Friday, February 24, 2017

The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century

American intellectuals engaged in a national dialogue over what it meant to be an American in the aftermath of the War of 1812, and created a uniquely American mythology in the process.  The new American mythic hero was an innocent Adam unleashed in a new Eden without connections to Europe’s dark and tragic past.  R.W.B. Lewis examines the new American myth and the national conversation that created it in The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century by examining the work of poets, novelists, historians, and preachers.  Combining Emerson’s Party of Hope and Party of Memory with his own logical construct, the Party of Irony, Lewis argues that a Platonic dialogue occurred among American intellectuals.  The Party of Hope created the ideal of the American Adam as an innocent hero making his way in the world without the burdens of past or close relations, while the Party of Memory dedicated itself to the defense of the past, particularly the Calvinist conception of original sin.  Lewis argues that the partisans of the Party of Irony saw the innocent and na├»ve Adam as an immature and unfinished creature, and argued that the American Adam must experience tragedy and rebirth to gain the maturity of a complete being.

Lewis asserts that when the war of 1812 ended, many Americans developed a profound appreciation for the potential of their new nation.  Their spirit of hope joined a rejection of the traditions and institutions of the past, to advocate abandoning the old methods of discourse and social organization.  Americans rejected old institutions due to the Jeffersonian belief that laws should be reviewed each generation to ensure the continuing consent of the governed.  The emphasis was entirely on the present, leading Alexis de Tocqueville to observe that Americans had no need for the past, and that like governmental instability, philosophy and literary conventions were short lived.

 The focus on the the political landscape also affected literary efforts, which form the meat of Lewis’ argument.  Lewis uses the works of Thoreau, Holmes, Emerson, and Whitman to illustrate the development of the Party of Hope’s philosophy that Americans should return to a free and uncomplicated existence.  Thoreau provides Lewis with the base of the Party of Hope’s platform: that Americans should cast aside the past and start anew.  Men should periodically divest themselves of all of their spiritual and physical baggage in an American baptismal rite.  In this way, Americans could embrace nature without the confining bonds of convention.

Where Thoreau provided the foundation, Holmes provided the fiercest assault on the Party of Memory’s core by rejecting the Calvinist doctrine of human guilt due to original sin.  Holmes deployed scientific arguments in his novels to counter the doctrine of original sin by describing it in medical terms, and insists that children are not responsible for the sins of their parents. Lewis argues that Holmes presented science as liberating the American Adam, allowing him to focus on the future.  Science was Holmes’ new religion.

Whitman, in Lewis’ estimation took the Adamic interpretation to its primitive extreme.  Instead of working for progress, Whitman argued for a recovery of man’s primitive condition.  By secularizing religious language, Whitman believed that the self was divine, and the body itself was an object for worship.  Since each individual was divine, he was his own creator, moving through the world defining and naming the objects and creatures encountered.  Lewis contends that the core of Whitman’s philosophy was that time had just begun, and that the past did not exist. 

Lewis believes that Whitman did not go far enough in developing the myth of the American Adam, which led members of what he calls the Party of Irony to develop a more sustainable American ideal.  Henry James the Elder argued that Adam needed to mature in order to reach his full potential because Whitman and Thoreau’s hopeful innocent was vulnerable to the dark challenges of the world.  The completely innocent Adam was a boring and aimless being that drifted through the world.  The way for Adam to mature was to gain consciousness by falling from innocence.  James’ conception of the Fall was not the Calvinists’ horrible lapse from grace, but a rise to the normal human state of being.  The reborn Adam was capable of taking steps toward perfection.

Hawthorne and Melville provide Lewis’ clearest literary examples of the new Adam’s path to enlightened maturity.  Hawthorne portrays Adam as the isolated hero in a hostile universe, divorced from society.  The hero’s isolation provides drama, and sets the stage for his “Fall”.  The Fall is a fortunate occurrence because the experience allows him to grow.  Melville enlarges this theme so that the Adamic hero changes the world at the same time it changes him.  Melville’s Adam is a young, idealist thrust into the world without family or history chaining him in place.  The American Adam is looking for his place in the world.


Lewis asserts that in Melville’s scheme, Adam’s loss of innocence is a betrayal by the world.  His Fall and sacrifice (or redemption) turns Adam into a Christ figure.  Melville’s hero must engage evil in order to reach maturity.  The clearest example Lewis provides is Billy Budd, which portrays the hero’s lack of knowledge as a weakness that precipitates his fall when others goad him into actions that he does not understand.  When Billy is executed, his death transforms the ship’s crew from an angry mob into a redeemed one.  Lewis argues that by extending the archetype of the American Adam in this way, Melville creates a fully developed American myth that describes the feelings and ideas of Americans during the middle half of the nineteenth century.

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