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From the Archives: Alfred Kazin on the American Revolution’s Legacy

In this 1976 piece written for the nation’s bicentennial, Alfred Kazin reflects on the conversion of the American Revolution into a metaphor, a milestone that is both essential to the construction of our national myth and responsible for the elevation of individualism. The Revolution, Kazin argues, made great men out of politicians, agitators, and writers—allowing themselves to identify with a revolution that inspired intellectuals and rebels abroad. Kazin contemplates, however, whether the Revolution is still relevant in today’s day and age—if individualism can still exist to “millions of Americans dependent on those super-organized units that dominate industry, education, entertainment, publishing.”

Here is where the significant mythology of the Revolution begins: the cult of bold originality, “representative” of the human race as its best, whose gifts would have been shunted by continued English rule. Hawthorne, in his greatest story about the Revolution, My Kinsman Major Molineux, tenderly made fun of the young rustic who comes to Boston only to see his uncle, the once almighty British officer, tarred and feathered by a jeering crowd having a revel. At the end of the story young Robin is to become a true American: he must find his destiny in himself. 

All American writers since, many famous American “personalities” in business and government, have though of themselves as self-starters, not part of a tradition except one that carries their names. The American as “pioneer” in every possible walk of life, finally self-sustaining as well as self-starting, was to become one oddity of a Revolution justifying itself by English tradition. Melville was to demonstrate the tragedy of Captain Ahab, but not before he virtually deified the common American sailor as wanderer, wale-killer, forager on the high seas. Emerson rhapsodically saluted the independent American scholar as a genius by definition; even the seminarians in Harvard Divinity School became “new-born bards of the Holy Ghost.”

Immense powers were released by the American Revolution—immense stores of unconscious personal militancy, affirmation, scientific curiosity, esthetic boldness and antinomian “heresy” broke open among all classes of men. The American Revolution raised the individual and above all thetheory of individualism to new heights. There was a political revolution, even a religious revolution, above all an intellectual and literary revolution. There was eventually a revolution of the common man, thanks to the “great Democratic God,” as Melville put it in Moby Dick, who picked up “Andrew Jackson from the pebbles.” But the ambiguous and marked hysteria of Melville’s tribute to Jackson, as to “meanest mariners and renegades and castaways” stems from the unlimited and even frightening assertiveness of ruthless Americans like Andrew Jackson and Ahab. Especially when these overreachers are compared with worldly failures like Hermann and Melville, soon to slip into the American shadows.

Here’s the full article.