WILLIAM BLAKE AND THE MYTH OF AMERICA: FROM THE ABOLITIONISTS TO THE COUNTERCULTURE by Linda Freedman, Reviewed by Andrew Lincoln
 

WILLIAM BLAKE AND THE MYTH OF AMERICA: FROM THE ABOLITIONISTS TO THE COUNTERCULTURE
By Linda Freedman
(Oxford, 2019) xiv + 273 pp.
Reviewed by Andrew Lincoln on 2019-08-14.

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Linda Freedman's wide-ranging and consistently illuminating study is an important contribution to the burgeoning field of Blake reception studies. Ranging from early American re-printings of Blake poems in the 1830s and 1840s to the political activism of Paul Chan in the twenty-first century, Freedman examines religious writers, countercultural poets, musicians, novelists, and film-makers. To encompass so much in a concise study is a tall order. Blake's influence spreads in many directions, flowing across traditional cultural boundaries and affecting both theology and political activism. One of the strengths of this study is the way it reaches beyond the figures and movements in the foreground to wider contexts, assessing the significance of material and political developments, cultural cross-currents, social groupings and personal friendships that influence the transmission of ideas.

Nineteenth-century Americans embraced Blake sooner than their British counterparts did. While British Victorians, Freedman argues, tended to criticize Romantic prophet-artists for not leading more "socially dedicated lives" (18), the visionary Blake was quite compatible with American transcendentalism, which explains his influence on Ralph Waldo Emerson. And if Victorians questioned Blake's sanity, it was unquestioned in America, where "the connection between religious enthusiasms and social activism was endemic to the intellectual culture of New York and Boston" (19). As early as 1833, the women's rights activist and abolitionist Lydia Maria Child published an account of Catherine Blake in Good Wives, and as editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, she featured Blake's "The Little Black Boy" and other poems from the Songs in 1841.

Blake's kinship with Walt Whitman has resonated deeply in American poetry. Freedman shows that the link between the two was initially forged in Britain, in Swinburne's Essay on William Blake (1868), where the two poets are said to express the same revolutionary spirit. Freedman argues convincingly, however, that what they shared was not their ability to democratize the voice of prophecy, but rather their consciousness of the difficulty of this enterprise--a point that "sometimes got lost" (62) in the subsequent American reception of Blake. Freedman's own response to Blake often emphasizes the anxieties and doubts that haunt his mission.

In her chapter on early twentieth-century America she considers the impact of the three-volume Yeats-Ellis edition of Blake (1893), which helped to shape new versions of Blake as Whitmanesque prophet-artist, and of the scholarly explications of Blake by Samuel Foster Damon (1924) and Milton O Percival (1938). Among twentieth-century American writers, however, Blake was not uniformly admired. T.S. Eliot could not accept him as a national prophet, Freedman explains, and Marianne Moore rejected the spiritualism attributed to Blake by Yeats. On the other hand, the cultural nationalists Waldo Frank and Hart Crane enthusiastically greeted these elements of Blake. Just as Frank saw America as "a conception to be created" (67), Crane's The Bridge sought to rebut the bleakness of Eliot's The Waste Land by evoking the geography of New York--its subways, bridges and fragmented structure--in a way that Freedman likens to Blake's visions of London, creating a mythopoetic vision of American possibility.

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Duncan each merit a chapter. For Ginsberg, Freedman contends, Blake was "a figurehead of the drug-fueled psychedelic revolution of which he felt himself to be a part" (89). Yet while vividly evoking the culture of the post-war Beat generation from which Ginsberg emerged, Freedman wonders what Blake would have thought of his own status in such a culture (she is sure that he "never took drugs" [91]). Initially, Ginsberg's response to Blake was sensory rather than analytical, prizing his celebration of the body. But in Your Reason and Blake's System (1988), he cast Blake as a disillusioned radical who struggled with the kind of political pressures that confronted modern Americans in the 1960s and 1970s. For Ginsberg, Freedman explains, the disillusioned Blake was not despairing; his faith in the body and imagination ensured his inspirational relevance to a generation attempting to make its own kind of revolution.

The chapter on Robert Duncan is one of the most complex in the book, reflecting the paradoxical nature of this poet's sense of mission. The politically engaged Duncan did not want to write protest poetry. Appalled by America's war in Vietnam, he wanted poetry to provide "an alternative form of democratic participation" and "recover the meaning of freedom" (122), an aim he associated with Blake. Like Ginsberg, Duncan gives the body an important place in his work, but unlike Ginsberg he imagined "an erotically charged encounter with alterity, where 'withholding' and 'restraint' were the conditions of desire, and 'the way to the eternal'" (128). Freedman's explanation of Duncan's position entails a fairly detailed engagement with Blake's Visions of the Daughters of Albion, which she uses to introduce Duncan's poem of national and personal identity, "My mother would be a falconress." As compared with writers seeking to cleanse "the doors of perception," Freedman argues, Duncan wanted something "murkier, more qualified, and more rooted in human intimacy" (138). He came to define his work as antithetical to a Blake who, he thought, "wants it light" (138).

Part of the interest in this kind of comparative study lies in seeing how the idea of Blake, and specific aspects of his work, can be remade or enlisted in the service of contemporary agendas. A chapter on "Ecopoetic Action," for instance, treats Michael McClure as "a true outsider" (142): like Ginsberg he prized Blake's celebration of the body, but in a way that increasingly meant preserving the world's species and directing us to biological rather than political systems. Freedman's focus here is less on McClure's poetry than on the multiple influences on his work, which include "bop," Jackson Pollock's abstract expressionist painting, and McClure's own experiments with peyote, heroin, and cocaine. But the poetry of Gary Snyder, reached via a brief excursion into the work of George Oppen, proves more amenable to textual comparison. Rejecting the emergent counterculture, disdainful of the "ex acid-heads from the city" (162), Snyder adopted Blake's energetic principle to argue against fossil fuel dependency and a devotion to industrial economic growth. Freedman links Snyder's balanced poetic form to his vision of restorative equilibrium--a nostalgic desire to restore his country to a former state of pre-industrial and pre-colonial ecological concord.

A chapter on "Musical Openings of the Doors of Perception" argues that the sounds of the 1960s, including the music of Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison, often reflected disillusionment with organized revolution. Freedman suggests that Dylan, an admirer of Blake, put his revolutionary energy into art instead of violence, seeing music as a form of social action. In one of the few comparisons in this study whose value I question, she compares the refrain of Dylan's "I want you") to Oothoon's longing for her lost "moment of desire" (168) in Blake's Visions of the Daughters of Albion. Similarly, Jim Morrison and Patti Smith are said to reflect the two sides of the psychedelic Blake of the 1960s. Morrison saw Blake as a creature of revolt rather than revolution, and imagined himself as a kind of Blakean prophet liberating his audience through the "suggestive opacity" (175) of his verse and by anarchic rather than progressive gestures, as in the song "Break on Through". In contrast, Patti Smith is said to emphasize compassion and social justice in her music. Identifying with Blake and with the psychoanalyst William Reich as outsider artists and lonely lost children, she referred to Blake in some of her lyrics and used the Frontispiece of Songs of Experience to advertise one of her concerts. According to Freedman, the 2004 album Trampin contains Smith's most explicit musical homage to Blake, "In My Blakean Year", which braves the challenge of staying true to artistic devotion and speaking truth from the margins ("Brace yourself for bitter flack").

Nothing demonstrates the breadth of Blake's influence or the eclectic range of this study better than Freedman's easy movement from popular music to a chapter on the theologies of Thomas J. J. Altizer and Norman O. Brown. Freedman locates both of these cultural critics among a group of diverse theological thinkers "who either proclaimed the death of God or insisted on a wholly secular interpretation of the Bible" (194). Altizer, convinced that contemporary religion and politics in America were in a state of stagnation, thought Blake encouraged us to see God's death as "the sacrifice of the absolute on the cross of reality" (196). According to Altizer, Freedman writes, we had to recognize and accept the darkness of this contemporary situation in order to liberate ourselves from it and move forward. Altizer's most genuine inheritance from Blake, Freedman argues, was his apocalyptic sense of crisis and of unveiling a new beginning. Brown, though far from radical in his personal life, made an intellectual case for sexual liberation. Seeking to free his contemporaries from the bondage of Pauline theology and the Pauline conception of resurrection, which he linked with the penetrative violence of hierarchical control, he revived Blake's concept of the body as fluid and polymorphous. The bodies of people socially and sexually engaged with each other, Brown argued, constituted the body of Christ. Freedman astutely defines the limitations of these two theologians--something she does not do with less dogmatic writers. Altizer, she finds, assimilated Blake to his own theological agenda too easily, and Brown also used Blake in a selective and self-serving way. But by her reckoning, both writers vividly illustrate the urgent sense of Blake's relevance to the problems of contemporary America.

Since many of the figures in Freedman's study enlist Blake to support their own radical agendas, her chapter on Saul Bellow (entitled "Romanticism after Auschwitz") forms an important counterpoint: it examines the prophet-poet's relevance to a novelist who became increasingly right wing in his later years. Bellow, Freedman argues, saw Blake as the archetypal Romantic, alienated by his own clarity of vision and representing a Romanticism of "difficulty, struggle and quest" (230). In Bellow's opinion, the psychedelic counterculture threatened individual judgement, and his fiction underscores this view. The eponymous hero of Herzog (1964) sees the contemporary yearning for communion and group participation as just another sign of totalitarian forces at work. The Holocaust survivor Artur Sammler (Mr Sammler's Planet, 1970) fears that counterculture and Nazism share a common ground. Bellow used Blake, therefore, "to frame, articulate and explore the redemptive possibilities of Romantic vision" (220) in an age that seems to have little use for such possibilities. Likewise, Von Humboldt Fleisher (Humboldt's Gift, 1975), is a "dedicated Romantic in an age where prophecy has been replaced by progress" (229), representing values that may seem dead, but which we can choose to keep alive.

Before her summarizing conclusion, Freedman considers Blake in the cinema and in political activism. With its seedy urban landscape, Blade Runner (whose original story and screenplay are American, though the director is British) evokes slavery, colonialism and institutional repression. The film thus incubates the rebellion of the replicant Roy Batty, who identifies with (and misquotes) Blake's Orc and whose quest for self-discovery ends in failure. Here, as in Jim Jarmusch's frontier movie Dead Man, Blakean allusions help to focus and amplify the central themes of the action--at least for those movie-goers who pick up on the allusions. But Freedman notes that Jarmusch does not let white America (including countercultural white America) claim Blake. In Dead Man, the would-be hero Bill Blake displays none of the qualities of his namesake. Instead, Blakean and Native American mysticism are embodied by a Native American named Nobody, an outsider.

Freedman's last case study involves the artist and activist Paul Chan, member of the Friends of William Blake, a group that embraces subversive utopianism. Her key exhibit here is Chan's map of Manhattan. In the interests of transparency and possibly disruptive protest, the map disclosed a variety of locations related to the Republican National Conventions of 2004. It was also decorated with vaguely Blakean flourishes and exhorted Americans to oppose the Bush administration in the way their forefathers opposed George III.

In this generously illustrated book (16 plates, most colored), Freedman herself has managed to map out succinctly a wide range of American cultural activities, offering clear explanations and sharp critical insights. Blake emerges from it as a figure who quickly came to inspire a young nation haunted by its own sense of exceptional possibilities. An important part of Freedman's achievement lies in her incisive account of how Blake has remained relevant to the struggles, difficulties, and disappointments entailed in the attempt to realize an imagined America.

Andrew Lincoln is Emeritus Professor in the School of English and Drama, Queen Mary, University of London


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