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The Conservative Tradition in America, by Allen Guttmann

Nostalgic Ideology

The Conservative Tradition in America.
by Allen Guttmann.
Oxford University Press. 214 pp. $6.00.

A literary study of the conservative tradition in America sounds like a useful undertaking. We have had books on the liberal imagination and the liberal tradition; why not, in a spirit of fairness to both sides, have a look at the other tradition? Professor Guttmann has proposed to do so and, by excluding muddled conservatives like Barry Goldwater, has hoped to keep his discussion on a high plane.

The first part of The Conservative Tradition in America presents the findings of recent scholarship on the politics of the revolution and the early Republic. Guttmann rejects attempts to revise the American Revolution into a conservative event, and agrees with Louis Hartz that the American political tradition is essentially liberal. Turning to American literature, and slightly revising two of his own scholarly essays, Guttmann looks for conservatism in some little known works of James Fenimore Cooper, of Hawthorne, and of Washington Irving, whose “Burkean Conservatism” was “instinctively rather than rationally held.” He then goes on to deal with some of James's major works, though with disappointing brevity. There is also an essay on religion in America, in which T.S. Eliot appears, and one on the military, featuring Captain Vere, of Melville's Billy Budd. (Guttmann calls Vere a Burkean Conservative, but is careful not to claim that Melville is necessarily in full sympathy with Vere.) The last two chapters are on “The Revival of Conservative Ideas” in the 20th century. Here again the main figures, with the exception of Santayana, turn out not really to have been conservatives. All the same, Guttmann convincingly outlines Henry Adams's approach to history, explains the split between the New Humanists and T.S. Eliot over religion, and efficiently outlines the ideas of the Southern Agrarians. His survey of tangential thought is brought down to the present with the observation, in the last chapter, that the group around the National Review represents not conservatism but old-fashioned, 19th-century, laissez-faire liberalism.

Finally putting his cards on the table, Guttmann returns to literature and gives as the one author who successfully embodies his conservative tradition . . . James Gould Cozzens. He contents himself with saying that By Love Possessed “is still a very good” novel despite Dwight Macdonald's seemingly definitive debunking essay. In Cozzens's novel, according to Guttmann, “there is no ultimate truth, there is only the wisdom of our fathers, passed on to us in the institutions they fashioned.” The trouble with this formula, and with Guttmann's book as a whole, is that the wisdom it offers is about as helpful as the advice in the Spaulding Handbook of Sports—“Keep on your toes, always be ready to move in any direction”—it is unarguable, but useless.

Guttmann's thesis rests on a distinction between lower-case conservatism, which is merely the politics of resistance to change, and upper-case, Burkean “Conservatism as an ideology, as a body of interrelated political theorems.” Guttmann is aware that Burke himself was both kinds of a conservative, but he is interested less in the defender of the status quo than in the Burke who revered the past. Burke's value is that he “preferred the wisdom of experience to rational inquiry,” and those who stand in the American “conservative tradition” share in this regard for the past.


Guttmann's distinction between two types of Burkean conservatism is a useful one, but he makes a mistake when he calls the tradition of regard for the past “an ideology.” In politics, first of all, Burkean Conservatism was from the outset an anachronism in this country; Guttmann in fact admits this, and agrees that Russell Kirk's attempt to trace an American political tradition from Burke is, as the scholars have said, simply in error. But if conservatism soon died politically, Guttmann believes that it survived in American literature, to which he turns in search of conservative ideas. These he fails to find. What he does find is a collection of old manses and lamented shells of ancestral homes which he erects into a system of thought that is supposed to be a viable alternative to the perplexities of liberalism:

Conservatism as an ideology is an alternative to the dilemma of primitivism or progress. Architectural metaphors are its cardinal images of value.

For those who may have avoided current literary jargon it should be explained that “architectural metaphors” and “images” mean houses. Now, there is no doubt some use in going over the architecture of the houses that have given their names to American novels: Irving's Brace-bridge Hall, Cooper's Satanstoe, Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables, as well as James's Gardencourt in The Portrait of a Lady, or Allen Tate's Pleasant Hill in The Fathers. That American authors indulge in nostalgia for old homes, in common with the English, French, Russian, and Chinese is undeniable. But the attempt to make a tradition of judicious conservatism out of this nostalgia, which is at bottom not an ideology but only a feeling, is to misapprehend the nature of our literature. As Richard Chase put it some years ago, in an essay mentioned but not discussed by Guttmann, “the life of the best American novels and poems depends on an imagination that is contradictory, unstable, disruptive, fragmentary and extreme.” Chase did find a conservative “impulse” toward order in the same novels and poems, but he said that the radical imagination in them was never reconciled with it. There is no finely balanced American literary masterpiece because, despite the conservative impulse, the radical imagination has always accurately reflected the violence and disorder of American life—reflected what Chase professorially designated “the discontinuities of American experience.” The best American literature, then, may be characterized by Chase's formula, “conservative impulse, radical idea.” Guttmann joins those critics whose preference for a more reasonable literature leads them to look for static imaginings of order, like houses, that can represent a “middle way” between the two extremes of the American imagination. In doing so he misses the driving force of that imagination; and, if American literature is a reflection of American life, he also misrepresents the nature of American reality.


It is not surprising that, in the really interesting books Guttmann deals with, the authors are ambiguous about the meaning of their houses. He is able to find a truly conservative awe for the past only in minor authors (James Gould Cozzens), or in the minor works of major authors (Hawthorne's later novels). In his search for a fictional house that does not fall apart by the end of the book, he solemnly takes as an affirmation of “the possibility of permanence and the values of society” the ironic survival of the house built by Flem Snopes, Faulkner's prime ravener of civilized values. Guttmann does not recognize that the other houses he cites were also destroyed by the workings of the radical imagination of disaster that so often accompanies an American writer's impulse toward order. They all have to come down: the House of Usher, James's Poynton, Jay Gatsby's mansion, and Thomas Sutpen's in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! The American writer can hope for an ordered civilization in America, but he cannot portray it without violating his sense of reality.


Although few would deny the present necessity for a sense of the past, the question is whether one has to construct a conservative tradition in order to foster it. Guttmann claims that “liberal democracy and social democracy are both oriented toward the future, neither is ready yet to indulge in that sense of the past which is fundamental to conservative thought.” But his evidence contradicts him. Far from being the exclusive property of conservatives, a sense of the past is often just what they lack a hold on.

The New Critics, for instance, were conservatives, and, as Guttmann persuasively shows, their formalist aesthetic implied their conservative politics. They called for the acceptance of one's place in society as they did for the acceptance of traditional literary forms. But the New Critics were completely unhistorical, and it took a liberal critic, Lionel Trilling, to point up their neglect of tradition in his essay, “The Sense of the Past,” in The Liberal Imagination. T.S. Eliot, also in Guttmann's pantheon, intoned the virtues of tradition, but his model of literary history was perfectly unhistorical. (Eliot conceived all the works of the past as having a simultaneous existence in which their relationship to one another was spatial, not historical.) Though Guttmann writes that “one cannot be a conservative without a sense of the past,” the conservative imagination has usually lacked just that. It is not surprising that the American past has been rediscovered by liberal, not conservative critics.

During the 50's there was great interest in the possibility of starting a dialogue in America between liberals and conservatives. The Liberal Imagination was an attempt to sympathize with the hierarchical values of authors like James, Yeats (in “Ancestral Houses”), and Fitzgerald, accompanied by a refusal to honor authors like Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson merely because they satisfied liberal prejudices. But an effort of sympathy was the most one could accord to conservatism, at its heart an impulse, not an idea. Trilling, Chase, and others concluded that a meaningful dialogue was not logically possible between American liberals and conservatives. Liberalism would have to provide its own critique of itself. I suspect that they hoped to straighten out not only liberals about this, but conservatives as well. If so, they failed. Books about conservative “ideas” are apparently destined to continue appearing.


Guttmann's handling of the past illustrates the limitations of conservative imagination. Attempting to resurrect the reputation of Thomas Hutchinson, the Colonial historian, he writes:

Literary anthologies have long presented the Revolution as an allegory in which fair-haired Democrats vanquished skulky Aristocrats, but it is time for the History of Massachusetts-Bay to be read along with Franklin's Autobiography and Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia.

Later he turns to “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” Hawthorne's “one great story [that] turns on the American Revolution,” and accepts the current liberal-allegorical interpretation that, “viewed politically, it is a somber affirmation of independence from the past.”

This acceptance is a good example of how one can talk about the past without examining it. There is much to be said about this story of a boy who comes to town seeking to be set up in life by his wealthy and influential uncle, only, after hours of confused searching through streets of fantastically-dressed, ghostly conspirators, to see him tarred and feathered and being ridden out of town. Though it has had much attention and varying interpretations, Hawthorne's story still deserves the scrutiny of anyone interested in the sense of the past in our literature and history. But Guttmann's sights are narrowed; he is looking for evidences of conservatism in old buildings, and so he leaves the story to the liberal critics. He finds in other stories that Hawthorne is conservative because he believes that “we inherit the evil our fathers did, and we do evil ourselves,” yet he doesn't see that this is also the point of “My Kinsman, Major Molineux.”

But it doesn't take a conservative to see this point; in fact it is a radical reading that brings it out. The story opens with an account, taken from Hutchinson's History, of how six Colonial governors were overthrown by mobs. The time is well before the Revolution, to emphasize the continuity of that event with previous usurpations, specifically, the ouster of Hutchinson himself, who was the Colonial Governor on the eve of the Revolution. Hawthorne was emphasizing the wantonness, not the spirit of freedom in the Revolution, as Robert Lowell brought out in his recent stage version of the story. An historically-minded radical critic would see this, because he would be less likely to accept the Revolution as a legitimizing event than to connect it with a long history of violent seizures of Mexican and Indian lands and with the present remorseless exercise of American force in Vietnam. The radical tradition keeps the American literary past alive by constantly reinterpreting it; the conservative tradition by its bland acceptance of the past renders it irrelevant.


By assuming that there must be a logical alternative to liberalism, Guttmann ends up associating himself with the worst tendencies in American life. He asks:

Of what relevance is the conservative imagination today? What can conservatives contribute to a new synthesis of American ideals?

He finds his answer, probably much against his own instincts, in the ethic of “the Military Establishment.” Of all things, this turns out to be Guttmann's citadel of egalitarianism (“neither birth nor wealth is a factor in military leadership”), and of freedom (“the evidence suggests that the discipline of military organization may actually diminish authoritarian tendencies”).

Cozzens in literature, the military in politics. Such are the results of assuming that there are two traditions, from which assumption it next follows that there must be two sides to every controversy—an extreme liberal and an extreme conservative—with a truly conservative and therefore correct position somewhere in between. It never occurs to the author that sometimes there are more than two sides to a question. Thus, on Vietnam, we get the legacy of Eisenhower's middle-of-the-road thinking:

One of the gravest dangers is that policy-makers will give way to the liberal public's clamor for an immediate solution to international ills. It is certainly not helpful to be advised to bomb the rest of mankind back to the Stone Age in order to retire to the peaceful ramparts of Fortress America. It is no more helpful to be told to make love and not war.

In his attempt to set off the reasonableness of the conservative position—genocide is “not helpful”—Guttmann has to legitimize crackpot ideas on the one side and incorrectly identify the other extreme of opinion with liberalism. The very positing of a conservative tradition tends to distort reality.

To be mistaken in good faith is yet to be mistaken. There is no difference intellectually between a rabid championship of wrong ideas and the mild affirmation of them by a genially skeptical professor. Allen Guttmann is careful to distinguish the reverence for the past that characterizes his own conservatism from the exploitation of the past by those interested only in preserving their advantages in the present. But in the end he shows that it is possible to be guilty through, if not by, association. Reasonable in tone and restrained in making claims for his thesis though he is, Guttmann is not as different from his know-nothing kinsmen as he thinks.

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