The Gulf Between
BY ANDRÉ SIEGFRIED
NEVER has Europe more eagerly observed, studied, discussed America; and never has America followed more carefully, discussed more closely, the discussions of Europe about the United States. At the same time, it is hardly excessive to state that never have the two continents been wider apart in their inspirations and ideals.
It is a widespread belief that the war is mainly responsible for that est rangement, especially the aftermath of the war. I should be tempted to think that the deep reason is another one: Europe, after all, is not very different from what it was a generation ago; but there has been born since then a new America.
Such is the point I should like to discuss in the following pages, not ex professo and by summoning figures and statistics, but by plainly giving the impressions of a European who first knew the United States in 1898, and has since visited them again every four or five years. An American, thus looking at Europe, would of course have witnessed extraordinary changes, especially on account of the catastrophe of the war, but he would have to admit that the basis of the European civilization remains essentially the same. On the contrary, when I recall my impressions of the United States thirty years ago, I cannot avoid the thought that the very basis of the American civilization is no longer the same: a new society, whose foundation rests upon entirely different principles and methods, has come to life; the geographical, the moral centre of gravity of the country is no longer situated at the same place. It is not enough to say that a new period has grown out of the old; something entirely new has been created. Such a change did not clearly appear to me in 1901 or 1904; it was noticeable in 1914, and patent in 1919 and 1925.
My argument, then, will be threefold: (1) The America of the nineteenth century’s last decade belongs completely to the past and should be classed with the Anglo-American civilization of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries rather than with the present age. (2) Not only has the spirit of America changed, but its geography — I mean, before all, its moral topography: the centre of gravity, both geographical and moral, has shifted. (3) Lastly, when numerous writers oppose the old world to the new, they are not wrong: the differences are not only in degree, but in kind. Americans and Europeans may study, admire, imitate each other, but their possibility of mutual understanding is probably less than at any time since the foundation of the American Commonwealth.
I was lately reading Outre Mer, that famous book in which M. Paul Bourget has described the United St ates of 1893. As an achievement it remains firstrate, and, as a landmark of changing America, nothing short of impressive. Better than comments, a few quotations will measure the passage of time since the Chicago World Fair.
First, on arriving in New York and gazing at the buildings: ‘I count the stories; one of the buildings has ten stories, another twelve! Gigantic, colossal, boundless, unrestrained (effréné), one cannot but repeat the same formula because words are lacking. . . .’ Comment is indeed unnecessary.
Would anybody, nowadays, think of mentioning the presence of a lady typewriter? ‘Surveying my recollections, I see the great number of women employed in all sorts of jobs, one most clearly of all, sitting, young and gracious, before a typewriting machine; she was copying the manuscript of an article; the pretty fingers played on the keys, as they would have on a piano. Such work was clean, delicate, not too tiring, and the charming face expressed a profound serenity.’
What about the smart young lady of the nineties? ‘It is she who, dining without her mother at the house of one of her young lady friends, asks for cigarettes, smokes four of them without stopping, and then exclaims: “And to think that I have to come to Jessie’s to be able to swallow a few puffs of straight cut!”’
Last but not least this less picturesque but, in my opinion, far more significant trait de mœurs: ‘ I have seen a whole theatre rise and burst into frantic applause at this exclamation of a workingman entering a bar: “I am born a free American citizen and I intend to go where I please.’” Does not this sound strange, a quarter of a century later, in the country of prohibition? Are we to suppose that such observations were false? Not in the least. Visiting America in 1898, my own impressions were exactly the same. But, since then, one can say that practically everything has changed, not so much in the outward appearance as in the inspiration which colors the whole American atmosphere. I have even come to think that this 1890—1900 decade, although containing all the germs of the present era, belongs rather to a past phase of the American civilization: it was the end of something as much as the beginning of new times.
What was then coming to its end — a background of a generation was perhaps necessary to notice it — was the old Anglo-American civilization of the nineteenth century, that powerful agent of the conquest and colonization of a whole continent. During that period, Boston and New England were still the moral animators of the country; but, mark it, they remained in close touch with England, their maisonmère, and through England with Europe. The New England literature of the mid-nineteenth century strikes us, of course, as distinctly American, but we feel hardly less to what extent its roots are European. The term ‘colonial,’ in its best sense, quite applies here.
Even in New York it was toward the old world that the money aristocracy of these days used to look, as to the necessary and probably unique source of high culture. To the author of Outre Mer the Four Hundred appeared as an extraordinarily cultivated set, refined even to the verge of dilettantism. Strange to say, they left him the impression of something old, almost decadent in their search for new sensations; a paradoxical judgment, but sensible at bottom, if we think that since then America, which was becoming old, has grown young again by its creation of a new ethics of production. The gap is not between 1830, let us say, and 1890, but between 1890 and 1914. The colonial link with Europe has been cut and America has risen to a full independence of economic culture.
It was not only in the East that such a colonial spirit was maintained, but also in the West. The West of that period, when there still existed a frontier of adventure, continued to be the home of fancy, the domain of ventures and liberty sometimes almost bordering upon lawlessness; there were still pioneers, cowboys, conquerors throwing railroads across the desert just as conquistadores would have launched expeditions into the wilderness. In 1898, I could still see the last fading colors of that romantic kingdom of the past; the licentious state of some cities, on the border of Mexico, suggested the conditions of towns in Asia. Later on, not perhaps fully in 1904 but certainly in 1914, all this atmosphere of romance had vanished; the America of Ford and Babbitt was appearing, with prohibition in the background.
Yet she had a real and winning charm, that America of the closing nineteenth century, still quite near to her colonial origin, not fully recovered from the Civil War (in 1898 I remember New Orleans still with the atmosphere of a defeated town), not yet overwhelmed by Slavo-Latin immigration, and passionately devoted to her task of creative and epic colonization. She was — such was the impression of all Europeans — eccentric, erratic, and genial, with a touch of foolishness; already colossally rich, but with many paupers; adventurous at bottom, and yet respectful of the old Europe, which she had not ceased to recognize as remaining the true centre of the civilized world. I think most Europeans secretly regret that America.
Two principal facts seem to have brought a change the importance of which cannot be exaggerated. First, the conquest of the continent has been completed, and — all recent American historians have noted the significance of the event — the western frontier has disappeared: the pioneer is no longer needed, and, with him, the mystic dream of the West (the French would say the mystique of the West) has faded away. Thus came the beginning of the era of organization: the new problem was not to conquer adventurously but to produce methodically. The great man of the new generation was no longer a pioneer like Lincoln, nor a railroad magnate of the Hill type, but that genial primaire Henry Ford. From this time on, America has been no more an unlimited prairie with pure and infinite horizons, in which free men may sport like wild horses, but a huge factory of prodigious efficiency.
Thus was born — and this thanks solely to the American genius — a new conception of production, and, with the success of it, that wonderful progress in the standard of living of the American people. In this creation the United States was indebted for nothing essential to Europe. The rope was cut that had so long made of the new continent a persistent colony of the old. There appears to lie the main cause of the immense change which has made of the United States, in the twentieth century, a really new civilization, in which the legendary types of nineteenth-century America are in vain looked for by the traveler of to-day. Where is the hectic and semiwild millionaire of Abel Hermant in his Transatlantiques? Where is the gentleman cowboy of Bourget? Where is the old gentilhomme of the South, so long preserved in ice for our pleasure and delight? Above all, where is the liberty of the past — swallowed in one gulp by the ogre of efficiency ?
Many a European traveler believes that he knows America when he has visited the Eastern States. It might have been true in the eighteenth century; but even in the thirties Tocqueville thought he ought to visit the Mississippi Valley, and nowadays there is certainly no possible understanding of the country without going West. In point of fact, the true domain of the typical American mind only begins west of the Alleghenies. Such a circumstance is an essential factor in the relations between Europe and America.
A Frenchman may, of course, be puzzled by New York, but after all he is not quite out of touch there with things he has known before: New York is a world capital, as cosmopolitan as it is American, a genuine home for every nationality and every species of mind. But, once the Alleghenies are left behind, the European really feels he is now out of sight of the old lands; there stretches before him an immense country, bordered by two great mountain ranges and populated by tens of millions of people, who live their own life, are fed by their own products, and find among themselves nine tenths of the customers for their limitless fabrications. These people conduct their Jives according to material, moral, and social standards which they have not in the least borrowed from Europe, but spontaneously and unconsciously created to meet their own needs; they are satisfied that, should the outer world cease to communicate with them or even to exist, they would still continue to prosper. Their weight in the country has grown such that more and more they tend to mark the American civilization of our day with their own colors. Their well-justified self-satisfaction appears to be so complete that their national — should I dare to say, provincial? — point of view is Burberry proof against outside influences. Not even the French arc as parochial.
Thus may be explained a personal impression of mine, which is perhaps worth recording. My first sensation of strangeness, in America, was not in New York, but in Chicago. On coming back from the West and the Far West, I had a curious feeling, when I crossed the Alleghenies and reached Richmond, Virginia, that I was already back again in Europe: the people seemed to have a long tradition behind them, they knew their great-grandfathers and spoke of them, some of their artistic and intellectual standards were mine, and the fact that they possessed an inherited culture was obvious. Just as I understood them better, I suppose they also understood Europe better than their Western compatriots. To a certain extent, Europe remained a centre of attraction for them; many said they had visited France or Great Britain but never had seen California!
Now, where does the present American civilization find its most perfect expression ? In the East or in the West? The American census produces, every ten years, a most fascinating map, where the geographical centre of gravity of the American population is marked by a cross. Long ago this cross passed west of the Alleghenies, but at the 1920 census it appears far away in the middle of the Mississippi Valley — namely, in Indiana, close to the Illinois border. This shifting is the result not only of the agricultural colonization of the West, but of the recent, progressive, and intense industrialization of the Central West. In point of fact, the development of these Central States, in its present phase, is not principally agricultural, but manufacturing. The census map is, of course, economic, but I think it has acquired, in addition, no small social significance. The present American civilization, at least as seen by Europeans, is essentially embodied in mass production, with the ability it has shown of raising the standard of living of millions of people. Such mass production tends to be more and more confined to the Central States, where it is — mark this — decidedly centred in itself. Hence the very characteristics of American inspirations, conceptions, methods, appear to us to be expressed not so much, as before, in the Atlantic States as in the plains lying south of the Great Lakes. It was the country of Lincoln; it is now the country of Ford.
Considering, indeed, the geographical location of American industry during the last generation, leaving aside new tendencies of dissemination which are just beginning to appear, you are bound to notice that it has not tended to concentrate on the shores of the Atlantic, as would have naturally been the case in a mainly export ing country. The United States does not export over 10 per cent of its production. Such a fact explains why the industries, instead of being grouped on the sea, have on the contrary tended to concent rate south of the Lakes, where they find not only a limitless supply of fuel and raw materials, but a convenient base from which the customer — not the foreign, but, far more important, the national customer — may easily be reached. It is full of significance that, although practically every American city has achieved wonderful success in the two last decades, the towns which have shown the greatest growth arc not the seaports, but rather centres situated some one or two hundred miles inland — such, for instance, as Dallas, Birmingham, Atlanta, or Detroit.
In 1898, arriving at Pittsburgh, I remember two people saying, not without a sort of pride, ‘We are getting West.’ In 1925, not far from St. Paul, I heard somebody say, ‘ Way down East, in Chicago.’ West has shifted westward, but what was yesterday the West or Central West has now become, in every sense of the word, the centre of the country. We do not ignore, of course, that financially, intellectually, New York still is leading. But it seems that, the spirit which actually governs America is no longer formed east but west of the Alleghenies.
This brings me to one definite conclusion: in the last twenty-five or thirty years America has produced a new civilization, whose centre is midcontinental, and for this reason, as well as because it owes little to us, is further away from Europe than before—it is American and autonomous. This may perhaps explain the growing estrangement between the old and the new world.
Just before leaving the United States in the last days of 1925, after a six months’ visit, I tried to sum up for myself, in a very short note which was not destined to be printed, my leading impressions of the present American civilization. It may be interesting to reproduce that note, not as giving any original view, but as representing, on the contrary, the spontaneous reaction of an average Frenchman — that is, of an average Western European.
‘From an economic point of view, the country is sound,1 because its prosperity is based, first on a boundless supply of natural produce, and second on an elaborate organization of industrial production, the perfection of which is nowhere approached in Europe.
‘From the point of view of civilization, it is perhaps to be feared that standardization may, in the long run, tend to lessen the intellectual and artistic value of the American society — the part of the workingman in the factories where mass production is realized is not likely to increase his own value, as an individual; and in order to secure material comfort for the bulk of the American population it seems necessary to produce a common level of manufactured articles, which perhaps does not mark progress in comparison with the civilization of Europe.
‘From a moral point of view, it is obvious that Americans have come to consider their standard of living as a somewhat sacred acquisition, which they will defend at any price. This means that they would be ready to make many an intellectual or even moral concession in order to maintain that standard.
‘From a political point of view, it seems that the notion of efficiency in production is on the way to taking precedency of the very notion of liberty. In the name of efficiency one can obtain, from the American, all sorts of sacrifices in relation to his personal and even to certain of his political liberties.
I was summing up, in these short lines, two main impressions which are, I think, the instinctive ones of the majority of Frenchmen visiting America.
First of all, they are amazed by the degree of material prosperity which has been reached, not only by an élite, but in general by the mass of the people. Books, articles, statistics, have, of course, already long ago informed the European thinking public of this fact; but it is impossible to realize it without having, actually and physically, breathed the American atmosphere. When this has been the case, every visitor from the old countries readily admits that there is no common measure between the wages and the standards of living in the United States and in Europe. Comparing men of equal value, equal merit, equal training, the rewa rd of labor shows differences which in certain cases appear almost shocking.
In Asia and in Africa one still meets the appalling spectacle of human physical decay: pitiable crowds of crippled beggars are seen, whom nobody endeavors to cure. Europe has reached a stage where such a social scandal as this is unknown, but she still possesses her paupers, leading in some of the big manufacturing cities miserable lives, unworthy, indeed, of civilized human beings. In the United States such paupers may still occasionally be found, but on the whole they have ceased to be a normal feature of the present American society. Well, this social level of the States probably means as great a progress over Europe as Europe has achieved over Asia. If I had to state the main contribution brought to humanity by the American civilization, I should, I think, quote that physical and that material dignity of life which are guaranteed to the common American by social conditions, thanks to which he can always earn a decent salary and, with it, lead a decent life.
The fundamental soundness of the American society does not, then, escape our observation. We are apt to attribute it not so much perhaps to American genius as to geographical and economic conditions that Europe does not enjoy. Limitless production of food and raw material is, of course, denied to us, and we sometimes wonder whether without its huge and naturally supcrwealthy territory, combined with an extraordinarily low density of population, America could secure, for her people, such a degree of prosperity. Nor do we ignore that mass production is more easily realized in a massive continent without frontiers than in an articulated peninsula like Europe, where national individualities are numerous, with their roots to be found far away in a past of many centuries. At the same time we immensely admire American industry for having achieved that condition of production where the workman earns a big wage and deserves it, thanks to which high salaries can be combined with a low cost of production. These are the main reasons why the most sensible European visitors admit that, although some aspects of the present prosperity are artificial, nevertheless that prosperity, as a whole, shows evident signs of a permanence which can only be based on innate soundness.
Cheap production depends on mass production, and in its turn mass production depends on mass civilization. The objections which the cultivated European instinctively raises to the American system come mainly from this fact, that the American point of view is at bottom democratic and the traditional European one aristocratic. Only remember the reserves which I was spontaneously suggesting to myself when trying to sum up my impressions of America: the standardized goods lack personality and refinement; for the sake of a material standard is it right to sacrifice individuality in life, and should I really give up even a small fraction of political liberty for the sake of efficiency? In his well-known book, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, Mr. Keynes has observed that the prosperity of Europe in the nineteenth century was to some extent due to the fact that workingmen were content with low wages, while the middle classes, in order to satisfy their instinct for thrift, willingly accepted modest standards of life. Thanks to these principles of self-restraint, there could exist a civilization in which the intellectual and artistic refinement of the few was obtained from the acquiescent sacrifices of the many. The democratic achievements of America win the unquestioned admiration of Europe, but refined persons who enjoyed the moral (if not necessarily material) benefit of the old system often feel tempted to ask, What price comfort? They question whether to follow the American system would not mean, for Europe, not accomplishing herself, but destroying her very personality. The real crisis in the old continent comes from this fact that, although the elite may keep to their traditional ideals, the masses cannot but desire to follow the American example.
Mass production and mass civilization, its natural consequence, are the true characteristics of the new American society. Now mass production was latent and virtually contained in the European industry of the nineteenth century, but it never was practised to any really large extent before the United States developed it to an immense degree in the last thirty or forty years. Nor was mass civilization ever a reality before the present time, and before the Central West had achieved its actual personality. The genius of such conceptions may, at bottom, come from Europe, but it really is foreign to Europe, for the old continent is doomed if the chief consideration becomes quantity; it can only exist by quality.
So long as the United States had not expressed itself in a social creation which was decidedly its own, as is now the case with mass production and economic democracy based on mass civilization; so long as it largely remained — and more than was ordinarily believed — a moral colony of Europe, it was, after all, nearer to us. Before becoming young in the twentieth century, Americans had been old in the nineteenth, and thus to a certain extent in closer touch with us. Lincoln, with his Bible and classical tradition, was easier for Europe to understand than Ford, with his total absence of tradition and his proud creation of new methods and new standards, especially conceived for a world entirely different from our own.
- One danger point is, however, the excessive use of the installment system. — AUTHOR↩