YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

January 5, 2013

The (Gentlemanly) Rochester Synod: 1984 in 1948

ZolamovieWhat follows is an excerpt from chapter 8 of Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival (Kent State UP, 2001, 2006 rev.ed.). It is meant to demonstrate the ideological character of the teaching of literature, and how consensus as to the teaching of the canon is often brought about in academic conferences. The writing is sardonic and takes no prisoners. I am not a gentleman, but I defend artists from their appropriators by proof of conspiracies, or to put it more politely, the building of consensus.

[From chapter 8, HCA:] In 1900, during the period of Melville’s alleged obscurity, some passages from Moby-Dick were excerpted in The International Library of Famous Literature, edited by Richard Garnett. Volume 12 of the series included “On The Track of the White Whale”; the volume was prefaced with a work of criticism by Emile Zola, “The Naturalist School of Fiction in France.” For Zola, the lineage of naturalism included Diderot, Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert, and the brothers Goncourt; the antithesis to naturalism was mystical Romanticism. The author of “J’ accuse,” later rumored to be assassinated by the Right, had no difficulty reconciling the cultures of science and the arts through naturalism and realism.


[Clare’s comments:]… Half-a-century later, two Melvilleans, Leon Howard of Northwestern University and William Gilman of the University of Rochester, staged a four-part conference at Gilman’s university during the winter of 1948-49, adjusting and cleansing the all-too-naturalistic literary canon for the benefit of graduate students, “guests from the community” and “the general reader.”[i] The leading lights of American literature were there, including Stanley Williams, Willard Thorp, Leon Howard, Henry Nash Smith, Norman Holmes Pearson, Robert Spiller, Alfred Kazin, Harry Levin, and Lionel Trilling. A selection of twelve lectures was published and republished as The American Writer and the European Tradition.[ii] Now that America had become the most powerful nation on earth, the editors explained, it seemed appropriate that America

“produce a literature which will nourish and refresh European readers; at the same time it needs to perceive more clearly the source and nature of formative influences, both past and present, upon its literature…[“Cultural” responsibilities should be met through] the extension of commendable American influences abroad…discarding the mere violence which now is his forte but not the natural virtue which is his real strength…to cultivate the fertile ground that lies somewhere between our native Americanism and the European tradition (v, xi, x).[iii].”

Since nine of the twelve scholars had participated in the Melville Revival, and since the editors assure us of the “underlying unity and the dynamic unity [the essays] bear to each other” (x), I shall attempt a synthesis, framed with an excerpt from the correspondence of Van Wyck Brooks and Lewis Mumford. They were both active in the 1920s Melville Revival, were repeatedly mentioned in the Martin Dies (HUAC) report of 1944, and are still admired by 1960s radicals. Jubilating over a returning trend in American culture, Brooks told his friend:

“…I have a clear strong feeling that things are coming our way, that another generation is coming along that is much more congenial with you and me than the minds that have been dominant in the last twenty years. I gather that you are encountering them in your Southern lectures, as I find them in several writers who are going to have something to say in the future (among them, Peter Viereck).” [iv]

Brooks was correct. Uncongenial, domineering [Jewish?] “minds” were out; romantic conservatives (like Viereck, an ardent Melville fan) were in. At Rochester, only a few months earlier, Louis Booker Wright and Theodore Hornberger (prolific scholars specializing in the English Renaissance and Anglo-American culture whose papers launch Denny’s and Gilman’s book) clarified the agenda for postwar humanism: they must claim the Enlightenment and the American Dream for themselves, which meant transfiguring the radical bourgeoisie and the dogmatic democrats it had spawned.[v] Hornberger emphasized stability, order, and balance found in the Constitution, eighteenth-century political theory and its conservative but progressive antecedents (Greece and Rome, “British parliamentary procedures” and Calvinist New England), praising Montesquieu, John Adams and Benjamin Rush, and ending with an affirmation of American cultural freedom defined against fascist mind-control:

“We have learned recently that under the Fascist regime John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was permitted to circulate on the theory that it would convince Italians of the degeneracy of the United States. Instead, the young men, or some of them, concluded that a government which would permit such a novel to appear must have something admirable about it. The moral is, it seems to me, is that Americans appear at their best to the rest of the world when they are self-critical. The charming thing about the Enlightenment and the American Dream is their dissatisfaction with what is and what has been. No one who reads Candide will ever again think that this is the best of all possible worlds. No one, I think, who reads widely in American literature will be either smug or chauvinistic (27). “

In the talks that followed, irrationalism as practiced by antebellum romantic conservatives was redefined as the rational antidote to complacency and excessive nationalism. Although Hornberger’s Steinbeck story was repeated by Harry Levin (182), Steinbeck’s fiction was deemed defective and romantic (170); the documentarians of the 1930s were attacked throughout the conference, directly or indirectly. As Hornberger had hinted, there were competing contenders for critical “social realism” (Thorp) in America: the spirit of Thomas Carlyle was in the saddle. Traditional writers like Melville (as Ishmael and Vere) who were “didactic, allegorical, romantic” veterans of the abyss (Levin, 180, 174), should be plainly distinguished from other romantics: Jacksonian Ahabs with their “lying spirit” and monomania (Howard, 84). Also discredited were “dyspeptic” pessimists expecting too much from America: the “sour liberals” of Partisan Review, presaged by the later work of Mark Twain (Thorp, 105, 104), and French-inspired naturalism (Levin, 174) catering to the “idolatry of the mechanical and of ‘facts’ ” (Pearson, 161, Kazin, 121). Trilling attacked “the extreme rationalist position” (148), while (pre-conversion) Dos Passos was hit hard in Kazin’s essay.

After the weeding out of the progressive bourgeoisie who would be (moderately) Left? Captain Vere! who had been blessed in the last breath of Billy Budd, (but not Billy Budd), and in the last words of Lewis Mumford’s biography (1929). Melville had his problems with Vere, but not the conferees at Rochester. Willard Thorp talked of him as an historic figure, joining Vere to Emerson, Thoreau and other classically educated intellectuals of the pre-Civil War U.S. Captain Vere, like veritas itself, was rooted in the Renaissance ideal of the Christian gentleman, “ready and eager to serve the state in the most intelligent fashion,” and promoting “the cultivation of man’s full powers under the restraint of law (Wright, 9).” The “proletarianizing” all-American [soil] growing materialists whose Faustian science had now created the Bomb (Wright, 4) and erased “personality” (Pearson, 166), must be shoveled out and replaced by the Euro-American compost that yielded the greatest inheritor of the English Renaissance, Thomas Jefferson (Wright, 14) and the poetically scientific (Pearson) writers of the 1850s, Mumford’s Golden Day. The search for a usable past had won these gentle but forceful flowers of “the saving remnant” (Wright, 51), who, like Emerson “believed that the tension between Conservative and Radical would be fruitful in the end” (Thorp, 95); who would be ready to spring to action, averting the confiscations of the “extreme Reformer” who “uses outward and vulgar means. [Who] precipitates revolution when other means would have done” (Thorp, 92). And who would disagree with that? [vi]

Several participants advocated temporary despair as healthy and broadening, somewhat like the Grand Tour, the evidence of spiritual capacity and deep-diving: unflagging optimists lacked a soul. Melville and Whitman were exemplary, for Christian gentlemen/American artists do not yield to permanent depression. Perforce, Melville’s work after the nadir of the nihilistic 1850s would be annexed to the cause of Christian affirmation and acceptance of an imperfect world. If Melville had been in pain, yanked between “America” and “Europe,” ultimately it was good for his originality. “Melville” was cured; Progressive uplift and social hygiene had evacuated mechanical materialists, amplifying the message of Thorp’s essay in Literary History of the United States (1948), canonizing “Melville” defined as Ahab’s repudiator. Like other corporatist enactments, however, this ritual conversion of stony-hearted Jewish healers was a subversion of radical Enlightenment, claiming, of course, to uphold gentlemanly or true science, complete with stringent self-criticism. One might infer that cultural freedom was safe in their hands, that their unity was both a buffer against, and a solution to “war and economic chaos and the new fears aroused by atomic power” that had worried Thorp in Literary History. [vii]

The three Jewish participants, Kazin, Trilling, and Levin, affirmed their American identity, loyalty, and virtue by dumping the “naturalists,” agents of desolation to a peculiar people. As the final contribution, Harry Levin, Irving Babbitt Professor at Harvard, clinically probed iniquitous American mass culture (the Face that plagued Weaver?), then praised the redemptive power of the typically “American anguish” (evoked twice), for this “ambivalence of anguish” gives us pause; properly guided it could lead to an elevating new direction; “Melville,” original as the bearer of “tradition” in a chaotic trash culture, was the good seed:

“There is an American anguish in the face of Americanism,” Jean Paul Sartre has written. “There is an ambivalence of anguish which simultaneously asks ‘Am I American enough?’ and ‘How can I escape from Americanism?’” If anything can redeem us, it is this hesitation between our optimists and our pessimists, our frontiersmen and our expatriates. On the one hand, we have a unique background, which would be quite barren if it remained unique. On the other hand we are strengthened by a hybrid strain, the cross-fertilization of many cultures. What is commonly regarded as peculiarly American is blatant and standardized: Ford, Luce, Metro-Goldwyn Mayer. What is most original is most traditional: Melville. Moving in T. S. Eliot’s phrase, “Between two worlds become much like each other,” these opposites are neutralized. As Andre Siegfried predicted, Europe is Americanized and America is Europeanized. Organization conquers the Old World, chaos is rediscovered in the New. Beyond the clamor, beneath the surfaces of the present, the past continues, and our brightest lights are those that keep burning underground…(183, Cf. Leon Howard’s idea that Melville’s ambivalence reflects cultural conflict between Europe and America.)

In other words–given the proclivities of mass culture for “totalitarian realism,” as suggested by Levin with regard to Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in a sentence immediately preceding the segment quoted above–the apparently conservative or reactionary traditionalist turns into his opposite: he becomes an invigorating innovator, a “critical realist.” Such were the cool assessments that have defeated seditious naturalist novelists–mystical yet bound to Benjamin Franklin’s independent science “and…the higher learning that we have built upon it” (Spiller, 40). Robert Spiller suggested we study Franklin to find a key to the problem of our present concern: “the growth of American culture from its first roots in American soil to a flowering after three centuries as a dominant world culture…If we can understand what happened to Franklin [1740-1750], we may appreciate more keenly the cyclic process by which a transplanted civilization developed from dependence to independence to dominance (32).”

Free will and personal responsibility were now ghosts in the machine of organicist discourse, caught by the determinism of biological cycles. A manufactured but heavenly pastoral of flowers, trees, seeds, and soil had drifted gently onto the grimy, bristling political science of the empiricists, a game anyone could play.[viii] People were no longer self-moving participants in describable social movements or class formations: they were either sour apples and weedy “extremists” (bad) or “moderates” (good) stoically enduring the fructifying tension associated with “self-criticism” and “social realism.” Who could resist the call of dreamy, peace-loving moderate men: dominant and yet attractive to European readers fed up with fascism, only starved by the revolt of the masses?[ix]

On Columbus Day, 1950, Yale professor Norman Holmes Pearson, another ex-Stanley Williams student and now a leader in the interdisciplinary field of American Studies, responded to comrade Leyda’s complaint that he was not permitted access to Emily Dickinson’s papers:

Norman Holmes Pearson of Yale, spy

Norman Holmes Pearson of Yale, spy

“I am annoyed, though not deeply surprised at the block in the Dickinson exploration. I only wish something could come of it, for if anyone needs your diligent scalpel, Emily Dickinson does. If it doesn’t go through eventually and you are left without a project, why don’t you do a calendar for Hawthorne, though I dare say the iconoclastic value would not be so startling in this case as for either HM or ED. At any rate if there is an impasse consider, with Leon’s help, shifting the subject to something else. Now that he and Louis Wright are the wheels with Guggenheim, they could fix the other end easily.[x]

Jay Leyda, the pathetic outsider with powerful friends, did gain access to the papers of Emily Dickinson to produce another calendar, assisted by the Guggenheim grant. Pearson was a veteran of the OSS, and, like Leyda, an expert propagandist. But we must not leap into dark conclusions: was the “iconoclastic value” of Leyda’s Log directed against Melville himself or the alleged excesses and deficiencies of earlier scholarship?


[i]               68. William H. Gilman to Leyda, 11 Dec. 1948: “Leon was here for a talk in an American literature conference we cooked up.” Box 23, Leyda Papers, UCLA.

[ii]               69. Margaret Denny and William H. Gilman, eds., The American Writer and the European Tradition (Minneapolis: Published for the University of Rochester by the Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1950). My page citations are from the Haskell House edition, 1968. Leyda told Gilman he liked these papers.

[iii]              70. Cf. Matthiessen, From The Heart of Europe, 54-55 on the deplorable European taste for Gone With The Wind and other trashy novels.

[iv]              71. Brooks to Mumford, 18 Mar. 1949, The Van Wyck Brooks-Lewis Mumford Letters, ed. Robert Spiller (New York: Dutton, 1970), 343.

[v]               72. Cf. Harry Hayden Clark, Thomas Paine, v, xxi. “Since it was customary, before the rise of Fascism, for those devoted to American history to represent the Federalists and the Jeffersonians (with whom Paine was associated) as in sharp conflict, it is perhaps well to remind ourselves that they were both loyally American and, like brothers in one family, differed mainly as to the extent to which the people could be trusted to govern themselves and the extent to which the national government should take precedence over the state governments. Toward tyranny, monarchy, the idea of one politically established church, and the kind of ideas now associated with Fascism, they presented a common front… [quoting Paine] ‘[W]e see unerring order and universal harmony reigning throughout the whole… Here is the standard to which everything must be brought that pretends to be the work…of God’ (Clark’s emph.). Having interpreted Paine’s mind in the light of contemporary philosophic definitions and their relative emphasis given by men whom Paine acknowledged as his teachers, we have now arrived at the very core of his thought, ‘the standard to which everything must be brought,’ which is a divinely revealed and sanctioned law and order, in harmonious conformity to which society finds its happiness. Thus Newtonian deism, as interpreted by Paine, involved discipline and order just did Calvinistic Federalism in America, or Anglican Toryism in England, although the difference in background and terminology has prevented many critics from recognizing it, at least in the case of Paine.” Throughout, Clark presents the autodidact Paine as a neo-classical advocate of balance, opposed to mobs, favoring a welfare state, Federalism, free trade and internationalism, less of a Quaker than a Deist; Paine is a Freethinker likened to Alexander Pope; i.e. he is the reforming capitalist of the New Deal.

Clark’s research was funded by the Rockefeller and Guggenheim Foundations. He was general editor of the American Writers Series for the American Book Company, publishers of the Willard Thorp Melville study discussed above, as well as The American Mind.

[vi]              73. Cf. John Stafford, The Literary Criticism of “Young America”: A Study in the Relationship of Politics and Literature 1837-1850 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, Univ. of California Press, 1952),1, 128. Stafford thanks Theodore Hornberger and Henry Nash Smith for inspiring his studies; his organizing tool for distinguishing conservatives and radicals is Emerson’s famous distinction between “Establishment and Movement.” The exemplary democrat Whitman is the culmination of Young America in literature. It is worth noting that Wilbert Snow, Olson’s advisor, was sent on an international tour by the US State Department to promote the poetry and ideas of Whitman immediately following the end of World War II. (See Snow’s memoirs.)

Leon Howard’s remark about “lying spirit” was clarified in his Melville biography, p.194. Howard was criticizing the transcendentalists’ search for “absolute, rather than relative justice”, and claiming that Melville understood the foolishness of Goethe’s (transcendentalist) statement “Live in the all.”

[vii]             74. Willard Thorp, “Herman Melville,” Literary History of the United States (New York: Macmillan, 1974), 468.

[viii]             75. I do not claim that materialism was hegemonic or unchallenged by moderate conservatives prior to the Rochester conference; the modern promotion of blood and soil theories of group identity would probably start with J.G. Herder, a leading figure of the German Enlightenment, continue with the racist geographers and social theorists of the nineteenth century, and bloom in the völkisch pseudo-materialist historical methods of Frederick Jackson Turner and other “social historians” including the founders of American Studies and “the new labor history” associated with the New Left that privileges “culture” over repression and corrupt leadership. Lockean environmentalism was simply co-opted and turned against workers; “race” and nativity became determining factors as concrete as the physical conditions with which persons coped, while Locke’s emphasis on experience and achieved understanding was tainted by association with unspiritual “materialism.” See for instance The Nation, 17 Sept. 1918, review of Joseph Kinmont Hart’s Democracy in Education: “The author feels that the crucial question of the time is whether our civilization shall conform to schemes handed down from the past, everything to be fitted into the old patterns, or whether education should be free to use the new energies which have been released, the new patterns suggested by new conditions. He strongly emphasizes the fact that thinking, only, does not lead to truth; what one feels and believes, his spiritual possession, is more fundamental to life and growth than what one reasons out and proves. The book…is an organism; it is concrete, yet always suggestive of the general, and at times of the universal; it is free from masses of detail; and while it is sufficiently technical for the author’s purpose, it has exceptional literary value.”

The positions I have outlined were frequently criticized by Stalinists and Trotskyists alike during the late 1930s in Science and Society. See Lancelot Hogben, “Our Social Heritage,” S & S (Winter 1937): 150-151, for remarks on right-wing slanders against quantitative materialism. Also William Phillips and Philip Rahv, “Some Aspects of Literary Criticism,” S & S (Winter 1937): 216, for a comment on genteel New Humanist condemnations of the “‘sordid’ naturalism of modern literature.” Samuel Sillen discussed blood and soil ideology in Carlyle, Ruskin, and Van Wyck Brooks; see his review of The Flowering of New England, S & S (Winter 1937): 262-265. Muddled liberalism (which glorified vacillations and eschewed simplicity) was noted by Edgar Johnson, “Henry Adams, The Last Liberal,” S & S (Spring 1937): 376-377; Carlyle was cited as a protofascist and Charles Kingsley’s Alton Locke was criticized by Granville Hicks, “The Literary Opposition to Utilitarianism,” S & S (Summer 1937): 454-472.

[ix]              76. See the title page illustration to Louis B. Wright’s textbook The American Tradition: National Characteristics, Past and Present (New York: F.S. Crofts, 1941). A great oak occupies the foreground; gently rolling hills nestle a Protestant church and a few other small dwellings; farm lands lie between.

[x]               77. Robin W. Winks, Cloak and Gown, 319, 317.



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