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Roy Rubin

Well, America is a new land. Bring your religion with you, but the theme is always wide eyed innocence versus the old European, whatever ways. There's adolescent rebellion in old men.

In Red Badge of Courage you see it all. The innocent discovers war to be a bloody affair with no schoolboy glory. Then the question on a personal level: what has my personel integrity (honor) have to do with risking my life and taking my so-called enemies' life? On a civic level: what are the consequences of my actions in the Big scheme of things?

If life has no meaning and art is just whatever art is, then secular existentialism would matter. That's perfect for the workers paradise I'm sure.


I think Terry is dealing, essentially, with the problem that always faces critics in / of America—its expansiveness. While one might (might) be able to make a case for a German, French, or British sensibility, few would guess that Whitman, Lowell, Poe, Kerouac, William Carlos Williams, Faulkner, TS Eliot, Wanda Coleman, Robinson Jeffers, and Kurt Vonnegut all came from the same country. Find me one single national character from that (very simple, off the cuff) sample? Not bloddy likely. I realize that Terry is taking visual arts into account—I am admittedly a philistine. But the few artists I do know – Warhol, Hopper, Gorky, Pollock – do not seem to fit Terry's mould.

Jonathan Mayhew

How about Mencken? TT wrote a book about him, but what do you think he, Mencken, would say about "earnestness" as a national definer?

Steven Augustine

Nationalism ("wildly gifted" Americans? Unlike those ploddingly untalented French, Vietnamese, Poles, Nigerians, Brits, Czechs, Iranians...) and religious fervor: the sinister irrational twins.

What I "love" about pundit/critics who indulge in touching displays of national pride is how quickly they'll cry "Generalization!" when one lobs a negative adjective or two at their Fatherland. For "idealistic" I'd substitute "willfully naive", for starters, and sit back and enjoy the response; not that I give more creedence to negative national blanket statements than their equally spurious opposites. But we *do* realize they're two sides of the same wooden nickle, right?

Re: "We prefer our art to be earnest, and that preference is another survival of American Puritanism."

That old daydream! Unless Teachout is writing about some dangerously inbred enclave of New England, the heirloomed memes of West African slaves and the Ashkenazi Entrepreneuriat both have had a *far* greater influence on the contemporary personality of that big fat mongrel called America than those long-absorbed Pilgrim bloodlines. There's a genealogical slip of the tongue at work when the word "Puritan" is used in place of the word "puritanical". Many Iranian Imams can be said to be the one and not the other.

While there is very definitely the presence of a reactionary element in the public American response to "culture", it's no more a product of Puritan influences than are the reactionary elements of Haiti, China, France or Saudi Arabia.

Teachout isn't writing about "America", he's writing about the reactionary tendencies of its gatekeepers, and to the extent that his views are consonant with theirs, he's theorizing in the voice of a Zeitgeist.

It will change (to everything turn, turn, turn)...I just hope I'm still young enough, when it does, to enjoy it.

Roy Rubin

wow, that dripped with hatred

Steven Augustine

Uh, actually not, Roy.

Did you misread the ironical bits?


"One place to look for evidence of an American national character is in our art."

We really need to find "evidence of an American national character."

When you all find it, please pass it along to me.

Steven Augustine

Re: The Update:

"American artists who overlook the place of religion in American life are to that extent misunderstanding the American national character, in whose formation and development religious belief has historically played a crucial part."

Whether or not Teachout condones the outlook he appears to describe, I certainly wish he'd stop glossing over the founding presumption of his argument...this so-called "American national character" (with its supposedly Puritan wellspring).

And while we're at it: *which* "religious belief"? These metaphysical theories tend to contradict one another when considered in any detail and might only be said to harmonize on the general level of "superstition".

It's a comfortable old cluster of received opinions to base an argument on, but they unravel under the kind of close reading I'm sure Teachout advocates under other circumstances.

Narrowing the purview of his argument to the necessarily conservative establishment of The Gatekeepers of American Literature (the filters through which both too much and too little passes) would yield more truths. But Americans (like every other national group on earth) enjoy flattery and Teachout doles it out here, spotlighting those glamorous Paleface/Puritan roots.

To which I say "nonsense". Any honest survey of the past century and a half of American Lit (even the filtered stuff) will turn up as much Paganism (astrology/pre-determination; reincarnation; Hellenism; Buddhism; animism and the various doctrines of like-attracting-like; not to mention the cabal of crypto-Atheists among the Founding Fathers) as Christianity.

Teachout's is far from a new conceit; it follows its own cycle of Haley's-comet-like eternal recurrence (see my "voice of the Zeitgeist" comment above), guaranteed to reappear when least needed.

(Funnily enough, I've just recently re-read Didion, quoting Stanley Fish, specifically, on the very thing: read "Fixed Opinions, Or the Hinge of History", collected in Vintage Didion/Vintage Books...you'll see that Teachout is merely wearing his William J. Bennett vest here).


I don't understand. Are you seriously suggesting that the United States is not a very religous country? Do you seriously suggest an artist ignorant or dismissive of Christian traditions and the relationship those traditions have to the national character really has much that is insightful to say about Americans?

I'm not making value judgements on Art, here. Nor does Teachout, for that matter. But it seems pretty indubitable that understanding this country's religious nature would be critical if an artist is going to show something insightful about America. Or France, Russia, India, and Egypt, for that matter.

Is that really a controversial point requiring politicization?

Steven Augustine

Again: *which* religion(s) or metaphysical belief(s)? Are you (and Teachout) thinking of the 17th century, perhaps?

I don't even want to get into the issue of borderline Pagan, karma/astrology-believing (nominal) "Christians", though it's certainly a worthy thread of you're *really* interested in a debate...but the Puritan lineage that Teachout invokes is clearly shattered. Leaving what?

A little critical (and/or geographical) distance wouldn't be a bad thing sometimes...

Dan Green

"Do you seriously suggest an artist ignorant or dismissive of Christian traditions and the relationship those traditions have to the national character really has much that is insightful to say about Americans?"

Speaking for myself, I don't exactly suggest that since I deny that the artist's job is to have something "to say." I do suggest, however, that one's relationship to "Christian traditions" has nothing at all to do with art, and that there is no such thing as the "national character."

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