The National Catholic Review

Professor William Goetzmann has had a long and distinguished career at Yale University and the University of Texas, Austin, going all the way back to 1966, when he won the Pulitzer Prize for Exploration and Empire. The score of books he has written or co-authored have concentrated on the American West, so this popular review of intellectual history might seem to mark a new departure (as he ends his eighth decade). But Goetzmann’s home base has always been the 19th century, a period that witnessed the nation’s greatest geographical and intellectual voyages of discovery; and that is mainly what he deals with here. The results are uneven; but this wide-ranging, generous survey provides an extraordinary amount of food for thought.

In Goetzemann’s account of American civilization, American “thinkers” were rarely professional philosophers. They were politicians and statesmen, agitators and reformers, clerics and heretics, poets and novelists, dreamers and cranks, most of them too busy with a country in the making to develop any organized system or European-style ideology. They were, often in the best sense, amateurs; and their lives had more than academic interest. The inevitable question—one we are still groping with today—is, how well did they succeed? Goetzmann’s all-but-inevitable answer is, they won some and they lost some.

Our nation’s independent beginnings had a strong utopian streak. Whether Christian, like the Pilgrims, or Enlightenment-secular, like Tom Paine, the nation’s idealists confronted that most seductive of opportunities, a fresh start. They could draw upon centuries of sadder-but-wiser Old World experience as they inscribed what looked like a splendid tabula rasa. But because they aimed so high, their failures, notably in the manifold injustices visited upon Indians, blacks, women (and, not incidentally, Catholics and other groups), strike us as all the more depressing.

Other American dreams, such as the intoxicated vistas of Manifest Destiny or the pastoral-chivalric fantasies of the antebellum South, played out in ways that proved to be both brutal and bloody. And American workers may have had the ever-moving frontier as an escape hatch from their misery, but American capitalists were not necessarily any less exploitative than their European brethren. (Had he pushed his timeline into the 20th century, Goetzmann would have had to deal with the gross environmental destruction caused by the supposedly glorious winning of the West: the annihilation of the buffalo, the draining of the Colorado River, the Dust Bowl and so on.)

So Americans stumbled onward, if not always upward. The fact that despite everything, both then and now, the country never did lose its peculiar power of attraction over oppressed people everywhere would seem to be an enormous plus. But while Goetzmann concludes his story with reflections on the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia, his account reaches its high point with the Civil War, which may have fused the centrifugal chunks of the Union into one nation at last (Lincoln stands out as Goetzmann’s grandest figure), but at an unspeakable price that we are all still paying. If World War I gave the lie to European myths of progress, didn’t the Civil War suggest, among other things, a catastrophic American intellectual bankruptcy?

And then there is the cultural scene. Pioneers, by definition, do not have much time for the arts; and until the American Renaissance, most of our literature could be rated, if not dismissed, as derivative and provincial. By contrast, the work of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, Whitman and Dickinson (and, later on, Mark Twain) was in many ways world-class, but the optimistic elements in Transcendentalism took a terrible beating as the century progressed. And even with The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick (a commercial failure) and Leaves of Grass, how good, really, is American literature when measured against the English Romantics and the Victorians or the continental giants, from Goethe to Flaubert to Tolstoy? In any event, the purely philosophical fields of America were initially bare, if not sterile. Goetzmann reminds us that until the emergence of James, Dewey & Co., the country’s favorite thinkers belonged to the Scottish “Common Sense” school, men like Thomas Reid, Dugald Stewart and Adam Ferguson, whom nobody nowadays would mistake for outstanding minds. Democracy, as any glance at pop culture will show, feels comfortable with bland mediocrity, as opposed to, say, unsettling creativity.

These are only a few of the nagging questions that Goetzmann has raised—and furnished documentation for addressing. No doubt he was right not to bother with footnotes (the vast conventional bibliography on this subject, from F. O. Matthiessen to Louis Menand, is already bristling with them); but he might have also skipped the potted plot summaries. His writing is lumpy at times; and he makes some factual errors, such as twice misdating the 19th Amendment by six years and calling Longfellow, not Whitman, the “good grey poet.”

But such blemishes aside, Goetzmann prompts us to wonder, for the thousandth time, who are we, anyway? And this is not just nationalistic narcissism. Unlike most of the places we first came from, America can watch its entire history beneath the bright light of biography, journalism and, even, before too long, the camera. It is all—a lot of it, at least—down in black and white, unlike the British Constitution or the origins of Stonehenge. So we can, and must, ask what kind of country has leaders as different as Thomas Jefferson and John C. Calhoun, cultural heroes as different as Andrew Jackson and Frederick Douglass, and novelists as different as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry James. For a nation sometimes taken to be simple-minded, we are actually rather complicated.

 

Peter Heinegg, a frequent reviewer, is a professor of English at Union College, Schenectady, N.Y.