Edited by New York. Boni & Liveright. 1923. 8vo. xii+388 pp. $3.00.. First Series
E pluribus unum! But, as its title so aptly suggests, the present book deals with the plurality, and leaves us to find the unity for ourselves. Twenty-seven different states of America are here reflected in twenty-seven different states of mind. There are, in fact, twenty-seven different ways of being one of these United States. Some states, like Nevada and South Dakota, are mere areas created by surveyors; others, like Louisiana are colonial provinces; Delaware is a family seal; Tennessee is a triadic molecule; Vermont is a heroic legend; while California is a country, an earth, a paradise! The writers are not less multiple and varied than their themes. Each writer is happily left free to deliver himself after the manner of his own genius, and the result is twenty-seven different ways of appraising America, ranging from the sociological realism of Clement Wood’s Alabama, through the grim irony of Leonard Cline’s Michigan, to the poetic fancy of Basil Thompson’s Louisiana and the rustic humor of Hayden Carruth’s South Dakota. Kansas serves as a text for the wholesome idealism of William Allen White, Wisconsin for the economic collectivism of Zona Gale, and Maryland for the caustic disillusionment of H. L. Mencken.
The most striking difference, characteristic of the book as a whole, is that between the optimists and the pessimists. If we are to judge by these essays, America is sound in ten of its parts, and more or less ailing in seventeen others. The preponderance of pessimism is doubtless due to the fact, remarked by Stuart P. Sherman, that American writers are just at present primarily concerned to avoid anything that might be mistaken for cheerful complacency. This book is written by writers, and its pervading note of discontent is in part, no doubt, an effect of writer’s cramp.
Politically and economically, too, these are for the most part advanced thinkers, with a sinister rather than a dexterous east of mind. Discounting these personal considerations, there remain two broad principles which divide the cheerful from the gloomy states. In the first place the cheerful states are the agricultural states, such as Kansas, Utah, Maine, Vermont, and South Dakota; while the gloomy states are the industrialized states, such as New Jersey, Ohio, Michigan, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. This first principle is, however, crossed by a second, which throws into the gloomy block all of these Southern stales, whether agricultural or industrial, in which race-hatred, illiteracy and superstition have sprung from the heritage of slavery.
The picture is thus dark and bright in spots — more dark than bright. There is, furthermore, a sombre tone given to the whole by the quality of modernity and sameness which overspreads both the romance of the past and the individuality of the present. In every corner of these United States there is a coating of the same superficial Americanism. In Maine, for all its forests and sea coasts, one finds ‘the Saturday Evening Post, the Hearst newspapers, the cinema reels, and the Hart Schaffner & Marx clothes.’ In South Dakota, ‘Frank Bear Running, Charles Kills First, and John Brown Wolf’ come to town in an old Ford car, steal the engine out of a new Ford car, and are pursued across the plains by ‘Sheriff Bender’ in his Pierce Arrow. In short, in so far as there is any universal Americanism in this book at all, it is the Americanism of Babbitt, of Rotary Clubs, realtors, interchangeable parts, quantity production, and salesmanship.
Hence the unconscious moral of this book is that one should look for America not in the superficial vulgarity in which Americans resemble one another, but in our multiple origins, our colorful legend of conquest and adventure, in our incongruities and our sturdy provincialisms. If we seem for the moment to be poor in that which we have in common, we are rich in our differences. One cannot read this book without reflecting that this is an amazingly interesting nation. What we seem to lack is the power to find ourselves interesting. The value of such a book lies not in its self-criticism, though this is doubtless wholesome enough when it stops short of cynicism and despair; but rather in its accidental revelation of our own inexhaustible natural human and spiritual resources.
RALPH BARTON PERRY.