Friday, May 31, 2019

The U.S. and self-perception

In short: the Puritan programme of a break with the ‘corrupt ancientness’ and hereditary taint of European history, the great hunger of successive waves of immigrants for a new dispensation free of the terrors and injustice which had marked their communal past, have played a central role in the American imagination and in the rhetoric of American identity. But they do not afford the actual products of American culture a calendar of Arcadian youth, a time of special grace. On the contrary. American culture has stood, from its outset, on giant shoulders. Behind Puritan style lay the sinew of English Tudor, Elizabethan and Jacobean prose. Behind the foundation of American universities lay the experience of Oxford and Cambridge, Aristotelian logic and the mathematics of Galileo and Newton. British empiricism and the world of the philosophes underwrite the Jeffersonian vision of an American enlightenment. Goethe stands behind Emerson as Shakespeare and Milton do behind Melville. It may be, as D. H. Lawrence found, that American culture is ‘very old’ precisely because it has been heir to so much. The New England divines would concur. By the early eighteenth century, William Cowper testified to ‘God’s withdrawal’ from a new world whose conditions of spirit and civil practice were no better than in the old. The idiom of his testimony was that of Jeremiah and the Cataline orations, of Juvenal and the Aesopian satirists of the European reformation.—George Steiner, No Passion Spent, page 270

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