REVIEWS Hermits West

Coby Dowdell. "The American Hermit and the British Castaway: Voluntary Retreat and Deliberative Democracy in Early American Culture" in Early American Literature, vol. 46, no. 1 (2011), p. 121-156.

The British castaway of the article title is Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, a model for fictional adaptations in colonial and revolutionary American culture -- but also a self-portrait of the nascent United States. The 1780s and 1790s -- the focus of the article -- rediscovered the archtype of the hermit but presented it in a new and culturally-specific way. Author Dowdell examines the ways in which both the figure and practices of the American hermit are taken up as "culturally resonant analogies for early American political subjectivity." The sudden popularity of the hermit in poems, almanacs, waxwork exhibits, and choral music of the 1790s and the "widespread hermit's tale, a previously unrecognized American literary genre" is a surprising historical fact. As Dowdell explains:

The hermit's political significance derives from his or her capacity to confront the aporetic conditions of a past Revolutionary Amiercan national identity situated precariously at the boundary between solitude and society, public and private, Federalist and anti-Federalist, and Britishness and Americanness.

Why was the hermit figure so popular in the American consciousness of this time? Why did the traveling wax museums of the day feature "An Old Hermit" among stock figures like George Washington, the Mad Woman, the Indian Chief, and others? Where Washington represented "dispassionate moderation and balanced deliberation," the Old Hermit represented "Stoic restraint," while other figures like farmers and domestic couples represented modest values of republican virtue.

Hence the hermit figure was not historic, not religious, and not eremetical but a sturdy-minded patriot eschewing the tumult of society and politics to represent in the post-revolutionary era "a disinterested patriotism enabled by a vigilant moderation of the passions." An era when political passions ran high and society sought a stable transition to natiohood was disposed to symbolic and reassuring icons.

The virtues of moderation that link Washington with the Old Hermit forcefully enunciate the internal logic of ... deliberative democracy as a solution to the strife of the political partisanship that emerged during the consitutional period.

The age worried about social contract, about social stratification, partisanship, power, and influence, so a symbol of "voluntary retirement" addresses these spheres of public versus private. Popularizers of the hermit image sought a figure transcending politics or, rather, eschewing the public arena for personal reflection, to "defer taking sides." Because the hermit can endure disagreement, he becomes the ideal citizen, emulating Washington's famous cautionary prudence.

In the next section of the article, Dowdell discusses the hermit's tale. The formulaic genre usually presents travelers or adventurers who discover a (usually male) hermit

in a cave (or hut) nestled in some secluded Edenic valley, far from the intruding eyes of the public world. Attention to the length of his or her seclusion and notice of the age of the hermit (often of biblical proportions) are among the first items of conversation. The hermit is invariably hospitable, inviting the travelers into his or her humble dwelling and treating them to a simple (often vegetarian) meal.

The meal finished, the travelers solicit the hermit's history and motive, which is told. The travelers then announce their departure and invite the hermit to join them. Not unexpectedly, the hermit declines but produces manuscripts for the travelers "with a request that they be organized and published for the greater benefit of society."

Thus the hermit's tale safeguards the political motive of reclusion while presenting a public declaration otherwise overweaning and obvious from the tale's author. As Dowdell puts it, "The textual artifact of the hermit's willful reclusion sustains the hermitic citizen's liminal status by grounding the hermit's otherworldliness in the materiality of the manuscript." The hermit retains a public status and the intent to participate in the commonweal, however indirectly.

This "textual self-consciousness" of the hermit's tale originates in Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, as the author shows, and in the imitative Buckland's Wonderful Discovery and subsequent versions, including Longveville, Winkfield, Brake, and Amos Wilson, among others. In each (beginning with Defoe), the castaway transforms reluctance and resentment into a "protracted exercise in self-fashioning ..." and a triumph of ingenious individualism.

But the hermit's manuscript suggests more to these many tales than mere adventure. An increased interest in what the hermit has to say begins to overshadow the castaway elements of the tale.

The hermit's retreat is ... a rhetorical retreat figured topographically by the hermit's physical withdrawal from society, a gesture that is hopeful enough about the redemption of the world to offer his or her wisdom, yet hopeless enough to reject the possibility of taking sides and returning to the stifling limitations of a partisan society.

The process of concentrating on the hermit's wisdom in a manuscript culminates in Thoreau's Walden (1854), where the physical devices and contrivances fall away to leave the transition to "studied deliberation." In the case of Amos Wilson, for example, its author prescribes a "heremitic Protestant theology" that "encourages the practices of studied deliberation central to antebellum American republican democracy." Solitude thus provides a weaning stage for public reflection and moderation in what Dowdell considers a "firmly established Anglican approach to practical divinity." Wilson intends a balance between extremes of piety. Unable to reconcile the contradictions of contemporary American society, Amos Wilson (and the American hermit) choose not to decide.

In short:

The American hermit 's confrontation of the particularizing threats of private affection and the universalizing threats of rational discourse is unique in its refusal to embrace either extreme. In that refusal, the American hermit is placed at the threshold more than on a pedestal ...

Knowing United States history, a reader can surmise where this refusal of extremes is going, given antebellum times. Dowdell notes that Tocqueville had already described policy-making and social change in the United States as "slow and quiet." Amos Wilson had given approbation to this attitude, and John O'Sullivan identified it in the Democratic Party's presidents: Van Buren, Polk, and Pierce. O'Sullivan commends retirement from "the din of daily warfare" and tells his readers to maintain "silent observation of man." Notwithstanding the violent legacy of Andrew Jackson, the Democrats' call for sobriety and impartiality was aimed at the issue most agitating the country: slavery, and how the issue was to be resolved nationally. O'Sullivan's theme of solitude and withdrawal effectively intends to neutralize agitation and militancy among abolitionists.

Dowdell does not take his article in this direction of study, however. The hermit figure of social withdrawal is, rather, he states, an inheritance of deliberative democracy originating in post-revolutionary times, checking the impulse to necessary consensus and agreement based on partisanship. Dowdell concludes, however, that "what we make of this particular paradox undoubtedly requires further deliberation." And, indeed, the American hermit myth, if one may call it so, disappears after the magnitude of the slavery issue looms larger into the succeeding decades of the mid-19th century.

Representative works cited by the author.

Peter Longueville. The English Hermit. 1727.
Thomas Hopkinson. Liberty, a Poem ... Said to Be Written by a Hermit ... 1769. James Buckland. A Wonderful Discovery of a Hermit. 1786.
A Faithful Narrative of Elizabeth Wilson. 1786.
Samuel Brake. An Account of the Wonderful Hermit's Death and Burial. 1787.
Abraham Panther. A Surprising Account of the Discovery of a Lady ... 1787.
The Hermit's Soliloquy. 1788.
Anne-Therese de Marguenet de Courcelles, Marquise de Lambert. The Fair Solitary, or Female Hermit. 1790.
Lavinia. The Hermitess, or Fair Secluder. 1790.
Charles Dibdin. Hannah Hewit, or, the Female Crusoe. 1792.
John Atkinson. The Hermit, or an Account of Francis Adam Joseph Phyle. 1811.
Amos Wilson. The Pennsylvania Hermit: A Narrative [bound with] The Sweets of Solitude. ... 1838 (attributed 1821 or 1822).
John O'Sullivan. Democracy. 1840.