I took a college history course called “American Intellectual History” and was embarrassed to be lectured that Americans were thought by European intellectuals as not having any intellectuals worthy of mention. I recall learning Mark Twain intended that A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was a satire upon America’s lack of “Humanist” intellectual interest. America’s first cluster of literary intellectuals was the transcendentalists – giants in America, but not given recognition in Europe. Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller and Longfellow were merely the beginning class followed by Alcott, Hawthorne, Melville and others. It is said that for a society to have an intellectual class it must have wealth and leisure in its society beforehand. Perhaps the dearth of European-style literature in America was a result of our nation’s freedom and unlimited natural resources that permitted, or in fact demanded the nation put its effort into the business of providing room to accept the flood of immigrants pouring out of Europe during this period high immigration. The economy became a priority, and indeed America gained a higher standard of living than any country in Europe, including England.
But even if the standard of American literature was below that of Europe, the Americans were far from Neanderthals. In the early nineteenth century there was strong intellectual interest, and popular support for experiments with utopian societies interspersed with distinct periods of religious awakening and Chautauqua. We did not fail to improve society; a great deal of energy was devoted to settlement houses, community organizations, mutual insurance institutions and benevolent societies all focused upon providing aid to individuals, and no government input. Also, organized religions established charitable outreaches as early as the 1820s, many still in existence today, such as Lutheran and Catholic Charities, among others. There is a constant thread throughout all these matters and it begins with the nature of the American founding.
America’s government was founded to serve its people by maintaining order, the rule of law and to preserve liberty. Liberty applies to individuals, and only individuals. Society in America is made up of its individuals, and takes on a greater breadth under the American experiment than other nations ever attempted until being shown by “exceptionalism.”
America’s predominate relationship with religion is a one-to-one basis with their Christian God who too knows each human being individually. European society is more cohesive than America’s individualism, and less God-centered. Until the early twentieth century, American authors wrote to individual readers. The subjects chosen by novelists Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville and others during the transcendentalist period were individual persons, and each person was the center action. Transcendentalism is simply self-reliance and respect for nature which God has provided to humans for their use, enjoyment and preservation, individually. There is something to be learned by humans from God’s dispersion of Earth’s first society in the Babel incident related in the Book of Genesis.
I recently finished reading Sinclair Lewis’ Nobel Prize lecture, read to the Swedish Academy on December 12, 1930. He titled it, “The American Fear of :Literature.” It is a wonderful, fully American response, although perhaps many Swedes may not have understood it that way. It was perfectly fitted to Mr. Lewis’ holistic understanding of American culture as seen first from his birthplace on the vast prairie lands of Sauk Centre, Minnesota. He brought a wholly American insight into the character development for which the Nobel Committee praised his work. He covered a wide scope of American life, but none of his subjects would have been recognized as “intellectual.” Their settings were factories, cities, rural areas, small-town life and their individual lives were real estate sales, itinerant Gospel preachers, Kiwanis boosters, healers and more.
Lewis paid homage to a great number of American writers, and only Eugene O’Neill would be recognized by a Nobel prize during his lifetime. Lewis lionized his lengthy list of nominees, but he wasn’t finished with that. He then introduced an American “intellectual” unnamed, but known personally to Lewis. This person is a university professor of humanities, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Lewis writes about him as follows: “A learned and most amiable old gentleman who has been a pastor, a university professor, and a diplomat. A member of the aforementioned Academy, honored with degrees. As a writer he is chiefly known for his pleasant little essays on the joy of fishing. I do not Suppose (Sic) that professional fishermen, whose lives depend on the run of cod or herring, find it altogether an amusing occupation, but from these essays I learned, as a boy, that there is something very important and spiritual about catching fish, if you have no need of doing so.”
He continues with the professor, writing, “There has recently appeared in America, out of the universities, an astonishing circus called “the New Humanism.” Now of course “humanism” means so many things that it means nothing. It may infer anything from a belief that Greek and Latin are more inspiring than the dialect of contemporary peasants to a belief that any living peasant is more interesting than a dead Greek. But it is a delicate bit of justice that this nebulous word should have been chosen to label this nebulous cult…. So the whole movement results in the not particularly novel doctrine that both art and life must be resigned and negative. It is a doctrine of the blackest reaction introduced into a stirringly revolutionary world.”
What Lewis is saying is what every native American has known from birth; we are a nation of individuals. It is only by joining churches, communities, assemblies, unions, PTAs, workplaces et al that we make up a society of individual Americans. Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America makes the same case for America as I make. We understand ourselves that way, and it was known too by the founders that we would be so in their providing a Constitution of Liberty made explicitly for a society of individuals. Lewis loved America!
My point of this essay is to contrast American intellectual thought, with a brand of thought originating mostly in Europe. Since the year in which Lewis gave his Nobel Prize Lecture the European brand of society has been making inroads both intellectually and more importantly in our institution of national government. The means of doing so has been exclusively in universities and interesting in “the humanities departments.” Also interestingly, I can find no comfort for socialism among any of the separate states of America. Americans have all been born free, whether they recognize it or not, and our government was created with the intent that we should be able to live free if we choose. Our government owes it to each of us, even if we choose to be unfree, but those who choose differently have no responsibility or right in interfering with it; they may not reject it for us. The federal government has a mandate to protect individual freedom from government coercion, and by extension of the Constitution’s mandate to also prevent other individuals who do not choose freedom, to coerce free persons who do chose freedom.
Publiustoo.com May 25, 2021