The American Revolution and the American landscape (1974) | ARCHIVES


Announcer: The American Enterprise Institute presents
the distinguished lecture series on the bBicentennial of the United States. Our host for this thought-provoking series
is Vermont Royster, Pulitzer Prize-winning Journalist with “The Wall Street Journal”
and Professor of Journalism and Public Affairs at the University of North Carolina. Vermont: I’m Vermont Royster with another
in the American Enterprise Institute distinguished lecture series on the American bicentennial. 1976 marks America’s 200th birthday. There have been, there still are, and there
undoubtedly will be many setbacks, but the American experiment has withstood the test
of time, it’s a success. The American Enterprise Institute a nonpartisan,
nonprofit research institution based in Washington, views that what our founding fathers had in
mind at the time of the revolution is still important to Americans today. In order to explore this connection between
our heritage and our present, the AEI has invited many of the nation’s leading scholars
to share with us their views on the American Revolution, and how it still applies today. Today’s lecturer is Dr. Leo Marx, Literary
Critic, Intellectual Historian, and Professor of English and Americans Studies at Amherst
College. Dr. Marx delivers his lecture on the University
of Virginia at Charlottesville. He will speak on the American Revolution and
the American landscape, both of which are all represented at the University of Virginia. The university was founded and designed by
Thomas Jefferson in 1819. Jefferson laid out the school to be what he
termed an Academical Village. On a large lawn, Jefferson placed 10 pavilions
connected by student dormitory. At the north end, Jefferson designed a rotunda,
which was a smaller and somewhat modified version of the Pantheon in Rome. The dome of the rotunda was destroyed by fire
in 1895, it is now being restored for the American bicentennial. The central point in Jefferson Academical
Village concept is the lawn or what is called the quad on several other campuses. Each of the 10 pavilions surrounding the lwn
was based on a different classical style of architecture. It was Jefferson’s idea that the different
styles would familiarize students with the basic forms of classical architecture. Originally, professors were to live and teach
in the pavilions, and today a few honored professors still live there. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the
grounds at the University of Virginia are the so-called Serpentine Wall, which enclosed
the gardens around each pavilion. The walls were designed by Jefferson for both
their beauty and their strength. Since the walls are only one brick thick,
the curve of the design strengthens and stabilizes the entire structure. The ingenious Mr. Jefferson made additional
use of the curve design. Since certain plants require less sunlight
than others, the curved shadows cast by the walls provide varying amounts of shade, providing
the proper amount of sunlight for the different types of plants in the garden. The major academic building on the ground
is Cabell Hall which was opened in 1899. It was designed by architects Stanford White. Cabell Hall houses a major auditorium which
is the site of today’s lecture by Dr. Leo Marx. Dr. Marx is introduced by Dr. Robert D. Cross,
the Dean of the University of Virginia Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Robert Cross: Tolstoy once made a crucial distinction
between thinkers who were hedgehogs and those who were foxes. And Isaiah Berlin, applying this distinction
to historian,s concluded that he was a hedgehog who had one big idea, a fox abounded what
one called insights and tricky historical maneuvers. I’m not enough of a biologist to declare exactly
in which category to place our speaker today. I’m assuming I would grant him qualifications
in both categories. Every so often an enormously important book
emerges and such was our speaker’s book, “The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the
Pastoral Ideal in America.” But is in the best sense a foxy book as well
as a hedgehog book. Its implications are not only immediate but
long run, and not only profound but profoundly pertinent. Leo Marx is not bound by any terrain or any
dogma, but the application of intelligence, insight, and some very big truths indeed. I am pleased to present my former tutor, present
friend, and after he speaks I’ll decide if I still agree with him,
Professor Leo Marx, Professor of English and Americans Studies Amherst College. Leo Marx: Thank you, Robert, you said you
were getting your arm back. Is that it? Ladies and gentlemen, although the subject
I have been invited to discuss this evening is unusual, it may not strike you as wholly
unfamiliar. I say it is unusual because we do not ordinarily
think of a landscape as having political consequences. A landscape, after all, is an image of topography. Does it make any sense to attribute revolutionary
force to a topographical image? How would it acquire such force? To my knowledge, no political philosopher
ever has addressed himself to these questions. But though the subject seems unusual when
considered in the abstract, simply as a concept, the actual title of tonight’s lecture, “The
American Revolution and the American Landscape” sounds familiar. If anything, it has a conventional school
room air about it, like an idea of revolution that we learned in the first grade along with
the words, “To America, the beautiful.” The oddity of the concept of a revolutionary
landscape seems to fade when we specify the American Revolution and the American landscape. To indicate what I mean, suppose for a moment
that we are not now assembled in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the university designed by Mr.
Jefferson, but in Paris, in a setting designed say for Louis Qautorze. And suppose that the revolution we are preparing
to celebrate is not the one that began on the village green of Lexington, Massachusetts
in April 1775, but rather the one that began at the Bastille in July 1789. Is it conceivable that we would have gathered
here to discuss the French Revolution and the French landscape? I think not. The point is that our subject not only is
peculiar, but as we used to say with more pride than we can muster nowadays, peculiarly
American. This is not to deny that the French mind like
that of any self-conscious people, has in a degree been shaped by the place it inhabits. As Americans however, we seem to be particularly
receptive to the idea of the native landscape as having had a special influence upon the
formation of our national identity. The reason is obvious, from the time they
first saw the new world, Europeans conceived of it symbolically as a possible setting for
a new beginning. It is the unique tangibility of this ideal
landscape so unspoiled, so rich, so beautiful that accounts for its exceptionally powerful
hold upon the native imagination. This fact is reflected in the work of all
our classic American writers Cooper, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, Mark
Twain, Frost, Faulkner, Hemingway, where the landscape is normally a setting or a backdrop,
but an active shaping ingredient in the consciousness of men and women. If our writers are correct, the landscape
is an important clue to the understanding of American thought and behavior. Let me illustrate with a familiar example
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fable, “The Great Gatsby,” which is an enjoying an immense vogue right
now. As it happens in fact, the new film version
of Gatsby the third film to be made of the novel is having its first showing in New York
this evening. Today, we tend to read Gatsby as a tragic
fable, written in the peculiar hybrid mode of pastoral romance developed by American
writers. But it also can be read, interestingly enough,
as a kind of mystery story. I want to call your attention to the mystery
and to the remarkable device that Fitzgerald uses to dispel that mystery as a clue to the
relation between landscape and revolution in America. The story is told, you will recall, by Nick
Carraway, a young man from Minnesota who comes east in the spring of 1922 to make his fortune
in Wall Street. The novel turns on Nick’s effort to understand
the behavior of his legendary mysterious neighbor the former James Gatz of North Dakota. To Nick, Gatsby represents, as he says, “Everything
for which I have an unaffected scorn.” What he scorns is Gatsby’s vulgar display
of wealth, his ostentatious parties on that blue lawn, the burnished cream-colored car
with its burgeoning appurtenances, not to mention he’s ruthless, even criminal methods
of getting rich. And yet Nick cannot help admiring the man,
above all he admires Gatsby’s single-minded devotion to one ideal, his absolute commitment
to winning back Daisy, his first love. It is the man’s extraordinary gift for hope,
his belief in the possibility of erasing the past. The five years since his rhapsodic affair
with Daisy that leads Nick to tell Gatsby, “Finally, you are worth a whole damn bunch
put together.” But the truth is that until the very end Nick
is unable to make up his mind about the man, he cannot fathom that mysterious blend of
moral obtuseness and idealism. And so all through the summer, he wavers between
feelings of revulsion and admiration. It is only when the summer’s over after Gatsby
has been murdered, that Nick finally discovers the missing clue. “Just before going back to Minnesota, his
trunk packed, he returns to the shore near Gatsby’s house. It is evening, and in the moonlight, he sees
the landscape as the imagines it once had appeared to arriving Europeans. And only then, does he find an explanation
for Gatsby’s contradictory and self-destructive behavior.” “Most of the big shore places were closed
now,” he says “And there were hardly any whites except the shadowy moving glow of a ferry
boat across the sound. And as the moon rose higher, the inessential
houses began to melt away, until gradually I became aware of the old island here that
flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes. A fresh green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made
way for Gatsby’s house had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human
dreams.” “For a transitory enchanted moment, man must
have held his breath in the presence of this continent compelled into an aesthetic contemplation,
he neither understood nor desired, face-to-face for the last time in history with something
commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” What this extraordinary only resonant passage
implies is nothing less than a theory of the origins of the American character and, by
extension, of our national behavior. It says that what happened to Gatsby, how
we came to be the man he was, and his eventual fate can only be understood in the light of
the special way that Europeans perceive the New World. The side of an unspoiled, unstoried green
continent, nurtured certain propensities of thought and action which are still operative
five centuries after Columbus’s first landfall. It is important to notice also that Nick describes
that flowering landscape back of the vanished trees as having pandered to the dreams of
his prototypical American. With that one devastating word, Fitzgerald
quietly insinuates a criticism of the dream, which the landscape evoked. Vermont: We’re watching Dr. Leo Marx discussing
the American Revolution and the American landscape. Dr. Marx’s thesis that the native landscape
of America has had a special influence upon the formation of our national identity. In just one moment, Dr. Marx continues. While many students in Virginia and other
universities often spend a midnight dreary, while they ponder the weak and weary, the
student who did it in this room was the author of those lines Edgar Allan Poe. Fittingly, Poe had room number 13. Poe wrote to his foster father that he’d paid
$15 for the room in rent, and then he spent another $12 for his bed, and $12 for the room
furniture. Today, the Poe room is maintained as it was
in the 1800s as an exhibit on the university ground. We now return to Dr. Leo Marx who is speaking
not far from this room. Dr. Leo: If there is anything distinctive
about the American experience of the land, it is the brevity of our tenure and the fact
that we often made the land a commodity before using it as a habitation. “The land was ours,” in Robert Frost’s words,
“before we were the lands.” So far from having a particularly enduring
affection and attachment to the places we inhabit, Americans probably are the least
rooted, the most casually nomadic of modern peoples. Moreover, the nation’s record as a user of
forests, grasslands, wildlife, and water sources in the 19th century is, in the judgment of
one historian, the most violent and the most destructive of any written in the long history
of civilization. No, the unique significance of the landscape
in the American consciousness is not to be confused with reverence for the land as such. Rather, as Fitzgerald understood, its significance
is chiefly symbolic. It is a central feature of our midst of national
origins. According to that myth, it is the landscape
that invited Europeans to disengage themselves from a constricted social environment, and
to begin a simpler, freer, more fulfilling life in the unstoried terrain of North America. When Nick gazes at the shore and the moonlight,
when the imagines how it looked to the first Europeans, he suddenly recognizes the origin
of Gatsby’s quote, “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life.” Like, Columbus or the Dutch sailors or the
millions who followed them, Gatsby believes that tomorrow, any tomorrow, we shall erase
the past, and begin a new life. The sort of life that only exceptional wealth,
beauty, and freedom can provide. If Americans have a peculiar inclination to
experience the world in this way, it is because the idea of a new beginning once had, or at
least seem to have had, such a credible basis in topographical fact. That unspoiled, unstoried continent once had
been there, a tangible landscape of limitless possibilities, and it informed everything
that Europeans did when they came to America. To Europeans, the most important physical
attribute of the American landscape probably was space itself, real, open, seemingly boundless
space. It is worth recalling that the beginning of
interest in landscape as a subject, exemplified by the painting of landscape for its own sake,
coincided with the age of exploration. Before that time, European art and literature
seems to reflect a sense of being hemmed in, confined to old, used, closed spaces. When the idealizing imagination of Europeans
had taken flight, it had tended to move in time rather than space. Such dreams of Felicity as we identify with
the golden age or Eden, or Arcadia, draw most of their vitality from their location in time. It is their temporal distance, their pastness
rather than a particular topography that gives these ideal worlds most of their power. And a similar point can be made about the
future-oriented utopias of the Renaissance. But the availability of space outside of Europe
and particularly in the hospitable climate of North America changed all that. Here was usable space that enabled Europeans
literally to act out the most ancient primordial urge to get away, to take a trip and to begin
life again in unspoiled landscape. When Tom Paine wrote “Common Sense” late in
1775, he had been in the colonies for only one year, yet that most effective of revolutionary
pamphlets is drenched in a similar kind of topographical awareness. “The Reformation,” Paine writes, “was preceded
by the discovery of America: As if the Almighty graciously meant to open a sanctuary to the
persecuted in future years when home should afford neither friendship nor safety.” In addition to the seeming emptiness of American
space, hence its availability as an asylum for the oppressed, Paine emphasized the monumental
dimensions of this virgin landscape. “Throughout,” he writes, “as if there were
some necessary affinity between greatness and size, the sheer extent of the continental
terrain, and the greatness of the American cause.” I quote “The sun never shone on a cause of
greater worth, ’tis not the affair of a city, a county, a province, or kingdom, but of a
continent of at least one-eighth part of the habitable globe.” It is worth noting, incidentally, that the
words “continent” and “continental” became more and more popular with the Americans as
their revolutionary fervor increased. When the delegates for the first Congress
Assembled in Philadelphia in September 1774, they did not refer to that body as the Continental
Congress, but that is how it came to be known along with Continental Currency and the Continental
Army and so on. The mere verbal identification of the revolutionary
cause with the huge North American land mass was a source of courage and hope. It obviously was reassuring for John Adams
to write in another letter to his wife, a curious sentence like this one, I quote “The
continent is really in earnest in defending the country.” There is a certain pathos, it seems to me,
along with the unmistakable brag, about the popularity of the word continent. Here, after 150 years, were this spokesman
for this thin line of colonial settlements still largely confined to a narrow strip along
the Eastern Seaboard, describing themselves as an entire continent in revolt. It was not difficult for a brilliant polemicist
like Paine to invest the American landscape with revolutionary significance. In “Common Sense,” he repeatedly translates
indisputable geographical facts into arguments for independence. I quote, “’tis repugnant to reason,” he writes,
“to the universal order of things, to all examples from former ages to suppose that
this continent can long remain subject to any external power, reconciliation is now
a fallacious dream.” Like Franklin, Paine loved to taunt the British
with their presumptions smallness, “There is something absurd,” he writes, “in supposing
a continent to be perpetually governed by an island.” Topography, after all, reveals those laws
of nature to which the Declaration will appeal as a sanction for revolution. “In no instant,” Paine wrote, “has nature
made the satellite larger than its primary planet. And as England and America, with respect to
each other, reverse the common order of nature, it is evident that they belong to different
systems, England to Europe, America to itself.” A large part of what Paine meant by “Common
Sense” is a simple environmentalism, the assumption that a man’s interest inevitably are determined
by the place he inhabits. “It is folly to argue,” Paine writes, “that
Americans should accept the royal veto because British subjects living in England accept
it.” I quote, “England being the King’s residence
and America not so, makes quite another case. The king’s negative here is 10 times more
dangerous and fatal than it can be in England, for there he will scarcely refuse consent
to a bill for putting England into a stronger state of defense as possible. And in America, he would never suffer such
a bill to be passed.” Vermont: Dr. Leo Marx has been discussing
the effect of the landscape of America upon our development as a nation. In just one moment, Dr. Marx will return. Students of Virginia are surrounded by some
examples of outstanding statuary on the gardens of the university. This statue entitled “Homer and His Young
Guide” was done by Sir Moses Ezekiel, and so was the surrendering of Thomas Jefferson. The Jefferson statue was cast in Rome and
presented to the state of Virginia by the sculptor. Jefferson stands on a replica of the Liberty
Bell, and the figures around in the bell represent liberty, justice, religious freedom, and human
freedom. The beautiful grounds of the university form
a fitting backdrop for our AEI lecturer Dr. Leo Marx, who is discussing the American Revolution
and the American landscape. Leo Marx: Turning now to the second attribute
of the American landscape, its seeming timelessness, I want to suggest how it also contributed
to the idea of a revolutionary new beginning. But the spatial and temporal characteristics
of the landscape lent credibility to the cause of revolution in precisely opposite ways. The vast forests, mountains, rivers, prairies,
and plains of North America provided tangible images of boundlessness. They provided real objects for the representation
of ideal space. But that same undeveloped landscape divested
time of its usual landmarks. Compared to the terrain of Britain and Western
Europe with its cities, roads, monuments, and ruins, the American landscape was unmarked
by the usual traces of history, or at least what the white man of Europe considered to
be history. The fact that Indians lacked a written record
of the past was one of the many reasons that Europeans assigned them to the realm of wild
nature or savagery rather than to human civilization. During the Revolutionary era, Americans often
referred to their country as an asylum, by which they meant a sanctuary from the forms
of constraint and repression inherited from the past. It was a landscape that invited epithets like
unstoried, and immemorial. Words that indicate how this place carried
the mind beyond the usual limits of memory, tradition, and history. It was a terrain that nebuly turned thought
from the past to the future. It implied that the grip of the past upon
the present is not a fixed condition of human existence and that a fresh start is always
possible. By 1776, this potentially radical idea had
been translated into a specific program for dissolving the political bands which connected
Americans to the past. It issued an revolutionary act of separation. But if the unstoried landscape reinforced
the separatist or centrifugal aspect of the revolution, it also lent an impetus to its
political corollary, the idea of founding an entirely new republic. A landscape untouched by history inevitably
had aroused fears of lawlessness, and the instinctive response of many Englishman was
to go back to first principles and establish a new political order. A large part of the success that we claim
for the American Revolution, can be attributed to the fact that it took place in an undeveloped
landscape. Most revolutionary movements no matter how
much they have aspired to anti-authoritarian ideals, have had to struggle against entrenched
power and authority. And in the course of the struggle, they often
have been compelled to recreate the kind of centralized power they initially had repudiated. But in large measure, the old order against,
which the American revolutionist were fighting, was across the Atlantic. Besides, the very newness of the colonies
tended to diminish the influence of the wealth, status, and power, that some Americans had
acquired by 1776. Hence, the American revolution was won without
generating the kind of class hatred, fanaticism, absolutism, and violence, that often has undermined
revolutionary idealism. Unlike the French, Russian, or Chinese, revolutionists,
the Americans did not have to build their new order on the ruins of an old one. Even at the time, the Americans understood
why there’s had been a particularly fortunate revolution. When a group of French officers who had fought
beside the Americans were embarking for their return to Europe, one Bostonian issued this
warning, I quote, “Do not let your hopes be inflamed by our triumphs on this virgin soil,
you will carry our sentiments with you. But if you try to plant them in a country
that has been corrupt for centuries, you will encounter obstacles more formidable than ours. Our liberty has been won with blood, you will
have to shed it in torrents] before liberty can take root in the old world.” The third attribute of the North American
landscape that contributed to the revolutionary spirit along with it spatial and temporal
character, was the promise of economic fulfillment. To gaze upon what Columbus called those very
fruitful fields admirably adapted for tillage, pasture, and habitation was to imagine an
escape from the chronic scarcity which Europeans had assumed to be a permanent fact of life. In Jefferson’s language, the unique thing
about America was, and I quote, “The lovely equality which the poor enjoy with the rich.” Our term “middle class” lacks the resonance
of this 18th century middling concept, for the men of the revolution had moral, cultural,
and political, as well as economic implications. And they all were figured forth by the image
of a terrain midway between a decadent Europe and a savage frontier. The Republic of the middle state was to be…
excuse me. The Republic of the middle state was to be
an almost pastoral society of small property holders. Men who would be satisfied to fulfill the
austere neoclassical ideal of economic sufficiency. It is this moderate sensibility which distinguishes
the revolutionists of 1776, from those who staged most other revolutions. No other revolution has been fought by men
in so little danger of real deprivation, or so unprovoked by the injustice of people living
lives of luxury with insight of desperate poverty. Just as the American landscape represented
freedom from constraint in space and in time, it represented the scarcely credible possibility
of freedom from want. But of all the implications of the American
landscape which nurtured the revolutionary spirit of a new beginning, the most profoundly
effective, if also the most elusive, was philosophical. Here, I refer to the capacity of the landscape
to represent the concept of nature itself. When Europeans journeyed into the wilderness
to establish new communities, they were beginning again returning to nature in a quite literal
sense. And when in 1776, the Congress voted to declare
the independence of the colonies, they faced the issue of beginning again in an abstract
political and philosophical sense. How would they justify breaking the law and
resorting to violence? This was the bedrock philosophic issue with
which the Congress confronted the committee of five, Messrs Jefferson, Adams, Franklin,
Sherman, and Livingston, when it directed them to draw up the official proclamation
of independence. In effect, these men were asked to provide
a reasoned case on behalf of behavior which they themselves would have described not long
before as criminal. They were asked to justify acts which they
knew would really be regarded by many of their contemporaries as treason and murder. But the fact is that they had very little
difficulty in marshaling their arguments. They announced to the world that they were
entitled to make a revolution, to alter or abolish the existing government by in the
familiar yet seldom understood phrase the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.” This is not to suggest that the idea had emanated
directly from the native landscape, or that Mr. Jefferson had plucked it like some ideological
flower from his garden. But it was ready at hand as everyone knows
in the language of the natural rights philosophy, so effectively propounded by John Locke almost
a century before. To justify an unlawful seizure of power, Locke
had asked the Englishman to suppose a hypothetical situation in which they found themselves living
outside of politically defined social space in what he called a state of nature. His brilliant notion was that when we try
to imagine such a return to nature, we are more likely to see the purpose of government
in proper perspective. We then recognize that government is not a
natural necessity like air, food, water, clothing, or shelter. Men form governments for self-protection,
and it follows therefore that governments exist to serve men rather than the other way
around. When a government ceases to provide that protection,
men have a right derived from their essential being, from that initial state of nature,
to alter or abolish it. They have a natural right to organize a revolution. In making this argument, Locke came close
to deifying the idea of nature, by which he meant a set of abstract principles or laws
governing the universe and accessible to human reason. That such laws exist had been proven beyond
all doubt by the astonishing discoveries of Galileo, Kepler, and Newton. Although science had discovered the physical
principles of natural order and harmony, their political counterparts had yet to be fully
apprehended, and it was to fill that gap that Locke offered his theory. But if Englishman of the 18th century were
responsive to the doctrine of natural rights, consider for a moment how much more it meant
to their colonial relatives. For a century and a half, the colonist been
accustomed to thinking of themselves as living if not in a state of nature, well, then, at
a considerable distance from the centers of urban civilization. Americans were indisputably, irrevocably provincials. And during the revolution, they embraced that
idea. The pervasive environmentalism of the age
enabled them to make a virtue of provinciality. For after all, if thought and behavior is
in large measure determined by the environment, and if the ultimate principles of order and
harmony lie hidden behind the mask of nature, then an American obviously was far more likely
to gain access to those principles than a Londoner or a Parisian. “Thus the American landscape effected a virtual
religious conversion when Englishman set foot on American soil,” said Creve Coeur, “they
experience a kind of resurrection, they become new men.” This idea accorded perfectly with the criticism
of a corrupt society developed by disaffected Englishman at home, adapted to American needs
the standard viewpoint of the neoclassic, and radical wig social criticism meant that
course native homespun like provincial manners was more natural, honest, and virtuous than
imported silk or a London coffeehouse sophistication. Vermont: Dr. Leo Marx has been pointing out
that the American landscape, its vast open spaces and its promise of abundance, was one
of the major reasons for the great migration here from Europe in the days before the revolution. In just one moment, he will continue. On Edgar Allan Poe’s day, the dormitory rooms
and the ranges and pavilions that surround the Great Lawn at the University of Virginia,
were the customary living quarters for all of the students. Today, those 109 rooms are considered a place
of honor. They’re occupied by graduates students, upper-class
or honor students, and a select few others, who have made some outstanding contribution
to the university. Although all the rooms are centrally heated,
each of the honor rooms has its own fireplace. Students enjoy using these original fireplaces,
they provide their own firewood which is stacked neatly outside each doorway. Dr. Leo Marx is about to conclude his lecture
with a warning about the ecology of America and the future of the American revolution. Leo Marx: In America, as in Republican Rome,
access to a more natural rural setting was thought to be conducive to sound, anti-monarchy
views, at a time when Englishman believed that the simple life repose and contemplation
in the countryside helped to breed Republican manners. The American landscape inevitably was perceived
as a seedbed of Republican virtue. What I have been trying to suggest is that
the topographical awareness of Americans coincided with John Locke’s philosophic argument on
behalf of revolution. Even in the 17th century, he had had some
glimpse of this truth, in the beginning, he wrote, “All the world was America. When Englishman migrated, they, in effect,
are approximating a return to that state of nature in which men are best able to perceive
self-evident truth.” The Lockian doctrine of natural rights thus
provided a philosophical confirmation of a viewpoint that seemed to arise almost spontaneously
from American soil. If the former attributes of the native landscape
I have been discussing have a common significance, it is, most simply put, the idea of freedom
from constraint, the apparent limitlessness of space, the seeming absence of history,
the promise of abundance, the accessibility of nature’s God. All of these were made visible, physically
attainable, or so it seemed, by the American landscape. This was the green beacon that attracted millions
of English and European migrants to the new world. The colonists who rebelled against Britain
in 1776, were a self-selected population of men and women, with a special responsiveness
to the idea of a fresh start. Either they themselves or their ancestors
had at some point been willing to leave an old organized society, and begin a new life
in the fresh green terrain of the new world. In conclusion, and with the approaching bicentennial
in view, I would like now to briefly consider what has happened to this myth of a political
new beginning in the two centuries since the revolution. To that end, I want to remind you once again
of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s image of the American landscape with which I began. When the narrator Nick Carraway imagines the
old island that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes he goes on to say that the fresh green
land pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of human dreams. With that long shocking verb, Fitzgerald,
to repeat, insinuates a dark view of the fate of American idealism, to pander is to minister
to base passions. In other words, the magnificent landscape
has had two quite different effects upon the American consciousness. Initially it fostered a spiriting vision like
Gatsby’s extraordinary gift for hope. And in 1976, that meant a revolutionary commitment
to the idea of separation from England and the establishment of a more generous free
republic than any known to Europe. But at the same time, a landscape pandered
to an illusion which has well-nigh destroyed that hope that revolutionary commitment just
as it destroyed Jay Gatsby. Is there any chance of getting a glass of water
before I choke? Leo Marx: To be more specific, consider the
contradictory influences of the image of landscape as empty boundless space. It inspired the men of the revolution to create
a society dedicated to the proposition, as Lincoln later would put it, that all men are
created equal. But as it turned out, the same image ministered
to self-serving ethnocentric and racist behavior. There was no place in that imaginary unspoiled
landscape for the Indians who thus could be removed along with the trees that made way
for Gatsby’s palatial house. It is worth noting incidentally that it was
a black American Stokely Carmichael, Spokesman for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s,
who reminded us of the unmistakably, if unconsciously, ethnocentric history lesson we teach our children
with the simple statement “Columbus discovered America.” If there was no place in this myth of national
origins for the Indians, neither was there one for the blacks who came to the new world,
not in order to be more free, but to be enslaved. In practice, the more ample life for all people
figured by American space, was interpreted to mean a more ample life for men of white
European descent. Thank you very much. By the same token, the sense of being out
of historical time in America had both creative and destructive consequences. The image of a landscape unmarked by history
lent an impetus to the revolutionary idealism embodied in the Declaration of Independence. But it also encouraged Europeans to entertain
the illusion that when they crossed the Atlantic they somehow purged their age-old tendencies
toward aggression, domination, and conquest. It encouraged them to believe that in America
they might create a classless conflict-free, peaceful Republic, like the Edenic world that
presumably existed before history began. There is a telling passage in “The Great Gatsby”
when Nick tries to persuade Gatsby that he cannot expect Daisy simply to erase the five
years she has been married to Tom Buchanan. I quote, “‘You cannot repeat the past,’ Nick
says. “Cannot repeat the past?” He, Gatsby, cried incredulously. “‘Well, of course, you can. I’m going to fix everything just the way it
was before.'” This idea that it is possible at any moment
to race time, to recapture an ideal untainted past, and to start again is traceable to the
myth of national origins. It accounts for the often noted American propensity
for strategies of denial or avoidance. When we have cut down all the trees on a piece
of land or polluted a river or made a city unlivable, our native instinct often has been
to move out and start somewhere else. A contemporary sociologist Philip Slater has
named this habit of thinking that is the idea the complicated problems can be flushed away,
the toilet assumption of American thought. It is a dangerous self-deluding tendency and
one that is served to deflect attention and energy imagination from the complex problems
that would have to be solved in order to make the ideals of the American Revolution attainable
in our own time. So, too, the promise of abundance, symbolized
by the American landscape, has had the unforeseen effect of diminishing revolutionary hope. The patriots of 1776, envisaged a society
that might make possible for the first time in history, freedom from want. They hoped to create a community distinguished
by a relative equality of condition in which no one would be too rich or too poor. But in fact, the seemingly inexhaustible resources
symbolized by the landscape gave rise to a quite different passion for an endlessly rising
rate of economic production and consumption. Our natural wealth indeed has ministered to
those very base passions greed, selfish acquisitiveness, and wasteful luxury in the face of acute deprivation
that the Founding Fathers identified with the decadent European aristocracy. A primary source of the disenchantment with
the decadent…excuse me. A primary source of the disenchantment with
the American dream that informs our literature in “The Great Gatsby,” for example, is Fitzgerald’s
savage portrayal of the narrow self-serving mentality of the very rich in America. “‘They were callous people,’ Nick says of
Tom and Daisy. “They smashed up things in creatures and then
retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept
them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.'” But of all the base passions to which the
landscape ministered, perhaps the most destructive has been our excessive belief in American
differences. It was only a short step from the exhilarating
revolutionary spirit with its deep sense of America’s exceptional good fortune, to an
exaggerated and self-righteous view of the uniqueness of native virtue. As I noted earlier, the return of Europeans
to a more natural environment, if not to that pure state of nature in which all truth becomes
self-evident, often was regarded as providing access to ultimate, almost sacred, meanings
and values. In less pretentious terms freedom from the
constraints of European convention and scarcity made possible a new sort of person more spontaneous,
forthright, easy, good-hearted or in a word, as we say, more natural than people elsewhere. Hence any purpose adopted by Americans is
likely to be perceived by Jay Gatsby’s purpose as the following of a grail. The initial identification of the national
consciousness with nature had the effect of sacralizing national aspirations. Although the attributes of the landscape encouraged
Americans to believe they were creating a unique society marked by a new revolutionary
conception of freedom and equality, they were, in fact, recreating many of those European
conditions against which the revolution had been fought in the first place. As we approach the bicentennial celebration,
it would be a mistake to deny on all the ways in which the Republic of today falls short
of the goals envisaged by Jefferson and his colleagues in 1776. If that green light at the end of Daisy’s
dock is a sadly diminished emblem of what the new world landscape once had represented,
so has our commitment to the ideals of the revolution been diminished. For at least a century after 1776, the United
States was the inspiration of people struggling for freedom throughout the world. But today, in many places, men and women with
aspirations not unlike those of the patriots of ’76, regard the United States as the enemy
rather than a friend of revolutionary egalitarianism, and not without reason. Within this country, moreover, the attitudes
toward the concept of revolution also have changed. In recent years, the word itself has regained
a measure of its appeal for numbers of disaffected Americans. Once again, some Americans students, blacks,
and others are thinking about revolution as a feasible means of achieving political ends. But the significant fact is that they are
contemplating a revolution directed against our own institutions, our own government. And so all of these reflections bring me back
finally to the way F. Scott Fitzgerald unlocked the mystery of Jay Gatsby’s fate. It was from the landscape that Nick learned
what destroyed Gatsby. In the end, he realized that the myth of national
origins which gave rise to those dreams of ecstatic fulfillment also destroyed the dreamer. To be sure the myth always had forced to delusions,
but in the beginning, before settlement was completed, they had had a much more credible
basis in fact. I quote, “‘And as I sat there,” says Nick,
‘brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out
the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn,
and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.'” And then just here in the pause between two
sentences, Nick, at last, is able to explain the mystery of the failure of American hopes. He now knows something that Gatsby had not
known and that something has led to Gatsby’s destruction. “‘He did not know,” says Nick of Gatsby, “that
it, the dream was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city
where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.'” I take this to mean that the vision of possibilities
figured forth by the American landscape, if it ever was achievable, was closest to realization
when the Republic began. Since that time, we have neglected the responsibility
of bringing it up to date that is of translating it into a language appropriate for a society
that no longer has access to an unspoiled unstoried landscape. In preparation for 1976, it is instructive
to read “The Great Gatsby” as a cautionary fable. It may remind us why, and how, we have become
distracted from our own generous revolutionary ideas. And it may yet encourage us to change direction
and complete America’s uncompleted revolution. Vermont: We’ve been listening to Dr. Leo Marx,
discussing the American Revolution and the American landscape. Dr. Marx reminisces that as Americans destroyed
and diminished our natural resources, we have also diminished our commitment to the goals
of the American Revolution. This lecture has been one in a series presented
by the American Enterprise Institute, dealing with many aspects and many points of view
regarding the American Revolution, and its effect on all of us today. If you would like a copy of Dr. Marx’s lecture
or the entire series, write the American Enterprise Institute, that’s AEI, Post Office Box 19191,
Washington, DC, 20036. Until next time, this is Vermont Royster. Thank you for joining us.

2 Comments

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *