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Failure and Success in America: A Literary Debate

Failure and Success in America: A Literary Debate

Martha Banta
Copyright Date: 1978
Pages: 580
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    Failure and Success in America: A Literary Debate
    Book Description:

    Ranging widely over a span of three hundred and fifty years of discussion and controversy, Martha Banta's book makes a fundamental contribution to the continuing debate on the nature of success and failure in a specifically American context. Her Whitmanesque view of the debate takes in the work of innumerable writers, particularly Emerson, Thoreau, Twain, Melville, Henry Adams, William and Henry James, Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, and Norman Mailer. She draws on the work of philosophers, psychologists, and historians as well.

    Rather than discussing failure and success as merely economic or political statistics, Professor Banta explores them in terms of attitudes and concepts. She asks what itfeelslike for an American to succeed or fail in a country that is often defined in relation to its own success or failure as an idea and as an experience.

    While examining the thoughts, feelings, and language of Americans caught in the dialectic between winning and losing, the author reveals the strain Americans feel in fulfilling the overall scheme of their own lives as well as the life or destiny of their country.

    Originally published in 1979.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6716-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-2)
    (pp. 3-12)

    This book examines the still-continuing debate over the nature of winning and losing in the American context—what it feels like for an American to succeed or to fail in a country which is often defined in terms of its own success or failure as an idea and as an experience. There is little chance of coming to a triumphant halt before the definitive answer to such issues. The many arguments given breathing space here will not settle matters; rather, they will serve to complicate, not to simplify, and to extend the debate past the last page, not to cut...

  5. PART I The More or Less of Success

    • CHAPTER 1 The Insufficiency of Survival
      (pp. 15-21)

      In 1878 William James examined the issue of survival in the essay “Remarks on Spencer’s Definition of Mind as Correspondence.” As James phrases it, Spencer in hisPrinciplesofPsychologyof 1855 had decreed that if survival were to be named the highest good:

      We should then have, as the embodiment of the highest ideal perfection of mental development, a creature of superb cognitive endowments, from whose piercing perceptions no fact was too minute or too remote to escape; whose all-embracing foresight no contingency could find unprepared; whose invincible flexibility of resource no array of outward onslaught could overpower; but...

    • CHAPTER 2 The Sum Total of Possibility
      (pp. 22-30)

      We turn from William James’s halo that eradiates and enriches—and confusingly complicates—objects by extending them far beyond their original compact, utilitarian, readily comprehensible core. Now to hear from Josiah Royce, contemporary and philosophical adversary of James. In his 1897 work,The Conception of God, Royce set down his position as neo-absolutist and idealist (the stance James rebuked with friendly lack of rancor when he told Royce, “Damn the Absolute!” and smiled as he said it, the two men facing one another, astraddle a fence in a famous photograph). Listen to Royce’s actual words before his phrases and James’s...

    • CHAPTER 3 The Greater Tyranny of Thought
      (pp. 31-40)

      Many of the experiences described in this book seem to support the famous thesis proposed by Richard Chase’s introduction toThe American Novel and Its Traditionof 1957, a thesis upheld and embellished (and, to some lights, debased) by Leslie Fiedler’sLove and Death in the American Novelof 1960. Chase and Fiedler locate authentic American literature in the romance tradition. Such literature is, they insist, mystical, clairvoyant, individualistic to the point of social anarchy, and given to darksome fantasies of anguish and destruction. Set against the frenetic fervor of their arguments, Edwin Cady’s book of 1971 is therapeutic, although...

    • CHAPTER 4 The Economics of Want
      (pp. 41-54)

      Josiah Royce suggests a strategy for breaking away from vistas that are narrow, limiting, and fragmenting. With his aid we can come to a position which gives a clear overview of America, that territory whose mapped extent—geographical and psychological—is crucial to the question of how far we may succeed or by how much we are lacking. When we say that the sun rises and sets, Royce observes inThe Conception of God, this is because we are captives of a cramped perspective. “A wider experience, say an experience defined from an extra-terrestrial point of view,” would correct this...

  6. PART II Ideas of the Land

    • CHAPTER 5 America as the Woman Who Waits
      (pp. 57-79)

      We have learned our lessons of cynicism well in the American school for success; our teachers have been good ones. The business of America is “well-being”(Tocqueville).Money-grabbing and getting ahead is the characteristic trait of the American (Frances Trollope). A man realizes he is a failure the day he sees he is incapable of commanding five dollars on the job market(Henry Adams).Although warned that America is not thePays de Cocagneand its streets not paved with wheaten loaves(Franklin),men still devour the ground out from under their own feet(just about everyone).

      If there has...

    • CHAPTER 6 America as Wonder
      (pp. 80-96)

      It is with a start, the heart’s lurch of sudden discovery, that the three young men in Faulkner’s stories cited in the last chaper first gaze upon the females who are to shape their imaginative life. Although he has known her since childhood, Ikkemotubbe still has the experience ofsuddenlyseeing Herman Basket’s sister. The young lieutenant, flung by battle down the street of Jefferson, glances quickly across at the jail and just as suddenly glimpses the lodestar that will pull him back through the currents of war. Labove feels the cold touch of fate as he looks up to...

    • CHAPTER 7 Luminism and Terribilità
      (pp. 97-106)

      If the wonder stirred by America’s landscape participates in the sacred which even the profane acts of history cannot deny, this same quality of the sacerdotal and the wondrous combines into what Michelangelo termedterribilità.According to Barbara Novak inAmerican Painting of the Nineteenth Century, terribilitàlies well within the American way of looking at its terrain. Mrs. Trollope’s pleased shivers of fear over the falls of the Potomac are somewhat prettied-up versions of the more extensive anxiety with “its pleasures of risk, its throttled fear like the sensuous tremorings of a fall in a dream” which Norman Mailer...

    • CHAPTER 8 America as “Eventing”
      (pp. 107-116)

      Before the sense of human presence and its mystery, the continent evaporates, yet also coalesces, regroups into places and times felt, seen, realized—the land itself a presence, a mystery. Faulkner’s imaginative relation to space is much like that of the Hopi Indians defined by Benjamin Lee Whorf in his essay “Time, Space, and Language.” To the Hopis reality is viewed in terms of events (or “eventing”), both objective and subjective. They know no imaginary space, only the actuality, in contrast with the space-concepts of the “English” mind.

      “We see things with our eyes,” states Whorf, “in the same space...

    • CHAPTER 9 The American Claimant
      (pp. 117-134)

      In 1829 Thomas Skidmore denounced out of hand the entire conception of heirs and contracts between generations. He felt no property should be thought of as transferable; no father ought to hand onin absentialand or money to his sons. Mark Twain also rebuked the burden imposed upon him by the charge his father had given him on his death-bed, “Cling to the land and wait; let nothing beguile it away from you.” As he records it in hisAutobiography,the Tennessee Claim was for the Clemens family both unattained dream and solid land that contained coal, iron, copper,...

    • CHAPTER 10 The Payment of Ego-Pacts
      (pp. 135-150)

      For wide-eyed individualists the city has been seen as the place where success is to be found, seized, and enjoyed. To Edith Wharton’s returned American inThe Age of Innocence, New York also appears safe enough, its cross-streets gridded and evenly numbered On the other hand, Henry James’s restless analyst inThe American Scenefinds havens of comfort from the dizzying press on the streets only in the big hotels. But both grids and havens are risky when they impose uniformity of spirit upon those who enter the city’s boundaries.

      Returning in 1918 from the excremental togetherness of the Enormous...

  7. PART III Winning and Losing

    • CHAPTER 11 “Presence” and “Pittsburgh”
      (pp. 153-171)

      If it is difficult enough to succeed; it is even more difficult to know what success is and what it means, truly, to fail. Yet however much the writers to whom we are listening realized that the worlds of words they create are unlike the object-hard universe they live in, they continued to attempt to define “winning” and “losing” as active terms in the immediate reality.

      In 1624 Christopher Levett stated the essentials of that view which places the blame of failure squarely upon the men, not the country:

      They say the country is good for nothing but to starve...

    • CHAPTER 12 Getting Goods, Being Good, Good Getting, and Well-Being
      (pp. 172-195)

      Up to this point the various definitions that circle around success and failure have largely dealt with “presence,” and presence has been taken as a finer state of being which is highly ethical at the least and of rare moral quality at best. The emphasis has been upon the chances forbeing goodin America. Definitions of success that invokegetting goodsare more straightforward and the examples more numerous. By 1913 Theodore Dreiser (in a passage fromA Traveler at Fortyincluded in McAleer’s study) tentatively suggested the piquant hope that there is

      the existence of a force or...

    • CHAPTER 13 In The Nick and Out of It
      (pp. 196-209)

      There have always been Americans—just as “American” as those who pull at the motherly breasts of well-being or who strive to emulate the father in power—who are actively in pursuit ofthought.Henry Thoreau, Henry Adams, and Henry James are such men.

      Henry James grew up (as he put it inSmall Boy,p. 4g), knowing there were three kinds of adult you could become in America: the tipsy, the businessman, or Daniel Webster. Henry and William—the two of their family most put on the line—had lost all business sense (at least in the way of...

    • CHAPTER 14 Fate, Will, and the Illusion of Freedom
      (pp. 210-224)

      Mediocrity can seem flat as fate. The extraordinary, in contrast, jumps about and looks like chance. In the minds of those Americans who are most actively against living on bland plateaus, the flatlands is where the real anxiety begins. But the same men who desire the extraordinary often want the benefits of cause-and-effect orderings, not an erratic world of random events.

      Henry Adams would not rest until he went back behind all events to learn their purpose. In their day Emerson and Thoreau had less urgency to know why since they believed that through strong character and will men could...

    • CHAPTER 15 Principles, Things, People, and Mass
      (pp. 225-245)

      It is uncanny the way the American mind is able tothinkits way into strength. But it is misguided to believe that foes simply melt before the burning glance of the idea of victory. The obstacles are many, and possibilities for failure continually rough up the texture of the imagination ofvirtus—the inner power that is goodness and the central good that acts with force. If idea attempts to transcend contingency, it must live with the fact thatprinciples(iron-bound ideas and unbending ideals) are often at the mercy ofthingswith the thrust to crack open the...

    • CHAPTER 16 Bottom Being
      (pp. 246-272)

      The man of character cannot fail at anything he does since he has chosen to fulfill his natural birthright of joy. “I amDefeatedall the time,” Emerson assures himself in his journal of 1842, “yet to Victory I am born” (VIII, 228). Life is a battle that mankind is meant to win, Thoreau writes on March 21, 1853. “Despair and postponement are cowardice and defeat. Men were born to succeed, not to fail.” Of course, various moods may run through the same man, as Thoreau notes on November 4, 1851. He may contain “dark and muddy pools,” but higher...

  8. PART IV Renewal or Revenge

    • CHAPTER 17 Making Scenes
      (pp. 275-282)

      “Correspondence” interested WilliamJames as it did Emerson. In his essay of 1878, “Remarks on Spencer’s Definition of Mind as Correspondence,” James examines the implications for men’s lives drawn from Spencer’s term, then rejects what he finds. Spencer’s synonyms for correspondence—“adjusted,” “conformed,” “fitted,” “related,” “meets,” “concord,” and “harmony”—lead James to this biting observation:

      The fox is most beautifully “adjusted” to the hounds and huntsmen who pursue him, the limestone “meets” molecule by molecule the acid which corrodes it; the man is exquisitely “conformed” to thetrichinawhich invades him, or to the typhus poison which consumes him; and the...

    • CHAPTER 18 Guilt, Shame, and Laughter
      (pp. 283-303)

      In Hawthorne’sThe Marble FaunHilda trembles at the threat she feels when it is suggested that original sin might be the useful means to a higher joy. She is frightened to have it said that we may need to murder before we can move on to a finer destiny. Particularly frightening to Hilda, and to us, is the hint that it is God’s will that we commit our sins. Shamed over our required dependence upon God and guilty over what He demands us to do, we may need to defy God altogether, as Frederick J. Hoffman argues inThe...

    • CHAPTER 19 Strain and Relaxation
      (pp. 304-316)

      We should test those strange occasions when a man’s guilt becomes an actively useful fact. Mailer, Adams, and Henry James’s Lambert Strether provide instructive cases in point for the value of strain when it is set in contrast to the too easeful man freed from any sense of guilt at all.

      The metal tips of Norman Mailer’s whip of self-flagellation are essentially the same felt by those who came to listen to the words of Emerson and Thoreau. To sit and to accept such statements—you are not good enough or brave enough or great enough; oryou have failed...

    • CHAPTER 20 Eyeless in Hate; Killing in Style
      (pp. 317-331)

      To keep for a while to questions of strain and relaxation: melodramas are built upon tensions, broken only when evil is destroyed and virtue is released from enslavement. The life of humor, however relaxed in many of its manners, also undergoes its tensions before it can fully succeed. The only guaranteed way out of strain of whatever kind is to run from it. Escape suggests an end to failure, since it tries to avoid those conditions wherein failure may be encountered. American writing provides a fine array of materials for manuals on escape-techniques: escape into nature, into emotional detachment and...

    • CHAPTER 21 Some Versions of Melodrama
      (pp. 332-344)

      In a world where justice appears to be the most one can ask for, there is no room for forgiveness and much space for the particular cruelties practiced in the name of the war against wickedness. Significantly, those who stress justice often turn it most harshly upon themselves. According to Paul Ricoeur inThe Symbolism of Evil,to trace the history of men’s reactions to sin helps us to distinguish the stages through which mankind has moved in its reactions to the world. In the earliest stage, the force that punished the guilty lay outside men. Once conscience became consciousness,...

    • CHAPTER 22 Huckleberry Finn / The American
      (pp. 345-382)

      Huckleberry Finn is devoted to common sense appraisals of reality, but the world of melodrama is imposed upon him willy-nilly by an author who liked literary messes as much as Huck prefers culinary ones. To use William James’s terms, Mark Twain was both “morbid-minded” and “healthy-minded,” susceptible to literary ambivalences of comedy, tragedy, farce, satire, and melodrama. But melodrama became as necessary to Mark Twain for his depiction of the truth of human affairs as it did for Henry James. The melodramatic tradition gave each writer a direct way to present dramatic, somewhat paranoid, plots of victim and oppressor; it...

  9. PART V The Drive Toward Conclusions

    • CHAPTER 23 Working Up the Last Effect
      (pp. 385-393)

      Clarence, that “darling” of a boy, has been the right hand of Hank Morgan, the Connecticut Yankee, The Boss of sixth-century England. Clarence possesses two kinds of laughter. One expresses itself in a “happy, thoughtless, boyish fashion”; it lets him enjoy himself “in his lighthearted way” at another’s distress, easily able to make “fun of [The Boss’s] sorry plight.” The other laugh contains a mocking, scoffing tone of “extravagant derision”; it is “the sarcastic laugh he was born with” (pp. 23, 40, 396). Clarence has inverted the Baudelarian sequence, with the “vegetable joy” of the boy developed after his inborn...

    • CHAPTER 24 History—as Facts and as Faith
      (pp. 394-411)

      Apocalypse is defined in two general senses by Meyer Abrams: sudden revelations that renew or violent upheavals that destroy. When Abrams is working inNatural Supernaturalismwith the term as it spoke to the need of the English and Continental Romantics to revitalize decadent societies, he stresses the first of those meanings: the Biblical-historical panorama of weary, corrupt worlds which are jokingly, joyously replaced by visions of worlds freshly reborn. Those acts of the mind in America which attempt to split open the future, freeing history from its own limitations, have been informed by an urgency as great as that...

    • CHAPTER 25 Timing, Tact, and Long Views
      (pp. 412-438)

      The dawn-scenes contained withinThe HamletandWaldenbring the wonder of the coming of Aurora to the idiot Ike Snopes and to Henry David Thoreau. Faulkner’s dawn is a brief interlude in a narrative that soon yields to the sorrows that lie “beyond noon.” Thoreau’s dawn closes down his book, but even that closure is sprung open by the insistence that the joy he obliges us to feel is ours still to win in the future.

      We must go past the dawn, Thoreau wrote inA Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,else we remain there like those...

    • CHAPTER 26 Opposing Perfection
      (pp. 439-456)

      To be saved by silence in order to arrive at the silence offered by total absorption into God’s consciousness or the self’s core: this solution to the babble of the objective world has not gone unnoticed by a number of American writers. Injoy to leap away from combative individuality toward the democratic spirit held in common; to have the inferior absorbed into superior being; to replace the limitations of the phenomenal with the endless space and light of the noumenal. Any one of these acts would bring an end to the failure of being. Perhaps such attempts go counter to...

    • CHAPTER 27 The Making of a Good Story
      (pp. 457-482)

      The making of American narratives is the writing of a kind of history. By its means we define what America has been and where it might be going, and to what purpose, and by whose sensibility its movements have been directed. It is history as story—perhaps the ultimate record of success or failure.

      What initiates our destiny? A good God, the power of evil, a wicked God, a world-soul, matter, fate or chance, Zeus or Whirl, environment, the biology of inherited genes and direct physiological impulses, male or female psychic principles? All these forces have been named the cause...

  10. PART VI The Economics of Going On

    • CHAPTER 28 Going Up and Coming Down
      (pp. 485-501)

      Edgar Allan Poe’sEurekaof 1848 fulfilled the dearest wishes of its author’s gothic soul by cleansing the universe of all matter (that basic fact of human failure) through the return to the purity of the primal Thought. The result is an apocalypse with a happy ending—for the Poe-narrator at least, if not for the rest of us—since consciousness ends where it began: with itself alone, and all because God’s plan has been carried through without a flaw.

      In Poe’s critical notes (edited by Robert Hough) he argued that the mortal artist forms his material by “combination.” He...

    • CHAPTER 29 Dealing with Dread
      (pp. 502-516)

      In “The Heritage of Henry Adams” Brooks Adams describes that heritage as it was formed by “the rise and progress of American democracy.” Like many of the Adams family a comparativist, Brooks scrutinized the standard against which success is to be judged. He concluded that “the beginning of the movement as well as the form it took and the standard which must serve as the measure of its advance or recession in intellectual power, is to be computed according to the personality of George Washington, who, without doubt, stands at the apex of democratic civilization” (p. 104). InThe Education...

    • CHAPTER 30 Sufficiency
      (pp. 517-524)

      The answer to more than survival and less than perfection proposed by many of the writers we have been listening to is simplicity itself:find sufficiency.What keeps us still failing is the fact incarnated by Norman Mailer—he who is like God and like us, only more so. It is, as he constantly shows us, the fact of bad timing and wrong positioning. When we are not where our destiny requires us to be, frustration mounts. When we have “found life too brief for perfection and long for comfort,” we fit these words of Robert Lowell’s sonnet fromNotebook,...

    (pp. 527-540)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 541-568)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 569-569)