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The CanadianReview of American Studies, Volume 12,No. 2, Fall 1981··Knit of Identity": Defining the American Self \farthaBanta.Failure and Success in America. Princeton: PrincetonUniversity Press, 1979. 51><~ pp. Sam B.Girgus.The Law of the Hea,:t: Indil'idualism and the Mo1em S~lf Ill. 4.merican Literature. Austm: University ~,fTexas Press,1979.180pp. James E.Miller, Jr. The American Quest for theSup1eme Fiction: Whitman:~ Legacy in the Persc'lal Epic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1979. 360+xvi pp. Lorelei Cederstrom While strikinglydifferent from one another in terms of theme, critical approach and style,these three recent works of literary criticism are surprisingly similar, foreachquestions the nature of the American self, and each turns to the American Transcendentalists for the most convincing of its answers. This is notwithout precedent for, within the last ten years, students of American literature have become preoccupied with the nature of the self. While many recent critical analyses have focused upon the inturned, unhealthy self, the criticsunder review here represent a movement in the other direction, a movement toward an optimistic view of the self derived mainly from Whitman andEmerson. In this connection, there has been a reasessment of the works ofWilliamJames, for his unique approach to psychology, philosophy and religion allows for a synthesis between reason and intuition not found elsewhere . Thus, after domination for more than fifty years by the Eliot/Pound "culture" poets, who protect the self from disintegration by surrounding it with tradition, literary critics are returning to Whitman and the ''barbarian" peots who sing of the intuited wholenes of the healthy self. InTheLaw of the Heart, Sam Girgus is interested in the political relationshipsof the healthy self. He counters the inward-turning perverted self describedby Hegel in Phenomenology of the Mind with a self capable of maintaining an active relationship to a democratic society. Placing literary 236 Lorelei Cederstrom figures on one side or the other of Hegel's law of the heart, Girgus traces both the positive democratic individualism of the Transcendentalists,Henrv and William James, Howells and Fitzgerald, as well as the defensive image;[ the self in such figures as Cooper, Poe and Charles Ives. In each case, Girgus explores the complexities of the relationship between the individual, theself and society. Girgus begins, apropriately, with a re-examination of the archetypal American Adam described by R. W B. Lewis. Girgus, like Lukacs, to whomhe refers, is concerned with the foundations upon which the freedom ofthe individualistic Adam rests. Girgus feels that a freedom "based so thoroughh upon personal proclivities" inevitably turns "from a dream of paradise into~ nightmare of emotional and psychological deprivations" (p. 22). The Adam is committed to personal freedom yet he has no means to protect or preserve such freedom, for he is denied social relationships by his very definitionof freedom. Girgus believes that it is.essential to find a democratic viewwhich can integrate the ambiguities about freedom and end the law of the heartin the American Adam, for, without a commitment to a democratic individualism , the present deterioration of both culture and self will continue. Girgus begins his examination of individual authors with Poe who demonstrates the law of the heart, and is presented as an example of a modeof political action that is coming to the foreground in our society- namely, schizoid withdrawal. Girgus finds Poe lacking in what Lionel Trillinghas termed "moral realism" and tragedy, "the need to deal with the void while accepting responsibility for one's involvement in reality and experience" (p. 36). In spite of the fact that Girgus has drawn some valid conclusions about Poe's attitude toward the individual and society, this chapter adds little that is new to Poe criticism. The analysis focuses on a single work, "The Fall of the House of Usher,"and explicates that work in relation to R. D. Laing's The Divided Self Laing is only the first of the ''fad" figuresin Girgus' book. In each chapter, he links a contemporary social critic witha standard American writer. In addition to Poe/Lai rig, we find Whitman jux· taposed with Norman 0. Brown, Howells with Herbert Marcuse, and Fitzgerald with Jean Paul Sartre. This adds some depth to what could have become a very limited thesis, but it does not always illuminate the texts in question. Returning to the book, Poe's involvement with the law of the heart is contrasted in the next chapter with the Transcendentalists' engagement with society. Here, Girgus analyzes the disagreement between Emerson and Orestes Brownson about the meaning of "transcendence and freedom as those concepts relate to the effort to reform society and the characteristics of the people within if' (p. 40). By emphasizing Brownson's attack on Emerson's Harvard address for "putting the scholar before the country," Girgus clarifies, as well, certain more recent attacks on Emerson, particularly Quentin Anderson's in The Imperial Self Brownson and Anderson view Emerson's Defining the American Self 237 . If-reliance as a "withdrawal from social and political reality." Girgus points ::t that,for Emerson, the path of the self is inextricable from the direction oftheculture. In this context, he demonstrates that Emerson cannot be dismissed as a quaint figure of only nineteenth-century relevance, but must be seenasa man coping with the problems of the self in a troubled time. Whitmanis, of course, the quintessential figure in any discussion of the selfand culture. Santayana's emphasis on Whitman's ''barbarism" and the Eliot/Pounddenial of their roots in Whitman have done much to denigrate therelationships which Whitman established between the self and culture. Here, Girgusexplores the complex relationship between Whitman's attempts roseize realitydirectly in an avant-gardist manner and his counter-commitment toculturein the form of certain religious, political and philosophic ideas. Girgus' emphasis is upon the structure of Whitman's poetry and its developmentthrough what he describes rather vaguely as "a form of parataxis." He seesthecatalogs as "paratactical footsoldiers'' in the democratic war against aristocraticprivilege. He also explores the idea of love, sex and death in Whitman's work in terms of Norman 0. Brown's Freudian interpretation of historyin L,j'eAgainst Death. Once again, Girgus adds little that is new to ourunderstanding of Whitman, but he does help to reaffirm the relevance of Whitman'spolitical views, particularly his conception of the individual in ademocratic society. Girgus' political theme requires that he devote some attention to the American Realists, and he presents somewhat reductive discussions of Howells andHenryJames. First, Girgus develops a negative interpretation of Howells' Bartley Hubbard in A Modern Instance, seeing Hubbard's rebellion to be that ofthe perverted self. Girgus finds in Howells' study of Hubbard and in his laternovels as well, "an awarenes of the way the development of modern cultureand society vitiate the values of individualism and autonomy" (p. 67). The discussion of Henry James is limited to the three novels which would appeartobe the most accessible to politic al critic ism - The Bostonians, What Jfai~~ie Knew and The Princess Cassamassima. Nonetheless, Girgus makes someimportant points about the function of the inner self in James's novels for,"James dramatizes the relationship in all its complexity and ambiguity of theinner self and of moral consciousness as they interact with a threatening, changingand complicated world" (p. 84). Girgus points out that while certain ofJames's characters retreat into the inner self in a manner similar to the seekingof a place of security by the perverted self, other characters relate thisrealmto their attempts to achieve freedom through experience and through thegrowth of a moral sense. The inner self, for James, then, can be either a placeof death or a source of energy and creative power. Girgus links James's viewof the self to the Emersonian tradition ''in which the artistic consciousnessand creativity could not be separated from the concept of freedom and theautonomous self" (p. 87). 238 Lorelei Cederstrom The weakest chapter in Girgus' book is the one on Charles Ives. However much Girgus finds Ives's writings to demonstrate the law of the heartin their retreat behind a distorted idealism, Girgus himself states that the writings contrast with Ives's music which is "open, free, and experimental" (p. 103).Since Ives will not be remembered for his writings and since Girgus does not seek to demonstrate the limitations of the transcendentalism of Ives's music, this chapter could have been omitted without weakenino Girgus' theme. ~ Girgus' discussion of Fitzgerald focuses entirely on Tender is the Night. Crack-Up, The Last '!}coon and several of Fitzgerald's letters to his daughter. A weakness here is that Girgus finds most of Fitzgerald's positive ideas about democracy and the self in the unfinished '!}coon. In his discussion, Girgus contrasts the enervating of the creative drive in Dick Diver with the "free and responsible self actively involved in rendering meaning to experience" (p. 110)of Monroe Stahr. Girgus spends some time interpreting the relationship between the protagonists of the novels under discussion and the worldin which each moves, for he wishes to demonstrate an Existentialist concern with meaningful action in Fitzgerald's work. In Stahr's case, he finds thatit is not defeat that is important, but Stahr's engagement with the forces which defeat him. While Dick Diver "loses himself by failing to create himselfin freedom" (p. 118), Girgus finds in Stahr a reaffirmation of the idea of responsibility for one's own destiny and a refutation of the law of the heart. Thus, "as a creative consciousness in a new technological environment, he represents a new face and version in an inchoate form of the symb1)lic Emersonian American self" (p. 123). The chapter on William James is the climax of Girgus· analysis. He reasserts the importance of James's thought in the development of radical individualism in this century. James is also seen as relevant because of his emphasis upon the self as process, as a dynamic principle within the flux of experience. James provides no solution to the dilemma of individuality and freedom which Girgus is exploring, but Girgus is correct in his emphasis on James. for James was continually striving to connect the self, and the spiritual sensein the self, with the world of action. Girgus' final chapter extends the exploration of the self and society intothe present. He points out the way that images of the perverted self dominate American culture.This, he believes, isdue to the fact that America has become a nation where individual needs and special interests of every kind demand attention. Girgus finds examples of the healthy self in contemporary literature and thought in spite of the dominance of the law of the heart. In the end. Girgus ends where he began, with Emerson, for the moral dimension mustbe included in any search for the place of individuality in a democratic society. Martha Banta's Failureand Success in America expands upon many ofthe ideas presented by Girgus. While Girgus' analysis is narrowly focused, Banta's Defining the American Self 239 isencyclopedic in reference. The breadth of scope, however, does not exempt Banta from the same reductive tendencies that are present in Girgus. Thematicanalysis cannot do justice to any of the writers who are called in(or worse, whose fictional characters are called in) to give evidence of thisidea or that. Here the terms to which all of American life is reduced arethose of the title-success and failure. Thus, ideas as diverse as the attitudesof the founding fathers toward God, and Norman Mailer's syntax, areculled for evidence. Beforeattempting to summarize the ideas of this book, it is necessary to pointout that Banta has subtitled the work a "literary debate." The debate, which rangesover the entire three-hundred-and-fifty-year course of American historyand letters, involves, in Banta's own words, "argumentative, opinionated ,complicating evidence" (p. 6). The success of this book is that it is thought-provoking,for Banta's great intelligence is set loose upon the entire spectrumof American literature, philosophy, history and social thought. The failureis that one is left with obfuscation of the items under debate rather thenwithillumination. For this debate is not conclusive, no winner is called, andno significant conclusions are drawn. The complexity of the task w_hichBanta has set for herself is reflected in thedifficultyshe has in writing a simple declarative sentence. Everything is qualified,modified and implied. Virtually every sentence in the long book expandsto include so many contradictions within itself that meaning is lost. Anexample from one of the attempts to define failure and success is typical: "ForifJames insists that success is a matter of consciousness, not merely of physicalself-preservation, and if Royce also locates value in the mind's possession of an object, then we have the basis for proposing that the essential issueof success or failure in America takes direction from the ways in which Americais perceived, conceived, or manages to deceive" (p. 22). The playful parallelism,the logical structure that leads only to the proposal of a direction, thedistillation of contentious points-all these typify the book. The book is structured around three main "foci," which are ''the thoughts, thefeelings, and the language of Americans caught in the press between winningand losing" (p. 6). Foci is perhaps the most precise word that Banta could find, for the logical and imaginative leaps that are required of the readerare prodigious. Nonetheless, there are intriguing ideas here, which can only be suggested in outline. The first section of the book is called "TheMore or Less of Success." Banta locates the direction of the American questasaiming for "more than survival" but settling for ''less than perfection." Inthiscontext, she considers in her own terms Girgus's main theme, the split betweenthe speculative eye and the world of doing. Banta, like Girgus, finds ananswer to the Hegelian dualities in the Transcendentalists' view of nature andin their belief that the American spirit would make truth manifest in historicalAmerica. 240 Lorelei Cederstrom The second section deals with ideas about America as a place and asan imaginative context for success and failure. Banta focuses upon the relationship between the self and the land as expressed by various writers. Bantafeels that this relationship is central. "Before the American can know what hehas gained or can measure what he has lost, he must feel his way toward some expression of inscape and landscape as they mutually define one another'' (p. 59). The Faulknerian view of the land as woman is used as a paradigmfor exploring the possessive and domineering responses toward America. Banta also describes the figure of "the woman who waits" as she appears in the writings of James, Dreiser and Mailer. That figure suggests to her a desiretLi stop and take stock of where we are as Americans. Banta considers, as well, the idea of America as mother, with emphasis upon Melville's view of America as a dangerous, possessive mother. Other ideas toward the landscape which she explores include wonder, (here confused with admiration), Luminism, actuality or '·eventing," and ideas of possession which go beyond the ideaof America as a woman to be possessed. Banta justifies the lack of conclusions drawn here by stating that this section is intended to be suggestive, to consider the "image-ideas" of various writers about America. She is content to present the conflicting ideas of writers who ''have been intent on knowing what kind of a place it is they possess or are possessed by, and what manner of relation· ship there is among the ego, the idea, and the land" (p. 150). Next, Banta juggles ideas about the human types best suited for successin America. She describes those who have material success and those whohave moral success, as well as the dreams, ideas and desires attendant upon thosetwo kinds of success. Historical and fictional characters are given equal voicein this debate, which, once more, weakens the validity of many of the arguments. Turning from success, the fourth part deals with the gestures which Americans make when confronted with failure. Here the field is too rich,for the full spectrum of human emotions is included. Diverse writers and their techniques (which are seen as responses to failure!) are brought in. Banta considers in turn Twain's humor, Hemingway's "style,'' and the structure of melodrama. There is even a brief consideration of the conflict between the Emersonian self in harmony with nature and the imperatives of the ego seeking to express dissatisfaction when thwarted. In all, there is too much material here and terms are not defined precisely enough. In the section on the ego and the self, for example, the two terms are used interchangeably. Even in a "literary debate," it is essential that both debaters define termsin the same way. The fifth section surveys apocalyptic visions, which Banta considers tobe a reaction to failed hopes. She sees the end of all as an ultimate solution tothe problem of failure. She reviews, here, the attitudes of various social historians toward American social destiny, including both William James's positive approach and the warnings of those who foresee only a violent end. Banta Defining the American Self 241 has setupthe same polarity between Poe and William James which Girgus has used, terming them two views of America's "epistemological mission." The debate involvesmany of the issues with which Girgus is concerned, for Banta describesboth the nature of the American dream and the drive toward a perfectedsocial vision. In this connection, Howells, Orestes Brownson, Emerson,Thoreau, Whitman, Robert Penn Warren, Norman Mailer and othersgive voice to their versions of "the apocalypse of the mind." Themost interesting and provocative section of the entire book appears here.Chapter twenty-seven, entitled "The Making of a Good Story," is a discussionof the American narrative, its esthetics and philosophy. This chapteris rather tenuously related to her central topic: "The making of American narratives is the writing of a kin~ of history. By its means we define whatAmerica has been and where it might be going, and to what purpose, andbywhose sensibility its movements have been directed. It is history as story-perhaps the ultimate record of success or failure" (p. 457). Success and failureaside, Banta presents provocative and imaginative ideas about plotting , beginningsand endings, syntax, style and structure in the narrative. These arejoinedto important philosophical questions about the nature of America andthe narrative form best suited to defining America. Various possibilitiesare considered, but Banta is unwilling to formulate. Instead, she givesto Melville the last word in the chapter: '"Something further may follow ..."' (p. 481). Inthe concluding section, Banta attempts a ·synthesis of the many ideas debatedin the book. She recognizes that a central problem is that of the alienatedself. She believes that the dangerous mental situation of contemporary America results from the violence of despair or the need for vindication causedby a lack of success. She turns to the Poe/Emerson contrast, and discusses them in terms very similar to Girgus'. With Girgus, she recognizes that"the curve of Poe's art- unlike the circles of Emerson and Thoreaudoesnot bring us healing." She sees Hegel's law of the heart in the "Poe-mind" which "has the power to destroy the structure it creates whenever enraged by itsown imperfections." Banta links thwarted idealism to the destructive impulse,for she notes: "the Poe-mind destroys out of the frustration of its ideals,not in rejection of its fantasies" (p. 486). Like Girgus, Banta believes thatthe unities of the Transcendental cosmic consciousness (or the panoramic perspectivesof Norman Mailer) provide alternatives to the law of the heart. Ultimately,Banta contends, success lies in wholeness, even though there remainserious differences regarding what wholeness consists of and how it is toberealized. Itis appropriate that the concluding paragraphs of this ''literary debate" focus upon language and its function as an intermediary between reality and theself. Banta contends that "language, rightly used, is life as we human beings most deeply experience it" (p. 521). Frank Kermode is the dissenting 242 Lorelei Cederstrom voice in the debate, for Kermode maintains that the orderliness of language falsifies the randomness of the reality which it attempts to represent. Th;s, for Kermode, "none of our fictions'is the supreme fiction." Banta, however, is willing to accept, if not a supreme fiction, a fiction of sufficiency.She states: "the other way past defeat would not involve an evasion of the blunt obstacle which reality is. It would simply, but not too simply, suggest thatthe fictions ...of good success and good failure actual(v do suffice" (p. 524). Banta, however, is imprecise about the nature of the fiction of sufficiencv. In a previous section in which she describes the narrative form best suited1 ~ the American experience, she notes: "whatever America's ideal formmight be-perhaps even the epic-it is not the novel" (p. 464). Let us allowJames E. Miller, Jr., to enter the de bate at this point. For Ban ta's suggestion thatthe ideal form may be the epic is the subject of Miller's book. In The American Quest.for a Supreme Fiction: Whitman's Legacy in the Personal Epic,Miller provides some pertinent answers to questions raised by both Girgus and Banta about the relationship between the self, society and the creative imagination. Miller believes that the supreme fiction not only exists, butthat the roots of that fiction can be found in Whitman's conception of the epic poem. Whitman's poetry, in turn, is seen as the product of his inclusi\e conception of the self. Miller's study of the supreme fiction has a double emphasis. First,he attempts to formulate the principles of the American epic. To this end.he goes back to the beginnings of the epic impulse in Americn poetry and traces the pervasiveness of a felt need to express the American experience in epic terms. Second, Miller hopes to provide a means by which the two traditions in American poetry can be re-united. Although the publication of The Waste Land in 1925 divided American poets into two seemingly irreconcilable camps, Miller demonstrates that the "culture" poets-Eliot, Pound and their followers, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate and Robert Lowell-are as indebted to Whitman as the new "barbarians" - William Carlos Williams. Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg and Robert Creely. The question of indebted· ness to Whitman involves untangling Ezra Pound's relationship to the "great, gray poet." For, Miller notes, the curious fact of American poetry is that Pound has been claimed as a source by writers of both streams. Whitman is, of course, central to both of Miller's purposes. His career-long interest in Whitman focuses here upon Whitman's statements regardingthe American epic in Leaves of Grass. In Leaves, Whitman redefined the epic both in terms of himself and in terms of an American political ideal. Miller also explores the way the political nature of America has helped to shapethe American self. He clarifies, as well, one of the major paradoxes of American literature-that is, how an epic can be uniquely American, breaking with tradition, and still remain an epic. Finding the solution to this paradox was. Miller believes, the main thrust of Whitman's work. Defining the American Self 243 Toattempt to explain away this paradox, Miller compares and contrasts Whitman's conception of the epic with the traditional pattern. Whitman's concept, while new in all respects, manages to retain an epic character: Theperson~lepic (anti-epic, lyr!c epic_)may_be defined: then: a Ion~ poem whose narrative 1 rntan intenor rather than extenor action, with emphasis on successive mental or emotional ~tates: on a subject or theme not special or superior hut common and vital: related not ma hterary, measured, and elevated style but in a personal. free, and familiar style: focusing not onaheroicor semidivine individual but on the poet himself as representative figure, comprehendingand illuminating the age; and whose awareness, insight, being-rather than heroic acttons-involve, however obliquely, the fate of the society. the nation, the human race. Such,sketched forth in rather simple terms, was Whitman's re-definition of the epic. (p. J6) Most important in Whitman's re-definition of the epic in American terms is hisplacement at the center of the poem of the self, with its life and times the substanceof the poem, Examining Leaves of Grass more closely, Miller observes that Whitman's continual revisions point to this attitude toward his material,for Whitman "shaped the book to his life, the entirety of his life" \p.41).The three-part structure of Leaves can be equated with the three apects of identity explored by Whitman-the physical, the historical and the spiritual. Thesecond aspect of this book is the most intriguing, for it is here that ~1iller discusses the relationship between the "culture" poets and a forefather they wouldrather not acknowledge. Miller begins by asserting that Whitman's influenceon Pound has been central-he sees Whitman's presence in both theform and content of the Cantos. Miller explores, as well, all of the interestingambivalences which Pound expressed toward Whitman, concluding , finally, that Pound "doth protest too much." Miller illuminates, as well,Pound's concept of the American epic. Different as the Cantos are fromLeaves, the impulse toward an epic expression in both cases results from the poet's desire to express the complete journey of his life and spirit. Themultiple voices of the poem are "the voices of a lifetime," for the poets themselves"are embodied in their form and language" (p. 81). Millerhas a more difficult task linking Eliot and Whitman, for the publishedversion of The Waste Land stands in polar opposition to Whitman's ideaof poetry. Miller finds, however, that the manuscript of The Waste Land (before Pound's editing) as well as the "impulses" of the poem contain muchthat can be attributed to Whitman. Miller demonstrates, through a closeanalysis, that both poets "exploit poetically their emotional experiences "and that both ·'use themselves and their feelings as representative of theirtime.and place" (p. 125). The chapters on William Carlos Williams and Hart Crane are equally thorough,although less contentious. Here the debts to Whitman are more apparentand have been acknowledged by both poets. Miller explores not only theobviousrelationships, however, but makes clear certain of the most difficult andinexplicable passages of both Paterson and The Bridge by relating them toWhitman and the epic. Miller finds that, structurally, Paterson has the 244 Lorelei Cede,:~trom same multiple voices found in Leaves, as well as the pattern of the inne• quest. Miller relates the troubling prose passages of Paterson, with thei~ insistence on daily, local trivia, to Whitman's catalogues, concludingthat "the journey through the local does, finally, reach some kind of awareness" (pp.138-39). The open-endedness of the poem is explained also in Whitmanian terms, for the end of the poem cannot be reached until the death ofth~ poet. In The Bridge as well, Crane's consciousness was the central consciousness of the poem, and like Whitman's in Leaves. "we must turn toitfor the poem's ultimate structure" (p. 177). Miller's analyses of both poemsmakr insistent parallels with specific parts of Whitman's Leaves, illuminatinghoth Paterson and The Bridge while amplifying the concept of the Americanepic. In the final section of the book, Miller looks at the contemporary poets who have continued the epic tradition. He explores Charles Olson'sMa.\i,11111 Poems, John Berryman's Dream Songs. and Allen Ginsberg's The Fall nt America. The textual analysis is detailed, the argument is persuasive andis essential reading for anyone interested in contemporary American pof'trvor the American epic. Miller observes that contemporary poets are grappiing with their own self concept in much the same way that Whitman was. though diverse in their responses to America, Miller affirms that the authen· ticity of their voices can be traced directly to the "barbaric yawp." Thus, each of the books considered in this review helps to clarify alternatives to the image of the disintegrated self which dominates contemporar~ American letters. In place of the anti-Adam, caught in the law of the heart, reacting to success and failure alike with the rage of insufficiency, subverting his creativity in the attempt to "shore fragments against our ruin," Girgus. Banta and Miller point toward a counter-image composed of Whitman's healthy inclusiveness, Emerson's moral rectitude, and William James'ssynthe· sizing imagination. Girgus' opposition to the law of the heart, Banta's resting place between success and failure, and Miller's supreme fiction all depend upon a transcendent, creative and democratic self, capable of absorbingcon· tradictions as great as America itself. ...

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ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 235-244
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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