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An American Myth The American Adam

English Literature Essay


Published: 23, March 2015

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.

The American Adam in the 19th Century


Literature
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.

Thoreau: The Recovery of Innocence


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.

Whitman: An adamic Archetype


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.

Melville: Damned in the Midst of

Paradise
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.

Conclusion: The American Adam in Modern


Works
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.