American Literature and the Dream

By Frederic I. Carpenter | Go to book overview

PART IV

10. THE PRAGMATIC REALIZATION

"THE CLOSE of the American frontier marked the end of an era," say the textbooks.--For three centuries the land had offered unlimited opportunities to pioneers and homesteaders. Expansion had been the rule, individualism necessary, and freedom natural. Most of the great writers of "the golden day" imagined a sure progress toward an ultimate perfection, and American experience seemed to justify their hopes. Jefferson, who believed that the free land would last for centuries, was the prophet of this America, Emerson the philosopher, and Whitman the poet. Their words gave expression to the great American dream.

Then the closing of the frontier put an end to this era of unlimited opportunities. Expansion slowed, pioneering became obsolete, and free land disappeared; independence gave way to inter-dependence, and freedom to regulation. Most of the writers of modern America have doubted the earlier dream, because their experience has not justified its high hopes. In literature, realism has replaced romanticism, and naturalism the old idealism. The later writings of Mark Twain reflected this change. From the gentle realism of Howells to the bitter naturalism of Dreiser the cleavage deepened. And the "perfect democracy" of Walt Whitman became the "perishing republic" of Robinson Jeffers. The most typical modern literature has been tragedy.

In the realm of ideas, this new era produced the philosophy of pragmatism. After the transcendental dream came "the pragmatic awakening"; after the romantic idealism, the cold philosophy of facts. The Emersonian metaphysics gave way to the scientific realism of Peirce, the radical empiricism of William James, and the instrumentalism of John Dewey: ideas had "cash value" and were true if they worked. And the high moral faith became, by reaction, the philosophy of "acquiescence."--Or so the indictment runs.

But the true meaning of this change from the old America to the new is not so simple: The popular interpretation has distorted the facts. The cleavage between the two Americas was less fundamental than it has seemed, representing no change of purpose, but only of

-83-

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American Literature and the Dream
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • Part I 3
  • 1 - Introduction 3
  • 2 - The American Dream 5
  • Part II 11
  • 3 - The Transcendental Dream 11
  • 4 - Emerson 19
  • 5 - Bronson Alcott:Genteel Transcendentalist 30
  • 6 - Walt Whitman''s Eidolon 40
  • Part III 51
  • 7 - The Genteel Tradition:A Re-Interpretation 51
  • 8 - Scarlet a Minus 63
  • 9 - Melville and the Men-Of-War 73
  • Part IV 83
  • 10 - The Pragmatic Realization 83
  • 11 - Charles Sanders Peirce:Pragmatic Transcendentalist 94
  • 12 - William James and Emerson 105
  • 13 - Sinclair Lewis and the Fortress of Reality 116
  • Part V 126
  • 14 - The Romantic Confusion- The Devil in America 126
  • 15 - The Romantic Tragedy of Eugene O''Neill 133
  • 16 - Death Comes for Robinson Jeffers 144
  • Part VI 155
  • 17 - Thomas Wolfe- The Autobiography of an Idea 155
  • 18 - John Steinbeck- The Philosophical Joads 167
  • 19 - The Time of William Saroyan''s Life 176
  • 20 - Hemingway Achieves the Fifth Dimension 185
  • Part VII 194
  • 21 - The Good and the Bad 194
  • 22 - The Logic of American Literature 199
  • Notes 208
  • Index 217
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