The Contributors’ Club: American Type

A new “race” emerges after a huge wave of immigration
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One often wonders what sort of human being is likely to emerge from the racial confusion of centuries of intermarriage. At least I do, since it is my habit to worry most over matters about which I can do nothing.

I recently chanced to meet a Mr. Paul Washington on a railway train. There are not many white Washingtons left so America, and I feared that his first name might be George, since a parental Washington might be excused for yielding to the temptation to name a male child for the childless father of his country. But Mr. Washington explained that his excellent sire, with four sons at his disposal, refused to name any one of them George. This I thought showed rare restraint, and I pursued my genealogical inquiries. Presently I discovered that if this man Washington is not the American of the future, he is a long step in that direction.

Mr. Washington told me that his grandfather of that name was born in England. In return I informed him that all four of my grandparents were born in England; to be more precise, in a single county of England — Wiltshire. Racially, I am a pure bred Wiltshireman. Though born in the United States, I am as Wilts as Stonehenge, more English than Edward VIII, and British enough to be unable, in the pinches, to view the Empire objectively. Not so Mr. Washington. Each of his grandparents came front a different country. One grandfather was born in England, the other in Germany; one grandmother in France, the other in Ireland. What is more, my Washington had a touch of all these races in his manner.

Like the French, his hands were full of gestures — neat, friendly, illuminating little gestures which accented his every speech. He spoke quickly with little change of tense, in the English way, but with the lively, lifting features and darting glances of the Irish. Yet there ran through all his talk a strong thread of German precision. Talking of his studies at the Wharton School in Philadelphia, he was careful to give its full title — Wharton School of Finance and Commerce — and in mentioning a brother employed by Westinghouse he was equally precise — Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company. Here, I thought, is a man in whom one racial trait holds another racial trait within bounds, so that he can be at the same moment quick yet precise, voluble yet modest. You felt he could talk yen into insuring against the next Ice Age.

It was a pleasure to listen to his flowing monotone which rippled along like a brook, with little undertones of delight in it, and to see his neat hands moving as delicately as willows alongshore. Here sat a being of many honest prides; proud of his brothers — one soon to be a sales engineer for Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company, another a food chemist with American Stores Company and once amateur welterweight boxing champion of the Middle Atlantic States; proud of his father, a Pennsylvania railway engineer who had been leader of the Democratic Party in the Assembly at Harrisburg and sometime mediator for the Department of Labor and Industry. 'A peacemaker.' He laid that phrase on his father's memory as reverently as if it had been a wreath, and a moment later I was surprised to learn that Washington pΦre was even then doing his many hours a day on the line between Altoona and Pittsburgh.

Frankness and genuineness warned his talk until the words fairly glowed good will. He rejoiced in his Grandfather Washington for making a fortune in coal mining by the age of forty after coming to this country as an adult unable to read or write — not at all humiliated to relate that, following this auspicious start, his ancestor retired to drink his way successfully through said fortune and die penniless. Not a censorious word did he utter to indicate that this long spree was in any sense an error, or to hint regret for the lost million. You gathered that the grandson felt competent to make his own million or not, as he chose.

This four sided complete American delighted in his business, which was insurance of the bond and liability sort. With a neat mingling of the legal and paternal, he spoke of his clients as 'my assured.' His stance for attacking the immense futurities of insurance is a village high in the Alleghenies. Swiftly he convinced me that his village is quite the loveliest and most prosperous in America, containing, 'with its environs,' more than six thousand souls of exceptional solvency and virtue. Accepting their quality, I questioned if they were numerous enough to provide all the prospects he needed. My worry was unnecessary. He was, literally, a free agent within the herders of Pennsylvania, and was already going afield for more than half of his business. For him his lofty village is jest a jumping off place from which to insure the universe; from his office window he beholds a world to save by contract.

Obviously here is a man altogether American. Unlike myself, he could never think of himself as anything other than American. Unified by multiplicity, he is indigenous as a tree, and like a tree is without fear or doubt. For him there can never be a cloying question whether America is right or wrong; he is America, and America is he. Whether he wears America like a glove or America wears him like a glove, the twain fit perfectly. His occupation makes him part of the capitalist order, concerning whose righteousness he has no misgivings; but his upbringing by a union leader makes him aware of the rights of labor. Eventually he expects the two rival interests to reach some sort of harmony, without conflict dramatic enough to interfere seriously with either himself or insurance. And if the struggle should become desperate, Paul Washington knows that he can wangle through it somehow and adjust himself to whatever way of life results.

Twenty years older than Mr. Washington, I found his aplomb a little disconcerting to one who knew America before the World War and before the Income Tax. Contrasting our present condition with that halcyon period, I have practically given up on America, dating the decline of the Old Republic from 1913, since which all one twists seem to have been for the worse. But Mr. Washington, while alive before the war, was not old enough to be touched by our ancient glory. He belongs to a generation which would hardly be faced at having to write a new constitution and ought to do as good a job at it as the authors of the present one did.

This composite American is at ease in America as more simple types are not. None of his grandparents were at ease in America; immigrants never are in an adopted country. No wonder Grandfather Washington took to drink far from the delights of Lancashire. It takes several generations to acclimate the imported type of human biped, to establish that intimate accord between root and branch, between the mind and social institutions, which lets a man flower fully and happily in his environment. Racial blocs which incline toward preserving solidarity of blood, frowning on intermarriage, do not quite attain this delightful at homeness. The Puritans, for instance, never seem to have been really at house in America; their desire was to change their environment rather than accept it, acting in blind obedience to a code originating long ago overseas. In general they preferred to kill an Indian rather than marry one. Likewise, there are certain sects in Pennsylvania, of German origin, whose members cling to old ways of life, thrusting the American pattern as far out of reach as they can.

Mr. Washington, with his four so different grandparents, is a reassuring witness to our eventual salvation. If it is true that every nation is on its way to becoming a race, he is a sample conducive to optimism. Although he tried valiantly to put me at ease, I was so overwhelmed by his shining example that I neglected to inquire whether he himself had taken steps to become an ancestor and with what result. If, however, he is still unmarried, I hope that he will marry a girl whose ancestral line includes grandparents Italian, Scots, Slav, and Jew. Little Washingtons born of the union would form a genuinely American family, and if one of them should be named George, he might easily become President by claiming the suffrages of eight racial blocs, on the ground that, more completely than anyone else, he represents the American race.

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