Some Recent Books on the United States
WHEN Mr, Weller senior broached his ingenious scheme for getting Mr. Pickwick out of the Fleet Prison by means of a “pianner forty; vun as von’t play,” he also suggested that the liberated captive should make his escape to America and then “ come back and write a book about the ’Merrikins as’ll pay all his expenses and more, if he blows ’em up enough.” It is interesting to note how generally this recipe has been departed from in the two hundred and eighty volumes in which visitors to the United States have recorded their impressions of that country since 1880. While the earlier visitors came, at best, in a spirit of good-natured patronage, these later observers come rather to learn than to criticise. The attitude of blame for the sake of blame is conspicuously absent from the few works noticed in this article, all of which belong to the latest or post-Münsterberg epoch (1903-1907) of their subject. No one of them has been begun with the idea of abusing the country, and some of them come so near to blessing it altogether that the Balaks must feel altogether abashed.
It is, I think, quite obvious that this new state of things is by no means merely an affair of the pocket,—merely because the time has come when attacks on the United States do not pay. On the contrary, it seems to me that a really clever satirical onslaught on American manners and customs, say from the pen of Mr. George Bernard Shaw, might very well attain a phenomenal success. Such a book would be widely read not only in America itself but also in other Englishspeaking countries, where, I regret to say, books praising America can hardly yet be said to enjoy exceptional popularity. Nor is it due to the mere brute power and importance of the present United States as compared with its relative insignificance in the Dickensian period. This accounts no doubt for the tone of many of the less important books; but we cannot forget that one at least of the most weighty and respectful works on the United States was written when the republic was still in its swaddling clothes. The phenomenon may, perhaps, be partly explained by the great growth of interest in international neighbors of all kinds, which makes even a “Frenchman” like “Pierre de Coulevain” find it worth while to write a big book on L’Ile Inconnue of Albion. The main cause of the new attitude, however, is unquestionably the larger sympathy with the principles for which the United States stands. Even in the days of the malevolent and caricature criticism of a Mrs. Trollope and a Basil Hall, we find the democratic Miss Harriet Martineau writing of the United States in such a way that we hardly know which we enjoy more, — the genial and sympathetic philosophy of the general outlook or the feminine and even gossipy delight in minor details. On the other hand, in this later day of respect and interest, we still find narrow-minded officials, like Sir Lepel Griffin, and frivolous aristocrats, like Count Gleichen, whose attitude towards the United States leaves nothing to desire in point of offensiveness.
The older books are, of course, much more concerned than the new ones with a discussion of the republican form of government, then regarded as more or less on its trial. The pioneer conditions of life, especially in the matter of means of communication, afford much stuff for description; while the existence of slavery gives opportunity for great warmth of denunciation. The American woman is by no means so prominent in the earlier volumes; and when she is mentioned it is seldom to declare her the superior of her mate, as is so often done— and perhaps overdone — by contemporary visitors. Among the observations that preserve their character pretty well unchanged throughout the decades are those on the American faculty of talk (described by Miss Martineau as very droll but somewhat prosy); on the general amiability and kindly manners of the American citizen; on the spirit of hope and promise that pervades the country. The modern writers, with rare exceptions, have to admit that after all possible deductions for discrepancy between theory and practice, between promise and performance, the republic of the United States is still, among all countries of importance, that in which the intrinsic character of the individual counts for most, irrespective of the distinctions of birth and position. Miss Martineau wrote, “Perhaps no Englishman can become fully aware, without going to America, of the atmosphere of insolence in which he dwells; of the taint of contempt which affects all the intercourses of his world;” and though the finger on the dial has moved considerably since these words were penned, their relative truth is still unimpaired.
Turning now to an analysis of the points of agreement and disagreement in the recent books noted below, we find, naturally enough, that they all animadvert on such American qualities as push, restless energy, independence, tolerance of outlook, grandiose neglect of petty economies, absorption in the financial and commercial game, excess of selfapprobation, and talent for invention. American women are almost invariably praised, often with some extravagance. There are however, nowadays, observers who insist that the boasted superiority of the American woman to the American man is much more fancied than real; that the comparative inconspicuousness of the latter in society is largely due to the quasi-paternal, indulgent, and selfeffacing delight he takes in seeing his womankind show off; and that his talk is really quite as interesting as, and more original than, the easily tapped flow of his wife, his sister, or his daughter. American newspapers are almost always decried by the foreign observer, though sometimes with a shade of respect for their energy as news-collectors. The questions of coeducation, immigration, and the negro, elicit remarks from the most careless traveler. The American child is seldom absent from the record, and seldom evokes enthusiasm. American architecture is spoken of with a respect that is sadly lacking in the references to the sister arts.
It is not without interest to note also such differences in the books under review as can fairly be ascribed to the nationality of the writers. Generalizations on this basis are most easily made in respect of the French authors. These, in the first place, invariably assume (and probably with justice) that their audience is in a state of ignorance, more or less profound, as to the New World, and consequently they overload their books with matter which would seem too trite and obvious for mention by British or German observers. They also manifestly feel that they are writing for a nation to which traveling is a comparatively unfamiliar condition; and hence they include a superfluity of small practical and prosaic details which might surely be just as well left to the guide-book. Somewhat unexpectedly, the French traveler in America, from Colonial times down to the present day, is much more preoccupied with the industrial side of American life than is his British or Teutonic brother. While this fact exposes us to floods of statistics, descriptions of machinery, and the like, we also owe to it sundry very vivid and picturesque accounts of Pittsburg by night, the wonders of electric power, and the ramifications of the mammoth trusts. The question of the relation of the sexes is very prominent. The general sympathy of the Frenchman with the colored races is so well known that it is no surprise to find the writers of these books vociferous with astonishment at the general American attitude towards the negro.
An American characteristic which obviously gives great offense to the polished French observer is the lack of sense of neatness, order, harmony, and definiteness, with the accompanying acquiescence in the merely provisional and temporary. Makeshifts obtrude at every turn; scenery is ruined by bill-boards, tin cans, and rubbish heaps; streets are badly paved, or even unpaved; streetnames are lacking at the corners; vehicles, especially those used for business purposes, are often dirty, unpainted, thrown together in the roughest kind of a way; the most expensive automobiles are often mud-covered and unkemptlooking.
The English and German books under review do not, as a rule, mention any names except those of public characters; but the Frenchmen seem to have no scruples in publishing intimate personal details, with names in full, of the private houses in which they received hospitality while in America. They also make many grotesque mistakes in describing sports and other similar conditions with which they are unfamiliar. Thus in the books noted below we find solemn assertions that the Bryn Mawr girls play cricket and football; that loud speaking, laughter, and whistling are prohibited in the streets of Boston ; that President Roosevelt laid at Chicago a foundationstone weighing six thousand tons ; that freight trains are always run at express speed; and that hearses convey their grisly burdens to the cemetery at full gallop.
The German books on our list are much more individual than the French ones in their point of view. Most of them are quite alive to the good features of the United States; but while Professor Lamprecht (like Professor Münsterberg) is too warm an admirer of the military state to be thoroughly in sympathy with American ideals, Herr Fulda has almost no fault to find with the country except in his own special field of dramatic art. The Englishman, Mr. H. G. Wells, says perhaps the hardest things about the United States, and yet he is in a very real sense the most genuine friend of all the writers here reviewed. His blows are the blows of a generous fighter, who recognizes the worth of his antagonist and cherishes a profound respect for him. The American, Mr, James, has produced perhaps the most fascinating volume of all, — a work which, apart altogether from its subject, demands a place among books of permanent literary value : but his attitude, as compared with that of Mr. Wells, might almost be described as supercilious. He reminds one of the great financial magnate revisiting the village in winch he was born. He is ready to sentimentalize to any extent over the gate on which he swung as a boy, but he has largely lost touch with the friends of his youth. Their present occupations and surroundings seem to him dreary and borné, almost beyond his own extraordinary power of expression; and his views about them are inevitably detached and external.
M. Paul Adam, a well-known littérateur of Paris, was one of the swarm of European journalists who visited this country during the St. Louis Fair, and his book, entitled Vues d’Amérique1 is, I believe, a reprint of letters contributed to Le Temps, supplemented by a report on art to the French government. It is instinct with sincere admiration of the United States as the great national exponent of force, and is marked by considerable Gallic vivacity and wit, but it is somewhat scrappy in arrangement, and decidedly more superficial than some of the other books noticed in this article.
Like other French writers, M. Adam devotes much of his space to the business side of transatlantic civilization; and it is as the heroes of commerce and industry that the Americans appeal to him. He asserts that American speculators are in their own way poets and pursuers of the ideal, preferring enterprises that are full of risk, and facing the chance of bankruptcy with the same kind of disdain that the brave soldier shows when confronted with imminent death. The country, he goes on to say, is run on a theory of bluff, the philosophical expression of which he ascribes to Dr. William James. If you wish to be strong, make the gestures of force and address. The American people believes in its mission, and is profoundly convinced that the value of what it brings forth must bear a direct ratio to the amount of effort it expends. Agissons notre pensée — let us put our thought into action — is the aphorism of the leading Americans; and the great industrial and financial figures of the present are well worthy of comparison with the otherwise constituted heroes of the past. It would be in a by no means carping spirit that M. Adam would say, with Dr. Johnson, “The best part of the nation has gone into the city to make its fortune.”
Like Mr. Wells, M. Adam seems to find that the American flag is often flourished in a somewhat flamboyant manner, at least if we may so interpret his description of the mayor of St. Louis as speaking “en tremolo devant l’étendard étoilé.” He finds a symbol and type of American in the silent and even morose elevator-boy, ambitious, it would seem, only to make as many trips as possible in the shortest possible time. As an illustration of the practical union of the states he points to the hotel table, heaped with the products of the east and west and north and south, the fruits of Florida, the game of Maine, and the wine of California. Mr. Taft he describes as a Richelieu in the body of a Falstaff. In other cases his humor is less voluntary, as, for example, in his perfervid description of the typical American mechanic, gazing, black-shirted, from Brooklyn Bridge at the Statue of Liberty and murmuring with a significant smile, “Go ahead!”
The appendix on the present condition of art (making fully one quarter of the book) has no other connection with America than the accident that it is suggested by a collection of modern paintings exhibited in St. Louis. Practically nothing is said of American art, though he notes as chose curicuse that the Americans show no æsthetic initiative or originality except in architecture, asserting that the United States has evolved a new style of building, which deserves, or at least is on the way to deserve, the same kind of eulogy that we bestow on the great works of the past.
The two stout volumes2 in which M. Jules Huret records his impressions of America, if not particularly brilliant, show more detailed observation and possess more solid merit than the work of M. Adam. M. Huret reveals himself as quite astonishingly open-minded. His prejudices, frankly admitted, melt away as he proceeds, and he finally owns that he has been penetrated by the American spirit, purged as it were of the traces of a previous existence, and at the dawn of a new life. “I appreciated,” he goes on to say, “the shams of our education at their proper worth; not only did I come to understand intellectually that they concealed no less of egoism and fundamental brutality than the brusqueness of the Yankee, but I proved it by actual experience.” The volumes illustrate almost all the features already mentioned as characteristic of French books on America. Thus, he devotes a great deal of space to American industries, while he likens the rich merchants of America to the grands seigneurs of former days. In the treatment of the negro he finds something abnormal, unjust, and even criminal; and he is not only “astounded ” but “shocked” by the “Jim Crow” car. He admits that “le Français ne voyage pas assez,” and sees the resulting defects. He does not, however, admire the traveling facilities of the United States too blindly, but comments on the unrinsed fraternity of the glass for ice-water in the common car, and cannot conceive why the American should be proud of his sleepers. He finds much to revolt him in the manners of the people at table and elsewhere, but is more than half won over by the spontaneous sympathy which makes a shopwoman say, “ How do you do?” to you as you enter. M. Huret makes the shrewd remark that the American independence of manner is often due less to any high moral sentiment about the equality of man than to actual circumstances of condition and origin, which make Jack literally as good as his master. With the true French love of fine ideals, he seems rather to regret that facts leave so little play for theory in this regard, and would apparently prefer to see a spirit of equality born of conscience instead of circumstance.
M. Huret pays, perhaps, one of the greatest compliments ever paid to the American woman by ascribing the worldconquering success of the American in part to the fact that he is the result of the effective collaboration of a true man and a true woman, not merely the son of an efficient father and a mother who does not count. But to prove that t he is alive to defects as well as merits, let this citation about the “gold-spectacled woman somewhere between youth and age” prove: “She discusses, decides, and disposes of everything without passion but with a quiet assurance that is as unpleasant as a slap in the face and as bigoted as the belief of a savage in his amulet.” We find M. Huret in striking agreement with Mr. James in feeling the beauty and power of ancient works of art to be especially noticeable in American surroundings, and with Herr Fulda in holding up his hands at the general puerility of the American stage. But he considers the combination of singing and dancing offered by the American chorus girl a new and true art, from which he hopes great things as the successor of the tiresome and moribund grand ballet of Europe. M. Huret’s account of a football match is picturesque, vivid, and wonderfully correct. He seems also to have gauged pretty well the undue and regrettable prominence assigned to athletics, if we may judge of his anecdote of the parent who said, “If Harvard is again beaten at football, I’ll send my son to Yale.” Among other instances in which M. Huret seems to have hit the nail squarely on the head are his assertions that the American draws an ingenuous adolescent joy from noise for its own sake; that his restless desire for change often comes more from pure ennui than from any striving for better things: and that his vaunted quickness is often mere sound and fury, signifying nothing. This last point he illustrates by the extraordinarily leisurely and lengthy performances of the “tonsorial artist.” Like the Abbé Klein, M. Huret gives so full and interested an account of Dr. Dowie that we are more than ever surprised to find that none of the books on our list make any reference to Mrs. Eddy. In leaving M. Huret, we must pay him a special compliment for his very full table of contents and excellent analytical index,—features in which most books of this kind are lamentably deficient.
Though making no claim to the brilliancy of works like those of Mr. James or Mr. Wells, the Abbé Klein’s little book 3 is well worth the attention of every student of the United States of America, as showing the impression that country makes on an intelligent foreign Roman Catholic. Like Mr. Wells, the abbé was wise enough to concentrate his attention on those features of American civilization for the observation of which his previous career had best trained him; and as a result we obtain a very interesting aperçu of Roman Catholicism in America. His general verdict on the United States is emphatically favorable, though there are, possibly, suggestions of courteous reticence in blame. He sums up the national existence of America as characterized by energy in private enterprise and toleration in public life. He notes that, while the government of France interferes on every side “ to safeguard liberty,” in America liberty consists in letting people do as they wish.
Abbé Klein is much impressed by the complete religious toleration practiced in the United States, and is quick to recognize that the religious neutrality of the government is one of benevolence, not hostility. He notes, notwithstanding, the “brutal and disquieting fact” that half the citizens of the country belong to no religious denomination (surely a rather liberal estimate?), but comforts himself to some extent with the reflection that one outcome of this is that Roman Catholicism is the religion which counts the most. He argues with great plausibility that his own faith exercises a greater moral influence in the United States than does Protestantism, and cites the New York Sun and President Roosevelt in support of his contention, at least in regard to the incoming swarms of immigrants. His sketches of various Roman Catholic ecclesiastics in the United States, such as Cardinal Gibbons, Bishop MacQuaid of Rochester, and Bishop Spalding of Peoria, are full of interest and marked by great geniality and lightness of touch. In contrast with these is his very amusing account of Dr. Dowie’s visit to New York, which he winds up with an interjection of surprise at the existence, in the most enlightened country of the globe, of this “mentalité de musulmann.” He is, of course, amazed to find the churches closed on weekdays, and still more to see various large churches, in a New York summer, that were not open even on Sunday!
Abbé Klein adds his voice to the chorus in praise of American architecture, tempering his admiration by a reference to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and preserving a discreet silence as to the other arts. He says that Spain alone can rival the United States in the unpunctuality of its railway service; but he is too polite to add that Spanish railways, if slow in speed, are also much more selfrestrained in the matter of slaughtering their patrons. He quotes with approval the remark of M. Paul de Rousiers that Mr. Roosevelt is not only an eminent American but a typical and very representative one. He also quotes, without that animadversion I should like to see, President Roosevelt’s own assertion that the man who loves another country as well as his own is as great a nuisance as the man who loves other men’s wives as well as his own.
As a pendant to Abbé Klein’s volume might be read the sweet-tempered and simple-minded little book4 of the Rev. Mr. Wagner, which gives the French Protestant view of America. It is as openminded as Mr. Klein’s work, and nowhere more so than in its appreciation of the United States brand of Roman Catholicism. Mr. Wagner finds the four strongholds of the United States to be religious faith, belief in liberty, good faith in general, and respect for women. It is needless to say that he is an enthusiastic and uncritical admirer of President Roosevelt,
Business and Love, by Hugues Le Roux,5 is an extremely keen onslaught on the alleged tendency of the American woman to turn away from marriage and maternity. The conclusion is summed up in a line: “Love and Business do not live on cordial terms in the United States.” The relations between the ordinary rich business man and his wife are wholly topsy-turvy; only in military and academic circles does Mr. Le Roux find the woman imbued with due wifely respect for her husband. The college for women he regards as the modern convent, turning out members of the “Third Sex:”and he quotes with gusto Père La Chaise’s saying that “you will always have plenty of nuns; you will never have enough mothers.” Mr. Le Roux has withal a very pronounced admiration for the United States and means to send his son here for part at least of his education. “Wherever I saw woman crushing man by her accidental or imaginary superiority, I found physical sterility, moral disturbances, social anarchy. Wherever I saw man refining himself by learning, culture, sustaining the superiority which God and nature gave him, I saw between the sexes a harmony unknown elsewhere, — a promise for the country of grandeur unlimited.”
As beseems a German historian, Professor Lamprecht cannot write a book of one hundred and fifty pages about the United States of America6 without going back to the earliest times and treating learnedly of remote Indian and Chinese civilization. This fact taken alone, however, would give a very inadequate idea of the book, the quasi-pedantry of which is accompanied by much shrewd observation, a considerable degree of imaginative sympathy, and some power of widevisioned generalization. Like certain other observers, he finds America a land of startling contrasts; he is struck by the quantitative basis of its civilization, which seems to him most truly represented by money and figures; and he cannot forbear comment on the prominence of women Growth or Becoming is to him the keynote of American life, just as it is to Mr. H. G. Wells; and, again like both Mr. Wells and Mr. James, he finds a lack of a comprehensive national sense. In a historical retrospect to account for present conditions he notes that American history has been determined mainly by economic factors. He asserts that the original American settlers were not usually of the most cultivated class, and that they belonged largely to the “somewhat archaic groups” of peasantry and clergy. This not very high level of culture was further lowered by hard conflicts with nature and the Indian. The Old Dominion, however, managed to maintain something like a European standard through its constant commercial intercourse with England.
Coming down to practical details, we find Professor Lamprecht much impressed by the careless way in which Americans misuse and deface the natural beauty of scenery; by the poverty-stricken invention shown in the names of American places; by the size of the women of California, who thrive there like vegetables; by the poor minting of American coins; by the characteristic republican love of inscriptions; by the roughand-ready nature of the cookery; and by the general indifference to preventable noise. He is surely entitled to the glory of the first discoverer in his belief that Americans are characterized by their bad teeth. Even Mr. Henry James, in the book noticed below, devotes several pages to the well-cared-for teeth of his countrymen; while the state of the teeth has often been found a good test for distinguishing, in doubtful cases, the American from the European. Most of us, also, would probably take exception to the dictum that manicurists flourish in America because American hands are peculiarly bony. Professor Lamprecht’s naïveté is pleasantly shown in the story of his encounter with an American humorist (obviously not recognized as such by the worthy professor), who asserted that German students were infallibly plucked in their examinations if they failed to address their professors as “Herr Geheimrath.” While Mr, James describes New York as seen from the river as “a pincushion in profile,” Professor Lamprecht (like Mr. Mallock) more poetically compares the outline to that of San Gimignano, and backs his opinion by more or less convincing woodcuts of the two views. Probably in no other book has the United States been so constantly gratified by comparison with classic lands and classic times. It is the United States, in Lamprecht’s view, and not Europe, that most closely resembles the Roman Empire, as the collecting basin for all the civilizations of the day. The Californian fruit-groves remind him of the Roman quincunx. The Hotel Champlain recalls Baiæ. A burned district is for Professor Lamprecht a nemus mortuum, and even the wheels of the locomotive, as they cross the endless rolling prairie, scorn the vernacular and grind out a perpetual refrain of semper idem, semper idem.
One naturally turns with interest to what this distinguished German has to say about his own countrymen in America. Like Professor Münsterberg, we find him somewhat discouraged at their position; and his frank criticism has given no little offense to the Germans in Europe. He asserts that the American German soon forgets his nationality, that he shows little skill in adapting himself to his new conditions, that politically he is a factor of little importance in his adopted country (Carl Schurz being a rare exception), and that he shines only as a thrifty farmer or as a useful member of an orchestra. The childishly pleased frequenters of such banal places of entertainment as the beer-gardens of Milwaukee are hardly fitted, writes Professor Lamprecht, for success in the intellectual competition of America. He notes how easily they change their language, though he leaves it to Professor Münsterberg to make the further and subtler observation that it is “Amerikanisch,” and not English, for which they so willingly renounce their native tongue. In fine, any influence that Germanism exercises upon America comes not from the German settlers but from the scholars and teachers still in the Fatherland itself.
As one who has served at least in the Landwehr of his native land, Professor Lamprecht is duly interested in matters military. It will, perhaps, astonish some to find that he considers the American a “geborener Krieger,” needing only the call of necessity to make an admirable soldier. West Point meets with enthusiastic approval, while the colored trooper is the modern reincarnation of the ancient centaur. The disgust our professor feels at the sight of a football match contrasts rather oddly with the complacency with which he looks forward to a new Seven Years’ War to give Germany her proper place among the nations.
Professor Lamprecht has the usual kind word for American architecture, but considers the rag-time melodies of the negroes to be the only truly spontaneous and indigenous form of American art. It is the duty of every American musician to have these collected and examined. Unfortunately, however, we find such authorities as Mr. Arnold Dolmetsch asserting that the rag-time melodies are simply European music as distorted by the negro brain. And thus in music, too, we should have to admit that the United States is in the position which Professor Lamprecht assigns to it generally, namely, that of having as yet produced no indigenous culture. Civilization the country has, to a large extent, but culture, in the sense of originating works of universal, peculiar, and enduring value, not yet.
Unpretending both in size and style, the little book of American Impressions7 published by the German dramatist, Ludwig Fulda, is certainly one of the most genial and open-minded of its kind. Here we find the culture of the Old World sitting at the feet of Columbia and frankly willing to learn all that enterprising youth can teach to dilatory age. Like a grandmother whose wisdom is superior to proverbs, he recognizes that much may be gained from the suckling among the nations. So far does he carry his enthusiasm in this matter that he seriously proposes, not only that German students should be encouraged to spend a year or two at Harvard or Yale, but also, and even especially, that German girls should be sent to American colleges to acquire a touch of the intellectual independence and charming vital freshness which prevail in Bryn Mawr, Radcliffe, and Wellesley. The time has evidently come in his opinion for a Prix de New York or a Prix de Boston, which would in its way be at least as valuable as its forerunner, the Prix de Rome. And his judgment on this and other points is all the more worthy of respect because he clearly recognizes and discounts the limitation of its value imposed by the brevity of his stay in America, and the fact that his intercourse was preëminently with the educated class.
He is greatly delighted with the racial and spiritual relationship between Germany and America; but possibly the Briton and the Frenchman may object to his confident assumption that the future of the world’s culture depends on the intellectual rivalry and kinship of Bruder Hans and Brother Jonathan. His treatment of the German-American is somewhat gentler than that of Professor Lamprecht; but he also has to confess that his countrymen in the United States can hardly be said to have taken a place corresponding to their numbers, and he recognizes that the German element can look forward to no independent future. He notes that the children of German settlers actually acquire the German language through the medium of English; and he is naturally horrified to find his kinsmen using such barbarous AngloGerman as “ ich gleiche es ” for “ I like it,” and “ich habe einen kalten gefangen” for “I have caught a cold.” He is philosophically resigned to the fact that the German-American would fight for the Stars and Stripes even against the Prussian Eagle, and finds it all right that a man should stick to the country of his adoption just as a man should champion his wife against his blood relations. On this whole question he gives some excellent advice to the Germans of the Fatherland. Herr Fulda’s catholic admiration for American things includes the educational system, the absence in the streets of beggars and soldiers, the exuberant hospitality, the Flat-Iron Building, the comfort of railway traveling and the civility of his fellow passengers, the absence of hacked or beer-sodden faces among university students, the delicious Indian summer, and President Roosevelt. He has even a good word to say for the interviewer, whose prototype he finds in Socrates. In the field of art he praises not only the architectural efforts of America, but also its Rookwood pottery and Tiffany glass; and he meets the charge of the lack of independence in American art by pointing out that even in Europe no national art was ever evolved in isolation. The time for the flowering of American art is still to come.
There is, however, enough of the salt of criticism in the book to prevent it being a mere mush of appreciation. Nothing could be more caustic than his description of that American Cinderella, the Dramatic Art, destitute of public or private subvention, forbidden to deal with some of the chief problems of life, frittered away on empty trifles, deadened by preposterously long runs, hampered by inefficient theatrical equipment, and enslaved by a perfectly ridiculous system of “starring.” (Against this sweeping condemnation we may set the still more recent judgment of Mr. William Archer, who thinks that things in this respect have immensely improved during the last few years and that America now offers the most hopeful environment for the dramatist.) He notes that the American insensibility to the lack of many things considered necessary in Europe is balanced by an extraordinary sensitiveness to criticism. He sees that the business quarters of American cities are as hideous as their residential quarters are attractive, and he is especially severe on the neglected water-fronts and the uncouth telegraph and telephone poles. He wonders, as many a European traveler has done before him, why the American considers good roads and clean streets one of the last, instead of one of the first, necessities of his national and civic housekeeping. In the hotels he is outraged by the lack of night-tables, bath-thermometers, and bed-lamps, and by the fact that the switch by which he turns off the electric current is not, as it should be, by his bedside, but in a remote corner of the room, involving a perilous journey in the dark. The most general and most annoying evil that the traveler in America has to endure, at least in winter, is the practice of overheating. He shares the inevitable admiration for the American woman, who is the compass of the ship of life even though man sits at the helm. He recognizes that her influence improves the tone of morality, but he is not blind to the presence of a good deal of conscious and unconscious hypocrisy. The treatment of M. Gorky shocks him as much as it did Mr. Wells, and he speculates on the reception a certain privy councilor of Weimar would have met in New York if he had been accompanied by Christine Vulpius. Taking his book as a whole, we are delighted to find a German dwelling so strongly on the sunlit side of American life, and should like to commend the wise words of his concluding pages to all Europeans. The time taken to make an English translation of it would hardly be thrown away.
No one, so far as I know, has approached the task of writing a book on the United States in so simple, practical, and obvious a method as Dr. Hintrager,8 a German district judge. Instead of trusting to the casual impressions of travel, he went and did things for himself, along with the natives. Thus, he spent some time with the family of an Iowa farmer, sharing their daily tasks; and in the same way he occupied a desk for three months in a lawyer’s office at Dubuque. The result is a singularly intelligent and “actuel” little book, which within its self-imposed limits must rank as distinctly valuable. German readers are to be congratulated on access to so trustworthy an introduction to American conditions. Dr. Hintrager is somewhat of an expert on penology, and has published a special volume on the prisons and reformatories of America.
Mr. Karl Zimmermann lived several years in the United States and has produced a book,9 which is a curious mixture of common sense, naïveté, and pedantry. At one extreme he manages to get in an excursus on Schopenhauer and Spinoza, while at the other he retails the most artless and pointless of personal experiences. In theory he is very pessimistic about the Americans, finding their sole spring of action in the craze for material success; and yet his native candor makes him (with apparent unconsciousness) dilate on various features that would seem to give the lie to his thesis. He has a curious idea that the temperance movement in the United States is “ nativistic ” and largely directed against the Teutonic settler! He is very scornful over American literature, but admits that respectable works have been written by James Bryce, Whitney, Shaler, Bancroft, Ridpath, Lossing, Carey, and Henry George, — a singular jumble that symbolizes his own book as a whole.10
In taking up the British critic, Mr. H. G. Wells’s, book, The Future in America,11 I am at the very outset struck by his departure from the too usual British attitude in discussing the ways of another nation. Here is no condescension, graceful or otherwise; no assumption that “English” and “right” are synonymous terms; no tendency to regard the United States as a kind of colony. On the contrary he frankly calls the Americans “the finest people upon earth;” those with whom “the leadership of progress must ultimately rest.” He regards the greatness of the United States as so obvious that it seems to him a little undignified, as well as a little overbearing, for Americans to insist upon it. England is seldom mentioned except as an awful example, though on one occasion he was tempted to excuse himself for being “ not a retrospective American, but a go-ahead Englishman.” Mr. Wells is singularly American in his preoccupation with the future. For him the past exists only in that deposit of it which we call the present; and the present, again, is interesting only because it is the germinating process from which the future is to evolve. He says he would never have crossed the ocean merely to see the United States as they are. “If I had sound reason for supposing that the entire western hemisphere was to be destroyed next Christmas, I should not, I think, be among the multitude that would rush for one last look at that great spectacle.” But Mr. Wells is naturally an American with a difference. He came to this country with a perhaps exaggerated idea of its progress and advantages, and with too little realization of its failures and drawbacks. These latter therefore bulk more largely in his view than they are apt to do in that of a native American; and, besides, he had not had the native’s experience of seeing the ship of state ride triumphantly through even more tumultuous breakers than those that now beset her. Hence his general attitude is less rich in hope, more full of apprehension, than we may feel to be demanded by the situation.
Some attempts have been made to disparage Mr. Wells’s book on account of the comparatively short time he spent in the country. But the value of the observations that may be made in six or eight weeks depends very largely on the observer. Not only is Mr. Wells a singularly keen-eyed student of sociology, but he practically limited his regards in America to that class of phenomena with which he was specially concerned. His visit to the United States was a necessary step in the development of his very definite philosophy of human progress; and his mind had been prepared, by a marvelous power of constructive anticipation, for the facts it was to pass in review. Indeed, in some of his forecasts of the future, written long before his visit to the Western Hemisphere, he had practically created out of his own brain conditions actually existing, unknown to him, in the United States. It is comparatively easy to give a bird’s-eye view of Mr. Wells’s book, largely in his own words. He sees a great and English-speaking population strewn across a continent so vast as to make it seem small and thin. He tries to present “the first exhilaration produced by the sheer growth of it, the morningtime hopefulness of spacious and magnificent opportunity, the optimism of successful, swift, progressive effort in material things.” Then comes doubt, owing to his sense of the chaotic condition of the will of the American people. He fears that the universal commercial competition will end, if not modified, in the existence of two permanent classes of rich and poor. He hints at some of the uglinesses and miseries inseparable from this competition, but also at the dim, large movement of thought towards a change of national method. He notes the significance of the immigrant question in this panorama, and touches on the failures or dangers implied in the cry of the children, the questioning figure of the South, and the sorrowful interrogation of the negro. He is particularly impressed with what he calls the State Blindness 12 of America, by which he means the lack of a truly national sense of responsibility in the individual Americans. They suffer from a mistaken belief in automatic progress. But he realizes that a great disillusionment, a great awakening, is taking place; and he ends with un avowal of his confidence, now waxing and now waning, that the creative spirit of America will finally prevail, that out of the present chaos will eventually arise “ the real thing, palaces and noble places, free, high circumstances, and space, and leisure, light and fine living for the sons of men.”
Mr. Wells is an active member of the Fabian Society in London, and he is a strong believer in the ultimate efficacy, and even inevitability, of socialistic methods in the regeneration of society. (I may say that his form of socialism is very different from the extremely dead dog which Mr. Mallock was recently flogging in our midst.) Part of his disappointment here was doubtless due to his realization that socialism is a much less living issue than in England. He was even somewhat amazed to find that an affirmative answer to such questions on his steamer-ticket as, “Are you a Polygamist?” “Are you an Anarchist?” might have excluded him from America, which has no welcome for, at any rate, the more veracious adherents of these creeds. He, however, very frankly records his belief that America is not at all likely, in the mean time, to “ declare for socialism.” But he is sure, all the same, that “the trend is altogether away from the anarchistic individualism of the nineteenth century.” And when he argues that geographical position and mineral resources are mere dust in the balance as compared with the quality and quantity of a nation’s will-power, it is clearly with more than half a hope that the United States after all does possess, even if in a more or less somnolent condition, the moral character necessary for salvation.
Mr. Wells points out, shrewdly enough, how the American scheme lacks certain immemorial factors in the social structure of European nations. Thus the United States has neither an aristocracy nor a peasantry, properly so called, and it follows that it is essentially a middleclass community. But when Mr. Wells goes on to assume that Americans as a whole may be spoken of as if they belonged to the British middle class, he seems to me to be making a pretty serious mistake. He fails to remember that though the Americans will naturally resemble the British middle class more closely and sympathize with it more keenly than with any other class, yet the mere absence of an aristocracy in America must inevitably change the whole psychology of the situation.
Another weakness of Mr. Wells, which reveals itself in this as in some of his other writings, is his apparent lack of interest in art or the æsthetic side of life. Thus, he shows no sentimentalism whatever about the threatened destruction of Niagara, and maintains, most heretically, that one can get all the water one wants at (say) Tivoli. He is very contemptuous about “canned culture,” as exemplified in the drawers full of photographs of Italian pictures at Wellesley. He cannot away with the time spent on a study of Roman topography, while the world is in torment for want of living thought about its present affairs. Mr. Wells’s humor is nowhere better illustrated than in his treatment of the millionaire. He speaks of the joyous, wanton giving of Mr. Carnegie, that jubilee plunger of beneficence, “scattering library buildings as if he sowed wild oats, buildings that may or may not have some educational value, if presently they are organized and properly stocked with books.” American cities are littered with a disorder of unsystematized foundations and picturesque legacies. The American giver is generous, but not always adroit. The owners of American wealth are often too stupid to understand the huge moral burden it bears. The lust of acquisition is glorified, and yet the Astors and the Morgans are merely the innocent products of a criminal game. It is ridiculous to write of these men as though they were unparalleled villains. Mr. J. D. Rockefeller’s mild, thin-lipped, pleasant face gives the lie to all such melodramatic nonsense.
Mr. Wells’s humor is, perhaps, less happy when he affects an ingenuous ignorance of Tennyson’s Princess ; nor can we feel perfectly at ease as to his taste in making fun of his Boston bibliographical hosts — though in this case we admit the strength of the temptation. While we are in the way of fault-finding, it may be permitted us to doubt whether it was altogether discreet to publish so full an account of an obviously very informal and private conversation with President Roosevelt. We may admit that he was right in animadverting so severely on the American reception of Maxim Gorky; the Thaw scandal came just in time to drive this nail in up to the head by emphasizing the utter casualness, not to say absurdity, of the attitude which the denizens of the “House of Mirth” chose to assume towards a man who was their superior morally as well as mentally. But he is probably unjustified in making so much of the case of McQueen, the anarchist. There may be little doubt that there was something very like a miscarriage of justice in this case; but Mr. Beck and others are there to assure us that unjust imprisonment is not unknown even in the British Isles, and Mr. Wells errs in treating the McQueen episode as typical or symbolical.
Like Mr. James, Mr. Wells is much exercised over the alien immigrant; but while Ellis Island is for the former merely a terrible court of dismay, from which the unwary visitor departs with a new chill in his heart, it is for the latter “quietly immense—a visible image of one aspect at least of this world — the large process of filling and growing and synthesis, which is America.” And yet Mr. Wells shows that un-American fear to which we have already referred, in his belief that this country can no longer safely digest and improve its European material.
Mr. Wells’s sense of pity in the problem of the negro is moved mainly by what he calls the “tainted whites.” He is amazed, as I think every non-American must be, at the way in which a few drops of negro blood is held to outweigh a ninety per cent infusion of the best white blood in the country. He thinks it does not say much for the American’s faith in his own racial prepotency. Mr. Booker Washington struck Mr. Wells as one of the most weighty figures in the United States. Two others he greatly admires, President Eliot and President Roosevelt, and he celebrates the latter in a perfervid, well-nigh dithyrambic strain. One of his pithy sayings about him is that “It is his political misfortune that at times he thinks aloud.”
Towards the end of Mr. Wells’s book occurs this passage: “It is true, indeed, that we who write and think and investigate to-day, present nothing to compare with the magnificent reputations and intensely individualized achievements of the impressive personalities of the past. None the less is it true that, taken all together, we signify infinitely more. We no longer pose ourselves for admiration, high priests and princes of letters in a world of finite achievement; we admit ourselves no more than pages bearing the train of a Queen — but a Queen of limitless power. The knowledge we coordinate, the ideas we build together, the growing blaze in which we are willingly consumed, are wider and higher and richer in promise than anything the world has had before.” Seeing that it is to America, more than to any other nation, that Mr. Wells looks for the fruition of this promise, it is surely impossible to class him with the critics of jaundiced eye, even though he quits us in a state of wistful bewilderment rather than in one of confident hope.
Mr. James’s book, The American Scene,13 offers in many ways a strong contrast to that of Mr. Wells. In the first place it is, of course, based upon a far longer and more intimate knowledge of its subject, though it is curious how at times Mr. James’s early memories merely tend to blur his more recent observations and act almost with the pernicious effect of a misleading half-knowledge. Mr. James, on revisiting his native land, expected to find America romantic because different from his well-known Europe, just as a quarter of a century before he had found Europe romantic because different from America; but by his own admission he finds many points that had never been unveiled to him at all. Mr. Wells’s direct and confident vision, focused solely on points of vivid interest to himself, is apt to appeal to us at once as either right or wrong; while Mr. James’s greater subtlety and tremulous responsiveness to every evasive and nebulous suggestion often leave him and his readers alike in a dim region of surprise and uncertainty. The centre of interest often shifts, as it were, from the subject treated of to the reflection of that subject in the extraordinary mind of the writer. We feel, to use his own phrase, that it is largely what he reads into America, not what he reads out of it. Mr. James has perceived that there is practically no general standard of good breeding and manners in the United States; and he is apparently so dominated and overshadowed by this somewhat obvious discovery that his resultant point of view is too often one of mere negation. He is so little touched by all the positive hope and pathos embedded in The American Scene that I fear he would come perilously near the attitude of Matthew Arnold, who, using the irrelevant standards of the Old World, pronounced Abraham Lincoln a man lacking in distinction.
Mr. James’s book is not for the casual and careless reader; if one decides to read it at all, it must be read with prayer and fasting. The impressions that crowd upon the writer are but too multifarious; his fertile and susceptible intelligence, in which every seed germinates, has too often found impossible the “small sharp anguish ” which “attends the act of selection and the necessity of omission.” The vision might have been keener if it had been more limited, if it had been less distracted by details and so stronger to grasp the outline of the floating shapes after which he is groping.
Like Mr. Wells, the a apostle of the future, Mr. James, the devotee of the past, sees that invincible growth is the great note of American civilization, a growth that is bound to go on, no matter at whose expense. He has evidently no belief in the various short-cuts by which America hopes to make up for the experience of the ages. Again like Mr. Wells, he testifies to the absence of a complete national consciousness; he also would recognize the existence of what the English writer calls State Blindness. He is utterly impervious to the feeling of exhilaration which America produces on most observers. He dwells on the lack of an authoritative standard of taste, and laments that there are no sacred penetralia in America. It is natural for Mr. James to feel the lack of historical background and to deplore the fact that there is not enough of native history to go round. Equally natural is his emphasis of the monotony and miscellaneousness of American life, and of the way in which apparatus of all kinds tends to be better than the men who work it.
Would-be humorists have often tried to discriminate American cities by such sayings as that in New York people ask you, How much do you have ? in Philadelphia, Who was your grandfather ? and in Boston, What do you know? It is delightful to compare with these somewhat crude efforts Mr. James’s subtle and witty descriptions, which, however, it is almost a crime to quote in anything less than their entirety. The monstrous phenomena of New York, he writes, have got ahead of any possibility of poetic, of dramatic capture. It makes admission of “unattempted, impossible maturity.” Its great buildings tend to discourage any municipal commemoration of the distinguished citizen, for what point is there in inserting an inscribed tablet of birth or residence on the twenty-fifth floor of a skyscraper ? Newport is inhabited by a handful of “delightfully mild cosmopolites, united by three common circumstances, that of their having for the most part more or less lived in Europe, that of their sacrificing openly to the ivory idol whose name is leisure, and that, not least, of a formed critical habit.” In Boston, Mr. James, in lurid contrast with Mr. Wells, is terribly bothered by the newness of everything; in fact Park Street Church is almost his only stay amid the horrors of encroaching modernity. Marlborough Street is his particular bugbear, though even his subtle wealth of phrase fails to provide him with a satisfactory explanation of why it is that it used periodically to break his heart. He is pleased with the decorations of the Public Library, but is apparently shocked that they are generally in places where everybody can see them. One other consolation in Boston Mr. James had, namely, a head of Aphrodite in the Museum of Fine Arts, which pleased him so much in what he felt to be its painfully incongruous new home, that he asserts you cannot see a fine Greek thing till you have seen it in America. The modest Concord is “ easily and obviously first among places of its size.” It is the biggest little place in America, with only New York. Boston, and Chicago to surpass it. Even here, however, Mr. James is perturbed by the thoughts suggested by the statue of the Minute Man, that it was, or would have been, hardly decent to ask the embattled farmers to make posterity so inordinate a present with so little of the conscious credit of it. Philadelphia is admirably hit off as the only large American city that does n’t bristle; moreover it is not a place, but a state of consanguinity. Mr. James is, however, very naturally astonished at the example Philadelphia offers of the curious way in which, in America, the Sane Society and the Pestilent City, the Happy Family and the Infernal Machine, lie down together like the lion and the lamb. Independence Hall strikes just the proper note, and Mr. James imagines some clever man of its period taking the hint and crying “What an admirable place for a Declaration of something! Why not Independence?” Washington, with its “conscious selfconsciousness,” is the “City of Conversation.” Its society is the only one in America where the men play an equal rôle with the women; but he is surprised to find how few acceptable “M. P.’s” belong to it. Richmond he found “adorably weak,” and this leads him to a very sympathetic and tender account of the South and of “a cause that could never have been gained.”
Mr. James notes how the American landscape is dominated by the omnipresent steam-cars, instead of as in England by the squire and the parson; but the style and allure of the Pennyslvania Railroad were such as to suggest that, if one should “persistently keep his seat, not getting out anywhere, it would in the end carry one to some ideal city, to some terminus too noble to be marked in our poor schedules.”
Mr. James is as alive as other travelers to the overwhelming presence of the American woman, but I have left myself no room to illustrate his attitude toward her. Suffice it to say that he is amazed by the “apparent privation for the man (with the ‘business-face’) of his right kind of woman, for the woman of her right kind of man.” Of a typical summer girl he writes that “the immodesty was too colossal to be anything but innocent — yet the innocence, on the other hand, was too colossal to be anything but inane.” When finally we find Mr. James asserting that a Palm Beach hotel affords “a compendious view of American society in the largest sense of the term,” we feel that we have come round with him to where we started from, and that the man who can make this statement is, despite his consummate analytic power, perhaps not the one after all to whom we should willingly allow the last word on what America stands for.
- Vues d’ Amérique, ou La Nouvelle Jouvence. Par PAUL ADAM. Paris : Librairie Paul Ollendorff. 1906.↩
- De New-York à la Nouvelle-Orléans, and De San Francisco au Canada. Par JULES HURET. Paris: Bibliothèque Charpentier. 1905.↩
- Au Pays de la Vie Intense. Par ABBÉ FELIX KLEIN. Paris: Plon-Nourrit et Cie. 1905.↩
- My Impressions of America. By Rev. CHARLES WAGNER (English translation by MARY LOUISE HENDEE). New York. 1906.↩
- Business and Love. By HUGUES LE ROUX. New York : Dodd, Mead, & Co. 1903.↩
- Americana. By KARL LAMPRECHT. Freiburg im Breisgau: Hermann Heyfelder. 1906.↩
- Amerikanische Eindrücke. Von LUDWIG FULDA. Stuttgart and Berlin : J. G. Cotta. 1906.↩
- Wie lebt und arbeitet man in den Vereinigten Staaten ? Von Dr. HINTRAGER. New York : Brentano. 1904.↩
- Onkel Sam. By KARL ZIMMERMANN. Stuttgart: Strecker & Schröder. 1904.↩
- The crop of foreigners’ books on America since 1903 is by no means exhausted by the names noted above. None of the others are, however, of greater importance, and many of them are not very far from worthlessness. For the sake of approximate completeness the following may still be named. Mlle. Thérèse Viandone’s Impressions d’une Franèaise en Amérique (1906: the record of a social “good time ” and of a successful hunt for signed photographs of the prominent); Charles Huard’s New York comme je l’ai vu (1906: an unpretending text illustrated by clever drawings) ; Anadoli’s L’Empire du Travail (1905); Moreau’s L’Envers des Etats-Unis (1906); Gobat’s Croquis et Impressions d’Amérique (1904 : illustrated) ; Altherr’s Eine Amerikafahrt in Zwanzig Briefen (1905); Regnier’s Au Pays de l’ Avenir (1906); Uuruh’s Amerika noch nicht am Ziele (1904); Winget’s Tour in America; and A. Baumgartner’s Erinnerungen aus Amerika (1907). M. Pierre Leroy-Beaulieu’s Les Etats-Unis au Vingtième Siècle (English translation by H. Addington Bruce ; 1906) is, of course, a work of considerable importance, but it belongs to a technical class which demands an expert in political economy for an adequate appraisement. There are appearing at this moment at least three series of periodical articles on the United States,each of which gives promise of an interesting book. We mean those by Mr. Mallock, by Mr. Whibley, and by Or, Theodor Barth, one of Harvard’s latest honorary graduates (in the Frankfurter Zeitung).↩
- The Future in America. By H. G. WELLS. New York and London: Harper & Brothers. 1906.↩
- It would have been better if Mr. Wells had used some such term as Civic Blindness, as the word “ State ” suggests to American ears confusing echoes of State Rights.↩
- The American Scene. By HENRY JAMES. New York : Harper & Brothers. 1907.↩