The Dream of Reason

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

In the course of a year’s production of scholarly volumes, there are so few which even come close to the scope and perspective of Bush’s compilation of American intellectual, artistic, and material artifacts that we must applaud both the author’s vision and the publisher’s bravery for The Dream of Reason.

Students and critics of American Culture (or American Studies or American Civilization, depending upon one’s institutional perspective and affiliation) are, of course, familiar with the “pioneering” works: Perry Miller’s Errand into the Wilderness, R. W. B. Lewis’s The American Adam, Vernon L. Parrington’s three-volume series on Main Currents in American Thought, Barbara Novak’s American Painting of the Nineteenth Century, and Alan Gowan’s The Unchanging Arts. Each of these authors deals with one or more of the concerns of Bush, but only Bush attempts to put fine and popular arts, elite and popular literature, mechanical and technological progress, and political events into one compelling overview of the new, awkward, and uncertain nation from 1776 to 1865—all in approximately four hundred pages.

Obviously, Bush is almost forced to make some too-sweeping generalizations if he is to cover that much time in that number of pages; yet some of the generalizations leave the reader with an uneasiness about what has been said. But, by the same token, Bush pulls into one place many seemingly unconnected aspects of the culture and makes the reader, in fact, see that political change did not exist in a vacuum apart from literary and painting-style changes or mechanical changes which gave the workers of that era the steam engine and the wheat thresher. And Bush does it all with the additional advantages (and disadvantages) of the foreign observer, for he is a lecturer in English and American literature at the University of Warwick, in England.

Because he views Americans and the American culture from a psychological and environmental distance, Bush is able to laugh at some of the foibles which we find too sacred for humor, and to avoid laughing at some pomposities which to the twentieth century viewer seem almost beyond belief.

For example, Americans traveling in China today are often disturbed by the number of pictures of Lenin and Mao and Marx on display. Such deification seems inappropriate, even ridiculous, especially in our post-Watergate age. Yet George Washington’s pictures hung in every classroom and village hall in the United States well into the twentieth century, and no one took offense. As Bush points out, such portraits “became visual incitements to public virtue and private honour.” For the popular canonizers, Washington’s death actually made their job easier; a dead hero is a much safer commodity than a live one. Many persons have always felt that sculpture is more fitting for a hero than a simple portrait. The portrait can be duplicated and distributed more quickly and inexpensively than a statue, but the stone or bronze form with its three-dimensionality gives the viewer a more realistic feeling for the depicted subject. Washington did not escape such depiction, and Bush is to be credited for resisting the opportunity to laugh at Horatio Greenough’s 1836 George Washington—a larger-than-life sculpture which has the former President seated on a monumental chair, scepter in his left hand, right hand raised toward the skies, with drapery around only the lower half of his body. Although intended for the rotunda of the Capitol Building, this more-or-less copy of a statue of Zeus in the temple at Olympia with its superimposed head of Washington, finally wound up in a dusty corner of the Smithsonian.

With the popular arts, Bush places the monthly magazine stories of Kit Carson and Mike Fink, the lithographs of Currier and Ives, and candid photography into the meaningful perspective of the growing middle-class American society. Unfortunately, his views of the popular arts and of the popular content—visual and narrative—are some of Bush’s weakest comments, in that he sometimes finds himself forced into a corner by his own reason. For example, he devotes a chapter to “The Hero as Representative” and attempts to discuss the role of the hero in American culture. However, he begins the chapter with the statement that “the need for heroes reflects a clamour for social identity and is deeply allied to thwarted social needs.” Whether such yearning for heroes is a function of frustrations, or whether it is a function of a desire to emulate someone closer at hand than a mystical God-figure is not the problem here. What is of concern is that Bush would almost have us believe that Americans are the only persons who have or want or need heroes. Further, when he says “the intense and hysterical involvement of many Americans in the deposition of a recent president shows the continuance in American life of the politicopsychological phenomenon of hero-worship,” such admiration somehow becomes a mental aberration. But on the other hand, he lauds the movement in popular taste from the refined gentleman, Natty Bumppo, to the raucous frontiersman, Kit Carson, and from “battle piece” paintings to the William S. Mount genre studies and the Currier and Ives prints, which brought art into every living room. Finally, he can herald the arrival of the camera as the instrument which destroyed the hold of the elitists on pictorial realism.

He also would have us accept that painting and poetry “were at first felt to be too aristocratic ever to admit of their practice in a republic. . . . The scientist became more important than the artist as an expounder of the...

(The entire section is 2338 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Choice. XV, December, 1978, p. 1430.