Portrait of the American; The American Adam and evil
Speak speak defend yourself said Captain veer to the transfixed one struck by his aspect even more than by Clarence which appeal caused but a strange dumb gesturing and gurgling and Billy amazement at such an accusation so suddenly sprung on an experienced knowledge. This ended maybe horror of the accuser serving to bring out his lurking defect and intensifying it into a convulsed tongue tie that at the time Cap'n Vere was quite ignorant of Billy's liability to vocal impediment. He now immediately divined it. There's no date your take your time. Contrary to the effect intended these words so fatherly in tone doubtless touching Billy's heart to the quick prompted yet more violent efforts at utterance effort soon ending in confirming the paralysis and bringing to his face an expression which was as a crucifixion to behold. The next instant quick as the flame from a discharged cannon at night his right arm shot out and Clack got dropped to the deck.
I gasp or two and he lay motionless. Then what have you done. But here between raise the felde one from the loins up to a sitting position. The spare form flexibly acquiesced but in our place it was like handling a dead snake. They lowered it back stroke there'd by an angel of God yet the angel the angel must hand it to Captain Vere Billy Budd was an angel an angel of God who like Christ was fated to die at the hands of his society the ship. Under the rules of the ship although he remained innocent of evil to Melville. Billy was quote a sort of upright barbarian much like young Adam before the fall while the snake like Claggett was the force of evil. To our WB loise with whom I'll be speaking on this program. Billy represents the figure Louis calls the American Adam. And as such
he tells us a great deal about ourselves. I am me and this is Partridge of the American Board of the American voters for the National Education already your network under a grant from the National Home Library Foundation. Program number three the American Adam and Evil. The producer moderator Dr. British author scholar and teacher of American studies. Last time I was concerned with one kind of American innocence the kind associated with Puritanism the New England conscience the innocence of the man who tries to be good the righteous American or the good American. But there are other kinds of innocence and they too have relevance to the American experience. There is for instance the innocence of youth of the child of the adolescence or the adolescent. And Americans have as matter of fact put a high premium on youth. Secondly there's the innocence of a certain kind of adult before knowledge or
before experience. And this is the myth of Adam before the before the fall before he took of the tree of knowledge before he knew evil. A third kind of innocence might be that of the utopian the man who longs for a return to a simpler past or envisions a future that will be free of problems. Who envisions progress constant progress toward this utopian ideal. In a sense you could posit a general distinction between two types of innocence in the American mind the self aware innocence of the good American which would be tied to Puritanism and moralism and the unaware innocence that might be associated with Adam the frontiersmen or the noble savage on the in the wilderness in the virgin land a kind of innocence that would be associated with American optimism. Naturalists perhaps even friendliness. Now you might wish to argue that a good man can't really
be innocence and to be good he must know the difference between good and evil and make his choice while the innocent remains unaware of this distinction entirely. I would not be disposed to argue it's this latter kind of innocence innocence unawares that I'm concerned with today. And it's this kind that Herman Melville ascribed to the hero of his novella Billy Budd. Indeed as Melville struggles to describe Billy in the following excerpts taken from various places in the story we might think of certain types of Americans that we know. He was young and despite his all but fully developed form and aspect looked even younger than he really was he was soon at home in the service and not at all disliked for his unpretentious good looks and a sort of genial happy go lucky air though happily endowed with the gayety of a high held youth and a free heart. Billy was yet by no means of a satirical turning a young seafarer of the disposition of our athletic
foretop and as much of a child man. And yet the child's utter innocence is but its blank ignorance and the innocence more or less wanes as intelligence waxes. But in Billy but intelligence had advanced while yet his simple mindedness remained for the most part uneffected experience as a teacher indeed yet did Billy's years make his experience small as it was. Innocence was his Blinder Now the issue I'm really concerned with in the interviews that follow is whether the American is also a child man. And Adam I'm affected somehow by experience and unaware of nuance or subtlety. Let me get begin with literature. When Lewis chose the title The American Adam for a book about American literature he contributed a very useful phrase to our language. But this term the American Adam suggests several characteristics which might be associated with American character and I want to consider three of these.
Here the first is the kind of innocence portrayed in Billy Budd The second is the characteristic of Independence and the third is the American lack of a past ignorance of a past. When I talk to Dr. Lewis at Yale University where he directs the graduate program in American studies and teaches American literature and where the following discussion was taped he stressed the importance to American literature especially the literature of the 900 century of a central contradiction between primary innocence on the one hand and a sense of evil on the other. But in a story like Melville really but you will find contrasted a character Billy-Bob himself who is exactly this figure of noble innocence and opposite him as the very wicked to say learning quagga Melville said represents the force of depravity in human nature now in a number of novels.
Hawthorne out of Melville. You will find a character who at the outset of the adventure. Is an innocent person unaware of the harsh realities of life in the corruptive influence of human nature but who in the course of the novel through the shocking collision with reality. Takes on a maturity which includes as awareness. When you are speaking of the American atom you used Melville's words and particularly the figure of Billy Budd as the apotheosis of Adam. And how does Billy confront evil. He doesn't even recognize it. Well he knocks it down. And fact he kills it. I think that. That when I'm not sure he does recognize the full the full range of evil as it's incarnate in his closet
I think it was simply a sense of outrage at the lie the quagga had spoken and Billy is the is I think the type of person. Whose. Innocence is fatal because. He is unprepared to cope with. People want to when they confront he doesn't know about it. But as for a human being to be as unknowing of evil capacities of human nature it is fatal and it is fatal to Billy doesn't know how to react. He starts to stammer in and says Man it is court martialed and killed it is fatally and it would be fatal to any any such person. Such a person will be destroyed but he will serve as a. Sacrificial hero of some kind in whose name that this is the obvious analogy and whose name the world can restore itself. The scene from Melville's novel in which the author dramatize is this analogy of presenting his young innocent as a sacrificial hero is the scene of Billy's
hanging. And it's a remarkable scene recalling the passion of Christ on the cross whose last words we remember were Father forgive them for they know not what they do. And remember it was Captain Vere representing the rule of the king rather than of nature who impose the death penalty. Who decided that the angel must hang. And this scene recalls the Ascension of Christ. And indeed in case anyone has missed the point Melville notes that after this occurrence the sailors actually saved chips from the spar on which Billy is hung as if they were pieces of the cross. Here then are cuttings from the scene of Billy's hanging at the penultimate moment. His words his only ones words wholly unobstructed in the utterance with these. God bless Captain Vere. So were both so unanticipated coming from one with the ignominious
him about his neck had a phenomenal effect without volition as it were as if indeed the ship's populace were about the vehicles of some vocal current with one voice from a low wind aloft came the resonant sympathetic echo. God bless Captain Vere. The hall deliberately recovering from the periodic roll was just regaining an even keel when the last signal a pre-concert a dumb one was given at the same moment it chanced that the vapor a fleece hanging low in the East was shot through the soft glory as the fleece of the Lamb of God seeing in mystical vision and simultaneously there with Watched by the wedge mass of upturned faces. Billy ascended and ascending
took the full rose of the dawn. Now the question I want to raise at this point is whether Billy at this point of the story still represents the American atom. In fact it's a point I did raise in my discussion with Lewis. Something happened to me between the figure of the American atom he becomes the American Christ Christ figure. But a Christ that year is aware of the evil and takes it. And yes on the left that's very true I think. He is a Christ figure not finally in himself because I think he he doesn't change I'd agree with you he is as innocent and loving. At the end as he was at the start he is a Christ figure in the imagination of certain other people in the story and I think Melville hopes in the mind of the reader. He is he.
Saves the day literally by the minute he does not break out that that was right in he he lives on in the mind of the captain of the ship as it is in some kind of inspiring figure of what human nature can achieve in himself now and so he doesn't change a bit. Turning now from fiction to fact from literature to American foreign policy I wonder if there isn't a striking parallel here in the behavior of Americans when confronted with evil. I asked Lewis about this and he responded with a an interesting illustration from his personal experience is that the American. Innocent. Confronting evil in the world is involved let's say in a war. Let's take Pearl Harbor. He has attacked leaders. And he is suddenly angry. Can we draw this kind of a parallel film that that the American is incensed in this way and
overreact and demands unconditional surrender and Reichen let me be personal about this. I would never have thought of myself even twenty two or three years ago as particularly innocent in this traditional manner. But immediately after the war I was in Italy. And was doing among other things with certain representatives of the French government which was changing quite rapidly in those days and was had had dealings with them regarding certain. Prisoners of war in northern Italy and I discovered that the French officers with whom I was dealing had been condemned to death by after a change in government in France and in fact they were taken out and shot one day. While they were working for me. And I thought then realized I was an American innocent I had no idea of the depths of intrigue of the
almost heartlessness of which is a different kind of character a different kind of national temperament is capable. My reaction was just simply consternation bewilderment and outrage but empty impotent outrage I can doing of the kind and I suspect this is what happens if. If I had had authority out of going out and shot the French general in Rome. But I didn't. Seem to me though that maybe when I first got interested in this in this whole thing the realization that. I've gone to a good college read widely. I've had a good deal of experience of every kind including for three years of war and was absolutely unprepared for this kind of behavior. There is another argument extent that is popular in discussions of various kinds on American foreign policy American art literature politics and this thesis holds that Americans may once have been innocent sometime in the 1900s tree but that we have since much sured that we have
gone from innocence to beyond innocence that we have come of age that we no longer are childlike naives that we are now realists and somewhat more experienced and sophisticated. Alfred Kelley an expert on American foreign policy who teaches at Wayne State University analyzes such a view. Let's look at what the word child like might mean here. A child is not self-conscious about the consequences of power or influence in terms of what he's reaching for. If a person becomes self-conscious about his own motives about about what he's reaching for about what his drives are about the way he fulfills them we say he has become sophisticated this at least is the is the more sophisticated meaning of the word sophisticated. If you are what we say he has become sophisticated. Now I would say that at least one segment of American population. I was a little
cynical about how far that this kind of idea projects in the society at large but at least one considerable segment of American population has become self-conscious about the meaning of power and national interest it's become self-conscious about the idea of progress. It questions that it's become self-conscious about the coincidence between a Wilsonian ethic and American national interest. It's become perhaps aware of the concept of a tragic view of history perhaps a view of history which is which may dispense with the notion of progress rationalism problem solving in view of a of a somewhat more well I've said sterner I'd say tragic if you want in that sense. If this means coming of age then I think that the spread of this idea in American society is coming of age since the last world war would you say. Yes I suppose so although I would argue that the destruction of what might
be called the naive really optimistic view of American society began in the Depression. I believe however that there is one kind of innocence that can be associated with the American though not exclusively with the American which has not been destroyed. And this is the kind of innocence associated with pragmatism with an interest in process and tactics. And I confess it terrifies me. Melville in his great work Moby Dick spoke of the terror in the whiteness of nature symbolized by the white whale. Thomas monk also spoke of such terror in his book The Magic Mountain and he associated it with the purity of snow. And perhaps what I'm speaking of here is the same kind of terror but in human nature the impersonal objective not evil but uncomprehending blank ignorance. I advance this argument that this kind of innocence might be associated with certain types of Americans in the course of my discussion with
Louis and was interested in his response. The combination of innocence with power is a really a terrifying thing. And incidentally. To be literary once again Henry James saw this exactly in some of his later novels these. Billionaires who are simply unaware of the human reality of the piece people are dealing with. Now I think absolutely so. And incidentally wasn't this one of the qualities that was being savagely satirized in Dr. Strangelove. The will only kill was a two and a half billion or something like this these are simply statistics. Only in the seen and what people said but so much of the film time was spent in that airplane showing all the knobs and dials that we have and child like Henry Adams said I think 50 or 60 years ago that the problem of America was to make its intelligence catch up with its energy. For energy read if you will
power and innocence with which there's a great deal but not enough intelligence and I think that may continue to be a main problem anyway perhaps not so here would be a characteristic characteristic of the American that has continuity. Yes yes and over a period of time I don't think I'm your age here. And ships in nature only in terms of the resources that it had it's coming your way because the reason that I'm not worried about belly button they haven't got me authority Yamin sailor it's that when the captain of a ship has to. Make sure that we are in danger. This then is the first major characteristic of this figure we're calling the American atom namely his innocence. Let me turn then to a second characteristic that might be associated with this myth of the American atom that is his independence. In the biblical version of the myth Adam was alone in the garden at least until one of his ribs was taken away or as Melville says until the herb
serpent wriggled his way into his company. Similarily in American history in American mythology. The ideal developed early myth that developed early in in our history was that each American was like an atom with freedom over his own particular patch of paradise in the virgin land in the New World. Irving Howe a leading critic of American society in American literature feels that this ideal of Independence reached its crisis at about the age of Jackson. If you want radically to simplify it you could say that everything after the age of Jackson. Is more alike than everything before it. That is so you could say that. The early egalitarian ideal of a country of Independence moral artisans and farmers each man his own master with a good deal of geographical and social space. That
this ideal was briefly realized perhaps in the decade or so before Jackson took office perhaps when he took office. I'm not quite sure but some some point around there and that this ideal by the very nature of the development of the commercial economy could not long be realized. And that with the Civil War it was once and for all destroyed. I asked how he found an awareness of this crisis for the ideal of Independence reflected in the American literature of that period. Well if you want to be perverse about it and why not. You could say that once Natty Bumppo was killed off by James Fenimore Cooper nothing matters anymore. Namely that one snotty foreign city I've no place to live in the east and they have to go west and die and the prairie. By then it's all anti-climax. Or you could say once. Van Nigger Jim find that they can't stay on the raft very much
longer than it's also and by climax you see there's a recurrent theme in American literature and it must reflect something about American life where a number of figures set up a kind of ideal polity a kind of anarchist utopia a paradise. They try briefly to realize that when a nigga Djimon the rack Natty Bumppo in the wilderness. Ishmael and Queequeg on the ship. And then when they find that the ideal possibility is not realizable they lapse into a kind of despair out of misanthropy one of the unfortunate consequences of this kind of thing is but the possibilities for actual social struggle or social effort get lost between the two extremes. You know I wonder if here is another case where the myth may persist after the facts sustaining it have disappeared. That is I wonder if this ideal of Independence cannot be seen to continue in certain phases
of American life even in mass society. I'm thinking for instance of domestic architecture. The theories of Frank Lloyd Wright who was always better at building houses than he was at building SQ skyscrapers for the masses or say the look of those suburban housing developments with row after row of individual houses all of them alike but each one miniature Eden with its own little yard its own set of appliances and dominated by the theory sanctioned by law that a man's home is his castle. Let me turn however to the third important characteristic of the American Adam namely his past lessness. It is this characteristic. The Americans freedom from history that are the Lewis stressed most of all when I asked him to define for us this creature he called the American atom. The word adamantly with various adjectives was it was indeed invoked EMIs and said it was for the plain old Adam.
Hawthorne used the phrase differently sort of Melville and they met again the kind of human being who was possible in the new world who could who could go up against life without any forms of any burdens of inheritance or any any forms of heavy ancestry or inherited customs. Even inherited believes that the that the American was a person who created. His own forms of life his own conventions of life his own vocabulary very nearly They several of them were humorously angry because the Americans had to speak in English language they wanted to get a new language for this new man. Who knew that history had happened in other countries but asserted that history was simply beginning that that America was a country of the present and the future. And again to repeat myself in which
each individual could have the heroic life of creating his own forms of satisfaction. Irving Howe also stresses the uniqueness of Americans in their lack of relation to the past. In fact he sees it as the distinguishing characteristic but he differs markedly in his impression of the modern generation. In my view what distinguishes Americans from Europeans. If one can leap into such a vast historical generalization is that Americans as a people lack the sense. I've an enormous overwhelming pain but also fruitful his dark past. Sometimes when you teach. As for example I was teaching at Stanford a few years ago. You gain a kind of terror at the possibility that we are producing a breed of younger people who have no connection who have no sense of relation to the
whole tradition of Western civilization. Alfred Kelley by contrast feels that students today are more aware of the tragic issues of history than students of past generations. Our students today. This is a poor word but I don't know of any better when they are essentially existentialist in their point of view everybody says that but there's a certain element of truth in it that is they don't really think in terms of solutions they don't really think in terms of an optimistic view of life. They don't really think of life ultimately as being anything except tragic. It is not my purpose here to resolve these disagreements. They are largely differences of emphasis as well as opinion. But to use this variety of impressions to point to characteristics we may possess without being aware of them. Whether the American is still the naive new born Adam or has come of age whether he still cherishes an outdated ideal of Independence or whether such an ideal disappeared with the frontier.
- Portrait of the American
- The American Adam and evil
- Producing Organization
- Wayne State University
- WDET (Radio station : Detroit, Mich.)
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- University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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- Innocence unawares: The American as the New Man in a virgin land; reaction to evil; Billy Budd.
- Series that examines assessments of the American using the themes of innocence, affluence, success and the American self. Features analysis by Dr. Betty Ch'maj, interviews, dramatic readings. Series features interviews with John Dos Passos, James Farmer, Marshall Fishwick, Alan Harrington, Ihab Hassan, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, R.W.B. Lewis, and William H. Whyte, Jr.
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Host: Ch'maj, Betty E. M.
Interviewee: Lewis, R. W. B. (Richard Warrington Baldwin)
Interviewee: Kelly, Alfred H. (Alfred Hinsey), 1907-1976
Producer: Gouds, Moyra
Producing Organization: Wayne State University
Producing Organization: WDET (Radio station : Detroit, Mich.)
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University of Maryland
Identifier: 66-3-3 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
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- Chicago: “Portrait of the American; The American Adam and evil,” 1965-12-27, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed April 11, 2021, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-9z90dh32.
- MLA: “Portrait of the American; The American Adam and evil.” 1965-12-27. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. April 11, 2021. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-9z90dh32>.
- APA: Portrait of the American; The American Adam and evil. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-9z90dh32