Commentary Magazine

Santayana and the Genteel Tradition

The Harvard faculty of the 1890’s thought of itself as made up of men of superbly independent mind. George Santayana, a prodigy of detachment, knew otherwise. For years he suppressed his irritation with a whole host of the attitudes that his colleagues uncritically held in common, from their sanctimonious and often disingenuous Protestantism to their snobbish assumption that the Irish Catholics who also lived in Cambridge were nothing more than muckers, and their studied lack of interest in the spectacular achievements of American industrial enterprise. Only when America’s appetite for global power was denounced as immoral at a gathering of the philosophy department did Santayana finally decide to let the entire university community know how he felt about it.

Because of his Spanish birth, and because his father, stepfather, and maternal grandfather had all lived in the Philippines for a time, Santayana might have been expected to object to the American annexation of the Islands at the conclusion of the war with Spain, and possibly to the installation of an American presence in Puerto Rico, Guam, and insurgent Cuba as well. Yet while he was indeed resentful of “the schoolmaster’s manner of the American government, walking switch in hand into a neighbor’s garden, to settle the children’s quarrel there,” he also believed that Spain’s weakness and America’s strength made the fall of one empire and the rise of another inevitable—and he was reinforced in this conviction by the philosophical acceptance of loss by his friends and relatives in Spain. Therefore, when his colleague William James denounced the annexation of the Philippines as a “shameless betrayal of American principles” that reeked of “greed, ambition, corruption, and imperialism,” Santayana asked himself, “Why was William James so much upset by an event that the victims of it could take so calmly?”

Santayana’s answer to that question illustrated his overall opinion of the Harvard faculty. Although James thought of himself as a free man, he was not, because his mind was “held back by old instincts” and was “subject to old delusions.” As a pragmatist and a physician, James ought to have realized that the entrance of the United States onto the world stage was a natural development in its “physiological history.” But because the “overriding tradition” in him was a mixture of outmoded Transcendentalist idealism and even more outmoded Calvinistic guilt, he had instead given way to moralistic lamentations about the nation’s failure to grant instant independence to the Filipinos in the name of Thomas Jefferson’s immortal Declaration. James simply could not see that in the context of America’s drive to acquire the far-flung bases for which Admiral Mahan had persuasively argued in his recent book on the influence of sea power upon history, the Declaration of Independence was nothing but “a piece of literature, a salad of illusions.”

The forum that Santayana chose for his attack on his fellow professors was the Signet Society, the undergraduate literary club. He liked the company of students anyway, and on this occasion he especially wanted to be in their irreverent midst. Thus it was that on an October evening in 1900, as President McKinley’s reelection campaign was entering its final month and the national debate on the Philippines question continued to intensify, Santayana arose and read to the wine-guzzling members of the club a satirical poem entitled “Young Sammy’s First Wild Oats.”

The poem’s opening stanzas evoke a secluded glade, the learned inhabitants of which have only the dimmest sense of the hordes of immigrants and the whizzing, westbound trains that characterize the world beyond its fenced-in limits. The audience at the Signet presumably had no difficulty in recognizing that the poet was talking about the Harvard Yard:

Mid Uncle’s Sam’s expanded
    There’s an old, secluded glade
Where grey Puritans and Quakers
    Still grow fervid in the shade;
And the same great elms and
    That once graced the ancestral
Bending to the old men’s speeches,
    Lend their words an echo’s
Laurel, clematis, and vine
    Weave green trellises about,
And three maples and a pine
    Shut the mucker-village out.
Yet the smoke of trade and battle
    Cannot quite be banished
And the air-line to Seattle
    Whizzes just behind the fence.

Hobbling across the glade comes an old man, who turns out not to be a professor, but—in poetic tribute to academic Cambridge’s oldest intellectual tradition—the deacon of a church. Plaster is the deacon’s name, and sanctimoniousness is the quality of his faith. A certain Pastor Wise is next introduced; as his name suggests, he is the spokesman for Santayana. Somewhat further on in the poem, another sort of contrast is set up through the characters of Uncle Sam (“that prim, pompous, pious man”), who stands for the older America for which William James nostalgically yearned, and impetuous, hot-blooded Young Sammy, who represents the ebullient spirit of a burgeoning empire.

Informed of the fact that Young Sammy has been sowing wild oats in various tropical locales with various dusky-skinned maidens, Deacon Plaster indignantly characterizes the youth’s behavior as “a wicked sin.” To this Puritanical judgment Pastor Wise replies that Americans of Sammy’s generation should not be expected to submit to rules of conduct established in a vanished era, and that the old men of the glade must not blame the young if they instead choose to be ruled by their proud belief in their own destiny. Although politely phrased, Wise’s reply pours scorn on the men of the glade—in effect, on the members of the Harvard faculty—for the irrelevance of their teaching and the impotence of their leadership:

Can we blame them we mis-
    If now they seek another guide
And, since our wisdom comes to
    Take counsel of their proper
Nature beckons them inviting
    To a deeper draught of fate,
And, the heart’s desire inciting,
    Can we stop and bid them wait?

The wicked wit in “Young Sammy” must have brought down the house at the Signet, for a month later Santayana permitted the poem to be published in the undergraduate humor magazine, the Lampoon. Yet the act of making fun of his faculty colleagues only served to increase his sense of alienation from them. In the ensuing years, Santayana spent as much time away from Cambridge as he possibly could without giving up his professorship. Even so, he continued to feel trapped by the place. His one consolation was the presence in the Boston area of his mother, to whom he was devoted.



In the summer of 1911, Santayana went on sabbatical leave. He spent most of July and August teaching at the University of California at Berkeley, and then set off for Europe. Word reached him in England the following February that his mother had died. Not only did he at once resign his Harvard appointment, but he never again returned to the United States. The lecture he had delivered in August at the Philosophical Union at Berkeley, he later realized, had constituted his farewell address to America.

“The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy,” as the lecture was called, expanded the depiction of Deacon Plaster into a more inclusive portrait of moralizing intellectuals who had fenced themselves off from the mucker-village and the air-line to Seattle. The mentality of the American intelligentsia in general, like the mentality of the Harvard faculty in particular, was becalmed in a “backwater,” whereas the mentality of men of affairs was “leaping down a sort of Niagara Rapids” of invention, industry, and social organization. Locked into the beliefs and practices of the past, the intelligentsia aped the Transcendentalists by dissolving the world around them into projections of mind, while the language in which it judged that world was borrowed from the agonized vocabulary of Calvinism.

At the outset of his analysis, Santayana told his listeners that there was no history of dissent from the stultified state of mind he was describing. The “American Intellect,” he said grandly, “is all genteel tradition.” As he continued speaking, though, he qualified his contention, making it clear that murmurings of revolt had been heard for a long time. Walt Whitman and Henry James, he further acknowledged, had entirely escaped the tradition, each in his own way, and the humorists of the Pacific Slope had half succeeded in doing so. Near the end of the lecture, he even went so far as to say that the tradition had recently “had its flanks turned.” On one side, the revolt of the Bohemian temperament had broken out; on the other, an impassioned empiricism had come forward to declare that science was an instrument of success in action and that the universe was still wild and young. These amendments nevertheless left the central thesis of the lecture intact. The American intelligentsia was devoted to unchanging ideas, not to “the variety, the unspeakable variety, of possible life.”



Eleven years separated “Young Sammy” from “The Genteel Tradition.” Another eleven separated “The Genteel Tradition” from Santayana’s review for the Dial of Civilization in the United States, a symposium edited by Harold Stearns and including contributions by such established luminaries and coming stars of the early 1920’s as Lewis Mumford, H.L. Mencken, Van Wyck Brooks, George Jean Nathan, George Soule, and Ring Lardner.

The assumption on which Stearns had set up the symposium was that American civilization was stewing in the juices of a vulgar architecture, idiotic politics, juvenile journalism, corrupt athletics, genteel “culture,” hidebound morality, and bankrupt family life, among other poisons, and the contributors spelled out that assumption in unsparing detail. Through their essays there also ran a persistent complaint that American life was profoundly divided between theory and practice, ideals and experience, bookishness and business—a complaint that clearly derived, via Van Wyck Brooks’s intervening manifesto, America’s Coming-of-Age, from “The Genteel Tradition.” The editors of the Dial therefore asked Santayana to review the book, in the expectation that he would say nice things about his brainchild.

The review that came back to them was a blast. Santayana began by characterizing the essays as “the plaints of superior and highly critical minds suffering from maladaptation.” The symposium had taught him more, he said, about the contributors’ “palpitating doubts than about America or about civilization.” Things shock these authors, he continued, “and their compensatory ideals and plans of reform are fetched from abstract reflection or irrelevant enthusiasms. They are far from expressing the manly heart of America, emancipated from the genteel tradition. They seem to be morally underfed, and they are disaffected.” The reviewer would not go so far as to say that Civilization in the United-States was itself genteel, for “that would enrage its revolutionary authors,” but having backed off from that judgment, he proceeded to sum up their work in a phrase that could easily have appeared in “The Genteel Tradition.” “The spirit of these critics,” he dismissively concluded, “is one of offended sensibility.”

The reaction of Stearns and company can be imagined. All their lives, it seemed to them, they had gone out of their way to flout the genteel tradition. Most of them would not have been caught dead in a genteel academic job, nor would they have considered working for a genteel publishing house or a genteel magazine. Where they felt at home was in the city rooms of metropolitan newspapers, or in the editorial offices of journals specializing in avant-garde literature, Left-liberal politics, or wholesale jeering. Iconoclasm was the banner under which these hard-drinking cynics, Nietzschean naysayers, gentle bookworms, would-be expatriates, and assorted mavericks marched. Santayana certainly had his nerve mentioning them in the same breath with the stifling tradition he had taught them to despise!



After they recovered from their initial outrage, however, the Civilization writers never gave another thought to what Santayana had said about them, nor did anyone else in the 20’s who had admired his earlier work. Yet sixty years later we can see that Santayana’s review for the Dial was as shrewd a piece of intellectual history as his lecture at Berkeley. The intellectuals who buried the genteel tradition were actually its sons, in the sense that they were as much given to fanciful delusions about American life as their predecessors had been. Indeed, as the 20’s gave way to the 30’s, the delusions of some of the sons took on an absurdity undreamed of in the fathers’ philosophy. In 1936, for instance, Malcolm Cowley published a book entitled After the Genteel Tradition, in which he recapitulated the stirring story of how the long reign of a theory-ridden mentality had at last been overthrown, and of how a new generation of American intellectuals had rushed joyously forward to embrace reality. Yet at the very time that Cowley was working on the book, he demonstrated how far removed from reality he himself was by turning out a series of columns for the New Republic in which he rebuked the condition of Franklin Roosevelt’s America by paying glowing tribute to the state of Stalin’s Russia.

The sons of the genteel tradition were too offended by their native land to study it with care. Fortunately, this was not true of V.L. Parrington, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., and a number of other academic authorities on American literature and American history who were at the height of their intellectual powers during the 20’s, nor was it true of the procession of remarkable scholars who came to the fore in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. Such men as Perry Miller, F.O. Matthiessen, Lionel Trilling, David Herbert Donald, David Potter, T. Harry Williams, and Daniel J. Boorstin made it clear that the American mind was indeed able to deal with the reality of American life in all its variety.

Yet academic scholarship in these decades was by no means free of the genteel tradition’s self-pitying assumption that the American intellectual was morally superior to his countrymen. The literary historians of the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s cherished the cliché’ that the American writer was the sensitive victim of a brutally uncaring society, while the so-called New Critics who came to dominate so many English departments in the 50’s refused to make any sort of connection between literature and history because they believed that to do so would somehow soil the experience of reading. As for the political and social historians, they at first thought of themselves not as sideline observers of the American scene, but as participants in a Manichean struggle between the forces of evil (the business community) and the forces of righteousness (the intellectuals plus the rest of society) for control of the nation’s soul. By the 1950’s, however, many historians had come to the opposite but equally unrealistic conclusion that in a democracy characterized by cupidity and anti-intellectualism, there was no side with which an intellectual would wish to identify himself.

When the professoriat that lived by such beliefs was finally confronted with the political turbulence of the 1960’s, the language of Deacon Plaster was once again heard in the glades of academe. America’s behavior in Vietnam was a “wicked sin.” Having pronounced that Calvinistic judgment, the professoriat then proceeded to initiate a whole new scholarship, encapsulating almost seventy years of intellectual misunderstanding and disdain. In the 1980’s, the fashioning of that scholarship proceeds apace, for while the Vietnam war itself has ended, the moral fantasies which it fostered are very much alive. It is a matter for historical regret that George Santayana is not on hand to discuss the astonishing persistence of the genteel tradition.

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