The Hudson River Valley, Washington Irving, and a Puritan-Free America
Puritanism, its impact, and what America might have been like without it always comes to my mind when I take the train from New York City up the Hudson River Valley. The breathtaking beauty that one contemplates during the entire journey from the Palisades northwards makes the dreary Puritan mentality—which unnaturally seals off the earthly realm from all that might lift it out of its heretically “flattened” state—seem even more incomprehensible than any purely intellectual argument against it. For everything that nature displays along the river route should vigorously stimulate a fallen man’s desire to lift up his heart to the Creator and add his own limited human bit to the enhancement of the divine achievement, rather than to lament the likeliness that working with the surrounding physical world would lead him straight to the devil.
Washington Irving (1783-1859) reveals the partial flight from a drearily “flattened” vision of reality of the early 19th century inhabitants of the region through his recounting of their fantasies and ghost stories regarding Rip Van Winkle and the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. But in other writings lamenting the failings of his own land and the troubles he experienced as a diplomat in Europe, he also provides us a three-step guide to making a truly serious as opposed to a simplistic and delusional meditation on what a non-Puritan Catholic River Valley and the sursum corda provided its inhabitants by a Catholic America might have been like:
“The last 10 or 12 years of my life, passed among sordid speculators in the United States and political adventurers in Spain, has shown me so much of the dark side of human nature that I begin to have painful doubts of my fellow man. I look back with regret to the confiding period of my literary career, when, poor as a rat, but rich in dreams, I beheld the world through the medium of my imagination and was apt to believe men as good as I wished them to be.”
Pursuit of Material Concerns
Irving’s comments guide us first of all to the chief consequence of a Puritan society: the reduction of life on earth to the pursuit of the “flat” material concerns of private individuals engaged in a relentless “war of all against all.” This is the inevitable result of the “Original Sin” of Puritanism—its ideological obsession with the total depravity of mankind after the Fall, along with the logical deductions to be made therefrom. Utterly false in its foundations and immoral in its expectations, a Puritan civilization cannot help but be dominated by men for whom the word “ugly” means nothing more than “a lack of pragmatism and measurable personal gain”: i.e., a failure to embrace “flatness.” And although this has meant a war for attainment of a variety of sinful aims that willful individual “speculators” and the gangs they form among themselves for mutual power and profit may seek, the tendency is for all of these goals to be—as Irving indicates—ever more sordid—flat—in their character. As Louis Veuillot already noted in the 19th century:
“Between the sensualists of the past and the sensualists of our day, there is the same difference as between the great lords who ran about the world astonishing it with their prodigal behavior, and those sons of the wealthy to whose splendors and decadence one section of Paris is exposed. The first wanted to ruin themselves and did not succumb to it; the latter calculate, are rich, yet succumb without even having known to make a semblance of being magnificent. Everything is lacking to the poverty of our times, including the brilliance and often even the substance of the vices it would like to have” (L. Veuillot, Mélanges [Oeuvres complete, iii series, 1933, iv, 2-3]).
A vision so unnatural as that of the Puritans needs time to take effect.
Catholicism in all its fullness—with its insistence upon what the Puritans consider to be a devilishly inspired belief in the possibility of the coordination of human action with the laws of God and His creation through the positive intervention of individual free will and social authorities seeking the common good—would have obstructed the inevitable, downward, sordid spiral. Catholic minds, hearts, and souls would have filled the River Valley with structures meant for the public exaltation and good; beautiful works of openly communal purpose: magnificent hilltop churches dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel, along with imposing castles garrisoned by soldiers sent to guard their altars and the good people of the villages that might have huddled around them from threats to the soul as well as the body.
As it is, almost everything that is undeniably beautiful that was constructed by human hand in this region testifies to the importance in America of purely private physical possessions and the daily round of “flat,” practical activities required in order to obtain them. Wealthy persons with good taste certainly added their human bit to the regional beauty, building splendid homes in the Hudson Valley from the 18th century onwards. Nevertheless, being private, their charms and their river views generally have to be hunted down through back access roads. Moreover, their beauty was not meant for open public consumption until money concerns made the common man’s access to them a necessity for their owners. Meanwhile, the Puritan rot continued to work its corrosive influence on the spirit of those men and women indeed retaining some intuition of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful but lacking the intellectual and spiritual means that the Catholic Faith would have given to them for fully enhancing and maintaining it.
Still, lest we rashly boast of how a Catholic America would therefore have been one big painless and equally inevitable sursum corda, the second of Irving’s guides to meditation, his complaint about Spanish “political adventurers” should give us pause for thought. He is speaking here about the various generals who took advantage of the disturbed situation of the Iberian Peninsula of the 19th century to conduct one Bonaparte-style coup d’état after another. Such military men were only able to play their games due to the convulsions brought about by the French Revolution, which actually impacted upon Catholic lands even more than Puritan ones. Yes, the Great Revolution was indeed in major part an effect of the general weakening of the Church brought about by the Reformation, but it was by no means entirely so. Other vexing issues, stretching all the way back to the greatest days of the Catholic Middle Ages, themselves contributed to its explosion and devastating effects.
Sad to say, a medieval world that never heard of John Calvin or John Knox was already bitterly fighting over what to those among us without an accurate knowledge of history might seem to be purely “Puritan” positions: questions regarding whether human reason could play a role in understanding the Faith or if transformation in Christ of any part of nature at all was possible at the hands of sinful men. Already at that time, struggles of State and Church—along with the angry assertion of exaggerated roles for one or the other that ended up promoting an overly political or theocratic guidance of Christian society—were very badly disrupting the proper cooperation of the natural and the supernatural realms.
Optimism and Pessimism
Such battling continued in Catholic lands after 1517 and all the way down to 1789, pitting Jesuits versus Jansenists, Ultramontanists against Gallicans and Febronians, and various “devout parties” in opposition to politicos insisting that the secular glory of societies guided by rulers calling themselves “Most Christian Kings” was what really counted in building a civilization pleasing to God. In fact, such disputes, in one way or another, have been the stuff of Church History from its very outset in Roman times. Why would we expect that a Catholic America beginning its career in the 17th century would have been the sole country capable of ridding itself of them?
We would only expect this if we neglected the importance of our author’s third—and perhaps unintended—guide to our meditation, his nostalgic recollection of his youthful days of self-deluding optimism. Optimism and pessimism are not Catholic categories; they are groundless flights from solid Christian hope. This takes seriously both substantive sinful reality as well as the truth and divine grace capable of wrestling with it.
Any traditionalist “optimism” in our present and carefree days of having no influence whatsoever over political and social life would make us falsely believe that a Catholic America might have been free of the medieval battling that gave rise to Protestantism and the spread of anti-religious modernity in the first place. And this false belief would reveal its groundlessness should we ever actually come to have an opportunity to wield effective impact in our native land. It could then easily lead us to embrace the equally unnecessary pessimism and despair that Irving’s own nostalgic comments about his earlier optimism seem sadly to reveal.
We could only be so “optimistic” about a Catholic America if we ourselves went down what in many respects was, ironically, a primrose Puritan path. This path, from the very outset, involved an “optimistic” flight from reality. For Puritans, just like the originally less rigorously logical Protestants of the Lutheran camp, vainly tried to flee from the inevitably sordid consequences of the fundamental doctrine of total depravity that they all share in common and all jointly detest.
Protestants have all “optimistically” tried to separate out belief in total depravity from its destruction of individual free will and a society based upon altruistic human cooperation with God’s creation and grace. They have done so through the invention of various theological games that we have no time to investigate in detail in the present article. One distinctly Calvinist doctrine called “preparationism” offers a kind of preliminary “space” in which human action might continue to have some impact over an individual’s destiny. It makes an appearance in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s (1804-1864) The Scarlet Letter. Another is that of Calvin himself, dictating construction of a pseudo-ecclesiastical society to replace the real community dismantled by Luther to the benefit of the power of the State.
The Puritans have played a particularly optimistic role in our own land by nurturing the groundless vision that that which was impossible for man to achieve in a totally depraved Catholic Europe could be accomplished by raising up a New Jerusalem in a wondrously purified American environment. Unfortunately, the proponents of this American City on a Hill ultimately decided that it could fulfill its mission on its own steam, through the teaching of its own Founders and the grace provided by its own Foundation Documents—as opposed to relying on Christ and Scripture. It is only by accepting this lie and redefining Catholicism to fit its demands that we could be “optimistic” about some magically strife-free and non-Puritan America, exceptional in its ability to escape all the battles of the entirety of Church History.
Abandonment of Doctrine
An abandonment of the doctrine of total depravity and a return to the fullness of the Catholic Faith and the life-long struggle required to make its impact felt would have been the only way for (former) Puritans to cultivate a Christian hope for themselves in general and for America in particular. It is our only hope as at least nominal Catholics as well. Lacking such a development, America will go even further down the sordid speculative path that Irving already lamented. The inhabitants of the Hudson River Valley will lack the tools they need to maintain an appreciation of the beautiful homes that indeed still remain there, now open to public viewing. They will knock them and level the hills they were built upon to construct more accessible and profitable industrial complexes, fast food joints, discotheques, as well as the parking lots needed to accommodate workers and partygoers who cannot imagine anything other than living in a Godless, “flat” civilization.
Still, at least the Valley inhabitants will not have to provide accommodation for those who break whatever continuing rules might temporarily still remain accepted in the ever more total war of all against all. For an ugly, functional building, suitable for a land filled with men that Puritans considered all to be criminals, without exception, in the eyes of God, is already available for that purpose: a prison called Sing Sing.