of applause among the ladies, one of whom told me later that she thought the speaker’s voice ‘delicious’ and his eyes ‘soulful.’ But I noticed that the bishop was purple with suppressed wrath; that the university president had withdrawn; while the other builders of civilization, notably the business men, were nodding with a kind of patient and puzzled resignation.
In my neighborhood there was a quick little buzz of questions: ‘Will you tell me what all that has to do with a programme of democratic progress ?’ — ‘What is George Moore trying subterraneously to do for England? Is he interested in the collieries? I thought he was a novelist.’ — ‘He has downright insulted them,’ said my neighbor on the right, ‘don’t you think?’
‘Why, no,’ I replied, ‘not exactly. He was asked to speak on the superfluous things; and he has really demonstrated that they are superfluous. After this, don’t you see, the builders of civilization can go on with their work and not worry about the arts. He has told them that beauty is not for them; and they will swiftly conclude that they are not for beauty. I think he has very honestly expressed what our radical young people are thinking. They are in revolt. They wish by all means to widen the traditional breach between the artist and the Puritan.’
‘What do you mean by Puritan?’ inquired my friend, as we made our way out of the hall together.
He is a simple-hearted old gentleman who does n’t follow the new literature, but still reads Hawthorne and George Eliot.
‘It is n’t,’ I explained, ‘what I mean by Puritan that signifies. It is what the young people mean. A Puritan for them is any man who believes it possible to distinguish between good and evil, and who also believes that, having made the distinction, his welfare depends upon his furthering the one and curbing the other.’
‘But,’ cried the old gentleman in some heat, ‘in that sense, we are all Puritans. That is n’t theological Puritanism. That is scarcely even moral Puritanism. It’s just — it’s just ordinary horse sense. In that sense, for God’s sake, who is n’t a Puritan?’
I recalled an old case that I thought would illustrate the present situation. ‘There was Judge Keeling,’ I said, ‘in Charles the Second’s time. Judge Keeling put Bunyan in jail for failing to use the Book of Common Prayer, and similar misdemeanors. In the reign of the same Defender of the Faith, two merry wits and poets of his court became flown with wine and, stripping themselves naked, ran through the streets, giving a healthy outlet to their suppressed selves in songs of a certain sort. The constable, an ordinary English Puritan, so far misunderstood the spiritual autonomy which the artist should enjoy, that he arrested the two liberators of art. When, however, the news reached Judge Keeling, he released the young men and laid the constable by the heels; which, as Pepys, — himself a patron of the arts, yet a bit of a Puritan, — as Pepys remarked, was a “ horrid shame.” Now Judge Keeling, I think our own young people would admit, was not a Puritan, even in the latest sense of the term.’
‘But those Restoration fellows,’ replied my friend,—‘Keeling and the wits and the rest of them,—they were opposing the sense of the whole English nation. They made no headway. No one took them seriously. They all disappeared like gnats in a snowstorm. When the central current of English life had done its scouring work, people thought of your two poets as mere stable-boys of the Restoration. Surely you don’t think our democratic young people are so silly as to imitate them? We have no merry monarch to reward them. What do they gain by setting themselves against the common sense?’
‘Notoriety,’ I said, ‘which is as sweet under a republican as under a monarchical form of government. I used to think that to insult the common sense and always to be speaking contemptuously of the “bourgeoisie,” implied sycophancy, either to a corrupt and degenerate aristocracy, or to a peculiarly arrogant and atheistical lowest class. But our “ democratic young people,” as you call them, preserve and foster this artistic snobbishness as a form of self-expression.
‘When Mr. Dreiser declares that God cares nothing for the Ten Commandments or for the pure in heart, he really means that inanimate nature cares nothing for them, and that the animal kingdom and he and the heroes of his books follow nature. But he denies a faith which in some fifty millions of native Americans survives the decay of dogma, and somehow, in attenuated form, keeps the country from going wholly to the dogs. For, of course, if it were demonstrable that, God had abandoned a charge so important, plain men of sense would quietly assume responsibility and “carry on” in his stead.’
‘I quite agree with you,’ said the old gentleman; ‘ but as I am not acquainted with the author you mention and am just completing my third reading of Middlemarch, I will turn in here. Goodnight.’
I went on down the street, resuming, unaccompanied, the more difficult part of my meditation on the place of the fine arts in a programme of democratic progress, and internally debating with the young man who had caused such a sensation at dinner. Having made this general acknowledgment of his inspiration, I shall not attempt to reproduce our dialogue; for I found that he simply repeated the main points of his speech, and interrupted my comment upon it.
When Mr. Spingarn declares that beauty is not concerned with truth or morals or democracy, he makes a philosophical distinction which I have no doubt that Charles the Second would have understood, approved, and could, at need, have illustrated. But he says what the American schoolboy knows to be false to the history of beauty in this country. By divorcing, in his supersubtle Italian fashion, form from substance, he has separated beauty from her traditional associates in American letters, and so has left her open to seduction.
Beauty, whether we like it or not, has a heart full of service. Emancipated, she will still be seeking some vital activity. You have heard how the new writers propose to employ her new leisure; in extending the ordinary man’s preoccupation with sex. We don’t, you will observe, by the emancipation of the arts from service to truth, morals, and democracy — we don’t obtain a ‘disinterested’ beauty. We obtain merely a beauty with different interests — serving‘sensual gratification’and propagating the curiously related doctrine that God cares nothing for the Ten Commandments or for the pure in heart.
We arrive finally at some such comprehensive formulation of relationships as this; It is the main function of art to deny what it is the main function of truth, morals, and democracy to affirm. Our speaker for the younger generation has made all this so clear that I suspect the bishop is going home resolved to take music out of his churches. The university president is perhaps deciding to replace his professor of Italian painting by a professor of soil-fertility. As for the captains of industry, they can hardly be blamed if they mutter among themselves; ‘May the devil fly away with the fine arts! Let’s get back to business.’
It is to be hoped, nevertheless, that the devil will not fly away with the fine arts or the fine artists, or with our freshly foot-loose and wandering beauty; for the builders of civilization have need of them. If the young people were not misled by more or less alien-spirited guides, the national genius itself would lead them into a larger life.
When our forefathers, whom it is now customary to speak of as ‘grim, ’ outlined their programme for a new republic, though they had many more immediately pressing matters on their minds, they included among objects to be safeguarded, indeed, among the inalienable rights of mankind, ‘the pursuit of happiness.’ It appears that they, like ourselves, had some dim idea that the ultimate end of their preparation was, not to fight the English or the savages or the wilderness, but to enjoy, they or their posterity, some hitherto unexperienced felicity. That, at heart, was what sustained them under the burdens and heats of a pioneering civilization, through those years when they dispensed with such ingredients of happiness as musical comedy and moving pictures, and when the most notable piece of imagist verse was Franklin’s proverb, ‘It is hard for an empty sack to stand upright’ — a one-line poem of humor, morality, insight, and imagination all compact.
We, too, entertain, we ordinary puritanical Americans, some shadowy notions of a time to come, when, at more frequent intervals than now, men shall draw in a delighted breath and cry. ‘Oh, that this moment might endure forever!’ We believe in this far-off time, because, at least once or twice in a lifetime, each of us experiences such a moment, or, feeling the wind of its retreating wing, knows that it has just gone by. It may have been in some magical sunset, or at the sound of a solemn music, or in the sudden apprehension of a long-sought truth, or at the thrill and tightening of resolution in some crisis, or in the presence of some fair marble image of a thought that keeps its beauty and serenity while we fret and fade. It may even have been at some vision, seen in the multitude of business, of a new republic revealed to the traveling imagination, like a shining city set on a hill in the flash of a midnight storm. Till life itself yields such moments less charily, it is incumbent upon the artist to send them as often as he can.
There came among us in war-time an English poet whose face was as sad as his who from the Judecca climbed to see again delle cose belle che porta il ciel. He had been where his countrymen, fighting with incredible heroism, had suffered one of the most heart-breaking and bloody defeats in English history. His memory was seared with remembrance of the filth, waste, wounds, and screaming lunacy of the battle-front to which he was about to return. When someone asked him to write his name in a volume of his poems, he inscribed below it this line of his own verse: —
Why these days? Because in them we learn the final object of all our preparation. These days serve us as measures of the success of our civilization.
The ultimate reason for including the ‘superfluous things’ — art, music, literature — in a plan of national preparation is that, rightly used, they are both causes and consequences of happiness. They are the seed and the fruit of that fine and gracious and finished national life toward which we aspire. When the body is fed and sheltered, there remain to be satisfied — as what Puritan does not know? — the inarticulate hungers of the heart, to which all the arts are merely some of the ministers. Other ministers are religion, morality, patriotism, science, truth. It is only by harmonious coöperation that they can ever hope to satisfy the whole heart, the modern heart, with its ever-widening range of wakened hungers. It is certainly not by banishing or ignoring the austerer ministers, and making poetry, painting, and music perform a FrancoTurkish dance of invitation — it is not thus that the artist should expect to satisfy a heart as religious, as moral, and as democratic as the American heart is, by its bitterest critics, declared to be.
‘Art is expression,’ says the learned theorist of the young people, ‘and poets succeed or fail by their success or failure in completely expressing themselves.’ Let us concede that the poet who expresses completely what is in him by a hymn to the devil is as perfect an artist as a poet who expresses what, is in him by the Iliad. Then let us remark that the poet who hymns the devil, the devil is likely to fly away with. And let us add as rapidly as possible a little series of neglected truisms. An artist is a man living in society. A great artist is a great man living in a great society. When a great artist expresses himself completely, it is found invariably that he has expressed, not merely himself, but also the dominant thought and feeling of the men with whom he lives. Mr. Spingarn, indeed, indirectly admits the point when he says: ‘If the ideals they [the poets] express are not the ideals we admire most, we must blame, not the poets, but ourselves; in the world where morals count, we have failed to give them the proper materials out of which to rear a nobler edifice.’ (Italics mine.) This seems to mean that society is responsible for the artist, even if the artist is not responsible to society. Society gives him, as a man, what, as an artist, he expresses.
I have perhaps hinted here and elsewhere my suspicion that Mr. Dreiser, a capital illustrative example, is not a great novelist, because, though living in a great society, he does not express or represent its human characteristics, but confines himself to an exhibition of the habits and traits of animals. Is it that we have not given him materials to rear a nobler edifice? That which we — that is, society — can give to a novelist is the moulding and formative influence of the national temper and character. What have we given to Mr. Dreiser? What, in short, are the dominant traits of the national genius? I am delighted to discover in Mr. Dreiser’s latest book that he himself knows pretty well what the national genius is, how it has manifested itself in religion and politics, and how it is nourished and sustained by ancient traditions and strong racial proclivities. I like to agree with our young people when I can. When I find one of them testifying, contrary to their custom, that America does now possess a powerful national culture, I like to applaud his discernment. It is a pleasure to make amends for my disparagement of Mr. Dreiser as a novelist, by illustrating his critical ability with these words of his on the national genius: —
‘No country in the world (at least, none that I know anything about) has such a peculiar, such a seemingly fierce determination to make the Ten Commandments work. It would be amusing, if it were not pitiful, their faith in these binding religious ideals. I have never been able to make up my mind whether this springs from the zealotry of the Puritans who landed at Plymouth Rock, or whether it is rooted in the soil ... or whether it is a product of the Federal Constitution, compounded by such idealists as Paine and Jefferson and Franklin and the more or less religious and political dreamers of the preconstitutional days. Certain it is that no such profound moral idealism animated the French in Canada, the Dutch in New York, the Swedes in New Jersey, or the mixed French and English in the extreme South and New Orleans’ (Italics mine.)
I know how differently our young people feel; but, to my thinking, a national genius animated by an incomparably profound moral idealism does not seem such a contemptible moulding and formative influence for an artist to undergo. English-speaking poets, from Spenser to Walt Whitman, have grown great under the influence of such an environing spirit. At any rate, if the great artist, in expressing himself, expresses also the society of which he is a part, it should seem to follow, like a conclusion in geometry, that a great American artist must express the ‘profound moral idealism ' of America. To rail against it, to lead an insurrection against it, is to repeat the folly of the Restoration wits. If in this connection one may use a bit of the American language, it is to ‘ buck ' the national genius; and this is an enterprise comparable with bucking a stone wall. On the other hand to acknowledge the leadership of the national genius, to subject one’s self to its influence, to serve it according to one’s talents, to find beautiful and potent forms to express its working — this is to ally one’s self with the general creative effort of the country in all fields of activity; this is to be in a benign conspiracy with one’s time and place, and to be upborne by the cent ral stream of tendency.
There is small place for Bohemia in democratic art. I sometimes wonder with what spiritual refugees, under what rafters, those poets and novelists live who are so anxious to secede from the major effort of their countrymen. For their own sakes one wishes that they might cultivate acquaintance with our eminent ‘builders of civilization.’ The good that I should expect from this contact is a vision of the national life, a sense of the national will, which are usually possessed in some degree by these Americans, whatever their æsthetic deficiencies, who bear the burden of the state, or are widely conversant with its business, or preside over its religious, moral, or educational undertakings. I do not intend in the least to suggest that the artist should become propagandist or reformer, or that he should go to the bishop or the statesman for a commission, though I believe that Leonardo and Michael Angelo did some very tolerable things under direct inspiration of that nature. What one feels is rather that intercourse with such men might finally create in our artistic secessionists a consciousness of the ignobility of their aims. For in America it will be found more and more that the artist who does not in some fashion concern himself with truth, morals, and democracy, is unimportant, is ignoble.
In an unfinished world, where religion has become so largely a matter of traditional sentiments and observances, poetry has a work to do, poetry of any high seriousness. Our critics and poets of vision have long since recognized what that work is. ‘I said to Bryant and to these young people,’ wrote Emerson in his journal many years ago, ‘that the high poetry of the world from the beginning has been ethical, and it is the tendency of the ripe modern mind to produce it.’—‘I hate literature,’ said Whitman, perhaps over-emphatically expressing the traditional American disdain for art in its merely decorative and recreative aspects. ‘ Literature is big only in one way, when used as an aid in the growth of the humanities.’ Our young people, of course, will exclaim that these are typical utterances of our New England Puritanism, fatal to the arts; but, as a matter of fact, this Puritanism is of a sort that the New Englanders shared with Plato and Aristotle, who have not been fatal to the arts. When Emerson said, ‘Honor every truth by use,’ he expressed, I think, what Socrates would have approved, and at the same time he spoke in fullest accord with the national genius, ever driving at practice, ever pressing toward the fulfillment of its vision.
Why should a spokesman for belleslettres, bred in the national tradition, hesitate to go before a group of ‘ practical’ men and talk to them, unashamed, of the ‘utilities’ of artistic expression? He may borrow a figure from the economist, and declare that the poet ‘socializes ’ the spiritual wealth of the country. Art is rooted in social instinct, in a desire to communicate goods to others, to share one’s private experience and anticipations. It is the spontaneous overflow of thoughts and feelings which one cannot consume alone. ‘Full of the common joy,’ says Donne, ‘I uttered some.’ This is your true and unassailable communism. When SaintGaudens, having conceived his heroic and inspiring image of Colonel Shaw leading his colored troops, sets it up on Boston Common, it becomes common property; and the loafer in the park, the student, the hurrying merchant, the newsboy, are equal sharers in its commemoration and inspiration. A village poet with an ethical bent makes this thought sing: —
The youth replies, ' I can,’—
and he has slipped a spiritual gold-piece into the palm of each of his fellow countrymen. This is wealth really distributed. It would be of advantage to both bards and business men if some spiritual economist would remind them more frequently that the wealth of a community is in proportion to the number of such ideas that it has in common.
Among builders of American civilization, many means are now discussed for awakening national pride and attaching the affections of the people to the state; conspicuous among them are, or were, Liberty Bonds, nationalization of the railroads, and universal military service. Robert Burns and Sir Walter did the work more simply and cheaply for Scotland. It has never been hard for the native-born American to hold America ‘first’ in political affairs; but musicians as such, painters as such, men of letters as such, cannot, without straining the meaning of the word, hold her first till her national genius expresses itself as adequately, as nobly, in music, painting, and literature, as it has, on the whole, in the great political crises. Irving, at the beginning of the last century, worked with a clear understanding of our deficiencies when he wrote his Rip Van Winkle and other legends of the Hudson Valley, with the avowed purpose ‘to clothe home scenes and places and familiar names with those imaginative and whimsical associations so seldom met with in our new country, but which live like charms and spells about the cities of the Old World, binding the heart of the native inhabitant to his home.’
You may persuade all men to buy Liberty Bonds or to invest in the stock of nationalized railroads, or you may legislate them into the army; but you cannot dragoon them into crying, ’O beautiful, my country!’ That is the work of the poets, who have entwined their loyalty with their heart-strings. That is the work of the artists, who have made their Americanism vital, devout, affectionate. ‘How can our love increase,’ asks Thoreau, ‘unless our loveliness increases also?’ A good question for ‘ Americanizers’ to meditate upon. It would benefit both public men and artists if someone reminded them more frequently that one of the really important tasks of national preparation is to draw out and express in forms of appealing beauty, audible as poetry or music, visible as painting or sculpture, the purpose and meaning of this vast half-articulate land, so that our hosts of new and unlearned citizens may come to understand her as they understand the divine compassion — by often kneeling before some shrine of the Virgin.
When art becomes thus informed with the larger life of the country, it vitalizes and gives permanency to the national ideals. It transmits the hope and courage and aspirat ion of one generation to the next, with the emotional glow and color undiminished and unimpaired. If we receive and cherish the tradition, our imaginative experience transcends the span of our natural lives. We live in the presence, as Burke declared, of our ‘canonized’ forefathers and in a kind of reverent apprehension of our posterity, happily conscious of a noble and distinguished national thought and feeling, ‘above the vulgar practice of the hour.’
Precisely because Lincoln had communed so intimately with the national genius and obeyed so devoutly its promptings, America ceases, in some passages of his letters and speeches, to be a body politic and becomes a living soul. Who was it wrote that letter to Mrs. Bixby on the loss of her five sons in battle? ‘ I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic that they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.’
The words are thrilling still with the pathos and splendor of patriotic death. They seem charged with the tears and valor of t he whole Civil War. To speak like that of death is to unfold the meaning of the Latin verse: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. It is to hallow the altar on which the sacrifice is made. One can hardly read the letter through with dry eyes; and yet reading it makes one very happy. It makes one happy because it renders one in imagination a sharer of that splendid sacrifice, that solemn pride, that divine consolation.
It makes one happy because it uplifts the heart and purges it of private interests, and admits one into the higher, and more spacious, and grander life of the nation. For my purposes I am not writing an anti-climax when I say that it makes one happy because it is the perfect expression of a deep, grave, and noble emotion, which is the supreme triumph of the expressive arts. It is the work of a great artist. Was it Lincoln? Or was it the America of our dreams? It was the voice of the true emancipator of our art, who will always understand that his task is not to set Beauty and Puritanism at loggerheads, but to make Puritanism beautiful.