Commentary Magazine


The Rungless Ladder, by Charles H. Foster; The American Adam, by R. W. B. Lewis

Adam Fallen and Unfallen
by Richard Chase
The Rungless Ladder. By Charles H. Foster. Duke University Press. 278 pp. $4.50.
The American ADAM. By R. W. B. Lewis. University of Chicago Press. 205 pp. $5.50.

Most writers on American literature these days take a “dialectical” view of our literary history. They tell us that the American imagination from the beginning has embraced such contraries as Calvinism and secular optimism, romanticism and realism, and that it continues to do so. This view contrasts with the older account of our literature (as expressed, for instance, in Alfred Kazin’s On Native Grounds) which pictured our literary history as a more or less monolithic drive away from Puritan superstition, provincialism, and romanticism, and towards realism in literature and a free, secular, and radically democratic culture.

The new dialecticians are more subtle than the old realists, and in the details of literary analysis they are often better critics. They are right, also, when they speak of the American imagination as characteristically embracing contradictions. At the same time their general view of things tends to be tamely conservative and conventional. Their vaunted dialectic is anything but intrepid. And the cultural atmosphere they live in is more than a little stifling.

Charles H. Foster’s The Rungless Ladder and R. W. B. Lewis’s The American Adam, both interesting and valuable studies in their way, illustrate some of the above generalizations. Mr. Foster’s book is a competent intellectual biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe, particularly in her relation to New England Puritanism. The old-fashioned way of treating this author was to trace her gradual achievement of realism in fiction as she abandoned the Calvinism of her family heritage and passed from the early fable, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to her later genre fictions, like The Pearl of Orr’s Island and Oldtown Folks. But Mr. Foster doubts if she ever really did abandon her Calvinism, at least her Calvinist imagination, and he disagrees with those who speak of The Minister’s Wooing as her “attack” on the family religion. This novel is, rather, an expression of her contradictory ideas and feelings. And beginning with his first chapter, called “New England Doubleness,” Mr. Foster painstakingly traces in Mrs. Stowe’s work the contraries and tensions of the Puritan, or post-Puritan, mind, which her intelligence if not her somewhat inadequate art so fully comprehended.

As Mr. Foster says, Mrs. Stowe’s idea of Calvinism is symbolized by the rungless ladder, a metaphor she uses in The Minister’s Wooing. Calvinism sets up a ladder of which the top rung is at the threshold of God and the bottom rung in the human affections and instincts. But then, by its cruel doctrinal opposition of the few elect and the many damned, it in effect knocks out all the intermediary rungs, making it impossible to climb up.

In her personal and emotional life Mrs. Stowe found Calvinism too austere and callous, and she turned finally to Episcopalianism. But the rungless ladder remained a central symbol of her imagination. Mr. Foster calls attention several times to the persistence of the Puritan sensibility in American literature, but he does not offer on this basis, or any other, a general view of our literature beyond suggesting that many of the most interesting and original American writers have contained within themselves the dialectic of their time.

R. W. B. Lewis’s The American Adam is more ambitious. Mr. Lewis thinks the American mind has been “clearest and most rewarding when it has been most dialectical.” And like Mr. Foster, he speaks often of “inner contradictions” and (quoting Emerson) “this old double” that characterizes American thought. But Mr. Lewis rests uneasily among contradictions and yearns for resolutions, apotheoses, and transfigurations, and this leads him to generalize on a large scale.

He believes that the “dialogue” within the American imagination has split itself into three “parties.” The first is the party of Hope (the optimists and progressives, like Whitman, Emerson, and Thoreau). The second is the party of Memory (not quite clear who belongs to this—perhaps Jonathan Edwards, the historian Parkman, and others who are “orthodox” either because they believe with the Calvinists in inherited sin, or because they look back nostalgically to the European past). The third party embraces the first two and is called the party of Irony (Hawthorne, Melville, Henry James, senior and junior). The subject of the dialogue is what Mr. Lewis calls “the American myth”—the myth, that is, of the “new Adam.” There are of course many interesting allusions to Adam in American literature, as there were bound to be, given a new country with a new ideal of innocence and hope. We are not surprised that the optimist Whitman, in his “Children of Adam” poems, should have depicted an unfallen Adam, or that Hawthorne, a more complex moralist, should in The Marble Faun have made the young hero into a sort of fallen Adam. It is appropriate, in other words, that Mr. Lewis’s party of Hope should believe in a sinless Adam, the party of Memory in a lost and eternally damned Adam, and the party of Irony in the “fortunate fall” of Adam. Mr. Lewis identifies himself with this last party and says that the idea of a fallen Adam is necessary and that the fall was “fortunate” because it was a step away from innocence and superficiality towards a culture capable of taking a tragic view of its experience.

Mr. Lewis’s thesis is obviously too narrow to accommodate the large meanings he attributes to it. It does allow him, however, to organize a good deal of interesting material—on Parkman and Bancroft, on Henry James, Sr., and on the theologian, Horace Bushnell.

But one is struck by how often Mr. Lewis’s preoccupation with the “new Adam” leads him to exalt eccentric and second-best works over better and more typical works by the same authors—for example, Charles Brockden Brown’s Arthur Mervyn, Hawthorne’s Marble Faun, Melville’s Billy Budd, Henry James’s last three novels, The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl, and Faulkner’s The Bear. The Adam myth is a theme of American literature but it is by no means the theme. And Mr. Lewis’s attempts to generalize the theme involve him in considerable vagueness and some confusion. In the stories of initiation in our literature, is the “American Adam” initiated “away from” society (page 115), or, taking “his start outside the world,” is it his fate to learn and master or be mastered by “its power, its fashions, and its history” (page 128)? It depends on whether you are talking, say, about Cooper’s Natty Bumppo or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby. These two are at best second cousins; they can’t both be Adam.

Still, it is only in the chapter on Melville that things get entirely out of hand. Without any of the irony he says he is party to, Mr. Lewis reads Melville as Scripture. And we begin to suspect that any piece of writing, whether novel, fable, poem, or essay, becomes for him a form of revelation or “dramatic comment” moving dialectically towards divine truth. In Billy Budd, that is, the fallen Adam is reborn in the Christ-like hero; and the new Adam has “entered, once and for all, into the dimension of myth,” becoming, one gathers, the new, new Adam.

But what about Moby Dick? Isn’t that book, as everyone feels, closer to the grand archetypes of the American imagination than is Billy Budd? One’s reason for thinking that it is is Mr. Lewis’s reason for thinking that it isn’t. For as he correctly writes: “Moby Dick is an elaborate pattern of countercommentaries, the supreme instance of the dialectical novel—a novel of tension without resolution.” As a general truth this is undeniable. And the imagination that created Moby Dick, and other great books, from The Scarlet Letter to Light in August, is, then, not tragic and Christian, but, to use two terms that suggest unresolved contradictions, melodramatic and Manichean.

In any case Billy Budd seems more political than theological or mythic. It is closer, in other words, to the spirit of Edmund Burke than to that of Kenneth Burke, a critic who, along with F. O. Matthiessen, has influenced Mr. Lewis. It presents the idea that society must follow a middle way of expediency and compromise. Society cannot be based on the contrary absolutes of good and evil represented by Billy Budd and his traducer Claggart. If these absolute extremes enter the arena of society they assume a revolutionary form, and so, Melville seems to say, from the point of view of political realism, it is proper that they should destroy each other. But this is hardly a “resolution” of any sort, except perhaps as showing that contradictions are absorbed in history. The Biblical metaphors Melville uses suggest a quasi-Augustinian idea of grace revealed in history. But still the final impression we get from Melville’s story is less the mystery of incarnation than the mystery entailed in the eternal contradiction of good and evil, of the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness. The structure of society cannot countenance this extreme polarity, but it may, nevertheless, be the very substance of the aesthetic imagination, as indeed, in Billy Budd, it is.

Assuming for the moment that Mr. Lewis’s book is roughly typical of the new approach to American literature, one concludes not that this approach is too dialectical but that it is not dialectical enough. The newer critics who take any sort of position at all are dialectical only up to the point they want to get to—namely, some sort of middle ground of taste and opinion where contradictions are resolved, tensions relaxed, and the imagination is made safe for morality. This has been the goal of most literary people for some time now, and there has been a general drive to remove from art and from the psyche of the artist all conflict, recalcitrancy, suffering, and neurosis, all color, native impulse, and adventure.

The search for a middle ground of taste and opinion has taken many forms. It is apparent in the generally middlebrow tone of the time. It is apparent in the extraordinary emphasis—often among writers one ordinarily thinks of as highbrow—on the tragic view and the religious view, since both tragedy and religion, as conceived by writers like Mr. Lewis, offer a resolution of contradictions, a catharsis or incarnation. The many symbolistic studies of literature, following Cassirer and Mrs. Langer, tend to break down the old dualistic verities of Western thought and to absorb all orders of meaning into language; the poetic symbol being, as we are told, “the incarnation of meaning” wherein all contradictions are reconciled. “Myth,” about which we have heard so much, has meant to most literary people only one kind of myth—that which is derived, as tragedy is now said to derive, from the religious ritual of the death and rebirth of the divine hero.

And thus, so far as all this affects American studies, an anomalous situation has developed. For the most general truth about the reigning fashions of criticism is that they aim at a middle ground where contradictions are resolved, whereas the most general truth about American literature is that at its best it has been remarkable for its unique capacity to express the extreme and irreconcilable aspects of life and for its habit of leaving ultimate questions open.

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