In the wellspring of classic nineteenth-century American literature, a spectacular theme unites our greatest authors. They, in various ways, challenge the naïve optimism of the “American Adam” and American liberalism. They are deeply conservative in their skepticism toward human and civilizational progress and perfection.
It is true that the classics, especially Virgil and Cicero, along with the English literary tradition, influences American literature. But American literature, as a definitive and unique genre, begins with the publication of J. Hector St. John De Crevecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer in 1781 and his declaration of the new man, the American with boundless optimism.
Early American literature, then, in the intermediary stage of birth—say, 1781-1820—is equally unique and exceptional for many reasons. First, American literature gave prominence to female voices in an age when men were still the dominant literary voice. Susanna Rowson and Hannah Webster Foster come to mind as having written early classics that embodied the fervor of the new egalitarianism and republicanism in the aftermath of 1776. Second, many of these same female authors painted a portrait of the American woman as a New Eve in the New World.
The maturation of American literature, however, is generally understood to have occurred around 1820 with the rise of Washington Irving and the publication of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” In the 1820s through the 1850s, just prior to the Civil War, we witness the flurry of literary activity that produced some of the treasured classics of American literature like The Scarlet Letter, The Last of the Mohicans, and Moby-Dick. This constitutes the beginning of the American Renaissance.
In his seminal work The American Adam—reflective of a time when academia was worth something—R.W.B. Lewis writes that the aftermath of the War of 1812 brought a euphoric feeling to the American people. This was, of course, the “Era of Good Feelings.” Lewis writes, “In the decade following the end of the War of 1812, an air of hopefulness became apparent in American life and letters. It expressed the sense of enormous possibility that Americans were beginning to share about the future of their new country; but hopefulness at the outset was combined with feelings of impatience and hostility.” This hopefulness is undoubtedly contained in the writings of Crevecoeur who famously boasted that the new man “once scattered all over Europe,” now having left “behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds.”
Crevecoeur’s American is the idealization of Lewis’s “American Adam.” The American that Crevecoeur imagines is one freed from the bondage of the past, human nature, and sin—those dark “ancient prejudices and manners.” He is boundless in his aspiration and opportunities as Adam was in the Garden before the Fall.
Not long after the Era of Good Feelings and the movement toward the great cataclysm of the Civil War, Ralph Waldo Emerson presented his famous lecture “The Conservative” where he divided America into two parties: The Party of Hope and the Party of Memory. We may forgive Emerson for his lackluster and infantile characterization of conservatism as the prejudicial party of memory, but what Emerson underscored is relevant to the understanding of American literary culture and arts. Emerson, as a writer and intellectual belonging to the Party of Hope, found himself adrift in a storm of memory and criticism.
These ideas of the land of hope, party of hope, and man of hope have two origins as I can see it. First is the Pilgrim and Puritan religious optimism that led Cotton Mather to famously declare that God had a special providence for “His New England Israel.” Second is the political and economic optimism spelled out by Crevecoeur and energetically written about by Thomas Paine. Yet the classics of nineteenth-century American literature are decidedly against this naïve and innocent optimism that long characterized American liberalism and the so-called “American mind.” Hawthorne, Cooper, and Melville are, by the dictates laid out by Emerson, partisans of the party of memory and critics of the optimism of Emerson, Crevecoeur, and Paine.
Plato said that all peoples and nations believe in noble lies, noble myths, that provide meaning and a sense of purpose. American exceptionalism is but one iteration of this phenomenon we find among the German concept of Sonderweg or the British idea of Anglo-Israelism. This exceptionalism is part of the American experience and tradition; perhaps this is why the critics of hopeful innocence are so seductively powerful and enduring in ways that the optimists are not. On one hand, we see the traces of exceptionalism lingering in their works. On the other hand, Hawthorne, Cooper, and Melville kick the ladder of American hubris out from underneath us and remind us of the bloody and messy reality of our fallen world and fallen lives. Here I wish to discuss the theme of innocence lost in these three classics.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was no Puritan. His relation to Protestantism, to put it nicely, was heterodox at best. Yet Hawthorne isn’t so much an anti-puritan, per se, as he is a critic of the religious optimism that characterized the Puritan experiment, which still holds much of contemporary American Evangelicalism under its mythic sway. Hawthorne’s endurance, I will argue, is in the fact that he criticizes the religious optimism that stems from our Puritan heritage.
In the opening scene of The Scarlet Letter, we find both the optimism of American Progress and the critic’s call to humility and realism: “The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.” Here we see American utopianism existing alongside death and imprisonment. Death and imprisonment are the true governing themes of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter.
Hester Prynne and Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale are Hawthorne’s instantiation of Adam and Eve. Hester and Dimmesdale, had they shed those “ancient prejudices,” would have lived a very happy life in the New World. “Arthur Dimmesdale gazed into Hester’s face with a look in which hope and joy shone out,” Hawthorne writes when Hester and Dimmesdale reunite in the Edenic forests of New England out of the prying eyes of their Puritan neighbors. It is in this Edenic environment that we see Hester and Dimmesdale shed their sin and burdens and embrace each other in a love every bit as hopeful and optimistic as Emersonian naturalistic theology:
By another impulse, she took off the formal cap that confined her hair; and down it fell upon her shoulders, dark and rich, with at once a shadow and a light in its abundance, and imparting the charm of softness to her features. There played around her mouth, and beamed out of her eyes, a radiant and tender smile, that seemed gushing from the very heart of womanhood… Her sex, her youth, and the whole richness of her beauty, came back from what men call the irrevocable past, and clustered themselves, with her maiden hope, and a happiness before unknown, within the magic circle of this hour. And, as if the gloom of the earth and sky had been but the effluence of these two mortal hearts, it vanished with their sorrow. All at once, as with a sudden smile of heaven, forth burst the sunshine, pouring a very flood into the obscure forest, gladdening each green leaf, transmuting the yellow fallen ones to gold, and gleaming adown the gray trunks of the solemn trees. The objects that had made a shadow hitherto, embodied the brightness now. The course of the little brook might be traced by its merry gleam afar into the wood’s heart of mystery, which had become a mystery of joy.
There is no finer moment in all of Hawthorne’s works where the hope of the American experience and experiment is seen than in this stirring passage of The Scarlet Letter. Hester rips off the scarlet A, the last image and chain of those old world prejudices, and in the arms of her lover—like Eve in the arms of Adam in Milton’s Paradise Lost—the joy of sunshine illuminates our mortal lovers. The joy of Hester and Dimmesdale, here, is the joy they had prior to their act of adultery.
But when the A is returned to Hester’s bosom by the demands of Pearl, who is the reminder of the reality of sin to all parties and persons in The Scarlet Letter, the natural joy they had shared for a brief moment is desecrated and destroyed. Pearl who, like God, watches over the illicit lovers and only “recognizes” them with the A pinned on the bosom and throbbing hand over the heart.
Joy in love, the ultimate hope in Christianity, is the hope of Hester and Dimmesdale in the novel. Yet this joy in love cannot be because of their adultery. The novel proceeds to conclude the only way a story without the possibility of reconciliation from sin can end: death.
But there is further irony over Hester and Dimmesdale’s lost innocence. The Puritans left the Old World to build a New Jerusalem on the virgin lands of North America. Hester and Dimmesdale, however, seek to return to that decadent and dying Old World filled, especially, with Catholics to escape their sin and find that joy they had prior to the story and revealed, if only briefly, by that “flood of sunshine” in the forest. Having lost their innocence, Hester and Dimmesdale are, quite literally, expelled from the Garden of the New World and forced to sail east of New England and back to Europe. This exile, however, is cut short by Dimmesdale’s death. Hester, as we know, lives on for a little longer but dies as well. So too does Roger Chillingworth, Hester’s husband from England and a vengeful demon, but not before taking some measure of sympathy and leaving Pearl a substantial inheritance that makes her the richest young girl in the New World.
What happened to Pearl in the aftermath of all this? Hawthorne leaves us in the dark. Brilliantly so, I might add. The readers can determine for themselves whether she came into that inheritance, married and lived well, or died like her parents. In The Scarlet Letter, not to mention “Young Goodman Brown,” Hawthorne critiques the naïve religious optimism that characterizes the party of hope in America. In Hawthorne’s classic, we still see traces of that optimism but it is surrounded by death and imprisonment.
The other current of American optimism is the political and economic progressivism expounded by Crevecoeur. If Hawthorne critiqued religious optimism, two great classics of American literature expose the hollowness of the political and economic optimism of American exceptionalism: James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.
What makes Cooper’s works special is how he deftly weaves the heroic Adamic figure—Hawkeye/Natty Bumppo—with tragic characters (Uncas, Chingachgook, and Magua) in the New York wilderness beset by the advancement of civilization and war. In fact, civilization and destruction go together in Cooper’s creation.
Yet Cooper’s Leatherstocking tales, specifically The Last of the Mohicans, still play with the archetypes of the New Eve and New Adam in America. Alice, a sweet, faithful, yet oftentimes hopeless woman, is the novel’s Eve character. She is wholesome, young, and meek. But who is the New Adam? It is not Heyward but Hawkeye. We also have instantiations of the “noble savage.” Magua first appears as someone different from the rest of the English soldiers he is accompanying to Fort William Henry. So too is Uncas, a noble savage whose heroism contrasts the demonic deceit of Magua. Then, of course, there is Tamenund who best embodies wisdom and, as the grandfatherly sage, mediates between the various rivals.
The Last of the Mohicans juxtaposes the two great scenes of rupture in American life and collective memory. We witness the serenity of nature as well as nature’s suffocation under blood, smoke, and gunfire. The wilderness, the garden, this new land of promise, is sometimes “buried in eternal sleep; not the least sound arising from the forest, unless it was the distant and scarcely audible rippling of water-course. Birds, beasts, and man, appeared to slumber alike, if, indeed, any of the latter were to be found in that wide tract of wilderness. But the sounds of the rivulet, feeble and murmuring as they were, relieved the guides at once from no trifling embarrassment, and towards it they immediately held their way.” Such serenity is then destroyed:
A frightful change had also occurred in the season. The sun had hid its warmth behind an impenetrable mass of vapor, and hundreds of human forms, which had blackened beneath the fierce heats of August, were stiffening in their deformity, before the blasts of a premature November. The curling and spotless mists, which had been seen sailing above the hills towards the north, were now returning in an interminable dusky sheet, that was urged along by the fury of a tempest… In short, it was a scene of wilderness and desolation.
But the destruction of the wilderness is not Cooper’s primary concern. Instead, it is the political destruction of people and how neither the New Adam nor the noble savage can escape the vicissitudes of time and history. Hawkeye, as we know, is a white Englishman who has escaped those ancient prejudices and hatred to find a home with his Mohican family. Yet entering this Edenic world means he has inadvertently fallen into the tragic world in which a race of people is moving toward their extirpation.
Hawkeye is heroic. He is at home in the wilderness. But he is constantly at war in the wilderness and never has that prelapsarian serenity in his adventures. We meet Hawkeye when he, Chingachgook, and Uncas save Heyward, Alice, Cora, and David from Magua and the treacherous Huron. Hawkeye guides the Munro daughters and Heyward to Fort William Henry which is under siege by the French and their Huron allies. He again appears to save Alice and Heyward and David from the vengeful hand of Magua during the climax of the story. Hawkeye lives in the heroics of history and not in the serenity of primitiveness.
Additionally, we dive deeper and deeper into the hell of the New World experienced by Magua, Uncas, Chingachgook, and Tamenund. Cooper does not blame, as has become commonplace in the ideologically-driven modern university, all the plight of the Native Americans on the European settlers. As the Native American characters reveal in their own dialogues and monologues, they too have had bitter rivalries and war among themselves. (The land of innocence was never innocent.) Now, however, the land of innocence is becoming a land of tragedy. And that, I would contend, is the masterful creation of Cooper in The Last of Mohicans.
Cooper manages to balance hope (Heyward and Alice) and tragedy (Uncas, Magua, and Cora). The political optimism of the Era of Good Feelings is challenged by Cooper’s reminder that the New World was forged in blood and fire—the blood and fire of Native American rivalries and the European rivalries that pit Native against Native and white against white in a destructive battle for control over the North American continent. Not only has the prejudice of the old world come to taint this new world, but this new world was never free of old world prejudices to begin with. Huron, Delaware, and Mohican have all exuded those prejudices which make, and continue to make, the wilderness a graveyard. The Last of the Mohicans is the great American tragedy exposing the emptiness of civilizational and political optimism.
Yet Cooper is, to a certain extent, sympathetic to the Native American plight. As Chingachgook cries as he buries his son, Uncas, he exclaims, “My race has gone from the shores of the salt lake, and hills of the Delawares. But who can say that the Serpent of his tribe has forgotten his wisdom? I am alone—” Hawkeye comforts Chingachgook, and the novel ends on an atmosphere of tragedy. Chingachgook has lost his only son and with him the final seed of his people.
The cost of civilization is not just the ongoing desolation of the wilderness but the destruction of entire peoples. As Tamenund prophetically says at the end of the novel, “The pale-faces are masters of the earth, and the time of the redmen has not yet come again. My day has been too long. In the morning I saw the sons of Unamis happy and strong; and yet, before the night has come, have I lived to see the last warrior of the wise race of the Mohicans.” The fact that The Last of Mohicans ends with a funeral is indicative of the innocence lost theme that permeates the work. It is somber and moving, and it has moments of hope and optimism for new birth and life, but at its core it is tragic. Set in the backdrop of war, The Last of the Mohicans challenges political optimism by reminding us of the real cost of progress and the persistent reality of what Christians have always called sin.
While Hawthorne and Cooper challenged the religious and political optimism of hopeful innocence respectively, Melville provided the most dazzling critique of economic optimism in Moby-Dick. Moby-Dick, more than any other classic work of nineteenth-century American literature, is a direct challenge to Crevecoeur’s thesis.
Perhaps fittingly, the famous opening lines of Melville’s classic evoke Crevecoeur’s new man idea: “Call me Ishmael.” It is not, “I am Ishmael” or “My name is Ishmael.” Rather, it is “Call me Ishmael,” a command given by the authorial protagonist. It is a self-created identity like Crevecoeur’s American farmer. Whereas Crevecoeur’s new American farmer is at home with the pastoral idyll, Ishmael cannot find such a home. He is everywhere enclosed by the realities of the technological civilization.
Melville is unique among American writers in having initially scorned romantic pastoralism. But as he aged and grew wiser, Melville became alienated from mechanistic and industrial urbanism. Melville’s own dynamic movement away from the horrors of industrial progressivism toward a sympathy but not outright endorsement of the pastoral idyll is played out for us in Ishmael and his foil, Ahab.
Ishmael, like Ahab, originally informs us that he joins the Pequod because of “the overwhelming idea of the great whale himself” and the need for income. Ishmael goes even further to offer the standard economic argument of progress as to why whalers are the true wheel of the comfort and peace of the world. Ishmael is, here, Crevecoeur’s ideal American. There is an original innocence in Ishmael’s befriending of Queequeg and his description of New Bedford. But everyone, Ishmael included, is united in Ahab’s pursuit of the whale, which is, as Ahab’s various speeches reveal, more the pursuit of absolute power and dominion than the attempt to rid nature of evil or to get revenge.
As the Pequod sails ever further out into sea, Ishmael, serving on the top of the mast head and peering out over the expanse of space, time, and nature, becomes lost in the serenity of it “all.” Ishmael is overcome by a spirit of enchantment that he has never before experienced, an enchantment that blends naturalism with lyrical Psalmody: “In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space.” Ishmael finally experiences the “watery pastorals” of the serene, unconscious, idyll.
But while Ishmael is experiencing this, Ahab speaks to the crew and reminds them of the dangers of nature, the whale, and the dream of gold plunder and economic progress. Ishmael didn’t crash and burn in his transcendental, “Pantheist” moment, but is rather dragged back into the chains of material reality. Power, not enchantment, is the purpose of the Pequod’s mission.
In the contrast of Ishmael and Ahab, Melville pits the two kingdoms of the world against each other. The kingdom of enchantment, romantical and nonsensical as it is at times, stands athwart the kingdom of power and its destructive and domineering purposes. Melville, however, through the despondency and madness of Ahab, plunges a dagger into the heart of Crevecoeur’s thesis (not to mention the Lockean liberalism that undergirds it). Ahab is not interested in power and dominion for the sake of achieving a pleasing and pleasurable life: “Oh! time was, when as the sunrise nobly spurred me, so the sunset soothed. No more. This lovely light, it lights not me; all loveliness is anguish to me, since I can ne’er enjoy. Gifted with the high perception, I lack the low, enjoying power; damned, most subtly and most malignantly! damned in the midst of Paradise!” Ahab is invested in power for power’s sake—Ahab’s ego and will are united in the prideful attempt to destroy nature altogether (and, in the process, man himself).
In Ahab, Melville paints the gritty, realistic portrait of the “iron way.” While men like Crevecoeur and Locke may be telling us that we harness power and industriousness for the sake of comfort, the reality is that we become addicted to technological power and dominion and destroy the last remnants of unspoiled nature in the pursuit of power.
The terrifying reality of economic industrialism and its destructive spirit to nature and to man himself is further realized as we approach the climactic battle between Ahab and Moby Dick. Machinery and fire are now the images that Melville uses to describe the preparation for the great conflagration:
With huge pronged poles they pitched hissing masses of blubber into the scalding pots, or stirred up the fires beneath, till the snaky flames darted, curling, out of the doors to catch them by the feet. The smoke rolled away in sullen heaps… Their tawny features, now all begrimed with smoke and sweat, their matted beards, and the contrasting barbaric brilliance of their teeth, all these were strangely revealed in the capacious emblazonings of the works.
The economic way of life so lauded by Crevecoeur (and Locke) has a demonic and dark undercurrent to it. Aboard the Pequod, man has become a slave to this economic adventure of power. He is alienated. Enslaved. Detached from nature. And he dies because of it. The Pequod, as we know, is the moving symbol of economic civilization. The men are all of us. They are not self-made men. They are not free. They are enslaved and hammered into the machinery of progress and suffer and die as a result of this enslavement to materialism.
Madness consumes Ahab over the course of the story. But here we must ask whether Ahab becomes mad or whether he was always mad to begin with. I believe Melville implies the latter: Ahab was always mad. We realize too late that Ahab’s madness has endangered all of us.
What began in optimism—the adventure to hunt Moby Dick—has become a terrifying and cruel descent into hell. The Pequod’s story is our own story. America began in optimism. It has fallen into a death spiral of endless economic exploitation and the pursuit of power. How do we escape the madness that consumes us? By returning to the kingdom of enchantment—as silly and ridiculous as that sounds for modern man.
Ishmael is saved because he is the only one to free himself from Ahab’s will, from this enslavement to the “iron way” of technological civilization. In freeing himself from Ahab’s will, Ishmael returns to the enchantment he had experienced earlier in the novel—his only true moment of freedom and self-creation. This brief freedom is the hope for us all but a hope that few will find. In the midst of our voyage we must come to accept the ambiguity of beauty and terror in nature which leads to those “few fleeting moments” of serenity: “Oh grassy glades! oh, ever vernal endless landscapes in the soul; in ye,—though long parched by the dead drought of the earthly life—in ye, men yet may roll, like young horses in new morning clover; and for some few fleeting moments, feel the cool dew of the life immortal on them.”
Melville doesn’t offer an escape to the pastoral and enchanted view of life. Instead, Ishmael’s salvation is through the destruction of the techno-tyrannical society that is the Pequod. Alone, he drifts out into the margins to find serenity and salvation, partly unconscious, we should add. If our world is going to be destroyed by the fires and engines of economic progress, some of us, like Ishmael, may yet survive. There is, ironically, hope in that.
In examining the wellspring of classic nineteenth-century American literature, we begin to see a spectacular theme that unites our greatest authors. They all, in various ways, challenge the hopeful, naïve, innocent optimism of the American founding. They are, in Emerson’s words, partisans of the party of memory and, therefore, ironically and deeply conservative in their skepticism toward human and civilizational progress and perfection. This carries forward even into modern American classics like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
Hawthorne, Cooper, and Melville also wrestle with this crisis in their own ways. The Scarlet Letter, The Last of the Mohicans, and Moby-Dick do not offer a solution to our problem. They merely expose our crisis.
Hawthorne is the hopeless conservative. His characters, especially Goodman Brown, become bitter and alienated. Hawthorne becomes that cranky and vile conservative whom Emerson dislikes. This, however, doesn’t take away Hawthorne’s genius or enduring relevance.
Cooper still had to finish his Leatherstocking tales after writing The Last of the Mohicans. But as Cooper aged beyond The Last of the Mohicans, he turned to a more traditional and realist brand of Anglicanism. Cooper’s conservative Episcopalianism comes to dominate his later works. Love, Cooper more strongly asserts later in life, is the salvific force that raptures us out of the failures of politics, economics, and sterile rationalism. We must, however, have faith; otherwise, like Raoul, we may lose our Ghita in the process.
Melville never again experienced success after Moby-Dick. But what was foreshadowed in Moby-Dick became the preoccupation of his life after the Civil War: enchantment through poetry. Melville, then, offers the path that Richard Wagner took in his operas. Salvation lies within the creative spirit of enchantment, poetry, and Psalmody. In Davidic songs we find something truly magical, mystifying, and enchanting. Indeed, even songs of innocence lost possess a certain enchanting and enduring allure and point to a greater reality.
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The featured image is “The Scarlet Letter” (1860) by T.H. Matteson (1813-1884) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.