Oliver's Last Soliloquies
You will recall that some years ago a small group of professional philosophers
who had had personal acquaintance with Santayana met at the New York home
of Corliss Lamont to exchange reminiscences and their impressions of the
man. That almost uniformly patronizing exercise in the higher gossip
generated several suggestive comments, and none seems to me so penetrating
as Horace Kallen's remark that The Last Puritan may be seen as
autobiographical. In Kallen's view Santayana's novel yields a truer, a more
authentic picture of the man and his career than does his autobiography,
Persons and Places, which he termed "a shield and a deception." It is only in the
novel, he asserted, that we may find "the true image of the man."1 Since Kallen
does not venture to say why he concludes that Santayana conceals or
misrepresents himself in his autobiography, that debate cannot be joined.
Surely the adequate apprehension of Santayana's life requires a careful
reckoning with both the autobiography and the novel. Yet no one has, to my
knowledge, attempted a sustained exploration of The Last Puritan as a crucial
text for the right understanding of Santayana's circumstances, his history, and
his philosophy. The question which I want to propose for discussion tonight is
this: In what ways might the novel serve as a key to that understanding?
Answers to so large a question may lie, of course, in diverse quarters:
psychological or psychiatric, sociological, historical, philosophic. My own
purpose tonight is to consider the character of the novel's protagonist, Oliver
Alden, and to propose that Oliver is the young Santayana. I think that in
Oliver's reflections we may find an exact and candid portrait of the artist as a
young man, and in the achieved wisdom of Oliver's last soliloquy a point of
view correspondent to the mature philosophic outlook of his creator.
Of course I travel here a perilous course. We grant to novelists a boundless
freedom to transform the materials of life into fiction, but warning cries are
sounded when a critic attempts to reverse the process. Especially is this the case
when the critic attempts to identify the writer with one or another of his
characters, for this seems to deny to the writer the impersonal power to be,
through his characters, what he is not and has not been, to say what he would
not say in his own person, or, in Mr. Darnley's language, to sing what he has
In his letters Santayana often sought to discourage readers who he felt were
too ready to identify characters or incidents in the novel with his own life. In
this vein, for example, he wrote to Daniel Cory in 1938, "It is pleasant and
curious that you should assimilate me to Oliver," protesting that Oliver, like
Mario, "represents rather what I liked than what I was. They are both [he
This paper was read to the Santayana Society, Boston, December 28,1990.
! Dialogue on George Santayana, ed. Corliss lamont (New York, 1959), 52.