Portrait of the American; Moralists and misfits
He couldn't escape it at every step. The same lesson blocked his pass whichever way he turned. He found it in politics. He ran against it in science he struck it in everyday life as though he were still Adam in the Garden of Eden between God who was unity and Satan who was complexity with no means of deciding which was truth. The lesson was the same for McKinley As for Adam and for the Senate. As for Satan I about made up my mind to pray trying to make my mouth say I do the right thing and the clean thing and go on write to that nigger's owner and tell him where he was. But deep down in me I know it was a lie and you can't prove a lie. It was a close place because I got to decide forever twixt two things and I note it. I studied him in it
and I said to myself all right then I'll go to hell and I shove the whole thing out of my head. And I said I'd take up wickedness again which was in my line being brung up to it and I go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again. And if I could think up anything worse I do that too. You know what I'd really like to be. I mean if I had my goddamn choice. Well you know that song. If a body catch a body come into the Rye. Well I keep picturing all the little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all thousands of little kids and I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. Well what I have to do I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff but that's all I do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy but that's the only thing I'd really like to be. You have just heard three voices from American literature. The voice of Henry Adams speaking for himself in the New England conscience through his third person autobiography The Education of Henry Adams voice of Huckleberry Finn. Speaking for Mark Twain
and for all those in the age of slavery who when they couldn't stand the morality of civilization got up and lit out for the territory. And thirdly the voice of Holden Caulfield speaking for J.D. Salinger and all our present day rebels who don't want to be scientists or politicians or lawyers but want to stand on the edge of some crazy cliff and be that Catcher In The Rye as different as these three literary heroes are all our moralists all our misfits all in a sense our innocence together. Henry How can hold and provide a singular perspective on the portrait of the American portrait of the American produced for the national educational radio network under a grant from the National Home Library Foundation Patryk number two. Moralists and misfits that wrote as are moderator Dr Bradish may author teacher scholar in American studies one approach to the portrait of the American is through his conscience a special conscience whose history extends from the 69 days to
the 1960s. That is from the days of the Puritans when an unrelenting Aghan bite of inwit tortured what Perry Miller calls the New England mind up to our own time when the conscience of a conservative to use the title of a book by Barry Goldwater as an example here defined a highly moralistic political credo for many millions of Americans. That is the man we are seeking to understand here is the self aware good American. The man who consciously tries to be good that is moral or righteous. The man who thinks in terms of moral absolutes of good and evil right and wrong God and Satan who confronts life as a kind of Western melodrama played out by the good guys ourselves and the bad guys the other people and who also insists optimist and idealist that he is a part of a happy ending. Even a utopian ending the man who pays penance to his national conscience by paying huge sums of money for his territorial conquests
the Louisiana purchased as an example or who sends the Marines to fight in foreign lands in the name of moral duty and manifest destiny are the man who pays penance to his personal conscience by writing highly autobiographical narratives that constitute a major tradition of American literature. Take the three literary figures quoted at the outset of this program as examples of these three. Henry Adams is closest to what Perry Miller called the New England conscience which he defined as a kind of conscience that never rests until it has exhausted its victim. I like the term and bite of inwit literal translation. Remorse of conscience. But think of the biting agony of the inner wit the torture the Puritans and the New England man as Miller points out every member of the Addams family kept a diary and Henry like them was very much aware of this sense of
duty associated with his Boston heritage but Huckleberry Finn who was a contemporary of Adams and who had seemed to belong to the exact opposite tradition of the Western frontier tradition that was a long way from Boston. Huck Finn was also possessed of an intense personal awareness of the struggle with conscience and he was also aware of how helpless he was before this agane bite of inwit. Toward the end of the novel for example Huck says don't make no difference whether you do right or wrong person's conscience ain't got no sense. Just goes for him anyway. If I hit a yellow dog that didn't know no more than a person's conscience does I Piscean name takes up more room than all the rest of a person's insides in here ain't no good no how. Holden Caulfield our third hero is a kind of urban Huck Finn who also makes his escape from a phony world that disgusts him. But within a modern context that is he takes a taxicab through New York City instead of
taking a raft down the Mississippi. Yet Holden is also aware of this moral struggle and of its highly personal dimensions. As for instance when he tells his sister Phoebe why he doesn't want to be a lawyer. Well even if you did go around saving guys lives and all. How would you know you did it because you really wanted to save guys lives or because you did it because what you really wanted was to be a terrific lawyer with everybody slapping you on the back and congratulate you in court when the goddamn trial was over. All the reporters and everybody the way it is in the dirty movies. Well how would you know you weren't being a phony. The trouble is you wouldn't. Well now there is a debate among the experts in many walks of life in many fields of intellectual endeavor over whether we Americans can be called moralists. That is whether a peculiarly national moral outlook can be found in our life and in our literature linked to our idealism our innocence our optimism or to what Senator William Fulbright has called our highly durable strand of intolerant
Puritanism. Those who do find such qualities dominant and who don't like them are upset what they feel with what they feel is a tendency to rationalize the most outrageous acts in the name of high sounding idealisms. And they point to American documents like this one was written in 1867. It's a statement of principles for the charter of a newly founded organization. We acknowledge the majesty and supremacy of the Divine Being and recognized the goodness and providence of the same. This is an institution of chivalry humanity mercy and patriotism embodying in its genius and its principles. All that is chivalric and conduct noble in sentiment generous in manhood and patriotic in purpose its particular object being to protect the weak the innocent and the defenseless from the indignities wrongs and outrages of the lawless the violent and the brutal. What could be nobler and aspiration are more terrible in application.
For that was the charter of the Ku Klux Klan which used these virtuous pronouncements as it used the symbols of the Cross and the flag as cloaks for terrorism. Yet almost a century later we have this statement of principles combining moralism with an optimistic view of man's inner life and his future improvement. But clearly distinguishing the good guys from the bad. We believe that man is endowed by a divine creator with an innate desire and conscious purpose to improve both his world and himself. We believe that the direction which constitutes the improvement is clearly visible and identifiable throughout man's known history and that this God given up would reach in the heart of man is a composite conscience to which we all must listen. We believe that the Communists seek to drive their slaves and themselves along exactly the opposite and downward direction to the Satanic the basement of both men and his universe. We believe that communism is utterly
incompatible with all religion as it is contemptuous of all morality and destructive of all freedom. It is intrinsically evil and that statement of beliefs belongs to the modern right wing anti-communist group of patriots known as the John Birch Society but those who would call attention to American moral and ideological zeal do not limit their attention to these extremist groups those charters only serve to illuminate a characteristic they find general among Americans. And they indicate that they cite many other kinds of evidence as proof. For instance they say we also moralize about our cleanliness next to godliness. We censor books and movies. We're embarrassed by nudity in the arts and in life. In fact there was a time in America when piano legs were discreetly covered by fringes we distrust nature uninhibited nature especially human nature. We try to legislate morality with prohibition being the most dramatic example.
We go to war not merely to protect national interest but to crusade for righteousness to fulfill our destiny or our duty to make the world safe for democracy to save it from Satan from the governance of state of Satan. Well now to evaluate this evidence and this viewpoint I would like you to hear from a number of critics in the fields of American foreign policy sociology. Literary criticism and race relations with whom I discussed this issue too. A sociologist like Robert Cooley angel of the University of Michigan author of a book entitled free society and moral crisis. Americans do not seem particularly or uniquely moralistic. Well I think that all societies if they are successful at all have to be what I would call morally integrated they have to have some basic philosophy of life that underlies all of their social structure. And in that we are no different from any other society in that regard. Now what people mean when they say that I think is
perhaps in the 19th century we may have gone rather far in trying to to narrow down the behavior of people in specific ways more than many other societies have done such as our so-called blue law. And I think this is what they mean and I agree that maybe this is an excess of specific specificity about I hope you don't think you can say. Well yes you might have lead that the puritan society was but I don't think you see many signs of this in our contemporary American society now when we turn to American foreign policy. However the strain of moralism and high ideals does become apparent or at least more apparent. Alfred H. Kelly analyst of American foreign policy who teaches at Wayne State University puts it this way
Americans since Puritan times have always been until very recently in American civilization have been what David Rismiller might call inner directed and the notion of the inner directed man is the man who might come to the diplomatic conference table with a certain conception of a moral righteousness a certain conception of a series of ethical propositions which he might attempt to make coincident with national policy. He might on occasion think in moralistic and self righteous terms. I suppose the classic example of this in American history is Woodrow Wilson and will Wilson's Presbyterianism his Calvinistic moralistic sense about the nature of right and wrong. Translated into diplomatic propositions translated into the quarrel with Germany over submarine warfare translated into the quarrel with Clemenceau over power politics in Versailles settlement and so on. It's too
simple a view of American diplomacy to see it however simple in terms of a Wilsonian ethic the Wilsonian ethic is in itself I would say. A is so my secularized optimistic Protestant view of the nature and destiny of man himself. In fact I would insist that it's essentially what it is to an authority on American intellectual history. John Hyam of the University of Michigan. The American is a split personality both an idealist and a materialist. And this dual image affects his diplomacy. The American is generally regarded as. Naive innocent or crafty Green Bay. Conference table of the world that is supposedly a reflection of his idealism. At the same time we find that Americans are as aware of diplomats of any country of self-interest that they conflict
between materialism and idealism becomes especially apparent in this kind of international encounter. But Dr Angel wonders whether such behavior in foreign policy can better be explained as mere inexperience. We are a rich country compared to the European countries. They've been in the foreign policy game very much longer than we have. They've had to cope with war and peace treaties and all that very much more than we have. I'm not sure that this is naivete in the foreign policy field more than it is a more honest society. I know what these people mean and I presume that the way Woodrow Wilson went to the peace conference after World War One. One could make an argument to this effect that he was that he was moralistic. I think perhaps he he was just a naive man in the general area of the conflict
timony. Here again is Dr. Kelly. I doubt that I would use the word naive to describe Wilson. There were occasions on which he behaved in this fashion. But Wilson's Wilson saw very clearly the alternatives between a return to the balance of power and the notion of a world organized if you want in some terms of some kind of a concert of power. He tended often to express problems that had if you want a diplomatic or a power reality in moralistic terms but often times when he did this he was still expressing conceptions that within a different frame of reference might be described as national interests or traditional diplomatic concepts. This I think is also true. I doubt very much if Wilson ought to be described as naive. We don't really believe that the world is hopelessly evil any longer we believe that it's evil but not irremediably evil. It can be rescued. It can be rescued by rationalism by problem solving by goodwill by humanitarianism by an attack upon
evil. And this is Wilsonian as you see it has a pure tone. It has a puritanical element in it. But the optimistic element has become predominant and became predominant really early in our history quite early in our history as President and Jefferson. If you take if you want to marry Puritanism with the Enlightenment for example then you have Jefferson's view which is essentially it's still inner directed. It still has this inner ethical quality in it it still has this constant worry about moral propositions and I suppose this is puritan but it also has the sense that everything's going to be all right that the future belongs to us and that reason the end and our righteousness are coincident with one another. The notion that reason power and righteousness are not coincident with one another is one of the tragic discoveries we're having to make right now. You see do you think this is what we are doing when you say now I think that I think we are in the process right now of engaging in a break between the notion that national leaders
optimism progress ethics reason and righteousness are all coincident with one another for the United States. We are in a period in which. Well the Marines are back in Santo Domingo. You see this is a break with the Wilsonian. This is a straight break with the Wilsonian ethic. It bothers Americans terribly. But what's what. Obviously people in the state department who did this and people let's say the president who did this what they thought was they may not have translated into this kind of symbolic figure of speech but what they thought was that this is the sort of thing you have to do. In other words they acted in terms of national interest rather than in terms of an ethical conception of foreign policy carry they carry the guilt the nation carries the organizational carries the guilt and it struggles every day on the editorial page to reconcile it in terms of Wilsonian ethics when we turn from foreign policy to the fields of American literature and literary criticism such terms as Jeffersonian and Wilsonian and moralistic tend to give way to
Emersonian or what in literature has long been labeled as innocence. You have ḥasan for instance has been has written a book called radical innocence a term he chooses to describe as central characteristics a central characteristic he feels does persist extending from the day of Melville's no in thunder to our own era the period of Holden Caulfield for example when I talked to his son at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. I asked him to describe what it was in our national character that impressed him and led him to his interpretation the this capacity for resistance and his capacity for saying no genuine opposition an American hero in American fiction particularly that that I latched on to. I think of America as an optimistic country that looked into progress and to the future and that tends to say yes and tends to say I can and I will. As opposed to saying no. Well
you're perfectly right that there is this tremendous vein of utopianism and optimism in America and that the whole stream of 19th century figures of 19th century literature that represents this kind perhaps the most serious expressions of. The thing would be people like Emerson and Whitman whereas there's also we are falling back on the cliche here there's the darker side. Melville Paul and Hawthorne but we have to remember that the distinction is superficial that there is a way of saying no that can be an affirmation a very profound affirmation and a tremendous expression of optimism. Perhaps no it is very much like yes and funda that the only difference between yes and no come when there is no country involved and they are simply gestures of acceptance or refusal onny on a contagion level that is
not meaningful. But radical opposition can be a tremendously affirmative I think. And you know if I understand you you see the hero the individual Nandor self saying no and in saying No really affirming Yes for his society or any society but I think even more for what he believes or what he considers to be the essential element in man. To our W.B. Lewis author of the volume the American Adam who teaches American studies at Yale University where I take this conversation American innocence is tied to such words as idealism hopefulness and promise the American. Made his appearance in history and in the view of the Old World the older world. As a human being who had a second chance to create a society to build cities to create a culture which would
be free of the. Post-release the corruption the flaws of old world culture. This was a dream as much outside of America I think as inside of America and there was a certain amount of truth in it and this has persisted. Again across the decades and into the 20th century and I think a curse also for. The sense of disappointment and sometimes rage that other countries have that America has not fulfilled this great promise of the new Adam creating creating the new world. A dissenting view is offered appropriately enough by the editor of the magazine called dissent. Professor Irving Howe of Hunter College. I think the notion that there's something necessarily or particularly a uniquely idealistic about Americans is an example of American self-congratulation which by now ought to be put an end to. I don't think Americans are necessarily any more idealistic than
Englishman or Frenchmen or Russians or Poles or anybody else. We happen to have had a luckier history we spend a great deal of blood and trouble mostly for geographical reasons. And there is of course a tradition of idealism in America but there's a tradition of idealism of social idealism lots of other countries. Most of the ideas which embody that tradition of idealism come from Europe and there's this this fantasy which is spread by under-employed literary critics that there is an American life and literature or a special kind of innocence or they might better pay attention to the great quantity of violence that exists in the American tradition. But the notion that there's a special kind of idealistic innocence in American life seems to me unwarranted. I don't want to say that it isn't there at all but that this somehow distinguishes us from anyone else seems to me an absurdity. This issue came up again in my conversation with James Farmer national director of the Congress of
Racial Equality. We had been discussing race relations particularly the attitude of whites toward Negroes. And I had cited the case of the charter of the Ku Klux Klan and of Huckleberry Finn who after all was a Southern boy and who felt that he was he would be sinning that he would go to hell if he did not tell nigger Jim's owner where he was. I asked Mr. Farmer whether he found a special kind of idealism that was necessary and unique to American history. Yes I think so. I think that there is something in the American character if we may use that term that is unique here and that the American is an idealist. The American nation was built upon idealism. The people who came to these shores came for idealistic purposes. They came for freedom they came for a new life where the rights of man could be recognized and the practical responsibilities of building a nation making their way in a hostile continent
as it were. They came up against the practical problems and were able to rationalize those they did the acts which they found practically necessary. And at the same time keep intact the idealism. Now I would argue that the discussion at this point has come round to the point where we started that what Farmer is really talking about is not merely idealism but moralism in the American character. And one of the questions I hope this discussion has raised is where do you draw the line between idealism which we would regard as a good thing and moralism which would be a bad thing. And how fine that line really is. Yet it's a line that Americans have had to draw over and over again which helps to explain a related characteristic in the American mind that is the heroes intense personal sense of being a misfit a rebel a victim perhaps even a man betrayed by society by history when he recognizes as he so often must that his moral and utopian ideals
will not and cannot be realized not in this life. At any rate. But this crisis for the moral and utopian ideal is faced by the hero in American literature again and again that it is also faced by the American intellectual in our own time was given poignant and eloquent testimony by Alfred Kelly when I asked him whether our analyst of American foreign policy now felt that Americans themselves had matured beyond their original innocence and also come of age in our own time. Some Americans now see the process of history as more complex than the working out of some kind of utopianism. Let's put it that way. That's what I mean when I say I subscribe to a tragic view of history. I mean really two or three things that the working out of Utopia is an illusion that history that all utopian idealists always die of a broken heart. I'd put it that way. They always end up on the ash heap in some fashion that history has a way of wrecking them
the Republic of virtue gets wrecked. One of the certainties of human history is that it wrecks all human dreams eventually. That it that it just drives with a kind of terrible infallibility the almost the only infallibility I believe in. It destroys any one view of what the true the good and the beautiful should be. This is a kind of terrible nihilistic cynicism within which I I have to rescue myself by returning to my own notion of what the true the good and the Beautiful is and I suppose I suppose that like so many of us intellectuals there we are we are in part and crusted Wilsonian if you scrape me away a bit you'll find a Wilsonian underneath. I don't really want to abandon the moral view of history. Neither I would add do Henry Huck and Holden are a lot of other Americans real and fictional want to abandon the moral view of life and this struggle of the moralist in spite of himself of the man who reserves the
- Portrait of the American
- Moralists and misfits
- Producing Organization
- Wayne State University
- WDET (Radio station : Detroit, Mich.)
- Contributing Organization
- University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
- AAPB ID
- This program looks at various moralists and misfits and their roles in the American character.
- 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.
- Asset type
- Media type
Host: Ch'maj, Betty E. M.
Interviewee: Farmer, James, 1920-1999
Interviewee: Howe, Irving
Interviewee: Angell, Robert Cooley, 1899-1984
Interviewee: Lewis, R. W. B. (Richard Warrington Baldwin)
Interviewee: Hassan, Ihab Habib, 1925-
Interviewee: Kelly, Alfred H. (Alfred Hinsey), 1907-1976
Producer: Gouds, Moyra
Producing Organization: Wayne State University
Producing Organization: WDET (Radio station : Detroit, Mich.)
- AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 66-3-2 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
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- Chicago: “Portrait of the American; Moralists and misfits,” 1965-12-17, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed June 22, 2021, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-tx355q6b.
- MLA: “Portrait of the American; Moralists and misfits.” 1965-12-17. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. June 22, 2021. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-tx355q6b>.
- APA: Portrait of the American; Moralists and misfits. 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-tx355q6b