What’s American about American literature? What does it have to tell us about the hungers, the paranoias and the ideals of the people who called themselves Americans and the literature they created around that protean concept? In this four-part series, I tackle these questions via some of the crucial American authors, starting with Hawthorne, Emerson, Melville, and Dickinson. You might sense your kinship to these authors’ visions, seeing yourself in the sublime Ahab, the tragedy-tempered Hester Prynne, the flamboyant Jesus-like sufferer in Dickinson’s poems, or Emerson’s stalwart and risky self-reliant soul. Or you might want to keep a polite viewing distance from this portrait gallery of rogue American selves. God bless you either way. This is an attempt to describe what was, which may or may not have any bearing on how the America of 2022 chooses to define itself. One of the quintessential American moves is the abrupt and often violent break with the past, which as every good American reader knows is never actually past—according to Barack Obama, paraphrasing William Faulkner.
“The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted,” D.H. Lawrence declared in his book on classic American literature. He was on to something, for sure. All those grand stony unforgiving hero-villains, from Melville’s Ahab to Cormac McCarthy’s Judge Holden, speak to something acid and violent in the American psyche. Turn to movies, TV, and pulp fiction, and Lawrence’s idea rings even truer. We are addicted to menacing, hardboiled types-- the westerner, the gangster, the drifter.
But not all American souls are loners or lethal desperados. Lawrence missed some main features of the nation’s dream life. We are the inheritors of the Puritan anxiety about sin. We watch over ourselves, searching for faults, and ache to prove our virtue, sometimes by being hate-mongering bigots. America’s most vital primal sin arguably occurred not in 1619 or 1620 but in 1692, the year of the Salem Witch trials. Now, with cancel culture persecutions at peak frenzy, the Puritan superego as hanging judge rides again.
Americans are not merely anxious neo-Puritan conformists. We are also reckless, a nation primed for ecstasy. We love going for broke, hitting bottom, getting wrecked so we can be reborn. We claim to walk with Jesus and to know the will of God. Such secret divine knowledge, which Harold Bloom called post-Christian, may come from speaking in tongues or being born again, from snake handling, rocketing to heaven in Ezekiel’s chariot, voyaging through reincarnation, or being probed by aliens. The New Age, now well past forty years old, which has churned out fads like pyramid power and past-life regression, also supplies regimes of meditation that promise to find the divine spark within.
So many of our faith cults wish to make the self godlike. Such crazy daring rather surprisingly derives from an aspect of Puritanism thrust into overdrive. Yes, the Puritans were scowling and stringent, but there was a freeing side to their doctrine too. They dared to suggest that evil is merely the distance between man and God, and that to come closer to God is the answer to human misery. The fierce Jonathan Edwards, harrower of souls, sounds at times like a mild New Age yogi when he writes,
“Holiness...appeared to me to be of a sweet, pleasant, charming, serene, calm nature; which brought an inexpressible purity, brightness, peacefulness, and ravishment to the soul...it made the soul like a field of garden of God, with all manner of pleasant flowers...” Edwards’ wife Sarah had an outer body experience, feeling herself inundated by “a constant flowing and reflowing of heavenly love, and I appeared myself to float or swim, in these bright, sweet beams...it was pleasure, without the least sting, or any interruption. It was a sweetness, which my soul was lost in...”
The Puritans compressed all time into a single great Now, the moment of salvation, and suggested that God and the self can reach ecstatic oneness. They warned against reducing God to the self’s impulses, since this would be mere enthusiasm, not true belief. That warning was difficult to heed. The mystic vitalist Anne Hutchinson, banished from Massachusetts, set out for the promised land of Rhode Island in 1638, still insisting that the soul, riding waves of euphoria, can be instantly fused with God.
Ecstatic passion, which tips over easily into heathenish burning, is the other side of the Puritan wish to awaken to God. Religious ecstasy longs for rebirth—to become who you really are—and so the conventional self loses its identity. At Gasper River and Cane Ridge, Tennessee, in 1801, virginal women spent the night in tumultuous sex with strange men in whom they saw the voice and face of Christ. Many of the men and women who attended these early camp meetings suffered hours-long bouts of “the jerks,” their heads and limbs twitching spasmodically. The masses of souls, under the whip of spirit possession, swelled into an orgiastic rumpus.
Hawthorne’s masterwork The Scarlet Letter forever sums up the Puritan legacy. Hawthorne created a trio of indelible characters: Hester Prynne, stigmatized by the burning letter A on her breast; Chillingworth, her dessicated old husband, a barren detective of sin; and Dimmesdale, the young minister, Hester’s lover, who is trapped in an agony of conscience. At the end of Hawthorne’s book Hester, living out her “toilsome, thoughtful, and self-devoted years,” suggests to the women of New England that in time “a new truth would be revealed,” one that would “establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness.”
Waiting not on God but on herself, Hester presages the feminist heroines in novels by Cather, James, Wharton, and Morrison, and her tentativeness abets her independence. Hester finds a third way, more refined and forward-looking than either ecstatic sexual meltdown or the neutered censoriousness of the Puritan superego. She muses on her experience, a fledgling artist of selfhood--and she glimpses a congenial, liberal-minded future for men and women, in line with Hawthorne’s own mellow instincts about marriage.
Unlike Kafka, Hawthorne was happily married, but the two authors share the sense of being cast off from the usual world. Already in 1837 Hawthorne wrote to Longfellow, “By some witchcraft or other—for I really cannot assign any reasonable why and wherefore—I have been carried away from the main current of life, and find it impossible to get back again.” Even his own characters seem to elude him at times, too remote to be rescued by the author’s imagination. “Hawthorne knows, he seems to know, because to him the activity of the soul is not complicated; it is just fatally deep. Everything counts, everything tells,” the critic Alfred Kazin wrote. Hawthorne’s stories are fable-like miniatures in which all is fated.
Here is a brief cento from Hawthorne’s somber and gleaming notebook jottings for stories that he never wrote:
In a dream to wander to some place where may be heard the complaints of all the miserable on earth.
To think, as the sun goes down, what events have happened in the course of the day—events of ordinary occurrence: as, the clocks have struck, the dead have been buried.
A very fanciful person, when dead, to have his burial in a cloud.
To have ice in one’s blood.
A bonfire to be made of the gallows and of all symbols of evil.
These uncanny microfictions are just as memorable as the best of Hawthorne’s stories. I picture them behind glass, in a quiet uncanny alcove of the imagination. Hawthorne peopled his fictional world with tinkertoys, scarecrows, and witches, magicians and maidens. His minor-key fantasies speak to an uncanny hidden side of the American soul.
The bashful and reticent Hawthorne mostly avoided Emerson, who plagued him with banter when they took an hours-long walk together in 1842. Yet Emerson, for any American author—or reader—cannot be escaped. Emerson’s sublime thought is that God is the self’s confidant, speaking surely to each of us. Emerson’s emphasis comes from the Puritans, who by the 1630s, Andrew Delbanco writes, were already warning against the deadening effects of a business-minded worldly life, which stops us from hearkening to the word of God.
A tortoise-like conformity, which has its slogans and opinions by rote, and will never say or think anything new, blighted America in Emerson’s day, as it does in ours. Anti-conformity is Emerson’s creed, as he preaches against the prefabricated pseudo-ideas that swirl around us. There’s no better gospel for an American who wants to resist conformity than Emerson’s great essay “Self-Reliance.”
“As self means Devil so it means God,” Emerson ventured in his Journal, and in “Self-Reliance” he remembers his rude boyish answer to an elder who feared that Emerson’s inner impulses might be evil rather than good. “They do not seem to me to be such,” said Emerson, “but If I am the Devil’s child, let me live then from the Devil.” Such brio is not cavalier but earnestly meant.
Emerson warns against sentimental domestic comforts. When spurred by our personal genius, we must shun family and choose a hard-edged mood, the solitary imagination:
Your goodness must have some edge to it—else it is none. The doctrine of hatred must be preached as the counteraction of the doctrine of love when that pules and whines. I shun father and mother and wife and brother when my genius calls me. I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation.
Emerson’s homemade mezuzah contains his equivalent of the shma. Whim is confidential and aspiring, the secret thought written on his door-post. Whim may be seriously creative, leading to world-changing consequences, or it may sputter out. We cannot worry about that—we must follow the bold hint.
Selfhood shoots out from us in sudden and unpredictable ways that cannot be justified in advance. When Emerson says “the doctrine of hatred” he means true antagonism, not the back-biting and sniping of today’s Twitter feeds. In “Self-Reliance” he goes on to give an example of such healthy hatred:
Then again, do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor?
Here Emerson channels Jesus; his disciples upbraid the woman who anoints him, and tell her she ought to have given money to the poor instead. Jesus sides with himself against his charitable disciples: “For ye have the poor always with you, but me ye have not always.” Self-reliance tells you to put yourself in the place of Matthew’s Jesus, at the spiritual center, instead of yielding to the do-gooder’s demand to give yourself to every worthy cause. Otherwise, there will be no genuine you left.
Denouncing the Fugitive Slave Law, Emerson thundered,
This man who has run the gauntlet of a thousand miles for his freedom, the statute says, you men of Massachusets shall hunt, and catch, and send back again to the dog-hutch he fled from. And this filthy enactment was made in the nineteenth century, by people who could read and write. I will not obey it, by God.
The apocalyptic tone in Emerson, so magnificent here, is always allied to his high moral sense. Not so in Melville, who archly sling-shotted the Concord sage with his remark, “Nay, I do not oscillate in Emerson’s rainbow.” Melville saw an immense darkness in the whiteness of the whale, and in Ahab’s doom-eager soul. Here is Ahab, from Chapter 36 of Moby-Dick:
Hark ye yet again—the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. ...Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.
Melville dangerously endorses Ahab’s thrust through the mask, which destroys himself and his crew. The captain, his men, the whale, and the cosmos, all are tested to the utmost. Infused with sublime hate, insatiable, and godlike in his ferocity, Ahab is the insolent American quester who finds the truth in ruin. Going down in metaphysical glory, he pulls everything and everyone else with him. We still gravitate toward his violent heroism, which stands behind so much of the American urge to find what is revealed within destruction. Frontier isolation, murder, war, and the reckless courting of disaster are signs of authenticity for Americans, necessary elements in a search for what is true.
Emily Dickinson was just as unbending and savage in her poems as Melville was in his prose. Her life, too, turns out to have been racier than many readers have thought. In 1882 Susan Dickinson, Emily’s sister-in-law, warned a friend that the single Dickinson sisters, Emily and Lavinia, “have not, either of them, any idea of morality.” Susan reports she had glimpsed Emily in the drawing-room “reclining in the arms of a man.” A recently unearthed photograph of Emily and Lavinia from 1859 shows the great poet bearing a sardonic, knowing, even salacious smile, a far cry from the well-known photo of Dickinson that adorns so many editions of her poems, where she appears prim and a tad shell-shocked. Dickinson had a college fiancé named George Gould, and her three mysterious and masochistic “Master Letters” are probably addressed to him.
Dickinson’s violently erotic poems played with fire, as did her sacrilegious takes on Christian lore, especially the crucifixion.
At Mt. Holyoke Dickinson was a religious skeptic, unable to feel her schoolmates’ Christian fervor. Instead she took over the Christian myth and made it her own, putting herself into the starring role, that of the suffering savior. Emily-as-Jesus is a quester, her agony a reef on which she is broken. Her claim to glorious suffering flirts with blasphemy in this flagrant lyric from 1862 (“I should have been too glad, I see”):
That scalding one – Sabacthini –
Recited fluent – here –
Earth would have been too
much – I see –
And Heaven – not enough
for me –
I should have had the Joy
Without the Fear – to justify –
The Palm – without the Calvary –
So Savior – Crucify –
Defeat whets Victory – they
The Reefs in Old Gethsemane
Endear the shore beyond –
‘Tis Beggars – Banquets
best define –
‘Tis Thirsting – vitalizes Wine –
Faith bleats [faints?] to understand
This is the American ecstatic, hungry for more, and announcing to earth and heaven that “Defeat whets Victory,” even the catastrophic defeat of crucifixion, here seen in scalding personal terms. The visionary self needs to pass through agony, instead of merely expressing wild hope. Without suffering, Emily’s passion for the shore beyond, the vitalizing rebirth that beckons to her, would not have enough heft.
Dickinson threads the needle between the Puritan worry about the self’s inadequacy and another side of Puritanism, the passionate apotheosis that led to the second Great Awakening. Taking over religion for poetic purpose, she gives her vision stamina and enigmatic strength.
America has always been a nation of inspired oddballs, ravenous idealists, self-appointed prophets, and fantastic-minded barbarians. Making our visions substantial rather than too crazily personal, or sentimental and sloganeering, or merely wild-eyed—this is still the American task. Our American authors contain the toolkit for this project.