George Santayana: The Last Puritan

Screen Shot 2014-03-18 at 12.04.04 PMGeorge Santayana’s “The Last Puritan” (1935) is only 600 pages. Santayana was primarily a philosopher, and this is his only novel. It deals with the life of a Proper Bostonian mostly before World War I, with a Beacon Hill heritage and European relatives, who spent a lot of time in England; proposes to his cousin and is rejected; and is ultimately killed in the war. Santayana himself was brought up in Boston and taught at Harvard for some years; he heritage was Spanish and Catholic, but he was personally an atheist.

The novel contrasts the Puritan tradition with the continental European tradition represented by a cousin of the protagonist born and bred in Paris.

The book is full of learned but informal literary talk. For example, here is a monologue on Goethe by one of the characters:

Santayana, Time cover, Feb. 3, 1936

Santayana, Time cover, Feb. 3, 1936

“Don’t let the Germans cheat you, my boy,” Cousin Caleb began, horribly grinning. “They are greater bluffers at philosophy than any smart Yankee ever was at the game of poker. Their manipulations of history are always different and always scandalous. It is all a play of willful arbitrary perspectives, hiding what you please, and joining what you please. Nothing else is required for them to pose as the latest leaders in the march of thought. Blow, blow, thou Zeitgeist; thou are not so unkind as the truth would be to these self-advertising prophets. Yet they are good teachers, Oliver, because they have the true workman’s respect for his tools: they put you through the mill; there is as much humility in the grist of their brew as there is pride and impudence in the froth of it. Learn to burrow with them; learn to love your work; but come often out of that Nibelungen smithy into the sun. The passions of those quarrelsome tinkers are ridiculous, and their ultimate conclusions are worthless.

“Goethe at least was not a professor, though he talked a little like one at times. He was a great man; could be a lyric singer at one moment and a primitive naturalist at the next, poring over prismatic colours and volcanic stones like an innocent savage. But he also knew the world; he was very learned; and he lived in a somewhat manageable society, where his personal initiative told, and he could become the Napoleon of letters. But what a diabolical guide for the soul! Worse than Voltaire, worse than Rousseau, more fundamentally immoral, more insidiously dissolute and invertebrate. I said he knew the world: but he worshipped the world – worshiped nature, and life, and society, and convention or whatever else we call the world – which proves that, at bottom, he didn’t know the world. He was taken in by it; he sold his soul to it, like his background of a Faust. He was convinced that there was nothing else to do; that to sell your soul to the world was salvation; and he put religion on the stage like a ballet, to crown irreligion, and give it a final blessing with the trombones at full blast, and the angels singing hallelujah. Could a mind be fundamentally more vulgar? Worse than Walt Whitman slapping his hairy breast in the Brooklyn Ferry and saying, “What a good man am I!” Goethe, instead, having married his cook and got his title of nobility, lounges in his western-easterly divan and affably offers you, in a golden snuff-box, the dust of worldly wisdom and the ashes of his soul.”

Thomas Lemann

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