August 19, 2011
[Van Wyck] Brooks’s indictment of the pioneer phase of American history derived its force from his insights into its legacy for modern personality and culture. Like Frederick Jackson Turner and many other commentators, Brooks agreed that the experience of settling the American continent had played a definitive role in the formation of the American character. But for him, the effects were almost totally negative. The process of expansion and material accumulation had stunted full personal development by subordinating all extraneous impulses and aspirations to the habits of acquisition and brute survival. “Puritanism,” Brooks argued, “was a complete philosophy for the pioneer” in his early stages; Emersonian self-reliance was its heir. Such philosophies aided Americans in their conquest of the frontier and in their repudiation of European feudal traditions, but they did so at the expense of any sense of collective experience that might shape a common culture. Taking for granted the abundance of material resources on the frontier, Americans had never had to face the trials of scarcity and the testing of character that resulted from adversity. The “chronic result of contact with a prodigal nature too easily borne under by a too great excess of will” was a superficial optimism, which was the result of a deeper character flaw—an ignorance about the inner emotional reaches of the self. The sturdy, self-reliant yeoman of the pioneer myth was, in reality, incapable of standing up to the natural world and claiming it for human habitation because he had no knowledge of what a genuinely human way of life might be: “Full of the old Puritan contempt for human nature and the sensuous and imaginative experience that seasons it and gives it meaning, the American mind was gradually subdued to what it worked in. For possessing as it did a minimum of emotional equipment, it had no barriers to throw up against the overwhelming material forces that beleaguered it, and it gradually went out of itself as it were and assumed the values of its environment.” Brooks found a clear relationship between the character type and jerry-built towns of the pioneer era. In denying the full range of emotional experience necessary to a whole personality, the culture of pioneering had cut short the emergence of a native American culture.


Casey Nelson Blake, Beloved Community: The Cultural Criticism of Randolph Bourne, Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, & Lewis Mumford (1990), 134-135

[I’m assuming the last clause is a mordant double entendre.]

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