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Americans transcribed the Edenic myth and heralded the supremacy of the New World over the Old. Yet, many could not suppress the fear that they were already losing their sense of purity, innocence, and power, and would in time come face to face with the disappointments of history, the sorrows of the human condition, and the sinfulness of man…

American Eden landscape

I. The American Genesis

“What are the Great United States for,” asked Charles Dickens, “if not the regeneration of man?”[1] Long before Columbus set sail, there had developed a body of literature celebrating the New World as a symbol of emancipation not only from the crimes and sins of Europe, not only from the fixed order of society, but also, and of greater importance, from the ravages of time itself. In this new Eden, human beings could recover their lost innocence, solve their problems, satisfy their desires, and begin life anew.[2] Philip Freneau’s and Hugh Henry Brackenridge’s “Poem on the Rising Glory of America,” published in 1772, marked a culmination of sorts in this literary tradition. Freneau and Brackenridge imagined a “paradise anew” in America where the Fall would be reversed, and “by no second Adam lost.”[3] In America:

No dangerous tree with deadly fruit shall grow

No tempting serpent to allure the soul

From native innocence. A Canaan here,

Another Canaan shall excel the old.[4]

This “new Jerusalem, sent down from heaven” promised freedom from toil, illness, and death.[5] Here the bounty of nature would be restored and the violence of nature quelled. The destructive human passions would be calmed; war and crime would cease. America, the city upon a hill, a beacon to all mankind, was destined to lead the rest of world into this radiant, future millennium:

Such days the world,

And such America thou first shall have,

When ages, yet to come, have run their round,

And future years of bliss alone remain.[6]

“The American myth saw life and history as just beginning,” argued R.W.B. Lewis. “It described the world as starting up again under the fresh initiative, in a divinely granted second chance for the human race, after the first chance had been so disastrously fumbled in the darkening Old World.”

The hero of much early American literature was the American Adam, a wise innocent fortunate to dwell in this timeless earthly paradise. “The new habits to be engendered on the new American scene,” Lewis continued, “were suggested by the image of a radically new personality: …an individual untouched and undefiled by the usual inheritances of family and race; an individual standing alone, self-reliant and self-propelling…. The new hero (in praise or disapproval) was most easily identified with Adam before the Fall.”[7] Pure and sinless, innocent in thought, word, and deed, the American Adam is also irresponsible. Since he does not know the difference between good and evil, since he has no moral sense, the American Adam is beyond judgment, guilt, and remorse. He may think, say, and do as he pleases, for it is impossible for him to do wrong. Transcending both nature and culture, the American Adam is free, and such freedom is the promise of America.

“A vast republic of escaped slaves,” as D.H. Lawrence portrayed it, America in its inception represented an alternative to Europe, a land in which the unbound individual supplanted an imperious culture, tradition, family, community, and faith as the source and embodiment of virtue, order, and meaning.[8] In “black revulsion” against the dominion of popes, kings, and fathers, Europeans, Lawrence maintained, had come to the New World not in search of mere religious or political freedom, but rather to elude the past, and henceforth, as he put it, to be “masterless.”

II. Utopia

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the sense that the earth was more accessible than it had ever been before, and that it presented untold opportunities for adventure, profit, and enlightenment, quickened the imaginations of European thinkers and explorers. Lured by curiosity and greed, by a desire to spread Christianity, and by the hope of demolishing ancient limits, whether geographical, intellectual, political, or spiritual, Europeans threw caution to the winds and ventured across the uncharted oceans. From the outset, they believed that the New World to which they were going would transcend the world they were leaving behind. In the coming age, humanity would accomplish more during the next one hundred years than it had during the previous thousand.

According to the European vision, the New World, with its ecological variety, its teeming wildlife, its natural abundance, and its hidden treasures was a land of promise—in fact, it was a land of many promises designed to satisfy all the needs of body and mind. Given the opulence they had apparently discovered, charity may forgive Europeans for entertaining the dream that the New World would lift the curses of poverty, hunger, and want, which had so unrelentingly tormented the Old. Until at least the nineteenth century, if not beyond, the unspoken name for the New World, for America, was Utopia.

The fantasy that the New World permitted Europeans to cultivate was, in essence, the ability to evade time and the cumulative effects of time—namely, history and tradition. The dissent from orthodox religion, the conquest of virgin lands, and the establishment of new communities each, in its own way, endowed the New World with its revolutionary character and mission: to make over humanity and society and to prepare for the arrival of the heaven on earth that would appear once feudalism, monarchy, and orthodoxy had passed away. The impulse to wipe clean the slate of the past and to make a new beginning arose from the acknowledgement that civilization in the Old World had gone profoundly wrong. Rather than submitting to this unfortunate circumstance, and attributing it to some ineradicable defect in human nature, the theological name for which was original sin, European thinkers as dissimilar as Denis Diderot and Jean-Jacques Rousseau sought to overcome time and to begin anew. Therein lay the trap they set for themselves and subsequent generations. However unconcealed their hostility toward the past, they could neither deny nor escape it in the hope either of heeding the laws of reason (Diderot) or restoring the primitive and the instinctual (Rousseau). They had, instead, to confront it, to reexamine tradition in view of experience, and to redress the enormities and traumas of history in their individual lives. Unless they could meet such a challenge, they were doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past, as Santayana observed, and thereby to condemn themselves.

III. The Garden of America

By the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, while still in the flower of its youth, the American republic already found itself in a race against time. Like most of his contemporaries, or at least the wakeful minority, Thomas Jefferson believed that republican government and society were, at best, fragile and precarious. In his analysis of the problems attendant upon maintaining a republican social and political order, Jefferson recognized two sources of corruption, decay, and collapse. The first derived from artificial and the second from natural causes. Catastrophe invariably resulted from a degenerate political system that induced social inequality, an exodus from the countryside, the abandonment of the land, urban squalor for the poor, and, among the wealthy, enslavement to luxury goods. By gaining independence from Great Britain and undoing at least some of the Federalist program, Jefferson thought that Americans had removed many of the artificial grounds. The natural causes remained and were more serious.

The pressure of population on a limited supply of land offered an example of a natural cause of social and political crisis. Jefferson worried that the United States would remain independent “only as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America” and people were not “piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe.” Should that misfortune ever befall the United States, Jefferson lamented, both the government and its citizens “will become corrupt as in Europe.”[9] He was confident that such circumstances would not arise for centuries. His confidence betrayed the assumption that American boundaries to the north, south, and especially the west could be continually extended, always bringing into America a fresh supply of virgin land. Should that expansion ever be challenged or stopped by a formidable European power, such as Great Britain or France (Jefferson was less fearful of Spain), what had heretofore merely been a theoretical problem might quickly become immediate and real.

American independence, Jefferson declared, required two conditions to be met. First, there had to be unobstructed access to an inexhaustible supply of land. Second, there had to be ample markets at home and abroad to absorb the agricultural surplus produced on this land. Jefferson feared that impediments to foreign and domestic commerce would stifle the industry of American farmers by eliminating their incentives to work. Eventually, they would grow indolent, lethargic, decadent, and barbarous, characteristics hardly befitting a free, independent, and virtuous people. The quest to secure these twin necessities became the principal objectives of Jefferson’s domestic policy during his first presidential administration.  

Through the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, likely the single greatest achievement of his presidency, Jefferson hoped to postpone for centuries the pressure that an expanding population would exert on a limited supply of land. For Jefferson, the acquisition of the Louisiana Territory was of crucial importance because it pushed far into the future that terrible day when the United States would become a densely populated society characterized by inequality, luxury, decadence, and dependence. Expansion across space rather than development over time was the only effective antidote to population growth, urbanization, overcrowding, and the political, social, and moral corruption that accompanied these developments. Speaking in 1804, the prominent Jeffersonian Abraham Bishop of Connecticut observed that “the history of the world teaches that nations, like men, must decay. Ours will not forever escape the fate of others. Wealth, luxury, vice, aristocracies will attack us in our decline: these are evils of society, never to be courted, but to be put to as distant a day as possible…. We see in Louisiana an assurance of long life to our cause.”[10] “By enlarging the empire of liberty,” Jefferson himself exulted in 1805,“we multiply its auxiliaries and provide new sources of renovation, should its principles, at any time, degenerate, in those portions of the country which gave them birth.”[11] In America, Jefferson and like-minded contemporaries hoped, there would always be an opportunity to begin life anew and, in the process, to revitalize the people and the nation.

Jefferson’s notion of a continuously expanding “empire of liberty” was a bold stroke, for it challenged the traditional republican association of territorial expansion and empire with luxury, corruption, and despotism. According to Jefferson, expansion, on the contrary, would preserve rather than undermine the republican character of the United States. In addition to slowing the onset of national old age, expansion would diffuse the spirit of faction that had proven so disruptive during the 1790s. Dispatching the French from Louisiana also removed the need to maintain an expensive and potentially dangerous military establishment to meet an ongoing foreign threat. The Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson concluded, thus reduced the likelihood of American involvement in ruinous wars that would impose upon the nation the debts, taxes, and standing armies that had haunted the Old World. Neither conflict with others nor decline over time, but rather peaceful expansion across the continent, would sustain the republic indefinitely in the vigor of its youth, while at the same time enabling it to transcend the rude, uncultivated state that had excited so much derision and contempt among its adversaries.

IV. Exile from the Garden

Republican ideology rested on the assurance that the United States was a liberating and regenerative force destined to annul the corruption, impiety, and sinfulness of mankind. Yet, if Americans could not live together in peace and tranquility, if they could not make a success of their “errand into the wilderness,” how were they ever to fulfill their divinely ordained mission to redeem the world? The potential for discord and instability in American life threatened both the survival of the republic and the future of mankind.

James Madison addressed the political dimensions of this question in The Federalist Papers. He was concerned to stay the ruinous power of factions, which he defined in Federalist 10 as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”[12] Removing the seeds of faction was impossible for, as Madison noted, they were “sown in the nature of man.” All men had innately distinctive faculties that manifested themselves in different property rights and that, in time, led to the formation of varied opinions, divergent interests, conflicting passions, and mutual animosities. “The most common and durable source of faction,” Madison wrote, “has been the various and unequal distribution of property,” and the achievement of political equality would not rectify the imbalance.”[13] Madison was troubled by the evidence of chaos latent in popular incontinence, ambition, and greed. The frailty and perversity of human nature made it inconceivable that men would remain unerringly committed to diligence, perseverance, and toil, especially when they could more easily profit by fraud, deceit, and violence.

In Edgar Huntly Or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker, published in 1799, Charles Brockden Brown dramatizes the republican predicament.[14] The plot of Brown’s novel is so tortuous and convoluted that its focus is sometimes nearly lost amid the welter of detail. Although tangled and perplexing, the novel is neither incomprehensible nor meaningless. The action takes place in the environs of Philadelphia during the summer of 1787, while delegates to the Constitutional Convention ponder the future government of the United States. At the same time, Edgar Huntly, though a political novel set in the city, is also a psychological thriller, its drama unfolding on what was then the western frontier of Pennsylvania. Essential to American security and prosperity, the wilderness had to be brought under the dominion of mind if rational self-government were ever to prosper. The untamed wilderness in Edgar Huntly is fraught with peril; far from being a source of hope and regeneration, the wilderness brings out the native savagery of man and thereby endangers not only civilization but also life itself.

Driven by some irrational compulsion, some hidden guilt, the main character, Edgar Huntly, walks in his sleep. The wilderness setting reflects his unsettled mental and emotional state. Further to emphasize the dangerous affinity between men and the wilderness, Brown associated men with wild beasts. In the moral universe of the novel, the two are frequently interchangeable and indistinguishable. Huntly takes into himself all the wildness and ferocity of man in the state of nature. He represents for Brown elemental man communing not with his natural goodness and benevolence, as the philosophes might have imagined, but with his mad and murderous soul, a source of mayhem, upheaval, violence, and death.

Leaving behind the civil world of language and law, of farms and villages, of friendship, courtship, property, marriage, and family—the world of human contact and human relationships documented in letters, memoirs, and account books—Huntly enters the animal world of silent killing. Despite repeated condemnations of violence, he butchers five Indians whom he finds encamped outside a cave. Later justifying the slaughter in a letter to his fiancée, Mary Waldegrave, he nonetheless delights in the carnage. Huntly is predisposed to kill Indians for, it turns out, they massacred his parents and left him in the precarious straights in which he now finds himself, without property, without an inheritance, and thus unable to marry. As a consequence, he thinks his actions warranted and regards himself as an innocent victim of circumstance, obliged to kill to avenge his parents and to save his own life. “Such,” he complains, “are the deeds which perverse nature compels thousands of rational beings to perform and witness!”[15] Disinherited and powerless, with the prospect of his future welfare and happiness in jeopardy, teetering on the brink of ruin, Edgar Huntly discovers in himself the impulse to vengeance and murder.

Recounting Huntly’s distress, Brown identified a fundamental concern of republican political economy. For republican thinkers, economic independence was essential to virtue, liberty, and the exercise of political rights. A class of propertyless men inevitably fell prey to manipulative demagogues or else succumbed to poverty and vice, neither of which sustained a republican polity. In Jefferson’s view “dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition.”[16] The Founding Fathers had little confidence in the disinterested civic virtue of classical republican theory. Men of property were virtuous because they could afford to be. They were self-supporting, self-reliant, and responsible, all of which, it was assumed, left them impervious to the coercion from which the economically dependent suffered. Virtue constituted not only the willingness but also the ability to sacrifice private interests for the public good. Those without an investment in the commonwealth had nothing to lose. If they could not acquire property legitimately, they meant to seize it, or to exact a high price for being deprived.

Challenging the assumptions of the French Enlightenment, Brown denied that reason was sufficient to ensure political order and social tranquility. Frustrated in their aspirations, men could be thrust into mad despair and commit reckless and destructive acts. In Federalist 49, Madison argued that “the voice of an enlightened reason” ought ideally to direct human affairs, but admitted that too often the passions “sit in judgment.”[17] How, Brown wondered, could the irrational aspects and destructive impulses of human nature be restrained without also subverting liberty? During the summer of 1787, representatives from the states gathered in Philadelphia to resolve that very question. Since even the wisest statesman could not alter human nature, Brown, like the Founders, surmised that the conflict between reason and passion, between order and chaos, was perpetual.

Brown confirmed this unhappy assessment of the human condition in his observations about language, that ornament of the rational intelligence, that symbol of the enlightened mind, which distinguished civilization from barbarism. In Edgar Huntly, the written or spoken word sets civilized men apart from beasts and savages. Irrational, murderous passion is always wordless. Civilized society, by contrast, rests on the spoken and written testimonies, promises, and explanations contained in treaties, deeds, contracts, promissory notes, wills, memoirs, letters, and diaries. Yet, Brown showed little faith in the reliability of language. Throughout the novel, records are lost, hidden, falsified, or destroyed; letters are edited, stolen, misconstrued, fall into the wrong hands, and arrive too late or not at all. Language often distorts or obscures as much as it clarifies.

Anticipating Freud by a century, Brown intimated that raw passion could never be eliminated from human nature. It might be repressed, imprisoned, disregarded, or forced below the surface of consciousness, it might be cloaked in polite letters or veiled behind decorous manners, but it could not be removed, and it would not sleep forever. As long as some men had property and power and others did not, as long as some men felt their self-respect, their status, and their future at risk, envy and malice were likely to explode and do their worst.

Charles Brockden Brown offered a skeptical and ironic vision of the present state and future prospects of the American republic. In a free, independent, and affluent nation, he chronicled the imperfections and perversities of human nature that continually tempted men from virtue and placed the commonwealth in peril. No such ambiguity seems to trouble the fiction of James Fenimore Cooper. If there is a hero in nineteenth-century literature celebrated for his youth, purity, innocence, virtue, and freedom–if, in other words, there is an “American Adam”—it is Natty Bumppo, the protagonist of Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales.[18]

Unlike Brown, Cooper was immune to the terror of man’s solitary life in an untamed wilderness. Nature has none of the forbidding peril or brutality that dominates Edgar Huntly. It is, by contrast, “altogether soothing, and of a character to lull the passions into a species of holy calm,” quieting the ferocity and restoring the concord of the human heart.[19] Pristine and unspoiled, the America in which Natty Bumppo resides still exists “in mysterious solitude, a world by itself; equally without a familiar history, and without an origin that the annals of man could reach.”[20] Peace and serenity abound in Cooper’s fictional American hinterland.

Despite the benevolence of nature, Natty’s wilderness paradise is already losing its coherence. Impetuous, calculating, dishonest, and remorseless, Hurry Harry March and his partner Tom Hutter, the latter a former pirate, have taken refuge in the wilderness to elude authorities. Both men have brought their predatory instincts with them into this serene and uncontaminated world. Always seeking the main chance, they do not hesitate to ravage nature or humanity to satisfy their greed. Together they ambush and kill Indians to collect the bounty on scalps, justifying their actions by a rational appeal to the law, which they have violated with impunity when advantageous. Appealing to a higher law, Natty condemns them, and implicates society in their crime. “That sounds reasonable,” Natty says, “but it has a most onreasonable [sic] bearing, Hurry…. When the colony’s laws, or even the king’s laws, run ag’in the laws of God, they get to be onlawful [sic], and ought not to be obeyed.”[21]

Impervious to the temptations of civilized life, Natty wants nothing to do with a society that inscribes murder for profit among its principles. Deliberate, reverent, and pious, Natty is inspired by a moral ideal and an aesthetic sensibility that temper his passions. Neither a moral absolutist nor a guileless innocent, Natty objects to the deceit, treachery, and filth with which society pollutes the earth, not “the decay that is brought about by time and natur’, but the decay that follows waste and violence.”[22]

Unlike the outlaws Harry March and Tom Hutter, who defend their murders for profit as a public service, Natty does not kill for personal gain. Unlike the renegade Edgar Huntly, who professes to abhor violence but who relishes the slaughter, Natty does not kill for pleasure. He is reluctant to take a life and pities his victims. When, in a moment of thoughtless arrogance, Natty shoots a nesting eagle, he immediately repents the act, perceiving that it is an affront to nature and a sinful use of his power. He knows that he has done wrong. “What a thing is power!,” he exclaims, “and what a thing it is, to have it, and not to know how to use it.” Natty “may be a slayer…” but is “no slaughterer.”[23] He never kills without reason or pillages nature when it stands in the way of his desires; virtue must yield only to necessity, and then with the utmost reluctance.

The most significant of the Leatherstocking novels is the last, The Deerslayer, published in 1841, for it seems to complete the American myth of rebirth and regeneration. In Studies in Classic American Literature, Lawrence remarked that “the Leatherstocking novels… go backwards from old age to golden youth. That is the true myth of America. She starts old, old, wrinkled and writhing in an old skin. And there is a gradual sloughing of the old skin, towards a new youth. It is the myth of America.”[24] Lawrence’s interpretation is appealing, but is at best only partly correct. Cooper began the novel by hinting that America, although still a young country, was growing old before his eyes. There was, he wrote, a “venerable air… already gathering around American annals.”[25] Natty Bumppo may be the American Adam, as many scholars have noted, but if he is so, he is The Deerslayer Adam after the Fall. Absorbed in solitary meditation, filled with a poignant sense of loss, Natty understands that the promise of America has been defiled and betrayed.

For Cooper, the unique blessing of America was its security against the ruin of time. Natty exists in space alone. In the untracked American wilderness, the world lies always before him and his Indian companion Chingachgook, a land of boundless possibility. Survival requires keeping ahead of the changes that time brings in its wake. Space asserts itself against the onslaught of time, just as the wilderness asserts itself against the onslaught of civilization.[26]

By the 1830s, Cooper had become disillusioned. Instead of regeneration, westward expansion had introduced novel opportunities for satisfying “a heartless longing for profit… the basest of all human motives, the thirst of gain.”[27] Cooper regretted the growing obsession with wealth that had come to dominate nineteenth-century American society. The myth of American freedom, regeneration, and innocence had proven false. The true American innocent, Natty Bumppo, could live only in exile from a civilization that neither welcomed his noble carriage nor heeded his virtuous example. Oddly, Natty is as much a threat to society as was Edgar Huntly. If Huntly embodied the irrational spirit of avarice, envy, and vengeance, Natty exemplified the benevolent spirit of decency, honor, and virtue. Society can tolerate neither, for both exposed the fragility of civilized order and uncovered the sinfulness that lies at the heart of human nature.

At once elegiac and portentous, The Deerslayer weighs the destiny of America. Natty Bumppo is both historian and prophet. He evokes the past with regret but anticipates the future with anxiety. The advance of civilization has been for him no blessing. Progress erodes good habits, customs, manners, and morals, propagating a new breed of savages, far worse than their original counterparts. “We live in a world of transgressions and selfishness,” Natty laments at the end of novel, “and no pictures that represent us otherwise can be true.”[28] For Cooper, then, human nature itself rendered barren all hope of establishing a heaven on earth, even in America.

V. The Masterless Self Triumphant

Americans of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries transcribed the Edenic myth and heralded the supremacy of the New World over the Old. Yet, writers such as Brown and Cooper could not suppress the fear that Americans were already losing their sense of purity, innocence, and power, and would in time come face to face with the disappointments of history, the sorrows of the human condition, and the sinfulness of man. They moved in their work from Genesis to Exodus, though in the American instance exodus led out of, not into, the Promised Land. Not until the twentieth century did American writers fully enter history, finding themselves immersed in “the convulsion of the world,” emerging “out of history into history” and enduring “the awful responsibility of Time.”[29] More than a century before Robert Penn Warren wrote those haunting words in the conclusion to All the King’s Men, Nathaniel Hawthorne had published a short story that hinted at the calamity of the American effort to withdraw from the order of history and tradition that the Old World represented. Hawthorne went further, exploring the tragic embrace of the rational mind as the wellspring of knowledge, the font of wisdom, the source of order, and the measure of all things.

Set in the 1730s, Hawthorne’s “My Kinsman, Major Molineaux” is in important respects the archetypical American tale.[30] On the threshold of manhood, the protagonist, a handsome and clever, though naive, youth identified only as “Robin,” leaves his home in the Massachusetts countryside and journeys to Boston, there to profit from the largess of his father’s cousin, who is a crown official. Arriving at night and not knowing where Major Molineaux lives, Robin assumes that anyone can direct him to the residence of such a prominent man. He seeks first the aid of an elderly gentleman, then of an innkeeper, and finally of a prostitute. Their responses to his inquiries are unexpectedly and inexplicably discourteous and intimidating, vague and enigmatic, scornful and ominous. Among other hard lessons, Robin learns that in the world he has entered the cash nexus prevails over family connections, and that “the confession of an empty pocket” transcends “the name of my kinsman.”[31]

Bewildered, and increasingly desperate, Robin wanders the streets until he meets a remarkable character who tells him that if he waits where he is, Major Molineaux will shortly pass his way. Earlier in the evening, Robin had glimpsed this man at the inn. Now, however, one side of the stranger’s face “blazed of an intense red, while the other was black as midnight, the division line being the broad bridge of the nose.” This “unprecedented physiognomy” leaves Robin with the impression that “two individual devils, a fiend of fire and a fiend of darkness, had united themselves to form this infernal visage.”[32]

While awaiting Major Molineaux, Robin peers into a church where he spies a Bible enveloped in moonlight, lying open on the pulpit. In this apparently negligible episode, interposed between the action and the climax of the story, Hawthorne ensconced his meaning. To this point, “My Kinsman, Major Molineaux” seems a conventional account of the misadventures of a young man come to the city to seek his fortune, but never abandoning the intimate network of family and community. Gazing through the window at the Bible, Robin feels an overwhelming sense of isolation and loneliness. His thoughts turn homeward, as he imagines his father, a devout country parson, offering the old prayers of “thanksgiving for daily mercies” and “the old supplications for their continuance,” to which Robin had often listened with weary disdain. He recalls them more fondly now, realizing for the first time that when the family locks the door against the world, he, too, will be “excluded from his home.”[33]

Although Robin laments his plight, it is an arrangement of his own choosing. Spiritually removed from his family, Robin is identified by no surname. Religion affords no solace or meaning, for the ultimate mystery it acknowledges exasperates him, if he contemplates it at all. Even his macabre encounter with evil leaves him unmoved. He dismisses the satanic figure whom he meets after “a few moments” of philosophical speculation “upon the species of the genius homo, who had just left him, but having settled this point shrewdly, rationally, and satisfactorily, he was compelled to look elsewhere for amusement.”[34] The innate depravity of the human heart is of no more interest or significance to Robin than to provide a momentary diversion. Reason answers all questions and solves all problems. Robin is an exile from the community of history and tradition, to say nothing of faith, long before arriving in Boston.

His inexperience and provincialism notwithstanding, Robin has embraced the secular rationalism and radical individualism of the Enlightenment. Tacitly declaring sovereignty over himself and rejecting all other forms of authority, he asserts his inherent equality with other men and his unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These Americans, wrote D.H. Lawrence, these “dry, moral, utilitarian little democrat[s]” have “done more to ruin old Europe than any Russian nihilist…. All this Americanizing… has been for the purpose of overthrowing the past.”[35] A free individual, logical, pragmatic, and calculating, devoid of sentiment and the restraints it imposes, Robin is about to discover that he can make his own way in the world.

The approach of another, more amiable, stranger interrupts Robin’s deliberations. As Robin explains his plight and aspirations to this man, he hears in the distance the blast of a trumpet followed by a shrill, confused, and tumultuous uproar that grows ever louder. Mounted on horseback and clad in military regalia, the man with the double visage suddenly reappears at the head of a column of “wild figures in the Indian dress, and many fantastic shapes without a model, giving the whole march a visionary air, as if a dream had broken forth from some feverish brain, and were sweeping visibly through the midnight streets.”[36] The delirium afflicts Robin, who experiences “a sort of mental inebriety,” when he sees Major Molineaux seated in an open cart and covered with tar and feathers. The old man represents all the grandeur, solemnity, magnificence, and pride of the old order, but the degradation to which he is subjected has broken his spirit. He struggles to maintain his reserve and composure in circumstances of “overwhelming humiliation.”[37] Among those who make sport of the major are the elderly gentleman, the innkeeper, and the prostitute, with whom Robin earlier had such disagreeable encounters. This time, though, he is not their victim but their ally, for he joins the merriment and laughs louder and longer than the rest. When the frenzied train has passed, the compassionate stranger advises Robin to linger in the city at least for a brief time. Relying on intelligence and guile alone, the stranger assures him, Robin may yet progress through life and make a name for himself without the help of his kinsman, Major Molineaux.

“The [American] Revolution was effected before the War commenced,” remarked John Adams in 1818. “The Revolution,” Adams continued, “was in the Minds and Hearts of the People…. This radi[c]al Change in the Principles, Opinions, Sentiments and Affections of the People, was the real American Revolution.”[38] Unlike Thomas Jefferson, Adams was not fully conversant with, or entirely sympathetic to, the independent and cosmopolitan polity of mind that issued from the French Enlightenment. Although Adams extolled the power of reason, he doubted that rationality was the principal force of history or the ultimate arbiter of reality. Endowed with a deep sense of Christian pessimism, Adams harbored serious misgivings about the competence of rational intelligence to fashion and sustain a humane order. The American Revolution had thus originated for Adams not as much in simple and self-evidently rational commitments to the abstract rights of man as in the changes in sentiment and attitude that took place among “the people of America”—the abandonment, as Adams wrote in his letter to Hezekiah Niles, of “a habitual Affection for England as their Mother-Country.”[39] The unquestionable and often decisive influence that the appeal to reason had exercised on the course of events troubled Adams, if from no other cause than his recognition of the sinful nature of man and the potential for evil that resided in all human action. “The people will have unbounded power,” Adams lamented to his wife on the eve of independence, “and the people are extremely addicted to corruption and venality, as well as the great.”[40] If “My Kinsman, Major Molineaux” anticipated the “unwarrantable Excesses” to come, then Adams would doubtless have recoiled in horror at Hawthorne’s vision of the discord and chaos into which the republic had fallen by the 1830s.[41]

For, like Adams, Hawthorne questioned the triumph of mind and the perfectibility of man. He, too, again like Adams, understood that the exaltation of mind and the affirmation of human perfectibility united in opposition to history and tradition, each of which imposed limits on human desire, ambition, and action. Freed from dependence on family, society, and church, Robin may have become his own man. But at the moment of his liberation, he was spiritually isolated from the community of men. The fate of another literary protagonist, Jay Gatsby, completes the American tragedy that Robin had begun. Gatsby embraced “the fresh, green breast of the new world.” He believed in the “enchanted moment” and the “orgiastic future,” which were, in reality, “already behind him, somewhere in that vast obscurity… where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.” Like Robin, a boat sailing “ against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” Gatsby is obliged to bear the weight of history alone.[42]

During the eighteenth century, many European thinkers agreed that Western Civilization had reached an impasse. Some, such Voltaire, Diderot, D’Alembert, and Condorcet, believed that the systematic accumulation of knowledge and the general advance of reason would bring the individual and society into harmonious perfection. Others, such as Rousseau, longed to reanimate the primitive and the instinctual. If only men could begin life anew, if only they could make a fresh start released from the bonds of civilization, they could write a new and glorious chapter in the history of the human race.

Contemplating the fate of man in the New World, Hawthorne came as close as any American writer of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries to equating historical consciousness with self-consciousness, exposing the boundaries of reality in the Modern Age.[43] Henceforth, Hawthorne implied, history would no longer be the unfolding of a continuous narrative linking past and present, but rather a disjointed , fragmented series of interior monologues and disparate mental constructs all equally affirming truth but all equally requiring interpretation, which in time would become so widely divergent as to approach incoherence. As a practical consequence, in the dynamic, egalitarian society of the nineteenth-century United States, men, rootless and solitary, were free to pursue their private visions and interests, to seek the main chance, even at the expense of the common good. They had little patience for distinctions between means and ends, intentions and consequences, right and wrong, good and evil.

Divorced from authority, autonomous individuals proved incapable of overcoming the ambiguity of their circumstances and of making consistently rational and moral judgments. All too often, Hawthorne intimated, they yield to the blandishments, impulses, and absurdities of public opinion, they embrace the passions of the moment, and they assert their wills by intimidation and force. These are not deliberative, virtuous citizens, but are instead a barbarous, predatory mob of the sort that had disgraced the unfortunate Major Molineaux. Demanding the right to be unreasonable, these lost souls have unwittingly placed themselves under the command and at the service of that consummate rationalist, Lucifer, the bearer of light, who beguiles with promises of freedom and illumination.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

[1] Charles Dickens, The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzelwit (Boston: Lothrop and Company, 1880; originally published in 1844), 423.

[2] For restatements of this idea, see Hugh Honour, The New Golden Land: European Images of America from the Discoveries to the Present Time (New York: Pantheon Books, 1975); Perry Miller, Errand into the Wilderness (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1964); Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1950); Ernest Lee Tuveson, Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968, 1980). For a brief but incisive analysis and critique of this tradition, see C. Vann Woodward, “The Fall of the American Adam,” The New Republic (December 2, 1981), 13-16.

[3] Philip Freneau and Hugh Henry Brackenridge, “A Poem on the Rising Glory of America,” in Fred Lewis Pattee, ed., The Poems of Philip Freneau (Princeton, NJ: The University Library, C.S. Robinson & Co. University Press, 1902), 82. The text is from the 1809 edition. Compare Genesis 3: 16-19. See also Edwin H. Cady, “Philip Freneau as Archetypal American Poet,” in Literature and Ideas in America: Essays in Memory of Harry Hayden Clark, ed. by Robert Falk (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1975), 1-19

[4] Patte, ed., The Poems of Philip Freneau, 83.

[5] Ibid., 82.

[6] Ibid., 82-83.

[7] R.W.B. Lewis, The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955), 5.

[8] D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (New York: Penguin Books, 1978), 9-11.

[9] Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, December 20, 1787, in The Republic of Letters: The Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, 1776-1826. Ed. by James Morton Smith (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995), Vol. 1, 514.

[10] Abraham Bishop, Oration, in honor of the Election of President Jefferson, and the Peaceable Acquisition of Louisiana (Hartford, CT, 1804), 4, 6.

[11] Quoted in Adrienne Koch, Jefferson and Madison: The Great Collaboration (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1950), 244-45.

[12] The Federalist Papers, ed. by Isaac Kramnick (New York: Penguin Books, 1987), 123.

[13] Ibid., 124.

[14] On the work and thought of Charles Brockden Brown , I have found particularly helpful Alan Axelrod, Charles Brocken Brown: An American Tale (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983); David Lee Clark, Charles Brocken Brown: Pioneer Voice of America (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1952); Norman S. Grabo, The Coincidental Art of Charles Brockden Brown (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981); Steven Watts, The Romance of Real Life: Charles Brockden Brown and the Origins of American Culture (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994).

[15] Charles Brockden Brown, Edgar Huntly Or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker (New York: Penguin Books, 1988), 193.

[16] Thomas Jefferson, “Query XIX: Manufactures” in Notes on the State of Virginia (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1972), 165.

[17] The Federalist Papers, 314, 315

[18] On Cooper, see George Dekker, James Fenimore Cooper: The American Scott (New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1967) and Lewis, The American Adam, 98-105.

[19] James Fenimore Cooper, The Deeslayer (New York: Bantam Books, 1982), 62.

[20] Ibid., 126.

[21] Ibid., 33.

[22] Ibid., 237-38.

[23] Ibid., 412, 39.

[24] Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature, 60. See also Lewis, The American Adam, 102-103.

[25] Cooper, The Deerslayer, 1.

[26] See Lewis, The American Adam, 100.

[27] Cooper, The Deerslayer, 235, 236.

[28] Ibid, 508.

[29] Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men (New York: Bantam Books, 1971), 438.

[30] On “My Kinsman, Major Molineaux,” see Robert Penn Warren, “Hawthorne Revisited: Some Remarks on Hellfiredness,” Sewanee Review 81 (Winter, 1973), 75-111.

[31] Nathaniel Hawthorne, “My Kinsman, Major Molineaux,” in Tales and Sketches (New York: Vintage Books/Library of America, 1982), 73.

[32] Ibid., 78.

[33] Ibid., 80.

[34] Ibid., 78.

[35] Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature, 27.

[36] Hawthorne, “My Kinsman, Major Molineaux,” 84.

[37] Ibid., 85.

[38] John Adams to Hezekiah Niles, February 13, 1818 in An American Primer, ed. by Daniel J. Boorstin (New York: Meridian Classic, 1966), 248-49.

[39] Ibid., 249.

[40] John Adams to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776 in The American Enlightenment, ed. by Adrienne Koch (New York: George Braziller, 1965), 186.

[41] Adams to Niles, in An American Primer, 53.

[42] F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925), 227-28.

[43] The relation between the rise of historical consciousness and the emergence of self-consciousness has been a major concern in the scholarship of John Lukacs. I draw freely on his analysis. For a brief statement of Lukacs’s fundamental argument, see Historical Consciousness: The Remembered Past (New Brunswick, NJ: Transactions Publishers, 1994), 13-16.

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  1. This piece is both insightful and unsettling. Sadly, the unencumbered, autonomous individual is the current age’s notion of true liberation. Ties to other people, institutions, and, especially, the past, are nothing but instruments of oppression.

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