The American Interest

Books, Film, and History

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The Way We Were?

What So Proudly We Hail is more than just a memorial to a bygone American era; it's a handbook for recovering endangered civic virtues.

Published on October 3, 2011
What So Proudly We Hail
edited by Amy A. Kass, Leon R. Kass and Diana Schaub
Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2011, 790 pp., $35

The title of What So Proudly We Hail tells the prospective reader pretty much what to expect. No doubt another worthy collection of American documents and stories of the sort made popular a couple of decades ago by William Bennett, put together in the hope of countering the contemporary orthodoxy of race-class-gender which, even in the curriculum of our public schools, tends to inculcate disdain for much of our heritage. Well, yes, but more importantly, not quite.

The book’s three editors, Leon and Amy Kass and Diana Schaub, clearly hold the general view that America is indeed a Good Thing. But given that all three are political philosophers, they are more interested in making readers think about what it is to be American. This they do ably both by the selection of texts, six dozen in all, some of them old warhorses but most not, and by the editorial questions they raise at the start of each selection. Thus, on Hawthorne’s “The Maypole of Merry Mount”, a story about Puritans clashing with pagans, they urge us to think through some large and perennial questions: “What can be said for and against the two dominant parties? Is there really some middle way combining the virtues of each without their correlative vices?” Similarly, on Henry James’s “Pandora”, they note the heroine’s name and ask if, like the original, who released evils on mankind but preserved hope, “the gifts of the new Pandora, the self-made girls, [are] equally ambiguous?”

The book consists mostly of short stories, which is slightly unusual for a compilation of this sort. But it does feature political documents, too, including speeches by Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Oliver Wendell Holmes and, yes, Calvin Coolidge. There are also selections from the Federalist Papers and Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” It ends with patriotic songs and symbols. It is organized thematically, starting with national identity and “the American creed” and then moving to topics like civic virtue, self-sacrifice, compassion, “the goals of civic life” and the creation of unity out of diversity.

Three themes emerged for me over both the time the book covers (from the Founding to the present, but there isn’t much that is really contemporary in it) and the time it took me to read through its 781 pages. First there comes admiration for toughness both physical and moral; second a moralism in content and a tendency to allegory in form that traces pretty obviously back to the Puritan heritage; and third a preoccupation with connecting oneself to the country, with questions of identity and the nature and possibility of patriotism, moving between skepticism and outright gratitude.

Nobody wants to be a sap in this book, and if you want to see American toughness at its apex, go to Jack London. Of course, the protagonist of his “To Build A Fire”, a cold, hard piece about how to freeze to death, finds out that he fatally miscalculates precisely by overestimating his own toughness and underestimating nature’s. But whether toughness turns out frequently to entail self-sacrifice, as in General Patton’s speech to the Third Army, or to mask modesty and loving-kindness, as in Stephen Crane’s “The Veteran”, it manifests itself throughout the collection, as one might expect of the literature of a Protestant, pioneer country. Sometimes it is physical toughness that becomes moral heroism, as in Crane’s “The Open Boat.” Sometimes it is the toughness of the consummate professional, like Ted Williams, in John Updike’s classic essay “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” (who refuses to tip his hat even after hitting that final homer). Sometimes it is the indomitable toughness of a Frederick Douglass, who manages to wrestle a slave-breaker into defeat without crossing the line into murderous violence. Sometimes it is the enduring, dutiful toughness of the protagonist of Updike’s “The Deacon”, and sometimes the moral toughness of someone taking a stand for justice against the law, like Martha Hale in Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers.” Toughness often emerges in the authors’ tone or viewpoint. The American tradition of flat, apparently uninflected but of course highly colored factual narrative dominates here, whether it is Stephen Crane or Wallace Stegner, and a cold fisheye for an author’s own characters isn’t absent either. There are a couple of selections by Ring Lardner, after all.

But with all that apparent worldly realism goes a huge load of moral instruction, as well as a surprising amount of allegory. The Puritan world of Everyman lives here, most obviously perhaps in Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”, where the two regular clerks are characterized in terms of the medieval theory of the humors, and where, I suspect at least, Bartleby himself is an allegory of the death-within-life that dominates the passive, fearful narrator. But Crane’s “The Blue Hotel” is allegorical enough (though I find that its apparent point, namely the inhumanity of the townspeople to an outsider, seems undermined both by the character of that outsider and by the fact that the moral is posed by the most preachy and morally dubious member of the cast). Even recent writers like Philip Roth in his “Defender of the Faith” and Wallace Stegner in his marvelous two stories “The Traveler” and “He Who Spits at the Sky” are teaching moral lessons through roughly allegorical accounts. While not exactly allegorical, Ralph Ellison’s wonderful “The Little Man at Cheehaw Station” could be added to the list of very explicit point-making stories. That combination of tough realism and underlying moralism, the kind all Americans of a certain age remember from Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon, keeps surfacing here.

There are, of course, some counter-themes of considerable importance. Perhaps most interesting is a proto-Nietzschean speech by Oliver Wendell Holmes about memories of combat in the Civil War, “In Our Youth Our Hearts Were Touched With Fire.” One can see the origins of the scrupulously relativistic progressivism in Holmes’s later jurisprudence in what must have been a profound revelation to him that the fighters in the Confederate Army were as devoted to their cause as he was to his. There the toughness is at the surface and the moralism is present too, but in apparently negative form, as the thoroughgoing asceticism about belief in the truth of one’s beliefs. Often I tend to think of American pragmatism and progressivism as a combination of overconfidence and shallow cleverness; Holmes’s speech suggests that there are deeper, more passionate roots that at least once were there and help explain the powerful grip that relativism has on some souls.

The third recurring theme, of national identity, focuses mostly on assimilation and separation. There are many selections dealing directly with the great issue of American history: race. Some of the most moving to me are from black writers who, despite everything, find grounds to identify with the country that mistreated them so badly. Here Frederick Douglass’s “Why Should a Colored Man Enlist?” and Ralph Ellison’s “In A Strange Country” come first to mind, along with the debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois about “the talented tenth” (where, in retrospect, you can see that both are right, both know that about the other, but both feel the urgency of pushing their end of the argument.) Henry James’s treatment of the “American Woman” in “Pandora” is less immediately moving but also shows, here in an essentially jovial light, the advent of some new kind of person who fits this country and no other.

The Jewish responses tend to be simply grateful. In her account of her own early naive patriotism, Mary Antin reminds us of what an awful lot of contemporary civic education would be ashamed to notice; namely, how wonderful America is compared to living in the shtetl (or any of the other oppressive environs from which immigrants have fled). And Leo Rosten’s more bemused account of the great Hyman Kaplan’s tribute to “Judge Vashington” and “Abram Lincohen” is essentially more of the same. But there are also the insiders’ views of assimilation, notably their humane concern that we aren’t living up to our promises. Crane’s “The Blue Hotel” and Stegner’s “He Who Spits at the Sky” are good examples. The complexity of the outsider coming to terms with being American, and the equal complexity of the insider coming to terms with the meaning of that identity, are both sufficiently present in this collection to require and arouse clarifying reflection.

Toughness, high-minded morality and identity: Each of these themes, and others, appears in manifold form and intermingles. And of course styles vary considerably as well. Sometimes the point is made straightforwardly, as in London, or in Roth’s famous “Defender of the Faith” (where a Jewish officer refuses to give special favors to a Jewish soldier), or in Alice Walker’s account of class within a black family, “Everyday Use.” Other times, as in James’s “Pandora”, Ellison’s “Little Man”, or Saul Bellow’s “Father-to-Be”, nuance rules. These differences of style also point to different kinds of readers. The great texts that announce the theoretical principles that make us Americans (for example, Washington’s letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, his Farewell Address, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and even Coolidge’s speech on the 150th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence) or the patriotic speeches about what Americans have sacrificed for those principles (for example, Holmes’s speech, John McCain’s tribute to Roy Benavidez or John F. Kelly’s Veteran’s Day Speech) combine with the short stories to give a sense of how much real diversity there was to be found in a country whose more abstract effort at uniformity involved the promotion of liberty and individual opportunity, along with a morality of care for others.

Yet even though there are some contemporary voices to be heard here (McCain, Walker, Roth and Ursula K. LeGuin, among others), the overall effect on me, at least, was to induce nostalgia. The America that comes through here isn’t all that much like the one I hear, or at least read about, around me today. The undoubted hortatory purpose of this collection suggests that, perhaps for the editors too, there seemed a need to remind us of who we once were or were supposed to be, because we’re not all that much like it anymore.

As I gather from my friends who keep up with current American literature, there are still plenty of writers, popular ones, whose work continues the traditions found in this book. Laura Hillenbrand comes readily to my mind. So does David Foster Wallace’s now-famous commencement address at Kenyon College. Tim O’Brien, Cormac McCarthy and Jonathan Franzen came to my colleagues’ minds. And, in the immigrant tradition, the concern with assimilation and identity is well represented by Richard Rodriguez (who is included in this book) and a number of fine South Asian authors. Perhaps these authors betoken, as some critics have argued, a rebirth of concern with human beings in their fullness, beyond the kind of postmodern game-playing (think here Barth, Pynchon and DeLillo) that has received so much critical attention in recent decades.

Still, it seems to me that the general culture out of which the older works arose has changed significantly, in ways that make this book seem somehow about an older world than ours. Specifically, my sense is that something happened to the culture in the 1960s that transformed and simplified older American sensibilities. It is foreshadowed in this book in two Ring Lardner stories: “Contract” and “Old Folks’ Christmas.” One is a merciless destruction of bourgeois pettiness, the other a not very sympathetic account of the pathos of parents whose children have no time for them, even at Christmas. In them you can see the American tough guy moralist (we all remember Rick in Casablanca, who allegedly sticks his neck out for nobody but really always fights for the underdog) becoming a real cynic, wised up, hip, scornful and very proud of himself for being so knowing. This is the tone I remember so well from the ’60s, whether it was Pynchon or Terry Southern, Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman for that matter.

Of course, that cynicism was always paired, as in the older model, with a powerful moralism (“Give Peace a Chance”, or even “Ho Ho, Ho Chi Minh; NLF is gonna win”). When the moralism went into temporary remission after the end of the draft and Kent State, cynicism became the dominant cultural style in the form of an ever more exquisite self-aware irony. Humor went from the old Jack Benny style of “Your money or your life.” “I’m thinking! I’m thinking!” to Steve Martin and a long list of successors down to John Stewart and Stephen Colbert who pretend to be dopes in order to convey how truly hip they are. The films and novels educated people loved became more “transgressive”, more moralistic in their cynicism, from Easy Rider down to Wise Guys and beyond. In the process, things got polarized and simplified, the two being each accelerators of the other. And where there was nuance, it wasn’t in the linkage between the public and the private but, increasingly, in the focus on the individual’s inner life. Where the public world appears, it tends to be in primary colors and stereotypical designs.

But of course the moralism was only in remission. In any case, with race, it throve throughout. The ambiguity of a proud Frederick Douglass, furious about racism and insistent that American principles, if not practice, justified him in his pride, gave way to a Justice of the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall, whose career appeared supremely to have fulfilled Douglass’ faith but who thought it appropriate in 1987, at the bicentennial of the Constitution, to criticize not only the Constitution for falling short of embodying true racial equality but even the Declaration since it excluded an earlier draft’s complaint about the slave trade. It would, he seemed to think, be cowardly not to cut off the branch (the judicial one, as it happens) on which he was sitting. Being wised up and making everyone else wise up was a high moral duty. In this, he faithfully reflected his time.

With the Iraq War that moralism received another and much uglier shot of energy. No one reading The American Interest needs to be reminded of examples. Thus, a wised-up cynicism on the surface and beneath it a boiling, underlying moralism are barely in touch except to intensify each other, and this explosive binary mental world became the contemporary style of the established nonprofit institutions—what, to take it to a different sphere, The American Interest’s Walter Russell Mead likes to call “the blue model.” And it didn’t take too long for the counter “red” model to form with the resultant style of politics that all note and deplore (if only in their enemies): that is, a demonizing, caricaturing, emotional, apocalyptic and in some ways distressingly European way of carrying on. This was clearly on view during the effort to keep the country from reneging on its debts. Stephen Colbert, meet Andrew Breitbart. But the population that listens to them also exerts pressure on John Boehner and Harry Reid.

As this collection reminds us, a lot got lost in the transformation from then to now, above all nuance, charm, true self-deflation, real humor and the compassion that arises from situations and the heart rather than from textbooks and the brain. The capacity to pay unprejudiced attention to phenomena and to learn from them seems to have gone missing. Perhaps I am here only revealing my age and premature crankiness in saying that the current conversation about who we are seems to me more irritable, shriller, uglier, yet also shallower and finally dumber than it once was. One of the stories mentioned above, Wallace Stegner’s “To Spit at the Sky”, published in 1958, presciently warned us about what we were losing. In it, some white activists are celebrating a victory in defense of an innocent Mexican-American youth. They want to recruit him as a poster-boy for their cause. He and his girlfriend just want to get out of the barrio and go to Idaho, where he won’t be compelled by the honor code of his friends to get in trouble with the law. The white activists win, heedless of the harm they are doing. He gives in, knowing that it is useless to “spit at the sky.”

It’s like the old joke about the Russian Jewish soldier in World War I who was ordered to fire on a charging mass of Austrians. “Don’t shoot”, he yells in response to the order, “there are people out there.” This book reminds us that, even outside the immediate family, there are people out there, not just abstractions. In that, it seems old-fashioned. Still, the fact that authors like Rodriguez, O’Brien, Hillenbrand and McCarthy seem to speak to Americans today may indicate that What So Proudly We Hail can be more than a memorial to a bygone America. With any luck at all, it may turn out to be useful for becoming again what we still are capable of being.

Fred Baumann is professor of political science at Kenyon College.