On “The Last Puritan”, by George Santayana, from the Financial Times

Source: “A life worth living for”, by Harry Eyres, published August 17 2007 on the Financial Times website.

Harry Eyres, the Financial Times’ “Slow Lane” columnist, writes about “one of the slowest novels I’ve ever read”, the philosopher George Santayana’s The Last Puritan.

“Leisurely as it is,” writes Eyres, “it packs a surprisingly hard punch — at least at the end. A more sustained attack on the American puritan ideal has never been penned.” As Eyres describes the book,

Santayana’s attack on American puritanism is anything but crude. It is conducted through a long character study of the most noble and admir-able American puritan it would be possible to imagine. Oliver Alden is the wealthy scion of a leading Bostonian family – beautiful, intelligent, gifted and kind. He is thoroughly good, but, as becomes increasingly clear, incapable of happiness. A brilliant student and heroic footballer and oarsman, he has no idea how to live – or perhaps, too many ideas.

Despite its leisurely, meditative style and Santayana’s critism of mainstream American values, The Last Puritan was a best-seller and Book of the Month Club selection when it was first published in 1936. Back then, Time magazine’s reviewer offered an accurate assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of Santayana’s sole novel:

It is characteristic of all Santayana’s writing that the weightiest subjects are handled with lightness and grace. The Last Puritan, no exception, contains amusing portraits of crabbed New Englanders, sophisticated New Yorkers, self-important Englishmen, sentimental Germans, to temper the gravity of the tale. It also contains extended digressions, discussions of German philosophy, of Shakespeare, Goethe, English education, yachting, sports, war, and rises in its record of Oliver’s last decision to some of the most eloquent prose that Santayana has written. Yet critics are likely to disagree for a long time to come over the question of whether The Last Puritan deserves to be reckoned with great U. S. fiction, whether it should even be considered a novel at all. Challenging comparison with The Scarlet Letter in its theme, it is obviously pale, frail, overintellectualized beside Hawthorne’s masterpiece. Evil for Hawthorne’s puritans was intense, powerful, a demon to be fought. For Santayana’s characters it is distant, abstract, a moral problem to be solved like geometry. Thus the characters in The Last Puritan are real as symbols of Santayana’s philosophy rather than as people.

Amazon shows The Last Puritan as out of print, but MIT Press still sells a pricey hardback edition from its series of Santayana reprints.

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