Friday, December 28, 2012

Why Henry Steele Commager Erased Orestes Brownson


A free society cherishes nonconformity. It knows that from the non-conformist, from the eccentric, have come many of the great ideas of freedom. Free society must fertilize the soil in which non-conformity and dissent and individualism can grow. permalink -Henry Steele Commager
Unless of course. . .

There is a peculiar fascination about this man who was a friend to Emerson and Thoreau, Ripley and Parker, and who broke with them all. It was his inconsistency which affronted his fellow reformers. He began as a Presbyterian, shifted to Universalism, fell from grace as an Owenite (compulsory public education), recovered respectability as a Unitarian, and plunged from there into the Catholic Church."  
Henry Steele Commager's Review of Arthur Schlesinger's biography Orestes Brownson: A Pilgrim's Progress (emphasis my own)
The granddaddy of progressive academic historians and biographer of Theodore Parker, Henry Steele Commager, paid his student's work on Orestes Browson very short shrift. Professor Commager commanded the high ground of American liberalism from his perch at Columbia University and consigned Arthur M. Schlesinger's subject and point of view to a place on the flat-lands. One year out of Harvard, young Schlesinger attempted to reconcile Brownson to the very mind-set and bigotries from which he departed -now called Progressivism. In order to do so, Schlesinger played down the "plunge" to the Catholic Church which Schlesinger knew to be the haven in the mind of main-line Protestant progressives who"associated Catholicism with censers and ornate masses and the scarlet whore of Rome or with drunken Irishmen beating their wives and selling their votes" (Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., in his A Pilgrim's Progress: Orestes A. Brownson)

Henry Steele Commager damned Schlesinger's subject and the theme with very faint praise - Brownson 'commands consideration.' In fact, Commager's 1939 New York Times review title A Sturdy, but Erratic Reformer serves as a caveat to the hopeful young author, as it paradoxes the subject and theme into oblivion, only equaled by the concluding payoff:

Mr. Schlesinger's study of Brownson is a masterly one. It has technical brilliance-a sure control of materials, an affective handling of background, a skillful use of colors an a certain bravura of execution. It has, in addition, sincerity and integrity, sympathetic understanding, and an astonishing maturity. It recreates for us Brownson as he seemed to his contemporaries and explains him as he appears to us. It hangs equally well in the transcendental or the Catholic gallery, reveals the influence of the romantic and of the modernistic schools alike. It not only rescues from undeserved oblivion a striking and authentic figure in our history, but announces a new and distinguished talent in the field of historical portraiture.
Thanks for playing, Kid! You got plenty of heart!  Henry Steel Commager's life work as thinker, teacher, writer and activist recognized no place at the table for an Orestes Brownson, nor anyone attempting to challenge the progressive evangelism rooted  in the19th Century religious  ultraism,*purged of scripture and dogma with Transcendentalism, activated through politics as reform and fully evolved as liberal progressivism. The New Deal was not enough -multicultral one-world contrarian Americanism free of most authority, or certainty is the goal.  All other considerations receive the contempt of this court of opinion.

Commanding consideration holds the same thimbleful of valorization as an eight grade basketball coach who tells the players and coach of a team he had just humiliated on the hard-wood that "Losers have potential."

Henry Steel Commager wrote sweepingly to justify the roots of American intellectual doctrine to practical political power.  American history in the hands of able and compelling young writers directed by like-minded academics could make education, religion sanitized of scripture and authority, politics and economics create Brook Farm Nation.  He did just that.

Schlesinger never seemed to buy in - his Vital Center, though it made the case for the New Deal, excoriated the Brook Farmers who believed that communism and Americanism must be merged.  Schlesinger warned about the dangers of multiculturalism in the 1980's - the American Melting Pot is now considered a racist doctrine.

I believe that Orestes Brownson understood the American soul better than William James, Horace Mann, John Dewey, William Lloyd Garrison, Theodore Parker and Jane Addams.  He understood that the American drive for liberty must always be tempered by the obligations of community. We can't always get what we want, nor should we. The sturdy Brownson was anything but erratic - he understood "the drive for freedom and the need for communion"  as Brownson biographer Patrick Carey presents in his 2006 epic Orestes Brownson: American Religious Weathervane. 

America is where it now finds itself thanks to intellectual high ground dominated by Henry Steele Commager for Thoreau, Parker, Garrison, James,, Dubois, Baldwin, and Dewey.  The Progressive American hegemony is being played out on the Fiscal Cliff of 2012.  

*  Most of these flights of religious ultraism were concentrated along a "psychic highway" that stretched from the backcountry of New England, across the undulating plains of western New York -- "The Burned-over District" -- into Ohio. Along this broad belt of land, observed Whitney Cross, the historian of enthusiastic religion in this area, there "congregated a people extraordinarily given to unusual beliefs, peculiarly devoted to crusades aimed at the perfections of mankind and the attainment of millennial happiness." 3 The source of religious ultraism -- evangelical revivalism -- was deeply embedded in the life of the times. Throughout this area small groups of "come outers," "New Lights," "Mercy Dancers," and other anti-Calvinist radicals did battle with the conservative Congregationalists and Presbyterians, while the constant agitation of such theological questions as free will, human ability, perfectionism, and millennialism, produced a climate in which fanaticism thrived. 4 

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