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The Pattern of Puritanism

ISSUE:  Spring 1936

The Last Puritan. By George Santayana. New York: Charles Scribner & Sons. $2.75.

George Santayana has not visited this country in a quarter of a century, yet “The Last Puritan” falls distinctly into the one essential and characterizing tradition of American literature. It is the analysis of a moral problem, and this problem is viewed in the light of the same involuntary asceticism which sent Arthur Dim-mesdale to his death, brought Lambert Strether back to Woollett, and blighted the lives of Mattie Silver and Ethan Frome. In this harsh, clear light, the ennobling effect of frustration and suffering is considered, and, whether or not the author so desired, ably defended. The Puritanism of Oliver Alden is older than the New England colonies, yet it has found its mosl; profound expression in the works of Hawthorne, James, Edith Wharton, and, with this extraordinary novel, in George Santayana.

For the Puritanism of this “last Puritan,” Oliver Alden, stems only partly from New England; it is, essentially, an innate asceticism which recurs in any age, irrespective of external freedom or discipline. The term “Puritanism” has many connotations, and two of these, at least, must be distinguished. There is, first, the traditional Puritanism of New England: right and wrong must never be confused, and morality, perforce an ascetic morality, is strictly codified and universally understood. There is, as well, a second type of Puritanism: a psychological, rather than a cultural, Puritanism. It too leads to the life of discipline, but it is, as in Oliver Alden, something innate and instinctive. It is as much at home in ancient Greece as in Colonial New England. Irving Babbitt has provided the most careful analysis of this unconscious asceticism, and has conveniently identified its psychological root in man as the frein vital. “The Last Puritan,” as much as “The Ambassadors,” is a dramatic textbook for this psychological thesis, and as such it assumes an immediate and permanent importance.

Dramatic? Yes, though Santayana is concerned with “poetic truth,” not literal truth; though his characters bear only slight relation to the inarticulate human beings with whom we are acquainted. The dramatic character of “The Last Puritan” is of a more intense kind than that, for instance, of “Anthony Adverse”: it vivifies intellectual abstractions, and echoes the clash of ideas, not the blunt clash of “dusty, damn’d experience.” It objectifies a series of moral and intellectual crises which, taken as a whole, summarize both a particular culture and an eternal psychological phenomenon. Thus it is a study of both the types of Puritanism which I have mentioned: in the tragedy of Oliver Alden, the two types combine to effect his destruction.

This destruction, Oliver’s unfitness for life, is closely related to the history of New England Puritanism. Nathaniel Alden, Oliver’s half-uncle, is definitely the product of a certain man-imposed moral climate: his is conventional self-righteous Puritanism; he is cold and miserly, and he accepts the ascetic discipline without question. His greatest pleasure is derived from the infliction of deserved punishment upon his moral inferiors. What he would have been, born in a different country or a different age, is problematical. He is, nevertheless, the product of a definite culture, and his tragedy is simply the tragedy of that blighted culture. Peter Alden, Oliver’s father, is temperamentally a naturalist, but he is forced to observe the hated traditions in which his half-brother delighted. He is the fool of a Puritan fate, and he passes through life and suicide in a dreamy and futile effort to escape. The circumstances of Oliver’s boyhood are less severe; yet he misses his chance, for his own innate asceticism, added to the formal remnants of his half-uncle’s Puritanism, prevent him from satisfying his nostalgia for a fuller, more normal life. The nostalgia itself is the key to the tragedy, for it creates an unnecessary emotional struggle which determines his early death. Throughout his brief, tortured life he strives to be himself, only rarely realizing that this self is the self of his childhood.

What are Santayana’s implicit conclusions concerning this innate asceticism? Is the frein vital a better master than the easy impulsiveness of Jim and Mario? If “The Last Puritan” is a defense of the animalism of Jim, or the hedonism of Mario, as the Prologue might imply, it is a half-hearted defense indeed. The reader is forced, in making a decision, to refer to Santayana’s later philosophical writings, and there we find a kind of elevated naturalism, in which the highest kind of satisfaction, the most real kind of action, is to be found in contemplation; in the removal to a higher reality of “essences” und intuitions. Oliver, like his father, is defeated, yet he achieves an emotional experience, through that defeat, quite beyond the grasp of Jim or Mario. He is the spectator of his own tragedy, and by his awareness achieves, in fleeting moments, certain intuitions which his more “happy” friends could never enjoy. The tragedy is not that he failed in “life,” but that he did not realize this failure to be unimportant.

Both Santayana and Henry James appear to have suffered from the doubts which seduced Oliver. On the title page of “The Last Puritan” is a quotation from Alain: “On dit bien que l’experience parle par la bouche des hommes d’age: mais la meilleure experience qu’ils puissent nous ap-porter est celle de leur jeunesse sauvee.” Could there be a closer restatement of the yearning of Lambert Strether in “The Ambassadors”? There are further affinities with Henry James. Both Santayana and James achieve intricate analyses by means of central characters who are detached observers of life; both are interested in the “special case”; both conceive of fiction as a fine art, and proceed with infinite care for detail. Santayana, like James, seems to feel a distaste for physical love, and elevates the loves of his leading actors to a hopelessly ideal sphere. Neither James nor Santayana, then, present living characters (in the sense that the characters of Sinclair Lewis are distastefully alive), yet both achieve a higher reality by using their philosophizing puppets as symbols of basic forces in human character. The greatest affinity, of course, lies in the innate asceticism obviously common to both: Santayana and James, like Oliver, have tried to escape, not from Puritanism in the usual sense, but from the frein vital, and the spiritual isolation which it bred. In the end Santayana wholly, and James in part, realized the value of this isolation. It was an isolation which enabled them to produce moral commentaries of enduring value. It determined their stature as American novelists of the very first rank.

I speak of Santayana as a novelist, and as a novelist of the very first rank. And why not? Reading “The Last Puritan” is not an intellectual task, to be undertaken for much benefit and little pleasure. It is profound tragedy, attaining, in scattered pages, effects as fine as any to be found in American fiction. And the characters are real, though they all speak, like Imlac, with the golden lucidity of their creator. From the rather unimportant consideration of truth to life alone, are there “types” more real than the sentimental Irma, who is always seeking “deeper” emotional experiences, or than Peter’s mother, the butt of an irony which falls on nearly all the women in the book? This irony, grave and urbane, recalls Thomas Mann even more than Henry James. Is not Irma another Toni Buddenbrook; Peter, another Christian? Does not Oliver himself recall little Hanno, the last male Buddenbrook, who is early destroyed by the inward fire of his emotional struggles?

It is unnecessary to speak at length of the technical excellence of “The Last Puritan.” There are, in this too short novel of six hundred pages, the skillful metaphors, the trenchant epigrams, and the graceful, liquid prose which have long since established its author as the greatest living stylist in the language.


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