The Philosophical Apprenticeship of Oliver Alden

  • Thomas L. Jeffers


Oliver Alden, the Bildungsheld of Santayana’s only novel isn’t called “the last Puritan” simply because he is at the end of a line. It is also because he expresses a kind of spiritual extremity. Indeed Santayana (1863–1952), whose sensibility Lewis Mumford praised in the passage quoted above, originally thought of calling the book The Ultimate (rather than the more suggestive Last) Puritan. Born in 1890, Oliver is a latecomer. He brings together the moral and social traits of the single Old World tradition that had truly taken hold in the New, and that by his time had largely broken free from the theological myths that had alternately comforted and terrified his forebears. Comfort and terror: the Puritan tradition had in fact been double-sided. There is a fine Augustus Saint-Gaudens bronze entitled “The Puritan,” about 30 inches high, a muscular striding figure with the characteristic broad pointed hat and long flowing cape. When one of my sons, then maybe four years old, saw the piece in a museum and I asked him who it was, he didn’t hesitate: “Dracula!” That is the terrifying, hard, tough-minded side of the tradition, present in Oliver’s given name, which derives from the inspired, not to say fanatic politician and general, Oliver Cromwell. Then there is the comforting, soft, tender-minded side, present in his surname, which derives from his ancestor John Alden, the delicately conscienced and decidedly unaggressive amorist portrayed in Longfellow’s poem.2


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© Thomas L. Jeffers 2005

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  • Thomas L. Jeffers

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