John William De Forest Critical Essays


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

John William De Forest’s works accurately reflect the phases of his ideology, beginning with high optimism about progress, reaching mature though still visionary belief in America’s destiny as a light to the world, passing on to disillusionment about and satiric criticism of the actual course the United States was taking after the Civil War, and ending in melancholy and private resignation over the country’s failure to fulfill the American Dream.

Although the panic of 1837 lastingly damaged the fortunes of the family business, De Forest’s youth saw a period of phenomenal growth in every area of the economy and constant technological inventions and improvements. Intoxicated by the magnitude and rapidity of progress in the United States, De Forest believed devoutly in the country’s future and its mission as the coming leader of the world. While he was alive to the cultural and architectural attractions of Europe and the Near East, he compensated for any feelings of cultural inferiority by noticing and describing in detail the many and varied signs of decadence and decay in the Old World and holding them up for comparison with American progress. His travelogues about central and southern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean reaffirm the worth and superiority of American democracy, just as his History of the Indians of Connecticut from the Earliest Known Period to 1850 concludes that it was morally right and historically inevitable for white American civilization to have superseded the anachronistic, barbarous mode of living of the native American Indians.

In the development of De Forest’s ideology, the moral element is of particular importance, for he had been exposed to a religious environment in his childhood. Somewhat later, he read John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666) and The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684) as well as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s New England romances (1850-1852). These works tempered his easy belief in progress by their insistence on the moral weakness of all human beings. De Forest began to understand that outward progress was hollow unless it was accompanied by inward progress: It was not only the gross national product that needed to grow but the human soul as well. In his first novels, Witching Times and Seacliff, De Forest outlines the nature of this inward growth and establishes the cultivation of the virtues of the New Testament—faith, hope, and charity—as the moral equivalent of economic progress and as the most important requirement for America’s impending role as world leader.

During his courtship of Harriet Shepard and during the first few years of their marriage, De Forest spent considerable time in Charleston, South Carolina. Firsthand observation of African Americans and a realization of the magnitude of the problem that emancipation would present kept him from becoming an abolitionist; he felt instead that slavery might melt into serfage and finally disappear altogether over a span of six generations. He did not consider southern white society contemptible because of its adherence to slavery; he saw that the system was indefensible, but he also recognized and respected the personal dignity and integrity of high-toned southerners. De Forest never doubted, however, that slavery had to cease: It was morally wrong, it had been the subject of harsh criticism by the Europeans that De Forest had met during his early travels abroad, and it had become so topical an issue that it might become a real crisis at any time.

The outbreak of the Civil War destroyed De Forest’s hopes for a gradual disappearance of slavery, and, making a virtue of necessity, he came to see the war as something of a godsend, as an opportunity for America to mend the one great imperfection in the national fabric. The extraordinary sacrifices required by the war could indeed be made to appear sensible only if they served a great end, the unimpeded progress of the United States to human and societal perfection. De Forest’s actual experience in the war and the Reconstruction, however, together with his interest in the theories of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer on biological and societal evolution, confirmed him in his opinion that racial equality would be achieved only gradually in the United States rather than swiftly and that the fostering of individual worthiness and responsibility was prerequisite to the ultimate realization of a perfect society. The United States, De Forest concluded, had a long way to go after all, and along the way it would need the guidance of the best and the brightest of its citizens.

Accordingly, De Forest developed in his novels, from Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty to The Wetherel Affair, as well as in several essays, the concept of the worthy gentleman of democracy. It is particularly noteworthy that this concept is not purely northern but rather a synthesis of northern morals and southern manners. Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty describes the breakthrough of a new relationship between North and South, the end of all bitterness, and the renewed hope for a great national future. The essays “Two Girls” and “The ’High-Toned Gentleman’” (1868) suggest ways to draw on the abilities of the American woman and the high character of the defeated southerners in the continuing and indeed renewed effort to realize the American Dream; “The Great American Novel” of the same year defines the function of the American writer as that of a spiritual goal setter, leader, and educator of the vast mediocre masses of democracy and thus expresses the same sentiments Walt Whitman would put forward more poetically in Democratic Vistas (1871). In Overland and Kate Beaumont, De Forest turns west and south, back to the days before the war, in search of a heritage to energize the moral and economic progress of the country after Appomattox. He finds this heritage in exemplary men and women who are just as worthy as their northern postwar counterparts, whom he discusses in The Wetherel Affair.

When it appeared, however, that most Americans were interested in more mundane matters than the moral and intellectual progress of civilization, De Forest attacked the rampant political corruption of Ulysses S. Grant’s presidential administration and the underlying money-grubbing philosophy of the postwar Gilded Age in two satiric novels, Honest John Vane and Playing the Mischief. Increasingly, he had to admit to himself that the lofty goal of the American millennium was in reality taking on the shape of the lowly goal of the American “millionairium,” that the Civil War had in fact opened the way not to moral glory but to materialistic go-getting, that the great dream was being perverted to what would become the Horatio Alger myth, and that the worthy gentleman of democracy was being pushed aside by the political boss.

The defeat of his mission also meant De Forest’s defeat as a writer. His final works were nostalgic (A Lover’s Revolt, for example, invokes the glorious spirit of the Founding Fathers through a highly idealized portrayal of General Washington during the early stages of the War of Independence), and they increasingly served only the purpose of De Forest’s demonstrating to himself...

(The entire section is 3024 words.)