HISTORY is mostly, as the feminists lament, his story,” being in the words of Carlyle “the biography of great men.” It is also an anatomy of error, a great book of mistakes from which today’s great man may learn the lesson of the past. History is therefore the story of great men’s failings and failures, which is to say that as literature it approximates tragedy. With Coleridge, Hegel, and G. B. Shaw, we may doubt whether great men really do learn much from history, for they seem to be bound to repeat past errors, becoming thereby tragic rather than triumphant heroes; but with Samuel Butler, we may be sure that when the great man turns historian it will be to rectify his mistakes by a process of revision, reforming his errors by justifying them. We witnessed a powerful illustration of this truth in the fall of Richard M. Nixon, for whom history was a Guinness Book of Records to which he contributed a considerable list of presidential “firsts.” That is, Nixon saw the Past as a pile of facts from the top of which the Great Man thrust his head and shoulders into the statistical Future. He was, as he saw it, a Carlylean Hero whose time had come, and in time his time did come, but not in the manner which he meant, nor were his concluding presidential firsts much to his liking either. And he may be expected to spend the rest of his life revising the facts of his political life much as he edited the electronic tape which was his undoing, revisionist autobiography being very much in the American vein, a main artery which may be traced back to Ben Franklin’s own.
Like so many of his inventions, Ben’s book was but a new, improved version of Spiritual Autobiography, a favorite Puritan genre, and it took its cast from another Puritan literary mode, Providential (i.e., revisionist) History. Neither form, it is important to note, accommodates a tragic view of life, with the single exception of William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, which, if it does not actually frame the history of Plymouth as a tragedy, does in effect present it as such. But the Great Tradition, from Edward Johnson’s Wonder Working Providence to Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana, is one of compiling evidence that the Saints of Massachusetts are God’s Chosen People, proving on the national what Spiritual Autobiography proves on the personal level, that the people and the person are in a spiritual state of grace—however much troubled and tormented the flesh. Such a people or person cannot come to tragic ends, for such flaws as they have are but enhancements of the larger whole. Puritan doctrine no longer has any particular relevance to American life, but much as “Redeemer Nation” became first the idea of Manifest Destiny and then the Marshall Plan, so we may observe the transformation of the idea of Personal Election from electio dei to electio populi, from whence Nixon drew his deep conviction of holier-than-thouness, his incredible powers of self-righteousness.
There remains, however, a missing link in the metaphoric progression from Ben Franklin to Dick Nixon and that is Ragged Dick, Horatio Alger Junior’s contribution, who takes his name from Poor Richard, Franklin’s persona grata, he who gave the world The Way to Wealth. What is popularly called the Horatio Alger Story is a ritualized fiction based on the Franklin Formula, a fabulization of the American Dream of Success. As Franklinad, the Alger Story is a further secularization of Spiritual Biography, Foxe’s Martyrs becoming foxy magnates, fictional exempla inspiring American youth to go and do likewise. As we shall see, Alger’s was a formula with a difference, and Richard M. Nixon is not a perfect Alger hero by any means, but the Whittier-to-the-White-House saga is most certainly another American variation on the Dick Whittington theme. Moreover, the Alger connection is dramatically demonstrated by Nixon’s greatest creation—Spiro Agnew. Like Alger, Agnew was a nonentity who became a household word associated with acts of aggressive alliteration, but he chiefly illustrates the other side of the American Myth of Success, wherein “myth” connotes not the truths that men live by but the fictions that leak at the seams. In Spiro Agnew’s rise and fall, we have a high-speed paradigm of Nixon’s own agon, illustrating not only the fiction of the Self-Made Man but the terrible truth of the Clay Foot of the Climber. Agnew’s total performance demonstrates that opportunism is to opportunity in America what permissiveness is to freedom, the Man on the Make also being on the Take.
There is an old story much to the point here, about the midwestern millionaire who started out as a poor boy selling papers in the streets of St, Louis, who worked day and night until he had saved enough money to build a little newsstand on a corner, and then he worked even harder until he owned another little newsstand and then another. In time, he bought a horse and wagon and began delivering papers to his chain of newsstands, and by the time he came of age he had saved enough money to take a vacation. So he booked passage on a steamboat down to New Orleans, where he met and married the madam of a whorehouse, and that is how he became a millionaire. This is not necessarily a true story, but there is a certain truth in it, dark with the cynicism which the events of the past few years have imbued with an unholy light. Like so many dirty jokes, it is an impudent refutation of accepted proprieties, like dayglo grafitti, a luminescent wall-writing in dark places. You have to sell yourself to amount to anything in America, and to do so amounts—whatever the arrangement— to prostitution.
Hawthorne’s “My Kinsman, Major Molineaux,” provides us with a definitive fable in this latter regard, for on his frustrated search through Boston for the rich relative who will give him a hand up in life, young Robin encounters only one friendly person—a prostitute. Assuring him that “”Major Mollineaux dwells here,”” she tries to lure Robin into her house, and though the moral to Hawthorne’s dark tale seems to be that in America young men cannot depend on help from above, there is a great deal of validity in the prostitute’s lie. Hawthorne’s story antedates the Alger Story by a considerable period, having been first published two years before Alger was born, but in terms of our literature it provides an effective antidote to the Rags-to-Riches formula. In the post-Alger period, a number of American writers came to precise and antagonistic terms with the Alger Story, from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer (and Ragged Huck) to Dreiser’s American Tragedy. In Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, Nathanael West’s Cool Mission, and Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run?, Making It in modern American literature is an overreaching comedy darkening into tragedy, the inevitable death of the perennial salesman of Self.
It is important to recognize, however, that the anti-Alger strain in American literature appears most frequently in our fiction, and if the fact that Spiro Agnew has chosen to give his version of the truth by means of a novel with a tragic denoument asserts his Greek origins, so also does it testify to his assimilation into our culture. Alger himself wrote mostly fiction, his lives of Garfield and Lincoln for children quickly exhausting the catalogue of those men who actually did rise from poverty to presidential power. He was thereby able to facilitate the presentation of what is essentially a comic view of life, for though he placed his young heroes in realistic enough settings—whether the grinding poverty of rural or the desperate streets of city life—he endowed his fables with a magical atmosphere, a Dickensian mood of marvel and miracle. The typical Alger hero is a lad of humble circumstances but of stalwart and sterling character, who performs some heroic deed that brings him to the attention of a wealthy gentleman, a patron who gives him that which is the desire of all Alger heroes, college graduates, and ex-convicts—a new suit of clothes and a job. The Alger hero, that is to say, inevitably and invariably gets what is called “a break,” and once again we may think of Spiro Agnew being elevated by a similar stroke of good fortune, lifted from the ranks of the P.T.A. to the status of a V.I.P., enjoying the company of kings and comedians. But we should also remember Hawthorne’s nightmare antithesis, Robin’s frustrating encounters and the final vision of the Major himself, being ridden through town not in pomp and circumstance but in tar and feathers. If Alger’s stories are a kind of fairy tale, illuminating the Protestant Ethic with an Alladinish Lamp, then Hawthorne’s is a tale of terror, wherein the light is supplied by the frightful gleam of torches.
Moreover, if we go all the way back to Poor Richard, we will find a somewhat different version of things from that promulgated in Ragged Dick, discovering that in Alger’s version Franklin’s persona is stuffed full of Longfellow’s transcendental Excelsior! “ “God helps them that help themselves,” Poor Richard says in his Almanac of 1733,” says Father Abraham in The Way to Wealth, only Poor Richard said it in 1736. In 1733, what Poor Richard said was “The favor of the great is no inheritance,” thereby in his first almanac establishing a skeptical tone which endures throughout. When he framed his quietus in 1758, he surrounded his Father Abraham with an audience of unheeding fools, and the old man himself is something of a Polonius, his wisdom a catchphrase catechism of berries carefully picked out of brambles. Franklin is generally regarded as the Apostle of the Protestant Ethic, his Autobiography as a secular equivalent to the Acts of Saint Paul, but the man who wrote “Pride break-fasted with Plenty, dined with Poverty, supped with Infamy,” ate at Shakespeare’s table six days a week and fasted on the seventh.
“To be proud of Knowledge is to be blind with Light,” wrote Poor Richard, paraphrasing eyeless Gloucester, and with Hamlet he observed that “Famine, plague, war, and an unnumbered throng of guilt-avenging ills, to man belongs.” As for “Opportunity,” it is “a great bawd,” and though Poor Richard wrote “Innocence is its own defence,” he also noted the less often quoted “Distrust and Caution are the parents of Security.” Still, Franklin’s best remembered invention is not Poor Richard but Honest Ben, and it was his Autobiography that provided Alger his fabulous formula, but in that book also we can detect a dark dimension, not a fall but a cynical shadow cast by the hero’s passage upward. There is a dark vein running through the golden flesh of the American dream: a literary version of infected femoral artery, it points like a fiery red arrow to the clay foot of the climber, revealing the essential disjunctiveness of the American Myth of Success, the tragic dimension imperfectly concealed beneath the comic veneer.”You can’t live a lie,” says Ragged Huck, Mark Twain’s response to Alger’s myth, but the sad facts tell us that the author went and did otherwise, that Huckleberry Finn is no less a fiction than Ragged Dick. In America, living a lie is a way of life, as we shall see, where “history” as “his story” is, in the words of one who knew whereof he spoke, mostly “bunk.”
Ben Franklin, by his own account, is an American version of Dick Whittington, arriving in Philadelphia without a cat, but with the same ability to land on his feet. As such, he is a preview of the Alger hero, and though hardly born poor, young Ben the Printer’s Boy certainly suffered youthful adversity, attending the school of hard knocks administered by his older half-brother. In typical Alger fashion, Ben leaves home for New York City, and though he ended up in Philadelphia, the town where Alger sends his bad boys to mend their ways, it was a good enough Manhattan for Ben. Franklin’s game is Alger’s solitary sport, moreover, for by dint of hard work, regular habits, and, most important, a reputation for honesty, young Ben comes to the notice of a Benefactor, none less than the Governor of the Province, Sir William Keith.”He said,” writes Franklin, that “I appeared [to be] a young man of promising parts and therefore should be encouraged. The printers at Philadelphia were wretched ones, and if I would set up there, he made no doubt I would succeed; for his part, he would procure me the public business, and do me every other service in his power,”
Swollen with expectation, but in need of money to set up his print shop, Ben returned home to Boston bearing a letter from the Governor to his father, In typical Alger fashion, he was “better dressed than ever . . .having a genteel new suit from head to foot, a watch, and my pockets lined with near five pounds sterling in silver,” That time-piece is the most important article of furniture, not only as a symbol of Franklin’s adage concerning the monetary value of minutes, but as a golden link in the Alger connection. For in Alger’s stories the pocket watch has the same phallic power as the six-shooter west of the Mississippi, and when the successful Alger hero returns home, it is invariably with a Tiffany watch in his pocket, the Colt 45 of chronometers, the display of which sends the snobbish son of the town squire slinking off stage with his gaudy Waterbury. So also with Ben and his older brother, who is “glum and sullen” when the prosperous young Philadelphian “took an opportunity of letting [him] see my watch,” and who complained to his mother that Ben “had insulted him in such a manner . . .that he could never forget or forgive it.”
In this, adds Franklin, “he was mistaken,” but so was young Ben concerning financial help from his father, who thought he was too young for the responsibility. When Ben returned to Philadelphia with this sad news, Governor Keith offered to set him up in business, and suggested that he travel to England in order to buy the necessary equipment, promising him “letters commendary to a number of his friends, besides [a] letter of credit, to furnish me with the necessary money for purchasing the press, types, paper, etc.” But the letters were never forthcoming, and Ben was forced to sail without them, and in London he discovered the true character of his benefactor, for a friend assured him “there was not the least probability that he had written any letters for me, that no one who knew him had the smallest dependence on him, and he laughed at the idea of the Governor’s giving me a letter of credit, having, he said, no credit to give. On my expressing some concern about what I should do, he advised me to endeavor getting some employment in the way of my business. “Among the printers here,” says he, “you will improve yourself; and when you return to America, you will set up to greater advantage.”“
Which moral brings us back once again to Hawthorne’s fable, not Alger’s, for in Franklin’s version of success there is no Fairy Godfather, no Benevolent Patron, no miraculous lift upwards, no break. Though the recipient of many little favors from other men, and by his own account a lucky man, Franklin is careful to stress throughout his autobiography that success is a sequence of small chances well seized, not an elevator, but the rungs on a ladder. Ben Franklin, that is, is no sunburst of Enlightenment optimism but a careful, candle-stick Prometheus for whom a faith in human nature was never so strong as his Calvinist conviction of universal depravity. Once again, the Puritan genre on which he modeled his life story was the Spiritual Autobiography, the underlying principle of which is that of many only a few are chosen, and those by the arbitrary will of God. Franklin acknowledges the role of Providence in his rise, and therein lies the covenantal loophole, suggesting it is a mistake to regard Franklin’s Autobiography as a democratic parable. Addressing his book as an epistle to his bastard son, William Temple Franklin, the author provides an apologia for presuming to write an account of his own life: “From the poverty and obscurity in which I was born and in which I passed my earliest years, I have raised myself to a state of affluence and some degree of celebrity in the world. As constant good fortune has accompanied me even to an advanced period of life, my posterity will perhaps be desirous of learning the means, which I employed, and which, thanks to Providence, so well succeeded with me. They may also deem them fit to be imitated, should any of them find themselves in similar circumstances,” In that last sentence lies the contractual small print.
The analogue to Franklin’s Autobiography is Chesterfield’s letters to his bastard, not only in intention but effect, for both young men were notable failures at emulating their sires, a paradox which demonstrates the essential disjunctiveness of both books. Exemplary men, in two very different areas of Anglo-American society, neither Franklin nor Chesterfield could be called common men, but where Chesterfield could at least endow his son with hereditary rank, the best Franklin could do for his boy was the governorship of New Jersey. If, as Poor Richard put it, “Half the Truth is often a great Lie,” then Franklin’s Autobiography is something of a fiction, at least as a formula for success. Franklin may promote himself as the 18th-century ideal, the Vir Bonum, but that ideal in the 18th century appears more often than not as a satiric exemplum, like Pope’s Man of Ross a rara avis as well, surrounded by a cast of knaves and fools. So Franklin provides us with a statistical proof of his own sanctity, defining his success by the failures of others. His bullying half-brother, James, his fellow belles lettrist, Ralph, and his rival Philadelphia printer, Keimert, all provide young Ben a flattering backdrop, and they are but three from a cast of deceiving and self-deceiving characters whose deficiencies serve as aesthetic and often comic relief to his steady rise in life.
It must be said that Alger took this page also from Franklin’s life, for tricky tradesmen were Alger’s trick in trade, reminding us that a Unitarian is only a Presbyterian writ sideways. But there remains that strategic difference, the benevolent Patron, and there is yet another disparity, for while Alger’s boys are legion, there was only one Ben Franklin.
There was, moreover, more self-interest and chicanery in his public dealings than he allows, but we forgive him his petty sins in acknowledging his great gifts, including that peculiar state of grace known as irony, Such was the pervasiveness of his wit that were we to point out to him his clay foot he would demonstrate its advantages in extinguishing small fires. Franklin puts himself forth as the hero of a Protestant epic on The American Plan, an example of what a new country can do for a poor boy from another city, but we return his wink, with the awareness that he was a very special case. Like so many of his jokes, the Autobiography depends for its effect on the implicit silence, the brevity, which attends the exercise of wit, humor irradiating the space left by that which was not said. Franklin may not, in his Autobiography, have accommodated a tragic sense of life, but his comedy is that transcendent kind, by means of which the stolid shape of the hero casts an antic shadow that claps its hands and sings.
Still, a shadow is a sinister dimension, and Ben Franklin, as a self-cast hero, contains a crack much like the one in the Liberty Bell. There is a deep division between the promise of New-World opportunity and the reality, between Enlightenment optimism combined with a Whiggish faith in progress and Calvinist gloom supported by a Tory faith in mechanisms of stability. Witness the regulating agencies which Franklin established in the City of Brotherly Love, placing a lamp on every street-corner and a policeman under every lamp. This same division is contained in the disparity between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the one declaring self-evident truths concerning the rights of individuals, the other setting up mechanisms by means of which those rights are kept in check, lest they develop into tyranny, whether of presidents or the proletariat. The Declaration is a manifesto, a millennial proclamation, the Constitution a body of laws founded on the sacredness of property, the both thereby evincing a disjunctiveness similar to that of the Puritan utopia, where the Cambridge Platform belied the democratic principles of Congregationalism by elevating a theocratic elite, those Saints who were more saintly than the rest. The Platform also casts a long shadow, becoming the kind of scaffold from which men were sold to other men, a transaction protected by the shibboleth of property even as it belied the proposition concerning the equality of all men, under God, Amen.
That shadow in time became a towering Babylon of prosperity, inhabited by a people whose transplantation to America was in all ways different from the Puritan exodus, but a people whose identity is inescapably linked to a prayerful captivity on the banks of many a southern Euphrates, from whence they looked toward a distant Canaan with infinite longing. There is no more telling account of the anguish of being black in 19th-century America than Frederick Douglass’s account of his life in bondage, an agonizing parable of the meaning of success to a man whose skin is not white. In many ways, the black man in America is the white man’s shadow, and Douglass is Ben Franklin’s specific shade, his book assuming the shape of spiritual autobiography also. For Douglass’s is definably a black book, in Gothic characters putting forth the outlines of the Protestant Epic in reverse, being not a record of essays to do good but attempts to be bad, Douglass like Milton’s Satan inventing virtue from an evil necessity. But if Douglass’s narrative is a perversion of the Protestant Epic, a demonstration of a massively disjunctive element in American life, so it also manifests its essential flaw, an ontological fault in the little, lower layer, the corium, which is neither white or black but red, signifying our universal mortality.
Like Ben Franklin, Fred Douglass identified his rise in life with a trip to the city, in his case the scene of Agnew’s ascension, Baltimore, Removed while still a child from the brutalizing life on a Chesapeake Bay plantation, young Douglass (or Bailey as he was then called) was sent to a Baltimore household where he was to be servant to a white boy. “Going to live at Baltimore,” Douglass declared, “laid the foundation, and opened the gateway to all my subsequent prosperity. I have ever regarded it as the first plain manifestation of that kind providence which has ever since attended me, and marked my life with so many favors. I regarded the selection of myself as being somewhat remarkable. There were a number of slave children that might have been sent from the plantation to Baltimore. There were those younger, those older, and those of the same age. I was chosen from among them all, and was the first, last, and only choice,” These are familiar, Franklinesque statistics, the numerical odds of the Protestant Epic, but Douglass’s version of spiritual autobiography takes its cast from the slave’s identification with Israel in captivity, by means of which the Chesapeake is transformed from a Euphrates to a River Jordan, a symbol of passage to a better world: “I placed myself in the bows of the sloop,” he recalls, “and there spent the remainder of the day in looking ahead, interesting myself in what was in the distance rather than in things near by or behind.”
One of the most remarkable passages in Douglass’s narrative is his Byronic apostrophe to the Bay, “whose broad bosom was ever white with sails from every quarter of the habitable globe,” ships whose unimpeded movements and immaculate whiteness were mocking symbols of freedom to the chained black man, holding out both the hope and hopefully the means of escape.”It cannot be,” young Bailey reasons, “that I shall live and die a slave. I will take to the water. This very bay shall yet bear me into freedom. . . . There is a better day coming.” Though Baltimore proved a blessing, it was an American Babylon, haunted by the curse of bondage, and though Douglass learned to read and write in the city, he realized eventually that his destiny lay elsewhere. Yet Baltimore was the scene of a sort of epiphany for Douglass, for it was there he learned the terrible truth of the black man’s ignorance: “It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly.” Realizing that only so long as he was kept in darkness could a black man be kept in bondage, Douglass henceforth redoubled his efforts to educate himself, a struggle toward the light which pitted his will for the first time against that of his white master. Though it was his master’s wife who first taught the young black boy his ABC’s, his master’s opposition to further instruction proved equally instrumental, since it was the white man’s fear of the black man’s awakening from ignorance which convinced Douglass of the power of knowledge: “In learning to read,” he testifies, “I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both.”
This paradox of blessed antagonism is a version of the role which adversity plays in the scheme of the Protestant epic, the proper use of enemies in getting ahead. Without making the parallel explicit, moreover, Douglass in effect casts himself as a Black Adam, his learning to read a version of the Fortunate Fall, and despite his conventional piety, he casts his white master as an angry and punishing deity, but a God who resembles Satan more than Jehovah. Douglass throughout his narrative plays upon the many bitter paradoxes engendered by the slave system, a world in which truth is punished and a lie rewarded, but none is more strategic than the situation which emerges between the black man and the white over the matter of Douglass’s education:
Though conscious of the difficulty in learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read. Tne very decided manner with which [my master] spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read. What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunnned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn.
A black Faust, an enchained Prometheus stealing white fire, Douglass by means of his ironic reversals transforms the world of slavery into that deepest South of all, a place where the reigning deity calls Evil his Good, and where the most religious white men are the most demonic persecutors of their helpless slaves. In the land of Mary, Christ not the Devil wears a black skin. Still, the greatest paradox is that Douglass is inspired to escape his hell by means of the white man’s instrument, the book, a regnant symbol also in Franklin’s account of how he corrected his youthful “errata.” Douglass early points out that the black man’s sole means of self-expression is song, that black “culture” is solely an expression of misery, a long, black psalm by means of which the slave may find relief through lament. But as an expression of hopelessness the black man’s song is a passive instrument, and for Douglass power comes from between the covers of a book. His is a dialectic of revolution not unlike Mao’s, for it is by means of such implements of the white man’s world as the Columbian Orator, a manual of rhetoric expressing republican ideals, that Douglass makes his arduous and by no means uninterrupted flight from bondage to freedom, using his enemy’s own weapons to defeat him.
Along the way, Douglass learns also the meaning of black brotherhood, and yet, when the opportunity to escape presents itself, he does leave his brothers behind him. Still, Douglass soon enlisted in the Abolition movement, a decision the account of which occupies a small but important place in his Narrative, a disjunctive element depending upon an earlier episode for its meaning. During his last years in slavery, Douglass worked as a ship-calker in Baltimore, learning a trade which increased his self-reliance and provided the money facilitating his escape. But in this as in all things, the aspiring young black ran into a wall of whiteness, sharing the abuse heaped on free “colored” workmen by white carpenters, who feared “that if free colored carpenters were encouraged, they would soon take the trade into their own hands, and poor white men would be thrown out of employment.” The tension, as so often in Douglass’s narrative, erupts in violence, of which he was the victim, being turned upon by the boy-apprentices with whom he worked, a beating cheered by the older white men: “Such was, and such remains,” observes Douglass bitterly, “the state of things in the Christian city of Baltimore.”
Contrast to Baltimore is provided by New Bedford, where everything is “clean, new, and beautiful,” where men worked cheerfully and with dignity, surrounded by “splendid churches, beautiful dwellings, and finely-cultivated gardens; evincing an amount of wealth, comfort, taste, and refinement, such as I had never seen in any part of slaveholding Maryland.” Douglass’s New Bedford, like Mather’s Boston, is something of a New Jerusalem, yet when the now-free black man, anticipating with “rapture” the joys of being his “own master,” seeks work, “the reward of which was to be entirely my own,” he discovers that New Bedford is but Old Baltimore down at the docks: “I went in pursuit of a job of calking; but such was the strength of prejudice against color, among the white calkers, that they refused to work with me, and of course I could get no employment.” With a shrug, Douglass “threw off my calking habiliments, and prepared myself to do any kind of work I could get to do . . .no work too hard— none too dirty,” a life at hard labor from which he was soon rescued by the abolition movement. Douglass does not dwell on the prejudice he encountered in New Bedford, for it was not to the point of his narrative, but it is much to the point of the argument here. With Franklin and Mather, Douglass was writing revisionist biography, and with a certain audience and effect in mind. It would not do, in 1845, to point out to northern whites their failings, for it was in their hands that the fate of the black man lay. The cause of Abolition therefore was best served by flattery, by drawing neat distinctions between benighted Maryland and enlightened Massachusetts. For similar reasons, Douglass glosses over another element of disjunctiveness provided by his fellow blacks, for in celebrating the brotherhood of slaves, he neglects to note that one of his earlier attempts to escape was betrayed by one of his own. This is not to diminish either the man or his cause, merely to point out that Douglass, like Franklin, was a pragmatic realist. Much more important, moreover, is the implicit demonstration by Douglass’s subsequent experience in America that the paradox of white and black continues north of the Mason-Dixon Line, in the society of crusaders as well as carpenters. For Douglass attained the kind of worldly prominence which distinguishes the rising action of the Protestant Epic only by abandoning the world of work and wage for that very special arena of radical reform. As at the very beginning he was chosen from many for salvation in Baltimore, so in New Bedford he succeeded finally as a special case, indeed as a case in point, licensing his use as a walking, talking symbol to the Abolition movement, in whose service his narrative was written, as proof that such an effective orator had indeed been a slave. Douglass became, that is to say, a personification of the book which taught him the meaning of freedom, a Columbian Orator, but in doing so he made manifest that self-evident truth about being black in America, where blackness assumes the shape of the white-man’s shadow. In casting off his former identity, the young escaped slave turned to his white benefactor in New Bedford, Nathan Johnson, and asked him for a new name. Since, as he tells us, “Mr. Johnson had just been reading the “Lady of the Lake,” [he] at once suggested that my name be “Douglass,” “What he does not tell us is that the name of the legendary Scots highlander means “The Black One,” that in this uniquely literary baptism at “the starting point of a new existence,” the white man Johnson gave the black man Bailey a symbolic identity indeed, and Douglass’s subsequent role in agitating for Abolition suggests that Mark Twain wrote more truly than he realized when he said that Sir Walter Scott was responsible for the Civil War. In sum, Frederick Douglass’s narrative, like Ben Franklin’s, is a tale of two cities, and if Douglass found truth in Baltimore, he discovered the essential lie of New Bedford, a lie which he was willing to ignore for the sake of his brothers still languishing in Babylon. Indeed, his subsequent career as a public speaker was mounted from a scaffolding which, like the Cambridge Platform, was planted in the unsure ground of an essential fallacy, a career which ironically was dependent on the continued plight of the black man. Following the Union victory, Douglass worked for a time in Reconstruction, but his career ended with a series of government sinecures, rewards certainly earned by his public services, but which held out no real hope of attainment to his fellow black freedmen. Thus the secret burden of Douglass’s book is the theme of Native Son, that America North and South remains white territory, that the black man can enjoy freedom only if he escapes into the elusive shadow of his own identity. In the company of white men, as on the television screen, he is often filtered into a perfect black blank, Ellison’s invisible man. But among his own, assuming the shape of perpetual rebellion against the white man’s world, he can find in pride the only response possible to prejudice, but a pride which is either the prelude to tragedy or the product of persecution, either a fatal hubris or a form of election, a state of Grace dependent upon the singular proofs of suffering, either a Nat Turner or a Martin Luther King, a Spartacus or a Christ. Among Frederick Douglass’s other services for the sake of his cause was to provide inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, where he appears not as the Christly Tom but as the Byronic rebel, George Harris, that manifestly white man suffering from the accident of a black skin.
Douglass, in short, even in celebrating his escape from bondage to freedom evinces the dark dimension of the Ameri can Dream, the disjunctive division between the hope of so many and its realization by so few, thereby providing a black counterpart to the comedy of Ben Franklin. The disparity that is the reality of American life is a chasm over which Horatio Alger built a bridge, suspended from skyhooks of wish-fulfillment, providing a shortcut to the Celestial City that is not on Bunyan’s map, being a viaduct over the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Yet those who take that route risk a terrible fall, discovering the truth of wisdom most ancient, that “Success has ruin’d many a Man.” For, says Poor Richard, “You may give a Man an Office, but you cannot give him Discretion.” Poor Richard also warns that we are to “Think of three things: whence you came, where you are going, and to whom you must account,” wisdom of the sort which made Jefferson tremble for his countrymen.”One man may be more cunning than another,” says Poor Richard, “but not more cunning than every body else,” calling to mind similar words attributed to another Father Abraham, and reminding us also of impoverished Richard Nixon.”Take this remark from Richard, poor and lame, / Whate’er is begun in anger, ends in shame,” writes Franklin’s Poor Dick, who also wrote that “The Wise and the Brave dares own that he was wrong” and that “Tricks and treachery are the practice of fools that have not wit enough to be honest.”
One could go on, but enough is as good as a feast where aphorisms are concerned, half a word being sufficient for the wise, though we might add, with Poor Richard, that “Pardoning the Bad, is injuring the Good.” But the main point to be made here is that Richard Nixon is yet another demonstration of the disjunctiveness inherent in the American dream, being the kind of “good Example” which for Poor Richard is “the best Sermon,” his rise and fall dramatizing once again the difference between the ideal of Franklin’s Autobiography and the reality of Poor Richard’s wisdom. For a time it seemed that Nixon’s hospital bed would prove to be his tomb, the man his own monument of mortality, lying supine, his clay foot elevated and exposed for the world to see, an epical case of gout. But Nixon lives, and thereby occupies an Argentina of the mind, a middle zone, neither comic or tragic but both, an absurd stage in a theater evoking not laughter nor tears but a certain numbness at the core, a vacuum-packed center.
Certainly the outlines of Nixon’s life approximate the plot of the Protestant Epic, being something of a travesty on the version promulgated by Horatio Alger, a myth casting its own shadow of anti-myth. Nixon worked long and hard, very long and very hard, to attain his final place of power and privilege, his ascension a 20-year climb up the greased pole of American politics, and the godlike Eisenhower reached down a helpful hand at the critical moment. True, once Eisenhower discovered what he had hold of, he tried to let go, but our hero clung to his advantage, and ended up on the old man’s shoulders.”Let’s win this one for Ike!” he cried as the speechless General lay dying, and though Nixon fell, he rose again on the third election year thereafter, being, as he put it, an idea whose time had come. He defeated Hubert Horatio Humphrey, a man who also exemplified the Alger myth, even to carrying Alger’s name in his own alliterative series.
But in defeating Humphrey, Nixon in essence reversed the terms and plot of the Alger story, much as his first fame came at Alger Hiss’s expense. As an American idea he sprang like a male Minerva from Joe McCarthy’s sweaty brow, being a virtual personification of an American adage which cannot be found in Poor Richard’s collection, “Good Guys Finish Last.” As literature, then, Richard M. Nixon is a dark parody of the Alger myth, his success story a drama of overreaching with its inevitable pratfall, “I am not a crook,” he maintained at the beginning of the last act, as politicians assembled in commemorative Bicentennial committees dedicated to the proposition that certain truths are self-evident, the chief of which is, “If you can’t be good, be careful.” In his last appearance on the White House set, Nixon fell back lachrymosely into his sainted mother’s arms, providing an obscene pieta for those who did not turn their eyes away in shame. Then he was spirited away by that modern deus ex machina, the spiral made iron flesh, a helicopter, to attain an apotheosis of ill sorts. For as Nixon lives, it is as a living memorial to the wisdom of Poor Richard, that Virtue displayed is pleasing, but Vice pilloried is more effective.
Nixon is now composing the vast apologia that will be his biography, but we need not expect much in the way of revelation from the prophet of Patmos-on-the-Pacific. We may, instead, anticipate much more of what we have already witnessed on television through the aegis of David Frost, viz., self-righteous and tearful casuistry, attempts to convert violations of public confidence into condign acts of philanthropy. We should be reminded of yet another great American autobiography, written in 1855 by P. T. Barnum, for humbuggery is still a lively if unlovely American art, the reality of seduction on a large and popular scale. There are people who were furious when Nixon was paid money for another opportunity to exculpate himself, who feel he deserves the degredation and ignomy of a prison cell, not the implicit halo of the television screen. But as we should have learned from the even more recent appearance of John Mitchell on television, the spectacle of the high and mighty being trundled off to jail is seldom deeply satisfying, causing perhaps more embarrassment than catharsis.”Big John,” crowed an inmate, “is just another convict now,” which of course he is not nor could he ever be. Mitchell, like Nixon, is a very special case, and though jailing a former Attorney General has a certain ironic bite, in Nixon’s case it wouldn’t be enough. As Ben Jonson knew, in comedies of overreaching, the final scene must be an exquisitely Levitical matching of punishment to crime; this in Nixon’s case has been accomplished, and by a man who often did not quite know what he was doing.
In all that Nixon accomplished as President, one great ambition may be detected: for him the attainment of the highest office in the land was chiefly a passage to that Canaan of the Middle Class—retirement. Using the power of the Presidency to promote world peace, Nixon used the perquisites of his office to purchase his own future tranquility. Where previous presidents had been content with one retirement home (i.e., “summer White House”), Nixon in typical overreaching style built two, in California and Florida, thereby having both best possible worlds. Even the sticky question, Why did he not destroy the tapes? may be simply answered in this regard: they were worth too much, both as historical artifacts and as material for subsequent books, But it was the tapes that did him in, finally, being the thing that released the spring of John Dean’s mouth; without them, all the impeachment proceedings in the world would have left Nixon untouched.”The system works,” we were told, yet the system that worked best was a simple matter of electrical circuitry.
Ben Franklin retired from business at 42, henceforth asking what to Poor Richard was the “noblest question in the world: What good may I do in it?” And Frederick Douglass likewise retired from Abolition into reconstruction, agitating for the civil rights of freedmen. Still, for both as elder statesman, there remained a more heavenly place here on earth, Franklin spending his last years among the houris of Paris, France, Douglass enjoying an ambassadorial sinecure on Haiti. Nixon undoubtedly thought to end his public career in similar fashion, being sought out for his opinions on world affairs and football as he was wafted at government expense from Florida to California and back. Instead he finds himself in a situation much like Douglass’s modern black counterpart, Adam Clayton Powell, who, having committed the gravest sin in the Congressional book of ethics by being caught, enjoyed his tropical paradise before he retired, not after. For Nixon has been forced to sell off his real estate in Florida, and now uses his California home as an office from which to peddle his used career. His well-feathered nest has become a bed of thorns, and he is now truly what Gary Wills earlier called him, “Nixon Agonistes.”
There are, according to Poor Richard, “no handsome prisons,” and wretched Dick now enjoys the dubious felicity of his private version of San Quentin, the ironically named San Clemente illustrating Ben Franklin’s wisdom, “Severity is often Clemency, Clemency, Severity.” Sans Clkmence might be closer to the mark.”Walls do not,” wrote Richard Lovelace, “a prison make,” nor does a jail cell, as Coleridge observed from his lime-tree bower, have to have iron bars. In all senses Richard Nixon’s political career has had a poetic close: like the Little Corsican on Elba, the man who went from Whittier to the White House is back very close to where he began. Like Napoleon he may be contemplating a triumphant comeback, but for now at least the clay foot of the climber is firmly fixed in place, Nixon’s nest egg having become a ball and chain.