WE like to think of the old-fashioned American classics as children's books. Just childishness, on our part. The old American art-speech contains an alien quality, which belongs to the American continent and to nowhere else. But, of course, so long as we insist on reading the books as children's tales, we miss all that.
One wonders what the proper high-brow Romans of the third and fourth or later centuries read into the strange utterances of Lucretius or Apuleius or Tertullian, Augustine or Athanasius. The uncanny voice of Iberian Spain, the weirdness of old Carthage, the passion of Libya and North Africa; you may bet the proper old Romans never heard these at all. They read old Latin inference over the top of it, as we read old European inference over the top of Poe or Hawthorne.
It is hard to hear a new voice, as hard as it is to listen to an unknown language. We just don't listen. There is a new voice in the old American classics. The world has declined to hear it, and has babbled about children's stories.
Why? -- Out of fear. The world fears a new experience more than it fears anything. Because a new experience displaces so many old experiences. And it is like trying to use muscles that have perhaps never been used, or that have been going stiff for ages. It hurts horribly.
The world doesn't fear a new idea. It can pigeon-hole any idea. But it can't pigeon-hole a real new experience. It can only dodge. The world is a great dodger, and the Americans the greatest. Because they dodge their own very selves.
There is a new feeling in the old American books, far more than there is in the modern American books, which are pretty empty of any feeling, and proud of it. There is a 'different' feeling in the old American classics. It is the shifting over from the old psyche to something new, a displacement. And dis- placements hurt. This hurts. So we try to tie it up, like a cut finger. Put a rag round it.
It is a cut too. Cutting away the old emotions and consciousness. Don't ask what is left.
Art-speech is the only truth. An artist is usually a damned liar, but his art, if it be art, will tell you the truth of his day. And that is all that matters. Away with eternal truth. Truth lives from day to day, and the marvelous Plato of yesterday is chiefly bosh today.
The old American artists were hopeless liars. But they were artists, in spite of themselves. Which is more than you can say of most living practitioners.
And you can please yourself, when you read The Scarlet Letter , whether you accept what that sugary, blue-eyed little darling of a Hawthorne has to say for himself, false as all darlings are, or whether you read the impeccable truth of his art-speech.
The curious thing about art-speech is that it prevaricates so terribly, I mean it tells such lies. I suppose because we always all the time tell ourselves lies. And out of a pattern of lies art weaves the truth. Like Dostoevsky posing as a sort of Jesus, but most truthfully revealing himself all the while as a little horror.
Truly art is a sort of subterfuge. But thank God for it, we can see through the subterfuge if we choose. Art has two great functions. First, it provides an emotional experience. And then, if we have the courage of our own feelings, it becomes a mine of practical truth. We have had the feelings ad nauseam. But we've never dared dig the actual truth out of them, the truth that concerns us, whether it concerns our grandchildren or not.
The artist usually sets out - or used to - to point a moral and adorn a tale. The tale, however, points the other way, as a rule. Two blankly opposing morals, the artist's and the tale's. Never . trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.
Now we know our business in these studies; saving the American tale from the American artist.
Let us look at this American artist first. How did he ever get to America, to start with? Why isn't he a European still, like his father before him?
Now listen to me, don't listen to him. He'll tell you the lie you expect. Which is partly your fault for expecting it.
He didn't come in search of freedom of worship. England had more freedom of worship in the year 1700 than America had. Won by Englishmen who wanted freedom, and so stopped at home and fought for it. And got it. Freedom of worship? Read the history of New England during the first century of its existence.
Freedom anyhow? The land of the free! This the land of the free! Why, if I say anything that displeases them, the free mob will Iynch me, and that's my freedom. Free ? Why, I have never been in any country where the individual has such an abject fear of his fellow countrymen. Because, as I say, they are free to Iynch the moment he shows he is not one of them.
No, no, if you're so fond of the truth about Queen Victoria, try a little about yourself.
Those Pilgrim Fathers and their successors never came here for freedom of worship. What did they set up when they got here? Freedom, would you call it?
They didn't come for freedom. Or if they did, they sadly went back on themselves.
All right then, what did they come for? For lots of reasons. Perhaps least of all in search of freedom of any sort: positive freedom, that is.