The Dream of Reason

The Dream of ReasonThe Dream of Reason: American Consciousness and Cultural Achievement from Independence to the Civil War.
London: Edward Arnold; New York: St Martin’s
Press, 1977. xi, 397 pp.; 67 pls, bibliography, index.

This book describes some of the chief cultural and historical aspects of the first eighty or so years of an independent American culture.  It is strenuously interdisciplinary covering topics as diverse as political representations of Washington and natural history illustration.  It is divided into two parts: civil and natural history. It discusses the arts of war and peace with reference to technological development and natural history writing,  photography, classic American writers like Whitman and Hawthorne, natural history illustrators, artists of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Catesby, Audubon, early American art including, Cole, Church, Bierstadt, cartoons, representations of landscape and early domestic architecture.

This was a work full of youthful enthusiasm. Having just graduated in 1964 I had fallen in love with 19th century American literature and culture after reading Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, one glorious summer week in 1964, staying with an aunt based in Devon, and walking onto Dartmoor to sit and read it in the fresh air near Hay Tor. The Dream of Reason, finished in 1973 reflects the radical and generous spirit of the 1960’s though it was not published until four years later when the political and social atmosphere had gone into deep political reaction. The book began to signal problems which were to become clearer to me as the writing career progressed. Given the excellence of American scholars, how do you respond to American culture as an Englishman and European when American critics dominate the investigative agenda? And worse what happens when you don’t always agree with that agenda, the questions it frames and the assumptions behind those frames. At the time of this book, the so-called Myth and Symbolism School was in the ascendency though going down, and I didn’t very much respond to its nationalism, though I admired critics who had a deeper political feel like Leo Marx whom I met at the beginning of my teacher career. Some of the greatest historians like Daniel Boorstin from whom I learnt a great deal, were deeply reactionary consensualists. Further as a socialist, or, at the very least a left-leaning European social democrat, it was impossible for me to leave out those aspects of American culture which showed the ‘dream’ rapidly degenerating into the ordinariness of the nightmare of history. I had been fortuitously in Chicago in the summer of 1968, an epiphanic moment for me, and inevitably I began to struggle to reconcile my love of American literature, its music (Charles Ives especially), its painting from the Hudson River School to the Abstract Expressionists, and the vitality of the then current Beat literature with the realization that the United States was the most conservative and politically reactionary western nation on earth, even though its always present, mercifully tenacious, self-critical and progressive strain was at that moment briefly in the ascendency. So the book could not ignore, for example, the ecological and genocidal aspects of the march across the continent, and the horrors of the civil war, as well as celebrating the Hudson River School painters, the varied intelligence of Jefferson, the poems of Whitman, the natural history illustration of Catesby and Audubon, the artists of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the beginnings of American science, New England domestic architecture (the general flowering of New England) among many other things including the classic nineteenth-century American writers. Work on American painters apart from a few classic general books was then in its infancyI looked at the unsorted Thomas Cole papers in boxes at the Detroit Museum of Arts although there was a microfilm available. A huge amount of work has been done since on the painters I looked at, and the study of American painting is now one of the best established of all academic disciplines. But as a first attempt at a genuinely inter-disciplinary and ambitious overview of a period of an entire culture the book is still probably still worth having a look at. I was also interested in the deep links between English and American painting after the War of Independence and that began a project of the relationships and interactions between Atlanticist cultures, positive and negative, which have occupied me ever since.