Obedient Sons begins by reminding us how thoroughly the language of generations pervades our sense of modern American history, which is after all the story of the “Lost Generation, Beat Generation, generation gap. Generation X.” But the whole concept of generations is a relatively modern device which carries a vast range of social and political implications, in particular the assumption that each successive “rising generation” will inevitably resist the hidebound restraints of its predecessor. Not coincidentally, the modern talk of insurgent “generations” owes much to the American discovery of Freud and his Oedipal theories. Dr. Wallach, however, shows that this cultural baggage is by no means the only freight that can be borne by generational rhetoric, and that, in early America, concepts of youth and generation were more commonly used to support conservative notions of continuity and tradition.
Linked to this conservatism was the fear of decline which pervades so much of American history. If America truly was established as “a city upon a hill,” a New Israel, then it would often encounter the possibility that the “rising generation” would fail to meet the mark, that the sons of the Pilgrim fathers would accept a life of spiritual ease, and forsake the inner struggle; the sons of the Founding Fathers would betray the ideals of the new republic, which would fade into a pallid facsimile of decadent Europe. Avoiding this fate required each new age-cohort to act resolutely to guard the deposit of national faith, though this determination might manifest itself differently in different epochs. In the 18th century, the need to rekindle ancestral fires resulted in the spate of religious revivals, above all the events of the 1730’s and 1740’s, which aimed to stir a generation fallen into spiritual torpor, “at ease in Zion.” A century later, fears for the secular republic resulted in the movement known as “Young America,” which has rarely attracted the attention of historians familiar with similarly named European movements —”Young Italy,” or even Disraeli’s short-lived ‘Young England.”
The “Young America” concept is here employed as a fruitful means of approaching such otherwise familiar topics as the Transcendentalists and the American renaissance in literature, and the emergence of a radical American nationalism in the political thought of the 1830’s and 1840’s. In 1845, “Young America” aspired to “plant its right foot upon the northern verge of Oregon and its left upon the Atlantic crag.” “Manifest Destiny” was designed precisely for this younger generation: it was of course the “young man” who was urged to relocate west. In John Ford’s classic film Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), there is a brilliant scene in which Lincoln, in the mid-1830’s, witnesses a patriotic parade. A cart bears a treasured handful of ancient men in threadbare uniforms, and Lincoln is proudly told that these are the veterans of the Revolution. The galvanizing reminder that he receives of the nation’s original purpose is exactly what, in Wallach’s view, stimulated so many of Lincoln’s contemporaries in these same years.
A key idea of the book is the notion of how each generation berates itself for failing to live up to the ideals of its fathers, a damning charge seemingly used with great frequency in any number of political contexts. Wallach shows how these ideas were reinforced by religious rhetoric—which was completely suffused by the thought and imagery of the Old Testament—in which the ultimate aspiration expressed was that one might be worthy to be buried with one’s fathers. Throughout, we find recurrent irony in the new and virile “young” movement returning to ancestral traditions by challenging the complacency of the old. (The revivalists of the 1740’s and 1790’s were generally young men contemptuous of their timid elders, while “Young America” even popularized the phrase “old fogeys.”) The aim, it seems, was to return to an idealized heroic past, without being too discommoded by the genuine graybeards still walking around.
Obedient Sons is a model of how social, intellectual, and cultural history can profitably be integrated, and the author draws on a rich variety of sources which illustrate notions of generational continuity and society’s debts to its forefathers. Particularly well used are sermons and celebrations commemorating the founding of New England communities, sources which many modern readers would be tempted to dismiss as booster ephemera. Also crucial are what might be called the “politics of commemoration” in the early 19th century, the intense cultural exercise by Daniel Webster and others to create a national myth incorporating Plymouth Rock and Bunker Hill which could ideally provide an ideological cement for the disparate regions of the new republic: remaining one nation became the new generation’s best homage to its noble dead. One especially fresh chapter concerns the use of the visual arts in constructing a historical memory for the new United States, and includes a stimulating discussion of the work of George Caleb Bingham. The author has delved into well-known published sources as well as newspapers and magazines and the manuscript materials of the antebellum period, in which he is clearly most comfortable. In light of this, I was surprised not to see at least some reference to the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose “The Gray Champion” (1835) ends with the stirring appeal that “the descendants of the Puritans [will] show the spirit of their sires . . . [that] New England’s sons will vindicate their ancestry”—which arguably they would a few years later at Antietam and Gettysburg.
Wallach is very good at using demographic evidence obtained from social science to counterbalance his literary evidence, offering a constant reminder of what a youthful society America was in the early 19th century (especially in the cities), and that gray-haired patriarchs were as scarce in reality as they were abundant in political rhetoric. Young men compensated for this rhetorical overrepresentation by forming the immense range of political clubs, friendly societies, temperance groups, and other associations which were so prominent a part of the era, and through which members hoped to preserve or recapture the old ideals. As Wallach rightly suggests, the story of these fraternal endeavors is a large part of the history of antebellum America. The young men’s movements acquired their ideology from the new mass medium of the popular press just as surely as a later youth generation was offered its assumptions ready-packaged by the record industry and popular entertainment.
All in all, this is at once excellent social history and a thought-provoking overview of the politics and culture of mid-19th century America. Dr. Wallach is an indecently young man to be writing such an impressive and widely researched book. (Whippersnapper!)
[Obedient Sons: The Discourse of Youth and Generations in American Culture, 1630-1860, by Glenn Wallach (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press) 288 pp., $29.95]