We Are So Young

‘COMING as I do from an older civilization I may say that what impressed me most on reaching your hospitable shores, and indeed what most impresses me now on my departure, is your wonderful’ — We need not finish the sentence. As much as is written may be stereotyped for the beginning of an interview with almost any distinguished foreigner who visits the United States. He is likely to speak ex cathedra from the standpoint of a civilization presumably far older than ours, and he graciously excuses our shortcomings because we are so young. We, in turn, cheerfully agree that of course we are crude and our manners rudimentary; and that, on the whole, so far as those things that make for the grace of living are concerned, we are indeed poor.

We like to think of ourselves as the splendid, rough, vigorous folk, just in from the hardy life without, and deserving of forgiveness for any lapses into unpleasantness because we have been doing such big, fine things. The foreigners say so and we say so, too. We admit and rather encourage the idea that foreigners have better manners than we, and then we explain why: because we are so young.

To warrant this generous attitude toward ourselves, we must do our rough work better than the foreigner, — else why should we be excused? The prairies are all ploughed and cultivated, and have been for years; the forests have been cut to such an extent that we need more wooded land rather than less, and the achievement of having ‘cleared’ a tract of timber in such a manner as to inhibit further growth, and yet invite fire and devastation, has not enough merit in itself to justify social short-comings. To mine coal with no consideration for the lives of miners and no thought of the waste of this precious product, or to make coke in bee-hive ovens and burn up the valuable tar and gases that under modern methods may be saved and put to use is, indeed, doing things in a rough, wholesale way; but it hardly seems fair to count them of such merit as to warrant a general social dispensation. And I think that it will be found that those who go about the work of lumbering, mining, and the like, scientifically, achieving results that call for economic praise, are the very Americans for whom no special apologies need to be made.

Now I respectfully offer the opinion that we are not young at all; that as a nation we are older, politically, than France, Germany, Italy, Norway, or Greece. We have more and larger experience in matters of government than they, and for that reason we should be better informed concerning the ways of collective humanity. Our forbears were on the earth and busy just as long ago as those of the distinguished and undistinguished foreigners, and were living in the same countries. In fact, we had the same forbears, if you go back far enough.

The purpose of this writing is not to discuss American manners; its only object is to note the acknowledgment to which this often-heard repining and excusing leads. Admitting, but only for the sake of argument, that the manners of Americans are worse than those of Europeans, the only possible reason for it — unless we are willing to assume the responsibility ourselves — is that our parents and grandparents were vulgar people, and that we have not been well brought up.

The early settlers of America, who begot the diminishing majority of us, did not come here because they were weak or uncivilized; they came because they thought they could make things go by themselves without asking favors of anybody. This makes for selfrespect, and self-respect is the essence of good-breeding. Again, the majority of them were farmers; that is to say, they lived on their own estates and were lords of their own domains; an experience that in Europe is supposed to make for the most desirable views of life and habits of demeanor. The impression seems to prevail there that the master of broad acres begets, for some reason, better-mannered children than the peasant or tenant farmer, the small trader, or the laborer. I do not offer this as my opinion; I simply record it.

It is also worth while to note that a century or so ago there were not enough lords of the manor living to beget all of the foreigners who are supposed to have better manners than we. The conclusion must be that the peasants and other humble people who were the ancestors of the great majority of the English, French, Germans, Austrians, and others, must have been potent to endow their progeny with qualities of grace; and that our own forefathers were sorely lacking in this feature. Moreover, three generations are supposed to be enough to make a gentleman, and a great proportion of us come from people who have been here three generations. If, then, we are ill-mannered and common, our fathers and grandfathers must have been illmannered and common people; or else we are a poor and decadent lot that cannot keep up the strain.

Of course, every one is free to answer as he pleases the question whether doing such things as planning and mastering conditions destroys grace of behavior. My own experience among men of such achievements is to the effect that they have imagination, know the needs and wishes of others intuitively, and meet those conditions with ease; in short, they are usually desirable companions, at meat as well as at work. If a man is suddenly transplanted from a condition of modest living to affluence, he is likely to be awkward in his new surroundings at first, but such awkwardness is not of necessity bad manners; moreover, newly-rich people obtain elsewhere as well as here. Germany, England, Austria, Northern Italy, and South America abound with them. And among them are to be found everywhere considerable numbers who never have been taught their duties to others, and who seem congenitally incapable of learning what their obligations are. The only difference is that the people of no other country regard such men as their national type, and nowhere else are they excused. And whether or not there are more of this sort here than elsewhere, they do not constitute the nation. The rest of us are here, and we are the people.

Again, it is not fair to expect the graces of life to develop among the unfortunates whose lives are so hemmed in by manual labor that they have only time to eat and to sleep. The man who does seventy hours a week in the works or shop is to be excused, and so is his wife. They excuse him in Europe, and we might as well do so, too. In fact, in Europe, they have more such, proportionately, than we. So the only fair way to judge is to leave out, in America as they do in Europe, the comedyrich and the down-trodden poor.

The opinion might be ventured that we have all sorts of people in this country; some men and women of unsurpassable grace and charm; some rough, honest, genuine people whom we may be proud to have with us; some stupid and shallow, both with and without a knowledge of the etiquette of the day; and some hopeless boors. It might be added that we have not by nature the pleasant, easy manners of the Latins, but that we have in general the merits and faults of a people composed largely of Teutonic and Celtic stock. But this also describes a good part of Europe. No finished product of civilization is to be found there any more than here; for that we must look to the fellaheen of Egypt or to India. The rest of us, Europeans, North and South Americans, are all in the melting-pot.

The other day in discussing the difficulties of an Oriental state that had intrusted certain of its interests to the hands of an American, an eminent British statesman remarked that the American representative was doubtless honest and sincere in his intentions, but that it was hardly to be presumed that he was familiar with diplomatic usage. Being an American, you see, he was not expected to know how to behave. Suppose he had been an Englishman, a Frenchman, or a German. He might have been criticized, but it would have been on some other ground; for none but Americans suffer the imputation that they are socially inefficient or inferior without lively resentment.

Suppose a distinguished American were to travel in Germany, and being fêted on his departure, were to say, ‘I have been deeply impressed with the splendid vigor and industry of your people. Your young government has but the faults of youth. The vanity of your young army-officers indicates, after all, a certain self-respect that, in the next generation may develop into more worthy men with broader vision. The somewhat archaic table-manners that one meets with in his travels are not faults of the heart; in my own older country we were no further advanced a generation or so ago.’ The gentleman would not be popular.

Suppose he were to say to his Engish hosts that the prismatic marriages contracted by so many of the young men of their nobility are not a misfortune peculiar to England alone; that he meets the same evidences of social decadence, and substantially the same types, among many of our young millionaires, and rejoices to find their middle-class still rugged and strong. Or if he were to comment on the unhappy depths to which the English language has fallen among the humble people of England, were to intimate that the idioms of the American yeoman, his ‘Yes, sir,’ and ‘Yes, ma’am,’ are indicative of court life of Georgian days, and assure them that while, of course, they cannot hope to reach the good-breeding of our people, he nevertheless finds them very entertaining. His parting would be sped, indeed.

And yet we seem to like that sort of thing in this country. We encourage such comment.

It is well, perhaps, that we are humble about our social deficiencies. That there is great room for improvement is evident without entering into comparisons. But it is not fair to blame our grandparents for it. They were not such a bad lot. The fault is ours.