The American Malady
AT a clinic for children, recently held in a county town in Virginia, the capable woman physician was called upon to examine a wretched, very little child of the unfortunate poor-white class. Having looked him over, she handed him back to his barefoot sister, and, instead of noting his several specific defects on the card under her hand, she wrote the words: ‘Everything all wrong. Hopeless.’
I was reminded of this scene in reading that formidable compilation of critical protest, recently published, entitled Civilization in America. The book contains thirty essays, on thirty subjects, by thirty dissatisfied experts, and is in the nature of a critical clinic held upon the rest of us. As I galloped through this series of essays in dissent, I saw as in a vision these United States passed, anxious, naked, and bawling, to the laps of the thirty authoritative gentlemen; and I seemed, by that inner audition granted to the visionary, to hear the sad expected comment of all thirty of them: ‘Everything all wrong. Hopeless. Next nation, please!’
The co-authors of Civilization in America set out to diagnose our national disease: to tell us what is wrong with our America, with the life we lead. A good deal seems to be wrong. We seem to be in a bad way. On a first, hasty reading, we might imagine, or hope, that this consensus of unfavorable opinion was the product of European travelers. But not so. Four fifths of the writers are Americanborn and of the original stock.
The fact is pertinent to any unfavorable opinion we may form about the book. For home truths by home people are one thing, and comment upon us by foreigners another.
We feel sure of it, since most of us have heard or read how, in our hot and sensitive youth, the great Dickens and the delightful Mrs. Trollope, setting foot on our shores, with diagnostic intentions, glanced hastily at the Yankee patient, and using no very obscure or technical terms, said: 4 Coarse, crass, ignorant, impudent, barbarous, green yet corrupt, and strangely embarrassed with a superfluity of spittle.’ And our fathers further informed us how the patient rocked with rage on his invalid couch of the Alleghany slopes, and the two doctors returned, calm and complacent, to the perfections, the infinite mercy and charm of the London slums. In our own day Mr. Chesterton, Mr. Wells, and a number of Continental writers have turned the glasses of their attention upon our moral landscape, but without, we feel, affording us much insight into our own case; the truth, if I am in any way wise in such matters, being that the European mind cannot much avail us. It is too full of false expectation.
The word by which we so splashily indicate our state of affairs — the word ‘democracy’ — is to the European a stumblingblock. We and he employ the one word, but by it we intend disparate things. The European sets foot on our soil predisposed to find European democracy in full flower and power. Instead, he finds a republic; a thousand years of tradition and usage, of unwritten, even unspoken agreements; and he finds, too, something subtle yet powerful; profound but innocent; something continually and freely criticized, and yet apparently impregnable to radical change; something religious, and yet cynical. A year ago, in Paris, the editor of one of the more popular French dailies said to me very nearly as follows: —
‘Yes, I have traveled in your country. But your countrymen are not good at explaining things, and there is so much in America that needs explanation. For example: your democracy — is it democracy? If so, why do you open the session of your Congress with a petition to a Supreme Being? And is your President a High Priest, that he comes forth, as it were, robed in a sort of sacerdotal style, a few days previous to that Feast of Gratitude you hold in November, and delivers a national prayer? And I ask you, is it democracy when the Governor of one of your States appoints — he, of his own volition, appoints a Senator ad interim? What I seemed to see was, for me, not democracy at all. I don’t know what it was, or is. But democracy, as we conceive it, no.’
His face was grave, and he sighed much as a man might sigh who had been disappointed in an affair of the heart.
It is conceivable that European democracy is one thing, our own another. We Westerners must, therefore, turn to our fellow countrymen for the mirror which shall show us our own deficiencies. I go even further. Those men, whether or not born and bred among us, who are European-minded, can avail us little by their critical comment.
‘No, I don’t feel at home in America.’ The words, precisely as I quote them, were spoken to me by a well-known young poet. ‘I hate America; I hate the people. I’m going to Paris, to live in the Latin quarter.’
I was sorry for this young American; sorry for the Latin quarter. We may, some of us do, love European countries. We rejoice, and should, in the richness, the completion, of European civilization. But whither, toward what, does it all seem to move? As we regard it and reflect upon it, having, possibly, the historic sense, we are convinced that Europe is not moving in our direction, but in another direction. We feel — even if we do not know — that whatever flower of culture we may produce, it will not be a European flower. We may come to perfection, or not, but we must take our way to it by paths other than the paths the European treads.
Civilization in America affords no very bright and shining outlook, but it is a field of sunbeams compared with the dark and rapidly gathering storm of critical disapproval which confronts us in the novels of what is called ‘the younger set.’ And if it were not so, our American attitude toward mere critics is that they are professional faultfinders; so that disposes of them. But that our writers of fiction should be out of sympathy with their own country-folk is another horse entirely, if only because we read fiction when, being tired, we have nothing else to do — and why should a tired man be pinched at and pessimized? Moreover we feel, however obscurely, that novelists, being dedicated to an art of understanding, can have but one criterion of any action or state of affairs: whether, namely, it tends to increase or diminish the wellbeing of a man. This inclines us to consider their account of us, however fleetingly. What is their account? How do they see us?
Well, the authors of Main Street and Miss Lulu Bett, of Cytherea, of This Side of Paradise, and — turning to the older set — of Ethan Frome and Unleavened Bread, in portraying our American environments, undoubtedly register disapproval or dismay or dislike. They declare our circumstances to be destructive of human happiness and perfection. And it may be of moment that so many of the newer poets agree with them. So, too, do many members of the professional class; and this class creates, or sustains, our material civilization.
I can imagine that at this point the American drummer, with whom I frequently consort, — and find him no fool, — will call me a calamity-howler, tell me to go chase myself, or, even worse, ask me if I hate my own country.
I suppose that in confessing something more than a sneaking affection for our common country, a writer may subject himself to being called a conservative, even a patriot. But I will go boldly at it, and declare at once that I like the race which — when we wish to irritate the Jew or the Celt to frenzy — we call the Anglo-Saxon. I like the American, and, if I am narrowly inquired of, I shall reply with malice and candor that the American I like is the American-American. The strange habits and preferences of our people do not irritate me beyond bearing. I retain my calm in the presence of their monstrous religiosity and their occasional extremism in politics. I am not moved so much as — I fear — I ought to be, when they accept Mr. Ford and Mr. Bryan as exemplary men, fitted for leadership and public office. Even the total blank and vacuity of the American mind after it has submitted itself to four years of college education leave me in a friendly and amiable mood; and there is a positive aspect to my tolerance.
These United States are a man’s country. The wilderness is not too far away; it invites and can be enjoyed without paying a ransom. If you are weary of the college campus, or of suburban felicities, or of what Philadelphians call the ‘Main Line,’ you take the train to New Brunswick, or the Navajo Reservation, and refresh yourself with hardship and the simple life. To sum up my patriotism, I believe that I like American life for many of the same reasons for which the sailor likes what he calls dirty weather: there is, in our state of affairs, something chaotic and adverse which calls for action and provokes high spirits.
If a writer of much vogue and authority — for example, Mr. Stuart Sherman — should thus open his heart and declare his ease in Zion, we can all readily imagine the outcry that would follow. Not only the poets, but all those others I have mentioned, would chorus their protest at him the instant he appeared on the back platform of the Pullman car on his way to the Painted Desert; and Mr. Sherman would find his firm and lucid style and all his wit quite drowned in the tumult of dissentious protest.
‘What!’ he would hear. ‘Those base and brutalizing sports are your ideal! Let us tell you then, mountain sheep and mackerel are not America. The America we know is a morgue of mind. Republican institutions are as outworn as chain armor, democracy is the dream of a drunken fool, and our people are corrupt and contented. To be at home in a country can mean only that you are at ease, satisfied with its mind, its spirit, its social habits. But perhaps you exuberate merely. Well, if you do, cease from exuberation, quit throwing your style; else live hereafter and forever in a wicky-up or a teepee and leave to us to create, by antipathy, by indignation, by compassion, criticism, and a justified anger, the future you care nothing about: that better Time and State which you are incapable of even imagining. If we mistake you, then say in plain words whether or no you agree with us that something is extremely wrong with America and American life.'
Mr. Sherman, being no doubt hardened to the hailstorms of invective and tolerably indifferent to supplication, would probably make no answer to these suffering voices.
But if the young and famous addressed me in these terms, I should certainly feel reined up. I should cease from throwing my style, if I had any to throw, and I should try to give an account of my opinions in the plainest language.
Well, then, I agree with them. There is something wrong with our American life, unconscionably wrong. I am aware of it as they are, and I feel indignation as they do — or, at least, an ardent desire for a better state of things. Mr. Van Wyck Brooks and Mr. Harold Stearns, among those who have contributed to Civilization in America, indicate clearly enough that our America is not doing and being all she could; that something is very much the matter with us.
Again, the writers of fiction have, I believe, observed us correctly. I cannot think that Main Street and Babbitt are false pictures of our life. The sordidness, gloom, and almost unrelieved tedium vitœ described or indicated in the Spoon River Anthology are not something manufactured by Mr. Masters, but something observed and felt.
Our state of things justifies and calls for such sentiment. It is only when these writers come to specify and point out the evils at work in our life that I find myself no longer at one with them. I feel that their attitude is the product of European-mindedness. We are, indeed, sick; but not because we are Americans; or because we are so largely of the Nordic race; or because we inherit the Common Law and the Bill of Rights; or because Patrick Henry — as is often asserted — was a windbag, or Jefferson a worse one, and Washington apparently a truthful, perhaps even a continent, man.
The virtues and values of a people do not constitute their weakness. On what point, then, shall we fix our attention, in order to discover the true nature of our ailment?
A French writer has said of China that it is not a country or nation, but a civilization. And what a flood of light is thrown by this observation on the whole field of thought in which we now find ourselves! There is, then, a thing called civilization, apart from the political organization. And this civilization may, possibly, be something apart or aside from religion. So that, if both Church and State were abolished overnight, there would still be this civilization. The American mind can hardly conceive of such a state of things. The sectarian churches, the President, the public schools, the Supreme Court, Congress, this and these, or what proceeds from these, are civilization, and there is and can be nothing left over, or outside these.
Well, China is too remote a dream for our interpretation. Let us, therefore, take France herself as an example of the truth of this French observation. If the French Government ceased, or changed into some other form; if the Roman Church passed away like smoke, French civilization would not be radically or immediately affected. It would continue to function. French art, science, and literature, French social habits, would not suddenly stagnate. They might even increase the energy of their activities.
And so in every country, though an organized polity and a traditional religion are primary, and possibly, in the long run, necessary, as being conservators of civilization, yet they are not the thing itself. They are not all of man’s life — not even half. In our country, as in others, men live only semioccasionally in political thought and action; still more semioccasionally in the sphere of religious feeling and belief. When the idea that politics and religion are not eight tenths of civilization offends the American, we have to remind him that a man’s love of his mother is not an effect of politics or of piety. Science, art, literature, thought, and the pleasure we may possibly take in fishing, are not the products of Church or State.
And so, if we want to know what the American Malady really is, we must — at least, in my opinion — avert the eyes of the mind from our self-governed ecclesiastical establishments and from the State. We must turn our thoughts upon the life men lead, aside from the ecclesiastical and political spheres. We must, in short, look into our civilization. Instantly we feel that we are on the right track. For the American man is really contented with the political state of things: he casts his vote without tears or nausea; and he is not more than gently critical and dissatisfied when, in a pew, he sings a hymn of which the burden may be that life is a vale of tears, and the sooner over the better for all concerned. In his heart he is aware that life and the world mean much to him.
But — and here we have it — when he locks the door of his office, when he leaves the church or the voting-place, he is confronted with his own leisure; and instantly the poor fellow is struck to the heart with the most intolerable and inescapable boredom. He may not know why he is bored, but he knows that he is, and he makes no bones about it. Time and himself hang heavy on his hands.
The proof that this is so is on every street-corner in every town, where, when our citizens are not politically or religiously engaged, we shall see them loafing, idling, and wondering what next, and where they look the discontent they feel. This discontent is so universal and so notorious that we sometimes pride ourselves on its ravages, the idea being that we shall be the more ambitious, and work the harder. Children, artists, and morons, we think, may glow with the happiness of mere being, or with the love of their games; but not the rest of us. We know and appreciate the value of being under the lash; of being gnawed upon by dissatisfaction. Boredom energizes, for we have to escape it, and, reflecting that to-morrow will soon be here, we itch for the relief that its routine labor will afford us.
Thus, if I am right, our leisure hours have no good meaning for us. We meet them as a man meets a dun or the shadow of death. But, in Heaven’s name, what is the reason why a robust, self-governing, and sufficiently pious people is subject to intolerable tedium in those hours when it is not at work, or being voted or prayed for? It will be understood that I speak of the mass of our people — not of those who are set apart by their possession of wealth or education, and decidedly not of those few who have been bred up in European or Colonial traditions of the conduct of life; for these latter know how to live with satisfaction to themselves.
Again, it must not be thought that all of us, on leaving our work at the stroke of five, sink at once and supinely into a state of coma or into boredom; that we make no conscious effort to come at diversion and pleasure. This may happen with many. But others of us, when the day’s task is finished, seek distraction, pleasure, and interest, as eagerly, as feverishly as any of the peoples of our earth. Yet we rarely obtain what we seek because we do not know how to entertain ourselves; and, wanting this great art of civilization, we try to kill time and obliviate care by speed, by yet more speed, or by doing a variety of things, none of which we care much to do.
Fixing our attention now on the mass of our people, who, if I at all know them, are habitually discontented, we need not be deeply read in Freud to be aware that a continuous, an habitual, discontent is a symptom of something extremely wrong with the person so afflicted, or with the life about him. It is as much a symptom of a disease or a morbid state of the soul and mind, as a subnormal pulse would be an indication of some physiological disturbance. Such a symptom implies a cause. What then are the causes — or is there perhaps a main cause — of our spiritual tedium?
Every son of man seeks to live a good sort of life: seeks, that is, so to build up and arrange his life that solid good shall be attained. But, in our country, many and powerful forces obscure the knowledge of what is a solidly good, desirable life. We often speak, in an excellent idiom, of having a good time. In that matter the Latin man seems a happy throw of nature. So, too, the Negro. Not long since I was having a heart-to-heart talk with a magnificent black fellow who, as is so often the case, expressed to me in simple Negro language a profound truth. ‘White folks can do a lot,’ said he, ‘but they don’t have a good time.’
Yet the white folks’ forefathers did once have a good time. What are the influences which have brought the sons of these forefathers to the point where they live a meagre and miserable life, so little responsive to the hungers and thirsts of the mind and soul that, in leading it, they are eternally dissatisfied?
To begin with, we are, through the lack of tradition incident to our emigration, — followed by repeated immigrations,— a folk cursed with bad cooking, and, as a result, with malnutrition, far beyond anything observable among the peasantry of France or Germany. Thus our citizens are tortured with what they are pleased to call stomach trouble. Again, our newly-rich, rising rapidly into their new-riches, rise as they may, have nothing to rise into. Having, that is, through the acquisition of money, attained to the possibility of a greater degree of self-perfection, — and therewith happiness, — they make no effort in that direction, preferring to remain what is called ‘plain’; which is to say, really, unfinished; which is to say, half-baked; rather than to grow and mould themselves into a more completed and worked-upon humanity. They have no Ideal Man, no single loved and admired character, on which to model themselves. They remain as they were, but, wishing to look different, their tailors gratify the last libido.
Furthermore, the American family has no intellectual interests. It does not even know what such things are.
Still further, we are nomads, and the Ford car, with other inventions, invites and indurates the nomadic habit. But a rich, deep, and powerful civilization cannot be founded on a tribe of nomads, who pitch their modern shacks to-day along the Susquehanna, and, exhausting the soil, move tomorrow to the Wasatch Range.
Lastly, there emanates from our great cities a peculiar moral effluvium of vulgarization, an odor mortalis, of which London and Berlin also are capable. Our mountaineers, it is true, are ignorant and our country people miseducated; but they are not vulgar. The Arab of the Arabian Desert is not vulgar, and neither is the Apache. But that our cities vulgarize is too plain to need proving; though, if proof were needed, our spoken English and manners would suffice. And we should not forget that vulgarity is no trifling matter, for it is composed of ignorance and of belief in it; of incapacity for intellectual distinction; of distaste for moral and all other refinements; and it is usually attended by insolence and illwill. A vulgarized human being is thus a damaged soul, an infection to his fellow men; a danger to the State; a contributive cause to the decline or corruption of the moral well-being that we try to embrace in the word ‘culture.’
Now, if many of us are vulgar, and multitudes of us are nomadic; and if these vulgarized nomads suffer from stomach trouble and have no intellectual interests; and if, when they make money, and are thus free to do and be what they choose, they then choose to do and be only what they have hitherto done and been, leaving ideals, noble behavior, intellectual enjoyments, the pleasure of the arts, and the pursuit and practice of the simple life, to their chauffeur — well, all this does not precisely make for a rich and Athenian culture, not even for the thrice-hammered hardihood of Rome.
I have mentioned above a very few of the forces which are adverse to that larger, freer, more fruitful life, the essentially good life I speak of, and to the contentment which must follow on leading such a life. But these, though contributory, are all negative powers. Whatever it is that brings us to a suffering and dissatisfaction so debilitating and so general must itself be positive and operate upon great masses of our population. With this conception in mind, no one will be astonished when I say that a false conception of what makes for a good life is the main and active cause of our great American malady of boredom. This false conception, apart from its sources, is as positive and powerful as any believed-in truth. For error is as creative as truth, only it creates evil. And here we are at once in the sphere of ideals, and in that sphere we know well enough that the fruit of a false conception of things is not often, or for long, anything true or excellent.
If a naturally truthful man imagines that he can take up with a course of lying, and does take up with it, the result will be that he will lower his pride, poison his serenity, and weaken his force. With a born liar, not so. His lies may even conceivably intensify his health. But the truthful man will be undermined by his own error.
So a tender-hearted man may indulge in this error: he may imagine that he can kill an old woman and, stealing her hoard of gold, live happily ever after. The hero of Crime and Punishment imagined that he could do this, and he tried it. His error, his false conception, led him on to self-horror and ruin.
Our American brother is like the hero of Dostoevsky’s novel. The false conception under which he labors, the error he believes to be truth, and on and in which he acts, is that he thinks there is no good life apart from labor, politics, and piety. By a good life, I mean, as I have sought to indicate, not merely and exclusively moral conduct, but the life which is good for us because it is consonant with our higher nature, answers every demand of that nature, and, being thus necessary, brings us to every sort of fulfillment, to increase of all that is best in us, and so to happiness — or at least contentment. Such a life implies freedom of choice and self-activity, and brings it about that the man leading it flourishes in health of body, mind, and spirit, producing fruit according to his kind, finding and fulfilling himself. Speaking in terms of religion, when he leads such a life he obeys the voice of God. Such a life he feels to be good, and he calls it good.
But the larger number of our countrymen are convinced that labor, politics, and piety are the whole of life; and this error takes a still more positive form when the misguided man believes the pleasures of art, music, poetry, social meetings, and the intellectual life, to be in themselves irreligious, low, bad, or negligible. Now see how this false ideal delivers the American over to misery and vice.
He despises and discards those things which the soul of man creates for its own joy. In so doing he puts himself on a level with crude and semibarbarous tribes like the Kaffirs or Yaquis. For these, too, plough the earth for bread, live under a system of traditional custom, as binding as law, and are pious according to their own lights. They lack nothing but, simply, civilization; which is to say, they lack the good life — the sort of life, let us say, led by Jefferson and Franklin when they were not at work.
It is, I feel, sufficiently obvious that our people do actually live a life that is crude and semibarbarous. It was not always so. Historical events have deprived the American of much that he should and once did possess. He is not conscious of the loss of these means of a finer and more copious life. He does not know that time, circumstance, and the course of things have, with exquisite sleight of hand, stolen away all his best means of happiness, all the wonder and wealth of his soul. All he knows is that his life is empty, and he feels sad.
If we could plainly show the causal process of his deprivation of good, we should not only be breathing life into history — we should be at once made aware of the true nature of the things he has lost.
But, to do this, we should be obliged to write a novel; for only a novel, with its infinitude of loving detail, could show us the American man in the process of becoming, of being compelled to become, the thing he now is. I have often wished the task might be undertaken: that a novel, preferably long and delightful, should be composed, showing the English or Scotch emigrant, say, of the later seventeenth century, landing on our shore, and being, in the years following, stripped bare of half his intellectual and spiritual powers and possessions.
We should then see a robust and adventurous man step from civilization and a rich popular culture into the void of the wilderness; we should see him provided, on his landing, with a complex and ancient religion; and we should then see him, as pioneer, hunter, and backwoodsman, lose all the fineness of that religion, cease to practise its rites, forget its formulæ, and retain of it little but the memory. We should see his mate obliged to prepare the food for their fourteen children helterskelter, as best she might, and we should shortly be witness to her resort to saleratus, hot bread, pork, and that man-destroying weapon, the fryingpan.
We should see dance, ballad, and glee in the process of being forgotten. We should see the Englishman attenuate his social customs, his manners, his jollity; and the Scot forget the gay or tragic songs of his forbears, air and words alike slipping away from him into the soft, perpetual twilight of the primeval forest.
And presently we should assist in the emigration of his children, to the Valley of Virginia, or the banks of the Wabash, and again should watch the heavy, swaying schooner-wagons of the children of those children drifting slowly westwards, across the Father of Waters, to the Great Plains, the prairies, where at last their own descendants are lost to sight and knowledge under the shadow of Mount Shasta. And observing narrowly those famous covered wagons on their long trail, in every mountain gorge, in every defile lit up and blooming with the pale large flowers of the rhododendron, and on the gently undulating blue-green prairie, we should find the ashes of the fires they lit, and about which they warmed their cold fingers, and told stories of how their forefathers lived in the tide-water county of Old Virginia, in the green fields of Sussex, or on the bonnie braes of Kilravock. And searching among those innumerable circles of faded, former fires, among the pale ashes of oak and pine, or in the charred dung of the buffalo, we should find in every heap their loved, their lost, their forgotten, their disused spiritual possessions: not only bits of colored glass, beads, shreds of calico, lying there to witness that world-shaking, worldcreating historical event — the Great Migration; not these only, but other and greater things, dropped, lost, and put by of stern necessity: song and dance, with violin and clavichord, garlands of flowers, graces and charms, manners and customs, convivial meetings, festivals, the life of the mind, and respect for it, gayeties of heart, and all diversions, all distinctions, all that in the past their forefathers had created that they might live in something more than the momentary taste of the palate and touch of the palm.
And with these means of happiness and of a full and flourishing life, we should stumble on yet higher things — music of infinite remoteness, creeds as old, almost, as the rise of man, the grace and charm of an ancient and mellow religion, and — yes — even the Psalms of David and the songs of Shakespeare. I repeat: we should, in all verity and sincereness, see these things, and far more than these, lying mouldy and forgotten in the charred ashes of the dung of the buffalo.
But, did our pioneer forbears retain nothing? They retained what they could use under the pressure of the new circumstances: a stark moral code, and cockfights. They retained horse-racing, the traditions of English liberty and law. They held to that respect for woman which we have seen flower in the immediate past. Else — nothing, or but little. This profound and enthralling work of fiction would, no doubt, let us understand that the more puritanical the immigrant was, the less he lost; for the less he had to lose, having already in the old country suffered a denudation of all liberal values.
Moreover, if our gifted novelist should continue his story, we should presently feel the bitter wind of Calvinism gather its malign forces, and blow on the descendants of these pioneers; or we should see them converted to an evangelical creed, which, with the deaths of those extraordinary saints and gentlemen, the Wesleys, must perforce be upheld and continued by men of coarse natures and ignorant minds.
And in the third volume of this somewhat prolonged Story of Man, we should be confronted with the lifedestroying forces of the Industrial Era.
But at this point, I feel convinced, my optimistic commercial traveler will again turn upon me, and say that I have not advanced one scrap of proof that the life we Americans lead is a poor one, in fact and actually; not a scrap of proof that we are discontented or unhappy. He will probably add that in his opinion we are aglow with the most blithe and winsome joy; and that we are a profoundly cultured people, as witness Mr. Ford and Mr. Bryan. And not only so, but an intellectual yet wisely optimistic people, as witness Mr. William Allen White. And I fool sure that he will end by asserting that my picture of our life is too dark, too monotonously dismal to be true.
Well, the gentleman can be comforted: for I hasten to assure him that, touching the dismalness and monotony of American life, I have so far painted or sketched the thing in a dazzle of crimson and gold: let him have patience, and he shall presently come to what is darker and dismaler, a good deal.
That the leisure hours of a million men are not joyous does, however, not admit of exact demonstration, Still, if I must play the game of a citation of living men in proof of my thesis, then, indeed, my heart leaps up, for I know that my enemy has given himself into my hand, and I cry out, as boys do at prisoner’s base, ‘I will take Mr. William Allen White for “my side.” ‘ He shall bear witness. He shall tell us in what degree the Kansan loves and lives a full and flourishing life, and to how much happiness he seems to attain.
I take Mr. White for my side the more readily as he has such a hearty appreciation of the value of material goods, and such an understanding of the part that law and political justice play in human life. And, further, Mr. White is genial, and fair, and humorous. Impossible not to be carried along with what he writes. He is a man not at war with life; he does not see it darkly; he does not rebel. He is even faintly tinged with our roseate optimism, and he is one of the few men who can speak of our modern Puritanism without roiling the rowdy Cavalier, who inhabits, I am afraid, the bosom of every true lover of life. Mr. White, too, is in love with Kansas.
To be in love is an engaging state of mind, and in Mr. White results in a desire to celebrate the object of his affections. He is aware of the imperfections of his bride, but he prefers to dwell on her material well-being, her ‘determination to make the Ten Commandments work,’ her stark morality, her political church, and her eager reforming spirit. His bride may lack the graces and elegancies of the ladies of the ‘Boule Miche,’ but she has the main thing: she’s a moral woman, and a good housekeeper. And yet, despite his admiration for Kansas, Mr. White makes certain admissions. And his tone in making them fills me with a fear that all is not so well with Kansas as we have hitherto thought.
Mr. White describes the physical well-being, the comfort, justice, order, and health of his fellow citizens, and expatiates on the fact that his own neighborhood enjoys ‘twenty-five miles of hard-surfaced roads, and more telephones and Ford cars than there are heads of families.’ He writes (I change the order of his sentences with but a very little malice): ‘We are a deeply religious people. Life and Liberty are esteemed. We have no criminal class. Still we are not a joyless people.’ It is here that I begin to feel a dusk of anxiety creep upon me.
‘Deep in our hearts is the obsessed fanaticism of John Brown.’ But I am under the impression that fanaticism is no very cordial friend to human liberty, and is an embittered foe to all that is liberal and enlarging in life. I feel almost inclined to ask if it would not be better to have a few less hard-surfaced roads, and a few, just a few more criminals, and not so many fanatics.
Mr. White, however, goes on to tell us that those who strive to make life beautiful for themselves and others in Kansas do not find, if I understand him, much response to their endeavor. That Kansas, though just and thriving, has not as yet produced a great poet, or musician, or philosopher; and that surely democracy is futile if out of it ‘something worthy — eternally worthy ‘ does not come! ‘The Tree shall be known by its fruits,’ and finally, to quote him directly: ‘Nothing is more gorgeous in form and color than a Kansas sunset; yet it is hidden from us. The Kansas prairies are as mysterious and moody as the sea in their loveliness, yet we graze and plough them, and do not see them. . . . Yes,’he continues, ‘though Kansas is well off, she lacks joy!’
And reflecting upon his own previous assertion that Kansas disapproves of the Latin way of life, with its temperate drinking of wine, its singular indifference to continence in the male animal, and its frank delight in songs of a somewhat pagan nature, he is moved to make a very wise observation. He makes it, as it were, doubtfully, modestly, but he makes it.
‘Surely all joy, all happiness, all permanent delight that restores the love of man, does not come from the wine, women, and song which Kansas frowns upon!’
And his conclusion is that this question, the question of the absence of ‘joy,’ — that is, I suppose, of natural and wholesome pleasure, — is not a Kansas question, but ‘tremendously American.’
Well, I feel that with such a witness, ‘my side’ wins. Mr. White is surely as much dissatisfied with American life as I should wish every man to be; and his dissatisfaction goes straight to the point I labor — we lack ‘joy.’ He sums the matter up in telling us that in Kansas we have an energetic and just people, fermenting with reformers, enjoying ‘a perfect sewer-system,’ and an infinity of telephones, and Ford cars; but which yet possesses little or none of that ‘permanent delight which restores the soul of man.’
‘These Kansans,’ then, — or these Americans, — have the prairies, with their changeful colors, their moods; but the prairies possess for them no other significance than what they may find in their front parlor, papered with magenta roses and pink lilies.
How was it that a Russian serf, the poet Kolsoff, could so rejoice in the beauty of the steppes he ploughed for another? Or how was it that an ignorant stripling, half-naked, and, later in life, far more criminal in his actions than Kansas would countenance, could, in his high tone, sing, or say: —
The wild asses quench their thirst.
To the American it would be indubitable that none but wild asses would quench their thirst at these springs of God.
Mr. White, in short, thinks that we Americans have no love for nature, get nothing from it — nothing more than a dog or an ox gets. And, further, he indicates that whether Kansans, or otherwise, we fail to get anything from the two great, popular and associated arts, Poetry and Music. Yet these two arts are main-traveled roads to a world of life-giving pleasure and human perfection; and they are, too, within the specific compass of our racial giftedness.
Now, a people to which Nature, Music, and Poetry are as blank as they probably are to a dog or an ox, is necessarily pitched back upon coarse, animal pleasures; or it seeks for the excitement which our human constitution demands, in the stimulus provided by Coca-Cola drunk in excess. For social diversion, not untinged by pathos, an auction-sale must serve; or at a pinch, the funeral of some unknown citizen, where death itself makes us feel, if nothing else, at least the tremor of apprehension. When all else fails, there is alcohol; and wanting that, the man can sleep.
It may be argued that, so far, I have taken into consideration only the rougher sort of people. What of our college boys and girls, with their enthusiasm for truth and beauty? What of our well-paid college professors? I am under the impression that our college professors will in a measure agree with me, that most of our college boys are disdainful of the arts and sciences; that the American student is a fine, upstanding, honest, well-intentioned, athletic, and empty-headed fellow; that at thirty or fifty he is this still, and nothing more; and—no light matter — that his ideal men are the ideal men of the whole community: Mr. Ford, Mr. Bryan, and others upon whom the professor looks somewhat coldly.
Turning now to the professor himself, the truth is that he is a Greek among early, very early, and very ignorant and crass Romans. He tutors these kindly barbarians as best he may. But he cannot impart to them his spirit, the necessary spirit of skepticism in Science; the necessary spirit of belief in Beauty; and his vital and creative respect and enthusiasm for intellectual values. He cannot inspire them with these beliefs and enthusiasms because, like the standard men they admire, they hold these things in fear and contempt.
If we can, by a gross effort, imagine Mr. Henry Ford and Mr. William J. Bryan, and that bellicose and redoubtable man, Bishop Cannon of the Methodist Church, with the modest Mr. William H. Anderson, as Roman youths, in their togas of virility, attending a class held, say, by Mr. George Santayana; and if, holding the picture, we try to imagine and hear Mr. Santayana imparting his subtle, urbane, wise, and liberal spirit — what he knows, feels, and is — to the boisterous young Romans I have mentioned, evidently, the four of them would have none of his spirit. They have their own spirit, their own dæmon.
Mr. Ford would cry out in Latin of a kind, as he has already cried out in English of a kind, that he cares not ten cents for all the history that was ever written: ‘History is bunk.5 Mr. Bryan would rush from the classroom, and, seeking the Forum, any forum, would make an oration against the late Mr. Darwin; and so with the others. For they are possessed, already, of a spirit of their own: the dæmon of false knowledge, of narrow, mean ideals; and that dæmon must be cast out before any good thing can enter them or those like them at the hand of even the most inspired professor. When I say that these gentlemen are possessed by dæmons, I am not trying to be funny, but to be exact, and, in an imaginative way, to convey the idea, none too easy of apprehension, that the American, possessing already his own notion of what he conceives to be a good life, has the utmost contempt for the good life, which he knows nothing about and does not possess.
He labors, that is, under the false conception to which I alluded. He is a slave to error. He is an idolater of the bad. And the rest of us—poets, novelists, and professors — can go hang: we are a mere minority. Thus, it is that in our country the poet, the writer or artist, and the professor feel isolated and solitary. They are face to face with this Gallio among the nations. America cares for none of these things. She cares for none of these things, because she has been decivilized. Historic events and a false ideal have brought us to that pass. We are, as a people, without the knowledge or practice of what clearly enough is civilization. And we are not aware of the fact.
But am I not rather taking the definition of civilization for granted? What is civilization? How do the authorities define it?
Well, the Ladies’ Home Journal is, possibly, in a degree, and certainly intends itself to be, an agent of civilization. It should, therefore, be qualified to define civilization, or at least to point out a true and ideal civilization. And the editor, taking up just this issue in the August number, writes as follows: —
‘There is only one first-class civilization in the world to-day. It is right here in the United States. It may be a cocky thing to say, but relatively it [our civilization] is first-class; while Europe’s is hardly second-class, and Asia’s is about fourthto sixth-class.’
It is comforting to know that such is the case. It disposes of so much. First of all, it relieves us of any effort to bring about a higher sort of civilization. Since we are so decidedly firstclass, we may rest on the oars of effort, and let France and England try to catch up. We may rest on our oars, or on our knitting-needles, and, suspended in the Heaven of our own superiority, look deliciously down on China, where family life is so detestably stable, and where the people have been innocent pacifists now these two thousand years or more.
It is pleasing, too, to feel that the French are not in it with us. Their family life, too, is irritatingly successful; and their women are at the same time so little regarded by their husbands, and by French law, that both by custom and under that law they are, we are told, practically partners in their husband’s business affairs. And then, though we take little interest in such matters, it is certainly a pleasing thought, and one that fans our self-esteem into a cordial glow, to be made aware that our science and our music, two things which may have, we suppose, some relation to civilization, are on a plane above those of the French.
We don’t know who our American Pasteur is, or who our César Franck is, but it ‘s simply grand to know we have them. Further, it is nice to realize, from the highest authority, that England, through whom we inherited the language we speak, though not that refined bur-r-r which a few of us have implanted in the innocent thing, has at last sunk to second place, and can be regarded with complacent disesteem.
The word ‘cocky,’ the Dictionary informs me, is the same as ‘cock-sure,’ and signifies to be confidently certain; and the Dictionary adds that it is a ‘low word,’ which we now know not to be the case. But the subject is serious, and irony gets us no further. Let us, then, say, as we surely must say, that such an extreme overestimate of what the people of our country have accomplished, in the way of creating a noble, fruitful, and humane life for themselves, is unworthy of any student of manners.
There is in such a comparative judgment and award nothing helpful or forwarding; no qualification is made, no distinction observed. It is as if a man should say that Athens and Florence in their great periods were less creative of human well-being than Newark and Yonkers of to-day.
I feel, however, that we can come by a less cocky, or less vainglorious, estimate of our American civilization by turning to the novelists, whose lifetask it really is to deal with such matters. The editor of the Home Journal might naturally object to taking the opinion of mere men upon such a subject. He might argue that men know nothing about civilization or culture. Let me, therefore, appeal to a woman, that is, to A Circuit Rider’s Wife, by Mrs. Corra Harris.
The book is an autobiographical sketch, written with a gusto, sparkle, and humor that should have recommended it to the higher critical appreciation. It treats, with much else, of our American life, as it was lived forty years ago, in the country districts of a Southern State. And in such districts, as we all know, life has not very much changed with lapse of time. There is much animation in the account of that life, and, rarest of things in a book by an American author, there is an extraordinary subtlety in what we are accustomed to call the psychology of the characters portrayed.
What is the nature of the life described? I think any reader of Mrs. Harris’s book will agree with me when I say that the life is chill, sterile, sad, and, above all, dull. In fact, it is dull with a dullness which surpasses any dullness that this reader has ever encountered, save in just such countrysides. As, however, the narrative does concern itself with a backward people, and a Methodist community of that period, it might be felt, and reasonably so, that we cannot expect art, gayety, social diversion, or even human happiness in such a milieu.
Let me, then, turn to another woman writer, to Miss Willa Gather, for support. The excellence of her gift we all know. Whatever her novels may lack, it is certainly not truth, candor, or a knowledge of the people of whose existence she treats. In The Song of the Lark the author portrays the life led in a small town in Colorado; in My Antonia the current of things in a similar town in Nebraska. What here we have dealt with is not the aristocratic South, or the effete East, but the West; that portion of our empire where, as the popular song has it, everything is a little wider, warmer, larger, and more generous — in short, happier.
Do we find it so? No; the life which the writer paints, or suggests, is divested of all the nobler pleasures; empty of intellectual interest; devoid of social diversion; artless, heartless, furtive, narrow, bleak, mournful, mean, and inhuman. Impossible to speak or read of it jocosely. Jest and irony die in their preconception. This is the American! To this he has fallen! We look in the magic glass, and the glass is truly magic with the grace and truth of genius, and we see our American brother’s face. It is a very sad face, but not sad with thought; not furrowed by dark experience; not weary with having lived. No, the face, as it appears on this canvas, wears the mournful, baffled expression of a soul which does not know how to live, and has not lived.
It can only be said of these unhappy people that the existence they are called upon to endure is composed of that iteration of nothing to which the human soul cannot accustom itself this side of an insane asylum. If Mrs. Corra Harris, and Miss Willa Cather report with only half truth the facts of our case, we must feel that we are in a bad way; that we really are a decivilized people, wanting in all the arts of civilization; and in consequence, undeveloped, starved of all that is best — discontented, and dull. To this state our false conception of what is good has brought us.
The most thankless task in the world is that of telling our countrymen that anything whatever ails or is wrong with them. You are at once called a grouch, and a sour-belly. You are held to retard the wheels of progress. Why, then, undertake that which brings only an increase of disesteem and dislike, and to which little attention will be paid? As is well known, our national timidity shrinks from the task, or only essays it in the form of fiction, or when sure of sympathetic agreement. But, no doubt, the day will come when there will be American writers who shall be steeled to a just contempt of the disapproval of the great and ignorant mass of their fellowcountrymen. To those, in the future, must and will fall the task which truth imposes—the task of criticism; the task of finding fault where fault should be found.
If the life our people lead is not good, but bad; if it is an existence which, by what it lacks, dehumanizes; if it tortures the young heart and cripples the youthful mind; if it is green and yet corrupt; if it is stupefyingly dull and empty of good; if it is mean, ignoble, and poor, we must face these facts, analyze them, interpret them if we can, and try to understand them.
In the sphere of religion Wycliffe and Luther were in their day not remiss in pointing out corruption. And the poets, the novelists, of our time are their true sons, and should take heart of hope from the examples of those great Reformers, who first acquainted themselves with what was wrong, and thereafter reformed it. First, the weighing of facts, then their interpretation, and after that the more agreeable task of the betterment of what is bad. With us, in the Western world, reform is too frequently directed upon political evils only. Above all, it neglects the preliminary labor of the knowledge and understanding of the evil to be removed.
And again, our energetic spirit of reform wastes itself in the endeavor to raise the lowest and most unfortunate class a little, a very little higher.
But it is not the blind and the crippled, it is not the half-witted, or the nomad worker, with and in whom lie the destinies of America. To the exceptional boy or girl, to the gifted, to those who by the divine grace of high breeding in humble circumstances, are foreordained to some sort of leadership; to those to whom God has already given much, to them give yet more. Concentrate on the best you now have, and the wheels of progress will spin twice as fast as they now do. Cultivate your productive soil, and let the barren mountain pasture, or the marshland, wait a while. If this is unchristian, so much the worse for our modern Christianity. It was to this aim that Emerson dedicated his life.
But to do this, however inadequately, we must see clearly, as in the daylight of truth, in the very cruelty of it, those things in which American life is most wanting. And we must see that this absence of great and glorious things has not come about by chance, but is owing to our false conception of what is good, what bad; and that this devaluation of good, this arid contempt of it, is the creative cause of all the wretchedness which so keenly affects us. We must seek to realize that this is the main cause why, in the midst of perfect tranquillity, and unparalleled plenty, we are neither contented nor happy. No doubt, other causes are at work upon us. But this is the Satan of our life. This is the Goliath of America. And against this giant power of evil, so deeply entrenched, so apparently unassailable, untouchable, the future American critic must throw whatever puny stone he may have in his sling. By thus doing, by destroying this dark misconception, we shall, at least in a measure, bring about the good life.
I may seem to some readers, at this point, to speak in hyperbole, and to be now as grotesquely extravagant in hope of the good, as I was earlier extreme in criticism of the bad. I may seem, too, to have advanced very inadequate proof that our life is not the most excellent one in the world.
I have mentioned Mr. George Santayana; let us listen to him. In his Character and Opinion in the United States he speaks of us Americans and of our life, at some length. He appraises our civilization, and culture, and analyzes our characteristics, without fear, with indeed much candor, but with esteem and affection. In his Preface, he writes: I am confident of not giving serious offense to the judicious, because they will feel that it is affection for the American people that makes me wish that what is best and most beautiful should not be absent from their lives. . . . There is, in America, a fund of vigor, goodness, and hope such as no nation ever possessed before.’ In America, ‘all is love of achievement, nothing is unkindness; it is a fearless people, and free from malice.
‘This soil,’ he continues, ‘is propitious to every seed, but why should it not also breed clean thinking, honest judgment, and rational happiness?’