The Reason: A Reply

ON two occasions in the last two years I have met on Continental trains an unknown man whose conversation has furnished nourishing food for reflection concerning the answer to the question asked by a contributor in the January Atlantic.

The first was in November, 1919, when, at Leipzig, I entered a compartment of the semi-weekly train from Berlin to Vienna. It was after midnight, and as I climbed past a tangle of legs in the half-light, a fellow voyager swore softly in broken English. The fact that he swore in English on being suddenly disturbed awakened my interest, and made me realize that he had possibly spent some time in England or America. The fact that he swore at all changed possibility to probability that his sojourn had been American. I was right.

I dumped my bags in the rack and took the vacant space next him, pulling from my coat a three-year-old copy of the Atlantic that I had salvaged from a Leipzig bookstore where I had inquired for magazines. The unknown eyed the magazine a moment, asked me if I were an American, and burst into an invective against America, her citizens, and her institutions. He seemed to take his tune from his American passport, to which he pointed almost wildly, accompanying himself at shorter and shorter intervals with crooning curses that ultimately drowned out the time. When he had subsided to occasional rumbles, I disregarded my fears that he might be a deported Red with a bomb in his pocket, and sought to find the reason for his negative Chauvinism.

As with Mr. Bouton’s ‘dozens,’ it developed that ‘America is all right except for the people who run it.’ The next afternoon, when we passed the customs officials at Passau, I saw that he had no bombs, but a collection of long green-and-yellow engravings of our presidents, among which Washington, Lincoln, and Jackson were conspicuous by their absence, Cleveland was a rarity, and the more select brethren were assembled in crowds.

Oh, yes, he had done pretty well in America; had been there eighteen years, and had saved a reasonable pile, he told me with a pride that was anything but modest. He had been an agent for a well-known automobile of the better type in a small city of the Middle West.

He wished me luck quite genially at Vienna, and was not above riding with me, at his own invitation, to my hotel. I did not worry about the expense. The thirty crowns that I paid the illclad driver had cost me but eight cents.

I was glad that my dollars were American. My notes dismiss him with the phrase: ‘Man in my compartment returning to Budapest from America. Had the biggest grouch against the U.S. I have ever seen. Wonder if he’ll sing the same tune after he’s starved a year.’

Ten days ago I was again returning from Germany, and in the station at Brussels I ran into him. He did not recognize me as soon as I did him, probably because I have no wen like his. But he suddenly became enthusiastic. He remembered. He was on his way to Antwerp to sail for America. ‘Going back to God’s country,’ he was. And if he ever got by the Statue of Liberty, he would never look her in the face again. He was ‘through with these damned countries.’ He was going ‘ back where a man with brains had a chance.’

Last April I sat alone in the salon of the Rijks Museum at Amsterdam, where Rembrandt’s Night Watch hangs in solitary glory. I had carried the one chair in the room to the point where I could get the best light on the picture. After some time, I heard a footstep, and a very charming young lady came in. She walked to the other side of the room, and sat on one of the benches where the light was bad; but it seemed obvious that she wanted to come to my side of the room, where the angle of vision would be better. She hesitated for an instant, and I rose and offered her my chair, giving simply the usual Dutch salutation, ‘Als U belieft’ (If you please).

She looked at me a second and said in perfect English, ‘Thank you. You are an American.’

There seemed to be no interrogation, and I thought that perhaps she had seen my pointed shoes. Over here, if you want to be sure of all the Americans in the crowd, ‘By their feet ye shall know them.’

I must admit that I was in no wise tempted to deny my nationality; in fact, I hastened to admit it. She had been in America for seven years, had graduated from college, and had worked as librarian in a small town. After discussing Rembrandt a bit, and incidentally learning a point or two about him that my ‘History of Art 401 ’ had neglected, I took my courage in my hands and asked her to tea.

During the hour in which we sat at the Amstel, she told me that she was going back to the States as soon as possible. Reasons: no public libraries to speak of; no good magazines (and few bad ones). Above all, women in Europe treated like property. I said good-bye to my delightful inconnue, with the unexpressed thought that it was good for America that she was returning.

In the rapide from Paris to the Mediterranean, two months ago, I ran across another case. A young Frenchman was in my compartment. Passing through a town where there had been a serious wreck a day or two before, we got to discussing the accident and drifted into conversation on other subjects. I discovered that he spoke English and had been in Detroit for several years, employed as a technical draughtsman. He had come back to France in 1916, and had served through the war. He was on his way to Marseilles, to sail for America. He loved France and had almost died for her, but he was going to make application for citizenship papers in America. The reason: his father and grandfather before him had been des simples ouvriers (simple workmen), and he had gone to America with an uncle, and was getting ahead in his trade, and had a future. A man who had to work in the day-time could go to night school, and be taught any subjects he wished. In Belgium I have had four unsolicited illustrations of the same eager desire to return to America that is manifested by Europeans who have returned to their native land for a visit, or for good.

A mining foreman from western Pennsylvania was returning because he found living conditions épouvantable (frightful) after the things that he and his family had begun to accept as necessary to decent living. He is the father of four boys, and he wanted them to have an American education. Here a miner’s children cannot afford to go to the higher schools.

A baron, who has a Philadelphia wife, looked at me in amazement when I happened to ask him one evening at a dinner-party if he were going to remain here or return to America. Although he is not an American citizen and will not become one, he replied that he had decided to spend the rest of his life in America. ‘Do you realize,’ he said to me in comparing cities, ‘that there is no sewerage system in Antwerp, which is the first port of the Continent; nor in all Belgium for that matter, except in Brussels?’

Two men came to me in Brussels and asked me to give them a letter to our consul, in order that they might return to America. They were from the same town, and both had spent several years in America, one as a glass-blower and the other in a Wilkesbarre lace-factory. They were returning because workmen had so many rights in America that they did not have here in Belgium. The cost of living was higher, they knew; but in the long run it was the same, because wages were higher and living conditions a thousand times better.

Last summer in England I took a circuitous route from the Lakes to London, in order to visit friends in Sheffield. On the platform, while waiting for a train that was overdue, I saw a man whom I took to be a very well-dressed workman, about fifty years of age. Ho was a member of the Fraternal Order of the Pointed Shoes, and I asked hint if he was an American.

‘Yes,’ he replied; and then continued, with a Yorkshire accent, to toll me that he lived in Trenton and worked in the potteries there. He was a naturalized American citizen and was going back the next month.

‘ You like it better than here? ’ I asked.

’Oh, much!’ he replied. He went on to say that in America a man might do the humblest work, and yet he would n’t be considered a ‘ rum.’ He had a boy and a girl. The girl was a stenographer and was earning a good salary. The boy was going to enter college soon.

Then, like the other family men I had encountered, he spoke of the better living conditions. ‘And things are cleaner to live,’ was his comment.

This morning’s London Times (January 5) has an interesting side-light on this aspect of the question. ‘Milk Purity, America’s Lead,’ is the heading. And the Times lends a half a column to the propaganda in favor of pure milk and of having it in bottles!

These eight examples are not selected from a list. They are my all, so far as I can remember. They are accurate representations of the sentiment of these people. They were all enthusiastic about it. I cannot help wondering if they will not be joined by some of the two hundred pessimists interviewed by the Atlantic contributor. At least, I should like to have a string on the seventeen-year-old American who speaks no Norwegian, to see how soon he will leave his parents, to return to the land where children have a real childhood, and where young people, irrespective of birth, grow up to a real opportunity.

The other morning I passed a group of Polish peasants, huddled together, with their luggage marked, ‘3d class — Southampton-New York — Disinfected.’ There were dirty men and dirtier women, crying babies and sticky children. All day, and for several days, I thought, not of them, but of a brilliant president of a Western college. He gave an inspiring address at a Student Volunteer convention that I attended. As he spoke, we could see Ellis Island, and groups of such peasants as these arriving, but from Bohemia. One of them especially stood out from the crowd by wealth of description. All his belongings were tied in a very small bundle and were slung across his back. I wondered what climax the orator was going to achieve, as he paused for an instant before his hushed audience. And then, ‘I was in the loins of that man, my father.’

As long as America can do this, there is no need for worry. And as usual, a few members of the American colony will gather together in any foreign capital and discuss the relative merits of Ryle, Wisconsin, and Manchester, Iowa, while the supercilious Californian from Watsonville will state that the Register has announced that more apples were shipped from that one town in the last year than from any four states in the Union put together.