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M A X W E S T B R O O K University of Texas The Practical Spirit: Sacrality and the American West* The American people are committed to a belief in spirit.1 From the Puritans to the S.D.S., from the vision of Thomas Jeffer­ son to the grace of John Kennedy, from expansion in the West to the expansion of General Motors, and even in its steady devotion to material goods America has believed that the democratic ex­ periment must count for something more than money, must be based on a value of spirit and not of flesh. We do talk a great deal about sex and money and facts, and in practice our devotion to the spiritual may come closer to betrayal than to devotion; but our most characteristic values—as illustrated by the ideals of the Constitution—suggest a faith in some reality more permanent than the objects and triumphs of the temporal world. An American spirit, of course, cannot long deny the flesh, the commercial, the efficient world. We believe in ideals but not •This paper was delivered at the annual meeting of the Western Literature Association in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in October 1967. xFor a distinguished essay on the subject, see W illiam G. McLoughlin, “Pietism and the American Character,” American Quarterly, XVII (Summer, 1965), pp. 163-186. Further support is found, from a wide variety of approaches and in a wide variety of topics, in Joseph J. Kwiat and Mary C. Turpie, eds., Studies in American Culture (Minneapolis, 1960), U ni­ versity of Minnesota Press; see especially John W. W ard’s “The Meaning of Lindbergh’s F light/’ pp. 27-40. 194 Western American Literature in the idealized; verbal slashing of the Protestant Ethic is a favorite American sport, but we still want virtue to have its material rewards. Herein lies an old and frequently-analyzed paradox. In the minds of most Americans, the spiritual and the practical are an­ tagonistic to one another. We tend in fact to associate the spiritual with an impractical and unrealistic type of romanticism, with escapism. When an American dares to speak out for the spiritual values he wants to believe in (and in his own curious way does believe in), he must immediately hide behind patriotism, or make a joke, or break a rule of grammar: he must do something to take the taint off, something to make certain no one can accuse him of being impractically spiritual, unrealistic about sex and money and facts. With the New Left, the favorite device is the obscene, the four-letter word as instant magic to scare away anyone who might accuse the advocate of love of being unrealistic. An­ other favorite device, common to a variety of parties, is the firm citation of economic facts. We apologize, in short, for our belief in values of the spirit; and the apology short-circuits our pathetic attempt to believe in permanent values. Let this not be miscon­ strued (I am putting in my own taint-remover) as an attack on the practical; my point is that we gain little energy from a spirit we are ashamed to have in the house unless it is properly disguised and disgraced. Our conscious minds are often aware of this cultural awk­ wardness, and our unconscious minds are aware of it constantly; but we would fain put the blame on someone else, and the favorite scapegoat (rivalled only by the aristocrat and the intellectual) is the Puritan. This little gambit, at bottom, is one of the most de­ ceptive fictions of our phychological history. The Puritan has played his part in our cultural schizophrenia, but not in his over­ punished and inaccurately represented fear of the practical flesh. It is true that our founding fathers also founded the paradox. It was the Puritan who took the first steps in our continuing effort to bring the eternal into the fold of individual man’s concept of democratic justice. In our obsessive rebellion against the Puritan, however, we forget that he was himself a rebel, an honest if bigoted rebel, and that our awareness of his failure does not mean that we are...


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