Monday, June 29, 2015

Washington Irving and the Satire of Cultural Amnesia

Though his particular gift for wit fell out of fashion in literary circles of the early 20th century, Washington Irving was once understood as essential to American literature. He could count among his admirers the likes of Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mary Shelley, and Mark Twain. Despite his stock having fallen in academia, there remain very good reasons to revisit him today, as he is arguably our foundational satirist.

While his gifts as a writer were admittedly middle brow and inclined towards a light, popular style of prose, Washington Irving seemed to know of the fundamental cultural challenge to the revolutionary mindset: that our greatest intellectual temptation would be to a self-inflicted amnesia. As a nation of immigrants, most of us are descended from people who left behind their previous nations, previous home towns (often the familial home from time immemorial), and in many cases did so without entertaining the hopes of seeing those left behind again. While this is often accompanied by a particular sort of bravery and ingenuity, it can also be haunted by the phantoms of what was left behind¯so much so that we can be in denial of who we were and to what institutions, philosophies, and values we owe our beliefs and ideals.

His first book, Dietrich Knickerbocker’s History of New York, capitalized on the amnesia of New Yorkers by a mix of biting satire and real history of the Dutch reign in Manhattan. The book is foundational to any study in American humor: wild, free, self-deprecatory, and merciless to the public figures of his day; by turns lyrically funny, absurd, and reflective. Without it, we might wonder whether American humor, from Twain to the Marx brothers to Jerry Seinfeld to Stephen Colbert, would have taken the particular shape it did.

When Americans, always prone to utopian daydreams, were in danger of taking themselves far too seriously--when the term “manifest destiny” was embryonic--Dietrich Knickerbocker rolled his bugged-out eyes, chuckled gruffly, and whispered into the ear of a young nation, “Remember thou art mortal.”

Sunday, June 28, 2015

"The boy has left us for a time": Fatherhood and Fertility in The Last of the Mohicans

James Fenimore Cooper's  masterpiece is a wild romance, like a river with tributaries and rapids shooting from all directions. Semi-comedic episodes intermingle with the terror of the inferno, history vies with love story, the plot lurches, drags, and sprints until one peak among many, like one of the Adirondacks in which so much of the book is set, looms in stillness above the rest. Just when it seems as though all strands of symbolism in The Last of the Mohicans can't possibly be tied together, a silence falls over the book as Cora Munro, the book’s heroine, pleads desperately to the Lenape chief, Tamenund, in a final attempt to spare herself and her sister from being handed over to the Hurons. The moment is a study in character and symbolic depth:

Cora bowed her head…and, for a bitter moment struggled with her chagrin. Then, elevating her rich features and beaming eye, she continued in tones scarcely less penetrating than the unearthly voice of the patriarch himself: ‘Tell me, is Tamenund a father?’[1]

Adding power and symbolism to the question is Tamenund’s answer, framed in majestic prose:

            The old man looked down upon her from his elevated stand, with a benignant smile on his wasted countenance, and then casting his eyes slowly over the whole assemblage he answered: ‘Of a nation.’  

            The beauty of this moment conjures up sensations that range from Abraham, who was told by God that he would be “a father of many nations” (Gen. 17:4), to George Washington, already revered in Cooper’s day as the father of the young American Republic. Yet it is also haunting, as we know that Tamenund’s nation is disappearing: the time for the destruction of his people is at hand.  Symbolically there is a tension between these visions of fatherhood: will Washington’s fatherhood be permanent, like Abraham’s, or is it destined to fall, as did Tamenund’s? In Tamenund’s answer is posed a further question to a young nation building upon the ruins of an older one.
            The implication of ruins is significant. Two of Cooper’s contemporaries, Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne, pointed out that America had no physical ruins, such as were to be found in Europe. Irving used this as an occasion for his untiring wit when addressing the English readers of Bracebridge Hall, slyly lamenting that, unlike theirs, his native land could not “boast of a single ruin.”[2]  Hawthorne took a more condescending tone (towards all) when suggesting that America’s lack of ruins made the writing of romance impossible. America, he suggested, possessed “no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong,” and therefore could have no true romantic literature. “Romance and poetry, like ivy, lichens, and wall-flowers,” wrote Hawthorne, “need ruin to make them grow.” [3]

            What Hawthorne failed to realize, Cooper knew intuitively; that the external ruins of a society, be they the abbeys of the English countryside or the great Roman Aqueduct, are not the real ruins, but merely the architectural echoes of a deeper tragedy—the extinction of a way of life, the destruction of a society. The Last of the Mohicans, which predates Hawthorne’s comments on the subject by nearly four decades, remains a preeminent example of  American Romanticism precisely because Cooper identifies a deeper source of shadows, in the extinction of a noble race of people, whose society contained some real virtues worthy of our admiration and sympathy. These ruins are made more haunting by the fact that there are few physical remains: An entire people, once brave, noble and free, is simply gone. Thus there are few moments in literature to match the tragic proportions of the Mohicans finale. Perhaps the best parallel is the lamentation of the Geatish woman in Beowulf, for her song bewails not only the death of their great hero, but is a harbinger of the inevitable extinction of her race. These are not merely fading monuments or crumbling walls, however poignant they may be, but human ruins, and the anguish is written not on the landscape but upon the human heart.