The American 'Men of Letters'
I’ve been dealing with work and so on in this new world of late, but though it’s been at a slower pace I have managed to get some reading done. In a chapter of a book I have recently been revisiting, The Brazen Face of History, Lewis P. Simpson writes of two consequences of a radical Enlightenment-era shift that saw an exchange of mind and culture as standards of order. For Simpson, this is an Enlightenment-era attitude that finds a particularly strong focus in the figure of Thomas Jefferson. The first of the consequences is it saw the profound displacement of church and state and the rites and rituals of community in favour of a ‘public mind’. The second consequence is what he calls a paradoxical estrangement of American Men of Letters from the very world that they sought to create.
The American Declaration of Independence emerged out of something called the Third Realm, itself formed by innovations in printing, and by the reformation, both of which had a sizeable impact on colonial America. After the Declaration, a world that previously had King and established church at the centre now revolved around nothing. Nothing, except the man of letters and the mind’s assumption of power.
And yet, more conservative voices almost immediately started to baulk at the government of, by and for the people. Their opinion was based in scepticism that the people would act rationally. At some level, this is a recreation of conservative thought down previous centuries. This revolves around a logic that suggests an elite need to look after the well-being of the people because they will not make good choices for themselves. This is not simple class-bigotry, though, and when we dive deeper, there is more wisdom in the Enlightenment-era position than there might first appear. Two things emerge in Federalist and conservative thought around this time. One is that ‘the people’, for all its merits as a rallying cry, is something of an abstraction. As such, it can be loaded with positive connotations. At its core, though, is not the abstraction but a series of individuals, all with their own passions and human fallibilities. It is this collection of flawed individuals rather than the lionised abstract body that goes to the ballot box and shapes public opinion. John Adams is one figure who did not share Jefferson’s overwhelming faith in reason, simply because he did not hold that reason was ‘the ultimate reality of man’. The other point, much held by several Federalists, is that there were elite groups already positioned within each of the states who would use their position against the centralisation of power because, in the process, they too would be weakened.
Of course, Federalists were for the constitution too, even as they had more doubts than someone like Jefferson. And yet across the next decade, one senses a displacement of the man of letters from the very world that his philosophy had helped to create. Simpson gives the example of Phillip Freneau, a full-throated patriot and poet of the revolution, who by the 1820s could write:
a poet where there is no King
is but a disregarded thing
An atom on the wheel;
A second Iliad could he write
His pockets would be very light
And beggarly his meal.
In wondering how the poet who had written ‘America Independent’ could ever write such lines, even jokingly, Simpson observes that this is not merely a result of his own financial hardship, but that Freneau had come to doubt the human capacity for rationality. Kings may be monsters, but they are born out of what is monstrous in man himself.
Nor is Freneau alone in this. Simpson tracks the same pattern in work by Hugh Henry Brackenridge and Charles Brockden Brown. It would, of course, be an overstatement to say that they give the subject the exact same treatment – each refracts the image through their own particular lens, as it were.
The point that each share, though, is that having shed the ruling class of kings and the traditions that go along with them, what fills the void is not something that the enlightenment man would have treated as an ideal. Simpson uses the metaphor of the mechanism of a watch, working with predictable regularity, to describe what should have happened. Instead, by placing mind above society, we get a society that mirrors the bizarre unpredictability of human consciousness.
In the previous century, it seemed that with independence would come the dominance of the man of the rational mind. Instead, even in the early decades of the nineteenth, the mind was a far more ambiguous figure, and human rationality seemed suspect. What came around instead was a seemingly all-encompassing subjectivity.
For more, see Lewis P. Simpson, ‘The Symbolism of Literary Alienation’ in The Brazen Face of History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980)
Peter Templeton is Honorary Fellow in the School of Social Sciences and Humanities at Loughborough University.