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A Critical Cicerone

ISSUE:  Spring 1996
American Notes: Selected Essays. By Daniel Aaron. Northeastern University Press. $2995.

One of my colleagues, a Melville specialist, no longer assigns Moby-Dick in his introductory course in 19th-century American fiction. Relentless ideological pressure did not cause him to reduce that classic to canon fodder, he assures me, even though it is apparent that no female crew members served on the Pequod. The novel was primarily dropped from the syllabus for an even more disturbing reason—undergraduate resistance to reading difficult texts. Assigning a long and demanding work would deplete the resources that had to be invested in other novels during the semester. This is an instance of the atrophy of high (though teachable) literacy, as reading at its most arduous (and therefore rewarding) is less of a sacrament within the liberal arts and especially the humanities than it used to be.

If present trends continue, the vocation of an Old Master like Daniel Aaron, who has made the interpretation of literary expression central to fathoming the national experience, will come in retrospect to look quaint. A former president of the American Studies Association, he has devoted a lifetime to the elucidation of texts—not only literary but political—within their historical contexts. The progenitor and president of The Library of America (the counterpart to Editions de la Pléiade), Aaron has ensured that attention be paid to writers who have testified to the quandaries of national identity and who have elevated the standards of artistic excellence on native grounds. He is among the custodians of our culture. Yet this vigorous and engaging collection of essays represents a struggle for meaning that cannot gain traction when bookishness itself is threatened with extinction.

The first essay that he ever published—on Melville, it so happens—appeared exactly six decades ago. As a graduate student at Harvard University (working with F.O. Matthiessen, Perry Miller, and Howard Mumford Jones), Aaron was present at the creation of American Studies, which he has professed with lucidity and passion at Smith College and then at Harvard, and which he has disseminated through teaching and lecturing throughout the world. His first book, Men of Good Hope (1951), illuminated the reform tradition, though written during its afterglow, when the once-born faith in progress and reason was subjected to withering, if friendly, fire from Professors Lionel Trilling and Richard Hofstadter and from Reverend Reinhold Niebuhr and Walter Lippmann in particular. Exactly a decade later, Writers on the Left recounted the fate of the sour marriage between American communism—already relegated to the scrap heap of political history—and the socially-conscious literati of the thirties. Even though the 1962 publication of Patriotic Gore, by Aaron’s friend Edmund Wilson, should have exhausted further scholarly attention to the literature of the Civil War, The Unwritten War (1973) blended exquisite literary sensitivity with a grim understanding of the gravest political and moral historical crisis of the republic. What is a minor poet?, W.H. Auden was once asked. “If you take two poems by one man and read them,” he responded, “and you can’t tell which was written first, that is a minor poet.” By that standard, Daniel Aaron is a major cultural historian who, at the age of 82, is not yet past his prime.

This gathering of 20 deceptively easy pieces (all previously published) suggests the shape of an exemplary career. No explicit conceptual unity is stamped upon these essays, and indeed their author has no message or moral lesson to impart, no world view of his own to impose in interpreting the legacy that he distills. Aaron’s insights stem not from a system but from an open curiosity and a keen intelligence. Like his three previous books (and Wilson’s), American Notes is especially comfortable with the biographically-inflected critical appreciation. These notes are not from the underground but situate within a cultural and political tradition such household names as Francis Parkman, Richard Henry Dana, Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Adams, Brooks Adams, George Santayana, Randolph Bourne, and Nathanael West. Rather than address institutions or episodes or movements, Aaron draws upon intellectual and cultural history in portraying particular figures and their works. Most of those whom Aaron shows ought to have their heads examined are “dead white males,” though separate chapters are devoted to Eudora Welty, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and the very current Don DeLillo. In other essays the author is especially penetrating in tracing the horror of miscegenation (from an anonymous pamphlet written by the father of Progressive journalist Herbert Croly down to the impact of “the inky curse” in Faulkner’s Light in August and Absalom, Absalom!); Aaron also offers a fresh view of how Gilded Age intellectuals mourned and consoled one another, how they pushed the envelope of mortality when confronted with what one of them, Henry James, called “the distinguished Thing.”

American Notes exhibits a gift for succinct summation. Nathanael West’s humor, for example, “is savage and sad, in contrast to [his brother-in-law S.J.] Perelman’s brash spoofing, and it springs, I think, from his tragicomic view of the world, from his wry awareness of the disparity between secular facts and his suppressed religious ideals. His slapstick ends in a scream; the self-hatred of his characters, their efforts—sometimes grotesque and always painful—to find answers or relief, only curdles his pity.” In West’s satire “the real culprit is not capitalism but humanity.” Brooks Adams had advanced an earlier case for the prosecution, and here, too, Aaron is deft in stirring interest in a figure still in the shadow of his relatives: “He seems to have been a chronically dissatisfied man, conducting a one-man mutiny against the world as he found it. He never attained the popular success of his brothers Charles and John Quincy, to whom apparently he never felt particularly drawn; nor could he acquire the disciplined resignation of Henry, who taught himself to stare into the horrid abyss of the future without quivering. . . . As he [Brooks] remarked to Henry, he was too original a person to survive in a world that protected a man only if he joined a guild and listened to him only if his ideas were stolen. . . . He played the misunderstood prophet with gusto.”

These are portraits that linger, that stare back at and disturb the reader, who is invited to brood on the displacement and vertigo of a discontinuous cultural tradition. From the dawn of national independence, American society has constituted a moving target; and its critics as well as its champions have tried from numerous angles to do it justice. Though American Notes lacks a theme, it demonstrates a special sensitivity to those artists and writers whom a bourgeois and commercial civilization have marginalized. Sometimes they occupied the port side of the political spectrum; and though Aaron writes about Bourne and Hughes and the impassioned sensibility of the thirties with authority and insight, such figures lack the morbid subtlety that elicits his most probing criticism. That is reserved for the Adams brothers (who detested the defeat of their own class at the hands of the financiers), for last Puritans like Dana and Parkman (who sought on the high seas or in primeval forests an imaginative alternative to Boston’s State Street), and for Santayana (whom the academy would now wish to attract as a “Spanish-surnamed individual” but whom Aaron admires for the austere disinterest with which he contemplated human folly and meanness). In Emerson’s version of the two-party system, suspended between Memory and Hope, the most stylish victories seem to go to the former. In these essays Aaron himself remains sane, too wary to endorse the apocalyptic frisson. He has an instinct for the center—even though the outsiders and isolates, the rebels and renegades, the dissenters from the mainstream and the marketplace invoke his deepest powers of empathic elucidation.

His may be among the last minds to dare to reimagine the entirety of the nation’s cultural patrimony. As a contributor to scholarly journals, to intellectual quarterlies and to organs of opinion like The New Republic and The New York Review of Books, Daniel Aaron still belongs in the dwindling ranks of public intellectuals, at home in history, politics, and above all literature. Without forfeiting thoughtfulness, he can convey his enthusiasms for American literary culture to a serious general audience. Too many of the communications of his successors in the field of American Studies are like sensitive diplomatic and military messages: they come encrypted. It is agreeable to report that buzz words like “narratibility” and “liminability” and “positionality” and “discursive signification,” etc., do not contaminate the pages of American Notes. It should be added, however, that technical philosophy is outside Aaron’s range; unlike the most talented younger intellectual and cultural historians, he reveals little interest in the logical lacunae and contradictions that the thinkers whom he describes did not resolve. It is the tensions and changes in their work that he prefers to expose; and the judgments he offers are formed by taste and temperament, rather than forged with the tools of analytic philosophy. Non-partisan and poised, his is a style that may be going out of fashion in the academy and in American Studies in particular. Exoteric to the end, Aaron takes for granted a community of readers who are, at least broadly, familiar with the same texts, who have read the same authors, who have been engrossed in the dilemmas of political and historical engagement. When a key chapter, “The Man of Letters in American Culture” (1982), eulogizes Edmund Wilson, it is because “he took seriously the obligation to do something for American culture, to improve it and bring credit to it.” Readers of American Notes would also be warranted in discerning a self-portrait of its author.


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