The Clare Spark Blog

September 23, 2009

Progressives and the teaching of American literature


AmericanliteratureToday’s blog responds to recent questions raised about the mission of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, but also to the President’s speech to the United Nations, that sought to remove any impression of American hubris. It will be seen that progressive educators have long worried about a sublime America that could go too far in challenging authority, looking for a middle-ground that may be entirely a product of overheated imaginations. (For a related blog, see For a detailed account of Matthiessen’s view of Herman Melville see

[The Harvard Report General Education in a Free Society, Harvard U.P., 1945, p.129-130:] …[I]nstruction in the arts has a bearing on other traits of the person beyond those of his intelligence.  In this world we have to live with others and with ourselves; we need the virtues both of society and of solitude.  Such an art as music cultivates the social skills.  To sing in a choir or to play in an orchestra is to merge oneself with a larger and disciplined whole without, however, losing one’s own individuality.  For it is by virtue of playing a definite and individual role that one contributes to the effectiveness of the organization.  And inasmuch as in music there are no explicit ideas at all, there is no scope for controversy or dispute either.  Thus the arts contribute to a welding of human beings whom other influences would pull apart.  Individuals who differ in their intellectual abilities can all respond to the sensual appeal of the arts.  Communal festivals or religious rituals are cases in point.  Now the arts have been defined as the expression of the play impulse, and indeed the same rhythm of society and solitude is illustrated in the world of sports.  In football, for instance, the individual must adjust himself to an organized group.  But fishing is a lonely sport.  The individual is apart from his fellow men: all alone in the presence of the glassy or the rushing waters, he has the chance to ponder deeply, since even the fish may be away.  Fishing fosters not only philosophy but the arts as well, notably the art of fiction.

[A slightly revised excerpt from Hunting Captain Ahab:]  Herman Melville’s later writing and the Melville Revival are intertwined with the reluctant and cautious promotion of other national writers in high schools and universities after the Civil War. Organic conservatives, North and South, blamed the fratricidal conflict on the insane excesses of “Black Republicans” (led by Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens) and working-class abolitionists, champions of human rights as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Here were crusaders agitating in the messianic tradition of New England radical puritanism, inciting slave rebellions that understandably had panicked the South. With the defeat of Radical Republican proposals for land reform, immediate black male suffrage, free desegregated popular education, exclusion of unrepentant rebels from government, etc. during Reconstruction, pre-war Southern values powerfully informed the victorious conservative nationalist synthesis: the Civil War had been fought to preserve the Union, not to defeat slavery as a first step to universal amelioration of the working-class.[i] Organic unity, homogeneity, class cooperation, lucidity, balance and love of safely-bounded democracy were the objectives of worried WASP educators during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, exactly like those of the social welfare policy-makers during the same period. Were their concerns spectral or real?

To understand Progressive pedagogy and its measured approach to the teaching of American literature, return to the upper-class Protestant response to the pretensions of popular religion several centuries earlier. Conservative enlighteners had mobilized to undermine the confidence of common readers, the wild men who were in over their heads, and who were dragging society into the abyss. One eighteenth-century compendium laid out the impudent, reductive and levelling practices of the Radical Reformation; I quote this classic of corporatist rhetoric at length because the passage, point by point, not only elucidates the major source of Melvillean angst but frankly limns the contents of antidemocratic propaganda documented throughout my book and blogs on this website, e.g., those more recent Progressive initiatives that subtly and indirectly discourage the questioning of authority in the classroom or other public space.

“There are Abundance of Calvinists, who reduce the Ecclesiastic Body, as it were, to a mere State of Democracy, wherein the merest Mechanick, upon any emergent Occasion, may follow his own Notions wtihout any Restriction, contest the Rights of Faith with his own Ministers, and publickly oppose them. The other Principles which are, for the generality, received among them, consist in denying the Infallibility of the Church, and of her Decisions, unless they are conformable to the sacred Scriptures, which they say ought to be the only Rule of Faith: Since it contains all the essential Articles of the Christian Faith; and every Thing, which is in any way requisite to the Salvation of Mankind, and set in the fairest and clearest Light, and admirably well adapted to the meanest Capacities.

To conclude, every one has free Liberty to enquire into the Grounds and Principles of his Religion, to search the Scriptures, and to expound them in such a manner as is most agreeable to his own Notions and Ideas. So far are they from paying a blind and implicit Obedience to the Decisions of their Ministers, and Doctors, that each Member has a Right to pass his Judgment on their Doctrine, the Nature and Quality of those Tenets which they advance either in the Pulpit, in private Conversation, or in their more elaborate Dissertations, to canvas, in short, the Method they pursue, and the Arguments which they produce to confirm and establish them. This free Liberty of making their Enquiries they ground on several passages of Holy Writ, by Vertue whereof the most contemptible Layman, with his Bible in his Hand, may boldly venture to tell his spiritual Pastor, that he is able of himself, without any of his Instruction, to search the Scriptures, and to expound the very Text which he has been labouring to open and illustrate, to weigh his own Notions of it with those of the Preacher, to examine into the Merit of both, and compare one Text of Scripture with another. After he has so done, this Auditor of his is at further Liberty to believe, or disbelieve all the doctrines which his Minister has endeavoured to inculcate and establish. If he be determined not to adhere to his Admonitions, he justifies his Conduct in the following Manner. “We ought not, says he, to believe, or observe any religious Tenet whatsoever, without duly considering the Force and Validity of the Arguments brought by our Ministers to prove it…that their Authority, in which Light soever they may be viewed, whether separately, jointly, as a Body, or a Majority of that Body, is by no Means boundless and unlimited with respect to Matters of Faith, Worship, or Morals.”

These Principles, if there be too great a Stress laid upon them, have no doubt a natural Tendency to introduce Anarchy and Libertinism into the Church. They set the most worthless Layman almost on a Level with the united Body of Christian Divines, and give a sanction to a Variety of Schisms and Dissentions. They destroy that Certainty and Uniformity of Faith, which are the Foundation of Christian Unity.”

Mobilizing the analytic tools of historicism and cultural relativism, the passage concludes that the Bible is too contradictory, too difficult to reconcile; it was written in different times and in societies with different customs; it follows that “the Mysteries of Religion [are] enveloped in impenetrable Darkness.”[ii]

While moderates were sealing the “Mysteries of Religion,” merest Mechanicks et al, despite the warnings of their betters were unremittingly dispersing the shadows of the past, for instance in the founding of the American republic with a strong admixture of left-wing Protestantism. In 1887, during the period of heightened class warfare that accompanied the rapid industrialization of the late nineteenth century, H. E. Scudder warned that “A materialist civilization can never be a safe one.” There must be a “steady unremitting attention to American classics.” Their authors, “fed with coals from the altar” were carriers of “spiritual deposits of patriotism” that will instill the “love of righteousness and the passion for redeemed humanity.”[iii] Scudder’s religious sublimity was trimmed a bit in 1901 by Raymond Weaver’s teacher at Columbia University, Brander Matthews, who taught Typee but no other Melville.

[Matthews:] “While transmitting the ideals of “the Anglo-Saxon race” in its American setting, and cherishing our poets, the teacher should free himself from excess of patriotic bias. He ought to present our American authors in their proper proportion, when tried by cosmopolitan and eternal standards.”[iv] For Matthews, “cosmopolitanism” was asserted against ultra-democratic and unique American aspirations.

In 1892, an Iowan, Newton Marshall Hall looked askance at Western classics, unsuitable guides for the placid American mission; we want “study through his native literature of the life and activity of the people of his own country, of the age in which he lives and must work. In a country of such extent as ours, any influence which makes for homogeneity is too valuable to be neglected…[We want to read] the great minds which have sprung from our own race and our own soil.”[v] And lest native soil sprout troublemakers, Hall recommended Emerson as role model, the great teacher who said “a gentleman makes no noise, a lady is serene.”

Few Americans were quiet and serene in the last decade of the nineteenth century or afterwards; certainly not common sailors or the immigrants who toiled in sweatshops, steel mills, and tenements, working and living under unspeakable conditions. The Progressives rolled up their sleeves to answer Nietzsche’s question, “What is Noble?” Writing for the Progressive periodical The Arena in 1903, Frank Parsons pondered the lessons of history and called for arbitration and mutualism in the “cooperative commonwealth” as a substitute for class warfare and the tyranny of either labor or capital:

“There is a great confusion in our civic thought today…There is no conflict between individualism and mutualism. It is only a question between aggressive individualism and cooperative individualism. An ennobled manhood, under perfect liberty, must naturally and necessarily express itself in cooperative institutions, just as an imperfect manhood naturally expresses itself in competition and conflict.” [vi]

Four months later, J. M. Berdan warned Arena readers that most people would not go to colleges (where perfect manhood was cultivated?); that unfinished girls were menacing hapless adolescent boys with materialist weapons: “There is the hampering conviction that anybody who can teach at all can teach English. A text-book is put into the hands of a raw girl graduate from the normal school, and she proceeds to shove indigestible facts down the throats of her unwilling class. Secretly she prefers the works of Laura Jean Libby, or Marie Corelli, or Bertha Rumble to those of Shakespeare, or Spenser, or any other passé author…[She is making the male student look up obscurities in a play], the terror of the red pencil flaunting before his eyes as he writes.”

Synthesizing Scudder, Hall, Parsons and Berdan, we may infer that spiritualizing males (the moderate men) could avert another French Revolution by ejecting immoderate gobbet-girls from high school torture-chambers. Unhampered and treated with neoclassical values, the boys presumably would be liberated to pursue “cooperative individualism.” As Berdan explained, the “national literature,” soothingly forthright, modest and blue, would rout “the [female-force fed] intolerable national egotism”:

“Our authors have been able to give expression to the widest ranges of life without descending to coarseness or vulgarity. With a single exception, the lives of our great men of letters have been blameless and self-balanced, teaching over again by example, the rare and sweet lessons which speak in their written words…It should inspire in some that enthusiasm for letters, that devotion to truth, and pride of patriotism necessary to the wider and more complete development of our national culture.”[vii]

Long before either the 1919 Red Scare or the late 1940s-1950s Cold War, then, Progressive educators were eager to direct youthful enthusiasm toward tried and true classical “letters” and the class harmony that writers such as Spenser and Shakespeare instilled. For these nervous scanners, materialists appeared as sadistic and deceptive interlopers–puffed-up philistines, red pencils in hand, flaunting facts and research; their “materialist civilization” was antithetical to the development of a balanced and measured patriotism. The theme continued into the 1960s and 70s; as one “good planner” urgently put the case:

“A…sequence involving the work of Melville might deal with Typee (1846), which established Melville as a primitive. Mardi (1849) concluded with the suggestion that the hero must pursue fate forever and in vain. Next would come Melville’s “wicked book,” Moby-Dick, which Leon Howard has called a “literal fable,” in which “no one can err greatly in his interpretation if he simply recognizes Ahab as a tragic hero whose arbitrary assumption (that Moby Dick represents evil) is his tragic flaw.” A good planner would undoubtedly include at some point in the sequence “Bartleby the Scrivener,” “Benito Cereno” and Billy Budd. These products of Melville’s later period continue to examine the theme of conflict between individual and social morality in American life which continually plague each individual as he finds himself enmeshed in the contradictions and ambiguities which inhere in the human condition. It was this condition which baffled Melville from Typee to Billy Budd. It is the key to Melville from book to book–truly a natural for the design of a new and necessary teaching sequence.”[viii]

And in 1973, a Berkeley doctoral dissertation in political science similarly concluded that Ahab, like hypermoral America, was noble but tragically flawed:

“Ahab is mad because he has lost touch with his fellow men; our nation is mad because it is founded on principles and purposes rather than on a sense of human community. And yet both Ahab and America are noble in seeking to right the wrongs of the gods.  ” Like Ahab, America will probably not abandon her insane nobility until the ship sinks and the closing vortex subsides into a creamy pool. Then perhaps we will learn the lesson of Job–provided that there is a father sailing around who, seeking his lost son, rescues us.”[ix]

Sighted as the materialist miasma writ large, Herman Melville was at best detoxified and co-opted as a baffled commentator on the human condition, well-meaning but blind; at worst, exhibited as pockmarked ruin. He would be nailed as the victim of mother’s milk, plaguing readers with his (feminine) demands for moral purity and the boundless inquisitiveness that such unreasonable perfectionism required. At no time was Melville, insofar as he could be positively identified with the romantics Ahab or Pierre, unambivalently promoted as the great exemplary American writer. On the contrary, it is his stigmata that instruct the young. The human condition was the sticking point: a strange belief in (inevitable) human weakness in the lower orders addicted to “mechanical philosophy” but (unlimited) percipience in themselves, binds the moderate men studied here.

Return now to The Harvard Report, General Education in a Free Society, 1945, 110-115. (F. O. Matthiessen, following Charles Olson, an Ishmael man and fervent opponent of Captain Ahab, is mentioned in the acknowledgments as having either aided the Harvard Report or served on a sub-committee.) Their recommendations for methods in high school teaching of English (“language and literature”) include these vague yet balanced strictures meant to emancipate students from both ignorance and faction-making critical habits: “Among prevailing trends to be discouraged in the study of literature, it would list: Stress on factual content as divorced from design. Emphasis on literary history, on generalizations as to periods, tendencies and ready-made valuations–in place of deeper familiarity with the texts. Strained correlations with civics, social studies. Overambitious technical analysis of structure, plot, figurative language, prosody, genre. Use of critical terms (Romanticism, Realism, Classical, Sentimental) as tags coming between the reader and the work. Didacticism: lessons in behavior too closely sought. These dangers are familiar to reflective teachers, as are their opposite extremes: Superficial reading of too much, with no close knowledge of either the content or its import. Lack of any aids to the understanding of what is being read. Indifference to or ignorance of techniques of literature. Avoidance of critical terms and appraisals when the student is ready for them. Irresponsible attitude to the implications of what is being read.” The authors then recommend “abridgement and selective editing” to make great works accessible to general readers. Imagine the “moderate” reader of this report, asked to determine what is too much or too little in her interventions.


[i]     As abundantly documented in Foner and Shapiro, Northern Labor and Antislavery, 1994.

[ii]     Bernard Picart, The Ceremonies and Religious Customs of the Various Nations of the Known World, Vol. V (London, 1736), 319-321. Volume I of this series joined the (conservative) Jews to Catholics, disconnecting the Protestant Reformation.

[iii]     H.E. Scudder, “American Classics in School,” Atlantic Monthly (July 1887): 85-91. In tracking Progressive cultural politics, I have followed the bibliography recommended in American Literature in the College Curriculum (Committee on the College Study of American Literature and Culture of the National Council of Teachers of English, 1948), 20-21.

[iv]   Brander Matthews, “Suggestions for Teachers of American Literature,” Educational Review (Jan. 1901): 11-16.

[v]     Newton M. Hall, “The Study of American Literature in Colleges,” The Andover Review (July-Dec. 1892): 154-62.

[vi]     Frank Parsons, “The Great Coal Strike and its Lessons,” The Arena (Jan. 1903): 1-7.

[vii]     J.M. Berdan, “American Literature and the High School,” The Arena (Apr. 1903): 337-44.

[viii]     Robert E. Shafer, “Teaching Sequences for Hawthorne and Melville,” The Teacher and American Literature: Papers Presented at the National Council of Teachers of English, ed. Lewis Leary (National Council of Teachers of English, 1965): 114.

[ix]      Bruce Parker, (Ph.D. diss, UC Berkeley, 1973), directed by Michael Rogin.


  1. Reblogged this on YDS: The Clare Spark Blog and commented:

    Posted seven years ago, but more relevant than ever. The quote from Harvard is priceless; supports fish stories!

    Comment by clarelspark — June 22, 2016 @ 7:53 pm | Reply

  2. […], and […]

    Pingback by Constructing the moderate men with the classics | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — May 30, 2015 @ 6:37 pm | Reply

  3. […] as the neutral state and ethnicity/'race' in the early years of the 20th century. See for instance, and […]

    Pingback by The nefarious “cultural Marxists” | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — December 27, 2013 @ 7:27 pm | Reply

  4. […] Progressives and the teaching of American literature […]

    Pingback by Power, relationships, identity | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — August 1, 2013 @ 6:27 pm | Reply

  5. […] the very notion of the individual. It is not too late to take it back. (For a related blog see The “intolerable national egotism” is declared off limits to the moderate […]

    Pingback by Preconditions for “hard liberty” | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — July 9, 2013 @ 9:06 pm | Reply

  6. A very thoughtful survey, much appreciated.

    Comment by Robert W Franson — April 9, 2013 @ 5:07 pm | Reply

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