It would be grossly inaccurate to call George Steiner, who passed away earlier this week, an Americanist. His reading was cosmopolitan, certainly, and though it included the literature of the nation where he spent the plurality of his life, he was also famously dismissive of that tradition. Nearly every obituary published this week has mentioned that he once characterized Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, possibly the most revered novel in the U.S. canon, as “trivial.”
It can thus justly be characterized as a “stretch” for me to eulogize him on a site dedicated to Mark Twain Studies. Steiner made occasional, passing references to Twain’s works, enough to make evident he had read them (what hadn’t he read?), but he would have no doubt bristled at the very phrase “Twain Scholar,” not applied it to himself.
But I am taking the occasion of Steiner’s death to revisit one of the rare essays in which he not only glances at U.S. authors and artists, but searches for a definition of American culture. “The Archives of Eden” was published in Salmagundi in 1980 and later collected in Steiner’s No Passion Spent (1996).
While he does not mention them all by name, Steiner’s most transparent objective in the essay is to discredit and replace the “Adamic” definition of American culture developed by the midcentury Americanist critics R.W.B. Lewis, Leo Marx, Perry Miller, and Henry Nash Smith. Far from being an organic, virgin, youthful, or Arcadian culture (all tropes of the “Adamic” school), Steiner insists, “American culture has stood, from its outset, on giant shoulders” and “is ‘very old’ precisely because it has been heir to so much.”
The word heir is important here, for it acknowledges that American Adam did not spring, unprecedented, from the Virgin Land, but inheritance also denotes the passing of property. American culture specializes, Steiner argues, in the accumulation of cultural properties, whether those be the Strativarian instruments in the vaults of the Library of Congress or the fruits of intellect which Diasporic physicists traded to the Manhattan Project for visas.
“The dominant apparatus of American high culture is that of custody,” Steiner writes. Superior museums, superior libraries, superior concert halls, and superior universities comprise the “rummage-room of western civilization.” The British have to visit Washington D.C. to study Shakespeare. Russians come to New York City to study their revolution. The French journey to the Bay Area to study theirs. But, according to Steiner, our capacity for appropriating, cataloguing, curating, and, most importantly, arbitraging, the cultural artifacts of Europe masks the poverty of Americans own cultural productivity.
Summarized as such, Steiner’s argument may appear, up to this point, to be stereotypically Eurocentric, equal parts envy and elitism – the longform version of calling Moby-Dick “trivial.” I assure you, couched as it is in Steiner’s humility and dialectical reasoning, it does not read so dismissively. That said, it is really the second half of the essay which keeps me up at night. Steiner posits that by treating world culture with the same reverence as a pawnbroker and our own culture as purely disposable, Americans actually approach something virtuous.
“The correlations between classic literacy and political justice, between the civic institutionalization of intellectual excellence and the general tenor of social decency, between a meritocracy of the mind and the overall chances for common progress, are indirect and, it may well be, negative.”
Not even Americans orchestras want to play Aaron Copland. Our major metropolitan museums hang their Hudson River School paintings in the galleries furthest from the entrance. One suspect Emerson’s inclusion in the Norton Anthology of Western Philosophy is primarily an act of pity which only service to make the paucity of U.S. philosophers more apparent. But, Steiner’s comforting question to his U.S. colleagues: “Who cares?” Who needs to pursue the sensual transcendence of the arts and humanities when they are free to pursue happiness? “High culture, far from arresting barbarism, can give to barbarism a peculiar zest and veneer,” Steiner writes, “If a choice is to be made, let humane mediocrity prevail.”
Is “humane mediocrity” what we get when accept that the proper measures of culture are the the auction block, the domestic gross, the bestseller list, and the tuition price?
Standing beside the fiction produced under Stalinism, Steiner says, “this month’s ‘great American novel’ is merely embarrassing,” but “Who cares?” Neither its author nor its readers were, as Joyce put it, “squeezed like olives” in the vice grip of a totalitarian regime.
“The fundamental, if subconscious strategy of American culture is that of an immaculate astrodome enveloping, making transparent to a mass audience, preserving from corruption and misuse, the cancerous and daemonic pressures of antique, of European, of Russian invention.”
To choose Judd Apatow over Samuel Beckett – that is, to choose the “general dignity” of mass culture over the exclusive status of high culture – is, as Steiner puts it, “a thoroughly justifiable choice,” though not one he is constitutionally able to make for himself. Nor, and this is the rhetorical cruelty of his argument, are we. On the penultimate page of his essay, he points out, for those who have gotten so far, “by virtue of the simple fact that you are reading this essay, that you possess the vocabulary, codes of reference, leisure and interest needed to read it” you have already marked yourself as elite, as Eurocentric, as resistant to “the American way of life,” as potentially containing within your person and your tastes “the motor forces of social crisis.”
What I find haunting about this essay is not the trivialization of U.S. literature. (As Twain says, “My book are like water. Everybody drinks water.”) Nor is it Steiner’s characterization of the institutions of my profession (the university, library, and archive) as implicitly at odds with my person. What I really find haunting is that it was written four decades ago. It describes a “contagion of history” that Americans still carry with them, yet offers no account of what to do when the “immaculate astrodome” is no longer so immaculate. What happens when authoritarianism succeeds in raiding the archives of Eden? It is an essay in desperate need of a sequel. One which now we’ll never get.