Over the years I’ve managed to read a couple of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels. It’s yet another iteration of the American Story repeated endlessly in American fiction high and low, from Huckleberry Finn to Dashiell Hammett, and from John Wayne to Clint Eastwood: A stranger wanders into town, rights the wrongs, wins the girl, leaves the girl, and continues his wandering. It’s John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, but without the reception in the Celestial City. America from the outset has been caught in a recurring dream (sometimes a nightmare) of a journey that cannot end but only begin again.
As I argued some years ago in an essay for Tablet magazine (excerpted below), this is a theological imperative. Americans styled themselves a new Mission in the Wilderness and a new City on the Hill, in Lincoln’s felicitous phrase, “an almost-chosen people.” All the great nations of Europe at some point styled themselves the Chosen People, from dei gesta per francos in the 12th century to Moscow’s pretensions to be a Third Rome and Hitler’s Master Race. What distinguished American Protestants was their Augustinian understanding that however shiny their City on a Hill might be, it was not yet the Heavenly City, and the pilgrimage to the Heavenly City cannot end on earth. We obsessively rehearse this theological paradox in cowboy, detective and other popular fiction. Our national hero has many names—Huck Finn, the Continental Op, Shane, the High Plains Drifter, or Jack Reacher—but he remains Bunyan’s Pilgrim, traveling towards but never closer to the Celestial City.
From Tablet Magazine, May 10, 2016:
It is instructive to start in medias res, with the most original and influential work of American fiction, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, whence “all modern American literature comes,” as Hemingway said. Its flaws shed light on our problem as much as do its virtues. Twain devised the most arresting image in American literature: the runaway boy Huck and the escaped slave Jim, fragile and free on the great river. The evocative opening of the novel, though, eventually fades into a disappointing sequel to Tom Sawyer. “The book ends so lamely,” Harold Bloom rightly observes. Nonetheless, we forgive Mark Twain his sin of literary construction and love the work. Our critics, I think, misunderstand why. Lionel Trilling thinks Huck is a “servant of the river-god,” while Bloom cannot decide whether Huck is a “wholly secular being” or an “American Orphic.” This seems far-fetched. What fascinates us in Huckleberry Finn is not the plot but the image of the journey itself. Twain gives us the most poignant picture of a journey ever imagined by an American: the vulnerability of the two fugitives against the backdrop of the great current that bisects the American heartland. Huck reads Pilgrim’s Progress in the course of his own novel, a hat tip by Twain to Bunyan.
Culture must be commonplace. By the turn of the 20th century, the journey had become a cliché in American culture, from Frederick Jackson Turner’s essay on the frontier to Stephen Vincent Benét’s 1943 epic poem “Western Star” with its opening motto, “Americans are always on the move.” Hollywood made migration to the West a metaphor of redemption, as in John Ford’s 1939 film Stagecoach. The American journey differs from journeys of earlier literature. It is not the journey of Joseph Campbell’s hero. The heroes of past fiction travel in order to come home, enlightened in the case of Gilgamesh, honored in the case of Odysseus, and lucid in the case of Don Quixote. In picaresque fiction from Lazarillo de Tormes to Simplicius Simplicissimus, the protagonist is a foil for the people and situations he encounters. The American journey, by contrast, is an existential event in the life of the traveler. It is not the destination but the journey that matters, and it is a journey that by its nature cannot reach its destination. Huckleberry Finn resembles picaresque fiction only superficially. Twain’s novel and American narrative prose in general have even less resemblance to the European Bildungsroman. The purpose of the journey is not the perfection of the personality but redemption. Wilhelm Meister is as alien to the Mississippi as Huck is to the Elbe.
America’s journey is the Christian pilgrimage that cannot end with an earthly goal. Huckleberry Finn thus is an exemplar of Christian literature as much as The Pilgrim’s Progress is. The journey is motivated not by the destination but by the restlessness of the pilgrim. There is only one possible conclusion to Huck’s adventure: His journey must resume, as he announces in the book’s last line: “But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”
Heidegger insisted that the heritage we learn by repetition must come from our primal origins. But in America, by contrast, Christian memory created itself. It is the most extreme example of what the politically correct now call “cultural appropriation,” the appropriation of the history of Israel as America’s heritage. The Mission in the Wilderness was prelude to a new covenant and a new revelation. That is the foundation of our national culture, what Lincoln called “the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone.”
The peoples of the Old World, by contrast, recall a time before Christianity, when their woods and fields still were infested with the minor gods of the pagan world. That is Max Weber’s “enchanted world,” teeming with magical creature, remnants of the old folk-religions that survived the advent of Christianity. It is a world that knows only archetypes but no characters. The Old World cultures are fixed in the past; their time is “once upon a time,” the amorphous time of legend. A day, a year, and a life are indistinguishable: A traveler chances into a feast at an enchanted castle, and the seven days of his sojourn turn out to be seven years. Washington Irving repurposed the ancient tale: with an ironic masterstroke, he put Rip van Winkle to sleep in the Old World of legend and woke him up in the new time of the American Revolution. With this story, our first national writer declared independence from the literary sources of the Old World and banished the enchanted world with the clear light of the new era.
The peoples of the world, Rosenzweig said, also “foresee a time when their land with its rivers and mountains still lies under heaven as it does today, but other people dwell there; when their language is entombed in books, and their laws and customers have lost their living power.” That is why “the love of the peoples for their own ethnicity is sweet and pregnant with the presentiment of death.” The popular culture of the Old World is suffused with nostalgia and shadowed by this presentiment. Where the European protagonist finds tragedy, the American resolves to light out for the new territory. Americans never have written good tragedies. Eugene O’Neill tried to, but he instead produced plays with the inner structure of a situation comedy only with sad endings. The Iceman Cometh is Cheers with murder and suicide, and A Long Day’s Journey Into Night is Leave It to Beaver with dope addiction and tuberculosis instead of a baseball through a neighbor’s window.
America has no ethnicity and therefore has no fear of extinction. We look forward to the journey rather than backward to our roots. Our journey is the Christian journey to the Promised Land, which is bound up with the journey to America: the Pilgrims’ journey to New England, the flight of slaves to the free North, the westward migration of the landless.
In the African American spiritual, the first original American art form, the journey to Canaan is an all-pervasive subject. The spiritual draws on Low Church hymns from the British Isles, to be sure. I first heard the following lines interjected among the verses of the spiritual “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho,” although their origin is British and much older; they first appear in print in a Methodist hymnal printed in the Midlands in 1809. The “Enchanted Ground,” of course, is taken from Bunyan.
Good morning, brother traveler,
Pray tell to me your name:
What country you are traveling to;
Likewise from whence you came?
My name it is Bold Pilgrim
To Canaan I am bound,
I’m from the howling wilderness
And the enchanted ground.
Radical Protestantism leads the pilgrim from the “howling wilderness” and the “enchanted ground” of the Old World and leads him to the Canaan of the spirit. The question is addressed to, and answered by, the individual pilgrim. The Jew is born into the people of Israel; the Christian seeks adoption into the Israel of the Spirit. American Christianity retains the radical individualism of its Protestant forebears, who chose as individuals to become Americans. We have become Americans by adoption, and we have adopted the history of Israel as our national common memory. A profound parallelism is involved. The biblical Election of Israel was not a prize that God awarded to an unlikely nation of shepherds, but rather the outcome of Israel’s free choice to accept the Torah and the responsibility of election. It is our free choice to become Americans that is the cornerstone of our culture.
American culture eschews timidity and celebrates the disruptive outsider. When innovation is grounded in Judeo-Christian ethics, the Augustinian restlessness of American culture serves a profound moral purpose. But there is also a dark side to the radical individualism bequeathed to us by our Protestant forebears. At its best American Protestantism is antinomian, prone to sectarianism, and vulnerable to the hucksters like Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry. At its worst, the radical individualist can turn into a sociopath. We lack natural defenses against the predatory innovator.
That is the premise of America’s most original contributions to narrative prose, the hard-boiled detective story and the Western tale of vengeance. In the novels of Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers, the English detective corrects a temporary disturbance in the natural order of things. By contrast, evil runs out of control in the American detective novel and must be purged with blood. Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest invented the genre. A nameless detective comes to a Montana mining town where the local tycoon had allied with gangsters to crush radical labor agitation. Everyone is corrupt: capitalists and communists, leading citizens and low-life gangsters simmer in the same pot of brimstone. Hammett’s Continental Op provokes a gang war that kills off the entire cast of characters. This is not tragedy, but black comedy; André Malraux accordingly praised Red Harvest as “Grand Guignol.”
The American journey is as central to Hammett’s story as it is to Mark Twain’s. At the apex of the slaughter, the nameless detective has a dream:
“I walked … half the streets in the United States, Gay Street and Mount Royal Avenue in Baltimore, Colfax Avenue in Baltimore, Aetna Road and St Clair Avenue in Cleveland, McKinney Avenue in Dallas, Lemartine and Cornell and Amory Streets in Boston, Berry Boulevard in Louisville, Lexington Avenue in New York, until I came to Victoria Street in Jacksonville … ”
Between Mark Twain and Dashiell Hammett, the American journey turns from pilgrimage to nightmare. Only an outsider, an exterminating angel, can purge the Satanic City. That is a side of American culture that makes us cringe. Hollywood has pillaged Hammett’s plots without ever quite depicting his exterminating angel on the screen. We are more comfortable with the Western avenger who kills the outlaws and rides into the sunset. But the Western hero is merely a knight errant with six-guns; Hammett’s Continental Op is a real American.