George Santayana’s The Last Puritan offers a probing critique of the Romantic philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Arthur Schopenhauer as well as a caustic treatment of what Santayana identifies as the Puritan strain in pre-World War I American upper-class society. Santayana’s only novel shows the influence of at least three major sources: first, the insightful but somewhat cynical philosophical treatment of religion by William James; second, the novels of Henry James, with their probing explorations of American and European society; third, the biting social satire of Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh (1903). Although Santayana gradually grew toward affirming the Roman Catholic faith, he spent most of his life denouncing religious sentiments and championing a materialistic view of life, a view rooted in what people can experience here and now in life. The Last Puritan reflects a tension between Santayana’s loathing of religion and his fascination for principles of spirituality and beauty.
The Last Puritan begins with a description of a Boston resident named Mr. Nathaniel Alden, a half brother of Peter Alden, who later becomes the father of Oliver Alden, the central figure of the novel. While Nathaniel and Oliver never meet, Nathaniel’s rigid, stingy, coldhearted ways seem to foreshadow all that will prove debilitating in Oliver. The Alden family has descended from a line of Puritans turned Unitarians, a group determined to maintain a high moral tone even though they have abandoned any sense of a personal God and prefer a vague philosophical view of deity. Unitarians accept all religions, provided they are not taken too seriously. Like his father, who was murdered for his ruthless treatment of his tenants, Nathaniel loathes human weakness; upon discovering moral shortcomings in his ward, Peter, Nathaniel sends him away, never to see his face again. Nathaniel is the epitome of religious facade and pretense, of a lifestyle lacking all sense of feeling, especially human compassion.
Although Peter Alden, Oliver’s father, proves to be a womanizer and a drug addict, Oliver turns out to be quite free of these tendencies. As the narrator notes, “All sensation in Oliver was, as it were, retarded; it hardly became conscious until it became...
(The entire section is 943 words.)