Can you discern a nation’s spirit, even its economic genius, from the literature it produces? That’s long been a pastime of literary critics, including those who frequently see the “original sins” of Puritanism and capitalism in the stony heart of Americans.

Writing in Commentary Magazine, Fred Siegel looks at just this problem in a new appreciation of cultural critic and iconoclast Bernard DeVoto’s three-decade campaign to rescue American letters from the perception that European aesthetics were superior to the homegrown variety.

Bernard DeVoto at his desk (ca. 1954)

Bernard DeVoto at his desk (ca. 1954)

According to Siegel, DeVoto was the lone voice speaking out against the literary intelligentsia of the age. While it is true that DeVoto had his moments of clarity regarding literature, especially as it pertains to his insights that rescued Mark Twain’s work from a certain obscurity, Siegel nonetheless inflates DeVoto’s total contribution to cultural criticism.

Indeed, DeVoto was erudite and a prodigious writer. But, despite Siegel’s assertions, he wasn’t a particularly astute observer of the literary landscape. In fact, he was a bit of a cranky pants who wedged works he didn’t fully understand too quickly into an easy anti-American category. This strategy yielded diminishing returns for DeVoto’s reputation, which is probably the primary reason why his name is seldom if ever mentioned in the canon of literary criticism. Siegel’s rebranding attempt is not likely to help. DeVoto penned the monthly Easy Chair column for Harper’s from 1935 to 1955, won a Pulitzer Prize for his book, “Across the Wide Missouri,” and wrote “Mark Twain’s America.” Siegel notes that DeVoto’s “most important book,” however, was the 1944 volume, “The Literary Fallacy.” In it, Siegel asserts, DeVoto “illuminated the inner life of modern liberalism as no one had before or since.”

Literary fallacy, according to DeVoto and Siegel, is the mistaken notion that a country’s character can be determined by analyses of its literature. That many critics believed America had fallen far short of creating great literature was, thus, an indictment of U.S. culture as a whole. The usual suspects in our literary shortcomings, according to the high-culture intelligentsia, were religious zeal and materialism; or as Siegel interprets it, Puritanism and capitalism.

DeVoto – and now Siegel — point to, among others, Sherwood Anderson, Van Wyck Brooks, F. Scott Fitzgerald, H.L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway and T. S. Eliot as those who succumbed to the literary fallacy. Each, according to Siegel, in his way contributed to the negative stereotypes of American culture by writing scathing literary critiques such as Lewis’ “Babbitt” and “Main Street” and even Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” and “The Waste Land.” Indeed, certain writers went overboard in their negative judgments of American culture, including essayist Waldo Frank, who discovered in baseball evidence of “cultural rot.”

Importantly, Siegel stresses that “DeVoto did not pass aesthetic judgment on the writers of the 1920s. The decade proved to be, in the words of DeVoto, “one of the great periods of American literature, and probably the most colorful, vigorous, and exciting period.” Where DeVoto took exception was the writers’ misinformed cataloguing of American social ills, including conflating Puritans with the ideologically antithetical evangelicals and an erroneous view of what is described as an individualistic pioneer spirit. This latter the Utah-born DeVoto correctly dispels by arguing that cooperation between pioneers was more the rule than the exception.

Where DeVoto got it wrong – and where Siegel seems too ready to jump on board – is the judgment that liberals who castigate Puritanism and capitalism are somehow anti-American. American conservative culture is ripe for skewering, and can withstand any amount of truthful satire, lampoon, parody, allegory and hyperbole. That the pious and prosperous sometimes yield to hypocrisy was explored in Moliere’s “Tartuffe,” for example, long before Sinclair Lewis wrote “Elmer Gantry.” Even DeVoto’s beloved Twain took American culture to task for materialism in “The Gilded Age.”

Perhaps the most egregious error committed by both DeVoto and Siegel is the unfair and inaccurate lambasting of Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and “The Hollow Men” as anti-American. A closer reading reveals that Eliot, living in England when he completed both, wasn’t concerned with America’s cultural ills in particular, but rather the spiritual malaise infecting the entirety of Western civilization. As Russell Kirk noted, Eliot directed “The Hollow Men” at not only “the hollowness of nameless folk” but also at “the intellectual enemies of the permanent things, those who wander amusingly into contrived corridors of the spirit – and beguile others, less gifted, after them.” Eliot had in mind writers such as H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell. Kirk also identified British politicians of the 1920s as among Eliot’s targets when he wrote that they “were proceeding to settle for the boredom of the welfare state, rather than to undertake the hard and austere labor of thinking through a program for restoring true community. (In this last stricture, Eliot took common ground with Chesterton.)”

Malcolm Cowley, subjected to DeVoto’s and Siegel’s scorn for pointing out the limitations of materialism, noted that Eliot’s “The Waste Land” upped the ante of literary cultural criticism:

When The Waste Land first appeared, it made visible a social division among writers that was not a division between capitalist and proletarian…. But slowly it became evident that writers and their theories were moving toward two extremes (though few would reach one or the other). The first extreme was that of authority and divinely inspired tradition as represented by the Catholic Church; the second was Communism. In Paris, in the year 1922, we were forced by Eliot to make a preliminary choice. Though we did not see our own path, we instinctively rejected his.

Despite Siegel’s essay, DeVoto will sink back into obscurity, unlike some of the better writers he took aim at as a critic. Every social critique is not evidence of anti-Americanism, and even our modern day critics like Colbert and Stewart (not exactly equipped with the literary gifts of their predecessors) have their place. Siegel would have been better served to go back to the literary sources, not simply DeVoto’s interpretations of their work. He might’ve discovered that these writers occasionally support the conservative critique better than “The Literary Fallacy.”

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“Reading it Wrong — Again” has also been posted on the Acton Commentary archive here.