Volume > Issue > America’s Deposit of Faith

America’s Deposit of Faith

FOUR LITERARY EVANGELISTS

By Will Hoyt | January-February 2024
Will Hoyt, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is a former carpenter who now manages an inn for oil and gas workers near Wheeling, West Virginia. He is the author of The Seven Ranges: Ground Zero for the Staging of America (Front Porch Republic Books, 2021).

Several months ago, after being invited to give a talk at Bookmarx Books in Steubenville, Ohio, a couple days after July 4, I found myself in an interesting predicament: how to celebrate America as a land of promise without relying on, or having recourse to, standard city-on-a-hill conceits like an allegedly Christian aspect to our founding, or a Constitution built on political principles favoring limited government that are descended from the Magna Carta, or Murrayite claims that American and Catholic notions of the natural law support one another.

Those are compelling claims, well worth debating, but they are also — as I learned to my dismay while writing a book about eastern Ohio and the trans-Allegheny West — completely untenable. Not because, as post-liberals routinely suggest, we are overly indebted to Lockean anthropology and, to that extent, completely entrapped by liberal terminology however much we may want to escape it. (After all, you can still read Plato and, to that extent, think outside the liberal “box” if you want to.) Rather, city-on-a-hill conceits are untenable for three other reasons. First, because our operative power source, the bipolar energy flow generated by the Second Great Awakening (ca. 1790-1840), bears little to no resemblance to Christianity, strictly considered. (Christianity, founded as it is on belief in the Incarnation, the event whereby “the Word was made flesh,” involves a commitment to sacramentality and the integration of nature and grace, but the Pentecostalism that appeared in the upper Ohio Valley in 1801 during the Second Great Awakening depended on maintaining nature and grace as separate dimensions so as to all the better taste the differences.) Second, because, thanks to the Civil War, we all steer now by universal suffrage rather than tradition, thereby disenfranchising the dead and the unborn. Third, because the federated polity founded in 1781 by the Second Continental Congress ceased to exist in 1868 thanks to the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, a piece of legislation that transferred power from the “several states,” so called, to the federal government. This made possible the massively centralized state we know today and, eventually, the belittlement of our First Amendment protections, given that the Fourteenth Amendment effectively transferred to the federal government the very same societal capital that the first ten amendments (i.e., the Bill of Rights) were designed to protect.

Witness the imminent elimination of cash economies and the arrival of “social credit scores” that will affect the ability to acquire property or take out a loan. Witness also, and even more importantly, our growing willingness to trade liberty for safety, per terms dictated by Meta, Alphabet, and Amazon.

All that being the case, it seemed unlikely that a way to celebrate America as a land of promise could be found. Nevertheless, there turned out to be a way to meet the challenge.

How? By showcasing the benefits of accelerating interfaith dialogue? Or explaining that the field-tested idea of personhood, already transformative for saints like Dorothy Day, is destined to have a transformative effect on American society at large?

No, for those kinds of advances would not, in themselves, put us in a position to defend America as a “land of the free.”

The challenge was met, instead, by highlighting one clear, simple, and quite bright fact, which is that Americans are predisposed to effectively meet and counter the temptation to trade liberty for security thanks to inherited capital banked on our behalf before the Civil War — capital that functions now rather like a deposit of faith in that it enables and encourages navigation toward the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Depositum fidei: “The body of revealed truth in the Scriptures and sacred tradition.” I employ the term somewhat mischievously because America has long had a complicated relationship with Christendom, regularly claiming to be a New Jerusalem when, clearly, it wasn’t. (The Puritans in Salem, Massachusetts, thought of themselves this way, and the trope only strengthened as our nation expanded westward across the continent and then all the way to the Philippines on the strength of an engineered war with Spain and Manifest Destiny narratives that allowed us to mine soil, small towns, and traditional cultures worldwide for immediate rather than long-term profit while at the same time destroying access to metaphysical bearings.) In the main, though, I employ the term depositum fidei seriously and without irony because in some strange and cosmically paradoxical sense we also, as a people, have a unique ability to see and recognize truth, should we want to, and for the simple reason that, whether we know it or not, our minds have been molded and formed by a literary body of work that enables us to recognize a lie and call it out for what it is.

I refer, of course, to the American Literary Renaissance, an extraordinary burst of artistic energy that ran from about 1850 to 1859 in which Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson all found their stride as writers.

Perhaps because he gave so much weight to Ralph Waldo Emerson, F.O. Matthiessen got a few things wrong in his groundbreaking book about the event, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. The most important is his implied suggestion that artistic energy during the 1850s culminated in Whitman’s Song of Myself, published in 1855. Whitman is, unquestionably, a great poet. How could we not be moved by his descriptions of stevedores unloading ships, hammermen driving spikes to lock in steel rails, and cradles endlessly rocking? “Unscrew the locks from the doors / unscrew the doors themselves from their hinges!” The man almost literally chants democracy into existence by liberating “self” even more thrillingly than Emerson did. “Plumb in the uprights, well-entreatied, braced in the beams…. / I and this mystery here we stand.”

But the other writers whose works Matthiessen scrutinizes — namely, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Melville — didn’t. Instead of idealizing equality and choice as first principles, these latter authors told cautionary tales about democracy so as to all the better focus on truth. Therefore, Matthiessen’s book, to an important extent, compromises our ability to see and understand the American Literary Renaissance simply by virtue of its title and the way it is structured. Moreover, Matthiessen’s admittedly lengthy discussion of a “metaphysical strain” in the thought of both Thoreau and Melville has more to do with the extent to which they were influenced by 17th-century metaphysical poets like George Herbert and John Donne than the degree to which they were interested in metaphysics proper.

The bottom line is that some changes are in order if Matthiessen’s “American Literature” establishment project is to be brought to lasting fruition, and item #1 should be to redistribute the weights that provide ballast for his summation by concluding the study with Emily Dickinson rather than Whitman. Dickinson merited just one footnote in Matthiessen’s 1941 version, but she deserves better given that she channels lightning rather than trying to be a light. Also, she holds her own when standing next to Melville in ways Whitman cannot. But the real benefit to concluding the study with Dickinson is that, after making the change, we find ourselves looking at four mutually supportive “gospels” that are every bit as consistent with one another as are the four Gospels comprising the New Testament. Everything falls into place, with Hawthorne standing next to Thoreau, Melville, and Dickinson much as John stands next to Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Moreover, these four American “evangelists” support one another to the point where they provide artistic heirs (destined, unwittingly, to be agents of “sacred tradition”) with eminently mappable ground to stand on, defend, and argue about.

Which they did.

Robert Frost (poet and writer-in-residence at Middlebury and Amherst Colleges), Ernest Hemingway (newspaperman-turned-novelist), and Wallace Stevens (Hartford-based insurance executive) weren’t bishops, but as writers, they believed things don’t become real until written or said. (Hemingway once remarked, in an interview granted to Esquire, that “all good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened”; Stevens, for his part, was mentored by the self-proclaimed “aesthetic Catholic” George Santayana at Harvard University and, later in Stevens’s life, at an assisted-living facility on the grounds of the Convent of the Blue Nuns in Rome, where Santayana died.) All three of these men turned out to be as committed to Johannine logic as the diminutive, Coptic, working-class St. Athanasius was back in the fourth century, and not a whit less willing to enter a brawl to settle disagreements about how best to articulate that logic.

The conferences Frost, Hemingway, and Stevens attended took place mostly at Hotel Casa Marina in Key West, Florida, rather than in Nicaea, Ephesus, or Chalcedon, but they were equally contentious. Stevens to Frost, during a panel discussion in 1935: “Your poems are too academic.”

Frost to Stevens: “Your poems are too executive.”

Stevens: “The trouble with you, Robert, is that you write about subjects.”

Frost: “The trouble with you, Wallace, is that you write about bric-a-brac.”

One year later, with his best poems still not written, Stevens was back, this time telling fellow conferees that Hemingway, already famous the whole world over for simple declarative sentences, was “a sap” and “no real man.” Upon learning of the insult, Hemingway showed up, whereupon Stevens (who stood 6’ 2” and weighed 220 lbs.) took a swing at him and missed. After Hemingway sent Stevens sprawling with two quick punches, Stevens hit Hemingway hard in the jaw while he was taking off his glasses, and, needless to say, Hemingway at that point put Stevens down for the count. Later, Hemingway cheerfully accepted Stevens’s apology, and they went their separate ways to write (in Hemingway’s case) For Whom the Bell Tolls and (in Stevens’s case) a truly magnificent, century-defining poem called, well, “The Idea of Order at Key West.”

What, then, is this ground that Frost, Hemingway, and Stevens were standing on and helping to define? What “deposit of faith” is on view in the scriptures that Hawthorne and the three American “synoptics” created?

Quite simply, it is belief in, and deference to, reality — that which is.

The renaissance proper begins with the publication in 1850 of The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne’s masterpiece about Hester Prynne, the adulteress who is forced to wear a tunic emblazoned with the letter “A” while carrying a child so her hometown can recognize her as a sinner and, accordingly, ostracize her. The drama in the story has to do principally with how Hester is freed by her acceptance of guilt and, no less importantly, by her steadfast refusal to name the father of the child she is carrying, while the townsfolk who shun her are increasingly enslaved by hypocrisy and an unwillingness to be merciful. It’s a passion story, in other words — very much like the Gospel According to John, the one that is told almost exclusively from Mary’s point of view. But it’s Hawthorne’s underlying metaphysical assumptions that we are interested in here, and those assumptions first came into view in 1846 when Thoreau climbed Mt. Katahdin in Maine, the event that seeded Walden, published in 1854.

People tend to think Thoreau is significant because he conducted an experiment in simple, low-tech living, but in fact, he is significant because he was a contemplative on a retreat, and the reason he had become a contemplative was because he quite literally stumbled over the question of questions — namely, why there is something rather than nothing — while on his way across “burnt land” on one of Katahdin’s spurs. “Talk of mysteries!” he wrote, in his account of the climb. “Think of our life in nature, — daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, — rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?” It was a transformative moment. After getting off the mountain, Thoreau purchased land adjacent to Walden Pond, built a cabin there, and designed a regimen in which ora and labora were balanced to the point where he stood a good chance of converting the initially disorienting experience on Mt. Katahdin into consistent and regular orientation toward Being. The result? Walden, a book with completely wakeful prose that reads, especially today, like bright water flowing over a gold-pebbled creek bed.

As for Melville, he didn’t so much stumble on a rock as merge minds with Shakespeare while reading King Lear, the play in which the Bard’s profoundly Johannine logic is best on view. That event happened in 1850, during the writing of Moby Dick, and it proved as transformative for Melville as the epiphany on Katahdin was for Thoreau. Every single work Melville wrote thereafter shows the same Catholic biases found in King Lear and, indeed, the same purpose — that being to “preach truth to the face of falsehood,” as Fr. Mapple in the New Bedford whaleman’s chapel told Ishmael to do, before the sailor set out with Captain Ahab toward perdition and worse.

Unlike Thoreau, Melville was a superb storyteller who positively glowed when fueled on brandy and cigars. Hence his ability to create alter-egos like Frank Goodman, the sharper in Confidence Man (1857) who “slides” into conversation with a completely outclassed fellow operator “on humor” much as “a pirate schooner with colors flying is landed into the sea on greased ways.” Yet he was also a steersman who employed a sextant to “stay on the line” while paying attention to “antlered thoughts,” much as “Highland hunters” do when “tracking the snowprints of deer.” Those facts, in turn, mean Melville had the skills necessary to be, for us, a modern-day version of Edgar, the character in King Lear who skillfully, through playacting, guides the mad and wholly bereft King Lear toward sanity.

My favorite Melville book, these days, is Israel Potter (1855), owing chiefly to two “comedic” scenes. In one, the hero pretends to be a scarecrow while running from two opposed armies, pointing one way to orient one army and then, moments later, the other way to orient the other army, thereby acting rather like the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. The other scene? In that one, Melville depicts a sea battle between British and American ships as performance by a “joint-stock company” in business to fuel warfare for its own sake, a shocking concept that is relevant in our time, as we find ourselves increasingly subject to strategic “choices” — between, say, “freedom,” on one hand, and “democracy,” on the other — that are presented as mutually exclusive when, in fact, the alleged choices are really just different versions of a swiftly rising and entirely new form of totalitarianism.

But all Melville’s books guide us toward sanity. It really doesn’t matter which book of his you reach for, as they’re all prescient. At the end of Confidence Man, as an overhead light enabling a kindly old man to read the Book of Sirach gets turned off, Melville even makes it possible for us to glimpse the true significance of the “committee of safety” now ruling the United States.

And Dickinson? What does she contribute to America’s deposit of faith?

The simplest way to answer this question is to note that there is a consistent willingness, in Dickinson’s posture as a poet, to stake all — zero tolerance for pretense; sharply intelligent attention to modest, seemingly insignificant being; and complete readiness to look evil in the eye long enough to recognize it and (thereby) defeat it. What could she possibly know about evil, we might innocently ask, given that she lived and died alone, unmarried, in her father’s house? Plenty, it turns out, for Dickinson always faces her Maker. She can be playful (“Poor little heart! Did they forget thee? Then dinna care, dinna care!”), bold (“inebriate of air, I am, and debauchee of dew”), and proud (“disdaining men and oxygen”), in addition to being honest (“I con that thing ‘forgiven’”) and tough (“temptation’s bribe slowly handed back”), but most of her poems are simply records of a deepening relationship with her Maker.

Unlike Melville, Dickinson tended to steer toward magnetic north, rather than by it, and, as a result, her poems can be harrowing. In one, she travels along “great streets of silence” leading to “neighborhoods of pause”; in another, she carefully tests the plank Jesus walked before calling it “firm”; and in still another, she attributes being quickened by the Spirit to a master pianist testing key action slowly enough for “your brain to bubble cool” before he “drops full music on” and “deals one imperial thunderbolt that scalps your naked soul.”

Back of it all, though, there is gladness and joy, for this woman was consecrated like a Catholic nun is consecrated — “given in marriage” (her words) “unto Thee / Oh Thou Celestial Host, / Bride of the Father and the Son, / Bride of the Holy Ghost.” Lucy Beckett, the British author of a fine study of Wallace Stevens’s work, even suggests that Gerard Manley Hopkins’s only real comparable is Emily Dickinson.

In sum, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Melville, and Dickinson together comprise a homespun but completely reliable foundation for realist biases that are fully in line with the Platonic-Augustinian tradition and already operative on American soil given their formative influence on the American mind. Melville called his makeshift theology of being “desperado philosophy,” but I think a better name for it would be perennial philosophy, pure and simple, the sort that (1) Enlightenment-based philosophers abandoned after René Descartes turned the medieval world upside down, (2) phenomenologists (starting with Edmund Husserl) have been trying to claw back, and (3) ordinary people use if ever they should find themselves clinging to the face of a cliff without a rope. Hence, this sort of philosophy can be of considerable worth if ever civilization itself should be on the brink, and of even greater worth if the Catholic Church, the normal guardian of the Platonic-Augustinian tradition, continues to fall prey to her own version of the polarity-driven storm currently preventing access to truth in Western culture at large — to wit, Latin Mass traditionalists “versus” progressives.

Note, too, that because Hawthorne, Thoreau, Melville, and Dickinson were each wary of organized religion, our American deposit of faith is, to an important extent, immune to the ills endangering the Catholic Church and well positioned to serve as interim guardian of the Platonic-Augustinian tradition should the visible Church collapse and need to be rebuilt. Dickinson was the only one in her class at Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary who refused to stand up when called to identify as “Christian” or “hopeful that she would be.” Thoreau was more interested in learning about lotus positions, basmati rice, and the Bhagavad Gita than churchgoing. And Melville openly skewered Church hierarchy with depictions of whalemen looking like “archbisho-Pricks” after they’d donned suits of blubber to protect themselves while boiling whale oil. These anecdotes are funny, in their way, but the really funny part is that publicizing them could play very much in civilization’s favor given that most of the American citizens lining up to vote against laws designed, say, to protect gender “choice” are not, in the normal sense, “religious.” Rather, they are simply truck drivers and waitresses and office workers and even professors who instinctively sense that people who either provide or opt for transgender surgery have taken leave of their senses.

Fault lines have changed!

Except for those among our young who have not yet gotten a smartphone and preserved access to wonder, evangelization, in the normal sense, is over. The question is no longer how to get the Word to people who haven’t heard it, or whether you’re depressed rather than happy and would do better with Christ in your life. The question now is what’s real — i.e., what’s there whether or not you want it to be there — and whether you will defend this definition in the face of people who want “the real” to be what we, as de-facto gods, wish it to be.

Take the recent foray into Israel by Hamas on the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. That barbaric attack on civilians was as clear an instance of evil as can be imagined. Yet most of our college students and a shocking number of our university presidents refuse to acknowledge the attack as such and are cheering the Hamas offensive because Israel is an “occupying power.” Are its citizens not entitled to the same respect as citizens from elsewhere? We need not — indeed, cannot — discuss the deep, elephant-in-the-room reason for these strikes against Israel because that reason can no longer be heard in our now confirmedly post-Christian culture. But we can still talk about reality for at least a few more years, seeing as how the woke technocracy risen in our midst does not yet control every part of us or every last one of us. And it is our good fortune as Americans to be forced, by the sheer power of the tech companies we’ve built, to think about what it might mean for something to be real and then weigh the cost of living without that same real dimension.

Who knows? Thanks to our still-operative deposit of faith, it is just possible that we might decide to hunker down behind whatever is left of our First and Fifth Amendment rights so as to actively build up and defend that which is, and in that way surely, if slowly, turn America into a place where (on the entire world’s behalf) a new heaven and a new earth finally do come into view.

 

©2024 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

 

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