- Historic Sites
The Search For A Usable Past
A distinguished historian describes how America, suddenly thrust into nationhood without a history of its own, set out to create one. And what a splendid achievement it was!
February 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 2
There is almost too much here; the indictment, as fames himself remarked, is a lurid one, and he noted, loo, with some satisfaction, that Hawthorne had not been wholly frustrated by the thinness of his materials—how he managed was, said James wryly, our private joke. It is suggestive that James’ famous outburst was inspired by Hawthorne himself; he had, so he wrote, delighted in a place- his own clear native land—which had “no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity, in broad and simple daylight, as is happily the case with my clear native land.” It is worth dwelling on this for a moment, for this is from the author of The Scarlet Letter , and of The House of Seven Gambles , and of a score of stories which did precisely dwell on shadows, antiquities, gloomy wrongs—witchcraft, for example. If a Hawthorne, who all his life fell it necessary to immerse himself in New England antiquities and inherited wrongs, could yet contrast his own clear native land with the Old World in these terms, think how unshadowed were the lives of most Americans—or how empty, if you want to adopt the James point of view.
A host of Americans had anticipated all this, but with different emphasis. Thus the poet Philip Freneau, introducing the abbé Robin’s New Travels in America: “They who would saunter over half the Globe to copy the inscription on an antique column, to measure the altitude of a pyramid, or describe the ornaments on the Grand Seigneur’s Slate Turban, will scarcely find anything in American Travels to gratify their lasle. The works of an are there comparatively trivial and inconsiderable, the splendor of pageantry rather obscure, and consequently few or none but the admirers of simple Nature can either travel with pleasure themselves or read the travels of others with satisfaction, through this country.” And half a century later James Fenimore Cooper, caught in that dilemma of New World innocence and Old World corruption so pervasive in the first century of our history, admitted that in America “there are no annals for the historian, no follies beyond the most vulgar and commonplace lor the satirist; no manners for the dramatist; no obscure fictions for the writer of romance; no gross and hardy offenses against decorum for the moralist; nor any of the rich artificial auxiliaries of poetry.”
But if there were “no annals for the historian,” and if a historical past was necessary to successful nation-making, what were Americans to do?
Americans had, in fact, several courses open to them, and with characteristic self-confidence, took them all.
Over a century before the Revolution it had been observed of the Virginians that they had no need of ancestors, for they themselves were ancestors. The variations on this theme were infinite, but the theme itself was simple and familiar: that Americans had no need of a past because they were so sure of a future. Goethe had congratulated them on their good fortune in a famous but almost untranslatable poem: Amerika, du hast es besser: “no ruined castles, no venerable stones, no useless memories, no vain feuds [he said]. … May a kind providence preserve you from tales of knights and robber barons and ghosts.”
Americans took up the refrain with enthusiasm. The romantic artist Thomas Cole observed that though American scenery was “destitute of the vestiges of antiquity” it had other features that were reassuring, for “American associations are not so much with the past as of the present and the future, and in looking over the uncultivated scene, the mind may travel far into futurity.”
This theme runs like a red thread through early American literature and oratory, and finally connects itself triumphantly with Manifest Destiny. It began, appropriately enough, with Crèvecoeur: “I am sure I cannot be called a partial American when I say that the spectacle afforded by these pleasing scenes must be more entertaining and more philosophical than that which arises from beholding the musty ruins of Rome. Here everything would inspire the reflecting traveller with the most philanthropic ideas; his imagination, instead of submitting to the painful and useless retrospect of revolutions, desolations, and plagues, would, on the contrary, wisely spring forward to the anticipated fields of future cultivation and improvement, to the future extent of those generations which are to replenish and embellish this boundless continent.” Washington Irving’s friend and collaborator, James Paulding, entertained the same sentiment: “It is for the other nations to boast of what they have been, and, like garrulous age, muse over the history of their youthful exploits that only renders decrepitude more conspicuous. Ours is the more animating sentiment of hope, looking forward with prophetic eye.”