The Folger Shakespeare Memorial Dedicated
April 23, 1932
Shakespeare and American Culture
. . . . Shakespeare, bearing the sceptre of cultivation, moved in the dusty trail of the pioneers, and thus the elements of British culture were preserved in the hearts of a far-flung people who in race were still essentially English. However shallow in places that culture might be, as shallow it inevitably was in a frontier life, it retained, like gold beaten to airy thinness, its original virtue; and from ocean to ocean it served to give to American civilization something like homogeneity.
I am not, I believe, overemphasizing the influence of Shakespeare in America during this awkward--we might say adolescent-- period of growth. The truth is, one of the astonishing manifestations of our intellectual life at this time was the rise in the first half of the nineteenth century of what has been fitly called "Shakespeare idolatry." Among the middle as well as the higher classes, admiration for the poet grew into a passionate worship, a worship which in its universality and extravagance has had no counterpart in England or any other country. How are we to explain this remarkable phenomenon? The sheer excellence of Shakespeare as an artist cannot be regarded as adequate to account for the veneration accorded him by the very rank and file of a not over-cultivated folk; another reason must then be sought, more tangible in kind, and springing from some fundamental characteristic of the people as a whole.
Perhaps we shall find that reason issuing from the most potent and universal trait of Americans of the nineteenth century, namely, that they were deeply religious, and, further, intensely puritanical in their outlook upon life. The dominanting sects . . . all held, in accordance with puritanism from which they were derived, that secular amusements, as theatregoing, card-playing, the reading of novels, dancing and similar frivolities, interfered with one's spiritual progress. Accordingly, worldly pleasures were frowned upon, and a release of the aesthetic emotions, when such did not relate to righteousness, was curbed . . . . Yet these same Americans realized that in their secular culture they were deficient, that their provincial civilization lacked elements of beauty which in the Old World made for a richer and more fruitful existence. Possessed thus with a sense of inferiority, they were pathetically eager to acquire some part of the refinement which cast a glamor over life in countries beyond the Atlantic.
For this refinement naturally they looked to England [and to Shakespeare, much celebrated by writers of the Romantic movement]. Americans promptly seized upon him. If they could not have many heroes of letters, at least they could have the best. They made him the very symbol of culture. As such, he stood apart, clothed with a special virtue; [t]o study him became a duty. And, starved as Americans were in their intellectual and aesthetic natures, they were overcome by the richness and beauty of his offerings. In his poetry they found art in its loveliest aspects. In his exposition of men and deeds they found a wisdom so profound, yet clear, that their minds were stimulated to a fresh and grateful activity. In the brave world that he flashed before their eyes they found a courtly display of life, a refinement of taste, and a politeness of manners that gave them a new conception of courtesy and of disciplined character. Finally, in his revelation of the essential beauty and truth that lie at the heart of all things, they found a lofty moral philosophy that harmonized with their deeply religious instincts . . . . Believing thus, it is not surprising that Americans, learned and lay, North, South, and West began to give to the sweet Swan of Avon a place of eminence [equal to that of] the Holy Scriptures themselves, holding the one to be supreme in the field of spiritual, the other in the field of secular culture. "Shakespeare and the Bible" -- so the common phrase ran, linking the two in a superlative evaluation; and no man was regarded as complete who failed to know both.
[If "the idolatry of Shakespeare" was important in homogenizing Americans in the frontier era, Adams says, even greater was its importance "when foreign immigration, in floodgate fashion, poured into our land to threaten the continued existence of that homogeneity."]
The first great wave of immigration came about the middle of the nineteenth century. In the rich river-valleys of the Mississippi and the Ohio, men were needed to develop the resources of a virgin soil; and to the beckoning of opportunity aliens came, by thousands and hundreds of thousands, mainly from Germany, Norway, Sweden, and other north-European countries. . . . A little later . . . there swept in a second wave of immigration, vaster in scope, and far more threatening in kind. . . . . On every ship they came, by millions now, instead of thousands, and not only Germans and Scandinavians, but Italians, Poles, Slavs, Hungarians, Czechs, Greeks, Lithuanians, Rumanians, Armenians -- from almost every clime under the sun. They swarmed into the land like the locust in Egypt; and everywhere, in an alarming way, they tended to keep to themselves, in the larger cities, in mining towns, in manufacturing centres, where they maintained their group solidarity. Foreign in their background and alien in their outlook upon life, they exhibited varied racial characteristics, varied ideals, and varied types of civilization. America seemed destined to become a babel of tongues and cultures.
Fortunately, about the time that the forces of immigration became a menace to the preservation of our long-established English civilization, there was initiated throughout the country a system of free and compulsory education for youth. In a spirit of efficieny, that education was made stereotyped in form; and in a spirit of democracy, every child was forced by law to submit to its discipline. The discipline devised was not, perhaps, ideal; but it was virtually the same in every state and territory, and had the merit of giving one training to the heterogeneous population whih now filled our land. As a result, whatever the racial antecedents, out of the portals of the schools emerged, in the second or third generation, a homogeneous people, speaking the same language, inspired by the same ideals, exemplifying the same culture. . . . On the side of the humanities, that schooling concerned itself mainly with the English language and literature -- a choice, of course, dictated by practical considerations; not only did the child of American parentage need to learn how to express himself with force and precision, but the child of foreign parentage needed to be taught the tongue of the country of his adoption . . . .
And here Shakespeare, the object of general idolatry, was again called upon to play a part in American national life, this time on the stage of education. In our fixed plan of elementary schooling, he was made the corner-stone of cultural discipline. A study of his works was required in successive grades extending over a period of years. Elaborately annotated texts of his plays were devised, and sold in editions running into millions. Everywhere pupils were set to the task of memorizing his lines, of reciting on platforms his more eloquent passages, of composing innumerable essays on his art, his technique, his ideals of life, his conceptions of character, of presenting his plays in amateur theatricals. [To the young, receptive minds of American students] the great English dramatist was held up as the supreme thinker, artist, poet. Not Homer, nor Dante, nor Goethe, not Chaucer, nor Spenser, nor even Milton, but Shakespeare was made the chief object of their study and veneration . . . .
We may confidently say that today Americans at large are more familiar with the dramatist than are any other people on the globe. From the grammar-school boy with shining morning face, to great captains of industry harassed by responsibilities, they are all lovers of Shakespeare. The beautiful building which we are here gathered to dedicate [the Folger Library] stands as a product of that love--most beautiful, perhaps, in that point of view.
If out of America, unwieldy in size, and commonly called the melting-pot of races, there has been evolved a homogeneous nation, with a culture than is still essentially English, we must acknowledge that in the process Shakespeare has played a major part.
---- The Spinning Wheel. 12:9-10 (June-July 1932): 229-232.