THE AMERICAN MIND
The E. T. Earl Lectures
By the Same Author
The American Mind Park-Street Papers John Greenleaf Whittier: A Memoir Walt Whitman The Amateur Spirit A Study of Prose Fiction The Powers at Play The Plated City Salem Kittredge and Other Stories The Broughton House
The American Mind
By Bliss Perry
Boston and New York
Houghton Mifflin Company
COPYRIGHT, 1912, BY BLISS PERRY
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Published October 1912
WALTER MORRIS HART
The material for this book was delivered as the E. T. Earl Lectures for 1912 at the Pacific Theological Seminary, Berkeley, California, and I wish to take this opportunity to express to the President and Faculty of that institution my appreciation of their generous hospitality.
The lectures were also given at the Lowell Institute, Boston, the Brooklyn Institute, and elsewhere, under the title "American Traits in American Literature." In revising them for publication a briefer title has seemed desirable, and I have therefore availed myself of Jefferson's phrase "The American Mind," as suggesting, more accurately perhaps than the original title, the real theme of discussion.
I. RACE, NATION, AND BOOK 3
II. THE AMERICAN MIND 47
III. AMERICAN IDEALISM 86
IV. ROMANCE AND REACTION 128
V. HUMOR AND SATIRE 166
VI. INDIVIDUALISM AND FELLOWSHIP 209
THE AMERICAN MIND
Race, Nation, and Book
Many years ago, as a student in a foreign university, I remember attacking, with the complacency of youth, a German history of the English drama, in six volumes. I lost courage long before the author reached the age of Elizabeth, but I still recall the subject of the opening chapter: it was devoted to the physical geography of Great Britain. Writing, as the good German professor did, in the triumphant hour of Taine's theory as to the significance of place, period, and environment in determining the character of any literary production, what could be more logical than to begin at the beginning? Have not the chalk cliffs guarding the southern coast of England, have not the fatness of the midland counties and the soft rainy climate of a North Atlantic island, and the proud, tenacious, self-assertive folk that are bred there, all left their trace upon A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Every Man in his Humour and She Stoops to Conquer? Undoubtedly. Latitude and longitude, soil and rainfall and food-supply, racial origins and crossings, political and social and economic conditions, must assuredly leave their marks upon the mental and artistic productiveness of a people and upon the personality of individual writers.
Taine, who delighted to point out all this, and whose English Literature remains a monument of the defects as well as of the advantages of his method, was of course not the inventor of the climatic theory. It is older than Aristotle, who discusses it in his treatise on Politics. It was a topic of interest to the scholars of the Renaissance. Englishmen of the seventeenth century, with an unction of pseudo-science added to their natural patriotism, discovered in the English climate one of the reasons of England's greatness. Thomas Sprat, writing in 1667 on the History of the Royal Society, waxes bold and asserts: "If there can be a true character given of the Universal Temper of any Nation under Heaven, then certainly this must be ascribed to our countrymen, that they have commonly an unaffected sincerity, that they love to deliver their minds with a sound simplicity, that they have the middle qualities between the reserved, subtle southern and the rough, unhewn northern people, that they are not extremely prone to speak, that they are more concerned what others will think of the strength than of the fineness of what they say, and that a universal modesty possesses them. These qualities are so conspicuous and proper to the soil that we often hear them objected to us by some of our neighbor Satyrists in more disgraceful expressions.... Even the position of our climate, the air, the influence of the heaven, the composition of the English blood, as well as the embraces of the Ocean, seem to join with the labours of the Royal Society to render our country a Land of Experimental Knowledge."
The excellent Sprat was the friend and executor of the poet Cowley, who has in the Preface to his Poems a charming passage about the relation of literature to the external circumstances in which it is written.
"If wit be such a Plant that it scarce receives heat enough to keep it alive even in the summer of our cold Clymate, how can it choose but wither in a long and a sharp winter? a warlike, various and a tragical age is best to write of, but worst to write in." And he adds this, concerning his own art of poetry: "There is nothing that requires so much serenity and chearfulness of spirit; it must not be either overwhelmed with the cares of Life, or overcast with the Clouds of Melancholy and Sorrow, or shaken and disturbed with the storms of injurious Fortune; it must, like the Halcyon, have fair weather to breed in. The Soul must be filled with bright and delightful Idaeas, when it undertakes to communicate delight to others, which is the main end of Poesie. One may see through the stile of Ovid de Trist., the humbled and dejected condition of Spirit with which he wrote it; there scarce remains any footstep of that Genius, Quem nec Jovis ira, nec ignes, etc. The cold of the country has strucken through all his faculties, and benummed the very feet of his Verses."
Madame de Stael's Germany, one of the most famous of the "national character" books, begins with a description of the German landscape. But though nobody, from Ovid in exile down to Madame de Stael, questions the general significance of place, time, and circumstances as affecting the nature of a literary product, when we come to the exact and as it were mathematical demonstration of the precise workings of these physical influences, our generation is distinctly more cautious than were the literary critics of forty years ago. Indeed, it is a hundred years since Fisher Ames, ridiculing the theory that climate acts directly upon literary products, said wittily of Greece: "The figs are as fine as ever, but where are the Pindars?" The theory of race, in particular, has been sharply questioned by the experts. "Saxon" and "Norman," for example, no longer seem to us such simple terms as sufficed for the purpose of Scott's Ivanhoe or of Thierry's Norman Conquest, a book inspired by Scott's romance. The late Professor Freeman, with characteristic bluntness, remarked of the latter book: "Thierry says at the end of his work that there are no longer either Normans or Saxons except in history.... But in Thierry's sense of the word, it would be truer to say that there never were 'Normans' or 'Saxons' anywhere, save in the pages of romances like his own."
There is a brutal directness about this verdict upon a rival historian which we shall probably persist in calling "Saxon"; but it is no worse than the criticisms of Matthew Arnold's essay on "The Celtic Spirit" made to-day by university professors who happen to know Old Irish at first hand, and consequently consider Arnold's opinion on Celtic matters to be hopelessly amateurish.
The wiser scepticism of our day concerning all hard-and-fast racial distinctions has been admirably summed up by Josiah Royce. "A race psychology," he declares, "is still a science for the future to discover.... We do not scientifically know what the true racial varieties of mental type really are. No doubt there are such varieties. The judgment day, or the science of the future, may demonstrate what they are. We are at present very ignorant regarding the whole matter."
Nowhere have the extravagances of the application of racial theories to intellectual products been more pronounced than in the fields of art and literature. Audiences listen to a waltz which the programme declares to be an adaptation of a Hungarian folk-song, and though they may be more ignorant of Hungary than Shakespeare was of Bohemia, they have no hesitation in exclaiming: "How truly Hungarian this is!" Or, it may be, how truly "Japanese" is this vase which was made in Japan—perhaps for the American market; or how intensely "Russian" is this melancholy tale by Turgenieff. This prompt deduction of racial qualities from works of art which themselves give the critic all the information he possesses about the races in question,—or, in other words, the enthusiastic assertion that a thing is like itself,—is one of the familiar notes of amateur criticism. It is travelling in a circle, and the corregiosity of Corregio is the next station.
Blood tells, no doubt, and a masterpiece usually betrays some token of the place and hour of its birth. A knowledge of the condition of political parties in Athens in 416 B.C. adds immensely to the enjoyment of the readers of Aristophanes; the fun becomes funnier and the daring even more splendid than before. Moliere's training as an actor does affect the dramaturgic quality of his comedies. All this is demonstrable, and to the prevalent consciousness of it our generation is deeply indebted to Taine and his pupils. But before displaying dogmatically the inevitable brandings of racial and national traits on a national literature, before pointing to this and that unmistakable evidence of local or temporal influence on the form or spirit of a masterpiece, we are now inclined to make some distinct reservations. These reservations are not without bearing upon our own literature in America.
There are, for instance, certain artists who seem to escape the influences of the time-spirit. The most familiar example is that of Keats. He can no doubt be assigned to the George the Fourth period by a critical examination of his vocabulary, but the characteristic political and social movements of that epoch in England left him almost untouched. Edgar Allan Poe might have written some of his tales in the seventeenth century or in the twentieth; he might, like Robert Louis Stevenson, have written in Samoa rather than in the Baltimore, Philadelphia, or New York of his day; his description of the Ragged Mountains of Virginia, within very sight of the university which he attended, was borrowed, in the good old convenient fashion, from Macaulay; in fact, it requires something of Poe's own ingenuity to find in Poe, who is one of the indubitable assets of American literature, anything distinctly American.
Wholly aside from such spiritual insulation of the single writer, there is the obvious fact that none of the arts, not even literature, and not all of them together, can furnish a wholly adequate representation of racial or national characteristics. It is well known to-day that the so-called "classic" examples of Greek art, most of which were brought to light and discoursed upon by critics from two to four centuries ago, represent but a single phase of Greek feeling; and that the Greeks, even in what we choose to call their most characteristic period, had a distinctly "romantic" tendency which their more recently discovered plastic art betrays. But even if we had all the lost statues, plays, poems, and orations, all the Greek paintings about which we know so little, and the Greek music about which we know still less, does anybody suppose that this wealth of artistic expression would furnish a wholly satisfactory notion of the racial and psychological traits of the Greek people?
One may go even further. Does a truly national art exist anywhere,—an art, that is to say, which conveys a trustworthy and adequate expression of the national temper as a whole? We have but to reflect upon the European and American judgments, during the last thirty years, concerning the representative quality of the art of Japan, and to observe how many of those facile generalizations about the Japanese character, deduced from vases and prints and enamel, were smashed to pieces by the Russo-Japanese War. This may illustrate the blunders of foreign criticism, perhaps, rather than any inadequacy in the racially representative character of Japanese art. But it is impossible that critics, and artists themselves, should not err, in the conscious endeavor to pronounce upon the infinitely complex materials with which they are called upon to deal. We must confess that the expression of racial and national characteristics, by means of only one art, such as literature, or by all the arts together, is at best imperfect, and is always likely to be misleading unless corroborated by other evidence.
For it is to be remembered that in literature, as in the other fields of artistic activity, we are dealing with the question of form; of securing a concrete and pleasurable embodiment of certain emotions. It may well happen that literature not merely fails to give an adequate report of the racial or national or personal emotions felt during a given epoch, but that it fails to report these emotions at all. Not only the "old, unhappy, far-off" things of racial experience, but the new and delight-giving experiences of the hour, may lack their poet. Widespread moods of public elation or wistfulness or depression have passed without leaving a shadow upon the mirror of art. There was no one to hold the mirror or even to fashion it. No note of Renaissance criticism, whether in Italy, France, or England, is more striking, and in a way more touching, than the universal feeling that in the rediscovery of the classics men had found at last the "terms of art," the rules and methods of a game which they had long wished to be playing. Englishmen and Frenchmen of the sixteenth century will not allow that their powers are less virile, their emotions less eager, than those of the Greeks and Romans. Only, lacking the very terms of art, they had not been able to arrive at fit expression; the soul had found no body wherewith to clothe itself into beauty. As they avowed in all simplicity, they needed schoolmasters; the discipline of Aristotle and Horace and Virgil; a body of critical doctrine, to teach them how to express the France and England or Italy of their day, and thus give permanence to their fleeting vision of the world. Naive as may have been the Renaissance expression of this need of formal training, blind as it frequently was to the beauty which we recognize in the undisciplined vernacular literatures of mediaeval Europe, those groping scholars were essentially right. No one can paint or compose by nature. One must slowly master an art of expression.
Now through long periods of time, and over many vast stretches of territory, as our own American writing abundantly witnesses, the whole formal side of expression may be neglected. "Literature," in its narrower sense, may not exist. In that restricted and higher meaning of the term, literature has always been uncommon enough, even in Athens or Florence. It demands not merely personal distinction or power, not merely some uncommon height or depth or breadth of capacity and insight, but a purely artistic training, which in the very nature of the case is rare. Millions of Russians, perhaps, have felt about the general problems of life much as Turgenieff felt, but they lacked the sheer literary art with which the Notes of a Sportsman was written. Thousands of frontier lawyers and politicians shared Lincoln's hard and varied and admirable training in the mastery of speech, but in his hands alone was the weapon wrought to such perfection of temper and weight and edge that he spoke and wrote literature without knowing it.
Such considerations belong, I am aware, to the accepted commonplaces,—perhaps to what William James used to call "the unprofitable delineation of the obvious." Everybody recognizes that literary gifts imply an exceptionally rich development of general human capacities, together with a professional aptitude and training of which but few men are capable. There is but one lumberman in camp who can play the fiddle, though the whole camp can dance. Thus the great book, we are forever saying, is truly representative of myriads of minds in a certain degree of culture, although but one man could have written it. The writing member of a family is often the one who acquires notoriety and a bank account, but he is likely to have candid friends who admit, though not always in his presence, that, aside from this one professional gift and practice, he is not intellectually or emotionally or spiritually superior to his brothers and sisters. Waldo Emerson thought himself the intellectual inferior of his brother Charles; and good observers loved to maintain that John Holmes was wittier than Oliver Wendell, and Ezekiel Webster a better lawyer than Daniel.
Applied to the literary history of a race, this principle is suggestive. We must be slow to affirm that, because certain ideas and feelings did not attain, in this or that age or place, to purely literary expression, they were therefore not in existence. The men and women of the colonial period in our own country, for instance, have been pretty uniformly declared to have been deficient in the sense of beauty. What is the evidence? It is mostly negative. They produced no poetry, fiction, painting, sculpture, or music worthy of the name. They were predominantly Puritan, and the whole world has been informed that English Puritanism was hostile to Art. They were preoccupied with material and moral concerns. Even if they had remained in England, Professor Trent affirms, these contemporaries of Milton and Bunyan would have produced no art or literature. Now it is quite true that for nearly two hundred years after the date of the first settlement of the American colonists, opportunities for cultivating the arts did not exist. But that the sense of beauty was wholly atrophied, I, for one, do not believe. The passionate eagerness with which the forefathers absorbed the noblest of all poetry and prose in the pages of their one book, the Bible; the unwearied curiosity and care with which those farmers and fishermen and woodsmen read the signs of the sky; their awe of the dark wilderness and their familiar traffic with the great deep; the silences of lonely places; the opulence of primeval meadows by the clear streams; the English flowers that were made to bloom again in farmhouse windows and along garden walks; the inner visions, more lovely still, of duty and of moral law; the spirit of sacrifice; the daily walk with God, whether by green pastures of the spirit or through ways that were dark and terrible;—is there in all this no discipline of the soul in moral beauty, and no training of the eye to perceive the exquisite harmonies of the visible earth? It is true that the Puritans had no professional men of letters; it is true that doctrinal sermons provided their chief intellectual sustenance; true that their lives were stern, and that many of the softer emotions were repressed. But beauty may still be traced in the fragments of their recorded speech, in their diaries and letters and phrases of devotion. You will search the eighteenth century of old England in vain for such ecstasies of wonder at the glorious beauty of the universe as were penned by Jonathan Edwards in his youthful Diary. There is every presumption, from what we know of the two men, that Whittier's father and grandfather were peculiarly sensitive to the emotions of home and neighborhood and domesticity which their gifted descendant—too physically frail to be absorbed in the rude labor of the farm—has embodied in Snow-Bound. The Quaker poet knew that he surpassed his forefathers in facility in verse-making, but he would have been amused (as his Margaret Smith's Journal proves) at the notion that his ancestors were without a sense of beauty or that they lacked responsiveness to the chords of fireside sentiment. He was simply the only Whittier, except his sister Elizabeth, who had ever found leisure, as old-fashioned correspondents used to say, "to take his pen in hand." This leisure developed in him the sense—latent no doubt in his ancestors—of the beauty of words, and the excitement of rhythm. Emerson's Journal in the eighteen-thirties glows with a Dionysiac rapture over what he calls "delicious days"; but did the seven generations of clergymen from whom Emerson descended have no delicious and haughty and tender days that passed unrecorded? Formal literature perpetuates and glorifies many aspects of individual and national experience; but how much eludes it wholly, or is told, if at all, in broken syllables, in Pentecostal tongues that seem to be our own and yet are unutterably strange!
To confess thus that literature, in the proper sense of the word, represents but a narrow segment of personal or racial experience, is very far from a denial of the genuineness and the significance of the affirmations which literature makes. We recognize instinctively that Whittier's Snow-Bound is a truthful report, not merely of a certain farmhouse kitchen in East Haverhill, Massachusetts, during the early nineteenth century, but of a mode of thinking and feeling which is widely diffused wherever the Anglo-Saxon race has wandered. Perhaps Snow-Bound lacks a certain universality of suggestiveness which belongs to a still more famous poem, The Cotter's Saturday Night of Burns, but both of these portrayals of rustic simplicity and peace owe their celebrity to their truly representative character. They are evidence furnished by a single art, as to a certain mode and coloring of human existence; but every corroboration of that evidence heightens our admiration for the artistic sincerity and insight of the poet. To draw an illustration from a more splendid epoch, let us remind ourselves that the literature of the "spacious times of great Elizabeth"—a period of strong national excitement, and one deeply representative of the very noblest and most permanent traits of English national character—was produced within startlingly few years and in a local territory extremely limited. The very language in which that literature is clothed was spoken only by the court, by a couple of counties, and at the two universities. Its prose and verse were frankly experimental. It is true that such was the emotional ferment of the score of years preceding the Armada, that great captains and voyagers who scarcely wrote a line were hailed as kings of the realm of imagination, and that Puttenham, in phrases which that generation could not have found extravagant, inscribes his book on Poetry to Queen Elizabeth as the "most excellent Poet" of the age. Well, the glorified political images may grow dim or tawdry with time, but the poetry has endured, and it is everywhere felt to be a truly national, a deeply racial product. Its time and place and hour were all local; but the Canadian and the American, the South African and Australasian Englishman feels that that Elizabethan poetry is his poetry still.
When we pass, therefore, as we must shortly do, to the consideration of this and that literary product of America, and to the scrutiny of the really representative character of our books, we must bear in mind that the questions concerning the race, the place, the hour, the man,—questions so familiar to modern criticism,—remain valid and indeed essential; but that in applying them to American writing there are certain allowances, qualifications, adjustments of the scale of values, which are no less important to an intelligent perception of the quality of our literature. This task is less simple than the critical assessment of a typical German or French or Scandinavian writer, where the strain of blood is unmixed, the continuity of literary tradition unbroken, the precise impact of historical and personal influences more easy to estimate. I open, for example, any one of half a dozen French studies of Balzac. Here is a many-sided man, a multifarious writer, a personality that makes ridiculous the merely formal pigeon-holing and labelling processes of professional criticism. And yet with what perfect precision of method and certainty of touch do Le Breton, for example, or Brunetiere, in their books on Balzac, proceed to indicate those impulses of race and period and environment which affected the character of Balzac's novels! The fact that he was born in Tours in 1799 results in the inevitable and inevitably expert paragraphs about Gallic blood, and the physical exuberance of the Touraine surroundings of his youth, and the post-revolutionary tendency to disillusion and analysis. And so with Balzac's education, his removal to Paris in the Restoration period, his ventures in business and his affairs of love, his admiration for Shakespeare and for Fenimore Cooper; his mingled Romanticism and Realism; his Titanism and his childishness; his stupendous outline for the Human Comedy; and his scarcely less astounding actual achievement. All this is discussed by his biographers with the professional dexterity of critics trained intellectually in the Latin traditions and instinctively aware of the claims of race, biographers familiar with every page of French history, and profoundly interested, like their readers, in every aspect of French life. Alas, we may say, in despairing admiration of such workmanship, "they order these things better in France." And they do; but racial unity, and long lines of national literary tradition, make these things easier to order than they are with us. The intellectual distinction of American critical biographies like Lounsbury's Cooper or Woodberry's Hawthorne is all the more notable because we possess such a slender body of truly critical doctrine native to our own soil; because our national literary tradition as to available material and methods is hardly formed; because the very word "American" has a less precise connotation than the word "New Zealander."
Let us suppose, for instance, that like Professor Woodberry a few years ago, we were asked to furnish a critical study of Hawthorne. The author of The Scarlet Letter is one of the most justly famous of American writers. But precisely what national traits are to be discovered in this eminent fellow-countryman of ours? We turn, like loyal disciples of Taine and Sainte-Beuve, to his ancestral stock. We find that it is English as far back as it can be traced; as purely English as the ancestry of Dickens or Thackeray, and more purely English than the ancestry of Browning or Burke or His Majesty George the Fifth. Was Hawthorne, then, simply an Englishman living in America? He himself did not think so,—as his English Note-Books abundantly prove. But just what subtle racial differentiation had been at work, since William Hawthorne migrated to Massachusetts with Winthrop in 1630? Here we face, unless I am mistaken, that troublesome but fascinating question of Physical Geography. Climate, soil, food, occupation, religious or moral preoccupation, social environment, Salem witchcraft and Salem seafaring had all laid their invisible hands upon the physical and intellectual endowment of the child born in 1804. Does this make Nathaniel Hawthorne merely an "Englishman with a difference," as Mr. Kipling, born in India, is an "Englishman with a difference"? Hawthorne would have smiled, or, more probably, he would have sworn, at such a question. He considered himself an American Democrat; in fact a contra mundum Democrat, for good or for ill. Is it, then, a political theory, first put into full operation in this country a scant generation before Hawthorne's birth, which made him un-English? We must walk warily here. Our Canadian neighbors of English stock have much the same climate, soil, occupations, and preoccupations as the inhabitants of the northern territory of the United States. They have much the same courts, churches, and legislatures. They read the same books and magazines. They even prefer baseball to cricket. They are loyal adherents of a monarchy, but they are precisely as free, as self-governing, and—in the social sense of the word—as "democratic"—in spite of the absence of a republican form of government—as the citizens of that "land of the free and home of the brave" which lies to the south of them. Yet Canadian literature, one may venture to affirm, has remained to this hour a "colonial" literature, or, if one prefers the phrase, a literature of "Greater Britain." Was Hawthorne possibly right in his instinct that politics did make a difference, and that in writing The Marble Faun,—the scene of which is laid in Rome,—or The House of the Seven Gables,—which is a story of Salem,—he was consistently engaged in producing, not "colonial" or "Greater-British" but distinctly American literature? We need not answer this question prematurely, if we wish to reserve our judgment, but it is assuredly one of the questions which the biographers and critics of our men of letters must ultimately face and answer.
Furthermore, the student of literature produced in the United States of America must face other questions almost as complicated as this of race. In fact, when we choose Hawthorne as a typical case in which to observe the American refashioning of the English temper into something not English, we are selecting a very simple problem compared with the complexities which have resulted from the mingling of various European stocks upon American soil. But take, for the moment, the mere obvious matter of expanse of territory. We are obliged to reckon, not with a compact province such as those in which many Old World literatures have been produced, but with what our grandfathers considered a "boundless continent." This vast national domain was long ago "organized" for political purposes: but so far as literature is concerned it remains unorganized to-day. We have, as has been constantly observed, no literary capital, like London or Paris, to serve as the seat of centralized authority; no code of literary procedure and conduct; no "lawgivers of Parnassus"; no supreme court of letters, whose judgments are recognized and obeyed. American public opinion asserts itself with singular unanimity and promptness in the field of politics. In literary matters we remain in the stage of anarchic individualism, liable to be stampeded from time to time by mob-excitement over a popular novel or moralistic tract, and then disintegrating, as before, into an incoherent mass of individually intelligent readers.
The reader who has some personal acquaintance with the variations of type in different sections of this immense territory of ours finds his curiosity constantly stimulated by the presence of sectional and local characteristics. There are sharply cut provincial peculiarities, of course, in Great Britain and in Germany, in Italy and Spain, and in all of the countries a corresponding "regional" literature has been developed. Our provincial variations of accent and vocabulary, in passing from North to South or East to West, are less striking, on the whole, than the dialectical differences found in the various English counties. But our general uniformity of grammar and the comparatively slight variations in spoken accent cover an extraordinary variety of local and sectional modes of thinking and feeling. The reader of American short stories and lyrics must constantly ask himself: Is this truth to local type consistent with the main trend of American production? Is this merely a bit of Virginia or Texas or California, or does it, while remaining no less Southern or Western in its local coloring, suggest also the ampler light, the wide generous air of the United States of America?
The observer of this relationship between local and national types will find some American communities where all the speech or habitual thought is of the future. Foreigners usually consider such communities the most typically "American," as doubtless they are; but there are other sections, still more faithfully exploited by local writers, where the mood is wistful and habitually regards the past. America, too, like the Old World,—and in New England more than elsewhere,—has her note of decadence, of disillusion, of autumnal brightness and transiency. Some sections of the country, and notably the slave-holding states in the forty years preceding the Civil War, have suffered widespread intellectual blight. The best talent of the South, for a generation, went into politics, in the passionately loyal endeavor to prop up a doomed economic and social system; and the loss to the intellectual life of the country cannot be reckoned. Over vast sections of our prosperous and intelligent people of the Mississippi Basin to-day the very genius of commonplaceness seems to hover. Take the great State of Iowa, with its well-to-do and homogeneous population, its fortunate absence of perplexing city-problems, its general air of prosperity and content. It is a typical state of the most typically American portion of the country; but it breeds no books. Yet in Indiana, another state of the same general conditions as to population and prosperity, and only one generation further removed than Iowa from primitive pioneer conditions, books are produced at a rate which provokes a universal American smile. I do not affirm that the literary critic is bound to answer all such local puzzles as this. But he is bound at least to reflect upon them, and to demand of every local literary product throughout this varied expanse of states: Is the root of the "All-American" plant growing here, or is it not?
Furthermore, the critic must pursue this investigation of national traits in our writing, not only over a wide and variegated territory, but through a very considerable sweep of time. American literature is often described as "callow," as the revelation of "national inexperience," and in other similar terms. It is true that we had no professional men of letters before Irving and that the blossoming time of the notable New England group of writers did not come until nearly the middle of the nineteenth century. But we have had time enough, after all, to show what we wish to be and what we are. There have been European books about America ever since the days of Columbus; it is three hundred years since the first books were written in America. Modern English prose, the language of journalism, of science, of social intercourse, came into being only in the early eighteenth century, in the age of Queen Anne. But Cotton Mather's Magnalia, a vast book dealing with the past history of New England, was printed in 1702, only a year later than Defoe's True-Born Englishman. For more than two centuries the development of English speech and English writing on this side of the Atlantic has kept measurable pace—now slower, now swifter—with the speech of the mother country. When we recall the scanty term of years within which was produced the literature of the age of Elizabeth, it seems like special pleading to insist that America has not yet had time to learn or recite her bookish lessons.
This is not saying that we have had a continuous or adequate development, either of the intellectual life, or of literary expression. There are certain periods of strong intellectual movement, of heightened emotion, alike in the colonial epoch and since the adoption of our present form of government, in which it is natural to search for revelations of those qualities which we now feel to be essential to our national character. Certain epochs of our history, in other words, have been peculiarly "American," and have furnished the most ideal expression of national tendencies.
If asked to select the three periods of our history which in this sense have been most significant, most of us, I imagine, would choose the first vigorous epoch of New England Puritanism, say from 1630 to 1676; then, the epoch of the great Virginians, say from 1766 to 1789; and finally the epoch of distinctly national feeling, in which New England and the West were leaders, between 1830 and 1865. Those three generations have been the most notable in the three hundred years since the permanent settlements began. Each of them has revealed, in a noble fashion, the political, ethical, and emotional traits of our people; and although the first two of the three periods concerned themselves but little with literary expression of the deep-lying characteristics of our stock, the expression is not lacking. Thomas Hooker's sermon on the "Foundation of Political Authority," John Winthrop's grave advice on the "Nature of Liberty," Jefferson's "Declaration," Webster's "Reply to Hayne," Lincoln's "Inaugurals," are all fundamentally American. They are political in their immediate purpose, but, like the speeches of Edmund Burke, they are no less literature because they are concerned with the common needs and the common destiny. Hooker and Winthrop wrote before our formal national existence began; Jefferson, at the hour of the nation's birth; and Lincoln, in the day of its sharpest trial. Yet, though separated from one another by long intervals of time, the representative figures of the three epochs, English in blood and American in feeling, are not so unlike as one might think. A thorough grasp of our literature thus requires—and in scarcely less a degree than the mastery of one of the literatures of Europe—a survey of a long period, the search below the baffling or contradictory surface of national experience for the main drift of that experience, and the selection of the writers, of one generation after another, who have given the most fit and permanent and personalized expression to the underlying forces of the national life.
There is another preliminary word which needs no less to be said. It concerns the question of international influences upon national literature. Our own generation has been taught by many events that no race or country can any longer live "to itself." Internationalism is in the very atmosphere: and not merely as regards politics in the narrowed sense, but with reference to questions of economics, sociology, art, and letters. The period of international isolation of the United States, we are rather too fond of saying, closed with the Spanish-American War. It would be nearer the truth to say that so far as the things of the mind and the spirit are concerned, there has never been any absolute isolation. The Middle West, from the days of Jackson to Lincoln, that raw West described by Dickens and Mrs. Trollope, comes nearer isolation than any other place or time. The period of the most eloquent assertions of American independence in artistic and literary matters was the epoch of New England Transcendentalism, which was itself singularly cosmopolitan in its literary appetites. The letters and journals of Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau show the strong European meat on which these men fed, just before their robust declarations of our self-sufficiency. But there is no real self-sufficiency, and Emerson and Whitman themselves, in other moods, have written most suggestive passages upon our European inheritances and affiliations.
The fortunes of the early New England colonies, in fact, were followed by Protestant Europe with the keen solicitude and affection of kinsmen. Oliver Cromwell signs his letter to John Cotton in 1651, "Your affectionate friend to serve you." The settlements were regarded as outposts of European ideas. Their Calvinism, so cheaply derided and so superficially understood, even to-day, was the intellectual platform of that portion of Europe which was mentally and morally awake to the vast issues involved in individual responsibility and self-government. Contemporary European democracy is hardly yet aware that Calvin's Institutes is one of its great charters. Continental Protestantism of the seventeenth century, like the militant Republicanism of the English Commonwealth, thus perused with fraternal interest the letters from Massachusetts Bay. And if Europe watched America in those days, it was no less true that America was watching Europe. Towards the end of the century, Cotton Mather, "prostrate in the dust" before the Lord, as his newly published Diary tells us, is wrestling "on the behalf of whole nations." He receives a "strong Persuasion that very overturning Dispensations of Heaven will quickly befal the French Empire"; he "lifts up his Cries for a mighty and speedy Revolution" there. "I spread before the Lord the Condition of His Church abroad ... especially in Great Britain and in France. And I prayed that the poor Vaudois may not be ruined by the Peace now made between France and Savoy. I prayed likewise for further Mortifications upon the Turkish Empire." Here surely was one colonial who was trying, in Cecil Rhodes's words, to "think continentally!"
Furthermore, the leaders of those early colonies were in large measure university men, disciplined in the classics, fit representatives of European culture. It has been reckoned that between the years 1630 and 1690 there were in New England as many graduates of Cambridge and Oxford as could be found in any population of similar size in the mother country. At one time during those years there was in Massachusetts and Connecticut alone a Cambridge graduate for every two hundred and fifty inhabitants. Like the exiled Greeks in Matthew Arnold's poem, they "undid their corded bales"—of learning, it is true, rather than of merchandise—upon these strange and inhospitable shores: and the traditions of Greek and Hebrew and Latin scholarship were maintained with no loss of continuity. To the lover of letters there will always be something fine in the thought of that narrow seaboard fringe of faith in the classics, widening slowly as the wilderness gave way, making its invisible road up the rivers, across the mountains, into the great interior basin, and only after the Civil War finding an enduring home in the magnificent state universities of the West. Lovers of Greek and Roman literature may perhaps always feel themselves pilgrims and exiles in this vast industrial democracy of ours, but they have at least secured for us, and that from the very first day of the colonies, some of the best fruitage of internationalism. For that matter, what was, and is, that one Book—to the eyes of the Protestant seventeenth century infallible and inexpressively sacred—but the most potent and universal commerce of ideas and spirit, passing from the Orient, through Greek and Roman civilization, into the mind and heart of Western Europe and America?
"Oh, East is East, and West is West, And never the twain shall meet,"
declares a confident poet of to-day. But East and West met long ago in the matchless phrases translated from Hebrew and Greek and Latin into the English Bible; and the heart of the East there answers to the heart of the West as in water face answereth to face. That the colonizing Englishmen of the seventeenth century were Hebrews in spiritual culture, and heirs of Greece and Rome without ceasing to be Anglo-Saxon in blood, is one of the marvels of the history of civilization, and it is one of the basal facts in the intellectual life of the United States of to-day.
Yet that life, as I have already hinted, is not so simple in its terms as it might be if we had to reckon merely with the men of a single stock, albeit with imaginations quickened by contact with an Oriental religion, and minds disciplined, directly or indirectly, by the methods and the literatures which the Revival of Learning imposed upon modern Europe. American formal culture is, and has been, from the beginning, predominantly English. Yet it has been colored by the influences of other strains of race, and by alien intellectual traditions. Such international influences as have reached us through German and Scandinavian, Celtic and Italian, Russian and Jewish immigration, are well marked in certain localities, although their traces may be difficult to follow in the main trend of American writing. The presence of Negro, Irishman, Jew, and German, has affected our popular humor and satire, and is everywhere to be marked in the vocabulary and tone of our newspapers. The cosmopolitan character of the population of such cities as New York and Chicago strikes every foreign observer. Each one of the manifold races now transplanted here and in process of Americanization has for a while its own newspapers and churches and social life carried on in a foreign dialect. But this stage of evolution passes swiftly. The assimilative forces of American schools, industry, commerce, politics, are too strong for the foreign immigrant to resist. The Italian or Greek fruit pedler soon prefers to talk English, and his children can be made to talk nothing else. This extraordinary amalgamating power of English culture explains, no doubt, why German and Scandinavian immigration—to take examples from two of the most intelligent and educated races that have contributed to the up-building of the country—have left so little trace, as yet, upon our more permanent literature.
But blood will have its say sooner or later. No one knows how profoundly the strong mentality of the Jew, already evident enough in the fields of manufacturing and finance, will mould the intellectual life of the United States. The mere presence, to say nothing of the rapid absorption, of these millions upon millions of aliens, as the children of the Puritans regard them, is a constant evidence of the subtle ways in which internationalism is playing its part in the fashioning of the American temper. The moulding hand of the German university has been laid upon our higher institutions of learning for seventy years, although no one can demonstrate in set terms whether the influence of Goethe, read now by three generations of American scholars and studied by millions of youth in the schools, has left any real mark upon our literature. Abraham Lincoln, in his store-keeping days, used to sit under a tree outside the grocery store of Lincoln and Berry, reading Voltaire. One would like to think that he then and there assimilated something of the incomparable lucidity of style of the great Frenchman. But Voltaire's influence upon Lincoln's style cannot be proved, any more than Rousseau's direct influence upon Jefferson. Tolstoi and Ibsen have, indeed, left unmistakable traces upon American imaginative writing during the last quarter of a century. Frank Norris was indebted to Zola for the scheme of that uncompleted trilogy, the prose epic of the Wheat; and Owen Wister has revealed a not uncommon experience of our younger writing men in confessing that the impulse toward writing his Western stories came to him after reading the delightful pages of a French romancer. But all this tells us merely what we knew well enough before: that from colonial days to the present hour the Atlantic has been no insuperable barrier between the thought of Europe and the mind of America; that no one race bears aloft all the torches of intellectual progress; and that a really vital writer of any country finds a home in the spiritual life of every other country, even though it may be difficult to find his name in the local directory.
Finally, we must bear in mind that purely literary evidence as to the existence of certain national traits needs corroboration from many non-literary sources. If it is dangerous to judge modern Japan by the characteristics of a piece of pottery, it is only less misleading to select half a dozen excellent New England writers of fifty years ago as sole witnesses to the qualities of contemporary America. We must broaden the range of evidence. The historians of American literature must ultimately reckon with all those sources of mental and emotional quickening which have yielded to our pioneer people a substitute for purely literary pleasures: they must do justice to the immense mass of letters, diaries, sermons, editorials, speeches, which have served as the grammar and phrase-book of national feeling. A history of our literature must be flexible enough, as I have said elsewhere, to include "the social and economic and geographical background of American life; the zest of the explorer, the humor of the pioneer; the passion of old political battles; the yearning after spiritual truth and social readjustment; the baffled quest of beauty. Such a history must be broad enough for the Federalist and for Webster's oratory, for Beecher's sermons and Greeley's editorials, and the Lincoln-Douglas debates. It must picture the daily existence of our citizens from the beginning; their working ideas, their phrases and shibboleths and all their idols of the forum and the cave. It should portray the misspelled ideals of a profoundly idealistic people who have been usually immersed in material things."
Our most characteristic American writing, as must be pointed out again and again, is not the self-conscious literary performance of a Poe or a Hawthorne. It is civic writing; a citizen literature, produced, like the Federalist, and Garrison's editorials and Grant's Memoirs, without any stylistic consciousness whatever; a sort of writing which has been incidental to the accomplishment of some political, social, or moral purpose, and which scarcely regards itself as literature at all. The supreme example of it is the "Gettysburg Address." Homeliness, simplicity, directness, preoccupation with moral issues, have here been but the instrument of beauty; phrase and thought and feeling have a noble fitness to the national theme. "Nothing of Europe here," we may instinctively exclaim, and yet the profounder lesson of this citizen literature of ours is in the universality of the fundamental questions which our literature presents. The "Gettysburg Address" would not to-day have a secure fame in Europe if it spoke nothing to the ear and the heart of Europe. And this brings us back to our main theme. Lincoln, like Franklin, like many another lesser master of our citizen literature, is a typical American. In the writing produced by such men, there cannot but be a revelation of American characteristics. We are now to attempt an analysis of these national traits, as they have been expressed by our representative writers.
Simple as the problem seems, when thus stated, its adequate performance calls for a constant sensitiveness to the conditions prevalent, during a long period, in English and Continental society and literature. The most rudimentary biographical sketch of such eminent contemporary American authors as Mr. Henry James and Mr. Howells shows that Europe is an essential factor in the intellectual life and in the artistic procedure of these writers. Yet in their racial and national relationships they are indubitably American. In their local variations from type they demand from the critic an understanding of the culture of the Ohio Valley, and of Boston and New York. The analysis of the mingled racial, psychological, social, and professional traits in these masters of contemporary American fiction presents to the critic a problem as fascinating as, and I think more complex than, a corresponding study of Meredith or Hardy, of Daudet or D'Annunzio. In the three hundred years that have elapsed since Englishmen who were trained under Queen Elizabeth settled at Jamestown, Virginia, we have bred upon this soil many a master of speech. They have been men of varied gifts: now of clear intelligence, now of commanding power; men of rugged simplicity and of tantalizing subtlety; poets, novelists, orators, essayists, and publicists, who have interpreted the soul of America to the mind of the world. Our task is to exhibit the essential Americanism of these spokesmen of ours, to point out the traits which make them most truly representative of the instincts of the tongue-tied millions who work and plan and pass from sight without the gift and art of utterance; to find, in short, among the books which are recognized as constituting our American literature, some vital and illuminating illustrations of our national characteristics. For a truly "American" book—like an American national game, or an American city—is that which reveals, consciously or unconsciously, the American mind.
The American Mind
The origin of the phrase, "the American mind," was political. Shortly after the middle of the eighteenth century, there began to be a distinctly American way of regarding the debatable question of British Imperial control. During the period of the Stamp Act agitation our colonial-bred politicians and statesmen made the discovery that there was a mode of thinking and feeling which was native—or had by that time become a second nature—to all the colonists. Jefferson, for example, employs those resonant and useful words "the American mind" to indicate that throughout the American colonies an essential unity of opinion had been developed as regards the chief political question of the day.
It is one of the most striking characteristics of the present United States that this instinct of political unity should have endured, triumphing over every temporary motive of division. The inhabitants of the United States belong to a single political type. There is scarcely a news-stand in any country of Continental Europe where one may not purchase a newspaper openly or secretly opposed to the government,—not merely attacking an unpopular administration or minister or ruler,—but desiring and plotting the overthrow of the entire political system of the country. It is very difficult to find such a newspaper anywhere in the United States. I myself have never seen one. The opening sentence of President Butler's admirable little book, The American as He Is, originally delivered as lectures before the University of Copenhagen, runs as follows:
"The most impressive fact in American life is the substantial unity of view in regard to the fundamental questions of government and of conduct among a population so large, distributed over an area so wide, recruited from sources so many and so diverse, living under conditions so widely different."
But the American type of mind is evident in many other fields than that of politics. The stimulating book from which I have just quoted, attempts in its closing paragraph, after touching upon the more salient features of our national activity, to define the typical American in these words:—
"The typical American is he who, whether rich or poor, whether dwelling in the North, South, East, or West, whether scholar, professional man, merchant, manufacturer, farmer, or skilled worker for wages, lives the life of a good citizen and good neighbor; who believes loyally and with all his heart in his country's institutions, and in the underlying principles on which these institutions are built; who directs both his private and his public life by sound principles; who cherishes high ideals; and who aims to train his children for a useful life and for their country's service."
This modest and sensible statement indicates the existence of a national point of view. We have developed in the course of time, as a result of certain racial inheritances and historic experiences, a national "temper" or "ethos"; a more or less settled way of considering intellectual, moral, and social problems; in short, a peculiarly national attitude toward the universal human questions.
In a narrower sense, "the American mind" may mean the characteristics of the American intelligence, as it has been studied by Mr. Bryce, De Tocqueville, and other trained observers of our methods of thinking. It may mean the specific achievements of the American intelligence in fields like science and scholarship and history. In all these particular departments of intellectual activity the methods and the results of American workers have recently received expert and by no means uniformly favorable assessment from investigators upon both sides of the Atlantic. But the observer of literary processes and productions must necessarily take a somewhat broader survey of national tendencies. He must study what Nathaniel Hawthorne, with the instinct of a romance writer, preferred to call the "heart" as distinguished from the mere intellect. He must watch the moral and social and imaginative impulses of the individual; the desire for beauty; the hunger for self-expression; the conscious as well as the unconscious revelation of personality; and he must bring all this into relation—if he can, and knowing that the finer secrets are sure to elude him!—with the age-long impulses of the race and with the mysterious tides of feeling that flood or ebb with the changing fortunes of the nation.
One way to begin to understand the typical American is to take a look at him in Europe. It does not require a professional beggar or a licensed guide to identify him. Not that the American in Europe need recall in any particular the familiar pictorial caricature of "Uncle Sam." He need not bear any outward resemblances to such stage types as that presented in "The Man From Home." He need not even suggest, by peculiarities of speech or manner, that he has escaped from the pages of those novels of international observation in which Mr. James and Mr. Howells long ago attained an unmatched artistry. Our "American Abroad," at the present hour, may be studied without the aid of any literary recollections whatever. There he is, with his wife and daughters, and one may stare at him with all the frankness of a compatriot. He is obviously well-to-do,—else he would not be there at all,—and the wife and daughters seem very well-to-do indeed. He is kindly; considerate—sometimes effusively considerate—of his fellow travellers; patient with the ladies of his family, who in turn are noticeably patient with him. He is genial—very willing to talk with polyglot headwaiters and chauffeurs; in fact the wife and daughters are also practised conversationalists, although their most loyal admirers must admit that their voices are a trifle sharp or flat. These ladies are more widely read than "papa." He has not had much leisure for Ruskin and Symonds and Ferrero. His lack of historical training limits his curiosity concerning certain phases of his European surroundings; but he uses his eyes well upon such general objects as trains, hotel-service, and Englishmen. In spite of his habitual geniality, he is rather critical of foreign ways, although this is partly due to his lack of acquaintance with them. Intellectually, he is really more modest and self-distrustful than his conversation or perhaps his general bearing would imply; in fact, his wife and daughters, emboldened very likely by the training of their women's clubs, have a more commendable daring in assaulting new intellectual positions.
Yet the American does not lack quickness, either of wits or emotion. His humor and sentiment make him an entertaining companion. Even when his spirits run low, his patriotism is sure to mount in proportion, and he can always tell you with enthusiasm in just how many days he expects to be back again in what he calls "God's country."
This, or something like this, is the "American" whom the European regards with curiosity, contempt, admiration, or envy, as the case may be, but who is incontestably modifying Western Europe, even if he is not, as many journalists and globe-trotters are fond of asserting, "Americanizing" the world. Interesting as it is to glance at him against that European background which adds picturesqueness to his qualities, the "Man from Home" is still more interesting in his native habitat. There he has been visited by hundreds of curious and observant foreigners, who have left on record a whole literature of bewildered and bewildering, irritating and flattering and amusing testimony concerning the Americans. Settlers like Crevecoeur in the glowing dawn of the Republic, poets like Tom Moore, novelists like Charles Dickens,—other novelists like Mr. Arnold Bennett,—professional travellers like Captain Basil Hall, students of contemporary sociology like Paul Bourget and Mr. H. G. Wells, French journalists, German professors, Italian admirers of Colonel Roosevelt, political theorists like De Tocqueville, profound and friendly observers like Mr. Bryce, have had, and will continue to have, their say.
The reader who tries to take all this testimony at its face value, and to reconcile its contradictions, will be a candidate for the insane asylum. Yet the testimony is too amusing to be neglected and some of it is far too important to be ignored. Mr. John Graham Brooks, after long familiarity with these foreign opinions of America, has gathered some of the most representative of them into a delightful and stimulating volume entitled As Others See Us. There one may find examples of what the foreigner has seen, or imagined he has seen, during his sojourn in America, and what he has said about it afterwards. Mr. Brooks is too charitable to our visitors to quote the most fantastic and highly colored of their observations; but what remains is sufficiently bizarre.
The real service of such a volume is to train us in discounting the remarks made about us in a particular period like the eighteen-thirties, or from observations made in a special place, like Newport, or under special circumstances, like a Bishop's private car. It helps us to make allowances for the inevitable angle of nationality, the equally inevitable personal equation. A recent ambitious book on America, by a Washington journalist of long residence here, although of foreign birth, declares that "the chief trait of the American people is the love of gain and the desire of wealth acquired through commerce." That is the opinion of an expert observer, who has had extraordinary chances for seeing precisely what he has seen. I think it, notwithstanding, a preposterous opinion, fully as preposterous as Professor Muensterberg's notion that America has latterly grown more monarchical in its tendencies,—but I must remember that, in my own case, as in that of the journalist under consideration, there are allowances to be made for race, and training, and natural idiosyncracy of vision.
The native American, it may be well to remember, is something of an observer himself. If his observations upon the characteristics of his countrymen are less piquant than the foreigner's, it is chiefly because the American writes, upon the whole, less incisively than he talks. But incisive native writing about American traits is not lacking. If a missionary, say in South Africa, has read the New York Nation every week for the past forty years, he has had an extraordinary "moving picture" of American tendencies, as interpreted by independent, trenchant, and high-minded criticism. That a file of the Nation will convey precisely the same impression of American tendencies as a file of the Sun, for instance, or the Boston Evening Transcript, is not to be affirmed. The humor of the London Punch and the New York Life does not differ more radically than the aspects of American civilization as viewed by two rival journals in Newspaper Row. The complexity of the material now collected and presented in daily journalism is so great that adequate editorial interpretation is obviously impossible. All the more insistently does this heterogeneous picture of American life demand the impartial interpretation of the historian, the imaginative transcription of the novelist. Humorist and moralist, preacher and mob orator and social essayist, shop-talk and talk over the tea-cup or over the pipe, and the far more illuminating instruction of events, are fashioning day by day the infinitely delicate processes of our national self-assessment. Scholars like Mr. Henry Adams or Mr. James Ford Rhodes will explain to us American life as it was during the administrations of Jefferson or in the eighteen-fifties. Professor Turner will expound the significance of the frontier in American history. Mr. Henry James will portray with unrivalled psychological insight the Europeanized American of the eighteen-seventies and eighties. Literary critics like Professor Wendell or Professor Trent will deduce from our literature itself evidence concerning this or that national quality; and all this mass of American expert testimony, itself a result and a proof of national self-awareness and self-respect, must be put into the scales to balance, to confirm, or to outweigh the reports furnished by foreigners.
I do not pretend to be able, like an expert accountant, to draw up a balance-sheet of national qualities, to credit or debit the American character with this or that precise quantity of excellence or defect. But having turned the pages of many books about the United States, and listened to many conversations about its inhabitants in many states of the Union, I venture to collect a brief list of the qualities which have been assigned to us, together with a few, but not, I trust, too many, of our admitted national defects.
Like that excellent German who wrote the History of the English Drama in six volumes, I begin with Physical Geography. The differentiation of the physical characteristics of our branch of the English race is admittedly due, in part, to climate. In spite of the immense range of climatic variations as one passes from New England to New Orleans, from the Mississippi Valley to the high plains of the Far West, or from the rainy Oregon belt southward to San Diego, the settlers of English stock find a prevalent atmospheric condition, as a result of which they begin, in a generation or two, to change in physique. They grow thinner and more nervous, they "lean forward," as has been admirably said of them, while the Englishman "leans back"; they are less heavy and less steady; their voices are higher, sharper; their athletes get more easily "on edge"; they respond, in short, to an excessively stimulating climate. An old-fashioned sea-captain put it all into a sentence when he said that he could drink a bottle of wine with his dinner in Liverpool and only a half a bottle in New York. Explain the cause as we may, the fact seems to be that the body of John Bull changes, in the United States, into the body of Uncle Sam.
There are mental differences no less pronounced. No adjective has been more frequently applied to the Anglo-Saxon than the word "dull." The American mind has been accused of ignorance, superficiality, levity, commonplaceness, and dozens of other defects, but "dulness" is not one of them. "Smartness," rather, is the preferred epithet of derogation; or, to rise a little in the scale of valuation, it is the word "cleverness," used with that lurking contempt for cleverness which is truly English and which long survived in the dialect of New England, where the village ne'er-do-well or Jack-of-all-trades used to be pronounced a "clever" fellow. The variety of employments to which the American pioneers were obliged to betake themselves has done something, no doubt, to produce a national versatility, a quick assimilation of new methods and notions, a ready adaptability to novel emergencies. An invaluable pioneer trait is curiosity; the settler in a new country, like Moses in the wilderness of Arabia, must "turn aside to see"; he must look into things, learn to read signs,—or else the Indians or frost or freshet will soon put an end to his pioneering. That curiosity concerning strangers which so much irritated Dickens and Mrs. Trollope was natural to the children of Western emigrants to whom the difference between Sioux and Pawnee had once meant life or death. "What's your business, stranger, in these parts?" was an instinctive, because it had once been a vital, question. That it degenerates into mere inquisitiveness is true enough; just as the "acuteness," the "awareness," essential to the existence of one generation becomes only "cuteness," the typical tin-pedler's habit of mind, in the generation following.
American inexperience, the national rawness and unsophistication which has impressed so many observers, has likewise its double significance when viewed historically. We have exhibited, no doubt, the amateurishness and recklessness which spring from relative isolation, from ignorance as to how they manage elsewhere this particular sort of thing,—the conservation of forests, let us say, or the government of colonial dependencies. National smugness and conceit, the impatience crystallized in the phrase, "What have we got to do with abroad?" have jarred upon the nerves of many cultivated Americans. But it is no less true that a nation of pioneers and settlers, like the isolated individual, learns certain rough-and-ready Robinson Crusoe ways of getting things done. A California mining-camp is sure to establish law and order in due time, though never, perhaps, a law and order quite according to Blackstone. In the most trying crises of American political history, it was not, after all, a question of profiting by European experience. Washington and Lincoln, in their sorest struggles, had nothing to do with "abroad"; the problem had first to be thought through, and then fought through, in American and not in European terms. Not a half-dozen Englishmen understood the bearings of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, or, if they did, we were little the wiser. We had to wait until a slow-minded frontier lawyer mastered it in all its implications, and then patiently explained it to the farmers of Illinois, to the United States, and to the world.
It is true that the unsophisticated mode of procedure may turn out to be sheer folly,—a "sixteen to one" triumph of provincial barbarism. But sometimes it is the secret of freshness and of force. Your cross-country runner scorns the highway, but that is because he has confidence in his legs and loins, and he likes to take the fences. Fenimore Cooper, when he began to write stories, knew nothing about the art of novel-making as practised in Europe, but he possessed something infinitely better for him, namely, instinct, and he took the right road to the climax of a narrative as unerringly as the homing bee follows its viewless trail.
No one can be unaware how easily this superb American confidence may turn to over-confidence, to sheer recklessness. We love to run past the signals, in our railroading and in our thinking. Emerson will "plunge" on a new idea as serenely as any stock-gambler ever "plunged" in Wall Street, and a pretty school-teacher will tell you that she has become an advocate of the "New Thought" as complacently as an old financier will boast of having bought Calumet and Hecla when it was selling at 25. (Perhaps the school-teacher may get as good a bargain. I cannot say.) Upon the whole, Americans back individual guesswork and pay cheerfully when they lose. A great many of them, as it happens, have guessed right. Even those who continue to guess wrong, like Colonel Sellers, have the indefeasible romantic appetite for guessing again. The American temperament and the chances of American history have brought constant temptation to speculation, and plenty of our people prefer to gamble upon what they love to call a "proposition," rather than to go to the bottom of the facts. They would rather speculate than know.
Doubtless there are purely physical causes that have encouraged this mental attitude, such as the apparently inexhaustible resources of a newly opened country, the consciousness of youthful energy, the feeling that any very radical mistake in pitching camp to-day can easily be rectified when we pitch camp to-morrow. The habit of exaggeration which was so particularly annoying to English visitors in the middle of the last century—annoying even to Charles Dickens, who was himself something of an expert in exuberance—is a physical and moral no less than a mental quality. That monstrous braggadocio which Dickens properly satirized in Martin Chuzzlewit was partly, of course, the product of provincial ignorance. Doubtless there were, and there are still, plenty of Pograms who are convinced that Henry Clay and Daniel Webster overtop all the intellectual giants of the Old World. But that youthful bragging, and perhaps some of the later bragging as well, has its social side. It is a perverted idealism. It springs from group loyalty, from sectional fidelity. The settlement of "Eden" may be precisely what Dickens drew it: a miasmatic mud-hole. Yet we who are interested in the new town do not intend, as the popular phrase has it, "to give ourselves away." We back our own "proposition," so that to this day Chicago cannot tell the truth to St. Louis, nor Harvard to Yale. Braggadocio thus gets glorified through its rootage in loyalty; and likewise extravagance—surely one of the worst of American mental vices—is often based upon a romantic confidence in individual opinion or in the righteousness of some specific cause. Convince a blue-blooded American like Wendell Phillips that the abolition of slavery is right, and, straightway, words and even facts become to him mere weapons in a splendid warfare. His statements grow rhetorical, reckless, virulent. Proof seems to him, as it did to the contemporary Transcendentalist philosophers, an impertinence. The sole question is, "Are you on the Lord's side?" i.e., on the side of Wendell Phillips.
Excuse as we may the faults of a gifted combatant in a moral crisis like the abolition controversy, the fact remains that the intellectual dangers of the oratorical temperament are typically American. What is commonly called our "Fourth of July" period has indeed passed away. It has few apologists, perhaps fewer than it really deserves. It is possible to regret the disappearance of that old-fashioned assertion of patriotism and pride, and to question whether historical pageants and a "noiseless Fourth" will develop any better citizens than the fathers were. But on the purely intellectual side, the influence of that spread-eagle oratory was disastrous. Throughout wide-extended regions of the country, and particularly in the South and West, the "orator" grew to be, in the popular mind, the normal representative of intellectual ability. Words, rather than things, climbed into the saddle. Popular assemblies were taught the vocabulary and the logic of passion, rather than of sober, lucid reasoning. The "stump" grew more potent than school-house and church and bench; and it taught its reckless and passionate ways to more than one generation. The intellectual leaders of the newer South have more than once suffered ostracism for protesting against this glorification of mere oratory. But it is not the South alone that has suffered. Wherever a mob can gather, there are still the dangers of the old demagogic vocabulary and rhetoric. The mob state of mind is lurking still in the excitable American temperament.
The intellectual temptations of that temperament are revealed no less in our popular journalism. This journalism, it is needless to say, is extremely able, but it is reckless to the last degree. The extravagance of its head-lines and the over-statements of its news columns are direct sources of profit, since they increase the circulation and it is circulation which wins advertising space. I think it is fair to say that the American people, as a whole, like precisely the sort of journalism which they get. The tastes of the dwellers in cities control, more and more, the character of our newspapers. The journals of New York, Chicago, and San Francisco are steadily gaining in circulation, in resourcefulness, and in public spirit, but they are, for the most part, unscrupulous in attack, sophistical, and passionate. They outvie the popular pulpit in sentimentality. They play with fire.
The note of exaggeration which is heard in American oratory and journalism is struck again in the popular magazines. Their campaign of "exposure," during the last decade, has been careless of individual and corporate rights and reputations. Even the magazine sketches and short stories are keyed up to a hysteric pitch. So universally is this characteristic national tension displayed in our periodical literature that no one is much surprised to read in his morning paper that some one has called the President of the United States a liar,—or that some one has been called a liar by the President of the United States.
For an explanation of these defects, shall we fall back upon a convenient maxim of De Tocqueville's and admit with him that "a democracy is unsuited to meditation"? We are forced to do so. But then comes the inevitable second thought that a democracy must needs have other things than meditation to attend to. Athenian and Florentine and Versailles types of political despotism have all proved highly favorable to the lucubrations of philosophers and men of letters who enjoyed the despot's approbation. For that matter, no scheme of life was ever better suited to meditation than an Indian reservation in the eighteen-seventies, with a Great Father in Washington to furnish blankets, flour, and tobacco. Yet that is not quite the American ideal of existence, and it even failed to produce the peaceable fruits of meditation in the Indian himself.
One may freely admit the shortcomings of the American intelligence; the "commonness of mind and tone" which Mr. Bryce believes to be inseparable from the presence of such masses of men associated under modern democratic government; the frivolity and extravagance which represent the gasconading of the romantic temper in face of the grey practicalities of everyday routine; the provincial boastfulness and bad taste which have resulted from intellectual isolation; the lack, in short, of a code, whether for thought or speech or behavior. And nevertheless, one's instinctive Americanism replies, May it not be better, after all, to have gone without a code for a while, to have lacked that orderly and methodized and socialized European intelligence, and to have had the glorious sense of bringing things to pass in spite of it? There is just one thing that would have been fatal to our democracy. It is the feeling expressed in La Bruyere's famous book: "Everything has been said, everything has been written, everything has been done." Here in America everything was to do; we were forced to conjugate our verbs in the future tense. No doubt our existence has been, in some respects, one of barbarism, but it has been the barbarism of life and not of death. A rawboned baby sprawling on the mud floor of a Kentucky log cabin is a more hopeful spectacle than a wholly civilized funeral.
"Perhaps it is," rejoins the European critic, somewhat impatiently, "but you are confusing the issue. We find certain grave defects in the American mind, defects which, if you had not had what Thomas Carlyle called 'a great deal of land for a very few people,' would long ago have involved you in disaster. You admit the mental defects, but you promptly shift the question to one of moral qualities, of practical energy, of subduing your wilderness, and so forth. You have too often absented yourself from the wedding banquet, from the European symposium of wit and philosophy, from the polished and orderly and delightful play and interplay of civilized mind,—and your excuse is the old one: that you are trying your yoke of oxen and cannot come. We charge you with intellectual sins, and you enter the plea of moral preoccupation. If you will permit personal examples, you Americans have made ere now your national heroes out of men whose reasoning powers remained those of a college sophomore, who were unable to state an opponent's position with fairness, who lacked wholly the judicial quality, who were vainglorious and extravagant, who had, in short, the mind of an exuberant barbarian; but you instantly forget their intellectual defects in the presence of their abounding physical and moral energy, their freedom from any taint of personal corruption, their whole-souled desire and effort for the public good. Were not such heroes, impossible as they would have been in any other civilized country, perfectly illuminative of your national state of mind?"
For one, I confess that I do not know what reply to make to my imaginary European critic. I suspect that he is right. At any rate, we stand here at the fork of the road. If we do not wish to linger any longer over a catalogue of intellectual sins, let us turn frankly to our moral preoccupations, comforting ourselves, if we like, as we abandon the field of purely intellectual rivalry with Europe, in the reflection that it is the muddle-headed Anglo-Saxon, after all, who is the dominant force in the modern world.
The moral temper of the American people has been analyzed no less frequently than their mental traits. Foreign and native observers are alike agreed in their recognition of the extraordinary American energy. The sheer power of the American bodily machine, driven by the American will, is magnificent. It is often driven too hard, and with reckless disregard of anything save immediate results. It wears out more quickly than the bodily machine of the Englishman. It is typical that the best distance runners of Great Britain usually beat ours, while we beat them in the sprints. Our public men are frequently—as the athletes say—"all in" at sixty. Their energy is exhausted at just the time that many an English statesman begins his best public service. But after making every allowance for wasteful excess, for the restless and impatient consumption of nervous forces which nature intended that we should hold in reserve, the fact remains that American history has demonstrated the existence of a dynamic national energy, physical and moral, which is still unabated. Immigration has turned hitherward the feet of millions upon millions of young men from the hardiest stocks of Europe. They replenish the slackening streams of vigor. When the northern New Englander cannot make a living on the old farm, the French Canadian takes it off his hands, and not only improves the farm, but raises big crops of boys. So with Italians, Swedes, Germans, Irish, Jews, and Portuguese, and all the rest. We are a nation of immigrants, a digging, hewing, building, breeding, bettering race, of mixed blood and varying creeds, but of fundamental faith in the wages of going on; a race compounded of materials crude but potent; raw, but with blood that is red and bones that are big; a race that is accomplishing its vital tasks, and, little by little, transmuting brute forces and material energies into the finer play of mind and spirit.
From the very beginning, the American people have been characterized by idealism. It was the inner light of Pilgrim and Quaker colonists; it gleams no less in the faces of the children of Russian Jew immigrants to-day. American irreverence has been noted by many a foreign critic, but there are certain subjects in whose presence our reckless or cynical speech is hushed. Compared with current Continental humor, our characteristic American humor is peculiarly reverent. The purity of woman and the reality of religion are not considered topics for jocosity. Cleanness of body and of mind are held by our young men to be not only desirable but attainable virtues. There is among us, in comparison with France or Germany, a defective reverence for the State as such; and a positive irreverence towards the laws of the Commonwealth, and towards the occupants of high political positions. Mayor, Judge, Governor, Senator, or even President, may be the butt of such indecorous ridicule as shocks or disgusts the foreigner; but nevertheless the personal joke stops short of certain topics which Puritan tradition disapproves. The United States is properly called a Christian nation, not merely because the Supreme Court has so affirmed it, but because the phrase "a Christian nation" expresses the historical form which the religious idealism of the country has made its own. The Bible is still considered, by the mass of the people, a sacred book; oaths in courts of law, oaths of persons elected to great office, are administered upon it. American faith in education, as all the world knows, has from the beginning gone hand in hand with faith in religion; the school-house was almost as sacred a symbol as the meeting-house; and the munificence of American private benefactions to the cause of education furnishes to-day one of the most striking instances of idealism in the history of civilization.
The ideal passions of patriotism, of liberty, of loyalty to home and section, of humanitarian and missionary effort, have all burned with a clear flame in the United States. The optimism which lies so deeply embedded in the American character is one phase of the national mind. Charles Eliot Norton once said to me, with his dry humor, that there was an infallible test of the American authorship of any anonymous article or essay: "Does it contain the phrase 'After all, we need not despair'? If it does, it was written by an American." In spite of all that is said about the practicality of the American, his love of gain and his absorption in material interests, those who really know him are aware how habitually he confronts his practical tasks in a spirit of romantic enthusiasm. He marches downtown to his prosaic day's job and calls it "playing the game"; to work as hard as he can is to "get into the game," and to work as long as he can is to "stay in the game"; he loves to win fully as much as the Jew and he hates to lose fully as much as the Englishman, but losing or winning, he carries into his business activity the mood of the idealist.
It is easy to think of all this as self-deception as the emotional effusiveness of the American temperament; but to refuse to see its idealism is to mistake fundamentally the character of the American man. No doubt he does deceive himself often as to his real motives: he is a mystic and a bargain-hunter by turns. Divided aims, confused ideals, have struggled for the mastery among us, ever since Challon's Voyage, in 1606, announced that the purpose of the first colonists to Virginia was "both to seek to convert the savages, as also to seek out what benefits or commodities might be had in those parts." How that "both"—"as also" keeps echoing in American history: "both" to christianize the Negro and work him at a profit, "both" duty and advantage in retaining the Philippines; "both" international good will and increased armaments; "both" Sunday morning precepts and Monday morning practice; "both" horns of a dilemma; "both God and mammon"; did ever a nation possess a more marvellous water-tight compartment method of believing and honoring opposites! But in all this unconscious hypocrisy the American is perhaps not worse—though he may be more absurd!—than other men.