Commentary Magazine


A Season of Youth, by Michael Kammen

Art and the Revolution

A Season of Youth: The American Revolution and the Historical Imagination.
by Michael Kammen.
Knopf. 384 pp. $15.00.

The differences between Michael Kammen’s new book and his People of Paradox, which was published in 1973, reflect a sharp change in the climate of American intellectual life over the past five years. Up until the early 70’s, the shared political liberalism which had prevailed among intellectuals at least since World War II tended to keep disagreements among American historians from becoming acrimonious. But with the decline of liberalism in the 70’s, followed by a polarizing of opinion into Left and Right, the tone of academic discourse has changed. It may well be, of course, that the contentious spirit of the 60’s had as much to do with splitting apart the long-standing liberal consensus as any events of the 70’s. If so, the legacy of that spirit is only now becoming apparent in works such as Kammen’s. For there is a tone of complaint here, and a hostile attitude toward America, that previously could be found only among political radicals.

Though Kammen appears to have shifted to the position that any truly penetrating analysis of America must come from a radical perspective, he has not gone so far as to proclaim himself a political radical. Instead, he somewhat vaguely calls for a greater receptiveness to revolution. We should favor the extremism of Thomas Paine, and admire such politicians of the recent past as Henry Wallace. We should stop shying away from “that accursed French revolution,” support current Third World revolutionism, and in general recognize, with the radical historian Gabriel Kolko, that the United States has futilely locked itself into a “permanent struggle against the mainstream of history toward the Left.”

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Apart from its political assumptions, A Season of Youth may be described as a kind of high-powered Bicentennial museum catalogue of paintings, sculpture, and literature dealing with the American Revolution. Like the ambitious, interpretative catalogues raisonnés that have recently grown common, it uses art to arrive at cultural generalizations—in this case generalizations about the national character. As for the art itself, the fact is that in nearly two-hundred years America has produced no masterpieces in commemoration of the Revolution. Kammen is able to praise the painter Trumbull’s “better scenes,” the novelist James Fenimore Cooper’s Satanstoe, and Whittier’s poems on the Revolution. But he is not interested in analyzing any of these, any more than the scores of other minor works that he touches on. His purpose in conducting his guided tour among poetical commemorations of famous events and battles (Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride,” Emerson’s “Concord Hymn”), novels delineating the agony and bravery to be discovered among families affected by the Revolutionary War, and paintings of Washington either crossing or not crossing the Delaware, is not so much to describe and judge American art as to pronounce an adverse moral and political judgment on American society.

Kammen’s chief complaint is that American writers and painters have tended to de-revolutionize the Revolution. What he means can be understood from his use of the term “a season of youth,” which indicates not that America was young during the Revolution, but that art and literature have tended to conceive of the Revolution as a national coming of age. Novelists in particular have symbolized this by introducing into their works a young man in the act of breaking away from his parents. In order to become a man, this teen-aged youth usually must face some kind of test, often having to do with service in the Revolutionary War. He is frequently an orphan who must, like the newly mature nation, set out on his own in the world. Perhaps the most famous example of this theme in American literature is Hawthorne’s much analyzed short story, “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” one of the few works which Kammen treats at length.

According to Kammen, the coming-of-age motif tends to make the Revolution appear as a natural and gradual human process, thereby denying its dynamic and upsetting implications. Since “one comes of age only once,” he writes, the implication is that “having had our Revolution . . . we need not have another—ever again.” There is an error of simplification here, even though the works in question, with the exception of “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” are themselves hardly complex. For coming of age is a more richly evocative theme than Kammen allows. As Hawthorne suggests in his story, a youth cannot break away from his parents without generating some degree of psychic violence; for this reason coming of age may imply upheaval and revolution quite as readily as continuity.

But more important than Kammen’s error on a point of literary interpretation is his insistent politicizing, in which he reduces literature to propaganda. Thus he remarks about the coming-of-age theme:

What I find objectionable about this dominant motif in our historical fiction is, first of all, that it has been prompted by such conservative motives; by defensive nostalgia, by elitism, by national chauvinism, by a sense of our moral superiority as a people, and by a desire to de-revolutionize the American Revolution.

High-minded as this sounds, it stands in awkward contrast to Kammen’s routine praise for parodistic works.

Turning from literature to art, Kammen singles out “the irreverent Peter Saul,” whose painting of George Washington and his men sinking into instead of getting across the Delaware is a supposedly amusing “rowdy parody of mock heroism.” Yet only a few pages earlier, in another connection, Kammen has ringingly registered his objection to “a process of simplification that reduces the significance, grandeur, tragedy, and diversity of a major historical phenomenon to little more than a formulaic cliché.” What it comes down to is that trivializing and vulgarizing are acceptable when they fault America, but not when they elevate it, when they are employed to serve radical ends, as in the propaganda art of the 30’s, but not when they are employed to serve any other ends. For Kammen, intellectual respectability lies in exposing the “national sham and shame,” or in parodying “the discrepancy between American rhetoric and sordid realities.”

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Writing in a very different spirit in People of Paradox, Kammen maintained that the American Revolution held “manifold meanings,” both radical and conservative. In that earlier book, when he came to take up the opposition between wealth and egalitarianism as it was posed by the American Revolution, he asked: “Was an equilibrium really possible between the two?” And he answered the question: “We still do not know.” He arrived at this tentative statement after carefully considering the tension between the idea of equality on the one hand, and a principle based variously on wealth, property, or privilege on the other. He felt that equality itself “contained an inherent dualism,” and that as part of its legacy the American Revolution left unresolved the question of whether the term guaranteed equality of opportunity or equality of condition.

In just five years Kammen has come to believe that there is an obvious solution to these issues, and that it amounts to a self-evident truth. “It seems significant to me,” he writes disapprovingly, that “so many of the difficulties within our elusive sense of tradition derive from the competing pulls of elitism and egalitarianism. The latter is acceptable and admirable by definition; the former is not.” Thus what was formerly a respectable debate about the American tradition has become a matter hardly worth discussing, and then only in loaded terms such as “elitism.”

Given the change in Kammen’s thinking, one might have expected him to offer a new analysis of post-Revolutionary American civilization. Instead, his views have to be gathered from passing comments. That America has somehow failed to realize its ideals with respect to its minorities, its immigrants, and its poor seem to be leading and unargued assumptions. In addition, these failures have been disguised by artists and historians who “subtly, steadily” de-revolutionized the Revolution. But exactly where the basic fault with America lies is never revealed.

Yet it is just insofar as Kammen feels that he can simply assume the failure of American ideals that he reveals the extent to which his attitude has become an intellectual stance. In the polarized 70’s, not the voicing of an explicit ideology but a tone of complaint and disapproval has become typical of this stance. If the new rhetoric has proven to be less explicit and assertive than that of the 60’s, it nevertheless expresses a more radical disillusionment. Its appearance in academic discourse suggests a coming period of politicized debate over scholarly questions. If that should prove to be the case, then Kammen’s book will have been the harbinger of divisions in the academic world far deeper and of more lasting significance than those of the 60’s.

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