(This review ran in the Oct/Nov 1983 issue of Exquisite Corpse.)
In this century “society” has come to mean an institutionalized entity beyond our control, if not our complicity. By regarding society as an impersonal force we are able to put out of our minds the intimate responsibility we share for the enormities committed in its name. William Bronk reminds us in The Brother in Elysium, his meditative essays on Thoreau, Whitman and Melville, that our relationships with friends are a paradigm of our relationship to society as a whole.
The Brother in Elysium was composed over forty years ago and published at last in 1980. In an “Epistle Dedicatory” Bronk explains what he is up to: “Much can be said about the nature of society through the medium of these three American writers, who were so deeply concerned with society in both its immediate form of friendship, and its wider form of relations within the social structure. Each man’s approach to the two forms was single, as indeed it may be for all of us, so that there will be no inconsistencies to be found between our real ideas of our friends and our real political desires. Superficially, this will not seem to be so; but I have intended to go beneath the surface.”
Beneath the surface much is discovered. Bronk has not written literary criticism so much as an imaginative collaboration with three great nineteenth century American writers, a book in which ideas of freedom and the achievement of form, identity and ambiguity are explored.
“I have wanted to write a kind of essential drama, in which each of the three characters comments on the matter at hand by his own word and deed, and so reveals himself and his subject. If my book makes any statement, therefore, it must be by the relationships that are revealed, by its composition, by a form brought about to the perceptive reader, by that element which is in every line and in no single one.”
The first and most lengthy essay is “Silence and Henry Thoreau” in which Bronk recreates Thoreau as friend, neighbor and citizen and delineates Thoreau’s frustration at his inability to affect society by the power of his own example. “Thoreau believed that a man who was truly good in his being, was free from any need for doing good which was deliberate, so great was the power of his being.” For Thoreau, philanthropy and reform were ways for men to avoid the real problems of moral worth and social behavior, and true friendship—the friendship of affinity, and not the friendship of a confidant or an associate—was an ideal upon which society itself could be based.
Thoreau could never lose sight of his own identity; it was as fixed as a tree in the landscape. He believed that a man had to live according to his own nature, that in order to be a good citizen he had first of all to be a law to himself.
The second essay, “Walt Whitman’s Marine Democracy,” presents for contrast a portrait of the poet as essentially fluid in identity, without fixed form, a poet who thought that if you made society noble, man would follow. “Whitman,” Bronk says, “saw the solution of his own and the national problems as one and the same—the achievement of form.” Whitman “looked to the glorious State to solve his own personal deficiencies.” Bronk writes of two Whitmans: the first a poet of erotic intensity, the second a dangerous fascist visionary.
Bronk’s treatment of Whitman is sympathetic, subtle and original: this is bare bones Whitman, without the good gray poet gas.
In his essay on Melville, Bronk discusses themes of social goodness, evil and ambiguity, showing how Melville’s experience with “uncivilized” cannibals in the South Seas—the natural dignity and beauty of their social relations—contrasted with what he found in nineteenth century American society. The resolution Melville came to in his search for form was the acceptance of ambiguity, a kind of equilibrium of doubt: “Since there was no final answer to be found for man’s social problems, and no complete definition of man, then the ambiguity of man should be positively maintained in opposition to any solution offered and claimed as final.”
Three American writers, three ways of viewing how one is to live in concert with one’s fellows and with the state. The Brother in Elysium, like the books by Thoreau, Whitman and Melville it discusses is unique—original and nourishing and serious about our relations within society, about freedom, identity, ambiguity—and its prose is of a very high order. For comparison, one might point to two other books about America and its literature, In the American Grain and Studies in Classic American Literature. The Brother in Elysium is as good, and as likely to endure.
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