Letter to a Friend From the Far West


MY DEAR FRIEND, — I take this method of addressing you, first, because I have something to say to you, and when we have met you have never seemed to give me a chance ; secondly, because you live in so many places, and are, as you say yourself, such a great people, and I suspect that if I addressed you an individual letter to Omaha, say, or Fargo, the part of you which lives in Fort Scott or Port Blakeley would never get it. Yet I have the same things to say to you wherever you are, for I find you always saying the same things to me, however many there are of you, and however varied our place of meeting.

Let me say first that I thoroughly believe you to be a good follow ; you are earnest, warm-hearted, and straightforward. It is encouraging to meet you, not only on account of what you show of yourself, but of the way you treat me ; you offer me a voice, a hand-shake, which if I met in one of my neighbors I should say he meant to give me a hearty welcome ; and I have tried to show you that I was glad to make your acquaintance, as you seemed to be to make mine. And as I said that you always say the same thing to me, and greet me in the same way, there is one convenience about it, at all events : when I had met one of yon, I had met the whole of you. If I encounter an Englishman, a New Yorker, a German, a South Carolinian, although certainly I recognize the type of the respective nationality at once, I feel I have still the acquaintance of each individual to make. I may recognize in advance the German eye and the English intonation ; I may distinguish the New York dignity in every case from the Carolina reserve or the Philadelphia push : but these disposed of, there is still the man to learn, with his idiosyncrasy.

But you, my dear friend from the West, I know in any dress and under any circumstances. Tall or short, dark or light, whether living in Leavenworth or in Bismarck, whether sprung from Vermont or Kentucky, it is you, and I know beforehand exactly what you are going to say to me. And while you are saying it, the same question is always rising in my mind, — “What will you expect me to say when my turn comes ? Or would you rather I did not say anything ? ” I have some friends who obviously think conversation should be confined to two persons, the one always speaking, the other always listening. “ I had a delightful dinner‘party the other day,” said an old gourmand. “ We had a beautiful turkey, perfectly cooked ; it was just enough for us.” “ How large was the party ? ” “ Only two.” “Only two!” “ Yes: I and the turkey.” I have passed the time with friends who apparently expected me to take about as much share in the talk as the turkey did in this dinner of two. But I do not think it is quite so with you. You treat me to a variety of statements in a tone of insistence that seems to demand some reply. You inform me with almost passionate emphasis that the State of Osark is undoubtedly the most remarkable in the Union ; that your wheatfields extend as far as the eye can reach ; that the mineral resources of the Arapahoe Valley far surpass those of Australia and Spain combined ; that you can get out of Platte City by fourteen different trunk lines of railroad (a friend of mine, who lived there, wished she could get out by all fourteen at once); that there is a dentist at Fort Buell who will make me such a set of teeth as no city east of the Alleghanies can furnish. Well, when you pause, — as you do sometimes, — what do you expect me to say ? Would you care to have me deny it all, and provoke yon into giving me chapter and verse, and reiterating still louder and more fiercely, as you have already done two or three times, that I do not know your country or how great you are ? I do not wish to deny it; I cannot, as you truly say. Neither can I deny what Professor Holden tells me about the distance and number of the fixed stars. I am perfectly willing to take his enormous figures on his word, and so I am yours on your word. Or would you like to have me draw you out with intelligent questions, and invite you to go into details ? f am not unwilling to do this, but you do not respond.

I can get no details from you,—nothing but big numbers. You are ready and willing to tell me that you have the biggest cornfields, the largest hogs, the most flourishing cities, the handsomest schoolhouses, the most enterprising inhabitants, and an abundant supply of other persons and things ; but the moment it comes to character instead of quantity, or to kind instead of number, I hear nothing but increased iteration of bigness.

Now, I seem to see in this no advance or progress to the great goal of a perfect humanity, but rather a retrogression. You do not tell me of anything special that you produce or make which the world has never seen before ; you only tell me that you produce more of the old things : therefore your first few sentences tell me all you have to say, and after a few questions, only eliciting more figures, I find no resources for talk. To put it in the language of Herbert Spencer, you appear to differentiate nothing. It you will allow a homely illustration, I have no doubt you can raise hams larger and more numerous than any other country; but have you developed any peculiar, any choice variety, like the delicious Westphalia and Virginia hams ? I remember eating, at three different dinners, these two kinds and a Western ham. The comparative flatness of the last was amazing. It was, as the boy said of half his dog’s breed, “just dog,” — or rather, just hog.

And with this is connected the reason why I cannot adopt the third form of conversation, which perhaps you desire, — throwing in from time to time enthusiastic expressions of surprise and eulogy, and taking a modest second to your strain of exaltation. It is a painful fact that I am not overwhelmed with the accounts you give me. I cannot see in mere bigness anything that rises to greatness, to grandeur. Let me illustrate what I mean by a foreign instance which cannot wound the local susceptibilities of any American. When we travel in Italy, there are many cities — at least six, if not eight — which invite our study. Each one of them has its own peculiar attractions ; something that it alone can show, and the lack of which is recognized not only by its sisters, but by the whole world. Each offers reasons for visiting its own illustrious precincts entirely independent of glories elsewhere. Of these half dozen cities, Florence is undoubtedly the smallest in population, and Naples and Milan are the two largest. The most progressive, the most modern, the one which is most steadily adding to its population and wealth, is Milan, and it has been emphatically called for centuries “ Milano la grande,” when other cities have had the titles of “ the beautiful,” “ the rich,” “ the proud,” etc. Yet Florence, the smallest, is richer in everything that draws a visitor, except Rome, and not poorer than she is. At the same time, Milan, though possessing certain definite treasures, is on the whole the poorest in them; and though Naples certainly exhibits matchless beauties, they are rather outside than inside, and far the greater part of the teeming hive of humanity which properly bears that name never feels the tread of a visitor. So true is it that what is merely big is rarely interesting as such. The Yellowstone Park and the Yosemite Valley are attractive because their scenery is peculiar in character and grand in outline, as well as extensive in proportions. But a wheatfield of a thousand acres is nothing more than ten wheatfields of a hundred acres. It merely shows that agriculture is conducted in large farms instead of small ones; and I could show you historical evidence, if I thought you cared for it, that large farms have more than once proved a curse rather than a blessing to the land wherein they were found.

You furnished, the other day, in Washington, a ludicrous proof that biguess is not greatness. The repeal of the purchasing clauses of the Sherman Act was discussed with great eagerness and force, especially by you. One of you, Mr. Bryan, of Nebraska, made a very powerful speech, which no one on the other side, however strong his convictions, could possibly answer without great thought and preparation. It exhibited study, logic, and rhetoric. It took between two and three hours, but, as the subject was so important, it ought not to be called too long. Its admirers generally called it “ a great speech,” and even those who disagreed with it acquiesced in the name. Later on, Senator Allen, of the same State, spoke on the same subject between fourteen and fifteen hours. It was the longest continuous occupancy of the floor in the annals of Congress. It broke the record. It was a “ big thing,” I suppose, in the minds of such as admire a big thing; and the bigger it was, the farther it was from greatness.

If your ideas and your resources are to dominate the country, as you say they are bound to, it will be by their producing some man who, in force of character and power of influence, surpasses other men : not because he is physically big himself ; no, nor even because he is morally big, in the sense of large talk and broad ideas ; nor yet because he represents States whose products run up into big figures. You surely do not think Mr. Lincoln owes his mighty fame to his being six feet four ? In that generation, Mr. Alexander H. Stephens, beyond question the ablest man of his own section, was perhaps the frailest mortal in the United States. It is said that the Mamelukes of Egypt were bitterly disappointed by the utterly insignificant appearance of Bonaparte. They admired infinitely more the big, showy trooper Murat, who, as a man, in the real sense of the word, was simply nothing beside his master.

I confess, also, I am not greatly moved by what you tell me, that in fifty years the centre of population will be west of the Missouri, and then the Far West will necessarily control the Union. In the first place, what occurs fifty years hence is hardly going to affect me. I shall scarcely be here to see it ; I certainly shall take no active part in it. I cannot alter what it seems to me is emphatically my duty or my pleasure now, because something is going to happen in 1914 which you see at present more clearly than I do. It appears to me that the bays of San Francisco and New York arc likely to retain their paramount influence, no matter in what part of the intervening continent the ” centre of population ” lies. But most certainly, if I am to avert my eyes from the present, I care much more about the past than tbe future ; and there we differ. We both, no doubt, are immensely interested in the present. But I think it my duty to study the past, of which I really may know the facts, to guide me in the present, which must be tentative. You use this experimental present as a guide to the future, which must be exceedingly visionary.

I look back fifty years. I see that the two greatest men of our race were Daniel Webster and Sir Robert Peel. Unquestionably, they lived in the past much more than you think public men ought to. Unquestionably, they had only the most indistinct vision of the future of their respective countries. Daniel Webster certainly did not dream in 1844 of what the Northwest is now. Sir Robert did not have the faintest inkling of what his pupil Gladstone would become. Each had in that day great national problems to solve immediately. Daniel Webster had to save the United States from war ; Sir Robert Peel had to save England from financial ruin. They both did their work in direct opposition to the wishes of their closest friends, without gaining the support of their enemies, and with the immediate assurance of losing power. Yet they did it so as to avert misery not only for the time they did foresee, but for years they did not dream of forecasting, and did it in the way which enabled opponents and successors to do their special work, in their turn, by following out the lines of Peel and Webster, whom they had opposed at the time. That in 1894 Puget Sound is ours, and the Bank of England still solvent, is owing to what they did in 1844. And they did it not because they lived in a great country or a small one, but because, being naturally beyond ordinary men, they used their extraordinary powers to do the best they could for their countries as they then saw them, in the light of knowledge of what they had been, — modified, no doubt, and still further enlightened by the spirit of prophecy ; but the spirit of prophecy is nothing without the spirit of counsel and might. Moreover, they did these mighty things largely because each knew that his country, though great, was not the only one on earth, and because both recognized that every nation must act with reference to others, or it will assuredly be upset in its course.

And now I come to the remaining form of conversation, which I think perhaps you might expect me to adopt, and wonder I do not, namely, that of booming my own part of the Union, and capping all your wonderful stories about the State of Osark by as wonderful stories about the State of Norumbega. I could do so, I assure you, in the intervals when you take breath. You have already made out that I come from one of the three districts still called New, though they are so old. Never mind if it is New Jersey, New York, or New England, — you call us all the East. To be sure, that name used to mean India, China, and Japan ; but you have changed the English language, among other things, and these are now, in your tongue, “ the Orient,” and your Atlantic brethren are “the East.” I can assure you, there is still a great deal “ new ” about us, — a great deal that is fresh, advancing, progressive, awake. As I say, I could boom my own section and State, if I wanted to ; I could name many good things which we have, and which you would like to have, but do not, and never will. But I shall not take up this method of talk. I shall not try to cap you ; and for this one reason, — I do not think it is a nice way of talking. That is, my very dear fellow, in a nutshell, why you do not find me the completely sympathetic companion that you so heartily seek. You can talk of nothing but yourself, your State, your resources, your destiny. The whole range of human wit and human knowledge seems a sealed book to you, except as a brief text on which you can draw out this long tale of your own present and future glories. I went to church in one of your greatest cities. There was a very charming boy choir. I met you in the course of the afternoon, and told you what I had heard at St. Luke’s. What did you say ? “ Their choir does n’t cost nearly as much as ours at St. Peter’s ; we ’ve one singer to whom we pay five thousand dollars.” My dear man, are not even the house of God, and the holy day, and the song of praise sacred from your brag ?

You are not the only man in the world who is proud of himself and his surroundings ; and it is to your credit that your pride is so much in yourself as a people, and so little in yourself as a person. And yet perhaps if you were a little less absorbed in your section, if you paid more attention to developing your varieties, and less to your numbers, you might be more entertaining. But one would be loath to censure such real unselfishness of person. I say, you are not the only conceited man in the world. I from the East am conceited ; so is our brother from the South ; so is the inhabitant of every European nation. But none of us all make the grandeur and progress of our community the sole and unvarying topic of our discourse. There are other interests than our own glory which have their place in our time, our thought, and our speech. Some men have elevated tastes, and can talk about them ; some seem only to know what is base ; some care for art or music, some for nothing but field sports or adventure ; some can talk about polities, or science, or history ; some can think only of business pursuits, and some only about society. There is an endless range of subjects about which men of all nations succeed in making conversation ; and they do not make them all invariably turn on the superiority in each and every respect of their own people. They do recognize that the world is old and that it is wide, and that what happened elsewhere and at other times is not only worth talking about and thinking about, but that it is absolutely necessary, if men are to enjoy one another’s company. I think very likely you will say that you have found plenty of men outside the Far West, Americans and Europeans, who talk a good deal about their own achievements of one kind or another, and bring themselves a good deal into the conversation. Undoubtedly, and some of them are liked and sought after, in spite of this self-laudation. But the vainest and most conceited man generally tells his story as something wherein you and I will find sympathy or enjoyment ; he treats us as his brothers, capable of appreciating, or, if occasion were, even sharing his triumphs ; he talks, that is, to exalt himself, but not to depress us. Moreover, it is individual, not national egotism which makes such talk amusing, notwithstanding its conceit. But you, my dear Western friend, do not favor us with your own striking adventures or performances as something we shall appreciate. I have already told you that when I try to get at yon, to know you, I cannot find the individual friend. You only tell me about the big things you are doing as a people ; and you tell them for my depression, not your own exaltation,— or at least it has that tone.

Now, my friend, this is not the way to talk ; it is very tedious, and it is very uncivil. It is tedious, because, like the prairie landscape, although fertile and beautiful, it has no variety ; and it is uncivil, because no man likes to have it implied incessantly that he belongs to an inferior race. I wonder if those eminent divines of yours, whose eloquence, logic, and devotion are unmatched in the East, ever ventured to preach to you from such texts as, “ Let another man praise thee, and not thine own mouth ; a stranger, and not thine own lips ; ” “ Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others; ” “ In honour preferring one another ; ” and a score of the like, from both Testaments.

I think it very possible that you will draw, as the conclusion from all this, that I am envious or jealous. You are mistaken, but I could probably not convince you of it. I have not written this letter to you on the deep matters of the heart ; I should handle them in a different way. I am writing solely about our intercourse in conversation. I believe I can rely on you, as you can on me, to discharge the deeper duties of friendship and patriotism. If I were sick, or poor, or oppressed, I doubt not your hand and your purse would be at my service. But those are the exceptions ; ordinary familiar intercourse is the rule ; and I ask you now whether, at our next meeting, you cannot find some other subject of conversation besides the boundless glories of the Far West.

Do I hold, then, that you and I have nothing better to think of, when we meet, than how to have a pleasant talk ? Very far from it, my countryman ; we have got to think how we can unite to do the best for America. But in order to accomplish this end we must consider the means. We have none but mutual intercourse. If we can get to like each other and enjoy each other, we shall learn to cooperate ; but I do not believe we can ever work together in our respective fields till we enjoy living together when we meet. I have tried to show you why, after encountering once or twice your hearty voice and open manner, I am not so eager to greet them a third time ; for the message they bring me is too much like a challenge, — such as I should resent from a foreigner, but which from a countryman I am unwilling to regard as an offense, yet cannot take as a kindness.

Your friend and countryman,