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Epics of Empire

ISSUE:  Winter 1980

Dreams of Adventure, Deeds of Empire. By Martin Green. Basic Books. $15.00

My father’s hometown, Carthage, Tennessee, sits on a bluff overlooking the Cumberland River. A steel bridge spans the river, and ten minutes after turning off the interstate, one can park in front of the courthouse. Fifty years ago Carthage was not so accessible. At the west end of town a toll road stretched toward Red Boiling Springs. The train station was across the river, and to reach Carthage one had to ride Tolliver’s Ferry or use Abraham Oldacre’s bridge. The bridge was a patchwork, wooden affair, but confident that wood could withstand the wash of water and money better than metal, Old Man Oldacre bought a bus. When a church wasn’t renting it, the bus was parked behind Oldacre’s cafe, just off the square. When the afternoon train arrived, Monroe Dowd took off his apron, closed the cafe, and drove across the river to pick up the drummers who had come up from Nashville. A migrant countryman from Defeated Creek, Monroe Dowd marveled at his employer’s success, and before they left the bus, drummers always knew that Old Man Oldacre had arrived in Carthage 30 years earlier as a Jewish peddler carrying pots and pans and a different last name. Now he owned, as Monroe pointed out, the cafe, the bridge, and as some said, part of the variety store and the bank. The ride across the bridge was short, and Monroe told his story rapidly. Rarely were drummers able to interrupt him. One day however, a drummer sniffing a good marriage behind the peddler’s success, managed to force a question into Monroe’s narrative. “Did he marry a gentile?” the drummer asked. “Oh, no,” Monroe answered quickly, eager to run through the list of his employer’s properties. “Oh, no, he married a Ferguson.” The Fergusons were a prominent local family. And never having met any gentiles, Monroe assumed that they were not from around Carthage. That there could be a tie between the Fergusons and the gentiles was not something Monroe considered. Like Monroe’s account of Abraham Oldacre, Martin Green’s history of imperialism and the Western mind is detailed and full. Yet, as Monroe’s account made the drummer curious, so Green’s history raises questions and leaves one seeing ties of which Green seems unaware.

Arguing that adventure is the energizing myth of empire, Dreams of Adventure, Deeds of Empire traces the evolution of the adventure novel in English from 1700 to 1900. Wonderfully and imaginatively provocative, Green argues that empire disguised as development and improvement is found everywhere in the modern world. Thus the label “developing country” which we affix to those Third-World nations in transition from agrarian to industrial economies may in fact mean “ripe for economic imperialism.” And perhaps the World Bank and the Agency for International Development are the tools which present-day Robinson Crusoes use to accomplish their economic adventures.

In the “modernist adventure novel” in which the adventurer defeats the challenges he meets “by means of the tools and techniques of the modern world system,” Defoe, Green argues, is particularly important. In Defoe’s novels literature, Green states, made “an alliance with the mercantile caste.” An account of “individual enterprise, Protestant piety, hard work, and self-help,” Robinson Crusoe was attractive to the mercantile caste because it put a good face on imperialism. The book’s how-to-do-it strain and emphasis on the superiority of tool-wielding man to all other men became a dominant theme in the adventure novel, Green shows, running through the 19th century and cropping up in books so diverse as Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

Although popular, Defoe-like adventure novels rarely became the object of critical praise or literary study. Instead, serious literary interest focused on the domestic or courtship novel. This happened, Green maintains, because the domestic novel extolled the mercantile caste’s celebration of home and family while it implicitly, through neglect, protested the crudest expansive thrusts of imperialism and adventure. What Green overlooks, however, is that the courtship novel, particularly in the hands of Richardson and his followers, was also a how-to book. Pamela’s letters taught the ambitious female to use her virtue like a tool. If she were skillful, Richardson showed, she would be able to capture and domesticate the indigenous Fridays, the predatory Mr. B’s. Today bookstores are filled with Pamela’s, and indeed Defoe’s, descendants. Stripped of novelistic excrescences, books like The Joy of Sex teach man how to use his body like a tool and gain physical and emotional dominance over another person.

For Green, the other important source of adventure novel in English was Sir Walter Scott, who introduced the motifs and feelings of the “aristomilitary caste” into the genre. Dispensing romantic dreams rather than practical technique, Scott encouraged readers to imagine themselves shining in armor and leading a host of retainers red in tooth but golden in virtue. Although Scott’s focus on the heroic past appears at first to have little in common with the 19th-century world of banks and counting houses, his novels were, Green observes, obliquely realistic. Britain’s 19th-century imperial wealth depended more upon soldiers, sailors, and rulers of colonies trained at public schools (the aristomilitary caste) than it did upon technically skilled Crusoes. The empire in India allowed Britons to indulge their romantic dreams while filling the Treasury with loot which would have aroused even Cortez’s envy. When Scott celebrated the ancestral virtues of Scotsmen, virtues no longer widespread in Britain, we should, Green declares, think of him as implicitly referring to India.

Scott, then, Green sums up, blended the aristomilitary character which the British upper class demanded for its myths into the mercantile character of Defoe’s adventure novel. Moreover, by retelling British history, he carried the adventure novel beyond romance into epic. By way of Scott, Green believes, the ethos of adventure, carrying the germs of nationalism and historical romanticism, entered history through the writings of the 19th-century Whig historians. As Herzen said, Green points out, Macaulay was the Scott of his generation.

Dreams of Adventure, Deeds of Empire ranges broadly but at times superficially. Often drawing from secondary rather than primary sources, Green occasionally wanders astray. Along with chapters on Cooper, Tolstoy, and Conrad is a chapter on “Popular Literature and Children’s Literature.” Locke taught the 18th and 19th centuries that the child was the father of the moral and economic man, and Green rightly recognizes the formative importance of childhood reading. After 1870, he writes, for example, Scott began to be relegated to children. Although the shift marked Scott’s movement “to the periphery of literature,” it may have been, he continues wisely, “a move to something like the center of culture.” Unfortunately, Green’s other points about children’s literature are not so well made. In the middle of the 19th century, he argues, children’s literature began to mirror the views of the aristomilitary caste. Children’s literature became boys’ literature as romantic adventure replaced fable. Instead of “obedience, duty, and piety,” such books taught “dash, pluck, and lion-heartedness.” To prove his assertion, Green cites, among others, the stories of Oliver Optic (William T. Adams), in particular the Starry Flag and the Army and Navy series. Obviously Green has not read these novels. As much as Optic’s books reflected the romantic dreams of the aristomilitary caste, they also embodied a Crusoe-like piety, an ingredient of the “modernist adventure novel” which cannot be adequately summed up by the ethos of the mercantile caste. Crusoe was able to dominate his island and the cannibals who threatened him because he learned to dominate the self. More than technological man, he was a religious man, and the novel was almost a spiritual tract for the times. The imposition of drill and organization, Green argues, made European soldiers superior to the Indian soldiers who opposed them. This organization was, however, merely the outward and visible sign of inward discipline, effected by obedience, duty, and piety.

Next to the narratives of the Old Testament, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress was probably the most popular adventure “novel” of the 17th and 18th centuries. Crusoe’s struggle with weakness within his own breast was a type of Christian’s battle with Apollyon, a battle, which although tempered by a growing worldliness, occurs throughout popular children’s literature and adventure novels in the 18th and 19th centuries. In Tom Brown’s School-Days Thomas Hughes wrote that “fighting, rightly understood” was “the business, the real, highest, honestest business of every son of man.” “Every man worth his salt” had enemies, Hughes stated, “who must be beaten, be they evil thoughts and habits in himself, or spiritual wickedness in high places, or Russians, or border-ruffians.” Appealing to duty more than to romance and drawing on Bunyan more than Scott, 19th-century adventure novels for children taught that life was real and earnest and urged children to be heroes “in the world’s broad field of battle.” Tom Brown’s friend East joined a regiment in India, not for excitement but out of a sense of piety and duty. “From Greenland’s icy mountains, / From India’s coral strand,” Reginald Heber wrote, out of a similar sense of duty, “Where Afric’s sunny fountains/ Roll down their golden sand, / From many an ancient river, / From many a palmy plain, / They call us to deliver/ Their land from error’s chain.”

Oliver Optic’s “Army and Navy Stories” were thematically related to Tom Brown’s School-Days. For Optic, fighting, rightly understood, was more internal than external, and his heroes were Christian heroes. Clothed in pilgrim’s robes rather than Scott’s romantic and “erotic idealism,” they fought to deliver their nation from error’s chain and trampled out the vengeance where the grapes of wrath were stored. Tom Somers, Optic’s heroic Soldier Boy (1863), carried the New Testament into battle with him. “In the bivouac of Life,” Tom never fell asleep without praying to “the Giver of all Good, the Fountain of all Mercy.” Like Christian’s struggle with Apollyon and Tom Brown’s tussles on the football field, the Civil War tested the religious mettle of Optic’s heroes. Comforted by His rod and staff they pressed unscathed through the Valley of the Shadow of Death while morally flawed characters fell by the way. In Brave Old Salt (1866), the final volume of the series, Optic addressed his audience, much like Hughes and not at all like Scott, saying he was grateful for the readers who had followed his heroes through the series. “I feel that they have sympathized with me in my desire to present a lofty ideal to the young man of today,” he wrote, “one who will be true to God, true to himself, and true to his country in whatever sphere his lot may be cast, whether on the forecastle or the quarter deck; as a private or an officer, in the great army which must ever battle with life’s trials and temptations till the crown immortal be won.” In attempting to examine the tradition of the adventure novel in English, Martin Green takes risks; and although Dreams of Adventure, Deeds of Empire often seems wrong, as for example in the case of Optic, the study is a success. Unlike so many learned books, it inspires thought and makes the reader feel as if he swallowed a handful of “Smarter Pills.”

Although the adventure novel persisted as a form, serious writers of the stature of Defoe and Scott, Green writes, rarely wrote adventure novels after the First World War. As dreams of empire became tainted, the reading public withdrew its tacit moral support. As a result adventure novels became progressively immoral, and the better writers, like Evelyn Waugh and Grahame Greene, who used the form employed it satirically. The reaction against adventure had, of course, begun before the end of the First World War. In children’s literature, for example, while Optic’s heroes slogged through to their duties in heat and cold, desert and forest, Kenneth Grahame’s Water Rat turned his back on excitement and, staying home with his “companion” Mole, scribbled poetry. When tempted by the seafaring rat to “heed the call” and “take the adventure,” Ratty resisted and, like the reluctant dragon who left fighting to “the earnest fellows,” he embraced the aesthetic. By 1936, when those who heeded the call were being crushed in Spain between communism and fascism, Water Rat had become Munro Leaf’s gay bull. Sitting under his cork tree sniffing flowers, Ferdinand never dreamed of conquering an island or leaving footprints in the sands of an arena.

Dreams of adventure still appeal to the imagination, but actual deeds of empire, Green believes are almost impossible for English-speaking people to contemplate seriously. From the perspective of the cork tree, 18th and 19th century adventure novels make quaint period piece reading. No longer important either as literature or as a cultural force, the contemporary adventure novel has fallen on hard times. Only in the rag and bobtail end of literature and culture—detective, cowboy, and espionage stories, science fiction, and sports novels— does it thrive.


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