American Social History as Recorded by British Travelers

Compiled and edited by Allan Nevins. New York: Henry Holt & Co. 1923. 8vo. x+577 pp. $4.00,
THIS country from its beginning has fascinated those people of creative imagination, like William Cobbett, Harriet Martineau and H. G. Wells, who delight in the processes of grinding crude environment down into civilization. Their praise recurs throughout the literature on America, which for the most part has been a literature of blame. Blame has come from people of cramped imagination, like Anthony Trollope’s mother and Matthew Arnold, who can appreciate only the accomplished results of arrested processes, can enjoy processes themselves only in historical retrospect, blame more eloquent of the grandeur of the subject matter, even, than the praise. these are t he intellectual elements in the popularizing book of Mr. Nevins to be discerned almost as much through its virtues as through its faults.
Through its virtues because Mr. Nevins measures the ground, or most of it, chronologically — horizontally, as it were; and because with his index and bibliography the reader can measure the ground, or some of it, vertically with neither aid nor hindrance from the editor. The aid of philosophy, which has stained only too often the clear streams of history with colors not properly their own, is here employed (in toning down British hostility toward things specifically American) for no other purpose than to make history seem more colorless than it is. As for those misleading excrescences upon the stretches of events, — fixed points of view, — all such are here quite leveled away.
Through its faults because they are so little the result of any intruding disturbance of the editor’s personality as to amount more to shortcomings than to faults. The reader if he does not get lost in the great spaces devoted to the crying evil of Negro slavery, is free to discover for himself the constituent elements of our national characteristics. He may learn, that is, at second hand how much silent drinking, quick lunches, steam heat, tobacco juice and ice water is necessary to turn a man into an American.
He can perceive at first hand how much tact, ingenuity,and creative effort is necessary to make an historian out of a scholar. As the editor expresses neither opinion nor prejudice even in his introductions to the four periods of the anthology, he is never seriously misleading; but a wee bit of the importance attached to Sir Philip BurneJones’s frivolous book. Dollars and Democracy, is due to his supposing him his father, Sir Edward, the pre-Raphaelite painter. Many of his selections, especially those portraying our great men, have charm, and as most are drawn from writers who are not easily available, the general reader will get a great deal of amusement from the book. Readers entering on more special subjects will do well to study it in detail, for it will give them an insight into the way political considerations have modified British praise and blame of America, and into the defensive psychology of such pathetic subterfuges as that with which this book of British travel ends. ‘Goodbye, Americans! I am going to a land very much like yours. I am going to your spiritual home.’