The Contrast

Appreciating the national popularity of reading clubs and circulating libraries, the Editor of the Bookshelf has compiled a list of the most prominent books, fiction and non-fiction, that have appeared in the last twelvemonth. This list has been selected from the suggestions of the nine librarian advisers of the Atlantic; it will be sent with our compliments to all chairmen and committees of reading clubs. Requests should be addressed to the Editor of the Bookshelf, Atlantic Monthly, 8 Arlington Street, Boston, Mass.


by Hilaire Belloc. New York: Robert M. McBride & Company. 1924. vi+207. $2.50.
MR. BELLOC’S thesis is that the United States differs so from Europe that dangerous misunderstandings may result if the world continues to nourish the illusion that we are just one fragment of a generally homogeneous English-speaking democracy which has whirled off on an independent political orbit. Putting it that way, most people would agree. But whoever is familiar with Mr. Belloc’s manner of writing will not need to be assured that he does not content himself with stating the matter in so tame a way. ‘ My thesis is ‘ — he announces at the outset — ‘ that the New World is wholly alien to the Old,’ and he invites his readers to ‘the task of learning once for all that the American people possess another, and a foreign, culture.’ He puts that in italics. He flogs this theme with a loud cracking whip and drives it zigzag across a wade landscape. The points at which he halts it to refresh itself with illustrations, to stamp on the ground for emphasis, to neigh a challenge to all previous observers, are not the old turningposts between which the European tourist usually permits his nag to canter. That is one reason why the book is interesting.
Beginning with a chapter called ‘The Surprise,’ which utters a cry of bewilderment and which avers that nobody had prepared him for the strangeness and otherness of the United States, Mr. Belloc proceeds to explain, in a chapter on ‘ The Physical Contrast,’ that ‘the external world, that nature of soil and tree and landscape, in which the American soul has been formed, is as removed from the Old World as is one living species from another.’ Whether the reader likes this chapter, or disagrees with much of it, it is not banal and it is not sentimental. Relatively few have a really discriminating eye for topography and landscape; and Mr. Belloc is one of the few.
Next he speaks at length and with much subtlety of the ‘Social Contrast,’ and passes thence to the ‘Political Contrast.’ Here he puts it that we have ‘retained to a very large degree the institution of monarchy.’ He capitalizes ‘monarchy’ and makes the reader rub his eyes; but it soon appears that he has defined out of the word a good deal of what it ordinarily embraces, and so it turns out that he means ‘the responsibility of one man for the execution of laws, the maintenance of function, the direction of effort.’ In emphasizing this point Mr. Belloc is doing good service. He believes that the ‘military experience’ of any people is a formative influence of great and intimate significance, and he likens our military history to that of the French and contrasts it with that of Great Britain—without discussing the World War. He finds a ‘Religious Contrast’ to be important, for we have not yet become aware that there is a ‘necessary conflict between the Civil State and the Catholic Church where the two are not identified’ — whereas all Christian Europe has a realizing sense of this. He finds proof of a Contrast in ‘The Jewish Problem.’ He discovers more in the ' Contrast in Letters,’ and piles it up in ‘Note on Language.’ A final chapter called the ‘Foreign Relation’ contains reflections that will please the Americans who are sometimes called isolationists.
About half the book is difficult to accept. Mr. Belloc protests abundantly that he is aware he may be mistaken, and would not quarrel with a reviewer who enters this caveat. Woven through the pages is another half which is so sound and so fresh that it is well worth-while to read the whole to get at it.
Mr. Belloc is afraid that he will appear fantastic when he says that the rhythm of life in America is other than the rhythm in Europe. But his development of this idea is surely one of the solidest passages in the book, although the social rhythm is truly an elusive thing to define and enlarge upon. In the realm of such dim realities Mr. Belloc succeeds beautifully. Where nine writers in ten blink and grope he moves as if possessed of the eyes and whiskers of a cat, and where no outline is clear, his power of suggestion by means of analogies, comparisons, and metaphors becomes irresistible.
In manner it is all a bit like the talk of the stranger whom one meets, say, in the smoking compartment of a Pullman; who soon engages all present in discussion apropos of nothing; who overwhelms them with contradictions and testimony drawn from his own personal adventures; who proves himself to be more traveled and more miscellaneously informed than all others present; who is paradoxical and tries to shock; who bewilders by ingeniously redefining terms and categories while he is patently honest and earnest; who annoys, but yet who engages and entertains. After he leaves, the discussion may go on; or there may be silence until somebody relights a cigar and murmurs, ‘After all, there’s a good deal in it! ‘
H. J.