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The term American Adam generally refers to a mythic concept considered by some critics and scholars to be the central element of American literature. Its assumption is based on the view of European colonists who saw America, the New World, not only as a haven from religious persecution, but also as a new Garden of Eden. This concept of the second garden offered a new beginning, free of the collective error that had pervaded the world since the failure of the first spiritual experiment in that original garden, where Adam had fallen to evil and lost his innocence.
By the late 18th century, the religious premise of the adamic myth has changed and now referred to a rather heroic being which was believed to be the core of the American character. Despite these parallels between the adamic myth and the perceptions that some settlers had of themselves, the myth of the American Adam did not substantially enter the cultural discourse until the 19th century and by that time it had lost many of the other elements associated with the biblical version.
Instead, the 19th century version of the adamic myth emphasizes on the isolated figure of Adam himself. He, at this stage, demonstrates a figure of immense possibilities that is, at least in certain readings, made vulnerable by his own spiritual virtues. Unlike his biblical prototype, the American Adam is less the product of God’s handiwork but more a creature of his own making. The image of Adam in all his ambition and optimism is perhaps best represented in the pages of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature. Emerson described this person as an authentic man who is free of the constraints of the past and of the limitations imposed by centuries of tradition. Moreover, this Adam stands for a man that is centered on the future and the promise inherent in the very newness of America. At the same time, however, the innocence of this American Adam is inevitably shaped and altered by experience.
Emerson expressed this innocence or experience duality in what he termed the Party of Hope and the Party of Memory. The party of hope, on the one hand, believed that the individual conscience was clear because it was unpolluted by the past. In this context, America had no past, only a present and a future. The key term in the moral vocabulary consequently was innocence. The most prominent representatives of this view of the American Adam are Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman.
The party of memory, on the other hand, believed in sin and corruption to be the central element of Adam’s character. Therefore, Adam remains part of the heritage of humanity.
Furthermore, a third concept of the American Adam was developed by the scholar R. W. B. Lewis. He called it the party of Irony. This third party believed in the paradox that a unique spiritual strength can arise from the inevitable clash of innocence with experience. This element is apparent in texts of Melville and Hawthorne.
For followers of the party of Hope, experience remained only the gray shadow of reality. If this Adam could keep his perspective fresh and new, free of the traditional and conventional morals, he would come into full possession of authentic existence. Noone followed this course with greater commitment than Henry David Thoreau. In the experiment that became Walden, Thoreau’s masterpiece, the author became a literal Adam himself, leaving the town of Concord to enter the more edenic surroundings of Walden Pond. There, in solitude, he was determined to confront only the essentials of life. From Emerson, Thoreau had learnt to reject tradition and historical Christianity. Moreover, he was to look at natural surroundings instead- to the nature of things that had not yet been encroached upon by civilization. In this sense, Thoreau effectively distanced himself from the corrupting influences that he believed characterized 19th century New England. His purpose was not to ignore them, but to replace them with rediscovered values of greater importance. In establishing his own Eden in proximity to the conventional civilization of Concord, Thoreau suggested that the essential innocence of the new American Adam can be both recovered and maintained by the discovery and examination of the essentials of life that is inherent in human nature as well as in the nature of wilderness. Walden, which begins with the limitations imposed on personal freedom by such conventions as property and the responsibilities of ownership, ends with the coming of spring, marking the new dawn that awaits the enlightened Adam.
Walt Whitman, who was also a strong representative of Emerson’s party of Hope, continued where Thoreau left off. He did not only feel a sense of approval with the American myth, he lived it. Where Thoreau recognized that some people might not respond to his call for an awakening, Whitman’s subjective view seemed to allow for no such consideration. All negatives became positives for this personification of the American Adam who moved with total confidence through a world in which the new dawn of promise became an unending sunny day. In poems such as Song of Myself, which is part of the Leaves of Grass series, Whitman celebrates innocent, natural, and seemingly unlimited virtue. This state is not a recovery of natural perfection, since in Whitman’s world there is no fall to recover from. A man, in his view, is self-created in the present and exists in the perfection of his innocent, confident creation.
Song of Myself
Trippers and askers surround me,
People I meet, the effect upon me of my early life or the ward and city I live in, or the nation,
The latest dates, discoveries, inventions, societies, authors old and new,
My dinner, dress, associates, looks, compliments, dues,
The real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I love,
The sickness of one of my folks or of myself, or ill-doing or loss or lack of money, or depressions or exaltations,
Battles, the horrors of fratricidal war, the fever of doubtful news, the fitful events;
These come to me days and nights and go from me again,
But they are not the Me myself.
Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.
In this part of Whitman’s poem, he clearly shows Emerson’s individual: The new Adam who is a man that contends that nothing, not even God, is greater than oneself. If we want a profile of this new Adam then we could start with the adjectives Whitman himself provides: amused, complacent, compassionating, idle and unitary. Finally, Whitman not only presented the dream of the new Adam, he also created the world in which the American Adam was to live.
Not all writers agreed with Thoreau’s and Whitman’s overly optimistic view. What provoked such a disagreement was the realization by writers like Herman Melville that the static moral innocence of the Adam could prove a spiritual liability in a fallen world, and could even become spiritually destructive. A good example of such a tragic Adam is Captain Ahab in Melville’s Masterpiece Moby Dick: I feel deadly faint, and bowed, and humped, as though I were Adam staggering beneath the piled centuries since Paradise. (Melville, Moby Dick, Chapter 11)
No turbaned Turk, no hired Venetian or Malay, could have smote him with more seeming malice. Small reason was there to doubt, then, that ever since that almost fatal encounter, Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations. The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil; – Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred White Whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it (Ch. 41)
Ahab, in Moby Dick, almost functions as the antagonist to Emerson’s plain old Adam – He is characterized as a being that is somehow damned in the midst of paradise. Personally, he is motivated by a kind of metaphysical sense of revenge. Most strikingly, he has lost his leg to the White Whale. Ahab not only intends to strike out against it and against whatever power that stands behind it, he also wants to strike at the thing that permits evil in the world. Regarding this goal, his quest is titanic, but ultimately doomed. Moby Dick lures Ahab to his death. As a symbol of American arrogance, he is aiming to establish an American Eden, freed from the curse of original sin. And Melville’s message, through Ishmael, the only survivor, is that this quest is doomed and can only lead to death.
In every of the three cases presented, the adamic theme is apparent in many works of 19th century American Literature. However, the precise interpretation of the adamic being is not unitary but versatile and complex. Finally, the idea of the American Adam did not end with the American Renaissance, but continued to be a major theme in more modern works such as Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby.
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