Washed White

Michael Rogin

  • The Rites of Assent: Transformations in the Symbolic Construction of America by Sacvan Bercovitch
    Routledge, 424 pp, £40.00, November 1992, ISBN 0 415 90014 X
  • Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America by Garry Wills
    Simon and Schuster, 315 pp, £17.99, April 1993, ISBN 0 671 76956 1

In a time of mass unemployment, budget deficits, infrastructure decay and economic decline, of ethnic cleansing, mass rape, communal violence and racial polarisation, Garry Wills and Sacvan Bercovitch proclaim the power of language to transform the world. Against one current fashion, both reject punning and the play of the socially detached signifier: they embed American words in American history. Against another current fashion, both are exceptionalists, seeing a special destiny for the United States. Earlier exceptionalists celebrated American uniqueness: the history that words transfigure in these two books is one of violence. For Bercovitch, American rhetoric promotes and obfuscates violence; the Gettysburg Address, for Wills, rises above the battle to create something new. The ‘redemptive promises of language’ trap Bercovitch’s United States in repetitive self-absorption; Lincoln at Gettysburg, in Wills’s subtitle, analyses ‘the words that remade America’.

Bercovitch teaches literature at Harvard; Wills, whose book has won the National Book Critics Circle Award as well as a Pulitzer Prize, crosses over brilliantly from academic scholarship to political commentary in the mass-circulation press. Each is the author of several celebrated volumes, both are engaged scholars of a certain age, critics of imperial America who, through on the Left, are not easily categorised politically. Both began outside liberal Protestant orthodoxy, but in opposite directions: Wills, a Catholic, writing for the right-wing National Review, Bercovitch coming from a Canadian, Yiddishist, socialist milieu. Now Bercovitch has been dragged under protest into the centre of US consciousness, obsessed with how the fixation on uniqueness swallows up alternative points of view, whereas Wills finds within the United States – from Washington to Lincoln to Martin Luther King – a place to stand against recent orthodoxies from Kennedy to Reagan and Bush.

Impatient with easy liberal scapegoating of religious faith, Wills rescues a politics of religious commitment from the clutches of right-to-life fanaticism and a sacralised US mission. For Bercovitch, however, religion is the original sin. The Puritan shift of sacred meaning from the Bible to American history survived the death of Puritanism. Carrying along nationalist historians like the Jacksonian George Bancroft, American Renaissance writers such as Hawthorne and Melville, and political leaders like Lincoln, the sacralisation of the United States created ‘the single most cohesive culture in the modern world’. Americans share not a common middle-class way of life, writes Bercovitch, but rather a suffocating, uniform way of thought. Unable to choose between genuine alternatives in order to enact dialectical history, writers interpret symbols instead. American symbology, as Bercovitch labels it, proliferates different meanings instead of choosing different acts. Symbolic richness (the white whale, the Scarlet Letter A, Walden Pond) may reconcile writers and readers to the United States or, as in Melville’s Pierre, turn back on the interpreter in a nightmare of self-referentiality that cuts words off entirely from the world. But Pierre’s negative exception proves the positive-thinking rule: no salvation outside the United States. Challenging those who see classic American literature as a critique of American society, Bercovitch links Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter to his fears of European socialism and American anti-slavery. A spectacular essay shows how the early Emerson, influenced by European socialists, counterposed individuality to capitalist individualism only to turn, under the fear of socialism, from critic to celebrant of the American way.

Bercovitch has also become an American writer, however, and these essays which, although rewritten for this volume, span twenty years, twist and turn between making and denying room for writers standing on native ground. Speaking literally in two voices in the final chapter, Bercovitch formalises a debate he has been having with himself. Especially in the earlier essays here, and in The American Jeremiad (1978) and Puritan Origins of the American Self (1975), he is the European-oriented outsider, seeing the United States as just another, not God’s, country. In one mode, however, that voice slides into a radical lament uncomfortably close to Pierre’s. In another, the author’s wish to ‘channel my resistance to the culture into a way of interpreting it’ makes him subject to his own warning that interpretation is a mode of reconciliation. More recently, therefore, Bercovitch has pointed not only to radical alternatives excluded by the United States but to those contained (in both senses) within it. This wish for a way of dissent within the American tradition comes back at Bercovitch in Lincoln at Gettysburg, not from the margins of the country like Bercovitch’s name-sakes, Sacco and Vanzetti, but from its holy centre, from the high priest of American political religion speaking as the occupant of the White House.

Garry Wills’s Lincoln transformed America from a battlefield and graveyard. Alluding to Indian genocide, Afro-American slavery and industrial violence, Bercovitch identifies the ‘simultaneity of violence and culture formation’ in the United States. He invokes Walter Benjamin’s ‘there is no document of civilisation that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.’ The Gettysburg Address, a work of art in Wills’s telling, emerged from the barbarism of slavery and civil war.

Wills begins with barbarism – botched battle (on both sides), carnage, sale of contracts to rebury the dead. But he, too, is an artist; no one writing about the United States is more rhetorically skilled. The method of this book indeed is its argument. Wills starts with the self-interested and bleeding bodies only to do what he says Lincoln did and leave them behind, for his Gettysburg Address ‘lifts the battle to a level of abstraction that purges it of grosser matter’. Edward Everett, the other orator at Gettysburg, trapped himself in the details, writes Wills. Lincoln, naming no units, no men, no landscape, no battle, no slavery, rose above the horrible particulars and ‘called up a new nation out of the blood and trauma’.

‘The act of bringing forth a new nation conceived in liberty is always an intellectual act for Lincoln,’ Wills writes – the italics mark the wish to overcome a violence that he never quite acknowledges as the necessary condition for the rebirth. Bringing new life to a text one would have thought had been exhausted by interpretation, Wills anatomises Lincoln’s self-aware magic with words, from his use of the Greek funeral oration to the artifice with which he constructed plain speech. Before Mark Twain, Lincoln was the father not only of the American ideal but of the American vernacular. But even in his denials, he was closer than Wills to the gross and bloody roots – in violence, in parricide and filicide, in slavery and racism – of his linguistic revolution.

Other revolutions spawn rebellion: the American Revolution, Wills and Bercovitch agree, authorised obedience. But Wills’s Lincoln also used the Revolution to make his own revolution, grounding the Union in a people (not the States) dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Arguing against Edmund Wilson and his psychobiographer followers, Wills denies that Lincoln entertained a parricidal wish for political immortality. He was driven by no desire to slay and surpass the Revolutionary fathers, to create an imperial Presidency presiding over a mystic America. Properly locating Lincoln in the Antebellum gothic culture of melancholy and death, Wills understates the future President’s personal investment in graveyards: he quotes some youthful, conventional, poetic lines, not those where death and madness take over. But the Civil War was the flowering of what has been called ‘the American school of catastrophe’, not because of Lincoln’s personality but because obedience to the fathers ‘Revolution required destruction of the fathers’ world.

Lincoln proclaimed his devotion to ‘the fathers who framed the government under which we live’. But the fathers had joined the Union to slavery. Wills notes his admiration for Jefferson, but omits the prophecy about bondage offered by the slave-owning author of the Declaration of Independence: ‘If something is not done, and soon done, we shall be the murderers of our own children.’ Wills quotes Lincoln’s promise to ‘wash white’ ‘in the spirit of the revolution’ the ‘republican robe’ soiled by slavery. But the master of tracing sources suppresses this one, in Bercovitch’s Bible, where not spirit but ‘the blood of the lamb’, Christ’s crucifixion, washes sins white – the blood of the hundreds of thousands who, in Melville’s dedication to his book of Civil War poems, ‘fell devotedly under the flag of their fathers’. ‘Washed white’, the pun that inextricably, historically, has tied sin not to slavery but to the colour of the slaves, specifies another problem.

Just as Wills’s Gettysburg Address rises above violence, so it frees itself from racism. He does not run from Lincoln’s assertions of white racial superiority, his opposition to racial mixing. White racism was too deeply embedded in the culture to be legislated away, so, as with the carnage, Wills’s Lincoln rose above the gross material body to root America in equality as principle. But that sword cuts two ways. A statement of high ideals, Lincoln’s Gettysburg failed to stand against the white supremacy and black material deprivation that were the legacies of the war.

The second civil rights revolution, that of Martin Luther King, returned to Lincoln’s principle of equality, but the re-entry of the fight for racial equality into US politics enabled the intensified black poverty and while racism that undergirded the Reagan/Bush regime. Garry Wills is a partisan of Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Lincoln at Gettysburg is authentic history, and also political allegory. Speaking to the present, it wishes that nationalism and war had not been the instruments of ending slavery, that words (and saxophone music) could transfigure the United States without frontally addressing (either by massive, poverty-directed state intervention or direct attacks on white racism) the American racial divide. Would Bercovitch, despairing of alternatives, seek racial redemption by recourse to the language of American ideals? Or would he rail against the violence, the racial resentment and inequality, that not only configured Lincoln’s achievement but also restrict the possibilities for those who would follow him?