Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Altruist Moral Cast of Early American Novels

After a hiatus from my columns, one enforced by the necessity of writing, without distraction, my latest Cyrus Skeen mystery novel, Silver Screens, set in the Hollywood milieu (but not in Hollywood itself), it is appropriate that I return with the review of a book about the early American novel, Philip F. Gura’s Truth’s Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel, which traces the beginnings of the literary form in this country and discusses its largely religious nature and later anti-American nature. He covers roughly the century just prior to the American Revolution up to the mid- to late 19th century.

Gura discusses such better known novelists as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, and reveals that they, too, experimented with, if not endorsed, the kind of “self-fulfillment” dramatized by their lesser known colleagues in the realm of fiction. Many of the novelists Gura discusses aren’t even on Wikipedia’s list of known 19th century writers.

All novels are “morality tales” of one kind or another, including Silver Screens. The difference, however, between Silver Screens and virtually every novel discussed by Gura is that the morality in Silver Screens is integrated with the action, whereas the morality and action in these early novels are rarely integrated and are paragons of what novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand called the soul-body dichotomy. That is, the morality is not reason-based and so is at odds with man’s nature and with reality itself.

First, let’s establish some context. Most of the novels Gura discusses can be categorized as “popular” literature. Novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand wrote about such novels:

 Popular literature is fiction that does not deal with abstract problems; it takes moral principles as the given, accepting certain generalized, common-sense ideas and values as its base. (Common-sense values and conventional values are not the same thing; the first can be justified rationally, the second cannot. Even though the second may include some of the first, they are justified, not on the ground of reason, but on the ground of social conformity.)

Popular fiction does not raise or answer abstract questions; it assumes that man knows what he needs to know in order to live, and it proceeds to show his adventures in living (which is one of the reasons for its popularity among all types of readers, including the problem-laden intellectuals). The distinctive characteristic of popular fiction is the absence of an explicitly ideational element, of the intent to convey intellectual information (or misinformation).

Most of the novels discussed by Gura, who offers informative synopses of scores of them, together with the backgrounds of their authors, strike me as extended, highly convoluted morality tales that stress self-sacrifice and moral improvement vis-à-vis Christian morality. One value of Gura’s opus is that he documents the transition from Christian morality tales to collectivist, social morality tales. For example, of Catherine Maria Sedgwick’s A New England Tale (1822), Gura writes:

A New England Tale’s heroine, Jane Elton…embodies disinterested benevolence. The novel’s message is that no matter what one’s station in life, moderation, honesty, and sympathy, not blind allegiance to heartless doctrine, are the foundation of a religious life. With more and more of her countrymen rejecting religion that cast the individual as a helpless, lost soul, they easily could fall into the snare of selfishness. Liberal denominations like Unitarianism offered an alternative, a life defined by a self-empowerment held in check through a concern for catholic moral virtue. A New England Tale spoke to a readership that increasingly turned to this sort of literature for guidance in navigating a society in which selfishness seemed not only justifiable but the only sensible ethic. Sedgwick reassured readers of the rightness of simple Christian goodness during a time when old pieties were breaking against shoals of individualism. (p. 51)

Jane Elton rejects the marriage proposal of a successful attorney (Edward Erskine) because he wasn’t sufficiently selfless in his court cases, and because he refused to support reform of the state’s poor laws.

To most of her contemporaries, Erskine would be a prize husband, but Jane rejects him for his lack of Christian virtue….Her patience and principles bring her the spouse she deserves. Thus, Sedgwick implied that religious and social pretension can be combated by faith….Happy endings for fictional heroines are possible despite dismal ends The Coquette and similar novels presented as inevitable. (p.53)

I rarely resort to Biblical quotations. Here is an exception to my rule:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. (Proverbs 3:5-6)

This is applicable to not only Christians seeking a pseudo-individualism, or a “self-fulfillment” by submitting to a “higher authority” and leading a “virtuous” by psychologically harmful life, but also to the Progressive/collectivist philosophy, in which individuals must not “lean on their own understanding,” but suspend their minds, ignore the evidence of their senses, and have faith in the chimerical morality and feasibility of collectivism.

Gura describes the trope of another Sedgwick novel, Clarence (1830). It dwells on the same theme, that earthly happiness is a false alternative.

The novel’s heroine is Gertrude Clarence, a natural target for speculating single men. But unlike other characters, she questions the endless pursuit of wealth and the consumerism and instead tries to persuade the rich to use their money for good causes. Clarence thus takes up the debate over disinterested benevolence and civic republicanism that characterizes religious and political debate. Sedgwick realized that wealth did not mean happiness; a contrarian view in 1830. The rich in her book languish in boredom, cynicism, or worse. Sedgwick was no Thoreau, bellowing against the economic system itself. Rather, she condemned those who value money excessively and mindlessly subscribe to the notion that goods make the man. (p. 60)

Reading through Gura’s study, one can observe the creep of altruism into political and social realms in American literature, gradually metamorphosing from the travails of women (and of some men) to the travails of society, of the poor, of the “disadvantage” under capitalism.

Most of the novels, states Gura, are obscure, little known to the public, discussed chiefly by authorities on the fiction of the past. Many of them were, nonetheless, popular and even successful. They were “bodice rippers” or “potboilers” overlaid with enervating Christian moralizing.

It was inevitable that, in the absence of a fully rational philosophy of egoism and individualism, the Christian moral code that dominated American literature would logically evolve, by the end of the 19th century, into a Progressive, collectivist moral code. The compartmentalized rational aspect of American philosophy, the political philosophy that made the American Revolution possible, had to give way to the irrational Christian aspect, with which the rational attempted to ally itself. One could not have one’s individualism and self-sacrifice to God, to the “community’ or to the public good, at the same time.

As Christian morality, regardless of the denomination, placed a value on individual salvation and on the free will to achieve it, the secular version of it that dominated American literature stressed an individualism close to the Transcendental notion of self-worth by surrendering one’s ego to the “greater good.” Transcendentalism was the chimerical hair shirt that these novels recommended Americans should wear for the good of themselves and for the nation. The individualism preached by most of the authors was, incredibly, a “selfless” species of individualism.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, who together with Thoreau and other prominent writers of the time, opposed business and the industrialization of the country, himself provided a fairly open definition in his 1842 essay “The Transcendentalist”:

"The Transcendentalist adopts the whole connection of spiritual doctrine. He believes in miracle, in the perpetual openness of the human mind to new influx of light and power; he believes in inspiration, and in ecstasy. He wishes that the spiritual principle should be suffered to demonstrate itself to the end, in all possible applications to the state of man, without the admission of anything unspiritual; that is, anything positive, dogmatic, personal. Thus, the spiritual measure of inspiration is the depth of the thought, and never, who said it? And so he resists all attempts to palm other rules and measures on the spirit than its own."

The Christian writers who used their literary works to advocate the “reform” of society and of men, provided grist for their successors in the literary realm to become activists and Progressive reformers. The American literary corpus of the first half of the 19th century largely was what latter crusaders for social and political change cut their teeth on.

In pursuit of virtue, the protagonists of these novels achieve little else but misery or death, social ostracism, or degradation. There are few “happy endings” in any of the novels discussed by Gura. The virtue seekers invariably meet their end by committing suicide, or murder, or descend into madness.

Another popular novelist of the early 19th century discussed by Gura was George Lippard. This author, in his “genre-breaking” works, railed against the evils of city life, and specifically against capitalism. Among his most successful and lurid novels was The Quaker City (1845), which “exposed” the depredations and criminal character of Philadelphia’s “elite” moneyed class in a fictive institution called “Monk Hall.” About the political and literary character of Lippard’s best-known works, Gura writes:

He exposes the irrational core in every person and shows that liberty and individualism lead to immorality and sin as much as they do to happiness. If people are in thrall to powerful subliminal forces beyond their control, the very foundations of American life begin to tremble. Absent a strong political or religious authority to govern society and morality, uncertainty, ambivalence, and even chaos ensue….(p. 88)

…His novels challenged the immensely popular domestic fiction typified by {Catherine} Sedgwick’s later works. He subverted standard plot devices and characters prevalent in sentimental writing, shocking readers with depictions of violence, perversion, and pornography. His heroines, unlike those in domestic fiction, act irrationally and without regard for Christian humility. (p. 91)

The novels, because they portrayed individuals in pursuit of a “transcendental” Christian virtue in conflict with their desires (chiefly sexual), were popular because they appealed to the prurient interests of their readers. They were read for their “dirty” scenes, e.g., of young women seeking perfect marriages with handsome young rakes or opportunists after their money or fortune, and consequently “falling from grace” by allowing themselves to be seduced, and then either being abandoned by their paramours and dying, or committing suicide. Foolish or ill-advised trysts invariably led to tragedy. Some of these novels, Gura relates, are heavily influenced by Gothic romances that were introduced from Europe. Other novels are picaresque in nature, featuring a protagonist stumbling hither and yon in search of “virtue.”

One can compare these “potboilers” and “bodice rippers,” in terms of contents, events, and denouements, with the currently popular Fifty Shades trilogy (of Grey, of Darker, of Free), by British writer E.L. James. That trilogy, therefore, is nothing new and there is nothing original in or about it. Only the pious language is missing. In it, a young woman also seeks a perfect relationship with a man who requires that she submit to sadism/masochism (BDSM).  In the box-office record-breaking film, the woman leaves the man (a billionaire). By the end of James’s trilogy, however, she has converted the man into “normal” person who desires a normal relationship. They have children and settle down.

Gura devotes many pages to discussing Nathaniel Hawthorne’s lesser known novel, The Blithedale Romance (1852), set in a socialist commune, and how its characters are not quite good enough or ready to make such a social arrangement work. The two male protagonists, Coverdale and Hollingsworth, members of the group, are depicted as being fascinated and attracted to the “free spirit” of a woman named Zenobia, a wealthy, beautiful, and sexually “liberated” member, but fall for the safer, fragile “purity” of Priscilla.

Another constant “trope” of these novels was the living conditions of the poor, and how these oppressive conditions led to the spiritual debasement of the “disadvantaged.” It was the implied duty of the virtue searchers to concern themselves with such matters.

I don’t envy Gura for having had to read many of these novels. They would put me to sleep five pages into any one of them. His synopses, concise and well-written as they are, whether about the obscure or famous novelists, such as Hawthorne and Melville, caused me to nod off more than once.

Truth’s Ragged Edges is a tedious chore to read, but it is nevertheless an important work in that it chronicles the not so obvious relationship between religious ardor and concerns for the self-salvation of the individual and the collectivist commands to “improve” oneself by submitting to the imperatives of the “community” or the state. Gura has an uncritical view of this transition; his approach to the problem hovers near politically neutral psychoanalysis. Gura writes, unaware that Rand identified a problem that haunts these early novels, as one of a soul-body dichotomy:

American novelists in the first half of the nineteenth century…produced remarkable, and remarkably complex, fiction. But the harsh truth is that even after the cataclysm of the Civil War, the United States remained unique among countries in a schizophrenic emphasis on the individual and his feelings as well as on the commonwealth and one’s obligations to it.  (p. 280)

Truth's Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel, by Philip F. Gura. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2013. 330 pp.

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