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American Literary History 15.3 (2003) 443-470

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Orestes Brownson in Young America:
Popular Books and the Fate of Catholic Criticism

James Emmett Ryan

Nor is it true that the general tendency of art, or aesthetic culture, is to liberate the mind. The panders to vice know very well that art is one of the most effectual means of enchaining their victims, and do not fail to enlist architecture, poetry, music, painting, sculpture, in their service... and we may lay it down as an invariable rule, that art uniformly tends to corrupt, when not preceded and accompanied by high spiritual, or moral and religious culture.

Orestes Brownson, "Schiller's Aesthetic Theory"

The intensity with which the brash concept of American "manifest destiny" was joined by a correspondingly fervent drive for the development of "Young American" literature may be registered at numerous junctures in the antebellum literary archive but nowhere more bitterly than in Herman Melville's scathing chapters on the subject in Pierre; or, the Ambiguities (1852). Late in that novel, upon his arrival in New York City, the ingenuous and ill-fated protagonist, Pierre Glendinning, discovers the ruthless market forces and shallow literary talents at work in harnessing a powerful—and lucrative—public desire for reading. An amalgam of postcolonial striving and the newly transformed business of publishing, this desire appeared frequently during the mid nineteenth century as an urge toward new texts able to imagine and articulate the full flower of American political and cultural identity. For example, already disowned by his wealthy mother and faced with an impoverished life in New York City with his half-sister and lover, Isabel, Melville's fictional Pierre sets forth idealistically to make his name as a Young American professional author only to encounter grave difficulties in reconciling his own lofty ideas with the unrelenting crassness of a profit-driven literary [End Page 443] marketplace. Pierre's failure to align his views with the practical demands of this prevailing theme in antebellum literary circles—the idea of an immensely gifted and youthful nation on the cusp of a cultural power so profound as to require new modes of literary representation—figures not only as a part of his tragic decline in Melville's novel but also as a more general reminder of the imaginative energy that Young America embodied for a generation of media-savvy antebellum writers and reformers of all kinds. 1

Along with its significant pressurization of authorship in the US, I argue that the concept of Young America also found its way into antebellum religious debates, particularly those advanced by Orestes A. Brownson, a former leading transcendentalist, sometime colleague of Emerson and Thoreau, and the preeminent American Catholic literary and cultural critic of the antebellum years. 2 In Brownson's essays during the middle decades of the nineteenth century (most of them published in the Boston Quarterly Review and Brownson's Quarterly Review), Young America metamorphoses from a nationalistic politico-literary stance into aflexible weapon of religious cultural critique. "Young America," rather than signifying political idealism and literary innovation (however misguided that innovation might have appeared to bitter skeptics like Melville), instead became an epithet suggesting the naiveté and shallowness of American social mores and cultural production that obstruct the development of American religion. In particular, Brownson's polemic against Young America comes to indicate an array of obstacles to the implementation of a distinctively new form of American Catholicism: family disruption, resistance to authority of all kinds, salaciousness in popular fiction, and so on. Above all, however, Brownson's project of dismissing Young America as a misguided and immoral set of social trends lays the blame for cultural problems in the nineteenth century squarely upon the shoulders of women, especially on what he perceived as their tendency to "feminize" (and thus to weaken and debase) American literary practices and social habits that he saw as requiring the necessarily "masculine" force of Roman Catholic principles.

1. "A Passive and Obedient Creature, the Reading Public"

Unsurprisingly, the urgency felt by those who promoted the...


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