The Point of View in American Criticism
ACCORDING to all the critics, domestic and foreign, who have prophesied against America during the last hundred years, the great and ever-present danger of a democratic society lies in its tendency to destroy high standards of excellence and to accept the average man as a satisfactory measure of all things. Instead of saying, like Antigone in the drama of Sophocles, ‘I know I please the souls I ought to please,’ democracy, we are told, is prone to dismiss the question whether she has any high religious obligation, and to murmur complacently, ‘ I know I please the souls of average men.’ I propose to examine a little the origins of this belief, and then to inquire whether it is justified by the present condition of our civilization, as reflected in our current literature. In the course of the inquiry I shall at least raise the question whether the average man is as easy to please as he is ordinarily supposed to be.
At the very foundation of the Republic, the menace of the average man was felt by a distinguished group of our own superior men, including Washington, John Adams, Hamilton, and many other able and prosperous country gentlemen. To them the voice of the people was not the voice of God, but the clamor of a hydra-headed monster, requiring to be checked and bridled. Thus, at the outset of our civilization, they established a point of view and they instituted a criticism, which were unfriendly to the average man and his aspirations and to all his misguided friends. They possessed, for example, certain standards of character and manners, which they applied with some austerity to what they regarded as the vulgar Jacobinism of Thomas Paine, to the disintegrating demagoguery of Jefferson, to the cosmopolitan laxity of Franklin, and to all the tendencies of French radicalism toward leveling by law the inequalities created by law and by nature.
Edmund Burke explained England’s relative immunity to the equalitarian speculations of the French by this fact: ‘We continue,’ he said, ‘as in the last two ages, to read more generally, than, I believe, is now done on the Continent, the authors of sound antiquity. These occupy our minds. They give us another taste and turn, and will not suffer us to be more than transiently amused with paradoxical morality.’ Now, it is insufficiently recognized that, in the third quarter of the eighteenth century, America, like England, was at the height of her classical period — I mean the period when statesmen, poets, and painters most deliberately and successfully imitated the example of the ancients. The public characters of Washington and his friends, like those of Burke and his friends, were in the grand style, were in a style more or less consciously moulded upon that of the great republicans of England, Rome, and Athens. From Cromwell and Milton, and, above all, from the heroes of Plutarch, the friends of Washington inherited the ardor and the elevation of their public spirit, and, at the same time, their lofty disdain for the vulgar herd and a conviction that the salvation of the people depended upon the perpetuation of their own superiorities.
At its best, near the source, and on its positive side, there is something very august and inspiring in the utterances of this old Roman or aristocratic republicanism. It is not far from its best in the letters of Abigail Adams.
Glory, my son [she writes to John Quincy Adams], in a country which has given birth to characters, both in the civil and military departments, which may vie with the wisdom and valor of antiquity. As an immediate descendant of one of these characters, may you be led to an imitation of that disinterested patriotism and that noble love of country, which will teach you to despise wealth, titles, pomp, and equipage, as mere external advantages, which cannot add to the excellence of your mind, or compensate for the want of integrity or virtue.
It is not difficult to despise ‘wealth, pomp, and equipage,’ when one is adequately supplied with them; John Quincy Adams, accordingly, found his occasion for pride in the excellence of his mind and in his integrity and virtue. And, true to his breeding, he maintained, like Coriolanus, a kind of passionate and scornful opposition to the vulgar mob. In 1795, be writes to his mother that France will remain without the means to form a Constitution till she has exploded the doctrine of submission to and veneration for public opinion. A little later, he admits to his father that ‘the struggle against a popular clamor is not without its charms in my mind.’
There he sounds the rallying cry of our great conservative tradition. I shall not ask here whether the creative ardor of the aristocratic spirit which we observed in the mother is not already beginning to be transformed in the son to a certain ardor of repression. Nor am I concerned here to trace the evolution of this Roman-American pride from its pure high source, down through the ages, till it reappears in aristocratic republicans of our own times, who still find a charm in opposing the popular clamor. I am thinking of the railway magnate, author of the celebrated phrase, ‘The public be damned’; and I am thinking of our most aggressive literary critic, a professed Federalist, who remarked the other day in language savoring a bit, perhaps, of the Roman decadence: ’I don’t care a damn what happens to the Republic after I am dead.’
We must pause here, however, long enough to recall that the classical models of society, which the more conservative of our forefathers kept in their minds’ eye, rested upon a slave population, and that the government which they actually set up countenanced, in opposition to the plebeian taste of Paine and the demagoguery of Jefferson, a slave population. It is a question of more than academic interest to-day, whether or not the government which they set up necessarily implies the continued existence of an illiterate peasantry.
Those who believe that the salvation of the people depends upon the perpetuation of their own superiorities are likely, in the long run, to make the end subservient to the means, to grow rather careless about tho salvation of the people and rather over-careful about the preservation of their own superiorities. They incline, also, to a belief that these superiorities can best be perpetuated through their own offspring — a belief which, so far as I can learn, is inadequately supported by statistics. On this assumption, however, they endeavor to make a kind of closed corporation of their own class, and seek to monopolize for it the administration of government, the possession of property, the enjoyment of higher education and culture, and the literary production of the country.
These tendencies, as we know, appeared very early in the history of the Republic. John Adams nearly ruined himself in 1787 by his frank declaration that wealth and birth should be qualifications for the Senate. Hamilton, at the same time, put forth his proposals for restraining the vulgar herd by perpetuating wealth and the leadership of established families in the nearest possible American imitation of the British monarchical and aristocratic system.
The irrepressible conflict provoked by such attempts to check the rich fecundity and the unpredictable powers of our colonial ‘populace’ is ordinarily presented to us as a contention over political principles. In its most comprehensive aspect, it may profitably be regarded as rather a conflict of religions. The short interval between the adoption of the Constitution and the end of the eighteenth century is the period of antique Republicanism triumphant, dominated by the religion of the superior man. In 1800, this religion received a blow in the election of Jefferson, the St. Paul of the religion of the populace, who preached faith, hope, and charity for the masses. In 1828, the religion of the superior man received a still more ominous blow, when the fiery, pistoling rough-rider from Tennessee, Andrew Jackson, defeated John Quincy Adams. At this reverse to the sons of light, John Quincy Adams lost his faith in God, the God of superior men.
We have recently had, from the fourth generation of the Adams family, Brooks, Charles Francis, and Henry, a voluminous commentary upon the effort of ‘the heirs of Washington’ to stand against the popular clamor and uphold their great tradition. On the whole, if we may trust their testimony, it has been a tragically unavailing effort. In Boston and Cambridge and in a few tributary villages, in old New York and Washington, on a few great plantations of Virginia and the Carolinas, the civilization which the superior men contemplated obtained a struggling foothold before the Civil War. And this civilization achieved some literary expression in the classical oratory of Webster, in the fine old English gentility of Irving’s prose, and in the pale provincial flowering of our New England poetry. Sanguine observers saw in this literary renascence promise that the intrenched intelligence and culture of the settled, civilized East was to take and hold the mastery in the national life.
But for Henry Adams, at least, that hope ended with his return from England in 1868. He discovered, when he went to Washington to offer his services in carrying on the great tradition — he discovered that the great tradition was broken. There had taken place, not merely a Civil War, but a far more fundamental revolution. He and his kind, bred on the classics, and versed in law and European diplomacy, were anachronisms, survivors out of the classical eighteenth century, belated revelers in the Capitol. A multitude of unknown or ignored forces had developed in his absence, and had combined to antiquate him, to extrude him from the current of national life, and to incapacitate him for a place in the public councils. This singular new nation was no respecter of grandfathers. It took its superior men wherever it found them. It picked its chief statesman out of a log cabin in Illinois, its chief military hero out of an Ohio tannery, its most eminent poet from a carpenter’s shop, and its leading man of letters from a pilot-house on the Mississippi. Such standards! Henry spent a lifetime elaborating his grand principle of the degradation of energy, to explain to himself why the three grandsons of two presidents of the United States all ended miserably: one as President of the Kansas City Stock Yards; one as a member of the Massachusetts Bar; while one had sunk to the level of a Professor of History at Harvard.
From the point of view of these antique republicans, the period from the Civil War to the end of the nineteenth century proves the truth of all the prophecies against the average man. This is the period of triumphant democracy — meaning, of course, the triumph, not of the political party, but of the religious principle. In this epoch, the gates of opportunity open as never before to the populace, to the new men. What are the results? Throughout the period, the steadily waning influence of Eastern intelligence and culture in the national life, steadily increasing immigration from the peasant stocks of Europe, expansion of the population into new western territory, prosperity of industrial pioneers, rise of the railway magnate, the iron-master, the organizer of large-scale production of material commodities — immense rewards and glory for supplying the average man what the average man, at that particular moment, wanted and had to have.
Midway in this epoch, one of its heroes, Andrew Carnegie, wrote a book which he called Triumphant Democracy — a work which exults and rejoices in the goodness and greatness of American life. It was an industrial captain’s reply to the foreign critics who had flitted across the country year after year, like ravens, boding disaster. It was a reply from the point of view of a Scotch radical, a self-made man, who could compare the poor little Scotch town of Dunfermline, where the revolution in machinery had ruined his father, to the booming city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where the same revolution had made him one of the masters of his generation.
Carnegie’s point of view was inadequate. He offered no effective answer to the savage criticism which Dickens had made of our civilization forty years earlier, when he pictured the democracy as brutal, boisterous, boastful, ignorant, and hypocritical. He made no effective reply to Carlyle, who had cried twenty-two years later than Dickens, ‘My friend, brag not yet of our American cousins! Their quantity of cotton, dollars, industry and resources, I believe to be almost unspeakable; but I can by no means worship the like of these. . . . They have begotten, with a rapidity beyond recorded example, Eighteen Millions of the greatest bores ever seen in this world before — that hitherto is their feat in history.'
Matthew Arnold, a critical friend of ours, far more friendly to our political institutions and to our social organization than Carlyle, dropped in upon us at about the time that Carnegie published his book. ‘The trouble with Carnegie and his friends,’ said Arnold, ‘is that they have no conception of the chief defect of American life; namely, that it is so dreadfully uninteresting.’ This dullness, he explained, was due to the average man’s quite inadequate conception of the good life, which did not go beyond being diligent in business and serving the Lord — making money and observing a narrow code of morality.
The particularly hopeless aspect of our case, Arnold thought, was that we, as a people, seemed quite unconscious of our deficiencies on the human side of our civilization. We displayed a self-satisfaction which is ‘vulgarizing and retarding.’ Nationally we were boasters, or, as we say nowadays, ‘boosters.’ ‘The worst of it is,’ he continues, ‘that this tall talk and self-glorification meets with hardly any rebuke from sane criticism over there.’ He cites some examples; and then he adds that, ‘the new West promises to beat in the game of brag even the stout champions I have been quoting.’
Now, no Englishman will ever fathom the mystery of Uncle Sam’s boasting. No outsider can ever know, as we all know, how often, out of the depths of self-distrust and self-contempt and cutting self-criticism, he has whistled to keep his courage up in the dark, and has smiled reassuringly while his heart was breaking. Still, if you look into the literature of the period, you find that there is much warrant for Arnold’s strictures, though not always precisely where he found it. The little boasts of men like Lowell and Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Brander Matthews are only Yankee whistling, the turning of the trodden worm, a decent pride in the presence of ‘a certain condescension in foreigners.’ Lowell knew a man, he says, who thought Cambridge the best spot on the habitable globe. ‘ Doubtless God could have made a better, but doubtless He never did.’ I myself am fond of declaring that the campus of the University of Illinois is finer than the meadows of Christ Church College, Oxford. But no one in America thinks anything a whit the finer for what an academic person has said in its favor. Nor, on the other hand, does anyone, outside academic circles, think anything in America a whit the worse for what a foreign critic has said against it. The Chicago journalists, for example, with true Jacksonian hilarity, ridiculed Arnold and, after his departure, stigmatized him as a ‘cur.’
The only criticism which ever, as we say, ‘gets across’ to the Jacksonian democracy is that which comes from one of their own number. The really significant aspects of our self-complacency in Carnegie’s time were reflected in the popular literature of the period by writers sprung from the new democracy, self-made authors, who flattered the average man into satisfaction with his present state and his average achievement. I am thinking of Western writers, like Joaquin Miller and Riley and Carleton and Bret Harte and Mark Twain. I am thinking of the romantic glamour which these men contrived to spread over the hard rough life and the rougher characters of the middle-borderers, the Argonauts, and the Forty-Niners.
You recall the method. First, they admit certain facts — for picturesque effect. For example, these settlers of the Golden West, they say, included a few decent men, but they were in great part the riffraff of the world — foreign adventurers, offscourings of Eastern cities, uncouth, red-shirted illiterates from the Middle States, lawless, dirty, tobacco-spitting, blaspheming, drunken, horse-thieves, murderers, and gamblers. And then, with noble poetic vision, they cry: ‘But what delicacy of sentiment beneath those shaggy bosoms! What generosity and chivalry under those old red shirts! Horsethieves, yet nature’s noblemen! Gamblers and drunkards, yet kings of men!' ‘I say to you,’ chants ‘ the poet of the Sierras,’ ‘that there is nothing in the pages of history so glorious, so entirely grand, as the lives of these noble Spartan fathers and mothers of Americans, who begot and brought forth and bred the splendid giants of the generation that is now fast following the setting sun of their unselfish and all immortal lives.’
Here is the point of view of the Jacksonian democracy in its romantic mood. This, in general, was the point of view of Mark Twain, the most original force in American letters and, on the whole, the most broadly representative American writer between the close of the Civil War and the end of the century. Most of us have enough pioneer blood in our veins, or in our imaginative sympathies, to love Mark Twain nowadays. But academic people, they tell us,—and they tell us truly, — had little to do with establishing his earlier reputation. He neither flattered them nor pleased them. He pleased and flattered and liberated the emotions of that vast mass of the population which had been suppressed and inarticulate. He was the greatest booster for the average man that the country ever produced. Confident in the political and mechanical and natural superiorities conferred upon every son of these States by his mere birth under the American flag, Mark Twain laughed at the morality of France, the language of Germany, the old masters of Italy, the caste system of India, the imperialism of England, the romances of Scott, the penal laws of the sixteenth century, and at the chivalry of the court of King Arthur — he laughed at all the non-American world, from the point of view of the average American, stopping only from time to time to pat his countrymen on the back and to cry, like Jack Horner, ‘What a brave boy am I!' To make a climax to the bold irreverence of this Jacksonian laughter, he laughed at New England and at all her starchy immortals.
In the Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court, published in 1889, we hear the last full-hearted laughter of triumphant democracy. Mark Twain himself became sombre in his later years; he became cynical, and touched with misanthropy. I cannot go here, in any detail, into the causes for the darkening of his outlook. The most interesting of these causes, perhaps, was that Mark Twain had one foot over the threshold of a new age, our present era, which I shall call the era of critical and pessimistic democracy. He had begun to emerge, as I think we are all now beginning to emerge, from the great romantic illusion about the average man, namely, that liberty or equafily or any kind of political recognition or literary exploitation, or even economic independence, can make him a happy or a glorious being.
Poets and novelists, since the French Revolution, have fostered this romantic illusion in a laudable but misdirected effort to bestow dignity upon the humblest units of humanity. They liberated the emotion for a religion of democracy. They did little to give to that emotion intelligent direction.
You will recall Wordsworth’s poem allied ‘Resolution and Independence.’ The poet, wandering on the moor in richly gloomy thought, comes upon a poor old man, bent, broken, leaning over a pool, gathering leeches for his livelihood. The poet questions him how it goes with him. The old man replies, quietly enough, that it goes pretty hard, that it is going rather worse; but that he still perseveres and manages to get on, in one way or another. Whereupon Wordsworth falls into a kind of visionary trance. The old peasant looms for him to a gigantic stature. He becomes the heroic ‘man with the hoe’; a shadowy shape against the sky; man in the abstract, clothed in all the moral splendor of the poet’s own imagination.
This same trick of the fancy Hardy plays with his famous dairy-maid, Tess of the D’Urbervilles. She is but an ignorant, instinctive, erring piece of Eve’s flesh. Yet, says Hardy, drawing upon the riches of his own poetic associations, ‘The impressionable peasant leads a larger, fuller, more dramatic life than the pachydermatous king.’ Thereupon he proceeds to invest the dairy-maid with the tragic emotions and import of a heroine of Thebes or Pelops’ line. He infers, by a poetic fallacy, that she is as interesting and as significant to herself as she is to him.
I will take one other case, the hero of a recently translated novel, Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil. Here we have an illiterate peasant of Norway, going into the public land almost emptyhanded; gradually acquiring a pig, a cow, a woman, a horse, building a turfshelter, a cowshed, a cabin, a mill — and so, little by little, toiling like an ox, becoming a prosperous farmer, owner of rich lands and plentiful flocks and herds. It is, in a sense, a very cheerful book, a sort of new Robinson Crusoe. Its moral appears to be that, so long as men stick to the soil and preserve their ignorance and their natural gusto, they may be happy. It is a glorification of the beaver, the building animal. It is an idealization of the peasant, at the instinctive level.
The trick of the literary imagination in all these cases is essentially the same as that which Bret Harte played with his Argonauts, and Miller and Riley with their Indiana pioneers, and Mark Twain with his Connecticut Yankee. We are changing all that.
I chanced the other day upon an impressive new American novel, strikingly parallel in some respects to Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil, but utterly different from it in the mood and the point of view. I refer to the story of Kansas life, called Dust, by Mr. and Mrs. Haldeman-Julius. Here again we have the hardy pioneer, rough, dirty, and capable, entering on the new land, with next to nothing but his expectations; acquiring a pig, a hut, cattle, and a wife; and gradually ‘growing up with the country ’ into a prosperous western farmer, with stock in the bank, and a Cadillac, and electric lights in the cowbarns, and kerosene lamps in the house. Our human beaver in America, toiling with the same ox-like fortitude as Isak in Norway, achieves the same material success. But — and this is the difference — the story is one of unrelieved gloom, ending in bitter tragedy. Why this sustained note of gloom? Why has our Kansas tale none of the happy gusto of Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil? Because the Kansas farmer is not content with the life of a peasant. Because our Kansas authors refuse to glorify man on the instinctive level, or to disguise the essential poverty and squalor of his personal life with a poetic fallacy. The book is written from a point of view at which it is apparent that our civilization has failed to solve the human problem.
Since the time of The Connecticut Yankee and Carnegie’s Triumphant Democracy, our literary interpreters have been gradually shifting their ground. They are giving us now a criticism of life from a position at which it is possible to see through the poetic illusion about the average man. Making an effort now to see him as he really is, our authors are reporting that he is not satisfied with his achievements, he is not happy, he is very miserable. The most hopeful aspect of American literature to-day is its widespread pessimism. I call this symptom hopeful, because it is most fully exhibited by precisely that part of the country, and by those elements of the population, which were thought forty years ago to be most addicted to boasting and most deeply infected with the vulgarizing and retarding self-complacency of the Philistine, the red-shirted Jacksonian from Missouri. This pessimism comes out of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Kansas, and California; from the sons and daughters of pioneer farmers, country doctors, small-town lawyers, and country editors; from the second generation of immigrant stock, German, Swedish, Scotch, Irish; from the hungry, nomadic semi-civilization of the West.
I call this Western pessimism auspicious, because it is so sharply critical, and because the criticism is directed, not so much against the political and economic framework of society as against the kind of personalities which this society produces, and against the quantity and quality of the human satisfactions which these personalities have at their disposal. It is directed against that defect in our civilization which Arnold pointed out; it is so lacking in elevation and beauty; it is so humdrum, so dreadfully uninteresting; it so fails to appease the vague yet already acutely painful hunger of the average man for a good life. ‘Beguile us no longer,’ cry the new voices; ‘beguile us no longer with heroic legends and romantic idyls. The life which you celebrate is not beautiful, not healthy, not satisfying. It is ugly, obscene, devastating. It is driving us mad. And we are going to revolt from it.’
The manifestation of this spirit which, at the present moment, is attracting most attention is what Mr. Van Doren, in his new book on Contemporary American Novelists, has called ‘the revolt from the village.’
I need only remind you of that long series of narratives, beginning in the early eighties with E. W. Howe’s Story of a Country Town, and followed by Hamlin Garland’s Main Travelled Roads, Mr. Masters’s Spoon-River Anthology, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, Zona Gale’s Miss Lulu Bett, and the novel of which I have already spoken, Dust, by Mr. and Mrs. Haldeman-Julius.
But the interesting pessimistic and critical note in our current literature is by no means confined to representations of country life and the small town. Take Mrs. Wharton’s pictures of metropolitan society, from The House of Mirth to The Age of Innocence, remembering only that Mrs. Wharton cannot be classed as a Jacksonian; then consider the dreary wide wilderness of Mr. Dreiser’s picture of big business; Ben Hecht’s story of a cityeditor in Erik Dorn; Mr. Cabell’s Cream of the Jest; Mr. Norris’s broad picture of the California scene in Brass; Mr. Fitzgerald’s account of the younger generation in The Beautiful and Damned; Mr. Hergesheimer’s admirable new novel, Cytherea; and, finally, Mr. Lewis’s Babbitt.
Here we are invited to consider a class of which the discontent cannot be explained by their struggle with the churlishness of the soil and the rigor and tragic whimsicality of the elements. Most of the characters, indeed, have reached a level at which even the economic struggle is as much a pastime as a necessity. They are business men and their womenkind, with a sprinkling of professional men, people who, as we say, know ‘ how to live,’ people who live expensively, purchasing with free hand whatever gratifications are available for the senses. Nevertheless, if we may trust their interpreters, these people, too, are dreadfully uninteresting to one another, alternating between a whipped-up excitement and a stifled yawn. Their entire stratum of society is permeated by a terrible ennui. Jaded with business and card-parties, Mr. Hergesheimer’s persons, for example, can conceive no relief from the boredom of the week but to meet at one another’s houses at the week-ends and, in a state of half-maudlin tipsiness, kiss one another’s wives on the stairs. Even when the average man is sheltered on all sides, weariness, as Pascal says, springs from the depths of his own heart and fills the soul with its poison. Our ‘bourgeoisie,’ no less than our ‘peasantry,’ are on the verge of a cultural revolt; they are quarreling with the quality of their civilization.
Now, at the time when a man quarrels with his wife, either one of two interesting things may happen. He may elope with his neighbor’s wife for Cuba, fancying for the moment that she is the incarnation of all his unsatisfied desires, the divine Cytherea. Or this man and his old wife may turn over a new leaf and put their relations on a more satisfactory basis. Which course will be followed depends on the power of self-criticism which the interested persons possess.
This is a parable, with wide possibilities of social application. Our average man, in town and country, is quarreling with his wife, that is to say, with our average American civilization. If he listens to certain counselors who appeal to certain of his instincts and to his romantic imagination, his household, the material civilization which he has slowly built up out of the dust by faithfully working on certain traditional principles — this household will be in danger of disruption. If, on the other hand, his discontent with himself and his human conditions is adequately diagnosed, and if an adequate remedy is accepted, then he will look back upon this period of pessimism as preliminary to the redintegration of the national spirit and its expression in literature. Which course will be followed depends in no small measure upon our power of criticism, which, in its turn, depends upon an adequate point of view.
The elder critics in the academic tradition have in general not dealt sympathetically, or even curiously, with the phenomena. Fixed in an inveterate fidelity to the point of view established by the early classical Americans, they look with a mingling of disdain and abhorrence upon our impious younger world, as upon
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
The critics, on the other hand, who are endeavoring to deal sympathetically and curiously with the phenomena, are utterly unorganized; are either without standards of judgment, or in a wild state of confusion with regard to their standards. They are making efforts to get together; but they have no principle of integration. I have not time to do more than mention some of their incongruous points of view.
A man whose hearty geniality touches the affections of us all, Mr. William Allen While, proposed the other day, as an integrating principle, the entire abandonment of all standards and a general adoption of the policy of live and let live. His theory of universal sympathy, which he miscalls ‘the democratic theory in criticism,’ would, if applied, destroy both criticism and democracy.
Our journalistic critics in general, conscious of the incompatibility between their private beliefs and the political and economic interests which they serve, tend at the present time, I should say, to adopt the point of view of universal cynicism.
In order precisely to escape from the troublesome clashes of political, social, and moral judgment, in order to escape, in other words, from the real problem of critical redintegration, another group has adopted the æsthetic point of view, and has made a feeble effort to revive in America, with the aid of the Crocean philosophy, the doctrine of art for art’s sake.
I will mention, finally, one other point of view, to which an increasing company of the younger writers are repairing, which we may call for convenience the Freudian point of view. The champions of this point of view attempt a penetrating diagnosis of all the maladies of American civilization, with the assistance of the new psychology. To sum up their findings briefly, they hold that the trouble with American life is, at the root, due to age-long and cankering inhibitions, attributable to our traditional Puritanism. The remedy is a drop to the instinctive level; the opening of the gates to impulse; a free and spontaneous doing as one pleases in all directions.
Popular Freudianism is, perhaps, the most pestilential of all the prevailing winds of doctrine. Yet its champions have penetrated, I believe, nearer to the heart of our difficulty, they are nearer to an adequate point of view and an integrating principle, than any of the other seekers. They at least recognize that the kingdom of disorganization is within the individual breast. The fact that they approach so near to the true destination, and yet fall short of it, renders their counsels peculiarly seductive and peculiarly perilous.
They are right when they attribute the central malady of our civilization to suppressed desires. They are tragically wrong if they believe that this malady is due to the suppression by religion of any specific isolable physical instinct. They are tragically wrong if they think that this malady can be cured by the destruction of religious restraint and the release of any specific isolable physical instinct. When they prescribe, as many of them do with as much daring as they can muster, giving a new and large license, for example, to the sexual impulses; when they prescribe, as if with the countenance of fresh scientific discoveries, the restoration of the grand old liberative force of alcohol; when they flatter any of the more or less disciplined instincts of our animal nature with the promise of happiness in emancipation, they are offering us intoxicants, anodynes, opiates, every one of which has been proved, by the experience of innumerable generations, hopeless even to accomplish any permanent alleviation of the malady which they profess to cure. And when they attack the essential religious principle of Puritanism, — its deep human passion for perfection, — they are seeking to destroy the one principle which can possibly result in the integration of the national life.
Now, as I talk with the members of the beautiful younger generation which comes through my class-room year after year, I find that the Freudians are profoundly mistaken in their analysis of human nature. The deepest craving of these average young men and women is not to be unbound, and released, and to be given a license for a free and spontaneous doing as they please in all directions. They recognize that nature and environment and lax educational discipline have made them beings of sufficiently uncoördinated desires and scattering activities.
What they deeply crave is a binding generalization of philosophy, or religion, or morals, which will give direction and purpose, which will give channel and speed, to the languid diffusive drift of their lives. The suppressed desire which causes their unhappiness is a suppressed desire for a good life, for the perfection of their human possibilities. The average unreflective man does not always know that this is, in fact, his malady. And in the blind hunger and thirst of his unenlightened nature, he reaches out eagerly for opiates and anodynes, which leave him unsatisfied. But what the innermost law of his being demands, what his human nature craves, is something good and great that he can do with his heart and mind and body. He craves the active peace of surrender and devotion to something greater than himself. Surrender to anything less means the degradation and humiliation of his spirit.
This is the tragedy involved in any surrender to subordinate passions or instincts. I think that our current pessimistic literature indicates that our average man is discovering this fact about his own nature, and that, therefore, like the sinner made conscious of guilt, he is ripe for regeneration; he is ready for the reception of a higher culture than he has yet enjoyed.
Democratic civilization suffereth long, because it is always waiting for the hindmost to catch up with the middle. It is always reluctant to consign the hindmost to the devil. But, in the long run, I do not believe that the history of our civilization is going to verify the apprehensions entertained by our old Roman-Americans regarding the average man. To one whose measure of national accomplishment is not the rich flowering of a small aristocratic class, but the salvation of the people, the choices of the average man in the past do not conclusively prove the danger of giving him what he wants.
In our first period, he wanted a stable government; and he got it, and wholeheartedly glorified the political and military heroes who gave it to him. In his second period, he wanted a rapid and wide diffusion of the material instruments of civilized life; he got them, and wholeheartedly glorified the industrial heroes who provided them. In his third period, the average man is growing almost as scornful of ‘wealth and pomp and equipage,’ as John Quincy Adams. The captains of industry are no longer his heroes; they have communicated to him what they had of virtue for their hour. What the average man now wants is the large-scale production and the wide diffusion of science, art, music, literature, health, recreation, manners, human intercourse, happiness — the best to be had; and he is going to get them and to glorify wholeheartedly the heroes of culture who provide them for him.
The great civilizations of the world hitherto have been integrated in their religion. By religion I mean that which, in the depths of his heart, a man really believes desirable and praiseworthy. A great civilization begins to form when men reach an agreement as to what is desirable and praiseworthy. The leading Athenians, in their best periods, reached such an agreement; and that is why, whether you meditate on their art, their poetry, or their philosophy, whether you gaze at the frieze of the Parthenon, or read a drama of Sophocles, or the prayer of Socrates, you feel yourself in the presence of one and the same formative spirit — one superb stream of energy, superbly controlled by a religious belief that moral and physical symmetry are the most desirable and praiseworthy things in the outer and the inner man.
The prospects for our American civilization depend at present upon our capacity for a similar religious integration. Our present task is, primarily, to become clear in our minds as to what is our own formative spirit. The remedy for our present discontents is indicated by the character of the malady. The remedy is, first, to help the average man to an understanding of his own nature, so that he may recognize more fully what part the things of the mind and the imagination may play in the satisfaction of his suppressed desires. It is to help him to recognize that even an intellectual and imaginative life will yield him little content unless it is organized around some central principle and animating purpose. It is to give the average man what the literature of our pessimistic democracy has at last proved that he wants, namely, an object to which he can joyfully surrender the full strength of his soul and body.
But this is not the whole of the remedy. It is necessary, at the same time, to persuade the superior men that the gods of the old Roman-American aristocrats have forsaken them, and that the time has come when even they may safely accept the purified religion of democracy. To oppose it now is to oppose the formative spirit of our national life and to doom one’s self to sterility. The remedy is, in short, to effect a redintegration of the national will on the basis of a genuinely democratic humanism, recognizing as its central principle the duty of bringing the whole body of the people to the fullest and fairest human life of which they are capable.
The point of view which I advocate is not, as it has been called, moralistic. It is essentially religious. And the religion of an intelligent man is not a principle of repression, any more than it is a principle of release. Religion binds us to old morals and customs so long as they help us toward the attainment of our object; but it releases from old morals and customs as soon as they impede our progress toward that object. The object gives the standard. Confronted with heirlooms or with innovations, one’s first question is, does this, or does it not, tend to assist the entire body of the people toward the best human life of which they are capable. Advance to this point of view, and you leave behind you universal sympathy, universal cynicism, universal æstheticism, and the black bats of the Freudian cave. You grasp again a power of choice which enables you to accept or reject, with something of that lost serenity which Socrates displayed when he rejected escape from prison and accepted the hemlock. You recover something of that high elation which Emerson displayed when he said: ‘I am primarily engaged to myself to be a public servant of all the gods, to demonstrate to all men that there is intelligence and good-will at the heart of things, and ever higher and higher leadings.’