The Hope, Memory and Irony of the American Myth

        Whether one is aware of it or not, each culture has a dominant myth which is often described - consciously or not - by those who provide a social commentary on their contemporaries. This can be seen in the widely-known songs, critiques, novels, essays, sermons, and history books of each generation. In The American Adam, R.W.B. Lewis looks for the dialogue which both described and helped form the myth of 19th century America through significant historians, novelists, poets and theologians. His purpose, while perhaps somewhat lofty, is "to disentangle from the writings and pronouncements of the day the emergent American myth and the dialogue in which it was formed" (4). Lewis accomplishes this goal with a comprehensive and perceptive examination of the dialogue and literature through the lenses of Hope, Memory, and Irony (8). However, in examining the dominant "voices" of the time, those in the minority are disregarded, although this reflects in large part the cultural constraints of that period.

       Lewis introduces the ideals of the "Party of Hope" as the dominant traits expressed in the "emergent American myth," which "described the world as starting up again under fresh initiative, in a divinely granted second chance for the human race, after the first chance has been so disastrously fumbled in the darkening old world" (5). Thus, the hero in this myth is "Adam before the Fall ... an individual emancipated from history ... an individual standing alone, self-reliant and self-propelling" (5). Lewis offers Walt Whitman as the prime example of one who has captured the essence of the innocent Adam in Leaves of Grass as he starts where Walden’s "rebirth" has left us (28), with the creature now the sinless Creator (51). The Unitarian movement as understood by Oliver Holmes is also outlined, and Lewis quickly connects the attributes of science (which had replaced Calvinistic doctrine) to those of the liberated and ‘explained’ Adam (33). He quickly moves on to the critics of the time who yearned for something American, a "national literature commensurate with our mountains and rivers" (79) as Longfellow so plaintively wrote. In response to the "derivative writing," critics such as Channing and Trilling worried that the newness and innocence of America might actually be its creative downfall (85). Thus, the narrative theme that was distinctly American came to be that of the "solitary hero and his moral engagement with the alien tribe" (85), for lack of any inner moral conflict. The historian George Bancroft wrote in order to prove the "law of progress" (162) which was a sort of doctrine to the Hopeful, while theologically Theodore Parker embraced the dismissal of sin and even stated that "history ... made difficult or impossible the presence of the real" (179). This implied that people were substituting a personal experience of the divine with traditions and the historical experiences of others. It was the reaction against the unorthodoxy and anti-historicism of the party of Hope that helped foster the growth and existence of its opposite: the party of Memory.

       William Prescott was one of those who vehemently disagreed with the carelessness with which the Hopeful threw out the past as useless. As he wrote on the conquest of Mexico and Peru, Prescott glorified the past as "remote, invulnerable, and (therefore) radiant with truth" (160), siding with the party defined by Calvinism’s doctrine of original sin (7). While this party certainly played a part in the debate, the dismal theology often characterized by the sermons of Jonathan Edwards (63) seemed overshadowed by the idealistic and youthful energy of the innocents. In addition, several of those who left Memory continued on to the party that found a sort of middle ground: Irony.

       Orestes Brownson, according to Lewis, was driven to Catholicism by Parker ("and to the party of Irony" 192), where he began to use the traditions of the past to reach his goal of redemption through "communion with historical Christianity" (189). The difference between Parker’s glorification of inspiration and Brownson’s communion were rooted in contrasting views of the individual combined with "two different appraisals of the value of the past" (184). Similarly, the poet and critic James Lowell left Hope for Memory and then found himself in the party of Irony, where he too sought spiritual growth in tradition, which he defined as being "related to a living tradition ... and to be touched and animated by those continuing energies" (191). This gets at the heart of Irony, whose purpose, Lewis explained, "was not to destroy the hopes of the hopeful, but to perfect them" (193). Early on in the dialogue, the elder Henry James was able to examine both Memory and Hope and, like Hawthorne, found that he did not fall in either category. Instead, James saw the Fall of Adam as an indication that the best was yet to come; wisdom, salvation, and a good story (60). Similarly, the Hartford theologian Horace Bushnell noted that death was a necessary precursor to rebirth|renaissance] (69), and that "regeneration depended crucially on an organized and living tradition" (69). On the other hand, writers such as Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne looked to the sacrifice of the innocent Adam for the imperfect world as a means of salvation, as they acknowledged the evil inherent in the "alien tribe" (152). This tension made for excellent narrative, yet perhaps more importantly it allowed thinking people to feel a realistic sense of optimism. In the epilogue, Lewis comments on his hope for his literary contemporaries in light of this achievement.

       After a fascinating critique of 19th century American literature and dialogue, Lewis cannot help but bemoan the current state of affairs of the 20th century of disillusionment and hopelessness (198): "Recent literature has applauded itself for passing beyond the childlike cheerfulness of Emerson and Whitman; but, in doing so, it has lost the profound tragic understanding – paradoxically bred out of cheerfulness – of a Hawthorne or a Melville" (9). However, after asking that his contemporaries might venture out of the lines a bit more, he does find "traces of the hopeful or Adamic tradition" (198) within The Great Gatsby, and The Bear. Lewis also begins to skim the surface of novels where the ‘hero’ (or at least the author) is something other than an Anglo-American male. In a much-too-short paragraph, the novels Invisible Man, The Catcher in the Rye, and The Adventures of Augie March are mentioned as "the truest and most fully engaged American fiction after the second war" (199). This was perhaps Lewis’ sole deficiency in The American Adam, although it might be attributed more to the racism of 19th century (and of early 20th century) America. However, as a whole, Lewis has contributed a thoughtful piece that does not shy away from the theological implications behind the dialogue, which in itself is impressive. His style is engaging, and his argument well-supported by an obvious familiarity with the literature of the time. The relevance of this critique for the current myth and literature of America is a testament to his perceptive comprehension of American culture.

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Works Cited:
Richard, Lewis. The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century.
Chicago: University, 1955.