Special Place

Sean Wilentz

  • America’s Rome. Vol I: Classical Rome by William Vance
    Yale, 454 pp, £19.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 300 03670 1
  • America’s Rome. Vol II: Catholic and Contemporary Rome by William Vance
    Yale, 498 pp, £19.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 300 04453 4

‘What different things Rome stands for to each generation of travellers,’ one upper-crust New York widow tells another near the start of Edith Wharton’s ‘Roman Fever’ (1936). The remark is partly fraudulent. By the story’s end, the ladies have revealed some brutal little secrets about their own youthful travels to the Eternal City, which undercut their reveries about a bygone innocent age. Fin-de-Siècle Rome, no less than Thirties Rome, turns out to have been a place for sexual intrigue and abandon for young Manhattan women on holiday. Yet Wharton’s dissembling dowagers touched on something true about Americans’ changing perceptions and depictions of Rome. Out of these changes, and the persisting themes that attended them, William Vance has fashioned this gargantuan two-volume commentary on American culture from the end of the 18th century to the present.

The project is not as far-fetched as it might appear at first. To the extent that American culture has puritanical roots, Rome has long operated as a luxuriant, exotic Other. In defining what it is about the place that repels them – its Catholicism, its indolence, its urban depravity – some Americans, especially Yankee Americans, have helped define themselves. By contrast, other American visitors – pleasure-seekers ranging from fictional characters like Wharton’s to real-life gay men and lesbians – have represented Rome as a Mecca of frankness and tolerance, a release from their homeland’s sexual Babbitry.

But that is only part of the story. Because Rome has invigorated still other Americans with its reminders of ancient glory and classical virtue, it has helped nourish whatever historical consciousness Americans have managed to sustain, as a nation seemingly devoted to escaping history altogether (or, more recently, to declaring that history is at an end). The generation of the American Revolution steeped itself in the golden age of Plutarch and Cicero, and borrowed freely from Roman history to vaunt its own republican experiment. Although such thinking declined over the 19th century, yet the idea of Roman history as an instructive narrative of republican ascendancy and imperial corruption has lasted, in a line of pessimistic historicism that runs from Henry Adams to Gore Vidal.

Other American borrowings from the Roman heritage look more trivial, even comical, in retrospect, like the statuary of tobacco-chewing frontier Jacksonian politicians dressed in togas. But even these reveal something about American sensibilities, rendering up in unintentional visual puns what Kenneth Burke once called perspective by incongruity. And the list of Americans’ Roman appropriations goes on: the Rome of la dolce vita, the Rome of aesthetic classicism, the Rome of endless forboding so unlike dull, cheery, impermanent America – that America, as Hawthorne wrote in his Roman novel The Marble Faun, with ‘no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque or gloomy wrong’.

Vance is a relentless expositor of this immense variety of America’s Romes (which might have been a better title for his study). Equally authoritative in discussing literature, painting and sculpture, he has apparently examined every American artist and writer of consequence (and many of little consequence) who ever touched on the city and its significance. This relentless quality can be alternately intimidating and irritating. As he darts back and forth across decades of American art, Vance’s displays of his vast erudition have a dizzying effect. They also lead his analysis to swell and spill over his best efforts to contain it. In the first volume, on American responses to Classical Rome, he manages his material by borrowing from Baedeker and grouping his subjects around carefully selected sites with distinct sets of associations – which works quite well. But in the middle of Volume Two, on contemporary Rome, the device breaks down, leaving the reader with a three hundred-page ‘chapter’ covering everything outside the Vatican from 1830 to 1945. At the conclusion, the one overarching point still in view is the simple one, that ‘the possession of Rome ... remained a means by which individual American identities represented themselves.’ The really imaginative interpretations, developed in passing, are probably best approached not by reading cover-to-cover, nor even via the table of contents, but through the index.

Still, despite these difficulties, this is a rewarding piece of work, not least because of how it departs from the received wisdom within the field of interdisciplinary American Studies. If anything has undermined the American Studies movement over the years it has been its obsession wth America. Although initiated in the late Forties with very different intentions, the American Studies research agenda eventually turned into a quest for certain essences in American life, those cultural elixirs that made the United States the unique, classless nation everyone assumed it was and is. Ironically, one of the totemic authorities in this search was a Frenchman, the apostle of American exceptionalism, Alexis de Tocqueville. Smitten by the idea of what Tocqueville called the American universal consensus, nearly two generations of scholars tried to regain the kind of holistic perspective that came naturally to Tocqueville and many lesser 19th-century observers. Unfortunately, they paid an enormous price: for with all of their genre-blurring in search of The American, they ended up obscuring the things that divided Americans from one another, as well as the ways American culture had developed internationally, and not in splendid isolation.

More recent work has rejected the old assumptions about consensus and (with the invasion of Post-Structuralist theory) about a lot else besides. In terms of method, Vance is a traditional interdisciplinary humanist, who has no use for intertextuality and différance. In other ways, however, America’s Rome moves in new directions. The book’s complexity derives largely from Vance’s insistence that there is no American essence, that even within the boundaries of ‘high’ culture, Americans have always disagreed sharply. In exploring those disagreements with respect to Rome, he vastly widens the normal frame of reference. And in doing that, he offers up an important point too easily glossed over: that almost all of America’s dominant cultural self-perceptions have involved, if only implicitly, a contrast with Europe, for better or worse.

In short, Vance is a sort of Tocqueville in reverse, who is ultimately truer to the Tocquevillean impulse than many of his more provincial American Studies predecessors. America, after all, provided Tocqueville with (among other things) a place to project his own preoccupations with France, and with the democratic forces unleashed by the French Revolution. Vance explains how Americans in turn projected their own clashing outlooks on Europe. He makes the strongest possible case that of all European cities, Rome ought to be studied as a touchstone of American civilisation.

Although practically nothing passes him by, Vance seems most engaged with treating sceptics, rebels and exiles – those Americans who, as he writes of the painter Cy Twombly, entered Rome and ‘absorbed’ its ‘pagan poetry and myths, its character as a historical palimpsest, and its sexually charged, spiritually fragmented modern character’. Yet he is too shrewd and knowledgeable simply to celebrate these people, or to fall into pitting them against their repressed philistine compatriots. At every turn, Vance seeks out ambiguities and pathos in his subjects. Their artistic conquests inhere not so much in any particular view of Rome as in their attempts to take the city seriously. If, in the end, they cannot wholly transcend their American concerns, their triumph is in trying to do so.

Not surprisingly, Vance returns often to the proto-feminist Transcendentalist heroine Margaret Fuller, whom he portrays as ‘the most interesting conjoiner of American with Roman aspirations, both ancient and modern’. Fuller’s first unhappy contact with Rome, early in 1847, brought her a typical wave of Yankee nausea at the slatternly cheapness of the place, coupled with a horror at the Vatican’s ‘senseless mass of juggleries’. Suddenly, with the revolutionary upheavals of the winter of 1847-48 and after, Fuller imagined herself a witness to the rebirth of Roman political virtue in a new more purely democratic form, complete with a modern Roman hero, Mazzini. At least momentarily, the romantic democrat could imagine America and Rome united in a warp of time and space. (In her exultation, early in the revolutionary crisis, she helped some other American women hastily sew a copy of the Stars and Stripes so that it might flap proudly ‘in the home of Horace, Virgil and Tacitus’.) In this warp, furthermore, she rediscovered a sexualised world of Classical gods and goddesses, in ways that challenged her chaste radical notions of equality between men and women.

Ever since, the rest of Fuller’s Roman saga – her revolutionary activities, her ‘fall’ into a love affair and unwed motherhood, and her fatal return journey to America – has attained its own mythic status, open to ridicule or heroworship. Vance avoids this. He insists that Fuller’s Roman encounters with Eros in no way denigrated or compromised what he takes to be her noble feminist aims: rather they point out how, before coming to Rome, she was more thoroughly of her time than she and others may have realised. Likewise, her affirmation, in Rome, of a radical democratic view of America was streaked with irony and poignancy, for, as she told her friends, she could only find her radical America in Rome.

Vance is just as alert to nuance when he treats those Americans who seemed less open to Roman epiphanies. In 1864, the young, decidedly unromantic William Dean Howells visited the Forum and saw only ‘incoherent columns overthrown and mixed with dilapidated walls’. Forty years later, Howells remained unimpressed with the spot, certain as ever that ‘Rome, either republican or imperial, was a state for which we can have no genuine reverence.’ But Vance is able to discover in Howells a less flippant, post-romantic attitude toward history: what he calls a theory of historical nihilism encapsulated in an image of Shakespearean simplicity – the remains of an infant buried thousands of years before, babbling about yesterday at the bottom of an archeological dig.

Impressive as these readings are, however, Vance cannot help but leave us with a disturbing reflection about our own time and Rome’s dwindling importance on the American cultural landscape. This may be unintentional, for Vance works hard at the end of Volume Two to trace Rome’s continued pertinence to American writers and artists. He finds some of what he is looking for, notably in the openly homoerotic play of Vidal’s and Tennesssee Williams’s writings, by turns sarcastic and psychodramatic in their insistence that in America (unlike Rome) people have still got sex all wrong. Yet the overall American yield is scattered – some poems here and there, the odd novel or portion of a novel, a couple of important painters. By now, it seems, Rome is no longer a particularly special place for defining Americans’ self-identity. If anything, since 1945, the roles have been reversed, with Italians quickly learning to Americanise themselves in everything from the Spaghetti Western to the latest computer technology.

At one level, the emptying-out of Roman content in American cultural life is easy enough to interpret as a sign that Americans have passed through a reckoning with some old strains and inhibitions. In some ways – above all, arranging for discreet sexual pleasure – the journey to Rome is not necessary any more. If they are hardly pagans, most Americans at least think they have found ways to overcome the guilt and repression that once haunted writers like Hawthorne, without having to travel to the Via Veneto. Likewise, it has become possible for some Americans to imagine a form of historical consciousness freed from the classical master narratives – what the intellectual historian Elisabeth Young-Bruehl has called a ‘cosmopolitan history’, which rejects the laboured projection of one civilisation upon another in favour of an assumption of historical and cultural plurality. (To be sure, the theme of America as a modern Rome still has popular appeal, in mass-market histories as well as in satires and polemics.)

At another level, however, the more frightening spectre of an American Rome devoid of content comes to mind. Vance evokes it briefly in a discussion of Harold Brodkey’s short story of 1963, ‘The Abundant Dreamers’. In the story, a Hollywood film troupe descends on Rome, led by their director, Marcus Weill. Weill’s sense of the city is utterly ahistorical. The configurations of ancient monuments matter to him, but only insofar as they allow him to locate the proper mood within his viewfinder – a mass of ruins that has no meaning outside of his feeling for cinematic conventions. This utter American possession of the city turns out to strip away all history, all humanity, apart from the shapes that will help to constitute a celluloid text.

The attenuation of Americans’ cultural link with Rome may be but one of many signals of a more general cultural calamity, embodied in the self-referential declarations of a new generation which, like Marcus Weill, will have ‘never claimed to know, only to see’. William Vance, like those he studies, tries to know as well as to see. America’s Rome is an impressive monument to his efforts and theirs.