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America and the Chivalric


Describing the hymns of his boyhood, D.H. Lawrence recalled how “men, even Sunday School teachers, still believed in the fight for life and the fun of it. … It was far, far from any militarism or gun-fighting. But it was the battle-cry of a stout soul, and a fine thing too.”

America and the Patterns of Chivalry, p. 230.

What follows is the last-but-one chapter of my America and the Patterns of Chivalry, NY, Cambridge UP, 1982, 301 pp. A reviewer, Edward Wagenknecht, reported gratifyingly that the book had ”the unputdownable quality of a thriller.” It was indeed an exercise in problem-solving.

How was it, I wondered, that after four years of a bloody civil war brought on by fire-eating Southerners who, in Mark Twain’s analysis, had too trustingly assimilated the Waverley novels of Walter Scott—how was it that what the exasperated economist-sociologist Thorstein Veblen called “medieval” patterns became increasingly popular in the supposedly more rational North, in elite colleges, society doings, entertainment, and so forth?

The attempt to answer that question took me into areas that I hadn’t anticipated—into the roles of fictions and forms; into what I called the pastoral-heroic nexus (a key chapter); into ethology; into Abolitionism and the Civil War; into the chivalric permeation of elite education; and into Progressivism, labor conflicts, and Radicalism, with particular attention to evolving attitudes towards the ideas of “peace” and “war.” The knights of the Arthurian mythos, Civil War generals, cowboys, muckraking (investigative) journalists, and the Wobblies were among the players.

It also took me deep into the paradox that, as I said in the preface,

Certain attitudes that on the face of it were very reasonable and enlightened appeared to increase the likelihood of violence at times, or to aggravate it when it occurred; and others that ostensibly encourage violence appeared able to reduce it or even prevent it altogether. (p.ix)


Whatever may be the case with the more rigid codes of other cultures and subcultures, “honor” in Western culture isn’t like the skeleton that you excise from a kipper. It is best conceived in terms of Wittgenstein’s concept of “family likenesses”—characteristics that enable you to see that family members at a wedding are indeed a family, even though there is no one set of features that all share. Dealing with “it,” one is dealing with a complex interaction and palimpsest of subcultures, images, fables, myths, real or reportedly real events and characters, and so forth.

By and large, accounts of concepts like love or honor need to be both diachronic and synchronic. Beliefs may have been held, or be said to have been held, in the past, and generalizations from earlier decades and centuries can be adduced to that effect. But where values most live, and go on living, is in descriptions of particular events and the doings and sayings of particular individuals. Here there may be no “pastness.”

Orpheus’s great lament for the lost Eurydice in Gluck’s Orfeo (“Che farò”) hasn’t been dimmed by the passing of the years or the erosions of irony, let alone made obsolete, any more than have the great twentieth-century love songs. And the Arthurian mythos from which so much derives is an affair of multiple value-systems, not of a one-way progression in which systems supersede and annihilate each other.


Where “honor” values are concerned, Charles Marshall’s quietly moving first-hand recollections of Lee’s surrender to Grant in the McLean house at Appomattox or the account by Joshua Chamberlain (memorably incarnated by Jeff Daniels in Gods and Generals) of an ensuing laying down of arms to him in his capacity of brigadier-general are, like episodes in novels and plays which we talk about in the present tense, there for us now.

Instruction had been given [Chamberlain recalls], and when the head of each division column comes opposite our group, our bugle sounds the signal and instantly our whole line from right to left, regiment by regiment in succession, gives the soldier’s salutation, from the “order arms” to the old “carry.”—the marching salute. Gordon at the head of the column, riding with heavy spirit and downcast face, catches the sound of shifting arms, looks up, and taking the meaning, wheels superbly, making with himself and his horse one uplifted figure, with profound salutation as he drops the point of his sword to the boot toe, then facing to his own command, gives word for his successive brigades to pass us with the same position of the manual—honor answering honor. On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum, not a cheer, nor word, nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as it were the passing of the dead.

Both accounts can be found in Henry Steele Commager’s anthology The Blue and the Gray; The Story of the Civil War as Told by Participants.


Scenarios of “inevitable” evolution deserve to be mistrusted. Cultural shifts are more complicated than that. Streams or rivers may go underground for a while and then surface again, and the underground lakes may be much larger than was assumed. Harvard Yard is not coterminous with America, let alone with Western civilization, and things did not all go plop like a soufflé because of Vietnam.

Among recent books, Paul Robinson’s Military Honour and the Conduct of War: From Ancient Greece to Iraq (2006), is exemplary in its scholarship about military history, the intellectual lucidity of its organization, and the fact that there is no elitist-ironical trailing off at the end. There have been practical changes and adaptations, that is all.

In Honor Bright: Honor in Western Culture (2000), George Fenwick Jones, a Southerner who served for five years as a Marine, writes with the understanding and insight that come with affection, rather than condescendingly holding the subject at arm’s length, and moves easily between literary analysis, social history, and personal reminiscence. America and the Patterns of Chivalry doesn’t, alas, figure in his bibliography—but then, it shares the honor of the omission with Hemingway, Faulkner, and Nietzsche.

Especially interesting, in view of the current conflicts, is Soldier’s Heart; Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point (2007), in which Elizabeth D. Samet, for ten years a civilian professor there, takes us into the inner spaces of an esoteric but essential subculture, informed, in some ways, by a higher degree of cultural commitment and a stronger valuing of heuristic dialogue than a lot of academic departments elsewhere. (Samet speaks of the prevailing irony at Yale, where she got her doctorate.)


Two relevant TV series, one very good, the other superb, are Tour of Duty (1987—1990), about Vietnam, in which, among much else, young Lieutenant Myron Goldman (not a West Pointer, and without any priggishness) grows into the nearest thing to a fictional chevalier sans peur et sans reproche for our time, and JAG (Judge Advocate General) (1995–2005), about a community of young Naval lawyers under an ideal Admiral.

With its fascinating exploration of intersecting codes, JAG demonstrates how the personal can prosper inside a system that scrupulously distinguishes between the role, the deed, and the individual, and how rigid regulations can be compatible with full-hearted truth-and-justice-seeking. In the cliff-hanging courtroom episodes, with the risk of draconian punishments, rank has no privileges and there are no magic shields. There is also almost no cheating.

I am speaking of what we see in JAG itself, particularly after lovely U.S. Marine officer Sarah Mackenzie joins the team. I have no knowledge of the actualities. But then, a knowledge of Roman history is not a prerequisite for involvement in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar or Antony and Cleopatra.

The obviously North American landscapes of Tour of Duty do not diminish the reality of the characters or the variety of problems that they have to cope with.


A respect for some of the chivalric traditions in America need have nothing to do with preppy snobbishness, or alpha-male bullying, or chip-on-the-shoulder machismo (talk about “national honor” and stains on family honor makes me shudder), or a sentimental fondness for lost causes, or a craving for the restoration of “Camelot.”

And though the term “honor” comes up a good deal in “America, Truth, and Honor,” since it was used a good deal in the decades that I talk about, it is rarely, if at all, used by the diverse and admirable young members of Lt. Goldman’s platoon or by the, with one odious exception, honorable professionals of JAG, at times involved themselves in martial actions.

Reportedly, when someone asked Louis Armstrong to define jazz he replied, “If you has to ask, you ain’t never going to know.” But as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said of pornography, you can know something when you see it.

In Rudyard Kipling’s Stalky & Co (1899), his schoolboys, a lot of whom are army brats who will be making their own careers in the Army, are appalled by the flag-wagging speech of a visiting MP, with its liberal doses of Honour and Glory. You just didn’t talk about such things, ever.


But if the noun should be handled with care, a culture in which words like “honorable” and “dishonorable” have lost their force, or are withheld from timidity, has been deprived of essential moral tools.

The right use of such terms doesn’t lead back to “honor,” meaning to implied statements like, “What that Senator did that day was dishonorable in the sense that it was not in accord with the codes of honor, which we can now have an interesting argument about.” Rather, it leads outwards to a narrative in which Senator X’s conduct was cowardly, dishonest, self-serving, and all-round contemptible. It is there that the moral energy resides.


A word of caution: “America, Truth, and Honor,” like the book from which it comes, is a good deal concerned with attitudes and beliefs. I have forborne constantly saying, “It was thought, “ “It was widely believed, “ and so forth. A failure to recognize this may have made the book more puzzling than it needed to be for some reviewers a quarter of a century ago.

For better or worse, the book is not skimmable. But I have now provided in “Excerpts” a number of passages from it, sequenced more or less as in the book, that indicate some of the significant themes.

I have also, in view of the novel’s centrality for a good many years in America’s sense of itself in relation to “Europe,” freedom, and aristocracy, appended an article of mine on Huckleberry Finn.

America and the Patterns of Chivalry went on from my Violence in the Arts, Cambridge U.P., 1974.

January 2008


© John Fraser


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