In the preceding chapters we have distinguished two different traditions of art in nineteenth-century America, one inherited from the older culture of Europe and the other emerging in direct response to the actualities of a machine civilization in a political democracy. We have observed how these traditions interacted, each modifying the other, and how a number of influences-geographical, political, psychological, and social-have variously favored and resisted the development of each. And finally we have seen that it was in the unself-conscious tradition of vernacular expression that American people dealt most successfully with the new and necessary facts of the emerging civilization.
Up to this point, then, we have been exploring a method of approach to the problem of the arts in America. Now let us see how that method might be applied to a consideration of the arts themselves. In what ways might it help us to understand why our literature, for instance, has always seemed less American than our history? What light can it shed on the resistances which the American environment offered to the creative imagination of the individual artist?
The arts are rooted in the civilization which produces them, shaped in its image. Ranged behind the great masterpieces of the past-the temples of Greece, the paintings of the Italian Renaissance, the plays of Shakespeare-there had in each case been an immense and complete reality of which they were the imaginative projection. For a moment in the history of man's psychological adaptation to his environment he had achieved an apparently stable synthesis of his knowledge and belief, and the structure of society itself-as embodied in its political, social, economic, and religious institutions-seemed to reflect a coherent and enduring view of human destiny.
But in American civilization, as Emerson intuitively perceived and as Walt Whitman explicitly asserted, there was no such equilibrium between what men knew and what they believed, between fact and faith. As Whitman pointed out in Democratic Vistas (1871) our political institutions were based upon government of, by, and for those very people whom many of our social institutions encouraged us to distrust. The best-educated and most highly cultivated portion of the community looked upon the masses of people as a vulgar, untidy lump of humanity, with "gaunt and ill-bred" vices and virtues. At the same time our economic institutions and many of the social relationships of everyday life were being shaped by a technology and science which were at odds with the creeds and dogmas of our religious institutions and with the traditional amenities of cultivated society. The revolutionary impact of the twin forces of democracy and science had only begun to be felt. The spirit of the new civilization, irresistibly reshaping the foundations of man7s consciousness of himself and his world, still moved almost unnoticed beneath the surface of American life.
It was his awareness of this amorphous, self-contradictory quality in our civilization which brought Whitman to the recognition that there could be "no complete or epical presentation" of America until its distinctive spirit had permeated all aspects of its life. "How much is still to be disentangled, freed!" he said in Democratic Vistas. "How long it takes to make this American world see that it is, in itself, the final authority and reliance!"
We see the sons and daughters of the New World, ignorant of its genius, not yet inaugurating the native, the universal, and the near, still importing the distant, the partial, and the dead. We see London, Paris, Italy-not original, superb, as where they belong-but second-hand here, where they do not belong. We see the shreds of Hebrews, Romans, Greeks; but where, on her own soil, do we see, in any faithful, highest, proud expression, America herself? I sometimes question whether she has a comer in her own house.
In such a situation, he argued, America required "a new theory of literary composition for imaginative works." The poet must no longer be expected to round out and complete his vision in an artistic unity. The reader, not the poet, must himself or herself construct the finished poem-"the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or framework. Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does." As he had said in the preface to the original edition of Leaves of Grass (1855), "the expression of the American poet is to be transcendant and new. It is to be indirect, and not direct or descriptive or epic. Let the age and wars of other nations be chanted, and. their eras and characters be illustrated, and that finish the verse. Not so the great psalm of the republic. Here the theme is creative and has vista." So also, near the end of his life, he said: "I round and finish little, if anything, and could not, consistently with my scheme. . . . I seek less to state or display any theme or thought, and more to bring you, reader, into the atmosphere of the theme or thought-there to pursue your own flight."
In other words, Whitman saw that the function of the creative imagination in the new civilization differed essentially from that which was fulfilled in the older culture by artistic sensibility.
It is not the artist who "rounds and finishes" that speaks in this passage from the "Song of Myself." It is rather the man who believed in the necessity of giving "positive place, identity" to his vision of America's destiny, revealing to each man the inner meaning and direction of an inchoate, revolutionary "future-founding" age.
To insist upon this aspect of Whitman's genius is not to deny that there are passages in his verse-and indeed whole poems-which rise into the concentrated intensity of lyric poetry. But there are many other passages-which an "artist" would have trimmed away, but which form an integral part of his design-where he is essentially the announcer with a megaphone on a cosmic sight-seeing bus, pointing out the landmarks to his fellow passengers as they roll along the open road. Few critics have been willing enough to take Whitman at his word when he asserted that no one can get at the real meaning of his Leaves "who insists upon viewing them as a literary performance, or attempt at such performance, or as aiming mainly toward art or aestheticism."
Probably no one who was driven solely, or even primarily, by the passion to integrate experience and give it order in artistic form could have flooded himself so completely, and even delightedly, as Whitman did "with the immediate age as with vast oceanic tides." Certainly there has been a marked tendency throughout our history for Americans with artistic talent to withdraw from direct contact with the everyday life about them. From Copley and Benjamin West to Whistler, Sargent, and Mary Cassatt it was almost habitual for American-born painters to become expatriates, and from the time of Greenough and Hiram Powers our sculptors have spent much of their creative lives abroad. In the field of literature, Henry James was the first eminent writer to become an actual expatriate, but many of his predecessors from Irving on down lived for considerable periods in England or on the Continent, and Lafcadio Hearn. went to live in Japan. Even when our artists have not actually left the country, however, they have frequently sought some other means of isolating themselves from American society-whether in a lonely cabin at Walden Pond, like Thoreau, in an enclosed garden in Amherst, Massachusetts, like Emily Dickinson, or in a private solitude of vision like Albert Pinkham Ryder.
The work of any one of the writers or artists whom we have mentioned would provide us with ample material to illustrate the nature of the resistances which American civilization opposed to the artistic imagination. Yet we will do better, perhaps, to concentrate our attention here on someone who, for all that he was an essentially solitary and lonely genius, did not permit himself to become either a recluse or an expatriate.
Like most of his contemporaries, Nathaniel Hawthorne as a young man shared in the enthusiasm for creating a national literature, "hewing it, as it were, out of the unwrought granite of our intellectual quarries," discovering, if need be, new forms which would not be merely an "interminably repeated . . . reproduction of the images that were molded by our great fathers of song and fiction." As time passed, however, and as he concentrated more and more on the specific problems involved in shaping his own stories and novels, he made fewer and fewer overt references to the general problem of indigenous literary forms. Yet it would be a mistake to infer from this that he or any other American artist-escaped the fundamental artistic problem involved in the conflict between the two traditions. Actually he ran head on into it. Over and over again in the prefaces to his books be reminded his readers of the difficulties involved in writing fiction about a land where actualities were "so terribly insisted upon" as they were-and needs must be-in America.
In the old countries [he wrote in the preface to The Blithedale Romance], with which fiction has long been conversant, a certain conventional privilege seems to be awarded to the romancer; his work is not put exactly side by side with nature. . . . Among ourselves, on the contrary, there is as yet no such Faery Land, so like the real world that, in a suitable remoteness, one cannot well tell the difference, but with an atmosphere of strange enchantment, beheld through which the inhabitants have a propriety of their own. This atmosphere is what the American romancer needs.
It was in an effort to provide something of this atmosphere that Hawthorne always contrived settings for his novels which were somewhat removed from the everyday world about him-remote either in time or place from the main current of contemporary life. Even in The House of the Seven Gables, which--as Henry James observed--contained more of the "literal actuality" of American life than any of his other books, he deliberately intertwined the past and present through the agency of what he described as "a legend prolonging itself, from an epoch now gray in the distance, down into our own broad daylight, and bringing along with it some of its legendary mist"--a mist which would float almost imperceptibly about the characters and events of the novel to create the necessary atmosphere of strange enchantment.
Yet Hawthorne knew that his books were weakened by his inability to cope with the crude but vital elements of the emerging civilization. There was profound conviction behind his statement that, though he was unable to bring his creative imagination to bear on the world of commerce and trade in which for three years he played a part as surveyor of customs for the port of Salem, the fault was his own. "The page of life which was laid out before me," he wrote, "seemed dull and commonplace only because had not fathomed its deeper import. A better book than shall ever write was there. . . ."
One is struck by the fact that when he turned in his fiction to portraying the artist's role in American society he characteristically chose for his protagonists men who worked in art forrns which were firmly rooted in the technological environment. Holgrave, for instance, in The House of the Seven Gables, was a daguerreotypist--a practitioner of the most "up-to-date" and scientific art; the hero of "Drowne's Wooden Image" was a carver of figureheads for ships; and in "The Artist of the Beautiful," Hawthorne's most elaborate allegory of the artist's role, Owen Warland was a young mechanical genius whose dream--and ultimate triumph--was "to spiritualize machinery, and to combine with the new species of life and motion thus produced a beauty that should attain to the ideal."
The sense of the past which permeates Hawthorne's novels and tales tends to obscure the relationships between his art and the main currents of life in his own time. Yet, if we follow the development in his fiction of the theme of conflict between past and present we will discover that it is closely related to his awareness of the artist's problem in the new civilization. In its barest form the theme was first stated in an idea for a story which he recorded in his notebook sometime during 1844. What he there proposed was "to represent the influence Dead Men have among living affairs." Dead men, he observed, by the terms of their wills control the disposition of wealth; the opinions of dead judges dominate the law courts. In short, "Dead Men's opinions in all things control the living truth; we believe in Dead Men's religion; we laugh at Dead Men's jokes; we cry at Dead Men's pathos; everywhere and in all matters, Dead Men tyrannize inexorably over us."
It was in The House of the Seven Gables (1851) that this theme found its most complete embodiment. The very language of the notebook entry appears there, considerably elaborated, in a speech which Hawthorne put into the mouth of Holgrave, the daguerreotypist, but which sums up the theme of the entire novel.
"Shall we never, never get rid of this Past?" cried he. . . . It lies upon the Present like a giant's dead body! In fact, the case is just as if a young giant were compelled to waste all his strength in carrying about the corpse of the old giant, his grandfather. . . . just think a moment, and it will startle you to see what slaves we are to bygone times,-to Death, if we give the matter the right word!"
Then follows an expanded version of the passage quoted above from the notebook, with this significant addition- "I ought to have said, too, that we live in dead men's houses; as, for instance, in this of the Seven Gables."
"But we shall live to see the day, I trust," went on the artist, "when no man shall build his house for posterity. . . . If each generation were allowed and expected to build its own houses, that single change . . . would imply almost every reform which society is now suffering for. . . . This old Pyncheon house . . . in my view, is expressive of that odious and abominable past, with all its bad influences, against which I have just been declaiming. I dwell in it for a while, that I may know the better bow to hate it."
It is true that the idea as stated here is intended as an expression of Holgrave's character and is not presented as the author's own view. Indeed, speaking in his own person, Hawthorne in part disclaims it. Yet Holgrave, as we have seen, was one of the characters through whom Hawthorne projected his concept of the artist's role in America. Further, in a passage of the novel where Hawthorne cornments in his own right on Holgrave's character, he explicitly states that "in his culture and want of culture . . . the artist might fitly enough stand forth as the representative of many compeers in his native land." And finally, the same ideas, in very nearly the same words, are expressed by another character in the novel who is also in some degree a projection of the author's own personality. For Clifford, the broken and defeated lover of the beautiful in whom Hawthorne represented many of those aspects of the artistic temperament which he recognized in himself, echoes Holgrave in his impassioned exclamation that the chief obstructions to human happiness are "these heaps of bricks and stones, consolidated with mortar, or hewn timber which men build for themselves to die in and for their posterity to be miserable in.
Here, then, is the theme of conflict between past and present, fused in an architectural symbol which always had a peculiar fascination for Hawthorne. Long before he began to work on The House of the Seven Gables he had made something of a hobby of visiting old houses which had fallen into decay as the fortunes of the original owner declined. They seemed to him to suggest with special force the folly of attempting to establish hereditary patterns of family life amid the fluctuations of a democratic society. And when he first went abroad--two years after The House of the Seven Gables appeared--his impressions of England and Italy almost invariably crystallized around some architectural symbol of the older cultures.
Of course any American going abroad for the first time would inevitably receive his first and most overwhelming impressions of European culture from the buildings which embodied its aspirations and triumphs. Architecture, after all is the most public and tangible expression of a civilization. As Catharine Maria Sedgwick had said, during her first visit to England in 1839, a miracle was wrought in the presence of a building like Winchester Cathedral, and the poems and paintings which had before seemed mere shadows-"a kind of magic mirrors, showing false images "were suddenly revealed as divine forms "for the perpetual preservation of the beautiful creations of nature and art." But to Hawthorne the buildings of Europe had a special .significance, deeply colored by the artistic problem with which he was so profoundly concerned.
His English and Italian notebooks are full of comments which embroider the theme he had explored in The House of the Seven Gables. Having observed in Coventry and other English towns that many buildings had "modem fronts" superimposed on Elizabethan frames and interiors, he remarked that they offered "a good emblem" of what England itself really was. Modem civilization, as he saw it there, was essentially only a modification of the old. The new elements in it were not only based and supported on the sturdy old things but were "often limited and impeded" by them. And yet, be concluded, "this antiquity is so massive that there seems to be no means of getting rid of it, without tearing the whole structure of society to pieces."
The great cathedrals and public buildings which still remained in their original glory filled him with the sense that "a flood of uncomprehended beauty" was pouring down on him. But he could not help feeling that the architecture of Westminster Hall, for instance, had more to do with the past than with the future. "Its beauty and magnificence," be noted, "are made out of ideas that are gone by." Still less was be impressed -with Sir Charles Barry's adjacent attempt to resuscitate Gothic forms in the new Houses of Parliament. Granted that Barry had achieved magnificence, he said, he had nevertheless "contrived all his effects with malice aforethought;' and thus missed the crowning glory "which God, out of his pure grace, mixes up with only the simple-hearted, best efforts of men."
From one point of view Hawthorne's comments on art are evidence of a philistinism which is only slightly less insensitive than that which still shocks the cultivated readers of Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad. But the significant thing about them, in our present context, is that whenever he speculated about the arts of the Old World he tended to link them in his imagination with his own problems as an artist. On two separate occasions he went to see the Elgin marbles and the Assyrian and Egyptian statuary at the British Museum. Both times his thought recurred to the theme of the domination of the past as fused in the architectural symbol. "I wished," he wrote after the first visit, "that the whole Past might be swept away, and each generation compelled to bury and destroy whatever it had produced. . . . When we quit a house, we are expected to make it clean for the next occupant. . . . Seeing them again six months later be found him self wishing that the marbles and the frieze of the Parthenon itself "were all burnt into lime, and that the granite Egyptian statues were hewn and squared into building stones. . . . The present is burthened too much with the past. We have not time, in our earthly existence, to appreciate what is warm with life, and immediately around us.
If we bear in mind his sense that modern civilization in England was overwhelmed by the past, there is a special interest in his remarks about the iron and glass architecture of the famous Crystal Palace. His opinion of it differed on the several occasions that be saw it; at first it seemed to him that no edifice built of glass could be anything but an overgrown conservatory, while two years later he decided that it was "positively a very beautiful object." But the thing that particularly impressed him was that this earliest masterpiece of iron architecture was uncongenial with the English character, "destitute of mass, weight, and shadow, unsusceptible of ivy, lichens, or any mellowness from age." One cannot miss the echo of that comment in the preface to The Marble Faun where be gave his most definite statement of the artists' problem in America. No author, without a trial, he wrote, could conceive of the difficulty of dealing with an environment which offered no shadow or mystery. "Romance and poetry, ivy, lichens, and wall-flowers, need ruin to make them grow."
In The Marble Faun, written in England after a two-year visit to Italy, the theme of conflict between past and present is transformed into somewhat different terms. As it emerges there it is a study of conflict between European and American civilization as revealed in the fortunes of two young American artists who have gone to live in Rome. The theme as it develops in this instance is a subsidiary element of the novel, but the parallels it suggests are worth exploring. It was in Rome that Hawthorne himself had first come to the realization that "it needs the native air to give life a reality"-a truth, he recorded in his notebook, which he took home to himself regretfully, since he had little inclination to go back to the realities of his own Hiram Powers and the other self-exiled American artists whom he had met there had seemed to him to be caught in the situation where they were always deferring the reality of life to a future moment, till by and by there would either be no future or they would go back to America and find that life had "shifted whatever of reality it had" to the country where they lived as expatriates.
This realization permeates Hawthorne's handling of the theme of conflict in his novel. The theme as he develops it there is elaborated most explicitly in his portrayal of Hilda, the young New England painter who-like so many of her artistic countrymen-had gone to live in Italy in the belief that it was the only country where art could really flourish. Hilda is represented as passing through three distinct phases as an artist. Back in New England she had shown real talent and had done some very creditable work. Once arrived in Italy, however, she seemed to have entirely lost the impulse of original design, which brought her thither."
No doubt [Hawthorne continued] the girl's early dreams had been of sending forms and hues of beauty into the visible world out of her own mind . . . through conceptions and by methods individual to herself. But more and more, as she grew familiar with the miracles of art that enrich so many galleries in Rome, Hilda had ceased to consider herself as an original artist. . . . It had probably happened in many other instances, as it did in Hilda's case, that she ceased to aim at original achievement in consequence of the very gifts which so exquisitely fitted her to profit by familiarity with the works of the mighty old masters.
That Hawthorne s own wife was a talented copyist of paintings may account for the elaborate justification which he subsequently offers for Hilda's abandoning her youthful ambitions. Granting all the noble and unselfish merits which he ascribes to her "for thus sacrificing herself to the devout recognition of the highest excellence' in the art of the past, there remains the inescapable fact that her youthful dreams were not unlike Hawthorne I s own, and that he represents them as being drained , from her by her subjection to the masterpieces of European culture. Nor is there any reason to suppose that Hawthorne was not fully aware of the implications of Hilda’s change. For in the denouement of the novel Hilda arrives at a third stage in her development. Caught in a web of evil and wrongdoing which had not been of her own making, she grew "sadly critical" of many of the paintings she had formerly so much admired; she developed a new perceptive faculty which "penetrated the canvas like a steel probe, and found but a crust of paint over an emptiness." In the end she marries Kenyon, a young American sculptor to whom it had long seemed that in Italy, where generation after generation lived in the same house, "all the weary and dreary Past were piled upon the back of the Present," and when they decide to return to America, Hawthorne explains their decision in the very words he had used in his notebooks to describe the situation in which expatriates like Powers-and perhaps to some degree he also, now-found themselves.
When he returned to the United States in 186o Hawthorne had already begun work on a novel which was to develop the international theme not as a minor element in the story but as its principal feature. The novel was never finished, but a number of unfinished versions of it remained in manuscript when he died in 1864, and some of these have since been published.
We cannot know what form Hawthorne might ultimately have given to his theme if failing health and the heartbreaking distractions of the Civil War had not prevented him from concentrating his full powers upon it, but we do know, from the number of attempts he made and the determination with which he persisted, that the theme was important to him. What he originally had in mind was to tell the story of a young American who has it in his power to join together the mysteriously broken thread of a tradition, part of which is known in England and part in the United States. In one version, for example, the hero was a descendant of a man who, wishing to disconnect himself from the past, emigrated from England to the new world and began life there under a new name. His descendant is fascinated by the strange legends woven around a small key which had been handed down from generation to generation in the American branch of the family. According to the legend, the key will open a cabinet containing a document that will clear up the mystery of his family's hereditary origin. The climax of the story is to be reached when, during a visit to England, he is led by a series of strange events to an old mansion which contains the very cabinet in which the secret is hidden.
The simple outline of the story had been suggested to Hawthorne by the number of Americans who had come to him while be was United States consul at Liverpool and asked him to help them establish their claims to some English estate. In his published account of his consular experiences he mentioned several instances of what he called "this diseased American appetite for English soil," and dwelt on them at some length because it seemed to him that they revealed a weakness which lay deep in the hearts of many of his countrymen. "The American," he observed, "is often conscious of the deep-rooted sympathies that belong more fitly to times gone by, and feels a blind, pathetic tendency to wander back again." But of all the "stray Americans" whom he had encountered at the consulate, the one that interested him most was an old man whose story oddly paralleled that of Herman Melville's Israel Potter. For years the old fellow had been wandering around England trying to earn or beg enough money "to get home to Ninety-Second Street, Philadelphia."
His manner and accent [Hawthorne remarked] did not quite convince me that he was an American, and I told him so; but he steadfastly affirmed,--"Sir, I was born and have lived in Ninety-Second Street, Philadelphia," and then went on to describe some public edifices, and other local objects with which he used to be familiar, adding, with a simplicity that touched me very closely, "Sir, I had rather be there than here!" . . . If, as I believe, the tale was fact, how very strange and sad was this old man's fate! Homeless on a foreign shore, looking always toward his country. . . . and at last dying and surrendering his clay to be a portion of the soil whence he could not escape in his lifetime.
Against the background of his experiences in the consulate and in Italy it was inevitable, then, that in planning his novel Hawthorne always conceived of the American’s attempt to establish a firm link with the past as ending in some form of failure or disillusionment. He might find the cabinet which held the secret, but when be fitted his key to the lock he would discover something which he had better never have known. And curiously enough, the cabinet itself was fused in Hawthorne's imagination with the symbol which he so persistently associated with the domination of the past. For as he described it to himself it was one of those tall, stately, and elaborate pieces "that are rather articles of architecture" than of furniture-a miniature mansion "with pillars, an entrance, a lofty flight of steps, windows, and everything perfect."
But however the details of plot were to be worked out, it is clear that in the end the American would return to his own land. For the moral of the tale, as Hawthorne explicitly stated it at one stage of his experiment with the theme, was: "Let the past alone; do not seek to renew it; . . . and be assured that the right way can never be that which leads you back to the identical shapes that you long ago left behind you."
By thus isolating from its context in his work as a whole the single theme of the past's tyranny over the present we are able to throw into sharp focus the nature of Hawthorne's response to the civilization of his own time. It becomes clear that he fully sensed the necessity for new artistic forms suited to the unlineaged realities of a democratic and industrial social system. Yet every quality of his temperament which fitted him to be an artist in the traditional sense unfitted him to deal with the crude materials out of which the new forms could be created. The artistic sensibility and poetic insight which in The Scarlet Letter he could put to such effective use among the shadowy scenes of an imagined past were apparently useless in dealing with the glaring and turbulent realities of the present. Yet Hawthorne never lost his sense of the inherent value in the materials which proved so intractable to his genius. Late in his life he plied the young William Dean Howells with many questions about the West and said he would like to see some part of the country on which the "damned shadow" of Europe had not fallen. If his own experience finally convinced him that the arts as we had known them provided no tools powerful enough to shape the unwrought granite of American life, it never deluded him into thinking that the forms created by an older civilization could be imposed upon the actualities of the new one. "There is reason to suspect," he wrote in his last completed novel, "that a people are waning to decay and ruin the moment that their life becomes fascinating either in the poet's imagination or the painter's eye." There is a kind of magnificent courage in that observation. It is the statement of an artist who, like many others in his time, had gone down to defeat at the hands of immitigable facts, but who-unlike many of the others-had not turned and run.
The dilemma in which Hawthorne found himself was deeply colored by many factors peculiar to his own personality and to his own particular New England heritage. But the tension created by the conflict between inherited forms and present experience has been a dominant element, consciously or unconsciously, in the work of every creative artist who has attempted to deal with the American environment, whatever the artistic medium.
Thus we come face to face with the central fact in the development of the arts in America, whether we think in terms of the individual artist or of the people whose vision of life the artist finally expresses. For what men believed to be beautiful they knew-in their inmost hearts, at least -to be false. To paraphrase one of Hawthorne's most revealing remarks about old houses like the Pyncheon mansion, there was something so massive, stable, and almost irresistibly imposing in the forms which embodied the spirit of western European culture that their very existence seemed to give them a right to survive-at least, so excellent a counterfeit of right that few men had moral force enough to question it.
In Europe throughout the nineteenth century this right seemed to be substantiated by the fact that the foundations upon which the traditional forms had been erected bad not been wholly wrecked by the upheaval of the Industrial Revolution. But in America the traditional forms stood on quicksand, no matter how earnestly the custodians of culture worked to put foundations under them, and something of the illusion of permanence departed from them. Furthermore it was in America, as we have seen, that the unembellished simplicity of vernacular forms, unself-consciously evolved by people who had no choice but to deal directly with the elements of the new environment, first emerged as a vivid challenge to creative artists. It was, of course, still possible for the minor poet, painter, or architect to create charming and delightful echoes of the past in conventional patterns. It is only when the creative imagination goes beyond talent and approaches genius that it becomes a moral force capable of rejecting all counterfeit majesty and confronting the naked majesty of the essential.