Our Creed and Our Character
“What then is the American, this new man?” Hector St. Jean de Crèvecoeur asked in 1782. The question must sound quaint to multiculturally conscious ears, just as it has become unfashionable to speak of the existence of an American “national character.” In the postmodern United States, there is no one way of being “American”: we are all hyphenated now, known by our differences rather than by our commonalities.
Yet despite the apparent determination of our elite classes to transcend all surviving remnants of collective nationality, the rest of the world stubbornly continues to insist on seeing us as American—and on disliking much of what it sees. Nor is today’s anti-Americanism a mere artifact of political disagreement. Foreigners have always viewed us as fundamentally different, shaped by the unique conditions of American life into a distinctive amalgam of collective qualities. As Crèvecoeur went on to say:
He is an American who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. . . . Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.
Nor are foreigners alone in expressing such ideas. While long out of scholarly favor here at home, they continue to reflect the positive feelings of most Americans. In an international poll taken three years ago, 79 percent of U.S. respondents said they were “very proud” to be Americans. The figures for similarly proud citizens of Great Britain, Russia, France, and West Germany were, respectively, 45 percent, 37 percent, 31 percent, and 16 percent.
Clearly, we like what we are. But what are we?
One place to look for evidence of an American national character is in our art. “We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1837. “We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds.” Emerson’s prophecy came true long ago, and anyone seeking to understand what it means to be American will find much food for thought in the output of American artists.
At first, the process of forging an American style of art was deliberate, even self-conscious. Well into the 20th century, one could still see the signs of this effort, wittily summed up in a passage from Randall Jarrell’s novel, Pictures From an Institution (1954). A sympathetic but detached European émigré holds forth to the narrator on what she regards as the defects of American art:
She said to me about American compositions: “There is a picture that one sees, a picture with an old man, and a man, and a little boy—they have drums and he a piccolo, and they are all ragged. I do not know its name.”
I said, “It’s called The Spirit of ’76.”
“The part that I like least in your American compositions is the part where these people come into the piece. Why should a piano concerto, or a ballet, or a description of how dawn comes over your American prairies need always a little march with a piccolo?”
In fact, such naïvely explicit Americanism was already disappearing from the cultural scene by the time Jarrell’s novel was published. Major American artists had in any case long since eschewed it, for they well understood that a full-fledged American style had already emerged, naturally, and had done so out of the crucible of modernism. As the composer-critic Virgil Thomson remarked, “The way to write American music is simple. All you have to do is to be an American and then write any kind of music you wish. . . . [A]ny Americanism worth bothering about is everybody’s property.”
The same was true of the other arts as well. In novels like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), paintings like Edward Hopper’s Early Sunday Morning (1930, Whitney Museum of American Art), buildings like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater (1935), plays like Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (1938), ballets like Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring (1944, music by Aaron Copland), and films like John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), one encounters a brand of modernism that is at all times effortlessly and unostentatiously American.
What do these works, and others like them, have in common? Despite manifest differences, knitting together most of the masterpieces of modern American art is a web of shared temperament. One of the key aspects of this temperament is an overarching sense of solitude—rarely oppressive, usually not neurotic, but nevertheless omnipresent. Our landscapes are unpeopled, our fictional narratives full of isolated souls, our music and architecture characterized by a right-angled plainness whose unadorned simplicity runs in parallel with our inclination to be alone even in a crowd. Surely it is not far-fetched to find in this quality a reflection of a country of illimitably vast expanses, a place where even the most crowded city offers its dwellers what E.B. White called “the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.”
In a seeming paradox, no less typical of American art is its brisk informality, which can often border on outright populism. Even our most unabashedly serious artists long to speak to a mass audience, and much—perhaps most—of the best of their art makes effective use of the vocabulary and techniques of popular culture. As the composer Aaron Copland once said of his own music:
It made no sense to ignore [the public] and to continue writing as if they did not exist. I felt that it was worth the effort to see if I couldn’t say what I had to say in the simplest possible terms.
If there is indeed a paradox here—a tension between the motif of solitude and the American artist’s desire to be accessible— then it can be explained, if not resolved, by another fact about the American national character: it contains no very strong inclination toward consistency. “Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then I contradict myself,/(I am large, I contain multitudes).” Walt Whitman’s best-known lines are a perfect expression of the way in which Americans are prepared to live with all manner of fundamental illogicalities, starting with the tension between pragmatism and idealism that has always been central to our politics.
In much the same way, American artists are natural-born empiricists, passionate disbelievers in theory who seek truth through the immediate experience of the senses, then set it down without excessive regard for whatever aesthetic rules and regulations may happen to be in fashion at the moment. This, too, is a reflection of the American temper: ours is a nation of Gatsbys, homespun and self-created, and our best artists share something of the same unacademic individuality. They pick and choose at will among myriad stylistic possibilities, coloring them with a directness of utterance that Europeans often find discomfitingly brash.
Still, one important aspect of the American national character is largely missing from our greatest modern art: our religious belief. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it is missing thematically. For as David Gelernter points out in his new book, Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion,* the formal plainness and functionalism of much of our art is indeed deeply rooted in the American religious heritage and remains a sign and portent of it:
Reinforced by the natural limitations of New World life far from European craftsmen, models, and materials, restrained simplicity emerged as the American style—an aesthetic with theological roots. It was a noble and dignified aesthetic, a transparent, “democratic” aesthetic (you didn’t have to be rich to work, dress, or live in this style) of which Americans were quietly proud and in many cases still are.
No less deeply rooted in the national religious past, one might add, is our distrust of art for art’s sake. Over much of the country’s history, many artists, like most of their countrymen, have favored an art that exists not autonomously but in the service of some cause whose goodness or functionality justifies its existence. In the 19th century, that cause was usually religious; nowadays, it is far more often political. But in both cases, it is hard to escape the conclusion that something in the American national character is inimical to the uncomplicated enjoyment of beauty. We prefer our art to be earnest, and that preference is another survival of American Puritanism.2
Beyond this, it is true, one learns surprisingly little about American religiosity from modern American art. Though some of our major novelists, most notably Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, have been preoccupied with religious matters, it is far more common for American writers either to ignore religion altogether or to portray it as a destructive feature of American life. Similarly, few of our major composers have produced religious compositions of any significance—there is no American counterpart to Verdi’s Requiem or to Ralph Vaughan Williams’s G Minor Mass—and even fewer of our major painters have made use of Judeo-Christian iconography except as a kind of cultural local color.
Yet everyone who has reflected more than casually on the American national character has observed that religious belief is one of its most prominent features. We are, as G.K. Chesterton remarked of us in 1922, “the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed . . . a nation with the soul of a church, protected by religious and not racial selection.” Today, at a time when Western Europe has become almost wholly secularized, 91 percent of Americans claim to believe in God, 82 percent identify themselves as Christians, and 62 percent say they would not vote for a political candidate who was an atheist.
In Americanism, David Gelernter, the Yale computer scientist and wide-ranging cultural commentator who writes frequently for the Weekly Standard and COMMENTARY, not only declares his belief in the existence of an American national character but claims it is impossible to understand American history correctly without acknowledging the central role played by Puritan Christianity in the formation of that character. Save among the most extreme of secularists, this should be a far from controversial argument. But Gelernter goes a good deal further in Americanism. His religiously based interpretation of American history, indeed, seems poised to make many readers uncomfortable—including some who might be generally inclined to agree with him.
According to Gelernter, Americanism—that is, the belief in a national creed of liberty, equality, and democracy for all—is “a religious idea of enormous, transporting power.” He means this more or less literally: Gelernter’s Americanism is neither “a mere civil religion nor a form of patriotism.” It is, instead, a universal ideal, and one whose adherents believe that God has called upon them to spread it throughout the world.
This belief, which Gelernter refers to alternately as “American Zionism” and “democratic chivalry,” arises, he contends, from the Puritan belief that Americans were “a chosen people in a promised land” and that their new country was “ancient Israel reborn.” He further maintains that this belief, instead of diminishing in intensity as American Puritanism died out, evolved into the cornerstone of America’s historic self-understanding, purified in the refiner’s fire of the Civil War and given definitive expression in the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, “the greatest religious figure of modern centuries.”
In Gelernter’s view, Lincoln’s spiritual successors are Woodrow Wilson, who believed that Americans had a moral obligation to enter World War I as (in Wilson’s words) “the champions of liberty and right”; Harry S. Truman, who stood firm in the face of Soviet aggression in the cold war and recognized the state of Israel for much the same reasons; Ronald Reagan, who “face[d] down the Soviet Union” and brought the cold war to an end; and George W. Bush, who today seeks to extend the universal ideal of Americanism to the Islamic world.
All four of these men, Gelernter points out, can rightly be seen as religious in various ways. Wilson and Truman were “reared in homes full of the Bible and Protestant Christianity.” Reagan believed devoutly, even mystically, in America’s “divine mission.” And Bush embraced evangelical Christianity as an adult, becoming “a decidedly Christian President, who opens every cabinet meeting with a prayer.” Gelernter views such religiosity as being utterly consistent with America’s origins as a “biblical republic” dedicated to the proposition that all men deserve liberty, equality, and democracy and that it is America’s sacred duty to help them attain these ends—by persuasion if possible, by force if necessary.
If timing is everything, Americanism has been published at a moment when its message may appear least likely to fall on receptive ears. It is hard to imagine that many readers will welcome a polemic on behalf of militant American universalism, especially one written with a fervor that often spills into italicized excess. Among conservatives, who might otherwise be disposed to respond positively, disillusion with the Bush presidency and the war in Iraq has been spreading rapidly in recent months, and shows no sign of abating. And even those who share Gelernter’s expansive view of America’s role in the world may find themselves raising an eyebrow at the enthusiasm with which he regards the person of President Bush:
Bush is friendly, warm, charmingly open, and slightly defensive—just as Americans are traditionally thought to be. Henry James could have invented George W. Bush. Bush is even rich; James liked that in an American character.
In other respects, too, Gelernter’s ardor may strike readers as having gotten the better of his analytic judgment, leading him, for instance, to oversimplify the religious views of Lincoln, whose relationship to Christianity was considerably more ambivalent than Americanism suggests. Nor will many historians be prepared to accept at face value Gelernter’s casual statement that “it’s easy to underestimate [Thomas] Jefferson’s respect for biblical wisdom, which seems to have deepened as he got older.”
Still, such excesses should not blind readers to the corrective value of Gelernter’s sacralized reading of American history—or to the acuteness of his correlative claim that our religiosity is the font of European anti-Americanism. As Americanism reminds us, the famed British economist John Maynard Keynes derisively characterized Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points as
a document for gloss and interpretation and for all the intellectual apparatus of self-deception, by which, I daresay, the President’s forefathers had persuaded themselves that the course they thought it necessary to take was consistent with every syllable of the Pentateuch.
In Keynes’s haughty disdain can be found the intellectual lineaments of countless subsequent attacks on American imperialism—a point of view that, as Gelernter observes, has lately been embraced by American intellectuals who are as ill at ease with our national religiosity as are their European counterparts. For such religion-hating postmodernists, there can be no salvation without secularism.
For Gelernter, by contrast, the very survival of America is contingent on its continued adherence to the tenets of Americanism. His own watchword, accordingly, is that of the Psalmist: “Except the Lord keep the city, the watchmen waketh but in vain.” Indeed, he goes so far as to suggest that the bloody totalitarianism of the 20th century was a direct result of the “paganism” of Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and Shintoist Japan, and that America’s own fate will be decided by whether or not it follows a similar path: “Can we avoid suspecting that a nation’s religious life might indeed be important in a crisis? Can we avoid suspecting that religion will save a nation’s soul if anything can?”
Whatever the answers to these questions may ultimately prove to be, one need not imagine George W. Bush rubbing shoulders with such Jamesian characters as Isabel Archer and Ralph Touchett to recognize that the religious aspect of the American national character is much as David Gelernter describes it in Americanism. Secular-minded historians who fail to acknowledge this fact—and like-minded aesthetes who believe only in the gospel of art for art’s sake—are incapable of seeing either America or its earnest, achieving, incurably idealistic, and wildly gifted people as they really are.
* Doubleday, 240 pp., $24.95.