Magazine July 27, 2020, Issue

America, Nation of Misfits

Luther Martin (Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)
From Luther Martin to Bob Dylan

In a short, punchy biography, the writer Bill Kauffman hailed the Anti-Federalist Luther Martin as our “Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet.” The historian Clinton Rossiter designated Martin “an influential pricker of egos and consciences.” A farm boy who got a good education at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) and became Maryland’s attorney general, Martin never internalized the inflated ambitions of his peers. According to the future chief justice Roger Taney, Martin showed “utter disregard of good taste and refinement in his dress and language and . . . manner of eating.” He was a serial small-debtor, forcing creditors to chase him for utterly paltry sums. He was a speculator in land confiscated during the Revolution. The historian Catherine Drinker Bowen called him “impulsive, undisciplined, altogether the wild man of the [Constitutional] Convention.” And another, Forrest McDonald, reflecting on Martin’s low birth and unwelcome manners, called him “a misfit in the Maryland aristocracy.”

That judgment was correct: Martin was a misfit. Almost in disbelief, in 1787 in Philadelphia, Martin witnessed Madison and Hamilton execute their coup against the state governments, constructing a Constitution he called “a misshapened heterogenous monster of ambition and interest” that would attract unscrupulous men to the new national offices and pay them from federal, not state, revenue. This was done in the open hope of transferring the affections of the people from their particular state governments to the national one. The New York Anti-Federalist George Clinton prophesied that the federal city that the Framers of our Constitution proposed “would be the asylum of the base, idle, avaricious and ambitious.” Was he wrong? One of the aims of the Framers was national greatness. At the Convention, Martin denounced just that. In one of his interminable jeremiads against the nationalist plotters, he let fly with a most lapidary critique of their project: “Happiness is preferable to the Splendors of a national Government.”

The legacy of Martin and his fellow misfit Anti-Feds was the Bill of Rights. Had there been no Constitution enabling and empowering the federal monster and its pretension of a relationship with “the people,” there would be no need for a charter of individual rights. Ever since its adoption, America’s misfits have had some protection from the power of mobs and the base idlers of the federal city. 

If Madison’s work on the Constitution made D.C. into one kind of asylum, muggy with ambition and avarice, Martin’s work on the Bill of Rights allows the rest of the country to be a different kind of asylum, a freer one. The wheels of history are occasionally turned by genuine cranks, so it’s best to give them room. 

In American arts and letters, there are always those who denounce the country as an oppressive place, which is exactly what a freedom-loving people would do in a free country. Doing so helps to maintain or expand their freedom. Sticking his own thoughts into the mind of an imagined Russian czar, Mark Twain held that the only true and rational patriotism is this: “loyalty to the Nation all the time, loyalty to the Government when it deserves it.” Twain himself was a misfit and rascal who wrote about the same. A nation that had been saturated by two Great Awakenings naturally produced Twain, a scoffer, as its leading literary jewel. 

The writer and literary editor Jessie Redmon Fauset, a protégée of W. E. B. Du Bois, not only nurtured writers of the Harlem Renaissance such as Langston Hughes, but, keeping her distance from the mainstreams of black and white political traditions, created her own literature of black American misfits, in a series of novels. Edith Wharton, born into a gilded home, managed to feel out of place in the Gilded Age, and in her forgotten novel Twilight Sleep a misfit finds an escape from the tyrannies of the rich and fashionable. Our first freedoms mean we can have the wild poets who double as political activists. Walt Whitman sang his song of himself, and his barbaric yawp aimed at free soil and free men. In America a misfit like E. E. Cummings made avant-garde poetry popular with the masses. Meanwhile, he was a staunch man of the Right who supported America First in the years before World War II, and Joseph McCarthy after it. 

Pop culture is driven by misfits. The Laurel Canyon sound of rock groups like the Byrds was conceived as a deliberate provocation to the increasingly stuffy and formal world of folk music. It was a genuine American genius and weirdo like Brian Wilson who could transform pop music from mere formula into a surprise symphony, and provoke the Beatles to get weird too. Bob Dylan seemed to go through musical and religious conversions the way runway models at a fashion show change their clothes, so quickly you could blink and miss it. 

By making government authority something dispersible and often ignorable, the volcanic energies of religion tend to be more pacific in America than what we find in our European forebears. During the Reformation, German-speaking lands produced the bloody peasant revolts, and the theocratic disaster of John of Leiden’s Münster, which flamed into a truly totalizing theocracy and ended in a melodramatic siege and elaborate executions in less than two years. In misfit America, the Shakers have all but died out, but we still buy their furniture. While things got a little hot out in Deseret, the legacy of America’s signature religious misfits Joseph Smith and Brigham Young is nothing more threatening than the Osmonds, the Romneys, and a tabernacle choir. The truly destructive cults in American life, like the Peoples Temple, had pledged loyalty to the Soviet Union. Their revolutionary suicide in Guyana was understood by those who undertook it as an Un-American Activity. 

The sciences have their misfits too. One of those on-the-loose inmates in the American experiment was the late, great, and decidedly weird John C. Lilly. A physician and psychoanalyst who did government-funded research during World War II into the physiological effects of high-altitude flying, Lilly spent the supposedly buttoned-down and repressive 1950s investigating interspecies communication with dolphins, even building a seaside lab where dolphins and humans could cohabitate. He invented the sensory-deprivation tank. Within a few years he was studying psychedelic-drug use and promoting astral projections. He became a fixture of the alternative-medicine and New Age communities. But even as he failed to teach dolphins English grammar, along the way his oddball research yielded useable and durable insights into dolphin brains and the electrical stimulation of the nervous system in mammals. The sensory-deprivation tank is one of the hottest wellness trends six decades after he invented it. 

The stories of America’s great innovators and entrepreneurs are almost always stories of breaking out against the authority of regulators (as did Howard Hughes), or rebelling against stifling corporate climates like IBM’s (Bill Gates and Steve Jobs). Some of the great American tech companies started as little more than garage bands for geeks. 

Even the conservative movement was launched and nurtured by outsiders. William F. Buckley Jr. had a sui generis accent, a mashup of English boarding school, Texas, and Yankee. He was devoted to irascible odd-men-out like Albert Jay Nock, the essayist and peer of H. L. Mencken. It was reputed that Nock could be contacted outside his office only by leaving notes under a certain rock in Central Park. 

Americans, it turns out, often turn their backs on Tocqueville’s feared tyranny of common opinion, whether a snobby Manhattan salon or some hipster music scene. There is almost always some grand ambition being cooked up in the madhouse of Washington, D.C. But the nation usually provides abundant frontiers in which misfits can run free. The misshapened heterogenous monster of ambition and avarice can never tame for good a nation of misfits like us. Whether we pursue a new way to make money, to talk to dolphins, or to worship the one true God, the pursuit of happiness remains preferable to other splendors.

This article appears as “A Nation of Misfits” in the July 27, 2020, print edition of National Review.

Something to Consider

If you enjoyed this article, we have a proposition for you: Join NRPLUS. Members get all of our content (including the magazine), no paywalls or content meters, an advertising-minimal experience, and unique access to our writers and editors (conference calls, social-media groups, etc.). And importantly, NRPLUS members help keep NR going. Consider it?

If you enjoyed this article, and were stimulated by its contents, we have a proposition for you: Join NRPLUS.

LEARN MORE

In This Issue

A Defense of America

Books, Arts & Manners

Sections

Most Popular

Why Trump’s Losing

President Trump pulled an inside straight to win in 2016, and now he needs another one. The good news for Trump is that his approval rating has stopped falling recently. The bad news is that it has stabilized in the low 40s. Election-watcher Harry Enten points out that no president since Harry Truman has won ... Read More

Why Trump’s Losing

President Trump pulled an inside straight to win in 2016, and now he needs another one. The good news for Trump is that his approval rating has stopped falling recently. The bad news is that it has stabilized in the low 40s. Election-watcher Harry Enten points out that no president since Harry Truman has won ... Read More
Elections

Ilhan Omar’s Got a Little Competition

Ilhan Omar, the Democratic U.S. congresswoman from Minnesota’s fifth congressional district, has been described as a “rising star” of the progressive movement and as President Donald Trump’s “worst nightmare.” So she surely did not expect to face much opposition during her reelection campaign. ... Read More
Elections

Ilhan Omar’s Got a Little Competition

Ilhan Omar, the Democratic U.S. congresswoman from Minnesota’s fifth congressional district, has been described as a “rising star” of the progressive movement and as President Donald Trump’s “worst nightmare.” So she surely did not expect to face much opposition during her reelection campaign. ... Read More