From the Sun Also Rises to High Noon: The Hypervisual Great Awakening in American Literature and Film
William E H Meyer, Jr., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)
"Tis light that must convert them if ever they are converted."
Jonathan Edwards, The Great Awakening
"We've become a race of peeping toms."
Stella, in Hitchcock's Rear Window
The aesthetic sense is the primary determiner of culture; and moreover, the New World is dominated by the hypervisual impulse, while the Old World is controlled by the hyperverbal ideal. In what follows, I shall attempt to reveal this assumption at work in two specific art-forms of our culture-American literature and American film. Although I am probably more familiar in an academic way with the evidence of our literary revolution, I find that I have spent such an enormous part of my life indulging in motion pictures that I should not neglect at least some clarification of their unique role in our visually-biased milieu. I shall conclude with a word on the propagandistic use (both good and evil) which our writers and film producers have discovered for this amazing hypervisual sense and its potent spur to thought and action among our heterogeneous American people.
Again, while it is probably impossible to prove the New World's obsession with vision, I would nevertheless like to put forward a few revealing cultural phenomena from both the popular and elitist spheres which may provoke us to a closer scrutiny of our national character. First of all, no other country in the world has both its national anthem and its national symbol or seal in the hypervisual mode. We have neither the English lyrical roaring Lion nor the Russian portentously growling bear, but the "eagleeyed" American Eagle of the 6X vision is our antiverbal "sign," while our anthems shout "O Say, Can You SEE" or "Mine Eyes Have SEEN the Glory" of "American the Beautiful" from "sea to shining sea." No "Big Ben," cognizant of temporality and chime, greets the traveler to our greatest harbor but Miss Hypervisual Liberty, newly embronzed, with torch held high. Not for nothing is the Englishman caricatured by "Oh, I SAY, old chap," while the American is denoted by the "See ya" syndromewhat Humphrey Bogart made famous in his "Here's looking at you, kid." Not for nothing did Benjamin Franklin feel it incumbent upon himself to improve the streetlights of Philadelphia so that they might outshine the "poorly illuminated globes shipped over from London" (1:135), just as he felt the necessity to conjoin the macro-scopic and the micro-scopic into his famous "bi-focals" so that the American spectator might, like Emerson's "transparent eyeball," find it easier to "see all" ("Nature" 24). Not for nothing is the best-known poem in America Kilmer's unforgettably anti-verbal "Trees": "I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree." Finally, in a most telling rebuff to those of the comp-lit persuasion, it is no accident that Dickens' raven at the conclusion of Barnaby Rudge is said to have "probably gone on talking to the present day," while the terse American beast above Poe's subliminal door finally lapses into complete silence: "And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming" (1:373)-the lamp-lit raven daring to forever peer into our "American Dream" of ambiguous vision itself.
This fearfully radical breach with what Emerson called "the courtly muses of Europe" has been, of course, mightily resisted and denied by many of our "Tories" or "professors of English" espousing a world-community of scholars, dominated by "methods" borrowed primarily from European philosophical, psychological and aesthetic models. But again, Emerson knew the simple truth: "When I see the daybreak I am not reminded of those Homeric or Chaucerian or Shakespearean or Miltonic pictures...nor of Pope and Addison and Johnson who write as if they had never seen the face of the country" (Anthology Selections 50, italics mine). And such foreign analysts of New-World culture as Alexis de Tocqueville and D.H. Lawrence also quickly sense the "otherness" of America. …