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The Story of America: The Declaration of Cultural Independence

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
May 7, 2024 3:03 am

The Story of America: The Declaration of Cultural Independence

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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May 7, 2024 3:03 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, in our 24th episode of our Story of America series with Bill McClay, author of Land of Hope, Bill tells the story of how through the efforts of a few men in Concord, Massachussetts, America became culturally unique from our mother country—Britain.

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See terms and conditions 18 plus. This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories, the show where America is the star and the American people. Up next, another installment of our series about us, the Story of America series with Hillsdale College professor and author of the terrific book, Land of Hope, Professor Bill McClay. For much of our early existence, our culture was derivative of our mother country, Britain, and of course, Europe. To many creatives, it was becoming clear that we needed a second revolution, not with guns and bullets, but with words. Let's get into the story.

Take it away, Bill. As Americans went about the business of building new political institutions, radical new political institutions, the question remained, what would American culture look like? Was there a culture of democracy? What would it look like? Could Americans on native grounds replicate the artistic genius of America's European competitors? Could we produce a Shakespeare of our own, a Michelangelo, a Voltaire, a Mozart? Would it be something that reflected the new nation's people, its land?

Would it be of the highest caliber or would it be mediocre? Many critics, like the British literary critic, Sidney Smith, were skeptical. Smith, in an essay in the Edinburgh Review, put forward this rhetorical question, series of questions. In the four corners of the globe, who reads an American book or goes to an American play or looks at an American picture or statue? Well, he wasn't entirely wrong about that.

Not many did. The early part of the 19th century saw the gradual formation of what could be called a cadre of distinctly American writers, but there were not many of them. James Fenimore Cooper, his writing about the frontier, his invention of marvelous characters like the half-white, half-Indian Natty Bumbo. And there was Edgar Allan Poe, whose strange brooding psychological tales were far ahead of their time.

There was also Washington Irving, who penned popular fables like The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. These were popular both at home and abroad, but up until really the 1850s, it would be safe to say that America was not exactly a beacon of culture or literary talent. This began to change in the 1830s and the change came from Europe, thanks to the Romantic Movement. The Romantic Movement was an artistic movement born out of rebellion, rebellion against the Enlightenment and rebellion against the Industrial Revolution in its extreme manifestations. It emphasized the individual, nature, creativity, and imagination, fantasy, and mystery.

More emphasis, in short, on the emotional and intuitive aspects of life, of love and loss and the fate of the soul. This turning point in America's cultural life happened in a specific time and place, one small town just outside Boston called Concord, Massachusetts. Individuals such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and others all were living there at one time or another, and all were buried there on Author's Ridge in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. What was it that drew these writers together? It was a patchwork of ideas, some of which fell under the name transcendentalists, of the glories and mysteries of nature serving as a backdrop, and some of it coming simply from the enormous and unsearch potential of America.

Americans, it turned out, were prepared at this moment of history to challenge and reconsider almost every aspect of their lives, and not always in a careless or nihilistic way, but usually in a hopeful and expansive way. Transcendentalism was not interested in the way things were done in the past. The established social elites of the day, and let's be clear, transcendentalism was born out of frustration with the religion of the dominant religion of the time in New England among elite classes, and that was Unitarianism. Unitarianism, which itself was a product of a sort of liberal rebellion against Calvinism. Emerson himself, Ralph Waldo Emerson, was the product of a family filled with ministers, including his own father, as was Emerson, following in his father's footsteps.

And he followed and followed until he no longer could. As a relatively young man, he resigned his post at a leading Boston church and left the ministry without any substantive plans for the future, none but to become a writer and speaker. I would say that Emerson could be considered the first example of a freelance intellectual in American history.

That's a freelance in the sense that he had no connection to any institutions, academic or ecclesiastical. He was a free intellectual, and he made his living addressing the general public, which is something was possible to do in those days because books and other printed publications were widely available. Americans were very literate people. They liked to read, and they liked gathering for lectures on subjects of interest. Every town had a lyceum and needed a steady stream of lecturers to fill out their schedule.

And so Ralph Waldo Emerson became an itinerant speaker that spent much of his life on the road. When we come back, more of the remarkable story of us. This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories, and all of our history stories are brought to us by our generous sponsors, including Hillsdale College, where students go to learn all the things that are beautiful in life and all the things that matter in life. If you can't get to Hillsdale, Hillsdale will come to you with their free and terrific online courses. Go to hillsdale.edu.

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18 plus. Terms and conditions apply. See website for details. And we continue with Our American Stories and Our Story of America series with Hillsdale College professor and author of Land of Hope, Bill McCleay. When we left off, Bill was telling us about Ralph Waldo Emerson, a former Unitarian pastor who became America's first independent traveling intellectual.

Let's return to the story here again is Professor McCleay. Emerson's career-altering moment occurred with an address he gave at Harvard in 1837. Now Emerson was himself a product of Harvard. He'd gotten his education at Harvard College, which was a seminary in those days, and at the Harvard Divinity School.

And he was invited to give the Phi Beta Kappa speech at the beginning of the academic year because he was a distinguished graduate. Little did those who invited him know that he was going to pour out not quite contempt, but certainly criticism of everything that Harvard and Harvard Divinity School stood for. His speech challenged the rationalism, the dry rationalism of Harvard and its academicism. The speech was a rallying cry for creative types, for thinkers and artists who worked outside the box, who really were interested in forging a cultural independence and originality, something that was distinctly American. So for anyone who was listening and interested in cutting through the old establishment orthodoxies and the imitative streak in American culture, that is the desire to be just like the English, only American, this speech was a call to action. And here's how Emerson ended the speech at Harvard. Mr. President and gentlemen, this confidence in the unsearching might of man belongs by all motives, by all prophecy, by all preparation to the American scholar.

We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe. The spirit of the American free man is already suspected to be timid, imitative, and tame. No, not so brothers and friends, please God, I shall not be so. We will walk on our own feet. We will work with our own hands. We will speak with our own minds. A nation of men will for the first time exist because each believe himself inspired by the divine soul, which also inspires all men.

Wow. A nation of men will for the first time exist because a nation will exist that has absorbed these notions of the unsearching might of man, of the enormous and really infinite potential in each individual. And notice how he connects that to being imitative. He says, we have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe. Courtly muses, that implies, first of all, the court of a king. We're not that kind of place, we're a republic. So we don't need courtly muses.

The courtly muses also, they're genteel, they're nice, they're refined, they're oh so careful. And we've listened too long to that kind of thing. We need to break out and speak with our own voice, work with our own hands, walk on our own feet. So for many, this speech then and now, and in the years in between, has been seen as America's declaration of intellectual independence, to follow on from the declaration of political independence in 1776. And Emerson viewed the American Revolution as a great, great event, a beacon of hope for all of humanity. He admired the farmers, tradesmen, and shopkeepers, the common people who fought for American independence. His patriotic poem, Conquered Hymn, contains the most well-known verses he'd ever write, and he believed these words with every fiber of his being. By the rude bridge that arched the flood, their flag to April's breeze unfurled.

Here once the embattled farmer stood, and fired the shot heard round the world. The foe long since in silence slept, like the conqueror silently sleeps. In time the rooted bridge has swept down the dark stream, which seaward creeps. On this green bank, by this soft stream, we set today a votive stem, that memory may there deed redeem when, like our sires, our sons are gone. Spirit that made those heroes dare to die and leave their children free, bid time and nature gently spare the shaft we raise to them and lead. Emerson was calling for us Americans to follow our own muse rather than Europe's, because we were worthy. We had our own stories to tell, and we had our own ways of telling them. He was calling for Americans to develop and discover their own voices, their own art and culture, their own form of worship, all befitting a vast and bold new nation. Emerson also believed the same principle should apply to the individual lives of Americans as well. His essay, Self-Reliance, drove that point home.

Here's an excerpt from that essay. Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint stock company in which the members agree for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue at most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.

Who so would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, that must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of our own mind. I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions. Every decent and well-spoken individual affects and sways me more than is right.

I ought to go upright and vital and speak the rude truth in all ways. These are words that are just as useful, just as applicable, just as transgressive, just as threatening today to entrenched establishments as they were in the 1830s. Here's one last passage of Emerson that reflects his fierce dedication to the sanctity of the individual person above all.

You may not like what he's saying, or you may like it a lot, but it is an American voice above all else. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency, a great soul has simply nothing to do.

He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said today. Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood. Well, is it so bad then to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates and Jesus and Luther and Copernicus and Galileo and Newton and every pure and wise spirit that ever took place. To be great is to be misunderstood.

To be great has to be misunderstood. What Emerson was after was an abandonment of the refined elite culture of Europe, transplanted in a rather dead way to America, at least to the northeastern part of America, and a celebration of the common people of his country. The story of America, the story of us, brought to us by Bill McCleay. The story continues here on Our American Stories. I'm Katja Adler, host of The Global Story. Over the last 25 years, I've covered the conflicts in the Middle East, political and economic crises in Europe, drug cartels in Mexico. Now, I'm covering the stories behind the news all over the world in conversation with those who break it. Join me Monday to Friday to find out what's happening, why and what it all means. Follow The Global Story from the BBC wherever you listen to podcasts.

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All you can stream with Zumo Play. And we return to Our American Stories and our Story of America series with Hillsdale College professor and author of Land of Hope, Bill McCleay. When we last left off, Bill was telling us about the philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wanted a more real and more emotional form of art than that found in Europe, something we Americans could call our own. This influenced many other authors and creative types.

Let's get back to the story. Emerson would go on to influence others in his orbit, including a neighbor named Henry David Thoreau, who tried his best to put some of Emerson's ideas into practice. The result was a two-year stint living alone in a cabin on Walden Pond, where he spent his time writing and reflecting on nature and his surroundings. From that time alone in the woods sprang one of the great pieces of American literature, Walden. The book was the first of its kind anywhere, part spiritual journey, part nature reporting, part social critique, and part first person adventure storytelling. Here's how Thoreau explained the decision to take up such a challenge.

Again, in very American words. I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear, nor did I wish to practice resignation unless it was quite necessary.

I wanted to live deep and suck all the marrow out of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to route all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close to drive life into a corner and reduce it to its lowest term. Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be fucked by them. Their fingers from excessive toil are too clumsy and tremble too much for that. Actually, the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day. He cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men. His labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be anything but a machine. How can he remember well his ignorance, which his growth requires, who has so often to use his knowledge?

We should feed and clothe him gratuitously sometimes and recruit him with our cordials before we judge of him. The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on the fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling, yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tender. Here is how Thoreau describes the relationship between government and the individual. The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress to ordinate true respect for the individual. Even the Chinese philosopher was wise enough to regard the individual as the basis of the empire. Is a democracy such a we know it the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? There will never be a really free and enlightened state until the state comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived and treats him accordingly.

I please myself with imagining a state at last which can afford to be just to all men and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor, which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellowmen, a state which bore this kind of fruit and suffered it to drop off as fast as it might, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious state, which also I have imagined but not yet anywhere seen. Another great American writer of this period was Nathaniel Hawthorne, who also did Dime in Concord. He was born in Salem and very influenced by Salem, by the Salem Witchcraft Trials in which one of his ancestors participated, but ended up spending time in Concord as well. He had been influenced in college.

He'd gone to college at Bowdoin College in Maine, still there, still thriving college. The commencement address at Bowdoin, this is still true today, is given by a student. And the student who gave the commencement address at Bowdoin, which influenced Hawthorne so greatly, was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who went on to become arguably the leading poet of 19th century America.

And the talk was a passionate urging of Americans to find and discover their own voice. The talk was called Our Native Writers, and it fired Hawthorne's imagination that he, as a writer, could achieve exactly the goals that Longfellow was talking about in his remarks. And after a long period of seclusion and writing short stories that bear the distinctive mark of Hawthorne, very mysterious, uncanny, often weird stories. He wrote the first great American novel, The Scarlet Land. Hawthorne's work, however, was in some respect a rebuke of his Concord allies and peers and friends. It was a rebuke of the unfettered optimism that suffused their work, and you can hear it in the passages from Emerson and Thoreau that we've read. Instead, Hawthorne went back into the distant past of New England. His early works explored the sins of New England's past sins against Indians and Quakers and others.

In The Scarlet Letter, he condemns the community's cruel, even sinful, treatment of adultery. In his novel, Blythedale Romance, he turned his acid pen toward puncturing utopian delusions of communal living experiments happening around him, one of which he participated in, the Brook Farm experiment. These utopian communities were one of the other expressions of this boundless American optimism, and his literary output, Hawthorne's literary output, was a sharp critique of that culture, of the intellectual and spiritual fashions of the day. And you've been listening to Hillsdale College Professor Bill Maclay tell the story of the Declaration of Cultural and Artistic Independence in America from the old country, from Britain, Great Britain, and France, and Europe. We heard the story of Emerson and how he influenced Thoreau and Walden, the masterpiece of Thoreau's. Hawthorne and his rebuttal to the optimism, the unbridled enthusiasm of Walden and Emerson, and his masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter, America's first great American novel. When we come back, more of the remarkable story of America's independence from Europe on the artistic front, America's search for its own voice, the unbridled enthusiasm of Walden and Emerson, and his masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter, America's first great American novel.

When we come back, more of the remarkable story of America's independence from Europe on the artistic front, America's search for its own voice here on Our American Stories. conversation with those who break it. Join me Monday to Friday to find out what's happening, why, and what it all means. Follow the global story from the BBC wherever you listen to podcasts.

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All you can stream with Zumoplay. And we return to Our American Stories and the Story of America series with Professor Bill McClay of Hillsdale College. Let's return to the story. Another literary giant of the time, Herman Melville, was born 200 miles south of Concord in New York City. But he was greatly influenced by Hawthorne.

The two men met in 1850. Hawthorne at that time was 46 years old and a celebrity, soon to be an international celebrity. And Melville, whose debut novel, Typee, had already become a literary star in his 20s and now is 32 years old. Melville wrote these words to describe the impact that Hawthorne's presence, his physical presence, had on his life.

I am posterity speaking by proxy when I declare that the American who up to the present day has evinced in literature the largest brain with the largest heart. That man is Nathaniel Hawthorne. Melville would also say this about Hawthorne's standing among the literary giants of the world.

In this world of lies, truth is forced to fly like a scared white doe in the woodlands. And only by cunning glimpses will she reveal herself, as in Shakespeare and other masters of the great art of telling the truth, even though it be covertly and by snatches. One year after meeting the man he so much admired, Melville would dedicate his masterpiece, Moby Dick, to Hawthorne. The epic story of Captain Ahab's quest to seek revenge against the giant white sperm whale that bit off his leg was unlike any American novel in its scope, breadth, and depth. And it was based in part on Melville's experiences at sea. A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard, he famously quipped through his alter ego, Ishmael.

It was not an ordinary education he received on the high seas as a young man. Melville experienced the true extremes of human existence, having once been captured by cannibals, once participated in a mutiny, and sometimes would even arrive home with some treasures for his troubles. With Moby Dick, he didn't want the book to be a mere action or adventure story, he wanted it to be a metaphysical exploration.

Everything was on the table, most of all God himself. But it appears that Melville's fans wanted more of his superficial seafaring accounts rather than metaphysical explorations, and Moby Dick would become a commercial flop, only to be discovered by scholars nearly 75 years later. That's right, Melville's epic novel, which most people see as one of the top three, five American novels, many people would say the single greatest American novel. It was in its own time an epic failure, but it also became a great example of American literature, a fact for which Melville had, among others, Hawthorne to thank. Like Melville, Walt Whitman was born in New York City and was a man of the city.

He admired the city, admired its bustling crowds, the rugged peaks and canyons and contours of its skyline. More than any writer of his time, Whitman reflected the spirit of the age of Andrew Jackson. He was in that sense a populist writer, if there ever was one. Whitman was a great admirer of Emerson and served as an editor for newspapers in Brooklyn and New Orleans, and then virtually out of nowhere popped Leaves of Grass, the first edition of his book of poems published in 1855.

Melville sent it to his literary hero and Emerson responded with a letter of his own. Dear sir, I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of Leaves of Grass. I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet to contribute to. I'm very happy in reading it as great power makes us happy. It meets the demand I'm always making of what seems to be the most extraordinary piece of wisdom that America has yet to contribute to.

I'm always making of what seemed the sterile and stingy nature as if too much handiwork, too much lymph, and the temperament were making our western wits fat and mean. I give you joy of your free and brave thought. I have great joy in it. I find incomparable things said incomparably well as they must be. I find courage of treatment which so delights us and which large perception can inspire. I greet you at the beginning of a career which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little to see if this sunbeam were no illusion but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty.

It has the best merits, namely of fortifying and encouraging. I did not know until I last night saw the book advertised in a newspaper. I could trust the name is real and available for a post office. I wish to see my benefactor and have felt much like striking my task and visiting New York to pay you my respects.

R. W. Emerson. Can you imagine getting a letter like that from him? A legend in your own line of work. What a beautiful thing to say. I give you joy of your free and brave thought.

I have great joy in it. What a beautiful thing to say to an aspiring struggling author. So Liza Grass was a cessation and Whitman became the poet laureate of the common man. Indeed on the cover of the book was Whitman himself dressed in common worker clothing, a t-shirt, his hat, seat of his head crooked, writing in free unrhymed verse. Whitman wrote about every aspect of life, high and low, reflecting the city he adored and the country he loved, had its democratic features. Who was this man?

Well in Song of Myself Whitman tries to tell us. What you get is not a picture of some of Lee Wright or a fancy salon dogging down to his fellow Wright, but this. The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me. He complains of my gab and my loitering. I too am not a bit tamed.

I too am untranslatable. I sound my barbaric yaw over the roofs of the world. The last gut of day holds back for me. It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadowed wilds. It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk. I depart as air. I shake my white locks at the runaway sun.

I effuse my flesh in eddies and drift it at lacy jags. I bequeath myself to the dirt, to grow from the grass I love. If you want me again, look for me under your boot soles. You will hardly know who I am or what I mean, but I shall be good health to you nevertheless, and filter and fiber your blood.

Bailing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged, missing me one place, search another. I stop somewhere, waiting for you. The beautiful evocation of poetry that takes the high and the low all in stride, all together, all in stride, all together, all equally dignified, all equally worthy. The poet compares himself to the dirt under your boot soles. You will hardly know who I am or what I mean, anonymous, and yet I shall be good health to you nevertheless.

I stop somewhere, waiting for you. Yeah, Whitman could be messy. He could be gushy. He could be Gabby. It's easy to make fun of him.

Parody him. But the British literary giant D.H. Lawrence understood the achievement of Whitman, the achievement of Whitman, which meant he understood the literary achievement springing from this new and vibrant democracy called America. And here is what Lawrence wrote. Whitman's essential message was the open road, the leaving of the soul free unto herself, the leaving of his fate to her and to the loom of the open road, which is the bravest doctrine man has ever proposed to himself, the true democracy where soul meets soul in the open road. So messy, Walt Whitman's poetry, you bet. But was it different in form and substance and tone from Europe's best writers?

You bet. America made homegrown literature by the people and for the people, literature that America and Americans alone could produce. America, thanks to these writers, had found her muse, had found her voice. And a special thanks to Professor Bill Maclay, his performance of these writings, just remarkable.

The Story of America series with Professor Bill Maclay here on Our American Stories. From BBC Radio 4, Britain's biggest paranormal podcast is going on a road trip. I thought in that moment, oh, my God, we've summoned something from this board. This is Uncanny USA.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2024-05-07 04:38:46 / 2024-05-07 04:53:13 / 14

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