August 9, 2014

Meek and Americanism: brilliant with the stars

Alexander Beaufort Meek was 15 years old when he enrolled at the University of Georgia, though he transferred to the new University of Alabama in 1831. He had just turned 30 when he returned to the University of Georgia to give an address to the Phi Betta Kappa and Demosthenian Societies. By then, he was fairly accomplished in the legal world, having been named a probate judge in Alabama. "You have called me back," Meek said in his speech on August 8, 1844, "from a distant home, over a wide interval of years, to the scene of my earliest collegiate life."

Meek took the opportunity to consider the reactions to revisiting a once familiar place: lament for things now gone, excitement over positive change. For Meek, who worked by then both in literature and government, change was important in his native South. Literature and government could be improved and, in turn, could improve the character of the region, as well as the nation as a whole. Writing and the law are not the end goal for mankind, they are the path to follow "to accomplish the great design for which man was created". To grow as a people is to improve constantly over time, always spiraling upward with great deeds and accomplishments, but never satisfied at attaining an end result:

Mankind have learned that governments are somewhat more than games or machines kept in curious motion for the amusement and edification of rulers; and literatures are beginning to be regarded, not as the phantasmagoria of poets and dreamers, the sunset scaffoldings of fancy, but as something very far beyond that. The old secret has come out, that man's immortality has already begun, and, by these things, you are moulding and fashioning him in his destinies forever.

In literature, Meek says, the goal is to focus on "Americanism" (the speech was named "Americanism in Literature"). We must grow in our letters just as we have been experiencing massive population growth. Among his suggestions to improve American writing, he emphasizes it must have national purpose and, more than that, that writing must be as representative as the diversity of the landscape of the entire nation:

Our country has extended her jurisdiction over the fairest and most fertile regions. The rich bounty is poured into her lap, and breathes its influence upon her population. Their capacities are not pent and thwarted by the narrow limits which restrict the citizens of other countries... Such are some of the physical aspects of our country, and such the influence they are destined to have upon our national mind. Very evidently they constitute noble sources of inspiration, illustration and description.

Not just the diversity of the landscape, Meek emphasizes, but the country also has a diversity of people, with ancestry all over the world. Further, the unique version of democracy practiced in the United States offers opportunities of inspiration. Though we have already succeeded with a few great writers, particularly Washington Irving and historian George Bancroft, we continue to look to the future, Meek says, and strive to grow. Meek, of course, will contribute to that Americanism as a poet, historian, and essayist. He concludes:

Let us then abide in the faith that this country of ours, as she is destined to present to the world, the proudest spectacle of political greatness ever beheld, will not be neglectful of the other, the highest interest of humanity, its intellectual ascension ; but that both shall flourish here, in unexampled splendor, with reciprocal benefit, beneath the ample folds of that banner, which shall then float out, in its blue beauty, like a tropical night, brilliant with the stars of a whole hemisphere!

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