Whenever we stand in need of intricate knowledge, balanced judgment, or delicate analysis, it is our comfortable habit to question our neighbors. They may be no wiser and no better informed than we are; but a collective opinion has its value, or at least its satisfying qualities. For one thing, there is so much of it. For another, it seldom lacks variety. Last year the American Journal of Sociology asked two hundred and fifty 'representative' men and women 'upon what ideals, policies, programmes, or specific purposes should Americans place most stress in the immediate future,' and published the answers that were returned in a Symposium entitled, 'What is Americanism?' The candid reader, following this symposium, received much counsel but little enlightenment. There were some good practical suggestions; but nowhere any cohesion, nowhere any sense of solidarity, nowhere any concern for national honor or authority.
It was perhaps to be expected that Mr. Burghardt Du Bois's conception of true Americanism would be the abolishment of the color line, and that Mr. Eugene Debs would see salvation in the sweeping away of 'privately owned industries, and production for individual profit.' These answers might have been foreseen when the questions were asked. But it was disconcerting to find that all, or almost all, of the 'representative' citizens represented one line of civic policy, or civic reform, and refused to look beyond it. The prohibitionist discerned Americanism in prohibition, the equal suffragist in votes for women, the biologist in applied science, the physician in the extirpation of microbes, the philanthropist in playgrounds, the sociologist in eugenism and old-age pensions, and the manufacturer in the revision of taxes. It was refreshing when an author unexpectedly demanded the extinction of inherited capital. Authorship seldom concerns itself with anything so inconceivably remote.
The quality of miscellaneousness is least serviceable when we leave the world of affairs, and seek admission into the world of ideals. There must be an interpretation of Americanism which will express for all of us a patriotism at once practical and emotional, an understanding of our place in the world and of the work we are best fitted to do in it, a sentiment which we can hold as we hold nothing else—in common, and which will be forever remote from personal solicitude and resentment. Those of us whose memories stretch back over a half a century recall too plainly a certain uneasiness which for years pervaded American politics and American letters, which made us unduly apprehensive, and, as a consequence, unduly sensitive and arrogant. It found expression in Mr. William Cullen Bryant's well-known poem, 'America,' made familiar to my generation by school readers and manuals of elocution, and impressed by frequent recitations upon our memories.
O mother of a mighty race.
Yet lovely in thy youthful grace!
The elder dames, thy haughty peers,
Admire and hate thy blooming years; With words of shame
And taunts of scorn they join thy name.
There are eight verses, and four of them repeat Mr. Bryant's conviction that the nations of Europe united in envying and insulting us. To be hated because we were young, and strong, and good, and beautiful seemed, to my childish heart, a noble fate; and when a closer acquaintance with history dispelled this pleasant illusion, I parted from it with regret. France was our ally in the Revolutionary War. Russia was friendly in the Civil War. England was friendly in the Spanish War. If the repudiation of state debts left a bad taste in the mouths of foreign investors, they might be pardoned for making a wry face. Most of them were subsequently paid; but the phrase 'American revoke' dates from the period of suspense. By the time we celebrated our hundredth birthday with a world's fair, we were on very easy terms with our neighbors. Far from taunting us with shameful words, our 'haughty peers' showed on this memorable occasion unanimous good temper and good will; and Punch's congratulatory verses were among the most pleasant birthday letters we received.
The expansion of national life, fed by the great emotions of the Civil War, and revealed to the world by the Centennial Exhibition, found expression in education, art, and letters. Then it was that Americanism took a new and disconcerting turn. Pleased with our progress, stunned by finding that we had poets, and painters, and novelists, and magazines, and a history, all of our own, we began to say, and say very loudly, that we had no need of the poets, and painters, and novelists, and magazines, and histories of other lands. Our attitude was not unlike that of George Borrow, who, annoyed by the potency of Italian art, adjured Englishmen to stay at home and contemplate the greatness of England. England, he said, had pictures of her own. She had her own 'minstrel strain.' She had all her sons could ask for. 'England against the world.'
In the same exclusive spirit, American school boards proposed that American school-children should begin the study of history with the colonization of America, ignoring the trivial episodes which preceded this great event. Patriotic protectionists heaped duties on foreign art, and bade us buy American pictures. Enthusiastic editors confided to us that 'the world has never known such storehouses of well-selected mental food as are furnished by our American magazines.' Complacent critics rejoiced that American poets did not sing like Tennyson, 'nor like Keats, nor Shelley, nor Wordsworth'; but that, as became a new race of men, they ‘reverberated a synthesis of all the poetic minds of the century.' Finally, American novelists assured us that in their hands the art of fiction had grown so fine and rare that we could no longer stand the 'mannerisms' of Dickens, or the 'confidential attitude' of Thackeray. We had scaled the empyrean heights.
There is a brief paragraph in Mr. Thayer's Life and Letters of John Hay, which vividly recalls this peculiar phase of Americanism. Mr. Hay writes to Mr. Howells in 1882: 'The worst thing in our time about American taste is the way it treats James. I believe he would not be read in America at all if it were not for his European vogue. If he lived in Cambridge he could write what he likes, but because he finds London more agreeable, he is the prey of all the patriotisms. Of all vices, I hold patriotism the worst, when it meddles with matters of taste.'
So far had American patriotism encroached upon matters of taste, that by 1892 there was a critical embargo placed upon foreign literature. 'Every nation,' we were told, 'ought to supply its own second-rate books,'—like domestic sheeting and ginghams. An acquaintance with English authors was held to be a misdemeanor. Why quote Mr. Matthew Arnold, when you might quote Mr. Lowell? Why write about Becky Sharp, when you might write about Hester Prynne? Why laugh over Dickens, when you might laugh over Mark Twain? Why eat artichokes, when you might eat corn? American school-boys, we were told, must be guarded from the feudalism of Scott. American speech must be guarded from the 'insularities' of England's English. 'That failure in good sense which comes from too warm a self-satisfaction' (Mr. Arnold does sometimes say a thing very well) robbed us for years of mental poise, of adjusted standards, of an unencumbered outlook upon life.
It is strange to glance back upon a day when we had so little to trouble us that we could vex our souls over feudalism and fiction; when—in the absence of serious problems—we could raise pronunciation or spelling into a national issue. Americanism has done with trivialities, patriotism with matters of taste. Love for one's country is not a shallow sentiment, based upon self-esteem. It is a profound and primitive passion. It may lie dormant in our souls when all goes well. It may be thwarted and frustrated by the exigencies of party government. It may be dissevered from pride or pleasure. But it is part of ourselves, wholly beyond analysis, fed upon hope and fear, joy and sorrow, glory and shame. If, after the fashion of the world, we drowsed in our day of security, we have been rudely and permanently awakened. The shadow of mighty events has fallen across our path. We have witnessed a great national crime. We have beheld the utmost heights of heroism. And when we asked of what concern to us were this crime and this heroism, the answer came unexpectedly, and with blinding force. The sea was strewn with our dead, our honor was undermined by conspiracies, our factories were fired, our cargoes dynamited. We were a neutral nation at peace with the world. The attack made upon our industries and upon our good name was secret, malignant, and pitiless. It was organized warfare, without the courage and candor of war.