Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Orestes Brownson Against America's Convenient Faith and Lock-Step Secularism

Nowhere in the canon of American literature ( essay genre) will one find the brilliant and witty writings of Orestes Brownson.

In fact, Orestes Brownson has been made a non-person, via the Orwellian gradus of literary criticism - villify, ignore, erase. To place an essay by Browson within the period of American Romanticism/19th Century Transcendentalism/Abolitionist brackets, would seem as odd and cranky as requesting the viewing film (watching movies) as a substitute for reading, or teaching comic (graphic novels) book versions of the Last of the Mohicans, Blithedale Romance, or Moby Dick.

Brownson is not 'considered' a considered selection for the American canon of literature because Brownson became a Roman Catholic. Three of Brownson's colleagues and erstwhile friends have been canonized -Hawthorne, Emerson and Thoreau, according to the Modern Language Association rankings of the top twenty-five authors based upon scholarly research output. Unlike the Transcendentalists, Brownson was an original thinker who challenged not only the assumptions of the group, but his own assumptions.

Brownson was an early advocate of compulsory universal state-controlled early childhood education ( Owen-Wright Theory) and dismissed the notion as evil as well as unsound. You see, unlike the Blithedale gang of the Brook Farm movement -the petri dish of American intellectualism -Brownson believed in sin. Can't have that.  If all men are by nature pure and wonderful, sin must only be some judgmental anomaly associated with slavery of every stripe. Thought rooted to core belief has no place on the commune -

Then in 1844 (the year of Emerson's second "Nature" essay) Brownson and his family converted to Catholicism. The very negative response of the Transcendentalists to his conversion is best expressed in Theodore Parker's sermon that ascribed to Brownson an "unbalanced mind, intellectual always, but spiritual never" (J.Weiss, II, 28). After that, the Transcendentalists ignored him.

In 1844, Brownson did the unimaginable and converted to the Church of Rome.  The reaction of his former intellectual companions is rather harsh - they continue to be just that* Brownson sought, like Milton had done so, to justify God's ways to man and not the other way around.  Transcendentalism sprang from the Universalist Unitarian doctrine of Man's inner-light as a pan-theist approach to salvation that requires only that man be man. It's all good! For Brownson and that Jewish kid Gershwin - 'T ain't  necessarily so.

Browson** was engaged in living religion and not merely attending to it. Brownson's life was a constant immersion, not a dabbling, in causes to improve mankind's lot.  Mankind's lot is covered with broken beer bottles, garbage, sharp rusty objects - mankind sins and that is mankind's lot.  The convenient truths of American intellectual tradition deny sin and turn to European models of thought to justify man to himself - e.g. American realism and especially naturalism in fiction ( Howells, James, Crane, Dreiser, Sinclair, Wright) were rooted in Hugo, Stendhal,  Balzac, and ultimately Emile Zola.  Instead of considering personal responsibility for human misery, American intellectualism prefers to hold a mirror above a corpse while a pathologist cuts and digs and arrives at the assumption that preceded the cool science as the conclusive answer - Society, class, race, gender-envy did it!

Brownson disagrees.  American scholars can get their heads around human sin; therefore, ignore it. Brownson flies in the face of Thoreau who went deep into the woods in order to live life 'deliberately,' but had his Mom truck out to his cabin with baskets full of brownies, cookies and preserved treats. Brownson denied the democracy that is the gilt paint and mascara of Henry James' Yanks abroad. Brownson was vilified by William Lloyd Garrison as a copperhead Papist, but gave two sons on Lincoln's altar of sacrifice to the Abolitionist cause. These icons of  American thought and literature taught us to parse as a people and embrace Dewey, the ACLU, Planned Parenthood and public everything.

Orestes Brownson was a Protestant (Congregationalist, Presbyterian, Unitarian)  who never allowed the sun to set on his own sins against God and in order to become as good a protestant, he was required to become a Catholic.  American writers can born Catholic, but they must be 'fallen away' Catholics, like Fitzgerald, Dreiser,  Wolfe, O'Neill, O'Hara, Ferlinghetti, Farrell, or silent Catholics like Flannery O'Connor.  Orestes Brownson will remain out of the American intellectual mainstream and the canon of American literature.

Orestes Brownson should have a place in American Catholic education - a very prominent place.

* A sermon delivered by the Rev.R. Paul Mueller to the Unitarian Society of New Brunswick on September 14, 1997 was completely free of any reference to Orestes Brownson's conversion to Roman Catholicism. Interestingly, Rev. Mueller speaks of the 'religious person, rather the spiritual persons' frustrations and ultimate cynicism when confronted with the social injustices and draws in another 'frustrating' Catholic - Mother Theresa.  No mention of sin. Always 'sombody else's troubles' - American intellectualism in sum.
His childhood was passed on a small farm with plain country people, honest and upright Congregationalists, who treated him with kindness and affection, taught him the Lord's Prayer, the Apostles' Creed, and the Assembly's Catechism; to be honest and industrious, truthful in all circumstances, and never to let the sun go down on his wrath. With no young companions, his fondness for reading grew rapidly, though he had access to few books, and those of a grave or religious nature. At the age of nineteen he had a fair knowledge of grammar and arithmetic and could translate Virgil's poetry. In October, 1822, he joined the Presbyterian Church, dreamed of becoming a missionary, but very soon felt repelled by Presbyterian discipline, and still more by the doctrines of unconditional election and reprobation, and that God foreordains the wicked to sinnecessarily, that He may damn them justly. Rather than sacrifice his belief in justice and humanity on the altar of a religion confessedly of humanorigin and fallible in its teachings, Brownson rejected Calvinism for so-called liberal Christianity, and early in 1824, at the age of twenty, avowed himself a Universalist. In June, 1826, he was ordained, and from that time until near the end of 1829, he preached and wrote as a Universalistminister, calling himself a Christian; but at last denying all Divine revelation, the Divinity of Christ, and a future judgment, he abandoned the ministry and became associated with Robert Dale Owen and Fanny Wright in their war on marriage, property, and religion, carried on in the "Free Enquirer" of New York, of which Brownson, then at Auburn, became corresponding editor. At the same time he established a journal in westernNew York in the interest of the Workingmen's Party, which they wished to use for securing the adoption of their system of education. But, besides this motive, Brownson's sympathy was always with the labouring class, and he entered with ardour on the work of elevating labour, making it respected and as well rewarded in its manual or servile, as in its mercantile or liberal, phases, and the end he aimed at was moral and social amelioration and equality, rather than political. The introduction of large industries carried on by means of vast outlays of capital or credit had reduced operatives to the condition of virtual slavery; but Brownson soon became satisfied that the remedy was not to be secured by arraying labour against capital by a political organization, but by inducing all classes to co-operate in the efforts to procure the improvement of the workingman's condition. He found, too, that he could not advance a single step in this direction without religion. An unbeliever in Christianity, he embraced the religion of Humanity, severed his connexion with the Workingmen's Party and with "The Free Enquirer", and on the first Sunday in February, 1831, began preaching in Ithaca, New York, as an independent minister. As a Universalist, he had edited their organ, "The Gospel Advocate"; he now edited and published his own organ, "The Philanthropist".
Finding, from Dr. W.E. Channing's printed sermons, that Unitarians believed no more of Christianity than he did, he became associated with thatdenomination, and so remained for the next twelve years. In 1832 he was settled as pastor of the Unitarian Church at Walpole, New Hampshire; in 1834 he was installed pastor of the First Congregational Church at Canton, Massachusetts; and in 1836 he organized in Boston "The Society for Christian Union and Progress", to which he preached in the Old Masonic Temple, in Tremont Street. After conducting various periodicals, and contributing to others, the most important of which was "The Christian Examiner", he started a publication of his own called "The Boston Quarterly Review", the first number of which was dated January, 1838. Most of the articles of this review were written by him; but some were contributed by A. H. Everett, George Bancroft, George Ripley, A. Bronson Alcott, Sarah Margaret Fuller, Anne Charlotte Lynch, and other friends. Besides his articles on literary and philosophical subjects, his political essays in this review attracted attention throughout the country and brought him into close relations with the leaders of the Democratic Party. Although a steadfast Democrat, he disliked the name Democrat, and denounced pure democracy, called popular sovereignty, or the rule of the will of the majority, maintaining that government by the will, whether that of one man or that of many, was mere arbitrary government, and therefore tyranny, despotism, absolutism. Constitutions, if not too easily alterable, he thought a wholesome bridle on popular caprice, and he objected to legislation for the especial benefit of any individual or class; privileges, i.e. privatelaws; exemption of stockholders in corporations from liability for debts of their corporation; tariffs to enrich the moneyed class at the expense of mechanics, agriculturists, and members of the liberal professions. He demanded equality of rights, not that men should be all equal, but that all should be on the same footing, and no man should make himself taller by standing on another's shoulders.
In his "Review" for July, 1840, he carried the democratic principles to their extreme logical conclusions, and urged the abolition of Christianity; meaning, of course, the only Christianity he was acquainted with, if, indeed, it be Christianity; denounced the penal code, as bearing with peculiar severity on the poor, and the expense to the poor in civil cases; and, accepting the doctrine of Locke, Jefferson, Mirabeau, Portalis,Kent, and Blackstone, that the right to devise or bequeath property is based on statute, not on natural, law, he objected to the testamentary and hereditary descent of property; and, what gave more offence than all the rest, he condemned the modern industrial system, especially the system of labour at wages. In all this he only carried out the doctrine of European Socialists and the Saint-Simonians. Democrats were horrified by the article; Whigs paraded it as what Democrats were aiming at; and Van Buren, who was a candidate for a second term as President, blamed it as the main cause of his defeat. The manner in which he was assailed aroused Brownson's indignation, and he defended his essay with vigour in the following number of his "Review", and silenced the clamours against him, more than regaining the ground he had lost, so that he never commanded more attention, or had a more promising career open before him, than when, in 1844, he turned his back on honours and popularity to become a Catholic. At the end of 1842 the "Boston Quarterly Review" was merged in the "U.S. Democratic Review", of New York, a monthly publication, to each number of which Brownson contributed, and in which he set forth the principles of "Synthetic Philosophy" and a series of essays on the "Origin and Constitution of Government", which more than twenty years later he rewrote and published with the title of "The American Republic". The doctrine of these essays provoked such repeated complaints from the editor of the "Democratic Review", that Brownson severed his connexion with that monthly and resumed the publication of his own review, changing the title from "Boston" to "Brownson's Quarterly Review". The first number was issued in January, 1844, and the last in October, 1875. From January, 1865, to October, 1872, he suspended its publication.

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