“All my brothers went West and took up land, but I hung on to New England and I hung on to the old farm, not because the paint mine was on it, but because the old house was on it—and the graves.” That’s what Silas Lapham tells a Boston journalist in the opening scene of William Dean Howells’s 1885 novel The Rise of Silas Lapham. It’s an exemplary claim. As Lapham’s parents eked out a living in the country, the sons grew up and departed, setting out for the frontier and a new life. Mother and Father died—they occupy the “graves”—but none of the boys returned to carry on the estate. They fit the American prototype outlined by Matthew Schmitz in last month’s “Back Page,” the restless individual ever seeking fresh opportunities.
But not Silas. He remained in his childhood home and near the resting place of his parents. He eventually got lucky, finding a way to mine the vein of mineral paint discovered years earlier by his father and becoming wealthy, but before that it wasn’t poverty that stalled him at the Vermont farm. His memories bound him to the spot. To leave it and go-west-young-man would not open up wider prospects and generate an improved existence, as Emerson would have it (“Build, therefore, your own world”). It would be to lose part of himself forever. Lapham’s brothers left home and never looked back. Each one acted as a complete and unfettered self. The past has no hold upon them. But Silas likes the past. It comforts him. He is a related and rooted self.
History in America, of course, has favored the brothers. Our economics and culture lean toward mobility and invention, not tradition and patrimony. We tell millennials, “You Should Plan on Switching Jobs Every Three Years for the Rest of Your Life” (that’s a 2016 story title in Fast Company). In finance and technology, disruption is acclaimed as a positive thing, while contemporary art treats convention as a drawback and postmodernism is proudly anti-foundationalist. In my own little world of the humanities, no curricular trend has been stronger over the last forty years than the steady dismantling of literary-historical tradition. We have gone from T. S. Eliot’s assertion that, in order to understand any artist or writer, “you must set him, for contrast or comparison, among the dead” to the rebuke “dead white males,” which served to discredit the canon through the eighties and nineties.
Obviously, Lapham’s brand of loyalty doesn’t fit that pattern of separation. It forces some inconvenient questions. You want to stay in one place—what if the local industry moves to Mexico? You prize your heritage—so you don’t want cultures to blend together, right? Fidelity like this is a benighted posture. To find so much meaning in the soil and one’s forefathers is to slow the course of innovation and the workings of diversity. It rejects the creative destruction of capitalism and the social engineering of progressivism. Lapham gives the past a mythical value, but progress and prosperity demand that our best myths point toward the future. More than that, Lapham’s choice is a guilty commitment. His investment in place and bloodlines leads to nationalism and ethnocentrism.
I’m exaggerating the meaning of Lapham’s statement. It’s really just a throwaway remark in the interview of Lapham for a “Solid Men of Boston” profile in a newspaper. Lapham hasn’t reasoned out his preference; he just wanted to do things that way. But that’s the point. His yearning for home and his parents’ graves is a disposition, not a dogma. Lapham has loyalty to his heritage, not an argument about it. Hawthorne termed it “a sort of home-feeling with the past” when talking about Salem, Massachusetts. It has been a target of liberalism for a long time.
There is an astute paragraph in Beyond Good and Evil that explains this antagonism to our “home-feelings.” There, Nietzsche pinpoints a particular uprooting that democratization demands. The modern age requires from people “their increasing detachment from the conditions under which, climatically and hereditarily, united races originate, their increasing independence of every definite milieu.” The modern age promotes “the slow emergence of an essentially super-national and nomadic species of man, who possesses, physiologically speaking, a maximum of the art and power of adaptation as his typical distinction.”
Detachment, independence, nomadic adaptation. It’s an attitude, an orientation toward life, not an idea or polity. You can believe in something, but not with too much conviction. Cherish your hometown, but don’t let it keep you from going to college and taking a job a thousand miles away. A little family pride is acceptable, but not if it interferes with multicultural pieties. Religion is fine, though only on Sunday. Patriotism, too, but you must be able to travel and mingle effortlessly with the natives. Anything that blocks adaptation must be tempered, if not removed.
These days, that includes Christian-only student organizations and female-only bathrooms, at least at colleges that seek to be properly progressive. The Catholic Church can be a particular target, as it has been throughout the modern era. The Church changes soooooo slowly. Sometimes it comes around, for instance, when the Church revises the liturgy so that it seems nicely conversational in the twentieth-century way (“And also with you”). But you can’t trust it not to go backward and reinstate the old way (“And with your spirit”). The Church makes birth, death, sex, and marriage binding and consequential. This denies people the flexibility they need in a liberal, mobile society.
If you’re apt to say, “Today is the first day of the rest of my life,” you’re likely a liberal. But if you find the rules and remembrances and foundations reassuring, you’re probably a conservative. When my liberal friends call the Church rigid and outdated, I don’t argue. I smile and praise it for those very virtues. They don’t quite know what to say, at that point, because it exposes a temperamental gap that can’t be closed by debate. We agree that the Church is backward-looking and glacial, but we respond to those traits differently.
At this point in my life, the Church is the only place that I find the home feeling that Hawthorne identified. We bounced around when I was a child. I never attached to any neighborhood. My six years of adolescence in Rockville, Maryland, contained too much chaos for me to feel remotely nostalgic about it. I spent my twenties in Los Angeles and UCLA, but they have changed so much since 1984 that the Westwood that could have evoked warm memories no longer exists. Since then, I’ve lived in Atlanta, Paris, Washington, D.C., Princeton, Boulder, and now New York City. None of them sunk into my soul enough for me to say, “I want to be buried there.” But the Church . . .
A few months back I attended a two-day academic seminar in Providence, Rhode Island, on political theory. The thirty attendees from scattered places met in one of those sterile downtown conference hotels that look the same in Seattle as in Charlotte. Two expressways intersected just behind it. An elevated pedestrian bridge crossed one of them, taking you to a mega–indoor mall, fifteen levels of parking, Old Navy, IMAX, Apple, CVS, and Panera. The seminar discussions were lively, but the travel and generic food, the concrete landscape, the hour at night in bed flipping through the channels before giving up and turning off the light—these are among the engines of uprooting. Most of the participants I will never see or hear from again.
On the last break, with ninety minutes before dinner, I walked up the hill and spotted the towers of the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, a grand Romanesque structure from the 1880s. I turned immediately toward it. The plaza was deserted on a Friday afternoon, and so was the narthex when I stepped inside. At the front of the church, a hundred people were seated while young musicians performed piano and string pieces. I slid into a pew in back, breathed slowly, said an Our Father, and felt at home. A soothing and orderly sentiment of rightness and truth came over me. Time slowed; my nerves stilled and muscles loosened. The world was out there and home was in here. When I step inside, gaze up the aisle, genuflect, and sit, the transition is metaphysical.
I could describe the music and stained glass, the ornate walls and ceiling. But it’s more than that. I would have felt as much serenity in a lesser space. I’m home because it’s the Church and I belong to it. I am lucky. I may have no place of repose in my personal history, but I have a home in every town and suburb in the United States.
Mark Bauerlein is Senior Editor of First Things.
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