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American Literary History and Pragmatism

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Emerson, Fiction, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Walt Whitman, Writing on August 29, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

American literary history, even before C.S. Peirce named “pragmatism” as a philosophy, validates much of what pragmatism has to offer.  Joan Richardson speaks of “frontier instances” whereby certain writers become aesthetic outposts from which we can trace continuities of thought and artistic representation.  She treats literature as a life form that must adapt to its environment; similarly, Richard Poirier looks to a tradition of linguistic skepticism in American literature to show the role that artistic influence and troping have had on American culture.  Long before Richardson and Poirier, George Santayana exercised his own literary flair in his celebratory, summative essays about American culture and experience.  If American literary history can undergo operations of tracing and mapping, it might be because—as Richardson, Poirier, and Santayana have suggested—the unfolding and development of an American literary canon have been processes of evolution.  Literary texts and movements have shown a tendency toward growth that is responsive to the natural and changing circumstances of the time.

Richardson begins A Natural History of Pragmatism with 17th century Puritan ministers and then quickly moves to Jonathan Edwards.  Edwards is representative of the Calvinist notion of limited disclosure, the idea, in other words, that God reveals his divinity to us through the shapes, forms, and outlines he provides to us in the phenomenal world.  From this idea (and others like it) began the uniquely American insistence on the value of nature and the physical universe to thought and the spiritual or psychological realm.  As Americans sought to make themselves culturally and intellectually independent from Europe, both in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they used the New World landscapes and vastly unexplored (by Europeans at least) terrains as objects of their fascination and as sources of inspiration.  Even figures like Jefferson insisted upon the scientific study of the natural world in order to authorize theories about law and politics, which he wished to distinguish from European ways.  Jefferson, like William Bartram, another naturalist, lionized Natives as being more in tune with nature and hence more “lawful” in the sense that their communal governments were in keeping with the laws of nature.  However problematic we may consider these romanticized depictions today, we should at least say of them that they inspired further attention to sustained observation of nature as a critical component of what was intended to be a new way of thinking divorced from the Old World of Europe.

Santayana says that when orthodoxy recedes, speculation flourishes, and accordingly it is no surprise that as Puritanism solidified into an orthodoxy of the kind against which it once defined itself, there was a resistance among artists and writers and thinkers.  Emerson, for one, adapted the thinking of the Calvinists while maintaining their commitment to the natural world as a means for realizing higher truths.  Instead of God revealing himself to man through the forms of the natural world, God, according to Emerson, was realized within the person with a poetical sense, who was inspired by the natural world to discover the divinity within himself.  To become one and to see all—that is, to become a “transparent eyeball”—was something of a religious experience for Emerson. 

Emerson, like Edwards and Jefferson before him, called for a distinctly American philosophy, and transcendentalism is what he finally settled upon.  Emerson celebrated the individual and articulated a sense of self that had moral import.  For Emerson, society corrupts thought, and it is intuition, those deep pangs in the heart that precede reflection, that is the ultimate calculus for moral action.  We ought to follow our intuition toward moral purposes, for, as Emerson reminds us, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” and it is society that insists upon conformity and consistency.  “He who must be a man, must be a nonconformist,” Emerson said, and in associating this attitude with Americanism, he inspired other writers—among them, Walt Whitman—to attempt their own expressions of Americanism.

Santayana is right, I think, to refer to transcendentalism as a method only, and William James would use that very reference in describing pragmatism.  Pragmatism was a method, but it did not arise in a vacuum.  Peirce may have been the first man to add it to our vocabulary—to name it, so to speak—but as Peirce would have quickly pointed out, one cannot properly name a thing that is not already existent and knowable.  The various attempts by writers as diverse as Hawthorne, Melville, Dickinson, Poe, Thoreau, Twain, and countless others to give shape to something akin to pragmatism—insofar as these authors sought out new articulations of old ways of thinking as well as to shake themselves of the orthodoxies of the past—lends “cash value” to the notion that American thought is, or was, unique, at least in comparison to Europe.  It is because of this habit or tendency toward growth and adaptation that Santayana would later proclaim that America is a new nation with old ways of thinking, and it is remarkable that American literature gradually disabused itself of the value of uncritically accepting the standards and conduct of what Santayana dubbed the genteel tradition.

The turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was a landmark time for the nation as industry and population exploded, immigration rates increased, and technology changed rapidly.  The impulse of American literature shifted more from the religious to the socio-political or secular.  It became more difficult for “pragmatic” writers to celebrate the industry and economics of locomotive power the way, say, Thoreau did, because, in part, the once seemingly vast and unconquerable wilderness that was a America had become smaller in size—due in no small part to passenger trains—and because the aftermath of the Civil War left the nation largely divided.  To forge a national literature was no longer the goal for many writers, and instead the concept of America, among those with a pragmatic mindset, turned to pluralism, especially in the context of race.  If James’s “Varieties of Religious Experience” or his “A Pluralistic Universe” are any indication,  the pragmatic tradition in America of revising existing forms of thought to suit present purposes was redirected toward issues of race, gender, and class, and landmark works of literature from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to slave narratives to the Harlem Renaissance texts substantiate this point.

W. E. B. Dubois, a student of Santayana and one who occasionally walked in the Harvard circles with Josiah Royce and William James, began to challenge what for him were orthodoxies regarding race.  The accommodating teachings of Booker T. Washington simply would not do for Dubois, whose writings about “double consciousness” reflect the influences of James, George Herbert Mead, and even John Dewey.  For Dubois, the problem of the twentieth century was the problem of the color line, and in that context American arts and letters adapted to fit the pressing concerns of the age.  Alain Locke, himself a student of the Harvard pragmatists, began, in the vein of James, to argue that Africans ought to retain elements of their distinct culture while at the same time acknowledging, where applicable, the influence of non-black culture.  Locke, like James, saw the world as a pluriverse, and his tendency to see race as a social construction led him to argue that the ultimate form of “race practice” was imperialism.

At some point in the twentieth century, for a wide variety of reasons, any one of them subject to challenge, pragmatism began to lose currency, both as a philosophy and as a mood or attitude.  Nevertheless, pragmatism as a life-form did not go away.  Although during the twentieth century and up until today, it is more difficult to identify a purely “national” literature, in terms of trends or techniques, it may be more suitable to discuss literature as a pragmatic phenomenon because of the sheer variety of literatures and genres available to us, to say nothing of increased literacy rates and instant access to all forms of writing.  It may be the case that we are living in a more pluralistic universe, even if we, confined as we are by our own historical moment, cannot fathom that universe in its totality.

  1. Great read. Thanks for posting.

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. Very insightful and relevant–great post.

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