- The Last Puritan: A Memoir in the Form of a Novel
In 1936, Irwin Edman reviewed The Last Puritan for the New York Times. It was a sympathetic review. However, Edman was not blind to the novel’s fundamental weakness: it is driven by ideas, “essences,” rather than characters, ones you might hate or love: “. . . this is a poet’s novel and philosopher’s tale. . . . If the characters do not come to life, they live as themes dramatized and as ‘human persuasions.’”
This year Harold Bloom wrote in The Western Canon that canonical works are those works which deserve re-reading. As a novel, The Last Puritan does not deserve re-reading, as Tom Jones, The Trial, or Huckleberry Finn, do. But as a philosophy “not argued but presented as a picture” (Edman), The Last Puritan may be among Santayana’s best works. Yes, one reads and re-reads The Last Puritan because one wants to know the ideas of America’s great philosophical poet. Without the philosophy to support the novel, I am not sure it would have a reason for being. One is not interested per se in Santayana’s plot or characters, their friendships and failures, Oliver and Jim, their deaths, or Mario, his paganism and love of life. Rather one wants to be enchanted by [End Page 186] Santayana’s poetic voice; one wants to know what Santayana thinks about the play of spirit and matter and how “the genteel tradition” had so much promise and yet had gone bad. And these are, indeed, in principle, the very same reasons why one reads and rereads Plato, Lucretius, or Dante.
The critical edition, put together by Saatkamp and Holzberger, with an introduction by Irving Singer, is a first-class piece of work. It is everything a Santayana scholar would want or need. Singer’s introduction provides the reader with a sound and well-researched background on Santayana and Oliver’s story, and anticipates some problems of aesthetics the reader will face, e.g., the problem of character development. Unlike me, Singer thinks Santayana’s “idealizations” bring vitality to character: “Far from being desiccated types, the great characters in fiction give one a sense of individuality that often seems more natural to us than what is found in nature itself” (p. xix). Notwithstanding my disagreement with Singer, his presentation is well thought-out and plausible.
The “Editorial Appendix,” written by Saatkamp and Holzberger, is impeccable. In the “Notes to the Text” they provide the scholar or the curious reader with a marvelous wealth of information. They run down and support with convincing evidence every allusion in the novel. In the “Textual Commentary,” they provide a statement of textual principles and procedures, a description and development of the text, and an explanation of how the critical text was established; in effect, after one has read the product, one can then read about the process by which the product was brought about. Naturally, there are also lists of emendations and variants.
As a philosophical novel, I recommend The Last Puritan to anyone who believes that “. . . what the realm of essence, in its mute eternity, chiefly adds to our notion of nature is the proof that nature is contingent. An infinite canvas is spread before us on which any world might have been painted. The actuality of things is sharpened and the possibilities of things are enlarged. We cease to be surprised or distressed at finding existence unstable and transitory. Why should it have been otherwise? Not only must our own lives be insecure, as earthly seasons change, but perhaps all existence is in flux, even down to its first principles. Dum vivimus, vivamus. Everything, so long as it recognizably endures, is free to deploy its accidental nature, and we may lead the life of reason with a good grace, harmonizing as well as possible our various impulses and opportunities, and exploring the realm of essence as our genius may prompt” (Santayana, “A General Confession...