American Notes: Selected Essays
The college I attended, during my years there, was in full experimental mode. That meant we got the workload of an Ivy-league school and none of the accolades. The centerpiece of this experience was a class loosely modeled on Columbia’s great books course. In the second semester one wrote a 30-page research paper somewhat related to the course content. That’s how I met Daniel Aaron.
Perhaps I should say made the acquaintance of; I never actually meet these writers, I’m just convinced I know them from their work. My research topic was American proletarian literature of the Great Depression and Aaron, quite literally, wrote the book on the subject: Writers on the Left: Episodes in American Literary Communism. What I remember about that book was that it was a fabulous synthesis of literary criticism and applied social science. But I moved on in my studies and didn’t think about Professor Aaron again until he showed up in the remainder pile at Barnes & Noble.
American Notes, with its intentional tip of the titular hat to Dickens, is an anthology of Aaron’s work from the 1930s to the 1990s. That’s quite a span and his reach is even broader. The essays range on subjects from Richard Henry Dana and Francis Parkman to Langston Hughes to Don DeLillo. And if the 150-year range doesn’t wow you his particular fascinations–Randolph Bourne and Brooks Adams–may be new to you. They were to me and by now you may realize I’m a prolific and omnivorous reader.
It turns out that Aaron, who is also a founder of the Library of America and is still alive at age 99, was granted one of the first PhDs in American Studies, although at Harvard they called it American Civilization. A Jewish outsider in a WASP establishment, Aaron brought a critical intelligence to bear on integrating cultural artifacts–particularly literary works–with history to help better understand American society. This is the kind of thing that sets practical people to grinding their teeth but helps me in my own evolving synthesis.
So why read Aaron? Well, you’ll learn. For instance, miscegenation was a word coined in the late 1850s by political opponents of Lincoln in an effort to embarrass him. The mind behind that plot was the father of the founder of The New Republic which is the sort of irony I savor. Or that after publishing Two Years Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana retreated into the Boston Brahmin world to do as was expected of him. Or that George Santayana was a cold and distant observer able to seemingly shrug off great human tragedies.
I found myself reminded that great scholarship and keen insight always have value. Here’s a smattering from the essay on Santayana:
“Americans, as distinguished from their pale intellectual spokesman, tended to be energetic, good-humored, generous and technically competent–traits that boded well for the future of the nation. At the same time, they lacked historical memory and were glad rather than ‘ashamed of always having to begin afresh.’ They wanted to ‘foist their own democratic tradition on older ones and to refashion all human souls’ after their own image.”
Whatever your personal politics, ask yourself if that explication of national character doesn’t provide a strong foundation for understanding the follies of the last 10 years (or earlier, the Vietnam era).
You either believe that fox-like synthesis of disparate source material has value or you don’t. My mind functions that way so to reject works like Aaron’s would be like denying my own self. What I think you’ll get if you read this book is a deeper appreciation of understanding society from a literary perspective and a list of things you really ought to get around to reading.