The American Dichotomy
But even Americans, despite their ignoble, godless constitution, could not eradicate all European beliefs and customs from their lives in one short generation or even in one hundred years. Thus, there is always a great dichotomy in the American people. There are many great individuals walking through our history, individuals like Nathan Bedford Forrest and Robert E. Lee, men who responded to the European in their souls. And there are many demonic individuals, such as Lincoln and FDR, who responded to the utopian ideals of our false nation.
The American writers whom I would label 'great' all follow Melville's lead when he said in Redburn, "All Americans are spiritually European."
For me Melville's greatness lies in his discomfort with unbelief. He is not Ishmael, who sells out Christianity for thirty pieces of silver and then sleeps quite well. Melville is more akin to Ahab, uncomfortable with unbelief but unable to reconcile the concept of a loving god with the unloving, created world. Ahab goes mad, but Melville keeps nobly on. Although thoroughly versed in the classics, it is the Biblical that inspires Melville. His work is full of fiery prophets with the mark of the Old Testament on them. And in the early and middle works, such as Mardi, Moby Dick, Pierre, The Confidence Man, and Bartleby, Melville is very much the raging, angry prophet. But his jeremiads give way to Isaiah in "Clarel" and in Billy Budd.
Read Melville's work. Was ever a man more organically steeped in Old Testament lore? And were did that Old Testament take him? To the New Testament and to Him.
Billy in the DarbiesAnd in "Clarel":
Good of the Chaplain to enter Lone Bay
And down on his marrow-bones here and pray
For the likes just o' me, Billy Budd.--But look:
Through the port comes the moon-shine astray!
It tips the guard's cutlass and silvers this nook;
But 'twill die in the dawning of Billy's last day.
A jewel-block they'll make of me to-morrow,
Pendant pearl from the yard-arm-end
Like the ear-drop I gave to Bristol Molly--
O, 'tis me, not the sentence they'll suspend.
Ay, Ay, Ay, all is up; and I must up to
Early in the morning, aloft from alow.
On an empty stomach, now, never it would do.
They'll give me a nibble--bit o' biscuit ere I go.
Sure, a messmate will reach me the last parting cup;
But, turning heads away from the hoist and the belay,
Heaven knows who will have the running of me up!
No pipe to those halyards .--But aren't it all sham?
A blur's in my eyes; it is dreaming that I am.
A hatchet to my hawser? all adrift to go?
The drum roll to grog, and Billy never know?
But Donald he has promised to stand by the plank;
So I'll shake a friendly hand ere I sink.
But--no! It is dead then I'll be, come to think.
I remember Taff the Welshman when he sank.
And his cheek it was like the budding pink.
But me they'll lash me in hammock, drop me deep.
Fathoms down, fathoms down, how I'll dream fast asleep.
I feel it stealing now. Sentry, are you there?
Just ease this darbies at the wrist, and roll me over fair,
I am sleepy, and the oozy weeds about me twist.
Melville's work is a rich tapestry that must be studied and looked at in its entirety. If you only have read Moby Dick, you will not see the whole vision. Moby Dick leads to "Clarel" and to Billy Budd.
But Faith (who from the scrawl indignant turns)
With blood warm oozing from her wounded trust,
Inscribes even on her shards of broken urns
The sign o' the cross -- the spirit above the dust!
Yea, ape and angel, strife and old debate--
The harps of heaven and dreary gongs of hell;
Science the feud can only aggravate--
No umpire she betwixt the chimes and knell:
The running battle of the star and clod
Shall run forever--if there be no God.
Degrees we know, unknown in days before;
The light is greater, hence the shadow more;
And tantalized and apprehensive Man
Appealing--Wherefore ripen us to pain?
Seems there the spokesman of dumb Nature's train.
But through such strange illusions have they passed
Who in life's pilgrimage have baffled striven--
Even death may prove unreal at the last,
And stoics be astounded into heaven.
Then keep thy heart, though yet but ill-resigned--
Clarel, thy heart, the issues there but mind;
That like the crocus budding through the snow--
That like a swimmer rising from the deep--
That like a burning secret which doth go
Even from the bosom that would hoard and keep;
Emerge thou mayst from the last whelming sea,
And prove that death but routs life into victory.
Some writers write in affirmation of their countries' values and traditions. And if one's country's traditions and values are good, a writer should write in affirmation of them. Hawthorne lived in Puritan New England, and he wrote in opposition. But the man was gentle. He wrote with love of his people, while condemning the excesses of their creed.
The House of the Seven Gables is my favorite Hawthorne novel, but it is the short stories, in their totality, that make me a Hawthorne devotee. In these stories, "Rappaccini's Daughter," "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment," and "Ethan Brand" being representative, Hawthorne masterfully lies bare the anti-Christian heresy that can so easily co-opt Christian societies – the pride of intellect, no less subversive or benign when it is pride of one's knowledge of heavenly things. The Puritans, in imitation of the Pharisees who were so proud of their knowledge of the sacred laws that they couldn't recognize the Author of the laws, cut themselves off from God by severing their link with His sacred humanity. With confidence in their own election, they felt free to ignore the human heart, their link to His sacred heart.
Hawthorne didn't realize it at the time, but he also described the process by which the Catholic Church was divesting itself from God. "We have the documents, we have the correct theology, what need have we of humanity?"
The pulp Westerns of the early 1900's, up through the 1950's, were generally not what one would describe as literature; they were formulaic and repetitive like the B-Western movies, but like the B-Western movies, the Western pulp novels were better than the pretentious, artsy literature of moral eunuchs like Flaubert and Sinclair Lewis. I read a great deal of the pulp Westerns as a boy, and I expected and wanted to read basically the same story over and over again: A tough, rugged cowboy fights successfully for the good against the miserable, bad guys.
Some Western writers took the basic pulp novel formula and elevated it to a higher level. Jack Schaefer's novel Shane is an example. Schaefer's work stands as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. Johnston McCulley, the bulk of whose work could be classified as first class pulp, wrote one novel that stands, like Shane, as a great work of literature. That novel is, of course, Zorro.
Then there is Owen Wister. His novel, The Virginian, is certainly a great work of literature, even though he follows the pulp novel formula.
And finally I should mention Zane Grey. Until Louis L'Amour, whose early novels are decent pulp, came along, Zane Grey was the undisputed King of the Western novel. His work is much better than L'Amour's. Grey's heroes are Christian knights, while L'Amour's are virtuous Romans. My favorite Grey novels (although I certainly haven't read all of them) are Riders of the Purple Sage and The Mysterious Rider. In both, Grey very convincingly displays male heroes whose fierceness stems from an overwhelming gentleness. They fight because they love much. And such chivalry! Grey's counterpart in England, P. C. Wren, would have approved.
"Collie, listen," said the old rancher, in deep and trembling tones. "When a man's dead, what he's been comes to us with startlin' truth. Wade was the whitest man I ever knew. He had a queer idee—a twist in his mind—an' it was thet his steps were bent toward hell. He imagined thet everywhere he traveled there he fetched hell. But he was wrong. His own trouble led him to the trouble of others. He saw through life. An' he was as big in his hope for the good as he was terrible in his dealin' with the bad. I never saw his like… He loved you, Collie, better than you ever knew. Better than Jack, or Wils, or me! You know what the Bible says about him who gives his life fer his friend. Wal, Wade was my friend, an' Jack's, only we never could see!... An' he was Wils's friend. An' to you he must have been more than words can tell…The Southern Writers
--from The Mysterious Rider
The winners write history and also determine what the "good books" are. So outside of Faulkner, I did not have much exposure to the Southern novelists until I was in my twenties, and then I got a chance to read Stark Young, Caroline Gordon, and some of the other lesser known Southern writers. I like the so-called (but not in my estimation) lesser writers better than Faulkner. He, like Conrad, has one foot in the modern world and one foot in the old. I prefer the writers who are thoroughly in the old world, in writing style as well as in spirit.
Which is why my favorite Southern novel is Stark Young's So Red the Rose. The novel's theme is unabashedly anti-modern.
A strong and definite professor from a New Jersey foundation for girls in the handicrafts (who had struck Natchez, Agnes McGehee said, only because he had read of the Mississippi steamboats and the fantastic scene of them) was at pains one day to explain to them—he had been brought out to Montrose by Colonel Harrod—how false the reality was compared to the ideal that Southern people claimed for their way of life. "The fact is," said the professor, "it never existed, but Southerners are already busy creating a romantic Old South."I should also quote a passage from Caroline Gordon's None Shall Look Back – it is one of my favorite 'white' moments:
"But," Hugh said, "the point does not turn on whether some old fool of a colonel—or some scatter-brained old lady—is what we think he is—or she is. No, no. The point turns on what we believe in and desire, and want to find embodied somewhere, even in them."
"Whether it is or not," said the professor.
"It's romance," said the professor.
"Very well. Then the point is: not what the colonel is, being Southern, but what he would be if he were not Southern."
The professor regarded this remark as mere bombast. He had not been invited to Montrose, but had felt free to call because he was collecting statistics. Collecting statistics was already a new kind of entre. Nobody in the county had heard of statistics, before, but the Negroes were very much impressed. They welcomed investigation so heartily that what had at first seemed to the professor a gold mine of data began to irk him as excessively African detail, as communicative as it was imagined.
-- from So Red the Rose
Rives looked and saw that the door of one of the red-brick houses on the square had opened. A slender woman dressed in black was coming down the path. She had a
handkerchief in one hand. A silver spoon glinted in the other. She was coming straight up to the General. Rives heard her voice, low but distinct: "General Forrest, will you back your horse for me?"
The cavalry commander looked down, startled, then lifted his hat and obediently pulled on the reins. The horse, a powerful gray, took two steps backward. The women bent over and with the silver spoon scooped up some of the earth on which the charger's hoof had rested and put it in the handkerchief, then without a word to the General she walked back up the path, the laden handkerchief clutched in her hand.
The crowd cheered tumultuously and cried, "Forrest! Forrest!"
Forrest was riding toward them. His hat was still off, a lock of black hair had fallen across his forehead. His expression was stern then as if he had just realized what the woman's action meant; he smiled and held up his hand for quiet. The people, he said, must go to their homes. The town was safe, the Yankees would not get it again but the soldiers still had work to do; the detachment of infantry across Stone's River was yet to be dealt with. He let his hand sink to his side. His face resumed its usual stern expression. He was riding off through the crowd, his escort pressing close behind.
The crowd began to disperse. Here and there torches were extinguished. Those that were left flickered palely as the morning light grew. People started and looked at one another when from behind the courthouse a single shot rang out.
Rives, standing with the others, drew in deep breaths of the cool air. He had seen a man led off to die, had just heard the shot that killed him. He knew that he himself would not be standing here in this fresh morning light if the Confederates had not captured the town and his eyes followed the towering figure on the gray horse till it was lost in the crowd. +