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“The American Adam” by R.W.B. Lewis

Myth and Symbol Criticism is a school of literary interpretation that analyzes prevailing archetypes, motifs, and symbolism which propel stories (“myth” in the traditional Greek usage of the word) forward. In The American Adam, RWB Lewis — a professor of American Studies and Literature at Yale back when university education was worthwhile — analyzes the early American canon including Melville, Hawthorne, and Cooper (the big three names many Americans and global literati probably still remember) alongside many other early nineteenth century authors.

Lewis’s contention, which I largely agree with and have been influenced by, asserts that early American literature (from Crevecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer to Melville’s Moby-Dick) plays on the symbol of the American Man as the “New Adam.” The New Adam, in essence, was what Crevecoeur described as the man liberated from past, heritage, history — the “old world” or “sin” (so to speak) — to make himself innocent, independent, and adventurous. The world was his for the taking. Lewis, however, also shows how this archetype of the New Adam was wrestled with by various authors. Some enthusiastically endorsed the “myth” of the New Adam as a hero not bound by the burdens of the past or sin or whatever other concept you wish to insert as bearing down on an individual. Others critiqued the Myth of the American Adam and showed the idea to be tragic and fantastical (like Hawthorne). Others yet, blend the innocent and heroic Adam with the tragic wherein the innocent Adam character becomes a sage of wisdom over the complexities of life (as with Melville).

Lewis’s work is a great introductory summary and analysis of the classics of American Literature that preserve the awe and wonder we should have toward our literary patrimony. Unlike modern day criticism which is poisoned by the usual suspects of political correct yelling run amok, Lewis’s book returns us to the fundamental themes and messages that abounded in early American consciousness and found itself into literature. In many ways, we are still haunted by the prospect of the American Adam, which is somewhat ironic given the American Adam was supposed to be free of burdens. Many, I think, can look at the American Adam with ironic enchantment. In trying to create the “new Adam” (the “new man”) with boundless opportunities in the New World, we are still burdened by that perpetual myth which we now call “the American Dream.” There is a direct line, in my opinion, from the “American Adam” to the “American Dream.”

In sum, the American Adam’s Myth and Symbol critique is this: America is the “land of opportunity” where an individual can free themselves from the burdens of the past and be whatever he wants to be. This constitutes the “Myth” (the Story) that we’re familiar with. The Symbol of this story is the New Man (“The American Adam”) who is a farmer, a soldier, a sailor, a preacher, whoever and whatever. Lewis then proceeds to show in an overview of select early nineteenth century writers how this Myth and Symbol is pervasive but in different contexts that the writer chose. Thus we have the Innocent Adam. We also the Tragic Adam. We also have the Heroic Adam. But, ironically, according to Lewis — whether celebratory or critical of this “American Adam” archetype and myth of boundless exceptionalism, they all follow the “tradition” of the American Adam Myth and Symbol.

Whether a reader of American classic literature, a teacher of American literature, or even wanting a brief and readable guide to classics of American literature, Lewis is a great treat for all.

R.W.B. Lewis
The American Adam
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959; 208pp.

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