Review: William Blake and the Myth of America

William Blake as a writer and artist was clearly fascinated by America: while his contemporaries were shaped almost entirely by the French Revolution, Blake’s initial contact with revolutionary ideas was shaped by the War of American Independence. In turn, he was taken up enthusiastically by a number of writers and thinkers across the Atlantic, and in her book William Blake and the Myth of America: From the Abolitionists to the Counterculture, Linda Freedman explores a particular line of reception history in the American arts and literature, one which emphasises the Romantic’s assumption of a prophetic mantle. In her introduction, Freedman indicates a number of the ways in which Blake was interested in the Americas in his own work, most notably his illustrations to John Stedman’s Narrative, of a five years expedition against the revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796) and, of course, America a Prophecy (1793). She also draws upon more recent interpretations of Blake’s work that has greatly developed since David Erdman’s important but too-enthusiastic adoption of Blake as the thoroughgoing supporter of the American revolution, noting that what later writers influenced by Blake saw in him was an ethical writer who could give them the tools to critique as well as celebrate their country: “Blake entered American society at a time when slavery was still rife and civil war threatened the fragile experiment of democracy.” (p.7)

In fact, while Blake may have become increasingly important at the time of the Civil War, Freedman is also right to point out that – aside from a very few friends who kept his memory alive in the declining years of his reputation after 1827 – Blake was actually better known in America than he was in early Victorian England. Her first chapter, which explores his initial American appeal, notes that Blake’s writings appealed much more directly to the Transcendentalism of Emerson, who first encountered Blake (as did a number of American writers) through James John Garth Wilkinson’s 1839 edition of the Songs of Innocence and Experience. While Emerson drew back from Wilkinson’s Swedenborgianism, that movement was enjoying something of a revival in nineteenth-century America, and Emerson’s copy of the Songs established Blake as a writer of importance even before he read Gilchrist’s Life. The other entry point for Blake into American culture was via the Abolitionist movement, particularly through Lydia Maria Child, who published a number of Blake’s poems during her tenure as editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard in the 1840s. Freedman provides a superb account of the trials that faced Child as editor, not least the difficulties of reconciling hard-line abolitionists to the wider population, as well as her search “for ways to recapture a sense of spiritual liberty that felt free from received error.” (p.26)

Having established the early importance of Blake to American cultural life, the second chapter of The Myth of America concentrates on the most important – if rather complex – relationship between Blake and Walt Whitman that cemented the two in American consciousness as the poets of “prophecy and democracy” (p.43). Freedman offers another extremely clear account of the relations between Whitman and Blake, which are less to do with the reception of Blake in Whitman’s work (there is no real evidence that he knew of Blake before writing Leaves of Grass) than with the milieu into which Whitman’s poetry is received in the United Kingdom in particular. As Whitman was the first critic to offer a wholesale appreciation of Whitman in his 1868 essay on Blake, so the two figures became increasingly entwined: early on, Whitman was happy to note the recognition that an important critic gave him, but as time went on he rankled at the suggestions that he somehow had copied Blake, a situation that was made worse by the continued linking of Whitman’s and Blake’s names by other Americans such as Moncure Conway and Whitman’s friend, John Swinton, who made the cardinal error of suggesting that the American poet must have known the English Romantic. By the end of his life, particularly through his friendship with Anne Gilchrist (entirely Platonic on his part even if she wished for more), Whitman was somewhat reconciled to Blake and chose his image of “Death’s Door” as the model for his own tomb, but he also continued to maintain a distance to the earlier artist during those final years when he “felt his poetic control over American national identity slipping” (p.61). Although many later Americans linked Whitman and Blake inextricably, for Whitman himself the legacy of the earlier artist was always a troubled one.

Chapter 3, on the early twentieth-century reception of Blake, is – with that on music – the least satisfactory in the book mainly because it has to do a great deal of work clearing the ground before Freedman can turn to Ginsberg. This is not to say at all that it lacks value: quite the contrary. Here we see the continuation of an important theme linking American and Hebrew poetry (which will, of course, become immensely important with Ginsberg), and Freedman does an excellent job of highlighting how Blake infused the social and poetic spirit of a multitude of American writers, including Waldo Frank, Hart Crane, Marianne Moore and Theodore Roethke. There is the occasional omission – Upton Sinclair included Blake as one of his socially-inspired poets in his 1915 anthology, Cry for Justice, but this is simply because so many writers need to be covered here. I have also bracketed off Freedman’s reading of Eliot which is excellent in its subtlety and attention to detail: she is convincing when portraying his depictions of Blake as especially resistant to the occult-mystical nationalism of W. B. Yeats and Edwin Ellis, which became prevalent in the early 1900s because of their ground-breaking edition of Blake’s collected works. Transplanting Eliot back to America, however, with his “expatriate imagination” (p.76), is not quite as effective as some of the other readings – the man who had renounced his American passport aged 39 would never sit easily alongside his former countrymen, although as he observed in a 1959 interview that the source of his poetry “comes from America” (The Paris Review, Spring-Summer, 1959).

The next chapter on “Ginsberg’s Prophetic Guru” is, quite literally, the centrepiece of the book. This is where William Blake and the Myths of America ties together most clearly the strands of prophecy and spiritual seeking, political and social demands for justice, and an awareness of what is perhaps best thought of as romantic irony, the scepticism of the poet and artist towards his or her own work and its achievements. Unsurprisingly, it is a much more coherent chapter than the previous one, for though Kerouac and other members of the Beats have walk-on parts to play, it clearly has a focus on Ginsberg alone, for whom “Blake was more than a poetic influence, he was a spiritual forefather” (p.89). It is Ginsberg more than any other who fuses together Blake and a reluctant Whitman (while also – and this is an important point – recognising the differences and separation between the two) to create the alternative soul of America that he sought to bring into being in post-war America. The first part of the chapter is, for anyone with any interest in Blake and Ginsberg, relatively familiar territory – from the Blakean influences on Howl to Ginsberg’s sense of prophetic calling after experiencing an auditory hallucination of Blake’s voice in Harlem in 1948: Freedman is perceptive and concise on all accounts, and what she definitely brings to this account of the early influence of Blake in particular is the fun that Ginsberg was having with his spiritual forebear. What was more enlightening to me (because I only have the sketchiest knowledge of it) is the relationship between Blake and Ginsberg after his trip to Japan in the 1960s, particularly his renewed sense of enlightenment while on the train to Kyoto, where he seeks a return to the body instead of the hedonistic drug culture which had started to dominate his thinking. Especially revealing is Ginsberg’s reading of “I saw a Monk of Charlemagne” outside the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and his increased understanding of “Blake as a disillusioned radical, who struggled with the same conflicts as people in modern America” (p.116). Urizen was as relevant to the potential threat of the neutron bomb in 1960s America as he had been to the forces of counter-revolution in Europe in the 1790s.

While the chapter on Ginsberg is probably the most important in this book, tying together as it does Freedman’s themes of prophecy,  history and a desire for social and political justice as important factors in the American myth, I preferred the following one on Robert Duncan. Much of this is due to the fact that Duncan’s relation to Blake is much less discussed than Ginsberg’s (although Ed Larrissy does combine the two in his book Blake and Modern Literature). Duncan’s family background – his parents were interested in theosophy and Swedenborgianism, and his own inclinations to anarchism place him closer to Blake’s own political views in many ways – are dealt with concisely and sympathetically, and Freedman, as ever, offers a nuanced reading of his career at Black Mountain College, as well as his more difficult relations with the anti-Vietnam protests (he opposed the war, but saw collective action as leading to further authoritarianism). Duncan wrote extensively about Blake in various essays, observing at one point that: “To take Blake or Dante as gospels of Poetry, as I do, is to testify to and to enter into the reality of a divine history within what men call history.” (cited p.121) Blake was also a direct influence on some of Duncan’s verse, for example “Variations on Two Dicta by William Blake”, as well as a refracted source as in “My mother would be a falconress”, which he wrote after reading Visions of the Daughters of Albion. Freedman’s reading of Visions is a virtuoso piece, exploring the complexities of that poem which can condemn rape and slavery while also realising the fundamental realities that a raped, enslaved woman lacks the power to change the society that wills such things. She is completely compelling in her understanding that “Duncan realized that Blake was a difficult and ethical writer” (p.133), one who refused simple resolutions for an ideological position but instead saw existence as “muddied”. She is sympathetic to the desire of the psychedelic generation to have their perceptions cleansed, but the discussion of Duncan’s relations with Blake point to a much maturer understanding of the Romantic’s influence on American history and mythology.

Chapter 6 offers another set of masterly readings, this time concentrating on the ecopoetics of Michael McClure and Gary Snyder (with a brief interlude that considers George Oppen) and how they engage with an ecological view of Blake that runs counter to the experience of many readers of Blake in the mid-twentieth century – that he believed nothing could be learned from external nature – and instead is decades ahead of the green revisionism of Blake that began to take place in the 1990s. Freedman is very much correct to assert that both McClure and Snyder adopt Blake “in ways that were naive and uncritical” (p.141), but her readings are also sympathetic to the reasons why they do adopt him, as well as conscious of the differences between them. Thus McClure, with his ranting, anti-intellectual and anti-idealist approach to poetics takes Blake’s diabolic energy as a call to return to the body, as in his essay on Blake in Meat Science Essays (1963). Snyder, by contrast, sees in Blake a much calmer reflection on man’s relations to the environment, influenced by his engagement with Buddhism via the teachings of D. T. Suzuki and with anarchism both via American libertarian traditions and Chinese Taoism. (It is also worth noting, although not covered by Freedman, that Suzuki also provided links to west coast craftsmen, artists and poets to the mingei movement inspired by Soetsu Yanagi who, through his introduction to the Romantic by Bernard Leech, became one of the first intellectuals in Japan to write on Blake.) Freedman observes that although he distanced himself increasingly from the Beats after reading with Ginsberg in San Francisco, he connects more closely to the mythopoeic formulation of the myth of America – particularly in its lineage from the American transcendentalists and their interests in environmentalism – than McClure’s deliberately contrarian work.

Like chapter 3, chapter 7 on the music of the counterculture and its immediate aftermath, is not as compelling as others because it has to do so much work in a short space. Unlike the earlier chapter, this one would easily have benefited from being divided into two chapters; as the recently released William Blake and the Age of Aquarius demonstrated, there is a great deal still to be written on the psychedelic culture of the 1960s. In addition I also feel that, in contrast to most of the poets that Freedman concentrates on in her book, a more critical sifting of her subjects here would have been beneficial, in that their appreciation of Blake varies wildly. Dylan, for example, while a great songwriter, appears to me to have only really slenderly known Blake, a point which is excellently made by Luke Walker in Rock and Romanticism; likewise, despite famously taking his name (via Aldous Huxley’s appropriation) from Blake, but did not necessarily delve more deeply into the Romantic’s works than the Songs of Innocence and of ExperienceThe Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Auguries of Innocence as Tristanne Connolly suggests. A more critical stance to these two big hitters would, in my opinion, allow a Blakean light to shine much more clearly on the two other figures considered in this chapter: Ed Sanders, of The Fugs, and Patti Smith, both of whom I believe have had a much deeper engagement with Blake. In the case of Smith, this has been truly profound and ongoing over many decades – along with the French Symbolists, Blake is probably the most important poetic influence on her career; by contrast, Sanders’ use of Blake is more restricted but more delicate and truly affectionate towards his Romantic predecessor. As well as setting “How sweet I roam’d” to music – one of the best adaptations ever – The Fugs’ 1969 “Homage to Catherine and William Blake” shows a real understanding of Blake’s oeuvre as well as a free-spirited, funny and truly subversive reworking of Blake that goes far beyond Jim Morrison’s rock god pomposity.

Chapter 8 on Blake and countercultural theology is one of the most interesting in the book, mainly because it deals with figures who only tended to be dealt with tangentially in Blake studies and thus benefit from greater analysis – namely Thomas Merton, Thomas Altizer and Norman O. Brown. Altizer and O’Brown are the main subjects of this section (and, as with the remainder of the book, the opportunity to concentrate in lengthier detail on her subjects allows Freedman to explore them in greater depth). In contrast to the rather mixed chapter on music, the discussion of alternative radical theologies in the 1960s also allows Freedman to examine a more explicitly Christian element of the prophetic theme that runs throughout William Blake and the Myth of America. The thoughtfulness of both Altizer and Brown is evident in that both “shared an immensely metaphysical approach to reality, an obsession with circularity over linearity, sensual response, and a philosophical commitment to the principle of coincidentia oppositorum, the union, integration, or interpenetration of opposites.” (p.195) Unsurprisingly, for both scholars Blake’s notions of Contraries was greatly appealing, and Freedman demonstrates how each thinker used a Blakean dialectic with considerable sympathy for their attempts to establish an alternative Christology to that of St Paul, one which would avoid the apostle’s authoritarianism. She is also excellent in placing these in the contexts of the death of God controversy that exploded in the mid-decade – as well as the fact that Brown in particular was far from radical in his personal life while, in works such as Love’s Body, presented some of the most prophetic and open-minded views of the decade.

The penultimate section, on Saul Bellow, Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut, takes a very different perspective to the main part of the book and, as Freedman observes, “provides an important counterpoint to Blake’s standing in psychedelic counterculture” (p.214). Bellow, as she points out, could not be more different to the majority of the figures considered previously, although in some respects this is perhaps due to the fact that the Blake of the Beats and the counterculture had drowned out those alternatives which were very much in evidence in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in American society, as with the abolitionists or trade union movements. Bellow’s Blakeanism, suggests Freedman, is subtle but significant – and “a timely critique of Blake’s assimilation into what Bellow perceived as the sham Romanticism of the counterculture.” (p.215) Freedman is incredibly incisive at this point, picking up on some of my own reactions to certain shallow appropriations of Blake that do indeed take place in some (although by no means all) of the main players in the counterculture. It is through Bellow’s Herzog that Blake is explored most directly in readings of London, offering some insights into both Blake in particular and Romanticism more generally after the Holocaust. The one criticism that I have of this last chapter is that, once more, Freedman tends to move through some of her subjects too quickly: Bellow is dealt with in considerable detail, but Vonnegut and Bradbury are skirted over too quickly and – in a much longer work! – would have benefited from her insights into their writings.

Bellow as the antithesis of the counterculture, in which the substance and proper struggle for morality and identity as indicated by his invocation of Blake in Humboldt’s Gift (1975), is an interlude in the main trajectory of William Blake and the Myth of America: it is a vision of Blake that does not take on the characteristics of the bardic and prophetic tradition that dominated the vision established by Ginsberg in particular. What we may see, in effect, is two understandings of Blake as inheritor of the Jewish tradition of prophet – the ecstatic Ezekiel of Ginsberg and the more gloomy Jeremiah of Bellow – in which the role of the Beats has, not entirely rightfully, taken pre-eminence. There is, of course, more than enough room for both reception histories, and it is possible to see how Freedman could have written a different book if she had given more space to those currents outside the Beats and counterculture. The final chapter, which explores some of the later reception history of Blake in America, is something of a mixed bag: it offers a truly wonderful reading of Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 film, Dead Man, as well as Paul Chan’s cartographical art from the early 2000s, but it also demonstrates just how much is missed in this study from the post-sixties era. Blake in pop cultural forms from the eighties to the millennium and beyond includes the Hannibal Lecter books and films, folk and jazz musical traditions such as M. Ward and the Dave Taylor Octet, and the many classical composers of the twentieth and twenty-first century from William Bolcom to Jonathan Lovenstein who have taken Blake as their inspiration. I do not wish to end on this criticism: Freedman is very clear that her work is tracing a particular bardic and prophetic vision of Blake through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that concentrates on the counterculture with some important counterpoints (notably Bellow), one that rightly draws attention to the religious spirit of his American reception. What her excellent work does for me is to demonstrate what other work needs to be done on Blake in America. What William Blake and the Myth of America admirably shows is that the “Blakeanism of the counterculture forged a place for the creative imagination in the redemption of modern America” (p.254). The dangers of such energies were that they too often could become destructive and nihilistic, but they also ensured that during the Cold War visions of America were not held entirely in thrall to the Urizenic machine.

Linda Freedman, William Blake and the Myth of America: From the Abolitionists to the Counterculture, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018, pp. xiii +273, RRP £55.00.

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