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The Land of Contrasts - A Briton's View of His American Kin
by James Fullarton Muirhead
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Soup, poultry, game, and sweet dishes are generally as good as and often better than in English restaurants. Beef and mutton, on the other hand, are frequently inferior, though the American porterhouse and other steaks sometimes recall English glories that seem largely to have vanished. The list of American fish is by no means identical with that of Europe, and some of the varieties (such as salmon) seem scarcely as savoury. The stranger, however, will find some of his new fishy acquaintances decided acquisitions, and it takes no long time to acquire a very decided liking for the bass, the pompano, and the bluefish, while even the shad is discounted only by his innumerable bones. The praises of the American oyster should be sung by an abler and more poetic pen than mine! He may not possess the full oceanic flavour (coppery, the Americans call it) of our best "natives," but he is large, and juicy, and cool, and succulent, and fresh, and (above all) cheap and abundant. The variety of ways in which he is served is a striking index of the fertile ingenuity of the American mind; and the man who knows the oyster only on the half-shell or en escalope is a mere culinary suckling compared with him who has been brought face to face with the bivalve in stews, plain roasts, fancy roasts, fries, broils, and fricassees, to say nothing of the form "pigs in blankets," or as parboiled in its own liquor, creamed, sauted, or pickled.

Wine or beer is much less frequently drunk at meals than in Europe, though the amount of alcoholic liquor seen on the tables of a hotel would be a very misleading measure of the amount consumed. The men have a curious habit of flocking to the bar-room immediately after dinner to imbibe the stimulant that preference, or custom, or the fear of their wives has deprived them of during the meal. Wine is generally poor and dear. The mixed drinks at the bar are fascinating and probably very indigestible. Their names are not so bizarre as it is an article of the European's creed to believe. America possesses the largest brewery in the world, that of Pabst at Milwaukee, producing more than a million of gallons a year; and there are also large breweries at St. Louis, Rochester, and many other places. The beer made resembles the German lager, and is often excellent. Its use is apparently spreading rapidly from the German Americans to Americans of other nationalities. The native wine of California is still fighting against the unfavourable reputation it acquired from the ignorance and impatience of its early manufacturers. The art of wine-growing, however, is now followed with more brains, more experience, and more capital, and the result is in many instances excellent. The vin ordinaire of California, largely made from the Zinfandel grape, has been described as a "peasant's wine," but when drunk on the spot compares fairly with the cheaper wines of Europe. Some of the finest brands of Californian red wine (such as that known as Las Palmas), generally to be had from the producers only, are sound and well-flavoured wines, which will probably improve steadily. It is a thousand pities that the hotels and restaurants of the United States do not do more to push the sale of these native wines, which are at least better than most of the foreign wine sold in America at extravagant charges. It is also alleged that the Californian and other American wines are often sold under French labels and at French prices, thus doing a double injustice to their native soil. Coffee or tea is always included in the price of an American meal, and these comforting beverages (particularly coffee) appear at luncheon and dinner in the huge cups that we associate with breakfast exclusively. Nor do they follow the meal, as with us, but accompany it. This practice, of course, does not hold in the really first-class hotels and restaurants.

The real national beverage is, however, ice-water. Of this I have little more to say than to warn the British visitor to suspend his judgment until he has been some time in the country. I certainly was not prejudiced in favour of this chilly draught when I started for the United States, but I soon came to find it natural and even necessary, and as much so from the dry hot air of the stove-heated room in winter as from the natural ambition of the mercury in summer. The habit so easily formed was as easily unlearned when I returned to civilisation. On the whole, it may be philosophic to conclude that a universal habit in any country has some solid if cryptic reason for its existence, and to surmise that the drinking of ice-water is not so deadly in the States as it might be elsewhere. It certainly is universal enough. When you ring a bell or look at a waiter, ice-water is immediately brought to you. Each meal is started with a full tumbler of that fluid, and the observant darkey rarely allows the tide to ebb until the meal is concluded. Ice-water is provided gratuitously and copiously on trains, in waiting-rooms, even sometimes in the public fountains. If, finally, I were asked to name the characteristic sound of the United States, which would tell you of your whereabouts if transported to America in an instant of time, it would be the musical tinkle of the ice in the small white pitchers that the bell-boys in hotels seem perennially carrying along all the corridors, day and night, year in and year out.

FOOTNOTES:

[30] Lady Theodora Guest, sister of the Duke of Westminster, in her book, "A Round Trip in North America," bears the same testimony: "Over eleven thousand miles of railway travelling and miles untold of driving besides, without an accident or a semblance of one. No contretemps of any kind, except the little delay at Hope from the 'washout,' which did not matter the least; lovely weather, and universal kindness and courtesy from man, woman, and child."

[31] "Had you seen but those roads before they were made, You would hold up your hands and bless General Wade."

[32] This epithet must not confirm the usual erroneous belief that Florida means "the flowery State." It is so called because discovered on Easter Day (Spanish Pascua Florida).



XIII

The American Note

Those who have done me the honour to read through the earlier pages of this volume will probably find nothing in the present chapter that has not already been implied in them, if not expressed. Indeed, I should not consider these pages written to any purpose if they did not give some indication of what I believe to be the dominant trend of American civilisation. A certain amount of condensed explication and recapitulation may not, however, be out of place.

In spite of the heterogeneous elements of which American civilisation consists, and in spite of the ever-ready pitfalls of spurious generalisation, it seems to me that there is very distinctly an American note, different in pitch and tone from any note in the European concert. The scale to which it belongs is not, indeed, one out of all relation to that of the older hemisphere, in the way, for example, in which the laws governing Chinese music seem to stand apart from all relations to those on which the Sonata Appassionata is constructed. "The American," as Emerson said, "is only the continuation of the English genius into new conditions, more or less propitious;" and the American note, as I understand it, is, with allowance for modifications by other nationalities, after all merely the New World incarnation of a British potentiality.

To sum it up in one word is hardly practicable; even a Carlylean epithet could scarcely focus the content of this idea. It includes a sense of illimitable expansion and possibility; an almost childlike confidence in human ability and fearlessness of both the present and the future; a wider realisation of human brotherhood than has yet existed; a greater theoretical willingness to judge by the individual rather than by the class; a breezy indifference to authority and a positive predilection for innovation; a marked alertness of mind and a manifold variety of interest; above all, an inextinguishable hopefulness and courage. It is easy to lay one's finger in America upon almost every one of the great defects of civilisation—even those defects which are specially characteristic of the civilisation of the Old World. The United States cannot claim to be exempt from manifestations of economic slavery, of grinding the faces of the poor, of exploitation of the weak, of unfair distribution of wealth, of unjust monopoly, of unequal laws, of industrial and commercial chicanery, of disgraceful ignorance, of economic fallacies, of public corruption, of interested legislation, of want of public spirit, of vulgar boasting and chauvinism, of snobbery, of class prejudice, of respect of persons, of a preference of the material over the spiritual. In a word, America has not attained, or nearly attained, perfection. But below and behind and beyond all its weaknesses and evils, there is the grand fact of a noble national theory, founded on reason and conscience. Those may scoff who will at the idea of anything so intangible being allowed to count seriously in the estimation of a nation's or an individual's happiness but the man of any imagination can surely conceive the stimulus of the constantly abiding sense of a fine national ideal. The vagaries of the Congress at Washington may sometimes cause a man more personal inconvenience than the doings of the Parliament at Westminster, but they cannot wound his self-respect or insult his reason in the same way as the idea of being ruled by a group of individuals who have merely taken the trouble to be born. The hauteur and insolence of those "above" us are always unpleasant, but they are much easier to bear when we feel that they are entirely at variance with the theory of the society in which they appear, and are at worst merely sporadic manifestations. Even the tyranny of trusts is not to be compared to the tyranny of landlordism; for the one is felt to be merely an unhappy and (it is hoped) temporary aberration of well-meant social machinery, while the other seems bred in the very bone of the national existence. It is the old story of freedom and hardship being preferable to chains and luxury. The material environment of the American may often be far less interesting and suggestive than that of the European, but his mind is freer, his mental attitude more elastic. Every American carries a marshal's baton in his knapsack in a way that has hardly ever been true in Europe. It may not assume a more tangible shape than a feeling of self-respect that has never been wounded by the thought of personal inferiority for merely conventional reasons; but he must be a materialist indeed who undervalues this priceless possession. It is something for a country to have reached the stage of passing "resolutions," even if their conversion into "acts" lags a little; it is bootless to sneer at a real "land of promise" because it is not at once and in every way a "land of performance."

There is something wonderfully rare and delicate in the finest blossoms of American civilisation—something that can hardly be paralleled in Europe. The mind that has been brought up in an atmosphere theoretically free from all false standards and conventional distinctions acquires a singularly unbiassed, detached, absolute, purely human way of viewing life. In Matthew Arnold's phrase, "it sees life steadily and sees it whole." Just this attitude seems unattainable in England; neither in my reading nor my personal experience have I encountered what I mean elsewhere than in America. We may feel ourselves, for example, the equal of a marquis, but does he? And even if he does, do A, and B, and C? No profoundness of belief in our own superiority or the superiority of a humble friend to the aristocrat can make us ignore the circumambient feeling on the subject in the same way that the man brought up in the American vacuum does.

The true-born American is absolutely incapable of comprehending the sense of difference between a lord and a plebeian that is forced on the most philosophical among ourselves by the mere pressure of the social atmosphere. It is for him a fourth dimension of space; it may be talked about, but practically it has no existence. It is entirely within the bounds of possibility for an American to attempt graciously to put royalty at its ease, and to try politely to make it forget its anomalous position. The British radical philosopher may attain the height of saying, "With a great sum obtained I this 'freedom';" the American may honestly reply, "But I was free-born."

It is necessary to take long views of American civilisation; not to fix our gaze upon small evils in the foreground, not to mistake an attack of moral measles for a scorbutic taint. It is quite conceivable that a philosophic observer of a century ago might almost have predicted the moral and social course of events in the United States, if he had only been informed of the coming material conditions, such as the overwhelmingly rapid growth of the country in wealth and population, coupled with a democratic form of government. Even if assured that the ultimate state of the nation would be satisfactory, he would still have foreseen the difficulties hemming its progress toward the ideal: the inevitable delays, disappointments, and set-backs; the struggle between the gross and the spiritual; the troubles arising from the constant accession of new raw material before the old was welded into shape. There is nothing in the present evils of America to lead us to despair of the Republic, if only we let a legitimate imagination place us on a view-point sufficiently distant and sufficiently high to enable us to look backwards and forwards over long stretches of time, and lose the effect of small roughnesses in the foreground. Even M. de Tocqueville exaggerated the evils existing when he wrote his famous work, and forecast catastrophes that have never arisen and seem daily less and less likely ever to arise. Let it be enough for the present that America has worked out "a rough average happiness for the million," that the great masses of the people have attained a by no means despicable amount of independence and comfort. Those who are apt to think that the comfort of the crowd must mean the ennui of the cultured may safely be reminded of Obermann's saying, that no individual life can (or ought to) be happy passee au milieu des generations qui souffrent. This source of unhappiness, at any rate, is less potent in the United States than elsewhere. It is only natural that material prosperity should come more quickly than emancipation from ignorance, as Professor Norton has noted in a masterly, though perhaps characteristically pessimistic, article in the Forum for February, 1896. It may, too, be true, as the same writer remarks, that the common school system of America does little "to quicken the imagination, to refine and elevate the moral intelligence;" and the remark is valuable as a note of warning. But it may well be asked whether the American school system is in this respect unfavourably distinguished from that of any other country; and it must not be forgotten that even instruction in ordinary topics stimulates the soil for more valuable growths. The methods of the Salvation Army do not appeal to the dilettante; but it is more than possible that the grandchildren of the man whose imagination has been touched, if ever so slightly, by the crude appeal of trombones out of tune and the sight of poke-bonnets and backward-striding maidens, will be more intelligent and susceptible human beings than the grandchildren of the chawbacon whose mental horizon has been bounded by the bottom of his pewter mug.

Those who think for themselves will naturally make more mistakes than those who carefully follow the dictates of a competent authority; but there are other counterbalancing advantages which bring the enterprising mistake-maker more speedily to the goal than his impeccable rival. The poet might almost have sung "'Tis better to have erred and learned than never to have erred at all." The intellectual monopoly of England is, perhaps, even more dangerous than the material. The monastic societies of Oxford and Cambridge are too apt to insist on certain forms of knowledge, and to think that real wisdom is the prerogative of the few. And we undoubtedly owe many of the healthy breezes of rebellion and scepticism in such matters to the example of America. The keen-eyed Yankees distinguish more clearly than we do between the essential conditions of existence and the "stupid and vulgar accidents of human contrivance," and are consequently readier to lay irreverent hands on time-honoured abuses. If a balance could be struck between the influence of Europe on America and that of America on Europe, it is not by any means clear that the scale would descend in favour of the older world.

There is a long list of influential witnesses in favour of the theory that the development of the democratic spirit is bound inevitably to hamper individuality and encourage mediocrity. De Tocqueville, Scherer, Renan, Maine, Bourget, Matthew Arnold, all lend the weight of their names to this conclusion. It does not seem to me that this theory is supported by the social facts of the United States. When we have made allowance for the absence of a number of picturesque phenomena which are due to temporal and physical conditions, and would be equally lacking if the country were an autocracy or oligarchy, there remains in the United States greater room for the development of idiosyncrasy than, perhaps, in any other country. It has been paradoxically argued by an English writer that individualism could not reach its highest point except in a socialistic community; i.e., that the unbridled competition of the present day drives square pegs into round holes and thus forces the individual, for the sake of bread and butter, to do that which is foreign to his nature; whereas in an ideal socialism each individual would be encouraged to follow his own bent and develop his own special talent for the good of the community. To a certain extent this seems true of the United States. The career there is more open to the talents; the world is an oyster which the individual can open with many kinds of knives; what the Germans call "umsatteln", or changing one's profession as one changes one's horse, is much more feasible in the New World than in the Old. The freedom and largeness of opportunity is a stimulus to all strong minds. Lincoln, as Professor Dowden remarks, would in the Middle Ages have probably continued to split rails all his life.

The fact is that if the predominant power of a few great minds is diminished in a democracy, it is because, together with such minds, a thousand others are at work contributing to the total result.... It is surely for the advantage of the most eminent minds that they should be surrounded by men of energy and intellect, who belong neither to the class of hero-worshippers nor to the class of valets de chambre.

The truth seems to be that with an increased population and the multiplicity of interests and influences at play on men, we may expect a greater diversity of mental types in the future than could be found at any period in the past. The supposed uniformity of society in a democratic age is apparent, not real; artificial distinctions are replaced by natural differences; and within the one great community exists a vast number of smaller communities, each having its special intellectual and moral characteristics. In the few essentials of social order the majority rightly has its way, but within certain broad bounds, which are fixed, there remains ample scope for the action of a multitude of various minorities.—"New Studies in Literature," by Prof. E. Dowden.

The so-called uniformity and monotony of American life struck me as existing in appearance much more than in reality. If all my ten neighbours have pretty much the same income and enjoy pretty much the same comforts, their little social circle is certainly in a sense much more uniform than if their incomes ranged down from L10,000 to L300 and their household state from several powdered footmen to a little maid-of-all-work; but surely in all that really matters—in thoughts, ideas, personal habits and tastes, internal storms and calms, the elements of tragedy and comedy, talents and ambitions, loves and fears—the former circle might be infinitely more varied than the latter. Many critics of American life seem to have been led away by merely external similarities, and to have jumped at once to the conclusion that one Philadelphian must be as much like another as each little red-brick, white-stooped house of the Quaker City is like its neighbours. A single glance at the enormous number of intelligent faces one sees in American society, or even in an American street, is enough to dissipate the idea that this can be a country of greater monotony than, say, England, where expressionless faces are by no means uncommon, even in the best circles. America is more monotonous than England, if a more equitable distribution of material comforts be monotony; it is not so, if the question be of originality of character and susceptibility to ideas.

THE END

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