The American Voice


IN a railroad station, the other day, I saw an uncouth foreigner, evidently a Jew, who had just arrived from the old country, and had been met at the station by two men of his own kind. These two had upon them, however, the imprint of American civilization, in such form as it has penetrated Salem Street. They greeted the new-comer in voices which had no unusual quality ; but he returned their salutations in a baritone so full, so strong, so melodious that the music of it echoes still in the caves that lie somewhere between my tympanum and my heart, — those sub-carnal and enchanted caverns where sense-impressions wander while they await their transformation into thoughts and ideas. The voice had a tone as hard to describe as the quality in a wood-thrush’s song ; it was a mellow sweetness, a rounded fullness that thrilled the sense and delighted the soul. But the man was an ordinary Russian Jew in appearance ; he was manifestly not in the slightest degree in harmony with the genius of our institutions. Alas ! why should he have such a voice, while the next American gentleman I met spoke through his nose ?

Leaving the station, I pursued my way down town through the Common and past the great sunken Way which is being dug there. I saw a young Irishman sauntering along, all begrimed with yellow earth, with similarly begrimed fellows, from one part of the work to another ; and he was speaking to the other men about some detail of their toil. I knew he was newly arrived in the country, because the dew had not yet dried off the bloom of his brogue; it had the melodious quality which is soon lost from the American Irishman’s talk. He was a tall, slender fellow, with a short, curling fair beard, and blue eyes. His voice was a tenor, and as clear as a linnet’s. He seemed to sing rather than to speak, but he was just talking to the other laborers about the work.

Touched by the melodiousness and fine timbre of these two men’s voices, I went on my way, and noted more sorrowfully than ever the harshness of my fellow-countrymen’s tones. Why should their voices seem to scrape on the ear ? What circumstances had brought them to this quality ?

Is it an effect of climate ? So I have heard. Our climate is subject to extremes. So is that of Europe ; but ours is worse than that of western Europe. Is it also worse than that of the eastern-European plains from which, in all probability, my mellifluous-voiced Jew had just emigrated ? I doubt it. To get apples and pears hardy enough to bear the climate of our own northwestern prairies, where the weather is more extreme than in New England, our horticulturists have to go to these same Russian plains. Their climate is said to be almost as bad as our worst. And yet I have heard other Russians speak with very soft and clear voices.

Sometimes we are told that the sweetness is parched out of our voices by the dryness of our atmosphere. But I have heard Mexicans of the arid uplands, and Californians, speak in melodious tones; and here in watery New England, even in fogdripping Boston, we are distinguished above all other Americans— at least in the opinion of all other Americans — for the nasality of our tones. When the worst true word is said of it, our New England climate is more equable that that of Pennsylvania ; yet the untutored native Pennsylvanian often has a soft, almost negro-like tone. And I think the Canadians, whose climate is not celebrated for mildness or equability, have as a rule better voices than either New Englanders or people of New York and the northern “West.”

I have heard that the Swiss, the Tyrolese, and the Catalonians of the Pyrenees have strong and melodious voices because they are descended from generations of mountain-calling fathers. The cowherd of the Jura must needs lift his voice to make it reach up to his cattle on the mountain ; and the echo, sending it back to him with an effect of enchantment, trains his ear to such a love for the music of the voice that he will not be satisfied with any save musical sounds from his own throat. And so we have the Alpine ranz-des-vaches, and the Tyrolese carols, and in the Catalonians such an instinctive love for sweetness of voice that the choirs of the convent of Montserrat are said to produce the most heavenly strains heard this side the grave. All this we may well believe ; but have not our fathers too gone calling over great hills for their cattle ? Are there not mighty cow-callers in New Hampshire and Vermont to-day, whose voices are heard far on the mountains by beast and man ? And do not these same mountaineers relapse into a poor nasal drone when they leave off cattlecalling and merely talk to their own kind ? If you have heard the old-fashioned New England farmer shouting to his oxen, you have been impressed. “Whoa-hush! Whoa-haw ! ” It is a roar as of rapids through rocky gorges, and as of windstorms through mountain pines. Fors several generations the rustic Yankee has thus exhorted his beasts ; and yet our voices are not as those of Swiss or Tyrolese !

If I cannot find the cause of the vocal deficiency either in climate or in the birds or animals about us, which sing and call most musically, or in want of nutrition, or in any physical condition, I am driven to look for it in some moral shortcoming or distortion ; for men of science tell us that a moral perversion or infirmity is quickly reflected in the eyes and the voice. I have observed with pain that the American farmer’s shouting to his oxen, his horses, or his mules is commonly ill-natured. The psalm which he sings over their backs is far too often imprecatory. When the farmer calls his cows at nightfall, it is with a tone of querulous protest at their want of New England conscience in remaining far out in the pasture until that hour, while he has been toiling in the fields. Does he ever call to his beasts in sympathy? Is he fond of his horses and cattle, or merely fond of the possession of them ? Would he not deem it wrong to regard a beast of the field as a fellow-being, a comrade in the world for joyous company ? From that pleasant sympathy with birds and animals which puts real music into a man’s tones when he speaks to them, the Yankee was certainly long shut out by something.

And then, we know that the American man scorns to he childlike. The American child is on vastly better terms with the animals than the child’s father and mother are ; his parents have to teach him that brutes are not fit associates for human beings. All his life the Yankee boy of the old race has had drilled into him the doctrine that God gave to man the beasts to have dominion over ; and though there may be dominion and affection too, nothing is ever said to the child about that.

What may this have to do with the voice ? Only this : that the love of animals has much to do with the cheerful unrestraint of satisfaction with life, that has in its turn much to do with the voice, as well as with the smile and the sweetness of the eye. When I have sought with careful observation the real reason why the German, the Irish, the Scandinavian peasant comes to us not only with a rounder and sounder body, a fresher complexion, a finer ana thicker beard, and a sweeter voice than my countryman’s, but also with a more smiling face and a more cheerful heart, it has seemed to me that I could find this reason in his satisfaction with life, like that of a child. Generally the foreign peasant has found the conditions of life harder than our Yankee has found them ; but something in his mind or heart or kindlier religious notions has enabled him to triumph over hard material conditions, and made him temperamentally happy and physically sane. Must we look into the Yankee’s stern system of doctrine or morals for one cause of his physical sharpness?

Perhaps not ; and yet I have sometimes fancied that we might have stood the climate without its yellowing and desiccating our skins, and drying away our fatty tissue, and shriveling up our beards, and so stiffening and parching our vocal membranes that our voices scrape through them, if we had devoted ourselves a little less thoroughly to dogma, and had loved nature a good deal more trustfully.