Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, L'hommage à Rosa Luxemburg, 1992 (détail)[ * ]
and Americas Classic Debate
American modernist expatriation haunts, and is in turn celebrated by, the literary-critical imagination. In works like The Continual Pilgrimage, Women of the Left Bank, and Imagining Paris, as well as in autobiographies and memoirs by the great, the near great, and the inconsequential figures of the inter-war period, the moderns' self-removal from America and subsequent relocation to the capitals of Europe is thought to be deeply implicated in the creation of many of high modernisms masterworks. In Donald Pizers words, the American artist, stimulated "by the freedom of thought and action possible within the Paris scene and nourished as well in body and spirit by the richness of Paris life [...] finds in the Paris moment an Edenic Power. Here, in this new and exhilarating world, the spirit and its attendant capacity to speak through art are reborn" (142). On this characteristically hyperbolic view, one shared by critics as dissimilar in critical orientation as Hugh Kenner and Shari Benstock, Europe offered a generation of young Americans the means to obtain a more meaningful perspective on their homeland; greater social mobility; racial, political, and sexual freedom1; and exposure to a dynamic array of new modes of aesthetic expression.
Expatriates themselves can be held responsible for many of the stronger claims in this regard. One of the more articulate and prolific of their company, Malcolm Cowley, writes in his memoir Exile's Return that Americans went abroad because
Art and ideas were products manufactured under a European patent; all we could furnish toward them was raw talent destined usually to be wasted. Everywhere, in every department of cultural life, Europe offered the models to imitate--in painting, composing, philosophy, folk music, folk drinking, the drama, sex, politics, national consciousness--indeed, some doubted that [America] was even a nation; it had no traditions except the fatal tradition of the pioneer. (1976, 95)
And yet not all expatriates were so sure that Europe offered Americans the best means to revitalize their culture, and many American artists and critics rejected expatriation outright. Some, like Van Wyck Brooks, were expatriates for a short while only to find life in Europe an imperfect response to Americas cultural malaises. For if in Paris, as Brooks noted many years afterwards, "every café table and hotel bedroom brought back the name of some great writer," and expatriates "found exciting teachers in the art of writing who were devoted to the problems of literary form" (1957, 164), then it was also true that something was lost in a prolonged residence abroad: "the American mind could not maintain its integrity abroad, [...] it was all but inevitably compromised in Europe" (179).
This article seeks to explore further Brooks thoughts on the significance of modernist expatriation for American intellectual and artistic life. Brooks, perhaps the preeminent literary critic of his generation, was anything but sanguine in his assessment of expatriations utility as a means of effecting cultural change, and by contrasting his views with those of William Carlos Williams, one of the great proponents of life lived "in the American grain," I will give shape to a debate over the ontology of American national culture ongoing since the birth of the nation in the late eighteenth century, but which assumed greater urgency following the nations re-birth in the wake of the Civil War. This is the debate referred to by Waldo Frank in In the American Jungle as the "classic debate of American culture" (175), and rather than attempting to account for it in its complex and variegated entirety, I will instead offer an assessment of its parameters in the early years of the twentieth century at a time in which the artist required vigorous defending from those content to view his worth entirely in instrumental terms. Both Brooks and Williams concede the basic need for such a defense; on the matter of what it should consist in, however, they disagree markedly. By examining the terms of this dissonance, particularly insofar as it revolves around the matter of literary expatriation (itself the nexus of a variety of larger nationalist and aesthetic discourses), I hope at once to reanimate a body of literary and cultural criticism neglected save by a few Williams and (even fewer) Brooks scholars, and in the process to offer some clarifications of notions like national culture, cultural nationalism, and tradition. It is my hope that such clarifications might by dint of shared terminology and related objects of inquiry shed light on those contemporary manifestations of the "classic debate" now loosely conjoined under the rubric "The Culture Wars."
Despite the esteem in which Van Wyck Brooks' criticism, especially his early work, was held up until the late 1960s, very little current interest has been shown in his work. As William Wasserstrom points out, "Brooks retains the honorifics but not the substance of renown. His titles remain but his influence is gone" (VWB vii). Indeed, he is best known these days for his essay "On Creating a Useable Past" (1918) and, by a more specialized readership, for his book-length studies of Mark Twain (1920) and Henry James (1925). Much of the blame for Brooks' change in fortune can be laid at the door of critics for whom his humanism2, coupled with the perception of his critical conservatism, made him appear either middlebrow3 or, depending on the critic, passé4. Brooks' humanism, though, his tendency at least in his later work to romanticize the literary past through historical narratives instead of providing "objective" close textual analyses, is what consigned his criticism to oblivion. For inasmuch as Brooks' stated aim was to evoke an impression of a period, person, or sensibility, his methodology in the end proved markedly at odds with stringent New Critical dogma and subsequent structuralist and poststructuralist approaches to literature. Even in recent New Historicist scholarship such as Russell Reising's excellent The Unusable Past, Brooks is reduced (Reising's title excepted) to little more than a footnote. Claire Sprague rightly comments that as Brooks "made his major shifts, therefore--from analysis and judgement to description and celebration and from a consideration of the self and society to a consideration of the self and other critics--his ground became less compelling" (xxix).
Whatever the validity of anti-subjectivist critiques of Brooks' later work, it is a mistake to view his earlier scholarship (that produced prior to his nervous breakdown), and especially his cultural criticism, in light of those critiques. To do so is to neglect his position earlier this century as the most powerful advocate for literary change in America (and therefore not conservative in any relevant critical or aesthetic sense), and to diminish the importance of a thinker whose identification of American cultural vitality, even as he criticized its more banal manifestations, provided a necessary bulwark against those like Ezra Pound for whom American culture was better off left for dead5. Sprague similarly cautions readers of Brooks' criticism that the "extraordinary, highly diffused and as yet untabulated influence of the earlier Brooks cannot [...] be underestimated [....] Brooks' role in reclaiming the American past, in mapping and shaping that 'terra incognita,' that 'vague foggy wilderness,' is impressive" (xxix).
Brooks concedes the significance of modernist expatriation, but is equivocal in his assessment of its value. Indeed we find simultaneously in his work an indictment of American shallowness and a persuasive optimism that something can and should be done about it by artists working within America to bring about the cultural renewal of their homeland. In this respect his work stands in marked contrast to that of other critics writing between 1919 and 1929, most notably Harold Stearns and his coterie of cosmopolitans, for whom America could only be redeemed from without. Stearns and Brooks offer radically different answers to the question posed by Stearns in 1921 in his influential collection of essays entitled America and the Young Intellectual, namely: "What can a young man do?" Whereas for Stearns the answer to this question is a blunt "Get out!"6, for Brooks the answer is a more nuanced "stay." The substance of Brooks' antipathy towards expatriation, with how precisely he refines his notion of "staying," is of particular interest here. I wish to contend that by understanding the terms and limits of Brooks optimism, much can be said about what in America was perceived by those rejecting expatriation as good for artists and for the intellectual life more generally. Although criticism from and of the period has substantially addressed the moderns various causes for complaint with their homeland, little has been said, then or now, of those like Brooks rising in Americas defense. However qualified or idealistic this defense might be, its delimiting inevitably reveals much about early modernism's relation to such issues as nationalism, tradition, and culture, issues which have come to dominate the wider theoretical landscape in recent years but which have only now begun to be applied in a sophisticated way to American modernism and its discontents7.
For Brooks, the American artist labours in America under the twin burdens of capitalism and Puritanism, an alliance of misfortunes debilitating to the arts. He explores this problem and its relation to expatriation at length in his first book, The Wine of the Puritans. Therein Brooks evaluates American culture from the point of view of two interlocutors (an unnamed speaker and his friend Graeling), both expatriates. Brooks was anxious to contrast European with American culture in this text, and expatriates' perceived national-cultural liminality, their receptiveness to foreign influences even as they remained aware of their origins, appeared to him an obvious vehicle for conveying the juxtaposition. Although it is difficult at times to distinguish between the voices of his two characters, their meditation on the root causes and contemporary manifestations of American cultural identity reveals Brooks' dissatisfaction with American culture and, rather more controversially, with the viability of expatriation as a response by artists similarly so-disposed.
The most fundamental of America's problems, Brooks argues, is the nature of its development as a nation, a development directly reflecting the kinds of people who first settled there. On his admittedly narrow view8, the great nations of Europe struggled through their chaotic childhood, marked by "migrations and invasions and infinite stirrings back and forth of these half-awakened peoples" (3-4), to emerge at last culturally united and whole:
each race had so far settled itself and taken the colour of its surroundings as to have developed certain distinct racial9 traits and to have reached a national type inflexible enough to absorb invading peoples and to force its own traits upon its conquerors.(4)
Among the most significant benefits of this ethnic rigidification are a rootedness in tradition and concomitant sense of cultural distinctiveness so well-established that its (racial) origins, and the quotidian struggles they represent, can barely be discerned in the mists of European antiquity.
Brash Americans, on the other hand, are descendants of Europeans already well into their cultural adulthood. As Graeling puts it, "unlike any other great race we were founded by full-grown, modern, self-conscious men," and thus the "American type, on the contrary, has evolved in the full daylight of modern history. It was deliberately established by full-grown, intelligent, modern men with a self-conscious purpose, in a definite year" (4). These "men" are the Puritans, beings whose mode of living consists in their concern with the "virtues of thrift and industry" (4), virtues which although initially privileged in response to the exigencies of life in a savage "new world" soon come to represent desirable ends in themselves. According to Brooks,
these virtues were for so long the essential virtues for the economical welfare of the new state that everything else appeared unnecessary beside them. In the course of time they came to be considered the only virtues, while the Puritan point of view, cut off from immediate intercourse with riper points of view, more and more inclined to believe that whatever was not in some way economically necessary was in some way wrong. (4)
The consequences of the Puritanical outlook are on this view felt most directly in the cultural sphere, and particularly by artists whose work is then judged according to its utility in the narrow commercial or instrumental sense outlined above. Thus good art is so in virtue of its satisfaction of commercial needs and desires, and market and aesthetic value can be considered coextensive. Lewis Babbitt and Menckens criticisms of the "Boobiosie" exemplify the moderns horror at the prospect of such a grossly reductive collapse of categories, but for Brooks this kind of response, though noteworthy, was likely to remain inadequate.
For the American cultural tradition, insofar as it exists at all, promotes values which are an anathema to modern life. Puritanism obtains throughout the land, in Brooks' present as well as in the past; it is "old wine in new bottles" (6)10. This is why, Brooks believes, Americans relocate to Europe. For American culture, unlike its European counterpart, provides no insight into the cultural infancy of its people, no access to foundational sources of selfhood: "we cannot find consolation in remembering our American forbears until we are grown-up. Their virtues and sentiments were those of grown-up, fully awakened men and women, developed and adapted for a special and temporary situation" (9). Those seeking the roots of their identity as a people inevitably return to Europe as expatriates, and there try to recover their culture through close contact with the remnants of its early years.
And yet such attempts at cultural reclamation are doomed to failure, since the measure of their success is practical (given the units of measure settled on by those living in the shadow of the Puritans), and since the childhood being thus recovered is not really American. For American culture on Brooks' view only recognizes the pragmatic value of self-discovery, and the traditions spawned by commitment to a purely instrumental aesthetics must necessarily prove barren soil in which to plant the seeds of cultural significance. Echoing Henry James in his essay on Hawthorne, he notes of American Rhodes scholars that "It is a barren soil these men have sprung from,--plainly they have never known a day of good growing weather" (180).
Any kind of cultural reclamation is complicated for Brooks by the notion that American culture can be defined only negatively, in terms of "our lack of purpose, of fixed ideas, of principles applicable at all times, in short of a background, a point of view" (27). Like Pound in "Patria Mia," Brooks here contends that the absence of tradition, of "inner national life" (34), cripples attempts by artists to make sense of themselves and of their art:
In the absence both of an intellectual tradition and a sympathetic soil, in the absence above all of that particular intensive knowledge of art that inoculates the artist against commercialism, a disproportionate amount of our talent has been seduced from its right path, in comparison with other countries. ("Toward a National Culture" 185)
Fame, on this view, is insufficient guarantee against cultural insignificance, since a "man who has the good luck not to take America by storm has some chance of living a few years after he dies" (Wine 47). Why? Because "our famous men11 generally spring out of nothing, because their fame has no connection with reality, and because they are really exotics [....] Fame with us is a sort of gaudy melon-flower....There is no country which has produced enormously famous men so utterly distinct from the causes that normally lead to fame" (47).
So if for Brooks the answer to the question "why are we abroad?" (50) is because in Europe there exists the possibility of an artistic life lived amidst a civilization whose refined self-understanding manifests itself culturally in the accommodation of difference, respect for (if not always adherence to) tradition, and beautiful works of art, then why does Brooks despair of expatriation as such? The answer to this question involves Brooks' conviction that "an artist can produce great and lasting work only out of the materials which exist in him by instinct and which constitute racial fibre, the accretion of countless generations of ancestors, trained to one deep, local, indigenous attitude toward life" (50). On this his views converge with those of expatriates like Gertrude Stein, who in Paris France and elsewhere stresses the aesthetic benefits to an indigenous American identity. Removed from his native ground, then, the American artist must necessarily fail to distinguish himself. Brooks writes:
I think it would be well for our artists to discover how soon the training they gain abroad and the vitalizing effects of this fellowship with all that beauty in the past has given to these older civilizations, cease to be a preparation for their own self-expression and becomes an overmastering impulse leading them hither and thither, and merging them intermittently in the artistic consciousness of Spain and Italy and France, unable to carry them below the technique of any. They cannot graft themselves upon the racial tradition that has produced any of the great masters, and they find themselves indeed in sympathy with many races but curiously outside all. (53-54).
In so arguing Brooks ironically12 concurs with Emerson's confident prediction in 1837 that "our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close. The millions that around us are rushing into life, cannot always be fed on the sere remains of foreign harvests" (qtd. in Kazin 320). This sense of impending vitality and renewal is central to Hugh Kenner's conception of the "homemade world" of American high modernism: "Foreignness: Europe: the threat and fascination of Europe hung over cautious minds like a menacing cloud. Conversely, to make cosmopolis anew, to make it here at home, this was the ambition of a generation of writers" (18).
To neglect the primal attraction of one's native land is for Brooks to guarantee artistic failure. The artist who fails in virtue of his expatriation Brooks labels a "dilettante," one who "wanders like a butterfly, a gypsy without the traditions of a gypsy. He has begun like all men, desiring the newness and strangeness of beauty, but unlike productive men, he has not learned to desire its humanity" (54). In the absence of this humane desire art itself reduces to insignificance, as does, eventually, the artist. Brooks makes this clear when he argues that "We only destroy ourselves by wandering up and down the world" (55).
A contradiction emerges from Brooks' formulation, however, one which centres on the problematic character of the American national culture. If the expatriate cannot succeed as an artist while removed from the sources of his cultural identity, from what Brooks refers to as the artist's "racial tradition" (52), then how can he succeed at all given that Brooks claims there is no American tradition to begin with? This incongruity represents the crux of Brooks' thinking on expatriation, and its resolution comprises the subject not just of the concluding section of The Wine of the Puritans but of many of Brooks' other early essays and book length studies as well.
Most importantly, Brooks says, Americans must avoid overtly constructing an American tradition. To do so runs the risk of over-civilizing American culture, of softening it, thereby establishing a tradition every bit as alien to the "raw" American cultural self-understanding as that manifestly indebted to developments in the European arts. Specifically:
We must put aside anything that tends to make us self-conscious in this matter of American tradition and simply be American, teach our pulses to beat with American ideas and ideals, absorb American life, until we are able to see that in all its vulgarities and distractions and boastings there lie the elements of a gigantic art. (57)
The American artist should simply be, should simply work, that is, in his chosen medium and then in virtue of his proximity to and immersion in America--to the past and present sights, sounds, and smells of the place that structures his self-understanding--a native and vibrant cultural tradition will inevitably emerge. If not, "if we, as Americans, concern ourselves unduly with tradition we become warped, like Whistler, or hollow, like Sargent" (56).
On this view "tradition" is post hoc: a relational aesthetic category attributed to a class of artworks and their progenitors following their emergence in and subsumption under the diachronic norms of an artworld. For Brooks a tradition forms only after the fact, after constitutive artworks are recognized as at once similar to one another and different from other groups of artworks (ie. artworks must be recognizably related on some view of "related" which incorporates the notion of influence). Thus the modernist artist working in the void left by the absence of an indigenous American cultural tradition must be in some sense an idealist. She must act in what she perceives as "the American grain" while being cognizant of the fact that no concrete, self-consciously derived manifestation of such a notion exists. The artist's
treatment of any subject will be distinguished by some elemental motive, deeper than personal temperament or any accidents of training and later surroundings which blends in subtle ways with all the acts and thoughts of one race in one generation. He must be something more than he knows. He must have some criterion of instinct to which he submits all aftergrowths of technique and conscious experience13. (53)
Tradition for Brooks forms spontaneously at the intersection of originality and the measure of the past, at the point at which the artist reacts to the past with some normative notion of the future of American arts and culture: "all true originality reconciles itself with tradition, has in itself the elements of tradition, and is really the shadow of tradition thrown across the future" (57). Inherent in this view is the notion of the artist dedicating her present to some as-yet unspecified future, a level of commitment Brooks labels a "sacrifice." He writes that "we have reached a point where we must sacrifice ourselves. We must act in such a way that this generation will have its romance and its tradition for those who come after" (56).
It is useful to distinguish in Brooks' thinking on tradition between the notion of "the past" or "pastness" and that of "tradition." For Brooks the former must be actively and selectively recovered in such a way that the present14 can be made sense of; the latter, on the other hand, emerges relatively passively in response to critics' systematization of American letters, criticism for Brooks consisting ideally in the approach "to our literature from the point of view not of the successful fact but of the creative impulse." He claims that
What emerges then is the desire, the aspiration, the struggle, the tentative endeavour, and the appalling obstacles our life has placed before them. Which immediately casts over the spiritual history of America a significance that, for us, it has never had before. ("Useable Past" 225)
William Carlos Williams some years later stresses the broad contemporary social necessity of this recovery of the past in his book-length study of the sources of American culture In the American Grain15, and particularly in the chapter therein entitled "Père Sebastien Rasles." Williams writes:
what we are has its origin in what the nation in the past has been; that there is a source in America for everything we think or do; that morals affect the food and food the bone, and that, in fine, we have no conception at all of what is meant by moral, since we recognize no ground our own&emdash;and that this rudeness rests all upon the unstudied character of our beginnings. (109)
Significantly, for Williams as well as for Brooks, the key to the modernist cultural renaissance consists at least partly in the recovery of a useable past, what Brooks refers to in his essay by that name as placing "the past experience of our people [...] at the service of the future" (225).
But inasmuch as Brooks and Williams may both be legitimately labelled critical nativists in that they share an understanding of the necessity of Americas past to its present, of the pasts use-value within a recognizably distinct field of American modernist literary production, they do not offer similarly negative assessments of the potential of literary expatriation to aid in the recovery of that past. I would therefore like to propose a distinction between kinds of nativists, between "strong" cultural nationalists like Brooks, and their "weaker" brethren, among whom Williams figures prominently. For although Williams is correctly identified with the defense of indigenous American traditions, a defense most eloquently marshalled in In the American Grain, he is also responsible, thanks perhaps in large part to his friendship with Pound, for embracing aesthetic innovations from abroad. Take, for instance, Williams' defense of Joyce against critics like Rebecca West:
What Joyce is saying is a literary thing. It is a literary value he is forwarding. He is a writer. Will this never be understood? Perhaps he is fixed in his material and cannot change. It is of no consequence. The writing is, however, changing, the writing is active. It is in the writing that the power exists. [....] It is stupid, it is narrow British to think to use that against him.
Williams maintains that Americans should regularly cast their eyes back across the Atlantic, not just so as to learn from artists like Joyce, but also so that the retrograde conservatism of West and her ilk can be avoided.
Williams deals explicitly with the risks and benefits of expatriation in several of his works. In A Voyage to Pagany, for example, he provides a lightly fictionalized account of his own visit to France in 1924, the most significant consequences of which were the commencement of his lengthy friendship with Valéry Larbaud16 and his decision to remain an artist in America. Expatriation is depicted in the novel as, finally, untenable; despite its initial attractions, it cannot meet all the needs of the struggling American artist, particularly his need for a "home-made" identity. Williams acknowledges these limitations when one of the principal characters in the novel says:
France has taught me. You and I have got to do something with ourselves. Americans. I want to do something good with myself. Oh good, Dev, in the French sense, the moral sense. To use well what we have, that's all. We are incurably Americans, you and I, but we can help each other--if we will. That offers us our only hope; to make a beginning, to make something useful out of that country where there's no honor left but a starved, thin, lying one. (251)
France is simply a means to affect this rehabilitation; its traditions and "honour" are powerful exempla but not ends in themselves. It is therefore unsurprising that the last words in A Voyage to Pagany are "So this is the beginning" (256). For Williams expatriation marks the starting point of an American modernism and not, as Brooks would have it, an admission of defeat.
Williams also addresses the subject of expatriation in "The American Background," perhaps his most sustained and intelligent engagement with the nativist/internationalist bifurcation, and a work in which his views correspond closely to Brooks'. Williams locates in the origins of American nationalism a structuring tension between the European and the local:
Thus two cultural elements were left battling for supremacy, one looking toward Europe, necessitous but retrograde in its tendency--though not wholly so by any means--and the other forward-looking but under a shadow from the first. They constituted two great bands of effort, which it would take a Titan to bring together and weld into one again. Throughout the present chapter, the terms native and borrowed, related and unrelated, primary and secondary, will be used interchangeably to designate these two opposed splitoffs from the full cultural force, and occasionally, in the same vein, true and false. (Selected Essays 135)
Williams sees in the legacy of European, specifically British, culture a repressive formalism stultifying to the American imagination and ultimately one inhibiting the growth of its native institutions. He writes that "it must be realized that men are driven to their fates by the quality of their beliefs. And that in America this has been the success of the unrelated, borrowed, the would-be universal culture which the afterwave has run to or imposed on men to impoverish them" (149). And yet there remain things for Americans to learn from European culture, especially from the French:
The thing that Americans never seem to see is that French painting [...] is related to its own definite tradition, in its own environment and general history (which, it is true, we partly share), and which, when moved on to something else, they fatly sell where they can--to us, in short17. And that American painting, to be of value, must have comparable relationships in its own tradition, thus only to attain classic proportions. (157)
This call for renewed American traditionalism should by now be familiar as consistent with Brooks' thoughts on the matter, and Williams backs up his rhetoric in works like In the American Grain in which he attempts to lead (by example) the procession of intellectuals towards a uniquely American historiography.
It is worth considering for a moment the ways in which Williams' and Brooks' thoughts on culture converge here and in In the American Grain. Both critics identify in the recovery of indigenous traditions, of a useable sense of pastness, the conditions of possibility for a viable American culture. This convergence testifies to the fineness of the line distinguishing strong from weak cultural nationalists. For Brooks is anything but a crude isolationist, with all of the connotations of philistinism and parochialism that point of view entails. Both Williams and Brooks recognize in Europe18 the possibility of meaningful intellectual engagement, of sustained and rewarding cultural exchange, with indigenous American literary, artistic, and political traditions. In the absence of properly delineated local traditions, however, both authors acknowledge the likelihood of the perpetual impoverishment of American culture, its reduction to the status that Williams refers to in "The American Background as "a secondary culture" (153).
Brooks thus should be understood as viewing literary expatriation as, if understandable given the blight in American letters, nonetheless both unnecessary and unproductive. On his view the American artist abroad constructs an imagined past, invents a causal chain linking his aesthetics with those of European masters but which takes no meaningful account of the brute fact of his or her Americanness. The result is art severed from its roots, no longer "in the American grain" and thus left to wither as derivative and diffuse. The expatriate is a literary dilettante condemned to borrow from all and sundry: seeking originality but failing to locate it under the weight of European traditionalism; seeking authenticity but finding rudderless cosmopolitanism instead. In response, Brooks advocates the recovery of a "useable past," the construction, that is, of a literary tradition rooted in some consensual view of what it means to be American. So construed, Brooks' useable past can be seen as part of a larger critical nativism emergent in the nineteenth century in essays like Emerson's "The American Scholar" and "Art", the latter in which Emerson argues that "the artist must employ the symbols in use in his day and nation to convey his enlarged sense to his fellow-men [....] No man can quite emancipate himself from his age and country, or produce a model in which the education, the religion, the politics, usages and arts of his times shall have no share" (306). So too with Brooks: for him the American artist must necessarily speak for the nation.
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