Commentary Magazine


O Strange New World: American Culture: The Formative Years, by Howard Mumford Jones

The Long View

O Strange New World: American Culture: The Formative Years.
by Howard Mumford Jones.
Viking. 464 pp. $8.50.

Professor Jones surprises us at the outset. His title comes not from The Tempest, but from The Bigelow Papers of James Russell Lowell: “O strange New World, thet yit wast never young,/Whose youth from thee by gripin’ need was wrung.” The book’s theme, I believe, is that America was both old and young, both good and evil, from the beginning. Jones urges caution in entertaining “simplistic notions that an American dream somehow mysteriously broke down in the nineteenth or twentieth century. . . . ‘America’ did not descend directly from Eden.”

Thus he combats the proposition of some recent works on cultural history that the loss of innocence, the fall of the American Adam, was the main drift of our experience. These myth-makers, says Jones, “do not go deep enough in time.” Were they to plunge into the 16th-century English writing which reflected on the early English voyages and on the New World created by Spain, they would find, along with the image of an earthly paradise, a view of America as homeland of “the unpredictable, the abnormal, the inhuman, the cruel, the savage, and the strange.” The dark night of the American soul began with Hakluyt, not with Hawthorne.

In his early chapters on “Renaissance Culture and America,” “Renaissance Man in America,” and “The Colonial Idea in England,” Jones spells out the initial paradox. The discussion is weakened, however, by making the Renaissance function in too many ways at once: according to Jones, it underlay the urge to organize tight-knit communities under supernatural sanction; it informed the penchant, shared by English and Spanish colonists, for pageant and ceremony; at the same time it was also at work in the perfidy and cruelty of the conquistadors, who were contemporaries (Jones reminds us) of Machiavelli. But does this really say anything more than that America was settled by Europeans? Jones says: “It is perhaps a mark of long-run Renaissance influence upon the United States that among the great names in American history virtually none is notable for the vita contemplativa.” Perhaps; but perhaps they were just busy. He concludes: “Machiavellianism, whether as finesse, fraud, or force, has long been a standard component of American political life.” This is to play with words.

Indeed a persistent weakness of O Strange New World is its insistence that the “themes” and “influences” it highlights are still very, very much at work. Jones is magnificent in detailing the many-layered impact of the 18th-century imitation of Roman virtues, Roman place names, Roman politics (as in the terms “senate,” “congress,” “capitol,” as well as in the concept of balanced government). One of the most effective sections of the volume shows how England modeled its colonization of America on previous experience in Ireland. These are dense discussions, piling up evidence for a restricted theme in a limited period of history. But when in a final chapter Mr. Jones tells us that 19th-century landscape painting, in its “(1) astonishment; (2) plenitude; (3) vastness; (4) incongruity; and (5) melancholy,” bodied forth the total impact of America on the imagination, I, too, feel lost in too large a space. The conclusions of the “Afterword,” precisely because they attempt to characterize the whole of American experience, are correspondingly banal. “America has been neither discovery nor creation but something of both.” “America is, then, related to Europe by alterations of attraction and repulsion.” “The colonial enterprise not only imported, it also reshaped, conduct.” To be sure. . .

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Thus this book, in its mingled success and failure, suggests some important conclusions about cultural history. First, the longer the time-span, the greater the emphasis on timeless themes and motifs, the more trivial (by and large) the conclusions. The reason for this, it seems to me, is not that generalization is bad. It is rather that the cultural history of a given period is (by and large) more influenced by the non-cultural activities of the same period than by the cultural history of the preceding period. Hence the vigor and satisfying texture of a book like Matthiessen’s American Renaissance, and the corresponding insipidity of so many latter-day quests for a homogeneous, timeless American consensus.

Consider, for example, the treatment of the American Revolution in O Strange New World. In his chapter on “The Radical Republic,” Jones’s argument is that America seemed uniquely revolutionary both to Europe and to itself. On the one hand, there was a “populist” tradition of mob action, on the other, a “progressive” belief that America was “opening a new epoch in the history of mankind.” Mob action is viewed as a timeless form. The KKK, Coxey’s Army, the Civil Rights Movement are accordingly brought forward as “forms of mass action” which “follow the pattern established in seventeenth-century America.” We do not learn what a given group of rioters wanted, whether (after all) there were essential differences between the Stamp Act rioters and a lynch mob. We are given a spectator’s view: a view which notices certain external similarities among widely divergent phenomena, but remains superficial. Likewise, in describing the history of the idea that America was a Utopia, Jones is content to characterize changes in the image: he does not come to grips with changes in the thing itself.

The “progressive” vision of a boundless American future is confronted when Jones turns to the meaning for Americans of Montesquieu’s reading of the Roman past. Here we are deftly introduced to the concepts, accepted by the Fathers, that republics depend on the existence of a frugal and egalitarian public spirit; that corruption in this spirit will lead to the downfall of the republic; that competitive emulation, the spring of human action, must be chaneled into virtue if the republic is to survive. Here Jones stops. But there was a further teaching of Montesquieu’s, borrowed from Plato, which Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison faced with sturdy pessimism. This was the idea that growth of commerce will inevitably corrupt the republican spirit. I believe, the septuagenarian Jefferson wrote to Adams in December 1819, that Caesar’s Rome was so corrupted that Brutus, even had he been victorious, could not have restored the republic. You are right, replied Adams; “I fear the English reformers will have no better success”; and as to America: “Will you tell me how to prevent riches from becoming the effects of temperance and industry? Will you tell me how to prevent riches from producing luxury? Will you tell me how to prevent luxury from producing effeminacy intoxication extravagance Vice and folly?”—that corruption which is death to republics.

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America has changed, and this is the second “lesson” I should like to suggest. It is not necessary to use value-laden terms to recognize, as Jones himself does, that America was a “radical republic” in the eyes of the rest of the world until about the time of World War I, and has not been so since. Granting that both the spirit of the Lord and the spirit of capitalism have been with us from the beginning, it remains the case that their relative importance has changed. As Jones observes:

One director of a Rockefeller corporation said that all the meetings opened with prayer and that one chair was kept empty to honor Jesus. It seems to have occurred to nobody that the symbol might be ambiguous.

What is missing, ultimately, in O Strange New World is the sense of an author who has peered beneath the surface of the society of his own time. The scholar, like the citizen, must be prepared to recognize the vertigo of violence in the 20th as well as in the 17th century. Armed by this vision, he can then take his stand with the stoicism of John Adams: “Yet all these ought not to discourage us from exertion, for I believe no effort in favour of Virtue is lost, and all good Men ought to struggle both by their Council and Example.”

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