Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 943
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 moral.” This tendency in Oliver so stifles his life that he finds himself incapable of relating to a potential wife, such as his cousin Edith Van de Weyer or his best friend’s sister, Rose Darnley, both of whom reject Oliver because they know he is incapable of loving. That Oliver should die not in the battles of World War I but in his effort to avoid a motorcycle driver speeding on the wrong side of the road symbolizes how much of his life he spends in avoiding possible problems only to encounter worse ones—including the wasting of his own life. As the narrator notes, living longer would have been useless to Oliver Alden because he lacked the capacity to enjoy life. As a young man with all of the advantages of wealth and education and culture at his disposal, Oliver was incapable of experiencing life as more than a duty, a moral obligation to be endured with stoic discipline.
While Santayana seems to have aimed much of his criticism at the Puritan pseudoreligious work ethic, he also seems to have taken special pleasure in debunking the Romantic philosophy of Emerson and Schopenhauer. These two Romantic philosophers were much more reserved than some of their contemporaries, such as Walt Whitman, Friedrich von Schiller, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose writings Oliver Alden does not like. While preparing to attend Harvard, Oliver stops at Concord to admire the landmarks associated with his hero Emerson, and later he stays in a room thought to have once been used by that philosopher. Like Emerson, Oliver admires nature and looks to it as the ultimate source of revelation and beauty, and also like Emerson, Oliver fails to see that the best part of life cannot be actualized without commitment to choices. Oliver drifts through life in a theoretical mode that rarely touches the world in which most people live. He is not unconcerned about others, nor is he consciously arrogant or selfish, but he fails to discover how to move beyond his own little sphere of sensibility. Oliver’s life has great capacity for good, as his cousin Caleb Wetherbee indicates when he prophesies that Oliver may soon feel a call into ministry. Much later in the novel, Rose Darnley also notes Oliver’s capacity for a religious vocation, but she does so in a context that underscores his unsuitability for normal, domestic life in marriage. As the novel emphasizes, Oliver lacks the boldness and commitment necessary to make himself more than an idealistic young man with high expectations that the world will never meet.
The strength of The Last Puritan lies in its insightful exploration of human failings and disappointments. At times the style of the book is almost poetic. Many of Santayana’s characters in this novel are capable of surprising action, intriguing, and memorable. Although not as stylistically fluid as the works of Henry James, Santayana’s The Last Puritan is at least as rich in insights into human personalities as are James’s works. The primary weakness of the novel lies in its blatant dismissal of religious ideals as being of any worth and in the novel’s presentation of irresponsible and selfish people as offering a higher standard than the Puritans offered. This latter problem is caused primarily by the author’s limited point of view. The novel itself, as a work of art, is certainly one of the most memorable American novels of the 1930’s.
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