Toward an American Language
Novelist, playwright, and teacher, THORNTON WILDER combines the creative fire with the cool, objective delight of a critic. He began teaching at Lawrenceville after his graduation from Yale in 1920; he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for his second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey; his play Our Town (which won the Pulitzer Prize for 1938) is in production in some part of the globe almost every day of the year; and he richly deserves the Gold Medal for Fiction which was presented to him by the American Academy of Arts and Letters this spring. He is presently working on a book which grew out of his Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard and of which we shall publish several installments.
by THORNTON WILDER
No, here they are. . . . Last night I had the lecturer’s vocational nightmare: I dreamed that I had lost my notes.
Since this is a series of lectures concerning American characteristics, I must be sure to offer these young people an American lecture.
Is there a difference?
Bronson Alcott (in 1856) claimed that the lecture is an American invention. If so, it was also invented independently in Europe. Discourses have been delivered in all times and ages; but the lecture as we understand it, the secularization of the sermon and the popularization of the academic address, is probably a product of the middle-class mind. The Swiss have a passion for lectures. Conrad Ferdinand Meyer said that if the citizens of Zürich were required to make a choice between going to Heaven or going to a lecture about Heaven they would hesitate only a moment.
Yet there is a wide difference between an Old World and a New World lecture, and the difference arises from those American characteristics which are precisely the subject of these lectures.
Emerson, describing the requirements for lectures in the Lyceums of his day, said: —
“ There are no stiff conventions that prescribe a method, a style, a limited quotation of books and an exact respect to certain books, persons, or opinions.”There’s the crux: no respect.
An American is insubmissive, lonely, self-educating, and polite. His politeness conceals his slowness to adopt any ideas which he does not feel that he has produced himself. It all goes back to the fundamental problem of an American’s relation to authority, and related to it is the American’s reluctance to concede that there is an essential truth, or a thing true in essence.
For centuries– over there — kings were held to be invested with an essential authority. The child, born into a royal cradle, be he nonentity or genius, was held to be, for mysterious and unsearchable reasons, the ruler of his people (May he live forever! May God take particular pains to save him, rather than you and me!) and held the royal authority.
Tradition commanded us to revere our fathers, not because they took the trouble to beget us and to pay our board in our earlier nears, but because they wielded a paternal authority. America is now rapidly becoming a matriarchy and fathers are bewildered to discover that they are no longer accorded, any such magical sway.
For Americans there is no inherent and essential authority accruing to the elderly, either. Thoreau said: “Practically, the old have no very important advice to give to the young. Their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures, for private reasons, as they must believe. . . . I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors”
In the Old World a lecture tended to be a discourse in which an Authority dispensed a fragment of the Truth. Naturally I am not talking of informative lectures — “ Recent Theories on the Origin of the Nebulae"; “Silversmiths in Eighteenth Century New England ” — which are inherently reading-matter, and are so delivered: but of lectures in fields where every listener can be assumed to have formed or to be forming his own opinion. When Queen Victoria, accustomed to the discretion of Melbourne and Disraeli, complained that Gladstone addressed her as though she were a public meeting; when in impatience we hear ourselves saying, “Please don’t lecture to me!" whatis meant is: “ Kindly remember that I am a free agent. Everything you say must be passed upon by the only authority I recognize — my own judgment.”An American lecture is a discourse in which a man declares what is true for him. This does not mean that Americans are skeptical. Every American has a large predisposition to believe that there is a truth for him and that he is in the process of laying hold of it. He is building his own house of thought and he rejoices in seeing that someone else is also abuilding. Such houses can never be alike — begun in infancy and constructed with the diversity which is the diversity of every human life,
So I must remember to maintain the tone of a personal deposition. I may make as many generalizations as I wish, and as emphatically; but I must not slip into that other tone (how easy when one is tired; how tempting when one is insecure) of one in privileged relation to those august abstractions — tradition and authority.
MR. ARCHIBALD MACLEISH. Ladies and gentlemen: The Committee charged with the selection of . . .
My good friend, the admired poet, is introducing me. During the introduction of a lecturer in America everyone suppresses a smile: the introducer, the audience, and the lecturer.
This introduction is a form, a convention; it is very Old World. To Americans conventions are amusing. They have attended many lectures; they have heard many a clarification and many an ineptitude, They have suffered often. Yet on every occasion they have heard the obligatory words: “. . . we have the pleasure of . . . it is a particular privilege to have with us this evening ...”
Americans more and more find conventions amusing. It is amusing (and it is beginning to make us uncomfortable) that all letters must begin with the word “Dear.”Hostesses are becoming impatient at writing “. . . request the pleasure of ...” They telephone or telegraph.
The chief thing to remember about conventions is that they are soothing. They whisper that life has its repetitions, its recurring demonstrations that all is well — happy thought, that life with all its menace, its irruptions of antagonism and hatred, can be partially tamed, civilized by the pretense that everyone to whom one addresses a letter is dear and that every dinner guest is a pleasure. Densely populated countries— in Europe, but above all in Asia—develop a veritable network of these forms; but Americans feel little need of them. They even distrust them; they think that civilization can advance better without fictions.
Time was when one had to flatter the tyrant by telling him how kind he was; one reminded him that he was Serenissimus and Merced and Euer Gnaden, and that as a Majesty he was certainly gracious — as one says to a snarling dog: “Good, good Fido.”
Americans do not ask that life present a soothing face. Even if they are in a contented situation they do not hope that life will continue to furnish them More of the Same. They are neither fretful nor giddy, but they are always ready for Something Different. In Europe everyone is attentive and pleased during ceremonial and secular ritual and these conventions of courtesy; in . America people shuffle their feet, clear their throats, and size up the audience.
Archie is introducing me just right. He is telling them that I am a very hard-working fellow and that I travel about a good deal exhibiting curiositu.
THE AUDIENCE applauds.
MYSELF. Mr. MacLeish, ladies and gentlemen: In 1874, Charles Eliot Norton wrote his friend John Ruskin . . .
The French do this kind of thing superlatively well. They manage in an opening paragraph to allude to the auspices which furnished the occasion, to thank the authorities which invited them, to hint at their own unworthiness, to announce their subject, and to introduce a graceful joke.
But I am an American before Americans and immediately something goes wrong. The fact that I am happy to have received their invitation now comes into collision with my obligation to say that I am happy. And at once an air of unreality enters the auditorium. It is not a chill; it is not a skepticism; but it is a disappointment. Convention demands that I say it, but the moment I have said it, it is spoiled.
These young men and women are near enough to their childhood to remember their agony when, on leaving a party, they knew that they had to say to their hostess: “I had a very good time,”A certain number of children always manage to say: “My mother told me to tell you I had a very good time,”
Here we are plunged into the heart of a basic . American characteristic.
If you have to do a thing, you have lost your freedom. If you have to say a thing, you have lost your sincerity. If you have to love your parent, wife, child, or cousin, you begin to be estranged from them already. If you have to go into the Army ... if you have to study Shakespeare . . .
Life, life, life is full of things one has to do; and if you have a passion for spontaneity, how do you convert What You Have To Do into the ‘thing You Choose To Do?
That is one of the most exciting things about being an American and about watching American life: how an American will succeed in converting Necessity into Volition. It is a very beautiful thing and it is new; and it is closely related to our problem of authority.
I hurried over this formal salutation as best I could. There lay several months ahead during which I couldshow in other ways that I was happy to be among them. Most Americans solve this problem without the slightest difficulty by a resort to humor. Much American humor is precisely the resolution of the conflict between obligation and spontaneity. But we cannot all call upon that happy national gift when most we need it.
I then went on to announce that the subject for my lectures was “ The American Characteristics of Classical American Literature” and that this first lecture dealt with the American Language, and that I did not mean the use of new words and idioms, nor did I mean slang or incorrection. I meant the result of an omnipresent subtle pressure which writers and speakers in the United States were exerting on the mother tongue — within the bounds of syntactical correctness — in order to transform an old island language into a new continental one. And I proposed to show that this was not a recent effort but that the group of great writers whose major works appeared about a hundred years ago were deeply engaged in this task.
The Americans who removed to this country during its first century and a half had certain characteristics in common. The conditions under which they lived and the institutions which they created engraved those characteristics still more deeply into their natures. Those basic American traits have had to suffer violent opposition. It is still a question whether many of them may survive.
After the death or during the old age of these writers the whole character of American life changed: those who came from Europe no longer came for the same reasons as their predecessors; the country’s boundaries were reached; the big city arose; the industrial society became predominant (now most Americans are employees).
So great was the concussion between the old characteristics and the new conditions that many basic American traits split. They did not merely become watered down into compromise and approximation. They were converted into their opposites. American independence and self-sufficiency became conformity and the fear of other men’s opinion; American abstraction became a new American literalness and concentration on concrete detail.
The force and prestige of the original traits remained, however. One has the feeling that their expression — personal, social, and literary — has been driven underground. Perhaps they are so powerful that they will yet be able to furnish a framework — a religion, a social thought, and an art —within which an entire continent can understand itself as unity and as growth. That was the hope frequently voiced by the great writers of the middle of the last century and it was accompanied by a great fear that it might not obtain; for they saw very clearly that the European modes, however fruitful for Europeans, could no longer serve the American people.
There have been no American writers of equal magnitude since their time—nor any comparable leaders, philosophers, or artists. There have been enormous activity and many considerable talents.
There are certain clarifications, however, that only great genius can achieve. And since great genius is lacking, we would do well to return to the last occasions on which it spoke.
A number of these writers consciously discussed the problems that arose from being an American. It is rather how they lived and thought, however, which will engage our attention. From the point of view of the European an American is nomad in relation to place, disattached in relation to time, lonely in relation to society, and insubmissive to circumstance, destiny, or God. It is difficult to be an American because there is as yet no code, grammar, decalogue by which to orient oneself. Americans are still engaged in inventing what it is to be an American. That is at once an exhilarating and a painful occupation. All about us we see the lives that have been shattered by it—not least those lives that have tried to resolve the problem by the European patterns.
These writers have not been chosen because they were exemplary citizens, but each was incontestably American and each illustrates dramatically one or more ways of converting an American difficulty into an American triumph. Each of them was what the man in the street would call “ ill ” — his word for it would be “cracked”; but their illness, if such it was, should throw light on a disequilibrium of the psyche which follows on the American condition.
As they were all writers our study of them will be primarily a literary one, and will bear upon the language in which they wrote.
The American space-sense, the American timesense, the American sense of personal identity are not those of Europeans — and in particular, not those of the English. The English language was moulded to express the English experience of life. The literature written in that language is one of the greatest glories of the entire human adventure. That achievement went hand in hand with the comparable achievement of forging the language which conveyed so accurately their senses of space, time, and identity. Those senses are not ours and the American people and American writers have long been engaged in reshaping the inherited language to express our modes of apprehension.
The American characteristics were the result, first, of a selection, then of a cultivation.
When I think of those who founded this country I soon find myself thinking of those who did not come.
Of those who almost came.
I think of those conversations in East Anglia, the Thames Valley, in Somersetshire — conversations which probably took place after dark and with long pauses between the exchanges:— “Farmer Wilkins, will ye go with us?” “Brother Hawkins, will ye remove with us:‘”
And the same questions were to be put in Dutch, in the Moravian dialect, in Gaelic . . .
Who came? Who didn’t come?
It was not, for many years, a flight from persecution or from want. At most, for the first generations from England, it was a flight from the shadow of a persecution. And it was not until many generations after that that the travelers could be said to have come in the assurance that they would find an easier life.
Those who came were a selection of a selection in Europe. But to say that it was a selection is not to say that it was an elite. Here was the bigot, the fanatic, the dreamer, the utopian, the misfit, the adventurer, the criminal. By the middle of the eighteenth century the phrase was already current: “He has skipped to America.”
They all had one thing in common.
Their sense of identity did not derive from their relation to their environment. The meaning which their lives had for them was inner and individual. They did not need to be supported, framed, consoled, by the known, the habitual, the loved — by the ancestral village, town, river, field, horizon; by family, kin, neighbors, church and state; by the air, sky, and water that they knew.
Independence is a momentum. Scarcely had the first settler made a clearing and founded a settlement than the more independent began pushing further back into the wilderness. The phrase became proverbial: “If you can see the smoke from your neighbor’s chimney, yos’re too near.”
These separatists broke away from church at home, but separatism is a momentum. New religions were formed over and over again. Ousted clergymen went off into the woods with portions of their contentious flocks, there to cut down more trees and raise new churches. When Cotton Mather went to what is now Rhode Island he said that there had probably never been so many sects worshiping side by side in so small an area.
These were the men and women who were most irritably susceptible to any of the pressures which society and social opinion can bring.
I have recently read George Santayana’s Character and Opinion in the United States. In it I find: —
“ The discovery of the new world exercised a sort of selection among the inhabitants of Europe. All the colonists except the negroes, were voluntary exiles. The fortunate, the deeply rooted, and the lazy remained at home; the wilder instincts or dissatisfactions of the others tempted them beyond the horizon. The American is accordingly the most adventurous, or the descendant of the most adventurous of Europeans. . . . Such a temperament is, of course, not maintained by inheritance [but by] social contagion and pressure.”
A mentality so constituted will experience in a certain way and will shape its language—in this case, reshape an inherited language — to serve as instrument of its perception.
Paul Valéry — playing—once inserted four minus signs into Pascal’s most famous sentence.
Pascal had said that the eternal silence of infinite space filled him with fright (le silence éternel des espaces infinies s’effraie). Valéry restated it by saying that the intermittent racket of our little neighborhood reassures us (le vacarme des petite coins où nous vivons nous rassure).
There lies a great difference between Europeans and Americans. Try as he will, the American cannot find any such soothing support in his social or natural surroundings. The racket in which he lives is greater than any European vacarme — not because it is noisier (any European city is noisier than an American city), but because of the disparity of things which press upon his attention.
The disparity arises because he is not deeply connected with any of them. And his inability to find any reassurance in this turbulence of unrelated phenomena which is his environment is increased by his unprecedented and peculiarly American consciousness of multitude and distance and magnitude. An American is differently surrounded.
It all goes back to the problem of identity.
Where does the American derive his confidence that — among so many millions — he is one, and that his being one is supported and justified? A European’s environment is so pervasive, so dense, so habitual, that it whispers to him that he is all right where he is; he is at home and irreplaceable. His at-homeness is related to the concrete things about him.
Gertrude Stein used to quote in this connection a phrase from the Mother Goose rhymes: “ I am I,” said the lit tie old lady, “ because my dog knows me.”
“I am I,” says the European, “because the immemorial repetitions of my country’s way of life surround me. I know them and they know me.”
An American can have no such stabilizing relation to any one place, nor to any one community, nor to any one moment in time.
Americans are disconnected. They are exposed to all place and all time. No place nor group nor moment can say to them: we were waiting for you; it is right for you to be here. Place and time are, for them, negative until they act upon them, until they bring them into being.
Illustrations of this disconnection? Illustrations of so omnipresent a condition will scarcely persuade those who have not long observed it in themselves and in those about them; but: —
Europeans have long been struck with consternation at our inability to place emphasis on the concrete aspect of things. Taking tea with a friend in London, I am told that I must return to dine and go to 1 he opera.
“All right,”I say, “s’ll hurry home and change my clothes.”
“I say: s’ll go back to the hotel and change my clothes.”
“Home! Home! How can you Americans keep calling a hotel home?”
Because a home is not an edifice, but an interior and transportable adjustment. In Chicago — in the good old days — my friends used to change their apartment on the first of May. They were not discontented with the old one; they simply liked to impress their home-making faculty on some new rooms.
More and more farmers of the Middle West are ending their days in Southern California and Florida. After fifty years of hard work in Iowa they do not find it strange to live, to die, and to be buried among palms.
This unrelatedness to place goes so deep that, in an Old World sense, America can have no shrines. For us it is not where genius lived that is important. If Mount Vernon and Monticello were not so beautiful in themselves and relatively accessible, would so many of us visit them? What difficulties private individuals have had — in rich America — to save the Whitman and Poe houses.
Americans are abstract. They are disconnected. They have a relation, but it is to everywhere, to everybody, and to always.
That is not new, but it is very un-European.
It is difficult, but it is exhilarating. It shatters many lives; it inspirits others.
There are those countries of Europe, each shut in on itself by borders immemorially defended; each shut in with its own loved hills, streams, towns, and roads; each with the monuments of its past continually renewing the memory of its history; each with its language—not a self-evident thing, as natural as breathing, but a thing rendered assertive and objective because beyond the borders were all those others speaking no less assertively a deplorable gibberish: shut in with the absorbing repetitions of customs and long-moulded manners; shut in with its convulsions which themselves had the character of repetitions. Shut in, above all, with the memories of old oppressions and with the memories of the long, bloody revolts against old oppressions, against Authorities and Powers– once awe-inspiring, but now hollow as the bugaboos of infancy –still vestigially present, however, as disavowed menaces and seductions, invitations to escape from the burdens of freedom (Führer! Duce! Commissar!).
How close together they live, in each nation, how shoulder to shoulder!—not only by reason of the density of population, but because of a sort of psychic consanguinity, — another aftermath of feudalism. The relation of master and serf is a hot relation; it is a bond of either love or hate, as is any relationship which involves command over another’s freedom. It is no wonder that the English have developed the stratification of the social classes, of the greatest precision and of the greatest sensitivity to encroachment: overcrowding, centuries long, has resulted in a condition where Englishmen can hear one another think. The barriers were rendered necessary to protect them from this steamy intimacy. Modern English plays and novels show us that the English live in anguish because of the indelicacy of their exposure to one another. In France life and conversation and love itself seem to us to be overruled by a network of conventions as intricate as a ballet or a game; just so the Chinese built walls of ceremonial behind which they could hide from the piercing intelligence of their neighbors.
Yet such density is also warming and reassuring.
I am I because my fellow-citizens know me.
Americans can find in environment no confirmation of their identity, try as they may. The American gregariousness strikes every European visitor as hollow and strained — the college fraternity (“brothers till death”), the businessmen’s clubs (“one for all and all for one”), the febrile cocktail party (“Darling, do call me up; you’re my favorite person in the world and I never see you”).
There is only one way in which an American can feel himself to be in relation to other Americans — when he is united with them in a project, caught up in an idea and propelled with them toward the future. There is no limit to the degree with which an American is imbued with the doctrine of progress. Place and environment are but décor to his journey. He lives not on the treasure that lies about him but on the promises of the imagination.
“I am I,” he says, “because my plans characterize me.”
Another element entered the American experience which has rendered still more difficult any hope of an American’s deriving comfort from environment : he learned to count.
He can count to higher numbers — and realize the multiplicity indicated by the number — than any European. It began with his thinking in distances; it was increased by his reception into this country of the representatives of many nations.
How wide and high was the America to which he came? How many thousands of miles wide and high is a country whose boundaries have not yet been reached? The peoples of Europe knew well the dimensions of their own lands; one’s own land is one’s norm and scale. Several of these peoples were voyagers and colonizers; their travelers had experience of great distance and vast populations; but concepts of magnitude are not communicable by hearsay. It is amazing the extent to which European literatures are without any sense of the innumerability of the human race — even those literatures which draw so largely on the Bible, which is indeed the book of the myriad. An individual genius — Dante and Cervantes and Goethe — may grasp it, but it is not in Shakespeare, for a joy in the diversity of souls is not the same thing as an awe before the multiplicity of souls. French literature is about Frenchmen, though their names be Britannicus and le Cid; and Frenchmen are not innumerable. For a century English writers were infatuated with the West Mediterranean people (they felt them to be splendid and damned), but their interest in them did not, to the imagination, increase the population of England or of the earth. Nor was it increased when England came to govern colonies in all parts of the globe; those peoples beyond the sea spoke other tongues and many of them were of another color. How many is many, if the many seem to be deplorably immature and incult? The imagination plays tricks on those who count souls in condescension.
Americans could count and enjoyed counting. They lived under a sense of boundlessness. And every year a greater throng of new faces poured into their harbors, paused, and streamed westward. And each one was one. To this day, in American thinking, a crowd of ten thousand is not a homogeneous mass of that number, but is one and one and one . . . up to ten thousand.
Billions have lived and died, billions will live and die; and this every American knows—knows in that realm beyond learning, knows in his bones. American literature of the great age is filled with the grasp of this dimension; it is in Whitman’s oftderided catalogues, in Poe’s Eureka, in Melville’s resort to myth, in Emily Dickinson’s lyrics. It is not in Thoreau, nor in Emerson, and its absence is all the more conspicuous when they are writing under the influence of the Sanskrit scriptures, where the realization abounds.
This knowledge is now in every American and in his glance. And there as everywhere, it never ceases to call into question one’s grasp on one’s own identity.
Fortunately, for several generations the American had the Bible. The Bible, like the Sanskrit scriptures, is one long contemplation of the situation of the one in the innumerable and it sternly forbids its readers to draw any relief from what lies about them. Its characters hang suspended upon the promises of the imagination; for generations most Americans were named after them. Those (one and one and one . . .) to whom destiny has extended a promise and a plan have this consolation, that they feel themselves to be irreplaceable. Each one is a bundle of projects.
It would seem as though I were about to say that the Americans are unworldly, spiritual natures like the Hindu initiates for whom the earth is but an illusion or like the saints engrossed only in intangibles ("I count nothing my own save my harp"; “Here on earth have we no abiding place albeit we seek one to come”). No, for them concrete things concretely exist, so solidly that these things do not exhale a deep emotion nor invite it. How seldom in American literature — outside of Europeanizing epigonous writers like Washington Irving– does one find such effusions as “Dear Tree, beneath which so often I played as a child,” or “Newburgh, rising in glorious serenity above the lordly Hudson, would that once again I could tread thy steep streets. . . “ Americans do not readily animate things; their tireless animation is active elsewhere, in the future.
This is the disconnection from place; the disconnection from time is no less radical.
The Melville of Moby Dick, the most widely admired work in American literature, is a notably interesting example for our study. Melville was not only writing within the tradition of English literature: he was writing very bookishly and stylishly indeed. No doubt he was conscious that the vogue for his books was beginning to be greater in England than in America; Moby Dick was first published in London. Under the mounting emotion of composition Melville’s “Americanism" erupted in spite of himself. It can be seen progressively manifesting itself. The first eleven pages of the novel are the worst kind of English English — that is to say, the English of the contemporary New York literary cliques. There are many pages in Moby Dick which betray the insecurity of a writer thirty-one years old who has launched upon a mighty subject; but the page from which I am about to quote is completely successful and its success has been achieved through the presence within it of elements inherent in the nation’s adventure. This page affords us our first direct view of the White Whale. It is probably the most delayed entrance for a star in all literature; in my edition it is on page 538.
The whale has been sighted — “a hump like a snowhill ” — and the boats of the Pequod have started in pursuit.
“Like noiseless nautilus shells, their light prows sped through the sea; but only slowly they neared the foe.”
Melville’s emotion is gaining on him. The alliterations in n and s begin to introduce an incantatory tone which will presently be confirmed by constructions employing repetition; but the approach to a state of trance does not prevent his marking the rapidity of the boats with monosyllables and the dragging slowness — as felt by the whalers — by open vowels.
“As they neared him the ocean grew still more smooth; seemed drawing a carpet over its waves; seemed a noon-meadow, so serenely it spread. At length the breathless hunter came so nigh his seemingly unsuspecting prey, that his entire dazzling hump was distinctly visible, sliding along the sea as if an isolated thing, and continually set in a revolving ring of finest, fleecy, greenish foam. He saw the vast, involved wrinkles of the slightly projecting head beyond. Before it, far out on the soft Turkish-rugged waters, went the glistening white shadow from his broad, milky forehead, a musical rippling playfully accompanying the shade; and behind, the blue waters interchangeably flowed over into the moving valley of his steady wake; and on either hand bright bubbles arose and danced by his side.”
Melville’s emotion is under powerful control.
We are approaching a paroxysm of swooning love and shuddering horror, but so far he has mainly presented himself to us All Eyes. The emotion is present, however, in this insistence that everything is serene and in the undulation of the rhythm. Scarcely a noun is offered which is not preceded by one or two adjectives, many of which (projecting, soft, white, broad, blue) tell us nothing new. We call this practice a mid-nineteenth century vice and today children are punished for it. Today such a scene — picture and emotion– would be conveyed with the economy of a telegram. But style is not only the man; it involves also the thought-world of the time, including the writer’s effort to alter it. This page is an exercise in flamboyant rhetoric; it is a “purple patch,” unashamed. Its triumph issues from the superimposition of novel elements upon a traditional form.
Melville continues his description of the whale (this is in Chapter One Hundred and Thirty-three) and the “soft-toed” birds that hover above him.
He compares Moby Dick to t he “white bull Jupiter . . . that great majesty Supreme!” swimming with Europa on his back, and tells us that “the whale shed off enticings.”
“Yet calm, enticing calm, oh whale! thou glidest on, to all who for the first time eye thee, no matter how many in that same way thou may’st have bejuggled and destroyed before.”
The climax employs the most rhetorical– that is to say, the most potentially absurd — of all devices: the invocation to an abstraction, to an insensible or absent being. It is characteristic of our time, and related to what I was saying about the decline of our belief in authorities and essences, that few orators can be heard saying “Oh, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, persevere!” and few poets now address the Evening or Sweet Days of Childhood.
“And thus, through the serene tranquillities of the tropical sea, among waves whose handclappings were suspended by exceeding rapture, Moby Dick moved on, still withholding from sight the full terrors of his submerged trunk, entirely hiding the wrenched hideousness of his jaw.”
To my ear the movement of this passage is not primarily literary — that is to say, of the printed page — but oratorical. It derives from the joy which Americans formerly took in the public address (and which they take no longer). This passage cries aloud to be declaimed standing up.
Yet the observation that this passage has the air of being written for declamation does not distinguish it as a work of the New World. De Quincey and Carlyle and Ruskin and Chateaubriand and Victor Hugo and Kierkegaard had all been writing or were about to write prose that took its tone from forensic and pulpit eloquence.
There are three elements in it, however, which indicate that it is written in America: —
1. It contains a number of locutions which reveal the emergence of the American language.
2. It is directed to a classless society— to Everybody.
3. It constantly betrays what throughout these lectures I shall call a certain disconnection in the American mind.
Americans were filled with a sense of newness, of vastness, and of challenge.
As Walt Whitman put it: “It almost seems as if a poetry with cosmic and dynamic features of magnitude and limitlessness suitable to the human soul, were never possible before.” And for this big feeling within them they needed to employ a grand style, a swelling rhetoric unabashed. And they needed it at the precise moment that England lost it.
England did not lose it because of any diminution of her exterior or interior greatness. Her exterior greatness had not yet reached its peak; and her interior greatness has never been greater than in our own time. She lost it for two reasons: one, the verbal expression for that greatness had been under employment so long that it had begun to show exhaustion; and two, the islanders (as I said earlier) had dwelt so long in congested proximity that a heroic view of one another was no longer possible. The mock-heroic had been able to flourish side by side with the heroic in the eighteenth century, but finally it had begun to sap the heroic. British feeling in regard to all that was venerable in their institutions did not decline, but their expression of it became more and more an understatement in public and an affectionate persiflage in private. Poet laureates found it increasingly difficult to celebrate great personages and great events in the lofty language that was called for. English humor of the last half of the nineteenth century was precisely based on the mocking application to daily life of the grandiose diction of the preceding centuries.
But America was not overcrowded, and neither its geography nor its history had been for centuries the subject of literature. The heroic flourished side by side with the mock-heroic, and the mock-heroic itself seemed to be a smiling tribute to the heroic. All of the writers we are considering were highly “bookish” authors and may have been aware of the increasing hollowness of the English grand style (which accompanied an increasing precision and beauty in the description of the homely and intimate), but all advanced unhesitatingly and often into the perilous reaches of ornate eloquence, Boldest of all was Walt Whitman who saw the necessity of de-sophisticating himself in order to achieve it. All of them were able to renew the validity of impassioned utterance by availing themselves of a number of novel elements.
The novel element which seems to me to be of least importance was the presence of new words and idioms. There are no examples of this in the page we are studying. “Bejuggled"— which Melville had already employed in Mardi — is not in most dictionaries, but “juggled” has a long history on both sides of the Atlantic. But if there are no new words there are some examples of novel usage.
“The whale shed off enticings.” There is little doubt that De Quincey or even Carlyle would have written “shed enticements.” “Enticings” will be followed in the next paragraph by “handclappings.‘’ These verbal nouns based on the present participle are relatively rare in the plural. A number, after losing their dynamic force (paintings, savings, undertakings), have entered common use, and others (understandings, risings, mumblings) are on their way to the same static condition. But we do not say laughings, shoppings, studyings, enticings, or handclappings. Melville in Moby Dick offers us intertwistings, spurnings, coincidings, imminglings, and even “what lovely leewardings!" I have counted thirty-one of them. The following year, while writing Pierre, he will have forgotten his infatuation with plural gerunds and will have set out to create new words in -ness, heightening the abstraction in abstract nouns. There we find beautifulness, domesticness (twice!), unidentifiableness, and undulatoriness — all deplorable and some of them atrocious.
Much of this coinage in Melville is mere huffing and puffing. A young man of thirty-one with barely a high school education has remarked Shakespeare’s bold inventions without having acquired the tact that controlled them. I find the plural gerunds on this page, however, completely successful.
“The whale shed off enticings.” As foreigners who are learning our language frequently inform us, we Americans are forever putting prepositions and adverbial particles to new uses. Here the “off” combined with the “enticings" gives the impression of a continuous fulguration. It is not only an expression of vivacity and energy; it reveals our national tendency to restore to the past its oncepresent life rather than to immobilize it, to bury it under the preterite. In narration this assumed a great importance, for Americans wish to declare that all living things are free — and were free — and the past tenses in narration tend to suggest that we, telling the story from its latter end, see them as “determined” and as the victims of necessity.
On this page we are shown the bull and Europa “rippling straight for the nuptial bower in Crete.” Water ripples; tresses ripple. Had we read in a present-day author, English or American, that “ Leander rippled straight for Sestos” we would have condemned it as a vulgarity. What saves this phrase from vulgarity is the gamut of tones that are juxtaposed in this nineteenth century page — which brings us to our second consideration.
A novel element in our classics of a century ago is the fact that they were written for a classless society, they were written for everybody. European literature for two and a half centuries had been directed to an audience of cultivation, to an elite — Molière’s farces not excepted, Dickens’s (imminent) novels not excepted. The assumption on the part of our American writers that they were addressing a total society has since disappeared; we are now in the famous division between the high-brows and the low-brows; but given the basic considerations of our American life, such an assumption should constitute the natural function of a much larger part of American writing.
What are the signs that a writer feels himself to be addressing the total community rather than an elite? There are many; I am about to give two, both drawn from the realm of the grand style. It is well to note first, however, that this consideration has nothing to do with whether or not a writer uses long words or erudite allusions. It has nothing to do with a condescension to semi-literacy. The 1611 Bible and the works of Shakespeare are filled with incomprehensible phrases; millions pore over them daily; we read right on, sufficiently nourished by what is intelligible to us.
It is not necessary to remind you that Walt Whitman addressed himself to everyone who could read or be read to.
Listen to Thoreau in Walden (and note the forensic tone; there is no surer sign of it than these redundant numerations): —
“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity. I say let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumbnail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, if he would not founder and go to the bottom, and not make port, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals ...”
Thoreau is addressing so vast a throng that in his effort to be heard he has lost control of subjects and verbs — scrupulous writer though he usually is.
“Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage. Do not trouble yourself much to get new things whether clothes or friends. . . . Things do not change; we change.”
All this is for the farmhand, the blacksmith, and the cook as well as for the Governor’s lady. It is for Ralph Waldo Emerson as well as for Thoreau’s mother, the boardinghouse keeper.
New Englanders have been proverbially inarticulate; but they could unlock their hearts and throats if they felt the audience to be sufficientlv large. Did not Emily Dickinson say of her poetry: —
Her grand style — sunbursts of Handelian rhetoric— invokes a universe.
Wherein do these paragraphs from Moby Dick reveal the fact that he was addressing an undifferentiated audience? They are certainly highly “bookish” — what with that elaborated classical allusion, that stylish subjunctive, and their high percentage of words from the Latin.
First, we observe that elevation and intensity are not solely and inseparably associated with noble images. The sublime does not wear a cothurnus. There are not two doors for words in America, no tradesmen’s entrance: all can go in the front door. In the very same sentence in which he apostrophizes divinity we are told that God has “bejuggled” many a man. It is a word from the skulduggeries of the country fair and the card game at the livery stable. We remember the horror with which Racine’s contemporaries greeted the mention of a dog in tragedy, the protest of the audience against the humble phrase “Quelle heure est-il?” in Hernani. Generations of critics deplored the drunken porter in Macbeth. What better illustration of the limited gamut of tones available for European full-throated utterance than the observation that so many of the words that describe lofty moods are also words that stem from the designations of social rank, or that run concurrently with them and derive much of their force from connotations of status: noble and herrlich and edel and magnifico and grande and soberano and majestic and even gentle. The United States is a middle-class nation and has widened and broadened and deepened the concepts of the wide and the broad and deep without diminishing the concept of the high. We notice that
the angelic host of birds that glorify the White Whale have soft toes. Toes, like noses, have not hitherto entered the exalted, the dithyrambic style. This page did not have the drawing room in view.
Second, most European exercises in (he sublime, in avoiding the common and humble, avoid the specific. In the tirades of Burke and Carlyle on the French Revolution, in the impassioned visions of De Quincey and Chateaubriand, the noble is associated with a high vagueness. Audiences which are composed of the selected and the cultivated and the Gebildete and the honnêtes gens and the cognoscenti are not interested in life’s diversity; the pressures upon them work toward the formulation of taste and convention and the Rules of the Beautiful and an ever-narrowing purity (i.e., economy) in the selection of detail, But the American public was one and one and one ... to an unlimited number. Their taste could never be codified, for it was overwhelmed by an ever-enlarging vision of the universe and its multifarious character. The bigger the world is, the less you can be content with vagueness. The catalogues of Walt Whit man which have displeased so many immured scholars, are filled with this kind of apprehension. He hears a runaway slave
. . . crackling the twigs of the woodpile,
Through the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him limpsy and weak, . . .
The bride unrumples her white dress, the minutehand of the clock moves slowly.
The opium-eater reclines with rigid head and justopened lips . . .
Whitman can get a million people into his poem by making sure that not one of his twenty is amorphous.
What European poet, reminding us that the sunlight falls on all alike, would have selected as an illustration the reminder that it falls upon the “squirrel in Himaleh” — or have drawn from the thought so chillingly abstract a conclusion as did Emily Dickinson?
Since the American can find no confirmation of identity from the environment in which he lives, since he lives exposed to the awareness of vast distances and innumerable existences, since he derives from a belief in the future the courage that animates him, is he not bent on isolating and “fixing” a value on every existing thing in its relation to a totality, to the All, to the Everywhere, to the Always? And does that not require of him a new way of viewing and feeling and describing any existing thing? And would that not require, in turn, a modification of the language?
(The final and most important demonstration of the New World characteristics latent in American writers will be discussed by Mr. Wilder in subsequent issues.)