The Ironies of Progress: Henry Adams and the American Dream

The Ironies of Progress: Henry Adams and the American Dream

The Ironies of Progress: Henry Adams and the American Dream

The Ironies of Progress: Henry Adams and the American Dream


In firm agreement with Henry Steele Commager's observation that "Henry Adams illuminates, better than any of his contemporaries," the course of American history, William Wasserstrom appraises the force of Adams's mind in styling, dramatizing, and embodying a postmodern myth of disintegration and chaos. Focusing on Adams and analyzing literature that reviews the myth of disintegration, Wasserstrom records the decline of the doctrine of perfectability as a critical feature of national sensibility. This he sees as a central trait shared by generations of writers who characteristically associated their private aspirations as artists with the American dream. Through literary and cultural history he inquires into the character of a society whose leading writers identify their personal fates with the progress of civilization in the United States.

Wasserstrom explores the fiction of Irving, Cooper, Hawthorne, Stowe, Howells, Henry James, William James, Stephen Crane, Henry Adams, Eugene O'Neill, D. H. Lawrence, Stein, Fitzgerald, William Carlos Williams, and Kenneth Burke.


IF EVER A BOOK DERIVED FROM a distinct occasion, from traceable influences and confluences, in the instance of this text, in my own instance, the place, date, time, and event are indisputable, exact. At Oxford University in May, 1968, during a week long symposium of advanced students and extramural teachers of American literature which I'd been invited to address, there and then this work was begun. Though the set subject that week was vanguard movements and modernist trends in American writing, conversation radiated far beyond the usual concerns of literary talk. During that season of uprising, England was quiet; Oxford -- stirred by the politics but not the passions of Paris or Berlin, of Berkeley or Harvard or Columbia -- was grave and people were grim. And no one in that company was prepared to abandon the matter of crisis in order to concentrate solely on problems of the kind usually contained within the scope of literary study.

Perhaps because avant-garde writing always quickens thought, the liveliest group of participants decided that upheaval on the streets in the United States seemed, strikingly, to match disorder, chaos on the page. No less astounding, they felt, was a connection till then unappreciated -- that the strongest and most characteristic ties binding the lives of writers to the life of literature in America were unfamiliar in Great Britain, not in the least characteristic of writers there.

No single demonstration bore these points home. But in that seminar, in British criticism then current, in the new universities and new interdisciplinary curricula of American studies, suddenly it was clear that the pressures of history -- more pronounced that month than at any other time anyone could recall -- had detached American writers from a common literary heritage and replaced this with a language and culture that were, from a British perspective, unquestionably foreign. It was this process of detach-

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