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Patterns of American Culture

ISSUE:  Autumn 1942

The Roots of American Culture and Other Unsays, By Constance Rourke. Harcourt, Brace and Company. $.100. The Wind Blew from the Host: A Study in the Orientation of American Culture. By Ferner Nulin. Harper and Brothers. $3.00. Writers in Crisis: The American Novel Between Two Wars. By Maxwell Geismar. Houghton Mifflin Company. $.100.

The three books here reviewed belong to the growing number of works which seek to discover the patterns of American culture. Van Wyck Brooks pointed the way thirty years ago; Parrington showed what might be achieved by studying our literature against a dominant strain of American thought; Mumford, Hicks, Arvin, Winters, Matthiessen, Gabriel- to mention those who first come to mind—followed with illuminating syntheses devoted to particular areas and periods.

Among these explorers, none has done more significant work than Constance Rourke, whose death last year deprived us of her projected three-volume History of American Culture. Yet, as Mr. Brooks notes in his Preface to her “Roots of American Culture,” the essays in this posthumous volume, as well as the substance of her six earlier books, all support the thesis which was to have had its definitive expression in her may mm opus, Basing her argument on Herder’s contention (as she states it) that “the folk-arts [lay] a base for the fine arts in form, spirit, and expression, that folk-forms [are] the essential forms in any communal group,” Miss Rourke sought to reveal the vast riches of our folk-art and to show how it has molded and colored the more conscious art of the trained and literate.

Revolting against the “carrier” theory of culture, in vogue from the time John Fiske popularized it in studying the “transit of civilization” to America, she took her stand with the cultural anthropologists. She believed that though our culture has been steadily influenced from without, its center of growth—as with any distinctive culture—”is to be found within the social organism and is created by peculiar and irreducible social forces.” No particular trait of this culture can be fully appraised, moreover, until the whole cultural configuration is known.

To discover this configuration Miss Rourke penetrated many fascinating areas of folk life which were almost totally unregarded when she began her studies. Her purpose was to rescue the fast-perishing record of the unusual beginnings of the arts in America; primarily she was concerned to show what all this activity had meant in the life of the new country; how it shaped emotional patterns, defined sections, fused ethnic groups, gave us myths and folk-heroes, inclined us to believe in the functional purpose of art.

Of the eight essays which Mr. Brooks salvaged for this hook, the first, the title essay, and the last, “American Art: A Possible Future,” arc closely related. As the clearest formulation of Miss Rourke’s conclusions after thirty years of research, they may well serve as a program for future historians. Each of the other essays is useful in its own way. “A Note on Folklore” and “Traditions for a Negro Literature” show the writer’s commendably unsentimental approach to the study of folklore, her scorn of primitivists and antiquarians. “The Shakers,” written with sympathy and insight, demonstrates the value of her thesis and her method when put to work on a particular problem. “The Rise of Theatricals,” besides making sense of a subject which has hitherto yielded only dullness, contains the finest piece of writing in the book, a moving account of the career of the elder Booth.

In leaving Miss Rourke’s essays and entering Mr. Nuhn’s “The Wind Blew from the East,” we leave clarity behind. His intent was to write a book, the first of a three-volume study, about “the cultural effects of the great current of migration, east to west, which produced the New World out of the Old.” But a hundred other ideas about America crowd into his pages inopportunely. The first five chapters are usually within hailing distance of the central theme that Americans have followed their star to the West for work and money, action and democratic color, while they have gone back East for ease and grace and piety and aristocratic form. The next three chapters turn from intellectual history to literary criticism and examine—with acumen, one should add— the careers of Henry James, Henry Adams, and T. S. Eliot. (One guesses that the rest of the book was woven around this core of criticism.) The last chapter, “On New World Grounds,” has something to say about the new internationalism for which Americans must prepare.

The style of the book baffles one quite as much as the fragmentation of its ideas. In one sentence the tone is that of the anthropologist; in the next the poet speaks, with a poet’s license to make words mean what he wants them to. An oracular statement which leaves you gasping for a little oxygen of life-sustaining truth is followed by a sound, shrewd observation which could be developed at chapter length. The malign star of Miss Stein once crossed Mr. j Nuhn’s path, as this mystagogic sentence reveals: “This book has mostly to do with this truth not being discovered. It is about the Americans who started and did not start with their own, or did not know, when they started, what their own was.”

“The Wind Blew from the East” is a challenging book for the wary and the knowing who like to have their convictions roughed up. The chapter on James is a perceptive study of the Jamesian ambiguity, developed from two impressive ideas. “James had come to see, sadly enough, that the enchanted garden in the fairy tale contained a witch. He left the witch, however, as mysterious as the enchantment. James appeared loath to reduce either form of wizardry to terms of human experience and daylight knowledge.” “Renunciation of life, strangely enough considering our bedazzled pilgrim’s sense of expansion under the magic of his ‘great lighted and decorated’ European scene, is the real moral again and again in James’s stories. In so far as James’s world yields a universal meaning, this is it: that life must be sacrificed for glamour.” The chapter on Henry Adams evolves a reasonable explanation of his revolt from the law of the Fathers to a “partisan devotion to the rule of the Mothers.” Though the chapter called “Orpheus in Hell: T. S. Eliot” abounds in reckless interpretations of Eliot’s poems, it ends with an admirable comparison of James and Eliot. These three essays are first-rate criticism, but they are set in a frame which revolves giddily.

Mr. Geismar’s “Writers in Crisis” bears the subtitle “The American Novel Between Two Wars.” His writers, like Mr. Nuhn’s, are expatriates, but of the younger generation which came back—Hemingway, Dos Passos, Wolfe. He seeks the reasons for their conversion to America and the results in their art of their new faith. Ring Lardner is included, to point a moral about the success story of the ‘20’s which soured even its chief satirist; Faulkner is needed for the sake of contrast, because he, alone, among the writers in crisis, despairs of “the developing American maturity”; a discussion of the “typical evolution” as seen in Steinbeck is required to point up the whole story at the end.

Mr. Gcismar is too acute a critic and too honest an historian not to see that his thesis—”that the depression of the nineteen-thirties, seemingly so destructive and despairing, was actually a time of regeneration for the writer”—must yield a little when facts collide with it. The chief anomaly is that the regeneration of these writers did not necessarily bring about a consequent improvement in their art. Dos Passos “came home” when he wrote “Adventures of a Young Man,” but it is inferior to “U. S. A.” There are ar-tistic faults in “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” “The Grapes of Wrath” is “all in all Steinbeck’s biggest novel,” but “not at all” his best. This honest recognition of the fact that if the American writer devotes himself to the creation of a new democratic mythos, something may happen to his integrity as an artist, leads one to expect that Mr. Geismar will speak up on the old vexed question of literature as propaganda. He keeps silent.

The last chapter, “Success Story, Finis,” is somewhat disturbing. Its intention is clear enough, but there is a kind of descant running through it which is off-key. Mr. Geismar would have us believe that his story ends on the note of affirmation, that in crisis the writer may find courage, a recognition of his social usefulness and of his belonging, a faith in his cultural function; and a belief that this faith can move men as well as mountains. Yet so much of this chapter is taken up with an exposition of the failures of American life which have resulted in a split between “the guiding spirit of our society and its productive forces,” that one is bound to ask: why should the writers bother to “come home,” since the chances seem so slight of their ever acquiring here the “sense of love, for home, land, and people” which even the homeless European writers of to-day still possess? The fault lies in Mr. Geismar’s attempt to combine the theme of hope for the new day with a recapitulation of the sins of the past which the writers of the ‘40’s must redeem. The theme of sin overpowers the theme of hope. The disharmonies of this concluding chapter would not be so apparent if they were not the final cadences in a book which is the best study we have of the patterns of American life in the years of crisis, as those patterns were perceived and, in part, determined, by the novelists of that incredible era.


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