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Slouching Towards America

The Prize of Failure

The hero sails to far exotic shores, returns in triumph with a princess and a prize. This is the archetypal European Quest whose classic formulation is the Myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece. The theme has minor variations—as when the fleece becomes a Holy Grail—but the center remains: despite the setbacks and the losses he may suffer on the way, the hero brings his treasure-laden Argo back to port. The quest succeeds. Thus when the Renaissance explorers left to seek great riches in the lands beyond horizons on the west, their ultimate success seemed foreordained. And when America was found, it simply was historical fulfillment of an archetypal myth. To certain eyes the continent was El Dorado. Others saw it paradise regained, the locus aetas aurea that medieval exegetes had learned of in their "Christian Ovid." Either view envisioned realms of gold.

The notion that a brave new world awaited its discoverer, appears as early as the Roman Seneca. The chorus in Medea prophesies a second Argo sailing past "the ocean's chains" and into novos orbes of majestic size. By this analogy Columbus was to be a second Jason. Ferdinand Columbus was convinced that Seneca had meant his father—as we know from markings in his Latin text. Those who saw America as Eden rediscovered could adduce a better proof: Columbus said so. And the theme persisted. Montaigne in his famous essay viewed "Americans" as prelapsorian bons sauvages. And though Montaigne found Eden in Brazil, the eye of Europe subsequently focused on the north. In 1734, Voltaire could specify (without irony) which of the United States contained the earthly paradise: "the golden age of which we speak so much . . . has never very like been reality—except in Pennsylvania."

But herein lies the paradox. The dream we call "American" is actually a European fantasy, inspired by the Golden Fleece tradition in the fabric of their culture. This is not at all America's ur-myth. Success is Jason's fate. Columbus, on the other hand, died poor and in disgrace— and hack in Europe.

The American quest is profoundly tragic, its Golden Fleece a winding sheet for Jason drowned. The paradigm is Moby Dick. Why does Ahab so relentlessly pursue what is both metaphysically and literally elusive, something far transcending any European sense of "prize"? His crew has harvested the wealth of many whales; but still he perseveres to get the White One. And what are we to understand in Melville's message that the quarry kills the quester? He clearly understood how flagrantly he violated Europe's myth. We know how closely and how often Melville read the Odyssey, whose sailor hero voyages past every limit and returns paragonally happy. "Heureux qui comme Ulysse . . . " begins the famous sonnet which then cites a second model of success: "that man who won the fleece." And Melville actually suggests that Ahab's ship is something of an anti-Argo. In a book whereevery character is named portentously, can we ignore the fact the Pequod's cook is called "old Fleece"?

Auden's poem to Melville limns the man no less than his mythology:

... il was the gale had blown him
Past the Cape Horn of sensible success
Which cries: "this rock is Eden.
Shipwreck here.

Not even paradise lost, a theme familiar to the European mind—which could conceive of temps perdu as either Christian or Proustian. But rather paradise as tragedy. Shipwreck in Eden.

Although this may not always be the major theme, it appears throughout American literature—as in Faulkner—in the basso continuo. W.J. Slatoff notes this in his study of Faulkner with its emblematic Quest for Failure. But what concerns us in this essay is those works of American fiction which clearly and deliberately deny the hero prizes which In Europe were his due. Take the case of Eugene de Rastignac, the typical Balzacian hero, an unscrupulous arriviste who succeeds financially as well as socially, and gains une femme et une fortune. By contrast, Gatsby, equally unscrupulous, achieves the two, then loses both—and then his life as well. What is more, Fitzgerald consciously presents him as a contrast to the European archetype. As Lionel Trilling pointed out, Gatsby has constructed his estate upon the shores first spied by great explorers' sailors. The pristine site once "pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams."

The fate of the American protagonists consistently dispels and negates European fantasies of Golden Age, success and paradise regained. Not merely in Fitzgerald, whose Tender is the Night presents another arriviste who rises but to fall. There is also John O'Hara's Julian English in Appointment in Samara. This painfully ambitious merchant of the noble Cadillac surrenders in his social quest and kills himself. In An American Tragedy, Dreiser gives us young Clyde Griffiths, desperate to achieve both wealth and social recognition but who ends in the electric chair. The Big Money, the concluding part of John Dos Passos' USA trilogy depicts a glittering war hero who at first aspires to serve society, then tries to conquer it, but ultimately dies defrauded and deluded.

Santayana's only novel The Last Puritan (1936) presents the European foil as well as the American failure. His hero Oliver Alden embodies every aspect of American success: high social rank, good looks, great wealth—and football skill. Yet he is unhappy, for the world "had denied him nothing except the animal capacity . . . to hug himself for joy at his private good luck." In contrast, cousin Mario, the European cynic quite unburdened by excessive puritan morality, can savor all the world's delights-and even hope for more. No need to ask who ends up with une femme et une fortune. And yet what gives the paradox a new dimension is that all the wealth which comes to Mario is Oliver's, the woman might have been. The European will inherit both (and coolly drop the girl), when his New England cousin is struck by a car in France. Just after World War 1 concludes.

Our theme is hardly limited to eras like the '20s and the '30s. Bellow's Augie March, unlike the Lazarillosand the Felix Krulls of Europe's picaresque tradition, ends his journey unfulfilled. And Augie justifies his failure with an odd analogy: "I may well be a flop . . . Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn't prove there was no America." Salinger has chronicled a family of extraordinary children who seemed destined to succeed. But in an early story, Seymour Glass, the best and brightest, "PhD . . . when most Americans are just getting out of high school," kills himself. His suicide haunts everyone in all the later tales. How can they survive if Seymour couldn't? Though he yearns to be a writer, brother Buddy Glass can't even finish college. Not coincidentally, his cherished childhood book was . . . Gatsby.

Moby Dick appeared in 1851, The Old Man and the Sea a hundred years thereafter. Though placed just off the coast of Cuba, Hemingway's quest for the Big Fish is a tale as typically American as Melville's. For he has a special leitmotiv: his hero's hero is "the great DiMaggio." And the Yankee's star (whose team's name adds an extra irony) is constantly Invoked with his "Homeric" epithet. Struggling to land the fish, the Old Man tells himself, "1 must be worthy of the great DiMaggio, who does all things perfectly." Not only does Hemingway's protagonist not bring the prize to port successfully, but his own hero was destined to become a symbol of all bright hopes faded. As years later Simon and Garfunkel lament, "where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you . . . "

Yet it is also true, that, like their European cousins, early Americans had illusions of a farther shore, a new frontier. An ever-bright horizon beckoned from the west. But plainsmen die and once again frontiers recede beyond the limits of a lifetime's journey. Cooper's Deer slayer takes pride in the fact that while his father lies buried by the sea, he has advanced far inland. And yet he himself dies thinking of the distance still to be achieved: "his gaze seemed fastened on the clouds which hung around the western horizon, reflecting the bright colors and giving form and loveliness to the glorious tints of the American sunset." This is the sort of scene that moved D.H. Lawrence to call the Leatherstocking Tales "a kind of yearning myth . . . the myth of America." What then remained to be achieved? The ultimate frontier, of course, our El Dorado, California.

Harry Levin has many perceptive observations on the progress of America's Golden Age myth. After noting that our dollar bill bears an inscription adapted from Virgil's "Messianic" Eclogue, he continues:

[The Myth] fitted in with the prospects and bonanzas of the nineteenth-century expansion, moving westward towards California—that state which derives its name so appropriately from an enchanted island . . . in a sequel to the popular romance of Amadis of Gaul.

Indeed, if the American himself ever imagined earthly paradise, if he ever conceived that there was a New World fleece to capture, it would be on the Pacific shore. For here, quite literally, the realms were gold. Edgar Allan Poe describes the '4Qers'rush for treasure in his poem El Dorado, which begins

Gaily hedight. A gallant knight. ]n sunshine and in shadow. Had journeyed long. Singing a song, In search of El Dorado.

Despite the medieval language of quest, the outcome is once again according to the American version of the myth. The knight will get no gold, will win no grail. At last a "pilgrim shadow" tells him El Dorado may exist beyond yet another frontier; the mountains of the moon. But one may well ask why, at a time in American history when so many adventurers were in fact getting so rich so quickly, Poe nonetheless emphasizes the failure and the shadow.

Perhaps because his artist's instinct sensed that California was to be the final veil which separated American delusion from truth. The Pacific was merely the other wail of the prison. And yet it was a dream that died slowly, Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath depicts the exodus from barren Oklahoma towards the promised land of California. At the end of Route 66 it seemed salvation waited and all suffering would cease. The Joad family discusses their destination in Edenic terms: eternal spring, carefree people living in white houses, fruit in great abundance everywhere. As granpa daydreams, "Jus' let me get to California where 1 can pick me an orange when 1 want i t . . . Gonna get me a whole hig hunch of grapes off a bush, or whatever, an' I'm gonna squash 'em on my face an' let 'em run off my chin," But then they cross the border and harsh reality dispels it all. A novel published in the same year as Steinbeck's presents the outlook of those pilgrims who already attained their California destination:

They get tired of oranges, even of avocado pears and passion fruit. . .theyhavebeen cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.

This is Nathanael West (note nom de plume), whose Day of the Locust was first conceived under the title The Cheated, California is America's "America," and Hollywood the locus of the final phase of its mythology. Countless novels, some still in their authors' typewriters— repeat that Hollywood is Hell-in- Heaven. And the title of Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? has been assimilated into our language as a rhetorical question which epitomizes all American ambition and its destiny to fail. Fitzgerald's final book. The Last Tycoon shows Hollywood as graveyard for Balzacian heroes' dreams. Producer Monroe Stahr is literally flying high above his "empire" when he crashes. The author left us his own comments on the mood he wanted to convey when tragedy occurs;

After the plane comes down, it may be best to finish the chapter with that fireworks—repeat my own fear when 1 landed in Los Angeles with the feeling of new worlds to conquer.

Ironically, the writer who so often and so well portrayed American delusion was himself a victim of it. And he died in Hollywood.

Can we explain America's ur-myth, the prize of failure? Many critics have attempted to by arguing that Europe's culture still bears traces of the values of the Greeks—where winning was admired, Pindar rhapsodizes gold and Jason gets the fleece. America, by contrast, lacks the notion of "untainted victory" since it was founded solely on the values of the Bible, Thus the "Fall of Jason" demonstrates how deeply we have been imbued with pangs of guilt for Man's First Disobedience. The conclusive explanation may elude us, but the fact remains: the literature of the United States is strewn with wreckage of a thousand Argos.

Hart Crane, who sang Columbus, Melville and the Brooklyn Bridge, poetically epitomized the truth of our infernal paradise:

There is no breath of friends and no more shore
Where gold has not been sold and conscience tinned.

In offering the White Whale as its answer to the Golden Fleece, America not only gave the world a new mythology; it killed the old one. New explorers have dispelled the fragile hope that Edgar Allan Poe imparted to his knight. For even on the mountains of the moon, there is no El Dorado. No one dared assail Neil Armstrong and Apollo Seven's "Argonauts" for bringing back the tragic truth, Melville said it well enough when he complained: "Columbus ended earth's romance.