[Inspired by my current book project and much else in contemporary American culture and society, this week’s series focuses on hope in America. Your texts, takes, and thoughts very welcome for the weekend’s crowd-sourced post!]
On the links between our contemporary debates over hope and two of America’s most longstanding ideas and ideals.
As I argued in yesterday’s post, Barack Obama has recently worked to redefine the images and ideas of hope on which he had campaigned for and won the presidency. Since his election, of course, some of his supporters have done the same in a very different light, disappointed and even disillusioned by what they have seen as the gaps between such ideas and the realities of Obama’s presidency. There would be various ways to analyze that trend, but to my mind one of the more convincing analyses is that advanced by American historian and scholar James T. Kloppenberg in his Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition (2010). For Kloppenberg, these disappointed supporters (and other Obama critics) have misread the president’s ideas from the outset, and more exactly have failed to understand the historical and philosophical figures, traditions, and contexts with which Obama’s ideas and goals should be put in conversation.
Kloppenberg’s connections and argument are multi-layered and complex, and deserve to be read and engaged with on their own terms, not in whatever ways I could paraphrase them here. So instead, I wanted to link the specific question of hope, as I framed it yesterday and as Obama did in his DNC speech, to a couple of other American narratives, ideas that have been central to our conversations for a couple centuries now. At the heart of the speech was what I’d call a communal individualism, an emphasis on creating and strengthening a society that gives each American the chance to succeed in his or her own life and arc. Both levels of hope at the heart of that idea—the hope that each individual has that potential, and the hope that a community can collectively help engender it—seem to me indebted to Transcendentalism, to Emersonian ideals such as the importance of each individual’s perspective and the way that those individual perpsectives can be perfected and made part of a collective oversoul. Emerson was perhaps the first modern American liberal, in some key ways, and this link would help further that idea.
Transcendentalism is often opposed, in histories of the period and of American thought more generally, to pessimism about human nature—see for example Melville’s famous critique in Moby-Dick’s “Mast Head” chapter for a contemporary such rejoinder to Emersonian ideals. But I would actually argue that another contemporary writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne, highlighted in a work such as The Scarlet Letter (1850) a third possibility and American narrative, one that includes both pessimism and hope among its ideas. On the one hand, Hawthorne’s depiction of his two male protagonists, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingsworth, portrays Americans as fundamentally flawed, doomed by their own failings to come up short of our national, spiritual, and human ideals. But on the other, while his female protagonist Hester Prynne is similarly flawed, she also finds a way to remake not only herself but also her community, building from her own darkest moments an identity and a new communal role and ideal that, the novel’s conclusion suggests, influences the town long after she is gone. Hawthorne’s American landscape is far more fraught and flawed than Emerson’s—but at the same time it is more full of possibility and even hope than Melville’s. We would do well to remember this narrative in our analyses of Obama and his presidency as well, I’d say.
Next in the series tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Texts, takes, thoughts on hope in America?
9/18 Memory Day nominee: Clark Wissler, the pioneering psychologist and anthropologist whose scientific work with Native American cultures, support for his peers, and ideas of culture and personality paved the way for much future research and analysis.