John Jay Chapman (1862-1933)

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American essayist

A Man Out of Season

ONE OF LIFE'S PLEASURES is discovering a provocative author worthy of attention who has fallen off the cultural map. Such is the case with John Jay Chapman. Although a prolific writer, having published numerous magazine articles and books criticizing late nineteenth and early twentieth century political, social, and moral values, Chapman is little known today. Adding to the mystery of his obscurity, is the extensive and powerful connections he had. John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was his grandfather, Chapman counted William James as a friend, and he considered Theodore Roosevelt—Judas.

Chapman was a member of that segment of the northeastern intellectual elite alarmed at the cupidity, stupidity, and injustice the Gilded Age unleashed. Equally threatening to Chapman and his circle was the possibility of popular revolt ignited by the Age's toxic combination of laissez-faire capitalism and social darwinism. Chapman's disquiet prompted him to critique the moral, political, and social excesses of the day and the corruption which co-opted and silenced those who promoted radical reform.

His silence could not be bought. Chapman along with Ida B. Wells was among the first writers to chronicle and criticize lynching. In his essay, Coatesville, Chapman dissected the cultural pathology that permitted "upstanding" citizens to treat torture and lynching as acts delivering swift justice.

So why is John Jay Chapman lost from the pantheon of American letters? My hypothesis—academics and the public have difficulty categorizing him. Chapman wrote as a citizen about the issues he found interesting not as an expert specializing in a particular field. He exemplified that much praised individual—the Renaissance man. Americans, while ardently proclaiming the virtues of Da Vinci, are generally made uneasy by the Renaissance man's protean interests and accomplishments.

They harbor a deep seated mistrust of a mind that is immersed creatively in practical doings and fine art but also pertains to the highest human interests, from morals and religion to the political state and social rights, and thence to the study of the individual self in life and literature.

Americans mistrust the Renaissance quality of mind because they perceive it as characteristic of the amateur and not to be taken seriously.

Although the amateur is currently regarded with bemused indulgence that was not always the case. If one called Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson an amateur scientist, statesmen, or writer they would not take offense. Their understanding of the word was based on its original meaning: one who loves of is fond of; one who has a taste of anything.

Franklin and Jefferson were amateurs because learning was their love not their profession. Just as the lover seeks to discover all there is to know about the beloved, the amateur brings the same passion to experience.

By the time John Jay Chapman began writing the amateur's relationship to knowledge was beginning to be supplanted by the professional's. No longer was love of learning an adequate justification for seeking knowledge. The amateur became synonymous with the dabbler. In part, academics resented the amateur's quest for knowledge because it was not motivated by the need to make a living, therefore it could not be taken seriously.

By the end of the nineteenth century, a legitimate quest for knowledge increasingly demanded an academic imprimatur. Chapman, not interested in currying an academic position from which to advance his learning and air his views, cast his lot as a public intellectual, writing books, magazine articles, and lecturing to gain an audience.

Labels like public intellectual or critic do not capture the man's complexity. Chapman is a man of contradictions. A fierce defender of intellect and a person often dominated by his passions. A progressive reformer who writes about the consequences of wantonly jettisoning tradition. A citizen who was among the first to raise his voice against lynching and later wrote vitriolic anti-catholic attacks.

A man intimately acquainted with the dark night of the soul, but used humor to diagnose the pathologies of his day. The malcontent, as described by Randolph Bourne, best captures the twists and turns of Chapman's character. In his essay, Twilight of Idols, Bourne described this type.

"They (malcontents) are quite through with the professional critics and classicists who have let cultural values die through their own personal ineptitude. Yet these malcontents have no intention of being cultural vandals, only to slay. They are not barbarians, but seek the vital and sincere everywhere...

"They will be harsh and often bad-tempered, and they feel that the break-up of things is no time for mellowness. They will have a taste for spiritual adventure, and for sinister imaginative excursions. It will not be Puritanism so much as complacency that they will fight...

"Something more mocking, more irreverent, they will constantly want. They will take institutions very lightly, indeed will never fail to be surprised at the seriousness with which good radicals take the stated offices and systems. Their own contempt will be scarcely veiled, and they will be glad if they can tease, provoke, irritate thought on any subject...

"They will give offense to their elders who cannot see what all the concern is about, and they will hurt the more middle-aged sense of adventure upon which the better integrated minds of the younger generation will have compromised. Optimism is often compensatory, and the optimistic mood in American thought may mean merely that American life is too terrible to face. A more skeptical, malicious, desperate, ironical mood may actually be the sign of more vivid and more stirring life fermenting in America today.

"It may be a sign of hope. That thirst for more of the intellectual 'war and laughter' that we find Nietzsche calling us to may bring us satisfactions that optimism-haunted philosophies could never bring. Malcontentedness may be the beginning of promise."

Regarded as an amateur and a malcontent, Chapman has not taken his place in America's literary pantheon. It is our loss. The quality of Chapman's prose and thought make apparent the need to correct that oversight. To acquaint readers with Chapman's work I have provided links to his essays about education and will explore Chapman's essay, Learning, in depth.

Read it all.

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