America in Search of Culture

by William Aylott Orton
[Atlantic Monthly Press and Little, Brown, $3.00]
IN reading an advance copy of this book, with the writing of a brief review in mind, I noted some of the wisest and most salient sayings and, the reading finished, found that they added up to some fifty in all, ranging in length from a few lines to half a page, and this in a book of only some three hundred pages.
Here is the criticism of a mature and philosophical English mind on the United States of to-day, criticism that is fearless and searching, yet sympathetic and constructive. It penetrates to the very core of the ‘human scene’ and demonstrates in clear and admirable English exactly how our civilization has come to its present pass, and how radical must be our change of heart, how drastic the amendment of our ways, if we are really to accomplish that destiny Mr. Orton envisages as our birthright.
The book is made up in part of essays published elsewhere in various magazines, but if the four chapters on current journalism, the movies, the radio, and popular education are considered as expository ‘cases,’ it has consistent and convincing unity. At the end of the volume there are also thirty-two illustrations cleverly — sometimes cruelly — chosen further to enforce the author’s thesis, which they do to admiration. And his thesis is that ‘culture is as near a final excuse for the continuance of the human species as one can discover (Heaven knows that an excuse is needed)’; that it is the one specific human phase of our collective life, the one mode of activity in which the animals do not beat us; that the vast expansion of the American Empire has had ‘two main principles to guide it: political rationalism and mechanical science — both inadequate’; that ‘the current American assumption that every advance in technique is ipso facto an advance in civilization has nowhere had so devastating an exposure,’while ‘the general direction of their [the Americans’] collective life since, roughly, the Civil War, has been diametrically hostile to the spiritual values they cherish no less than other people.‘
This thesis, with its many ramifications, is developed clearly and convincingly, and it would be hard to imagine any possible refutation that could stand analysis. Culture, finely defined as ‘the fertilization of the living present by the living past,’ is as sharply differentiated from civilization as has already been done by Spengler, and in these vivid and epigrammatic pages it stands out as the test of reality and of life, and the particular quality in our own life, both individual and corporate, we have failed to achieve.
Mr. Orton does not despair, even at this eleventh hour, of social redemption, but the odds are against it. As he says, ‘a public that is content with the present output of the popular press, the “movies,” and the radio, or is too inert to protest, is incapable of a noble social life’; furthermore ‘religion, with its horde of sensationalists and “publicity-mongers,” patterning the morals, as commerce does the tastes, of its myriad adherents on the lines of the “nation-wide selling campaign ” — these and endless others are interests too deeply rooted to be displaced by the transient efforts of the educator.’
All true enough, and so I would suggest that the first step in the arousing of the ‘public conscience’ (?) to the peril as well as the aspects of the time would be the reading of Señor Ortega y Gasset’s Revolt of the Masses, to be immediately followed by a study of America in Search of Culture, which applies and localizes the profound philosophical data of the Spanish philosopher.