Commentary Magazine

Neo-Conservatism and American Literature
Traditional Impulse and Radical Idea

By now the “new conservatism” is an old story. What has not been noticed, however, is the attempt to square American literature with conservative opinion in morals, politics, and religion. This attempted revaluation has taken various forms, some of them ingenious, and it is still going on. But like the new conservatism itself, the new account of our literature is based on certain false notions about American culture.

True, there has been a wider response among the American people to the intellectual conservatism of the 1950’s than there was to the intellectual radicalism of the 1930’s, which, despite the higher quality of mind that went into it, was never able to affect very lastingly the vast complacency of the American middle classes. Yet this broad social base upon which the conservative theoreticians rest has failed to give any noticeable moral solidity to the new conservatism. Nor have the conservatives been able to evolve a convincing ideology in support of their position.

Edmund Burke is the authority most often appealed to by the new conservatives, and writers like Russell Kirk and Peter Viereck have argued from the precepts of Burke to the practice of American politics and American life. But the fact remains that, as someone has said, “In America Edmund Burke is Thomas Jefferson.” This statement contains the truth I want to bring forth in these pages—namely, that the inherited quality of American cultural life depends on a discontinuity between conservative feeling and liberal ideas. As was true of Jefferson, all our impressive and historically successful ideas are liberal or radical, although some of our most important impulses are conservative. But conservative as these impulses are, they are not translatable into ideas, political or otherwise. They are impulses which tend to remain private and personal; like all conservative impulses they urge moderation of behavior and attachment to habit. But their source is distinctly not a sense of evolving political, social, or religious life in their institutional forms—that is Burke’s sense of things. The source of the conservative impulse in America, as is shown by our literature, is that nostalgia for the simpler, happier way of life which we Americans have felt from the beginning always to be receding into the oblivion of the past. We value with our conservative instincts that which history has already rendered irrelevant to the formation of our ideas.

This discontinuity between emotion and thought is in marked contrast to the more nearly organic cultural life of England, which lent relevance to Burke’s appeal from tradition and instinct to idea, to his derivation of conservative ideas from conservative emotions. The ship of the new conservatism in this country sinks on the rock—or rather, among the shoals—of the discontinuities of American life.

Lionel Trilling is thus correct to say that “in the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.” Mr. Trilling’s statement elicited much comment, both pro and con, when it appeared in 1950, in the preface to The Liberal Imagination, but it was true then and it is not appreciably less true now. He went on to say that

it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation. This does not mean, of course, that there is no impulse to conservatism or to reaction. Such impulses are certainly very strong, perhaps even stronger than most of us know. But the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.

To Mr. Trilling this state of affairs suggested that the proper subject of the moralist and critic was liberalism. To many people it also suggested that conservative ideas should be refurbished or conjured up. And during recent years, while this process of refurbishing and conjuring has been going on, it has become a cliché, as often uttered by liberals as by conservatives, that we would benefit if there were more intellectually respectable conservative ideas around.

I do not think we would, because the real life of our culture is in the perennially unresolved contradiction between our conservative feelings and our radical ideas. The life of our emotions, our fantasies, our literature, our daily manners and morals—this shared cultural life is not at home on a middle ground whereon radical and conservative ideas have been dialectically engaged and a compromise achieved. The vital conflict, the energizing dialectic of American life, is the opposition of idea to instinct and impulse, and not the opposition of idea to idea.



To be sure, practical statesmanship and a successful and humane politics depend in this country, as in any other, on a perpetual compromise of ideas. And this fact has led to the familiar suggestion that American politics would be more rational and social progress facilitated if our political parties represented competing ideologies, instead of both of them being liberal-conservative coalitions with no stake in winning an election beyond the spoils and the glory. Doubtless something might be gained if a new alignment should emerge which would place conservatives in one party and liberals in the other. Yet history has gradually brought about a two-party system in which, despite certain differences of policy and tradition, both parties tend to mirror the national mentality as a whole. Both parties draft platforms drawn from the principles of radical democracy and, except in periods of acute crisis, conduct themselves in office largely according to conservative instinct, prejudice, and habit.

Among present-day Congressmen there are no conservative ideas worthy of the name. The opponents of segregation appeal to the great ideas of democracy; they speak in the name of the Bill of Rights. But except for a few romantic ideologues, the segregationists do not cite Calhoun. Their argument is a non-ideological realism which openly appeals to instinct, prejudice, and habit (as has William Faulkner in his recent comments on segregation).

Despite the notable shortcomings of our two-party system, it is the right and inevitable one under American conditions. The perennial ineffectiveness and inertia of Congress are not the result of the ideological weakness of the conservatives but of the reactionary quality of their conservative impulse, combined with the uncertainty and timidity of the liberals. The vitality of American political life thus depends on a twofold dialectic—the dialectic between conservative impulse and liberal idea and the dialectic among liberal ideas.

What is true of our general culture is also true of our best and most characteristic literature. This literature will be found to express conservative sentiments and radical ideas. The deepest emotions of Walt Whitman—that much neglected and misunderstood mirror image of America—are retrospective and nostalgic, although he vividly expresses the radical ideology of our democracy. This contradiction is also to be discovered in more profound and more dramatic writers like Melville and Faulkner, who sometimes express liberal democratic values. Yet the real concern of these writers is with contradiction as such—they are concerned, that is, with those native conflicts of our culture out of which have evolved our conservative impulses and our radical ideas.

Faulkner does not propound a conservative position or ideology of any sort, although many good critics claim that he does. Nor is Melville a classicist or humanist, as some conservative critics claim. Hawthorne still looks like the same sturdy democrat and skeptic in morals and religion that he always was, yet lately several theses and essays maintain that he is Thomistic, and in a recent study of his writings by Hyatt Howe Waggoner he is presented as a conservative Christian humanist. Many people nowadays seem to take a secret satisfaction in having learned from a mass-circulation magazine that Hemingway, although not doctrinally a Catholic, often slips off to attend mass. Other people, probably not the same ones, seemed to be moved a few years ago when John Dos Passos came out for Senator Taft for President—Dos Passos, who bad once proclaimed militantly from the left: “All right, we are two nations.” And since I have mentioned Senator Taft, it may be worth going on to say that he was like most American writers in that his conservatism was impulsive and nostalgic. Ideologically he was as different from Edmund Burke as possible; he was what he called himself, an old-fashioned liberal. But his guiding passion, like that of many men of his class and generation, was a longing for an earlier, simpler, more hardy, more nearly Anglo-Saxon America, before the great waves of immigration, before big business and big government. This is a feeling expressed by many of our so-called regionalist writers.

It is not surprising that Edith Wharton is another writer who has been claimed for conservatism. But Blake Nevius, who has written the best book on Mrs. Wharton, is surely illogical to conclude that she is a traditional Christian humanist. If this novelist has any ultimate intellectual commitment, it is to a pessimistic naturalism not far removed from that of certain novelists considerably less intelligent than herself, such as Dreiser. True, she looks back with nostalgia to the brief ascendancy of her class, the old New York mercantile bourgeoisie which until 1870 was able to maintain a patrician way of life. The patrician way of life described in Mrs. Wharton’s novels urges one not only to envy its wealth and amenity but to feel a certain piety toward civilization itself—a piety which the triumphant new plutocracy that overwhelmed Mrs. Wharton’s class knew not at all. But, as she herself shows, her class was intellectually bankrupt.



The case of Edith Wharton reminds us that an important literary source of the new conservatism is the attempt, bogus or valid, of the upper middle class to imagine itself as an aristocracy. In this cultural fantasy Henry Adams and Henry James figure prominently. In evolving an imagination of conservatism, these writers look back to Burke, who made the first distinctively modern effort to infuse the bourgeoisie with aristocratic values. The Burke they remind us of, however, is not the realistic political historian but the romantic moralist and elegist of aristocracy. Burke was apparently the first writer to use a phrase which is nowadays on everybody’s lips: “the moral imagination.” In an eloquent passage where Burke is telling us (in Reflections on the Revolution in France) what the revolutionaries propose to do, he says:

All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.

Ideas furnished by the moral imagination, as we see, though ratified by the understanding, are suffused with the sentiments of the heart. And the heart is moved not only by humane sympathies but by attachment to habit, tradition, and ancient prejudice. Burke knew well the danger of modern abstractions and ideologies when these are allied with revolutionary politics. But he was not sufficiently aware that the moral imagination can as easily smother and destroy valuable ideas as humanize dangerous abstractions. Obviously there can be no free dialectic of ideas until there is a free dialectic of impulse and intelligence, so that intelligence can function with provisional autonomy. The aim of conservatism is always to close out the possibility of dialectic.



Like most of the great conservatives Burke has at the back of his moral imagination the image of a woman insulted, in this case Marie Antoinette. Let us waive the famous undergraduate question of whether this particular woman was worthy of Burke’s expostulation. The important thing is his symbolic use of her, making her stand for the humane values of the inherited civilization for which countless brave spirits have labored, suffered, and died. The moral imagination, as Burke uses the term, is the imagination of chivalry, of noblesse, the imagination of civilization itself considered as a sacred and costly inheritance. He conceives of the imagination as a sort of knight who selflessly dashes to the rescue of the insulted lady and then enthrones her as the vessel and custodian of culture. It is not Burkes fault if the imagination is forced to enthrone civilization in a shaky temple around which swirl the threatening hordes of “sophists, economists, and calculators”—the hordes, that is, of liberals, commercialists, scientists, rationalists, reformers, shysters, and presumptuous petty-bourgeois arrivistes who have made the modern world.

Henry Adams, as he tells us in his Education and Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, felt that civilization was similarly beleaguered. Probably the most affecting passage in his works is his description of the Virgin at Chartres. He pictures the Virgin as the proliferating symbol of culture. She has that final superior innocence and simplicity which all the great poets of conservatism, from Burke to Yeats and Henry James, regard as being among the most precious gifts, not of primitive conditions or mere naivety or youth, but of civilization itself. The Virgin Queen Mother, says Adams,

was the greatest artist, as she was the greatest philosopher and musician and theologist, that ever lived on earth, except her Son, Who, at Chartres, is still an Infant under her guardianship. Her taste was infallible; her sentence eternally final. This church was built for her in this spirit of simple-minded, practical, utilitarian faith—this singleness of thought, exactly as a little girl sets up a doll-house for her favorite blonde doll.

For Adams, the Virgin is the symbol of the creative, humanizing, civilizing force by which he intends to countervail the Dynamo, the symbol of the vast inhuman forces which history and modern politics and modern science have turned loose in the world.

The idealized women in Henry James’s novels are like Adams’s Virgin in being at once complicated and simple. In The Ambassadors, Lambert Strether, who resembles Henry Adams as much as the Howells he is usually identified with, is surprised to find that Mme. De Vionnet has “fineness” and “subtlety” and all the infinite variety of “Cleopatra in the play” but that this is “without detriment to her simplicity.” Mme. De Vionnet is made in this novel to symbolize the high point of culture, and in his Notebook James says she has led Strether, the educable American, to “revise and imaginatively reconstruct, morally reconsider, so to speak, civilization.” It would simplify matters too much to say that Mme. De Vionnet has led Strether from liberalism to conservatism, but this is certainly a part of what has happened to him.

Strether’s last interview with Mme. De Vionnet, which James says is the climax of the novel, involves this author’s most famous symbol of the imagination. For as Strether is walking through the streets of Paris toward the fateful interview, we are reminded, by some of the metaphors employed and by the moral meaning of the scene, of James’s “dream of the Louvre,” the dream which James recounts in A Small Boy and Others, and which his biographers tell us is of cardinal importance in understanding the essential quality of his imagination. It is a dream of chivalric counterattack. The dreamer is disturbed from his sleep by his sense of a nameless and threatening monster trying to get in at the door. He bars the door against the demon and then with “straight aggression” and “dire intention” he turns the tables and pursues the nameless enemy down a corridor, which turns out to be the Galérie d’Apollon in the Louvre. And the Galérie, James explains, breathes for him “a general sense of glory. The glory meant ever so many things at once, not only beauty and art and supreme design, but history and fame and power, the world in fine raised to the richest and noblest expression.” The moral imagination, by which we imaginatively reconstruct civilization, shows us not only the glory of civilization but its cost, and so leads us to reflect on the danger of needlessly changing it. With an art-consciousness more pure, and more impoverished, than that of James, Wallace Stevens symbolizes the imagination as a “noble rider”—the unifying “violence within,” as he calls it in his best-known essay, which rides forth to oppose the “violence without”—the violence, that is, of the modern moral chaos.



Moving as this poetry of conservatism is, its irrelevance to living political ideas and realities is plain. There is no conservative “position” or philosophy to be found in the writings of James or Adams or Stevens. Adams, the only one of the three with the sort of intellectual equipment that might have led him to construct a philosophy of conservatism, did not do so. He described himself with cryptic irony as a “conservative Christian anarchist” and derived from the contradictions of American life only a despairing poetry of “forces.”

The ever-shifting upper middle class which for a time projects an image of itself as an aristocracy before it is subverted and displaced by a new class is a major source of the conservative impulse in American literature. But it does not directly affect large numbers of people. The regional impulse, however, is a more common phenomenon, and a great many of our writers have expressed it.

Regionalism may be defined briefly as that sort of literature which depicts in detail a rural region or a small town and presents it as an image of a simple and on the whole admirable way of life. It is absurd to say that any work which deals with a region is regional, 9ince all works—all prose fiction, at least—do this. Also the category will be badly blurred if we include, as some literary historians do, books like Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, or Farrell’s Studs Lonigan. These treat of regions but they do so unfavorably, showing them to be local cultures where human beings are warped, stunted, or demoralized. In America, regionalism has thus been mostly a form of agrarianism, although without the social ideology one associates with agrarianism—whether the Populist ideology of the Western farmers or the Burkean ideology of the “Southern Agrarians,” among whom writers like John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren were once to be found.

Historically, the term “regionalism” is generally made to apply to a group of mostly undistinguished writers who began to write stories about their native locales soon after the Civil War. There were Mrs. Stowe, Mary Wilkins Freeman, and later Sarah Orne Jewett, with their pictures of back-country New England. There were Mary Murfree with her Tennessee mountains, Kate Chopin and George Washington Cable with their New Orleans stories, Joel Chandler Harris with his scenes from Negro life, and T. N. Page with his Virginia scenes. There were Bret Harte and Joaquin Miller in the West. Later writers too might be legitimately called regionalists—for example, Willa Cather, Robert Frost, and, in one of his many aspects, Faulkner.

The characteristic style of these writers is realistic genre painting touched with romance and elegy. Whenever there is a moral it is to the effect that a valuable simplicity, a valuable piety toward the land and toward life is being lost in the march of history. The regional literature suited the conservative mood and the newly arisen local self-consciousness that followed the Civil War. The regionalists felt that the grand, abstract idea of the Union now having been made firm, they could with profit explore the native variations within the national life. In its moral meaning, regionalism was a reaction against the social disruption brought about by the rapid changes of the Gilded Age. It was an implied, and sometimes an explicit, protest against “bigness,” against that standardization and uniformity which have always been an alarming aspect of democracy but which between 1870 and 1890 were assuming, at an accelerated rate, their formidable modern characteristics. In its defense of the local and of the vanishing agrarian way of life, it not only looked forward to Willa Cather and Frost but backward to Cooper and to Wordsworth and even to Virgil.



The typical mood of the regionalists is expressed by Willa Cather in her Nebraska novels. For example, there is the passage in A Lost Lady where Ivy Peters, a petty commercial type, drains the marsh that he has acquired along with the estate of the aristocratic Forresters. He does this not only because he wants to grow wheat but out of vengeance and a sheer hatred of natural beauty. His crimes elicit a glowing elegy from Miss Cather on the “courteous brotherhood” of “dreamers” and “great-hearted adventurers” who, “unpractical to the point of magnificence,” had originally settled the West. These magnificent adventurers are not, to be sure, the only stimuli of Miss Cather’s nostalgia. More important is the image of culture that occurs in various locales in her books—pioneer culture, morally severe, isolated, an artisan-agrarian culture the style of which is bare, simple, stoic, intensely symbolic of man’s closeness to nature and God. It is an organic culture in which the intellectual life, if it exists, is suffused and modified by the simplest, most conservative instincts of man.

Willa Cather, not content like her early master Henry James with the imagination of conservatism, wrote in her later years as a convinced and principled conservative. And there can be no doubt that her announced views, compared with the impulsive and elegiac emotions of her early novels, were dull and unconvincing and that they cut her off, as she herself said, from every new movement of thought and literature after 1922.

William Faulkner, so far as I know, has never declared himself a conservative. But his novels and tales are an eloquent testimonial to the power of his longing for an earlier, agrarian, unsullied America before the Snopeses—carpetbaggers, petty commercialists, and brothers to Willa Cather’s Ivy Peters—blighted the country. But on the basis of this nostalgia, which, speaking broadly, is much like that of Cooper, Thoreau, Mark Twain, and Hemingway among many others, several contemporary critics think of him as a principled conservative. My difference from these critics can be stated succinctly. They think that Faulkner is a tragic writer who gives us, as tragedy does, great images of harmony and centrality wherein contradictions such as that between impulse and idea are reconciled. They think that his imagination is most deeply moved by the idea of a traditional, organic culture. It seems to me that Faulkner is not a tragic writer but a melo-dramatist—that is, one who envisions human life as consisting in starkly irreconcilable contradictions. It seems to me that he is a skeptic and humorist, and that although he is respectful to the myth of an ante-bellum aristocratic Southern culture, he never seriously propounds it as an ideal.

Cleanth Brooks’s essay on Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! (Sewanee Review, Autumn 1951) says many illuminating things about a difficult novel. But I do not agree that Absalom! Absalom! is a tragedy with a vision of harmony and centrality; it is a melodrama akin to Moby Dick. The Ahab of the novel is Thomas Sutpen who comes to Yoknapatawpha County about 1820. Sutpen is a man of tremendous obsessive vitality and will power, and with his wild crew of African savages he carves out of the wilderness a great mansion and plantation. But finally, because of dissension in his family involving a clash of races, and because of the war, Sutpen’s grand design fails. His attempt to found a dynasty is abortive, the whole enterprise is a disaster, and Sutpen is left with his baffled question: “Where did I go wrong?”

Brooks, taking a “Southern” point of view, says that Sutpen failed because he behaved like a Yankee. That is, he is all will, pride, and calculating intellect, and thinks tradition and justice are merely abstract coins, negotiable like any other. His “sensibility is dissociated.” He tries to appropriate everything abstractly. He has no sense of the emotional, the human price of things. He has no commitment to history, tradition, family, or community, or to his own passional self, which he exploits as readily as anything else. Sutpen is fatally innocent because he does not perceive the incongruity between the rigid simplicity of his “design” and the complexity of the human and natural world upon which he tries to impose it.

So far so good. Yet as I read the novel, we have here another example of what might roughly be called, to give it the proper historical derivation, an American or perhaps Puritan drama of the mind—a study of the isolation which results from obsessively backing a misconceived theory or design and driving it through to the catastrophe. The proper parallel to draw for Sutpen would therefore be Captain Ahab rather than, as Brooks says, Oedipus or Macbeth. Neither Oedipus nor Macbeth is a monomaniac. They merely want to be as rationalistic and common-sensical as possible. The design of their lives is not something they try to impose; it is something gradually revealed to them out of their unconscious desires and the tragic circumstances of their lives.



Let us admit that the conservative ideal of the community, of tradition, of the tragic sense of life has been more fully developed in the South than anywhere else in the country, and that this affects at least the tone of Absalom! Absalom! Still, Brooks is unable to find in Faulkner’s novel any community to speak of, or any powerful images of tradition, or acts of tragic stature. As in Moby Dick, the forces that oppose the spectacular folly of the hero are pitifully incommensurate.

Brooks’s essay on The Sound and the Fury is also very much worth reading (see English Institute Essays, 1952). Here he says that “Faulkner is a conservative writer.” According to Brooks, Faulkner believes in a traditional community of which the family and the woman are the basic constituents. It is true that no writer can give us a full idea of the human condition, let alone a tragic or religious idea of society, unless he can depict convincingly real women of sexual age—as do Shakespeare, Molière, Henry Adams, or Henry James. This is not the occasion to discuss Faulkner’s women. But the fact is that he has only two or three interesting ones who are not either brittle flappers, effete aristocrats, moon goddesses, or old maids—Dilsey and Mrs. Bundren and Ruby Lamar. Faulkner succumbs as easily to the sub-civilized folk demonology of woman as do Cooper, Melville, Mark Twain, and Hemingway. Like these writers, Faulkner is the bard of the masculine life. His attitude toward women, like his attitude toward culture, is usually one of suspicion, mockery, caricature, and even vindictive-ness.

Why try to remove, as Brooks does, the vital contradictions of Faulkner’s mind? If Faulkner is in some of his impulses a conservative, he is also an anarchist; if he is traditional, he is also a modernist. If there is one Faulkner who admires a traditional aristocratic community guided by received, public values, there is another Faulkner who sees no good but in a life on the utmost margins of a society which you have repudiated in order to live by the purely personal virtues of renunciation, the skill of your calling, humor, and a sort of stoic contemplativeness.

The fundamental purpose of conservatism must always be to remove, to reconcile, or to gloss over contraries and polarities. For such oppositions, whether in institutional and political life or in our minds, are the perennial source of unrest and change. The opposition we have had before us, in these pages, is the one between impulse and idea, which is to say, in American culture: conservative impulse and radical idea. Naturally programmatic conservatism looks to literature for a reconciliation of impulse and idea, since literature could hardly exist without an interpenetration of the one by the other.

But what lesson is to be drawn from this fact? None except an aesthetic one. It does not follow, because literature has its peculiar ways of fusing emotion with thought, that this fusion is an ideal to be achieved everywhere or anywhere in the general life of the mind and of culture. This mistake is made by T. S. Eliot and his followers, when they extend his famous phrase, “the dissociation of sensibility,” from a criticism of faulty poetry to a general criticism of modern culture. Certain valuable literary effects depend on a fusion of thought and emotion. Others, common in American literature, depend positively on Eliot’s bugbear, the dissociated sensibility. And so does a free dialectic of mind and culture.

The interpenetration of impulse and idea is, as I say, native to American literature, as to any other. But in comparing and evaluating different literatures, the question is where, after all, does the essential quality of a literature rest—in the final reconciliation of these contraries or in a sustained tension between them. In much of the most characteristic American writing, impulse and idea are forced far apart into a radical opposition. Often character is defined by the very alienation of intellect and will from emotion—witness the archetypal Captain Ahab. The life of the best American novels and poems depends on an imagination that is contradictory, unstable, disruptive, fragmentary, and extreme—a fact which defines both the marked successes and the peculiar shortcomings of our literature.

In preserving a vivid distinction between conservative impulse and radical idea, American writers—Melville, Hawthorne, and Faulkner no less than Emerson and Whitman—disqualify themselves as conservatives. In the essentials of their art they both mirror and reassert a secular, skeptical, democratic world.


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