Carlin Romano’s America the Philosophical

William Giraldi in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

America-philosophical-carlin-romano-hardcover-cover-artYou've probably heard the news: We Americans are a mob of dipshits. In our nation's emporium of “ideas,” the madcap and maniacal sell like batteries in a blackout. We can't help it, apparently. We've been dullards since our inception — Boobus americanus in H.L. Mencken's unkind coinage — and so relish our pop-pundits and their orangutan ilk in Washington, our searing rabblement of the religious, our creationists, cranks, crackpots, or any wide-eyed witch in the street. In the slothful spirit of fairness, we like to give the scientist and the voodoo priestess equal measure, and then applaud the voodoo. That we are also a sub-literate breed is probably obvious, and probably the problem in the first place, since quality reading builds antibodies against bullshit. Mention Fernando Pessoa to a Portuguese — any Portuguese — and prepare yourself for an afternoon's colloquy. Toss a pebble into a crowd of Germans and the first person it touches will be pleased to pontificate on the importance of Goethe. Now go say “Walt Whitman” to the next American you run into and you'll be confronted with the vacant countenance of the over-medicated.

But forget the poor plebe — even some of last century's distinguished scholars and writers held American literature to be an anemic enterprise unworthy of serious account. Van Wyck Brooks enjoyed exclaiming the calumny that American artists and intellectuals had no “tradition” to build upon (then he let posterity know precisely who he was when he dubbed Mark Twain a fraud). Mencken, in an uncharacteristic break with discernment, thought Emerson an oaf with no influence, despite the fact that Mencken couldn't look on anything without wearing Nietzsche's eyeglasses; he must have missed those parts in Nietzsche — in the letters, journals, and Twilight of the Idols — extolling Emerson's genius. If you'd like to dine at a banquet of boorish inanity, see Theodore Dreiser's essay “Life, Art and America,” in which he castigates our nation for a famine of consequential writers and poets while inexplicably forgetting the existences of Dickinson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Henry James. And Mr. James didn't help, either, when in his biography of Hawthorne he claimed that American air didn't have enough oxygen to let big ideas breathe properly. He sailed for England as soon as he could, and a generation later some of the best minds born on American soil — Eliot, Stein, and Pound for starters — followed in his huffy wake.

More here.