On Consulting Montgomery’s Trilogy on the Train to Taulkinham
John P. Hittinger
I consider myself most fortunate for having been invited to be a participant in a small conference held in the fall of 1986 at Christendom College on Marion Montgomery’s Trilogy “The Prophetic Poet and the Spirit of the Age.” Although I was assigned the task of preparing a paper on volume 3, Why Hawthorne was Melancholy, I also studied the first two volumes, Why Poe Drank Liquor, and Why Flannery O’Connor Stayed Home. My intellectual life was permanently enriched by that study and that encounter with Marion Montgomery`. I have learned from Mr. Montgomery how to read American literature and how to enjoy the great narratives, tales and stories that emerge out of our Puritan past and have fashioned our imagination to this day.
There are many reasons to recommend Mr. Montgomery’s work. He is well versed in the thought of St Thomas Aquinas and especially the work of twentieth century Thomists Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson; indeed he celebrates “Hillbilly Thomism.” (Montgomery 2006) In this trilogy, and in subsequent works, one comes upon some very fine explanations and uses of Aquinas. Montgomery illuminates the epistemological and metaphysical issues surrounding much of American poetry and literature through the philosophy of St. Thomas. Romantic confusions of the good is a masterful exploration of the consequences of epistemological idealism, subjectivism and the struggle of the great poets to overcome them. (Montgomery 1977) Through this appreciation and understanding of metaphysics, he opens up the world of American literature and imagination. He shares a unique grasp of the details of its narratives, but most of all he juxtaposes positions, views, and tales to uncover the conflicts and tensions that sweep across American letters and sensibility. At its deepest level, he discovers the quarrel of the ancients and moderns as it was played out in 19th century American literature, and continued into the twentieth century.
The books are a delight to read. They must be read with tomes nearby, so as to stop and dip into the tales of Hawthorne or Poe, or the essays of Emerson and poetry of Eliot. Montgomery in his craft invokes the prophetic poets as he stands by their side, and wears their mantle. We are brought magically along with him to Concord, Baltimore, Milledgeville. Next to Hawthorne we see and wonder at the yellow lilies on the stream and ponder the significance of the town pump; we consider the gnostic abstractions of Emerson. Montgomery bids us to board the train to Taulkinham and to overhear the conversations of Haze Motes and the other characters populating O’Connor’s South. He patiently explains the intellectual origins and literary contexts and for the stories and tales of the American authors.
To consider one example, take this brief exchange found in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood:
“I reckon you think you been redeemed,” he [Haze Motes] said.
Mrs. Hitchcock snatched at her collar.
“I reckon you think you been redeemed,” he repeated.
She blushed. After a second she said, life was an inspiration.
(O’Connor 1988, p. 6)
O’Connor leaves the thoughtful reader to discern a century of American decline in that brief exchange, along with a good laugh, if we but know how to read the large and simple letters of the grotesque. (O’Connor 1988, pp. 813-821) Following O’Connor’s lead on the rationale for the grotesque as a literary device, Montgomery explains it this way:
When the prophetic poet is confronted by a popular spirit mesmerized in the complacency of its self-sufficiency, he claps hands and shouts. The stylized classic graces hardly break in upon a drift of ennui. The vacation pictures of reality such as Emerson dreams into being lead the prophetic poet to draw moustache and pimples and baggy eyes on the clean poster-print of man as self-made Adam…Hawthorne in his art is responding to the popular spirit rising about him, a spirit most conveniently resident in his neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson. He does so through exaggerations to which we have come to attach a literary term: the grotesque. (Montgomery 1984, p. 77)
Mr. Montgomery shares the mantel of the prophetic poet, as he too “claps and hands and shouts” to warn us of the gnostic spirit stalking our age, the embodiment of Milton’s Satan—a “great angel fallen from brightness, who, having denied reality, must at last lament the hell within him. He is doomed henceforth, as story tellers have it, to walk up and down, to and fro in the land, in an agony of placelessness, as the eternal tester, the canvasser of souls and salesman of emptiness.” (Montgomery 1981A, p. 190) I would say that Montgomery has received from the prophetic poets, O’Connor and Hawthorne, a double portion as Elisha did receive a double portion from Elijah.1 For Montgomery receives from the poets and from the philosophers, especially St Thomas and the Thomists, in order to probe the philosophic and aesthetic dimensions of the crisis of our times. One must be equipped to behold both truth and beauty, which transcendentals he always traces back to being (veritas sequitur esse). He shows how those who embody the popular spirit of the age, particularly Emerson, but other romantic poets as well, cut to the root of beauty; they subvert truth and deny the presence of being.
I would like to share a few comments about his analysis of Emerson as found in the first three chapters of volume three of the Trilogy, Why Hawthorne was Melancholy. We discover that Emerson was one great reason for Hawthorne’s melancholy. His presumption of will, his abstracted sensibility, and his ignorance of evil drove his fellow citizen to distraction. The tales and romances of Hawthorne return the reader to the concrete particular, to history, and to the real drama of human presumption, evil doing, and repentance. In order to shows us the meaning of Hawthorne, Montgomery first must present the Emersonian spirit of the age, nay the spirit of our times. I have found a confirmation of Montgomery’s approach in Irving Howe’s book on Emerson’s influence, American Newness, in which he says: "To confront American culture is to feel oneself encircled by a thin but strong presence: a mist, a cloud, a climate. I call it Emersonian." (Howe 1986, p. 5)Thus under Montgomery’s tutelage we must come first to appreciate Emerson. The first three chapters of volume three are entitled: “Emerson as Alchemist,” “Skating on the surface with the sage of Concord,” and “The Intelligentsia's 'Poor Richard'.” Montgomery sets out this problem in his introduction: we must not forget the “question of the abiding cause of our turning mind, the cause which is also the wellspring of the very object elected out of the living world by our thought. The particular chosen object… has its anchor in ground both separate from and different from our electing attention.” (Montgomery 1984, p. 11) But this truth is all too easily forgotten as we become fascinated with our knowing and theorizing. At first the mind’s attention is “secretly transformed into cause,” and then the mind becomes “so bold as to argue itself the cause.” Emerson is one of the great thinkers who follows this route. Just consider this astounding passage from his essay, “Experience,”—
It is very unhappy, but too late to be helped, the discovery we have made, that we exist. That discovery is called the Fall of Man. Ever afterwards, we suspect our instruments. We have learned that we do not see directly, but mediately, and that we have no means of correcting these colored and distorting lenses which we are, or of computing the amount of their errors. Perhaps these subject-lenses have a creative power; perhaps there are no objects. Once we lived in what we saw; now, the rapaciousness of this new power, which threatens to absorb all things, engages us. Nature, art, persons, letters, religions,—objects, successively tumble in, and God is but one of its ideas. Nature and literature are subjective phenomena; every evil and every good thing is a shadow which we cast.
(Ralph Waldo Emerson 1983, p. 487)
Kant, Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche could not outpace Emerson’s bold “inverted Platonism.” Montgomery has performed the admirable service of reading through the corpus of Emerson, Hawthorne, Eliot, Poe et al and tracing out this drama of being as it manifest itself in American literature. He draws upon Thomistic metaphysics to clarify the fundamental movement of mind in its relation to being: “What we are, as opposed to all other creatures in existence—the ens each is, to borrow from the scholastics—is so anchored in esse, the ground of ens, that we cannot stand independent of the grounds of being so that we may judge being itself.” (Montgomery 1984, p. 16) In chapter 2, “Skating on surface,” Montgomery elaborates on the meaning of the Emersonian inward turn, whereby the world becomes but a shadow of self. He speaks about the “phenomenological dilemma,” when consciousness and reflection lose the being and unity of the world; world is but a correlate of consciousness. When combined with nominalism, the philosopher will opine that our very naming gives being to things. (Montgomery 1984, p. 47) Being, world, God, and even self, all “tumble in” to consciousness and become its projections.
In chapter one, “Emerson as Alchemist,” Montgomery draws upon the case Solzhenitsyn makes against Marx and western style liberalism to illuminate Hawthorne’s case against Emerson. Marx (following Feuerbach) and Emerson asserted that man is divine and that there is “nothing higher than his own ambiguous being.” (Montgomery 1984, p. 25) The past must be creatively destroyed to make way for the new man who is born out of revolution. Emerson frequently renounced the past and tradition: “do not drag corpse of memory,” consult nature pure and fresh, and turn away from the “sepulchers of fathers.” Have faith in the infinitude of man, he told the Harvard divinity students. One must be self-reliant and assume the “authority of ones own consciousness” and the separateness of self from nature. In “Solzhenitsyn as Southerner,” Montgomery refines this notion and offers further comment on Emerson: “The modern gnostic attitude toward nature holds that man's mind is the first cause of creation… Once God has been officially pronounced anthropological as done in the eighteenth century, one does with the term ‘God’ whatever he will, using it amiably (as Ralph Waldo Emerson tends to do) or exiling it from the language altogether…. But when the same conclusion is reached, whether by Emerson or Marx, nature itself becomes merely prime matter for the exercise of one's will. There are no longer any strings attaching nature to a reality conceived as larger than man's consciousness” (Montgomery 1981A, p. 186).
So let us return to our travel on the train slouching towards Taulkinham. When Haze Motes asks “I reckoned you think you been redeemed” he is probing the vacuum left by the decay of historic Christianity with its awareness of sin and belief in the redeemer/savior. He represents the “Christ haunted South.” On the other hand, if life is but an “inspiration,” as opined by Mrs. Wally Bee Hitchcock, then we best stand back and prepare oneself for the advent of nihilism. Nietzsche as country boy, Montgomery styles him. Thus Haze, after proclaiming the one truth that there is no truth, will wisely observe: “where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you get away from it." It is a vision too desperate for the polite lady on the train. Montgomery, following O’Connor and Solzhenistsyn, sees what is at the end of the ride—the discovery of “the dark morning of the regional man as he discovers himself transformed almost completely into the provincial man. He will live nowhere, only stay in random place. He will be a citizen of a boundless state larger and more empty than south, north, America, Russia.” Like Milton’s Satan, the mind will be its own place, capable of making a heaven out of hell, or a hell out heaven. Mr. Montgomery warns that in Satan’s words, and those of Emerson, “lie the death of family, community, country—the death of the whole person, and of those workings of the spirit through such persons joined in a community of which we should properly be members.” (Montgomery 1981A, p. 199)
In chapter 3, “The Intelligentsia's 'Poor Richard',” Montgomery explains that in the gnostic deportment towards the world, abstractions reign and a taste for the particular is lost. The world as but phenomenal allows the thinker to see through particular existent, flower, tree or man, without noticing its pressure and presence. Abstract flowers are celebrated but not the concrete substance in its particularity. Power over things is more to be realized than respect for things. Emerson, according to Montgomery, may be found obliterating the “little nook of a study, the Old Manse, and the Concord River.” He “desubstantialiates them till thought is their only reality.” (Montgomery 1984, p. 22) Consciousness is the ground of being. The string to God is severed, and mind itself is divinized. A philosophy of detached consciousness leads to a doctrine of “over soul” and pantheism, with the all dwelling in the one and one in the all. The pantheistic vision occludes the distinctiveness and individuality of things. I recall that Tocqueville wrote “All those who still appreciate the true nature of man’s greatness should combine in the struggle against it [pantheism].” (Tocqueville 1969, p. 452.) Pantheism combines that loss of individual existence and confidence with the deification of generality and the mass of men One cannot fuse being and Being, ens and esse, or the transcendent and immanent. We must hold them in proper tension. Flannery O’Connor spoke of being a “realist of distances,” and as Montgomery explains it, through such a vision “she sees the transcendent in the immanent; as writer she dramatizes an active presence of the transcendent in the imminent action.” (Montgomery 1981A, p. 177). The prophetic poets, such a Hawthorne or O’Connor, present us with the startling reality of concrete particulars, in their beauty and their ugliness, and he traces them to their ground in God and in their solidarity with others.
As I have stated previously, Mr. Montgomery's recovery of Southern being is nothing less than a recovery of our full human sensibility. (Hittinger 2001, p. 228) For “the first deconstruction necessary to the manipulation of being is the reduction of regional man to provincial man, under a range of catchy terms such as ‘progress’ or ‘humanity.’” (Montgomery 1981A, p. 180) Solzhenitsyn and Pope John Paul II also had the audacity to compare the communist ideology of the east with the western ideology of progress and consumerism, both of which reduce the person to emptiness and open them to manipulation. Montgomery points out that the gradual attrition of spirit in the West is less “spectacular than mass purges,” yet may be “more fatally destructive of one's life through gradual, almost imperceptible shifts.”
His work is vitally important for our self-understanding and our defense of a culture friendly to and respectful of the human person. His defense and recovery of regionalism against the provincialism follows the insightful essay written by Allen Tate sixty years ago. (Tate 1955, pp. 321-331) As Tate famously instructed us on the “new provincialism”, regionalism may be limited in space but it is not limited in time, and stands in solidarity with the past: “regionalism is that consciousness or that habit of men in a given locality which influences them to certain patterns of thought and conduct handed to them by their ancestors.” The provincial attitude on the other hand is “limited in time but not in space.” Perhaps we prefer the term “cosmopolitan,” for its sounds grand; but it is the provincial by another name. It is a reduction, not an expansion—for Tate suggests that when the regional man, “in his ignorance, often an intensive and creative ignorance, … assumes that the present moment is unique, he becomes provincial man.” Cut off from the past and without traditional wisdom, provincial man must live by chance. Tate ends his essay with an allusion to Blake: “From now on we are committed to seeing with, not through the eye: we, as provincials who do not live anywhere.” Montgomery as a Southerner celebrates regional existence and seeks to pull us back from the ignorance of the provincial and appreciate regional community, where it still exists. This “sense of community implies that a present moment bears in it the fruits of yesterday (not brought, or seldom brought, to full harvest) and the seeds of tomorrow (flawed by the old loss we credit to Adam). Despite the imperfections (or more truly because of them) we hold to a truth inherited from our fathers and everywhere certified by present realities—a truth that refutes the reductionism in egalitarian shibboleths, those secular versions of lions and sheep and jackels in millennial Edens.” (Montgomery 1981A, p. 194)
The work of Marion Montgomery pulls us back from abstractions of the provincial mind and plunges us into regional life. He opens for us the work of the prophetic poets. The poets restore us to seeing through the eye. Without perception of things and sense of creature, we could not begin to philosophize let alone receive the grace that builds upon and perfects nature. Pope John Paul II said that true artists “know that they have had a momentary glimpse of the abyss of light which has its original wellspring in God.” (John Paul II 1999, §16) Like the artists praised by John Paul II, Marion Montgomery also “stirs that hidden nostalgia for God which a lover of beauty like Saint Augustine could express in incomparable terms: ‘Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you!’” The prophetic poets call for repentance; turn back to being, to community, to God, before it is too late.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. (1983). Essays and Lectures. New York, Literary Classics of the United States.
Hittinger, John. (2002). Liberty, Wisdom, and Grace : Thomism and Democratic Political Theory. Lanham, Md. ; Oxford, Lexington Books.
Howe, Irving (1986). The American Newness: Culture and Politics in the Age of Emerson Cambridge, Ma: Harvard University Press.
John Paul II (1999). Letter to Artists.
Montgomery, Marion (1962). The Wandering of Desire. New York,, Harper.
Montgomery, Marion (1981A). “Solzhenitsyn as Southerner,” in Why the South Will Survive. Athens, University of Georgia Press.
Montgomery, Marion (1981B). Why Flannery O'Connor Stayed Home. Las Salle, Ill., Sherwood Sugden.
Montgomery, Marion (1983). Why Poe Drank Liquor: Volume 2 of a Trilogy. La Salle, Sherwood Sugden & Company.
Montgomery, Marion (1984). Why Hawthorne Was Melancholy. La Salle, Ill., Sherwood Sugden.
Montgomery, Marion (1987). Possum, and Other Receits for the Recovery of "Southern" Being. Athens, University of Georgia Press.
Montgomery, Marion (1997). Romantic Confusions of the Good : Beauty as Truth, Truth Beauty. Lanham, MD, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Montgomery, Marion (2006). Hillbilly Thomist : Flannery O'Connor, St. Thomas, and the Limits of Art. Jefferson, N.C., McFarland & Co.
O'Connor, Flannery. (1988). Collected Works. New York, NY, Library of America.
Tate, Allen. (1968). Essays of Four Decades. Chicago, Swallow Press.
Tate, Allen. (1955). The Man of Letters in the Modern World : Selected Essays, 1928-1955. New York, Meridian Books.
1 See 2 Kings 2:1-13 "Please let a double portion of your spirit be upon me." Similarly, St. Therese of Lisieux prayed for a “double portion” of blessing. See Story of a Soul, translated by John Clarke Washington, D.C.: ICS, 1996, p. 195.