The Last Puritan
THE MAN of the MONTH
‘ The Last Puritan — oh yes, a remarkable book, but hardly a novel.’ The remark contains a degree of truth — the least important truth which can be uttered about The Last Puritan. Mr. Santayana, besides being an essayist and a poet, is primarily a philosopher, erudite, civilized, cosmopolitan; and philosophy is not a likely seed-bed for such a popular and earthy growth as the novel. But it should be remembered that of all his tribe he is nearest to human nature in the roots of his thinking.
True enough, the characters in The Last Puritan do not talk in the broken spurts of actual conversation, but in beautifully composed essays. True also that the characters are sometimes submerged altogether in an embarrassing wealth of speculation, analysis, wit, and prose-poetry. The book is luxuriantly good reading: if the reader will keep his patience in hand until he has got Oliver aboard his father’s yacht (page 140), he will have very little need for patience thereafter. And by the end of this six-hundred-page story he will find that the chief characters are as varied and interesting a lot as he is entitled to meet in any work of fiction.
The lens through which all the characters and experiences are brought into focus is the mind of the young Puritan, Oliver Alden; the recital of his life and the analysis of his failure constitute what is important in the book. In what sense is Oliver a Puritan? Not in theology; against anything so superstitious as that he was carefully inoculated by his ‘liberal Unitarian up bringing, of which the afflatus came from Boston although the locale was Connecticut. And not in prudishness; Oliver learned to face truth, even to prefer it, with a true Puritan rigor and contempt of compromise. In his own melancholic perception of himself, Oliver says: ’It is a dreadful inheritance, this of mine, that I need to be honest, that I need to be true, that I need to be just. That’s not the fashion of to-day. . . . I was born a moral aristocrat, able to obey only the voice of God, which means that of my own heart. . . . We [the vanishing Puritans] have dedicated ourselves to the truth, to living in the presence of the noblest things we can conceive. If we can’t so live, we Won’t live at all.
This is the character that Mr. Santayana destroys while loving him, one feels. Not that Mr, Santayana attacks nobility; but he sees, what a philosopher might well be blind to, that the natural, unreasonable, animal vigor and appetites of the unregenerate man are indispensable if life is to be lived or anything either good or bad is to be done at all. To none of these natural desires could Oliver surrender himself. Every natural impulse was checked by the thought; Is this right? Is this chivalrous? Hence he excelled m sport, but never played a game except as a duty to his school or his ‘condition.’ Hence he studied philosophy, because one ought to know how others have thought it wise to live, but without finding a philosophy to believe in. Hence he sought to ally himself with two women, because the right picture of a complete life includes an appropriate marriage. But he did not, in the usual sense, desire to marry either, and was rejected by both. In the end only a few people at a few times discovered the rich and chivalrous inner life which, misdirected and sterilized as it was, really existed beneath the commonplace exterior of the rich young man. A little friendship, some helpful use of the money which he always regarded as an obligation and never as a pleasure, a few episodes of half-realized happiness, a deep sense of frustration, and Oliver’s short life was done. It is a sad story, and a greater novelist would have made us feel it more deeply.
Mr. Santayana remains the ironist and the commentator to the end. With all his exquisite sympathy, he lacks the will or the gift or perhaps the courage to feel profoundly and to make his reader feel with him. And, since this is a philosopher’s novel, what sort of life does he approve? He has destroyed with the subtle and terrible weapons of fatal irony the false, egotistical, provincial Puritanism of Oliver’s mother, and the chivalrous, brave, truthful Puritanism of Oliver himself. Does he approve the scandalous Mario? Evidently he does. The unprincipled Lord Jim? Within limits, at any rate. Mr. Santayana has avoided another trap into which a philosopher-novelist might have fallen: he has not drawn an ideal man for his critics to scoff at. For suggestions of the sort of excellence and discipline which the natural man can achieve at his best, the reader is advised to turn to Mr. Santayana’s poems, and to his philosophy.