The Tradition of Violence in American Literature

Bainard Cowan, Ph.D.

Is Dallas a city of violence? Interestingly enough the first real study of violence in literature was published in Dallas. W. M. Frohock’s 1946 The Novel of Violence in America was first issued in Dallas by the now-defunct University Press. In it the Harvard professor distinguishes between two kinds of violence. The first is typical of novels that depict human beings using time–“novels of destiny,” which “at their best . . conceive of violent acts as the characteristic mark of the human and depict them as performed with great lucidity.” He adds that this type of novel is more closely related to Greek tragedy than to the modern European novel, with its highly interiorized concerns. The second kind of novel in his classification is that in which human beings are used by time, or are awash in time, rather than using time consciously–“novels of erosion,” in which “violence can be conceived as animal” and is ultimately psychologically “an act. . . committed in self-defense” (Frohock 8). This second type is not the one that Frohock, a World War II veteran, is interested in. The notion of “senseless violence,” or at least of violence that is murkily rather than clearly motivated, must have seemed of little importance to a scholar recently returned from fighting the fascist menace.

By 1969, however, the United States had exploded in new forms of violence–assassination, riots in protest against racial oppression and against war, violence related to drugs and just youthful exuberance, and even forms of cult violence. Academics began to burst at the seams with searching studies and special conferences on the problem and origins of American violence. President Lyndon Johnson’s National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence issued a report on The History of Violence in America, popularly called the Graham Report. Kenneth Lynn wrote the essay included in it titled “Violence in American Literature and Culture.” In the wake of this highly touted report, every aspect of violence in American life began to be studied. One of the earliest was titled Violent America: The Movies, 1946-1964.The phrase has a ring of inexorability. Arthur Schlesinger, Marshall McLuhan, Richard Hofstadter, Richard Sennett–over the years one after another of the public intellectuals weighed in on this most public of issues. In 1986 a reassessment of the Graham Report was issued, following an interdisciplinary conference on Violence in America. The conference was held in Dallas.

I rehearse this recent history just to emphasize that there is a certain appropriateness to our raising this topic at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, and to suggest that–before and after that defining event that connected Dallas to violence in the public consciousness in the most brutal way–a discourse was being carried on that sought to understand the dark events that dot the texture of our national life.

It is grimly interesting that the shootings that have most caught the eye and the conscience of the nation in recent years have been the spectacular ones at public institutions: schools, especially, but also churches and marketplaces. Is this an attack on institutions themselves–a bloody reminder that people, in the end, will resist regimentation? We can hardly understand contemporary violence merely by starting with the obvious–our disapproval of it. Nor, perhaps, can we cut it off from other phenomena with which it is associated.

Surely the bleak regimentation of high school life has much to do with the outbreaks of violence. I recall the dean of my college, a devout Baptist, talking with a sort of wistfulness about a religious sect he knew of that made a practice of giving plots of land to its youngest men, assigning new church communities to their leadership to develop. Give them something on which success absolutely depends, then give them plenty of freedom to accomplish it, was the reasoning. In contrast, our schools bring the opposite–activity on which nothing depends, regimented without freedom. Ironically, the reality of the desire for freedom seems repeatedly to escape the understanding of Americans.

Freedom is a strange subject. America has embraced it without realizing its complexity, and violence may be a result of not taking this difficult essence to heart. Each of the recent highly publicized outbursts violence seems to have been saying, in its own language of blood, “Give me liberty or give me death.”

Prompted by your resident sages, Larry Allums and Glenn Arbery, those of you who have attended this lecture series have already been alerted to the wisdom of American literature on violence. You have taken William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Toni Morrison as your guides to the mysterious depths that haunt the American soul. Greater anatomies of violence will be hard to find. However, I want to widen our focus a bit and reflect back to the formative period of American greatness in literature– from the 1820s through the 1850s– where, I contend, the subject of violence was a no less pressing concern. Not just the occasional desperate act of blood by jilted lovers and shunned office seekers, but rather what we call today a “climate of violence” already fills the pages of these writers; this fact is testimony enough that something like a tradition of violence does exist in America. The authors I am going to examine stand a little closer to the source and may well be able to tell us with greater definition what is so peculiarly American about this particular mode of action–or reaction.

Richard Slotkin may be the most perceptive of the American studies scholars who has analyzed the traditions of violence in the United States. The thesis stated in his 1973 book’s title, Regeneration Through Violence, has a range of meanings. At its most reasonable, it describes the retrospective attitude of regret that tinges the more humane statements of American manifest destiny. However, the term proceeds to operate in describing the mentality of the European settlers, most typically the Puritans, who believed that arriving on the new continent was a chance at a new start, at regeneration, a dream bigger than any obstacle could oppose. Violence ensued as an unpremeditated consequence of this commitment to a regenerative dream when it turned out that the obstacles to its fulfillment were not only land and weather and wild animals but people. Slotkin’s term finishes its arc of meaning—an arc which he claims indicates an interconnected range—in pointing to statements by frontier trappers, ambitious military officers, and modernist poets—dangerous breeds all!—that glorify violence as having a cleansing and regenerating effect.

Slotkin begins his bold examination by defining myth in an explicitly Jungian fashion. Myth is truth, Slotkin would say; myth reaches down into the archetypes of human experience; but myth indicates something like large communal complexes that return, like the Oedipus complex, to haunt our national life. So for Slotkin, we can’t seem to rid ourselves of thinking as we have imagined the frontier trapper to think. So we must go back and study our past and its myths in order to arm ourselves with awareness against the approach of the violent myth.


An analytic of violence in America was undertaken by the first American novelist to gain transatlantic fame, James Fenimore Cooper. His fifth novel, The Prairie, was completed in Paris when he was 38 and experiencing for the first time an unexpected international status of celebrity. He was welcomed by Sir Walter Scott; Balzac referred to his novels as precedents for his own. The Prairie was published in 1827, in the wake of a brilliant period in the exploration of the trans-Mississippi. In this novel Cooper’s perennial frontier hero, Natty Bumppo, has pressed on deep into the Great Plains as he ages past 80 and prepares for death. He is prevented from this sublime serenity however by Ishmael Bush, a squatter who is bringing his family west. Natty learns that Inez, the wife of a U. S. Army captain, has been kidnapped by Bush’s brother-in-law and is being held in Bush’s camp. Yet at the same time he must defend the squatters from attack by the Sioux, who are protecting their hunting ground.

Captured and then freed from the Sioux through the efforts of Hard-Heart, a Pawnee who is another of Cooper’s Noble Savage figures, Natty and the women he is rescuing fall once more into the hands of Bush, who has been tracking them bent on vengeance. Bush’s firstborn son has been shot in the back and killed with a bullet from Natty’s rifle. In a perversely brilliant scene, Cooper has Bush hold his own court of justice on the prairie to decide the fate of all his captives. During this rump trial it comes out that Natty’s bullet was fired by Bush’s own brother-in-law, the kidnapper of Inez. Bush then frees Natty and Inez and sentences his own kin to death by hanging. The novel ends one year later with the death of Natty himself. This episode has proved to cast the final shadow on his life.

In The Prairie Cooper conducts the most searching examination of the root conditions of American life in all his Leatherstocking novels, presenting a gallery of ultimate human forms in stark contrast to one another. There is Inez, the captain’s wife, her wit and bearing possessed of all the active resources of civilization;Hard-Heart, Cooper’s figure of the “good Indian,” sternly despising the waste and violence of the encroaching whites yet helping them out of danger; Natty himself, both observer and honor-bound hero, a resolutely betwixt-and-between figure who moves westward as he refuses to give up his marginal position in relation to civil society; and finally Ishmael Bush, the wanderer who is his own law and who acts out of the most primal motivations of blood and the need to migrate, to get away. Possessing no reverence for man or nature, he sets up his own will and appetite against natural decency and the laws of civilization. In condemning his brother-in-law to death, he appeals to his worn fragment of a Bible, part of the Old Testament, finding there the justification for his personal vengeance. Bush is a prototype of the American lawless man, the drifter figure who violently shuffles the cards of civilized order from time to time. Cooper effectively emphasizes Bush’s lawlessness by accoutring him with scraps of the genuine equipment of law.

Cooper believed that “the whole ‘march of civilization,’ that is, the Westward Movement of the agricultural frontier, [was] a unique process which seems to turn time backward in the New World and to make American history an inverted image of that of Europe” (Smith xiii), stripping away one by one the protective layers that have kept human beings from coming face to face with each other’s stark existential demands, and from laying bare each other’s throats. As a result, in America the whole problem of civilization has had to be faced anew, repeatedly.

What Cooper consistently presents in all the Leatherstocking novels is a fundamental ambivalence about civilization and progressive social organization: it is both good, “producing priceless flowers of refinement like Inez,” and evil, defiling nature, substituting the “waste and wickedness of the settlements for the tranquil solitude of the wilderness” (Smith xvi). This untenable contradiction characterizes the American undertaking at its core, according to Cooper. The fundamental tensions of the American experience, as Marius Bewley has said in The Eccentric Design, are “between freedom and law, between nature and civilization, between the individual and society, between the religion of the personal intuition and that of theology.” In Cooper these tensions tend to resolve themselves in Natty’s resigned attitude, accepting the violation of nature and autochthonous man by civilization as necessary, because its ultimate consequences are good. Yet the society which performs this act incurs a burden of guilt that is not lightly to be forgotten.

The theme of guilt in civilization is not uniquely American: it is a strong subtext running throughout Virgil’sAeneid, to cite one powerful example. More recently, René Girard, attempting to improve on Freud, has located a guilt of primordial undifferentiated violence and its scapegoating in the institution of sacred law as the founding myth underlying all civilization. Yet, among Western nations, only the United States has developed not merely a single great poetic work or a theory but an entire culture and discursive habit intimately familiar with the intricacies of violence. Almost from the beginning its writers have examined the notion of the burden of guilt incurred by a violent action that is involved in its very existence, its hopes and its dreams.


Natty Bumppo can at least content himself with the sweetness of freedom, his apartness allowing him communion with his beloved forests and plains. However, in a settled society freedom is rare to come by in such pure form, and its simulacrum is economic freedom. Yet our reduction of freedom to “getting and spending” may doom us to the very violence we have banded together to escape. Novelist and critic Edward Dahlberg writes:

Man cannot afford, as he is doing, to neglect the chivalry of ethics in his pursuit of economic salvation. His hunger in the end will be so great, his denial so desperate, that he will break out in more bloody fury than before to reclaim his spirit; for spirit is so good and so evil and so chemic that, if you starve it, man will eat the whole world to have it back again! (Dahlberg 23-24)

Dahlberg’s insight is that what renders us human is not the raised standard of living caused by the pursuit of economic ends. Further, implicitly, it is not even the freedom afforded by economic options–not freedom itself–that tells the entire story of our full humanity. Freedom is in tension with an opposite quality. It is in fact the inability of this opposite tension even to be named in American public discourse that testifies to our extreme neglect of it. This quality we may designate by several metaphors: one is wholeness. A more revealing metaphor might concern our lack of a cosmos: the participation in complex, coordinated, extensive, and deep orders of being.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1832 story “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” examines the connections between irrational violence and the desire for liberty. Robin, the innocent country youth come to the city for the first time to grow up (and instructed to call upon his influential relative Major Molineux for assistance), is in a sense parallel to us the public, the newspaper readers and media viewers on learning of the next access of rage. Robin has entered pre-revolutionary Boston, where, to quote Hawthorne, “the people looked with most jealous scrutiny to the exercise of power which did not emanate from themselves,” and where brutality even toward governors is likely to erupt. Moreover, this is a Boston enchanted on a midsummer night by “a train of circumstances, that had caused much temporary inflammation of the popular mind.” Nothing is what it seems; all the citizens seem to be conspiring in a dark masquerade. When Robin finally sees his powerful kinsman driven out of town by an irate mob, he stands in stupefied, shocked disbelief, and wonders whether he should express his ultimate disapproval by leaving the city and going back to his country home. Meanwhile, however, he has had a dream telling him the gate of the lane to his family’s house will be locked; more tellingly, he has joined in with the derisive laughter of the crowd in expelling the tarred and feathered oppressor, Major Molineux. Hawthorne of course does not call him a tarred and feathered oppressor; he makes it rather inconvenient by putting it this way:

On they went, like fiends that throng in mockery round some dead potentate, mighty no more, but majestic still in his agony. On they went, in counterfeited pomp, in senseless uproar, in frenzied merriment, trampling all on an old man’s heart. On swept the tumult, and left a silent street behind.

The silence leaves us to face ourselves and the secret complicity we have with the desire for violence. Robin’s mighty parricidal laugh is one of solidarity with the human community. We must not keep it bottled up.

Don’t mistake me as saying literally that we should laugh at violence. I’m saying, as I think Hawthorne is implying, that human experience is complex yet finally all interconnected; that to enter into the maturity of democracy is to accept a condition of moral complexity, even ambivalence. It is, as another tale of his closely related to “Molineux,” “Young Goodman Brown,” has it, a ritual of blood and fire that inducts us into the human community and “shall exult to behold the whole earth one stain of guilt.” Goodman Brown, as you doubtless remember, is a young Puritan colonist out on a mysterious nighttime mission, where he will join most of the members of his community in some unnnamed ceremony of fire, presided over by someone very much resembling a stock literary Satan. Yet this character speaks not of doing evil but of realizing evil. “‘Welcome, my children,’ said the dark figure, ‘to the communion of your race! Ye have found, thus young, your nature and your destiny.’” He cites the murderous deeds of “all whom ye have reverenced from youth”–of those who set fire to an Indian village, who lashed and violently expelled the Quakers, who secretly poisoned their husbands or fathers, or “how fair damsels—blush not, sweet ones! have dug little graves in the garden, and bidden me, the sole guest, to an infant’s funeral.”

“The sympathy of your human hearts for sin” is the way Hawthorne expresses the saving grace, the negative capability, that must be exercised in a democracy. It is an option that Goodman Brown chooses not to take, and it is he who becomes a disgruntled and disillusioned loner: “A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man, did he become, from the night of that fearful dream.” (Was it a dream?) Perhaps in a later day Brown would have mailed certain packages to all whom he had reverenced from youth.

Hawthorne’s tales explore the need for tolerance in a Puritan-derived culture. Signs and contexts in his stories indicate that it is not a tolerance of the kind endlessly enforced in our civil society, a tolerance based on relativism and the suspension of any meaningful values–the only tolerance that can be assured to be automatically invoked because it is based on a context in which nothing means anything. That kind of tolerance is expressed in the blank attitude of T. S. Eliot’s quasi-mythological daughter of the Thames after her seduction:

After the event

He wept. He promised “a new start.”

I made no comment. What should I resent?

Hawthorne, writing in a less disillusioned time, is indicating a tolerance based on cosmic participation. Crises of judgment climax his greatest tales, and he places these crises in the setting of a young man on the point of entry into society—into what traditional cultures have always made to be the full range of human participation in the cosmos.

This is a crisis we have denied our youth both male and female. The critical culture which the Western world has chosen as its major mode for the last three hundred years has made the activity of knowledge its highest priority at the expense of the content of that knowledge. Epistemological and scientific certainty dominate in the presentation of knowledge and learning, and their prestige trickles down to the presentation of the simplest forms of knowledge in the schools today. The ideology of relativism derives from the imperative of leaving the knowledge-seeker free to pursue his or her results without the hindrance of taboo. The unlooked-for result, however, has been the neglect and ultimately the loss of a cosmos peopled with beings, visible and invisible, no less living than oneself. These beings serve as inductors into a cosmic citizenship, and their watchful eyes do not permit others to be thought of as nonentities, nor brutality to be raised against them, without swift, dire, and well-known consequences. Only in the forgetting of such a cosmos can violence assume the purely expressive character it has taken on today, as if the lives of others were mere canvas on which to execute an action painting.

Hawthorne dug patiently and unswervingly into the American past to discover its complexity in a time when America was fixated on what was right with its past—a time when the hagiography of the Founding Fathers was first elaborated. Amnesia about our past has been a long-standing condition, because the past holds back that illusory access to freedom as endless possibility that we hold so dear. “History is bunk,” said Henry Ford; but history speaks inexorably of our whole condition, not of the fantasy of our condition. Paradoxically, the truth of our whole condition is that it is not whole. As novelist Leslie Silko wrote recently, White Americans tend to act like tourists even when they are not abroad. To dig into the past is to come out of that trance and to remember, again in Silko’s words, that we are guests on this land. Hawthorne dug into the past as a good psychoanalyst delves into the early life of a patient, in order to find what subsists in the unconscious. In this case it is the communal unconscious, and he uncovers something like the furies to be woven into our heritage.


Herman Melville’s archeology (if I may change professional metaphors) is at a nearby site, but it is dug at an angle that will take him slightly deeper. Melville’s sea novels, of which Moby Dick was the sixth and last, generally use the setting of the oceangoing sailing ship to dramatize the specialization and alienation of the nineteenth-century industrial worker.

All of his characters are cut off, consequently–all isolatoes, as he calls them. Several of them provide instances of rebellion, but the lone figure who dares to strike out against this alienation, who commits a kind of diagnostic violence, is of course Ahab. The one-legged captain discovers–or thinks he discovers–a metaphysical dimension to this alienation. As Larry Allums has remarked earlier in this series, “in Melville’sMoby-Dick, Captain Ahab abstracts the single instance of inscrutable violence he suffers personally—the loss of his leg to the whale, but why?—into a violent quest for the truth of being itself.”

Is this abstraction of the self and the personification of one’s torments a part of the American myth? Here we might get closer to Columbine. Melville examines the real root of American “senseless violence”–the lashing out of someone against a sea of troubles, in some explosive moment that is unconnected in any purposive way to the ills he has suffered.

There is certainly something wrong with a society that gives you the mold of an all-powerful self to grow into without the culture to season you into it. What America has produced already as early as Melville’s time is a frustrating contradiction: a culture of the marketplace that denies the transcendent, and a transcendent model of the self; Jacksonian America and Emersonian philosophy –a violent combination indeed.

The solution of Melville the artist is to portray this situation in even more exaggerated terms: a person who has the aspiration of an Emersonian Transcendentalist but has experienced his hopes being taken away with a sudden, ruthless and definitive gesture. Another of Melville’s hommes révoltés, the slave revolt leader Babo in “Benito Cereno,” is relentless and all but seamless in the imposition of his will-to-power over his slavemasters. Like Ahab he has complete control of the ship –no matter that he has had to wrest that control by force; the threat by which he maintains that control is only slightly more overt than the intimidating atmosphere Ahab maintains with somewhat less effort. Only when the deposed captain Cereno jumps from the ship onto the pilot boat is there a moment of the unforeseen in which he is able to reveal the mutiny. The haunting, accusing final image of the story attests to that implacable will forever unappeased:


Frederick Douglass recounts a moment in his life in which he felt that desperation. Working as a slave in full view of the ships dotting Chesapeake Bay, he turns and apostrophizes them with a bit of three-masted prose poetry under full sail:

“You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip! You are freedom’s swift-winged angels, that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron! O that I were free! O, that I were on one of your gallant decks, and under your protecting wing! Alas! betwixt me and you, the turbid waters roll. Go on, go on. O that I could also go! Could I but swim! If I could fly! O, why was I born a man, of whom to make a brute!” etc. (Douglass 74)

The great orator has come to this point by learning to read despite being prohibited by his master, and, through reading, learning of liberation movements around the world. These stories of distant freedom, he finds, only add to his misery, however. The apostrophe he flings at the escaping ships proves to be the turning point of a poetically crafted narrative. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is at once an American captivity narrative, an autobiography of the self-made man, a study of the Emersonian self-reliant man, and a dramatization of Plato’s allegory of the cave; but it goes beyond all these typologies precisely because it faces the necessity of violence to bring about the freedom that he does not have, the freedom that his readings, his mind and his soul tell him is the only acceptable condition for human life. Douglass faces the stark reality that the gift of personhood that is his right, if it is withheld from him, must be won by any means necessary.

Thus he places the problem of violence front and center in his Narrative. The first chapter ends with the brutal beating of his aunt by his master while the young child Douglass hides in the closet and looks on, so terrified that he is rooted to the spot. “I expected it would be my turn next.” He writes in retrospect, “It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass.” The mute horror of this scene is significant. It is too overwhelming to be taken in with his intelligence. The brute force of violence expands to overmaster all its beholders as well. This is of course not just any violence but an arm of an oppressive system, designed above all to maintain control.

Most of what Douglass tells about his youth has to do with his efforts to develop his consciousness of his own situation by learning to read and discussing the situations of slavery and politics with others. But there comes a point when all that his learning can lead to is what Hegel calls “the unhappy consciousness,” since he realizes inexorably that that ideal he can read and dream of will be forever held from him. This is the moment of his apostrophe to the sailing ships. Rather than become bitterly resentful with the dark genius of a Melville antihero, however, Douglass resolves to find the opportunity to escape. Douglass never divulges how that escape was effected, but he tells instead of a victory on the way to that final liberation. His overseer Covey has beaten him bloodily and he resolves to go to the great house and tell his master of the unjust treatment. The master of course backs up Covey’s authority, but Douglass feels he has at least borne witness. On his way back he visits a slave who is off to visit his freed wife. He regards his fellow with a mixture of belief and skepticism:

I found Sandy an old adviser [he writes]. He told me, with great solemnity, I must go back to Covey; but that before I went, I must go with him into another part of the woods, where there was a certainroot, which, if I would take some of it with me, carrying it always on my right side, would render it impossible for Mr. Covey, or any other white man, to whip me. (Narrative 78)

Douglass’s prejudices are those of a literate, not an oral culture, and he regards all this as superstition; nonetheless, he does take the root with him. And as things turn out, he faces Covey down, engages him in an epic hand-to-hand fight that lasts hours, and finally routs him so effectively that Covey never bothers him again.

The path to freedom he must claim for himself. Douglass’s violent resistance to Covey is an expression of the unification of his split consciousness. The magic of the root seems to accent this effect even more sharply. One might want to declare the root a symbol of whatever quality Douglass has now found, the one thing needful to move him from unhappy observer to activist. It may be taken as the seal of righteousness if one tends toward a Judeo-Christian interpretation; a sign of the magic of self-reliance if one is of an Emersonian bent; or of the salutary powers of Afrocentric culture in a white man’s world. The root is a magical amulet harking back to the cosmo-magical toolkit of the ancient tribal world. As a motif it interestingly recalls the root called moly that Odysseus is told by Hermes to carry in order to protect himself from the metamorphic witchery of Circe. I read it as a sign that violence invokes the powers of the magical cosmos, and to carry it on his right side means he has invoked these powers properly, with good cause, and in the service of a good.

Special emphasis must be placed on the character of Douglass’s violence. It arises from determination coming from long hours of growth and commitment. It consists more in the courage to stand up to the intimidation of the master than in the physical act, which is a necessary consequence. And the violence itself is characterized as work, a contest of endurance, far from a gratuitous expense of superabundant power.

To sum up our survey, we might call to mind that title of a film study I mentioned briefly some hour ago:Violent America. What does this term conjure up to each of our authors?

Violent America. To Cooper this means: the inevitable result of men seeking freedom on an unfamiliar continent which is already occupied by an unexpected and unrecognized people. Aggression colors our past and should humble us; it continues in our plans for the future in mastery of the continent, and this should temper us. Violence is where the laws don’t reach; yet Cooper’s hero jealously guards the limits of the laws for the exercise of freedom.

Violent America. To Hawthorne it is an entire pageant: a carnival, a demonic feast of raw desire, the perennial overthrow of authority; unlike other authors, it carries the distinctive mark of sin. Its recognition is a rite of passage, the birth of consciousness, the precondition of the democratic mind.

Violent America. To Douglass it is a pressure against a prior violence. A purposeful violence, arising out of the will in a deep pact with the magical, to counter a brutal, mechanizing, terrorizing enslavement.

Violent America. To Melville it arises out of the metaphysically wounded will. (Chap. 41: “He turned all his concentred cannon . . . he burst his hot heart’s shell”)–it protests a fatal disconnection in the cosmos, a fragmentation, at the same time that it dooms its agent to full isolation in his violent death.

For all these authors, America is and has been violent over two goals that sometimes come in direct conflict with each other: freedom, and the full participation in a living cosmos. For the long gaze of Allen Tate, however, these two tensive goals are one. In “The Man of Letters in the Modern World,” published in 1950, at the flash point of the Cold War, Tate wrote of “an intolerable psychic crisis expressing itself as a political crisis” (Tate 6), and he diagnosed the crisis in this way:

Man is a creature that in the long run has got to believe in order to know, and to know in order to do. For doing without knowing is machine behavior, illiberal and servile routine . . . I take it that we have sufficient evidence, generation after generation, that man will never be completely or permanently enslaved. He will rebel, as he is rebelling now, in a shocking variety of “existential” disorders, all over the world. If his human nature as such cannot participate in the action of society, he will not capitulate to it, if that action is inhuman: he will turn in upon himself, with the common gesture which throughout history has vindicated the rhetoric of liberty: “Give me liberty or give me death.” Man may destroy himself but he will not at last tolerate anything less than his full human condition. (Tate 7)

Believing and knowing. For Tate, the desire for freedom is a desire for participation. Freedom is the means whereby one may take leave of the old order, an insufficiently human order, and seek a more perfect union. It is ultimately a more perfect union than politics can afford that the human seeks. Finally, it is participation in “nothing less than all.” Violence is an unforgettable reminder that this goal will be pursued “by any means necessary.”

Works Cited

Cooper, James Fenimore. The Prairie.

Dahlberg, Edward. Can These Bones Live. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1960.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. New York: Signet Classic/Penguin Putnam, 1997.

Frohock, W. M. The Novel of Violence in America. Dallas: University Press, 1946.

Slotkin, Richard. Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1680-1860. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1973.

Smith, Henry Nash. Introduction. Cooper.

Tate, Allen. “The Man of Letters in the Modern World.” Collected Essays.

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