An Essay in the History of the Radical Sensibility in America (Hardcover)
On Our Shelves Now!
How do you use the word "radical?" Committed to the progressive? The cooperative? The communal? The equalitarian?
In so far as social, political, and economic power is sought and wielded in malice, just so far is benevolence radical. The history of social, political, and economic power has been mostly the history of malice. The history of benevolence has been mostly the history of radicalism. The sensibility that loves benevolence has been a radical sensibility.
In An Essay in the History of the Radical Sensibility in America, L.S. Halprin argues that before the middle of the nineteenth century the work of all American radicals was organized to defend some form of sentimental faith in millennial progress; that the work of the great writers of the middle of the nineteenth century was the first to be fundamentally free of the constraints of sentimentality; that despite that generation’s accomplishments, the old sentimentalities have persisted, perpetuating the cycle in which illusions designed to make radicalism’s chances seem better than they are become the disillusions which make them seem worse.
Along the way, Halprin unfolds something of the contribution of Edgar Alan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman to the specific content of the radical sensibility in America. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, the radical’s work has been primarily to accomplish political power. That work and the frustrations of it often leave little energy for the pursuit of a thoroughgoing self-awareness. Halprin's analysis is particularly useful now to remind readers of both the sentimentalities and the wisdoms from which we come.
About the Author
In the 1930s, Lee Halprin began sharing his parents’ thrilling embrace of America’s and Europe’s great radical writing. Then in the 1940s he attended Uppsala College, followed by Columbia University. Halprin has taught at Harvard University and the New England Conservatory of Music. He resides in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“L. S. Halprin conveys his thoughts about the struggle for human equality through a deep analysis of the great classics of American literature. His writing invites reflection on the links between one's private and one's public self. He has a welcoming style, alternately simple and complex, which yields often surprising insights, always with an eye to the permanent value of each literary moment.” —Victor Wallis, author of Red-Green Revolution (2018), Democracy Denied (2019) and Socialist Practice (2020)
“Through this learned survey of radical thought in American history Halprin convincingly demonstrates that what is lacking in our political and economic life, and is therefore radical, is kindness. His argument carries the reader through some of our finest literary minds, unearthing fresh insights into the political implications of their work.” —Arthur Hoyle, author of Mavericks, Mystics, and Misfits: Americans Against the Grain, and The Unknown Henry Miller: A Seeker in Big Sur
"In his reading of the 18th and 19th century American writers—Edwards, Franklin, Emerson, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman—L. S. Halprin considers the developing of the radical sensibility in America. This book is as thought provoking as it is heartwarming.” —Zhu Jiaming, Chairman, the Chinese Institute of Digital Assets
"Almost a century since D.H. Lawrence published his penetrating and landmark analysis of the American psyche—Studies in Classic American Literature—L.S. Halprin takes up the work of four of the same mid-19th-century writers (Poe, Hawthorne, Melville and Whitman) in setting forth a unique vision of where we are and where we need to go.
Lawrence used the examples of those writers to critique a young nation, wishing to pull 'the democratic and idealistic clothes off American utterance.' Halprin embarks on a similar quest, but his interest is in how these writers defined a radical sensibility—one that extols the virtues of kindness and courage while insisting on conditions for the extension of democracy.
As a lifelong English teacher, Halprin emerges as a critic of sentimental liberalism as embodied by Emerson and Thoreau. In the book’s longest discourse, he contrasts this with Melville’s 'assimilating the truth of human particularity, [where he] could turn with unsentimentalized concentration to see the realities on which human dignity depends.'
The ore still to be mined in these American classics allows Halprin to scrutinize the liberal orientation out of which he himself underwent a radical metamorphosis—an attitude that has over the course of the past century slowly obfuscated the reactionary and tyrannical control achieved by the merger of governmental and corporate power.
His later chapter titled 'the exuberant radicalism of the 1960s' examines the wrongheaded 'expectation of the sudden and total beautification of the world.' The result became a factionalism leading to laissez-faire acquiescence by the Left, and to the questions raised by Halprin in his poignant Afterword:
'How shall we understand the difference between those of us who see the greatest goodness in wealth and market competition to accumulate it, and those of us who see the greatest goodness in liberty, fraternity, and equality (to rely on one good old way of putting it)? How shall we understand this deep, deep division amongst us, this difference in our motives and our understandings on which our survival itself may well depend?'
If not the answers, then the insight to know how necessary they are, Halprin believes can be found in 'these writers [who] gave to the love of benevolence and of knowing a sense of history, of human nature, of society, that it had not had before' and that is ignored 'only to lose a wisdom commensurate with the beauty of its aspirations.'
In this sense, Halprin’s call to arms picks up where his predecessor Lawrence left off. 'American consciousness has so far been a false dawn,' the British novelist wrote. 'The negative ideal of democracy. But underneath, and contrary to this open ideal, the first hints and revelations of IT. IT, the American whole soul.'
Halprin’s Essay in the History of The Radical Sensibility of America goes in search of utilizing the past to unveil that 'American whole soul.'”
—Dick Russell, author of The Life and Ideas of James Hillman