The Official Blog Of Edward Cline

The Altruist Moral Cast of Early American Novels

After a hiatus from my columns, one enforced by the necessity of
writing, without distraction, my latest Cyrus Skeen mystery novel, Silver
Screens
, set in the Hollywood milieu (but not in Hollywood itself), it
is appropriate that I return with the review of a book about the early American
novel, Philip F. Gura’s Truth’s
Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel
, which traces the
beginnings of the literary form in this country and discusses its largely
religious nature and later anti-American nature. He covers roughly the century
just prior to the American Revolution up to the mid- to late 19th century.
Gura discusses such better
known novelists
as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, and reveals
that they, too, experimented with, if not endorsed, the kind of
“self-fulfillment” dramatized by their lesser known colleagues in the realm of
fiction. Many of the novelists
Gura discusses aren’t even on Wikipedia’s list of known 19th century writers.
All novels are “morality tales” of one kind or another,
including Silver Screens. The
difference, however, between Silver
Screens
and virtually every novel discussed by Gura is that the morality in
Silver Screens is integrated with the
action, whereas the morality and action in these early novels are rarely
integrated and are paragons of what novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand called the soul-body
dichotomy
. That is, the morality is not reason-based and so is at odds with
man’s nature and with reality itself.
First, let’s establish some context. Most of the novels Gura
discusses can be categorized as “popular” literature. Novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand wrote
about such novels:
 Popular literature is fiction that does not deal with abstract problems;
it takes moral principles as the given, accepting certain generalized, common-sense
ideas and values as its base. (Common-sense values and conventional values are
not the same thing; the first can be justified rationally, the second cannot.
Even though the second may include some of the first, they are justified, not
on the ground of reason, but on the ground of social conformity.)
Popular fiction does not raise or
answer abstract questions; it assumes that man knows what he needs to know in
order to live, and it proceeds to show his adventures in living (which is one
of the reasons for its popularity among all types of readers, including the
problem-laden intellectuals). The distinctive characteristic of popular fiction
is the absence of an explicitly ideational element, of the intent to
convey intellectual information (or misinformation).
Most of the novels discussed by Gura, who offers informative
synopses of scores of them, together with the backgrounds of their authors,
strike me as extended, highly convoluted morality tales that stress
self-sacrifice and moral improvement vis-à-vis Christian morality. One value of
Gura’s opus is that he documents the transition from Christian morality tales
to collectivist, social morality tales. For example, of Catherine Maria
Sedgwick’s A New England Tale (1822),
Gura writes:
A New England Tale’s heroine, Jane
Elton…embodies disinterested benevolence. The novel’s message is that no matter
what one’s station in life, moderation, honesty, and sympathy, not blind
allegiance to heartless doctrine, are the foundation of a religious life. With
more and more of her countrymen rejecting religion that cast the individual as
a helpless, lost soul, they easily could fall into the snare of selfishness.
Liberal denominations like Unitarianism offered an alternative, a life defined
by a self-empowerment held in check through a concern for catholic moral
virtue. A New England Tale spoke to a
readership that increasingly turned to this sort of literature for guidance in navigating
a society in which selfishness seemed not only justifiable but the only
sensible ethic. Sedgwick reassured readers of the rightness of simple Christian
goodness during a time when old pieties were breaking against shoals of
individualism. (p. 51)
Jane Elton rejects the marriage proposal of a successful
attorney (Edward Erskine) because he wasn’t sufficiently selfless in his court
cases, and because he refused to support reform of the state’s poor laws.
To most of her
contemporaries, Erskine would be a prize husband, but Jane rejects him for his
lack of Christian virtue….Her patience and principles bring her the spouse she
deserves. Thus, Sedgwick implied that religious and social pretension can be combated
by faith….Happy endings for fictional heroines are possible despite dismal ends
The Coquette and similar novels
presented as inevitable. (p.53)
I rarely resort to Biblical quotations. Here is an exception to
my rule:
Trust in the Lord with all your
heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight. (Proverbs 3:5-6)
This is applicable to not only
Christians seeking a pseudo-individualism, or a “self-fulfillment” by
submitting to a “higher authority” and leading a “virtuous” but psychologically
harmful life, but also to the Progressive/collectivist philosophy, in which
individuals must not “lean on their own understanding,” but suspend their
minds, ignore the evidence of their senses, and have faith in the chimerical
morality and feasibility of collectivism.
Gura describes the trope of another Sedgwick novel, Clarence (1830). It dwells on the same
theme, that earthly happiness is a false alternative.
The novel’s heroine is
Gertrude Clarence, a natural target for speculating single men. But unlike
other characters, she questions the endless pursuit of wealth and the
consumerism and instead tries to persuade the rich to use their money for good
causes. Clarence thus takes up the
debate over disinterested benevolence and civic republicanism that
characterizes religious and political debate. Sedgwick realized that wealth did
not mean happiness; a contrarian view in 1830. The rich in her book languish in
boredom, cynicism, or worse. Sedgwick was no Thoreau, bellowing against the
economic system itself. Rather, she condemned those who value money excessively
and mindlessly subscribe to the notion that goods make the man. (p. 60)
Reading through Gura’s study, one can observe the creep of
altruism into political and social realms in American literature, gradually metamorphosing
from the travails of women (and of some men) to the travails of society, of the
poor, of the “disadvantage” under capitalism.
Most of the novels, states Gura, are obscure, little known to
the public, discussed chiefly by authorities on the fiction of the past. Many
of them were, nonetheless, popular and even successful. They were “bodice
rippers” or “potboilers” overlaid with enervating Christian moralizing.
It was
inevitable that, in the absence of a fully rational philosophy of egoism and
individualism, the Christian moral code that dominated American literature
would logically evolve, by the end of the 19th century, into a Progressive,
collectivist moral code. The compartmentalized rational aspect of American
philosophy, the political philosophy that made the American Revolution
possible, had to give way to the irrational Christian aspect, with which the
rational attempted to ally itself. One could not have one’s individualism and
self-sacrifice to God, to the “community’ or to the public good, at the same
time.
As Christian
morality, regardless of the denomination, placed a value on individual
salvation and on the free will to achieve it, the secular version of it that
dominated American literature stressed an individualism close to the
Transcendental notion of self-worth by surrendering one’s ego to the “greater
good.” Transcendentalism was the chimerical hair shirt that these novels
recommended Americans should wear for the good of themselves and for the nation.
The individualism preached by most of the authors was, incredibly, a “selfless”
species of individualism.
Ralph
Waldo Emerson
, who together with Thoreau and other prominent writers of the
time, opposed business and the industrialization of the country, himself
provided a fairly open definition in his 1842 essay “The Transcendentalist”:
“The Transcendentalist adopts the whole connection of spiritual
doctrine. He believes in miracle, in the perpetual openness of the human mind
to new influx of light and power; he believes in inspiration, and in ecstasy.
He wishes that the spiritual principle should be suffered to demonstrate itself
to the end, in all possible applications to the state of man, without the
admission of anything unspiritual; that is, anything positive, dogmatic,
personal. Thus, the spiritual measure of inspiration is the depth of the
thought, and never, who said it? And so he resists all attempts to palm other
rules and measures on the spirit than its own.”
The
Christian writers who used their literary works to advocate the “reform” of
society and of men, provided grist for their successors in the literary realm
to become activists and Progressive reformers. The American literary corpus of
the first half of the 19th century largely was what latter crusaders for social
and political change cut their teeth on.
In
pursuit of virtue, the protagonists of these novels achieve little else but
misery or death, social ostracism, or degradation. There are few “happy
endings” in any of the novels discussed by Gura. The virtue seekers invariably meet
their end by committing suicide, or murder, or descend into madness.
Another
popular novelist of the early 19th century discussed by Gura was George Lippard. This
author, in his “genre-breaking” works, railed against the evils of city life,
and specifically against capitalism. Among his most successful and lurid novels
was The Quaker City (1845), which “exposed”
the depredations and criminal character of Philadelphia’s “elite” moneyed class
in a fictive institution called “Monk Hall.” About the political and literary
character of Lippard’s best-known works, Gura writes:
He exposes the irrational core in every
person and shows that liberty and individualism lead to immorality and sin as
much as they do to happiness. If people are in thrall to powerful subliminal
forces beyond their control, the very foundations of American life begin to
tremble. Absent a strong political or religious authority to govern society and
morality, uncertainty, ambivalence, and even chaos ensue….(p. 88)
…His novels challenged the immensely
popular domestic fiction typified by {Catherine} Sedgwick’s later works. He subverted
standard plot devices and characters prevalent in sentimental writing, shocking
readers with depictions of violence, perversion, and pornography. His heroines,
unlike those in domestic fiction, act irrationally and without regard for
Christian humility. (p. 91)
The
novels, because they portrayed individuals in pursuit of a “transcendental”
Christian virtue in conflict with their desires (chiefly sexual), were popular
because they appealed to the prurient interests of their readers. They were
read for their “dirty” scenes, e.g., of young women seeking perfect marriages
with handsome young rakes or opportunists after their money or fortune, and
consequently “falling from grace” by allowing themselves to be seduced, and
then either being abandoned by their paramours and dying, or committing
suicide. Foolish or ill-advised trysts invariably led to tragedy. Some of these
novels, Gura relates, are heavily influenced by Gothic romances that were
introduced from Europe. Other novels are picaresque in nature, featuring a
protagonist stumbling hither and yon in search of “virtue.”
One can compare these “potboilers” and
“bodice rippers,” in terms of contents, events, and denouements, with the
currently popular Fifty Shades
trilogy (of Grey, of Darker, of Free), by British writer E.L. James. That trilogy, therefore, is
nothing new and there is nothing original in or about it. Only the pious
language is missing. In it, a young woman also seeks a perfect relationship
with a man who requires that she submit to sadism/masochism (BDSM).  In the box-office record-breaking film, the woman leaves the man
(a billionaire). By the end of James’s trilogy, however, she has converted the
man into “normal” person who desires a normal relationship. They have children
and settle down.
Gura devotes many pages to discussing
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s lesser known novel, The Blithedale
Romance
(1852), set in a socialist commune, and how its characters are
not quite good enough or ready to make such a social arrangement work. The two
male protagonists, Coverdale and Hollingsworth, members of the group, are
depicted as being fascinated and attracted to the “free spirit” of a woman
named Zenobia, a wealthy, beautiful, and sexually “liberated” member, but fall
for the safer, fragile “purity” of Priscilla.
Another
constant “trope” of these novels was the living conditions of the poor, and how
these oppressive conditions led to the spiritual debasement of the
“disadvantaged.” It was the implied duty of the virtue searchers to concern
themselves with such matters.
I
don’t envy Gura for having had to read many of these novels. They would put me
to sleep five pages into any one of them. His synopses, concise and well-written
as they are, whether about the obscure or famous novelists, such as Hawthorne
and Melville, caused me to nod off more than once.
Truth’s Ragged Edges is a
tedious chore to read, but it is nevertheless an important work in that it
chronicles the not so obvious relationship between religious ardor and concerns
for the self-salvation of the individual and the collectivist commands to “improve”
oneself by submitting to the imperatives of the “community” or the state. Gura
has an uncritical view of this transition; his approach to the problem hovers
near politically neutral psychoanalysis. Gura writes, unaware that Rand
identified a problem that haunts these early novels, as one of a soul-body
dichotomy
:
American novelists in the first half of
the nineteenth century…produced remarkable, and remarkably complex, fiction. But
the harsh truth is that even after the cataclysm of the Civil War, the United
States remained unique among countries in a schizophrenic emphasis on the individual
and his feelings as well as on the commonwealth and one’s obligations to
it.  (p. 280)
Truth’s
Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel
, by Philip F. Gura. New York: Farrar, Straus and
Giroux. 2013. 330 pp.

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13 Comments

  1. Edward Cline

    Linda, who is unable for technical reasons, to post comments here, had this to say: "I was recently looking through a book on female spies in the Civil War and was stuck again by the level of Christian religious fervor that permeated both sides during that period, on a personal level as well as in terms of whose side of the conflict "God" favored. I can find nothing equivalent to it during the Revolutionary period, despite it having been bracketed by the two "Great Awakening" revival movements. The "irrational Christian aspect" had had 70 years to worm its way into the American psyche through those gaps in the philosophy that animated the Revolution."

  2. Joe

    Interesting read Ed… I'm looking forward to reading your new book! Cheers, Joe

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