The American Way: A Conversation Piece
by MAXIM KAROLIK
SEVEN years ago, when my wife and I decided to begin the M. and M. Karolik Collection in collaboration with the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, we talked a great deal with Dr. Edgell, the Director, and Mr. Hipkiss, the Curator, about the beauty of eighteenth century American arts. At first we emphasized their aesthetic qualities. But little by little we all became more and more conscious of the social significance of this collection, which consists of portraits, silver, furniture, prints, engravings, and miscellaneous other articles.
Mr. Hipkiss in his Introduction to the catalogue of this collection wrote: “To judge eighteenth century American arts one needs to sense the spirit of the people, what went before them and what came after them.”
What was the spirit of the people in eighteenth century America? What went before them? The answer to these questions may be interpreted in this way: I believe that the people who came here during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries did not intend to continue the way of life they left behind them. They were longing for something new, something better. The epochmaking Declaration of Independence shows what they were longing for: freedom of worship, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly. They also dreamed of equality of opportunity. This desire has been called the American Dream. The concept that all men are born equal was to the men of 1776 no mere phrase, no flight of fancy; it was their blueprint of American Destiny. It implied a deep faith in the common man, and it expressed a determination to give him equality of opportunity. It was America’s unique contribution to history. All these ideas, which we take for granted today, were astonishing news to the Old World, and the men who proclaimed these principles here were called over there wild Indians (the word “Bolshevik” was not known at that time). Catherine the Great of Russia was outraged and exclaimed that the Declaration of Independence was a challenge to the divine right of kings. It took over thirty years for Russia to recognize the American government at that time.
Comparing the relationship between eighteenth century arts of France, England, and America, one notes this striking difference: in France and in England the arts and crafts, aside from beauty, reflected power, prestige, pomp, because the pattern of the background — kings, courts, castes, classes — demanded that. Here in America conditions were different. Here the arts and crafts reflected only beauty — I would say, domestic beauty.
In France and in England the arts and crafts were a development — from one King Louis to another in France; from one King George to another in England. In America they were a foundation. And that foundation was the home, where they were made and used to add something to the grace of life.
The home was the source and center for the arts and crafts. All the things in the Karolik Collection were made for handsome houses and mansions, not for palaces and castles, and not, of course, for museum galleries. One can easily see that the objects in this collection represent, as my friend Mr. Hipkiss said, “beauty without ostentation.” By comparison with England and France the latter half of eighteenth century America was only simpler, not plainer. Simplicity in richness, from the times of the ancient East to the modern West, has always been recognized as a desirable quality.
There were many well-to-do people at that time, and a number of them were really rich and could easily afford luxuries. The fortunes of the Derby, Pickman, and Gray families in Salem ran into seven figures. So did those of the Amorys in Boston and the Browns in Providence. At the time, that was considered a great deal of money. Such wealth meant social prestige, personal power, perhaps privilege. Yet these men also represented ability, great industry, and considerable usefulness. These great merchants were important citizens, not merely prominent citizens. They were respected and honored because they were important to the city and to the community; they were builders, they created a pattern of rugged individualism.
What was the social status of the merchant and the artist-craftsman at that time? Judging by the correspondence of the Newport cabinetmaker John Goddard with the Providence merchant Moses Brown; or the friendship of Benjamin Franklin with the Philadelphia clock and watchmaker Edward Duffield, who was Franklin’s friend and one of the executors of his will; or Washington’s friendship with the Boston cabinetmaker Benjamin Frothingham (Washington, visiting Boston, took a small boat and crossed the Charles River to visit him); or Thomas Jefferson’s friendship with Benjamin Randolph, the great Philadelphia cabinetmaker who made for him the little desk on which he wrote the Declaration of Independence — judging by all these facts, the social status of the craftsman and merchant was the same as that of the statesman and soldier.
Here for the first time an attempt was made to realize the dream of many advanced minds: to create a society in which human beings feel free and equal, in which ability in different fields is respected and honored; a society in which an aristocracy, if it should exist, would be of an aristocratic mind and spirit. Such a society, called true democracy, was the dream of many great minds centuries ago.
Throughout the generations following the fateful year 1776, this dream remained the guiding principle in the shaping of a characteristic American life. It called for a new order (no resemblance to Hitler’s zoological New Order) to be built on the highest level of human aspirations known at the time. The pursuit of this grand ideal followed a road full of tortuous detours and many pitfalls. In more recent times, the machine age produced its own detour from the traditional course: it has created not only new and great industries, but also a new form of idolatry, the so-called practical mind.
I remember discussing in my youth, in Russia, the American businessman. We heard so much about his practical mind, about his wonderful achievements in industry, and we tried to describe him. We knew about his practical approach to things — that his mottoes were: “Time is money" and “Business is business.” But when I came to this country twenty years ago and saw in person that practical businessman, I was astonished to find that he had little in common with the type of men who created the Declaration of Independence. To him, I noticed, these men were sentimental dreamers, impractical idealists. But 1929, the year of the Wall Street debacle, proved that this practical businessman lived in a fool’s paradise. What has happened since 1929 clearly shows that he was not practical at all. He believed that money is a controlling, dominating power; he was convinced that nations as well as individuals can do nothing without money. Time and events proved that it is not so, that he was wrong.
During the past ten years I have often heard these practical men say: Russia has rich resources, but no money — that means she can accomplish nothing. Germany has no resources and no money — that means she will soon collapse. Japan is poor and exhausted — and that means she will soon commit hara-kiri. We know now, to our great sorrow, what happened. It is not for me to criticize this deluded practical man. I mention him only because I want to prove my point: that the creators of the Declaration of Independence were the practical men. They knew that money is only a tool with which human beings can build something worth while, and that the value of that tool can be measured by the result of an effort, by the realization of a dream, of an idea. They knew the simple longings of human nature: a comfortable home — the only place where intimate contentment can be reached; happiness, which comes from the realization that one is free to express himself. They knew that grandiose enterprises and colossal achievements are of no use if they add nothing to the good, simple, elemental virtues.
The practical man firmly believed that “the business of America is business,” and that “what is good for Wall Street is good for the nation.”Newport, I think, is a striking illustration of what that practical man did to eighteenth century America.
Here is a city that even today has an eighteenth century air, with a settled tradition behind it. A few eighteenth century buildings and the examples of the work of Newport craftsmen shown in several museums clearly demonstrate what this city represents. With the rapid development of big industries, great fortunes were made by a number of people. Some of them came to Newport and introduced something that is absolutely inappropriate, which has nothing to do with the local tradition and beautiful natural surroundings. They built lavish palaces and transformed Newport into a fashionable place. The architecture of these palaces is not a development from something that is characteristic of Rhode Island; in fact, it has nothing to do with that architecture. These practical men, being very rich and believing in the power of money, could not be satisfied with the beautiful simplicity of eighteenth century American homes. To them it looked too simple, it was not impressive enough. So they built show places which symbolized, they thought, prosperity, riches, prominence. But, as time shows, these practical men had missed one point: stability — the stability which comes not from the pocketbook alone, but also from the mind and heart; from the ability not merely to see, but to foresee; the stability which requires vision, imagination.
Today we know what is happening to these million-dollar show places. They sell for nothing. And not only because of very high taxes. There is a general realization that these palaces do not belong here; they should never have been built here, because they represent the very thing from which seventeenth and eighteenth century Americans escaped and which they preferred to leave on the other side. Seeing what has happened in the democratic countries during the last three years, people have become aware that this fat, lavish existence has nothing to do with the beauty of rich home life; that this artificial glitter, which at best only shines but never warms, has an undermining and degenerating influence upon the people.
In the passing of these palaces, I see the passing of that so-called practical man. He passed because he was only big, not great. In 1929 he collapsed; ten years later, in 1939, when the war started in Europe, thoughtful people wondered whether it was worth while to revive him. In 1941, after Pearl Harbor, he died and was buried. Whether his passing is for better or worse, no one can yet tell. I am inclined to believe that it is for the better, because other ideals than his are safer and healthier for all of us.
There will always be people who will make little money, others who will make more, and still others who will make a great deal more. As long as this is so (and it is so because it reflects human nature), the true practical man will always remain with us. After all, the word “practical,”as I understand it, means that a man’s idea or plan has a solid, lasting foundation. I am convinced that the new practical man who will emerge after this titanic struggle will have little in common with the practical man of the pre1929 era. He will not ask “How much does it cost?” and “How much money can I make?” but “What good does it do?” and will believe that “what is good for the nation is good for Wall Street.” This newly born practical man, I believe, will supplement our eighteenth century Declaration of Independence, which gave us political freedom, with a twentieth century Declaration of independence which will give us also economic freedom. Only then shall we have true freedom from want and true freedom from fear. I firmly believe that he will accomplish this, because it is practical and even profitable.
Sometimes I wonder whether an American merchant of the Amory, Brown, or Derby type could have remained a rugged individualist, let us say, in the year 1925. I doubt it. He probably would have been squeezed out by a monopolistic trust, or forced to join a corporation managed by a board of directors, stockholders, and a president. That president may think he is the boss of the corporation, but he certainly deludes himself if he believes that he is a rugged individualist. Rugged individualists are not created by stockholders and boards of directors. They are always independent, self-reliant, and responsible only to their conscience.
I am not trying to paint a rosy picture of the eighteenth century merchants. It is well known that among them were a number of unscrupulous rascals, but on the whole they were a decent lot. The thrift of some of them had even a pious tinge: they actually believed that God had a hand in their business, that He helped them to accumulate their wealth. Of course, to us modern, socalled “civilized” humans, it sounds a bit naive, but under that naïveté, one must admit, was a strong and restraining moral sense.
The merchant of the olden days was an adventurer who fought not only his individual competitors but also the elements. Transportation, for instance, was his constant problem and worry. The modern businessman is more or less a speculator. He is far from independent. His constant worry is the big trusts and corporations, and he knows that they can jump at him any time and eat him up.
The same thing would have happened to the artist-craftsman. A great silversmith like John Coney of Boston, or a master cabinetmaker like John Goddard of Newport, probably would have been forced to join a union managed by a labor boss, and to work in a factory for wages fixed by that boss.
Many people think that the machine age, resulting in continued struggle between labor and capital, killed the true spirit of America. I doubt whether this is so. If machines managed by human beings can ruin a fundamental principle, it is indeed a serious reflection upon the people. It simply shows that the meaning of that principle did not penetrate deep enough; and that is the reason, perhaps, why we are unable to resist the dominance of the machine.
Six months ago I attended an evening party in New York, where I met a number of interesting refugees from Europe. Two of these had visited friends in Boston and had seen the Karolik Collection. One of them was Dutch, the other Czechoslovakian, Their reaction was interesting: they were astonished to see such “unembellished beauty.” The Dutchman called it “beauty without a title.” They never knew that America had produced such great craftsmen; they could not understand why Europe did not know anything about it.
One of them read the catalogue of the collection and was much impressed by Mr. Hipkiss’s illuminating Introduction. But the fact that such an Introduction was written here in America as late as 1941 surprised him. It shows, he said, that the Americans themselves knew very little about their own eighteenth century craftsmen. That thought gave him some satisfaction — as if he wanted to say: “If Americans, at such a late date, knew very little about it, then my ignorance can be forgiven.” I assured him that Americans are only now beginning to evaluate what they inherited from eighteenth century America. He felt better.
But what impressed me most was the faith of these foreigners in the greatness of America and the role she is destined to play in world affairs. They are convinced that the struggle now going on in the world is for the principles of the Declaration of Independence on one side and, on the other, the principles expressed in Hitler’s Mein Kampf. One side, they believe, must go under; both cannot live together. As Berlin is today the hope of all the dark, reactionary forces in the world, so Washington is today the hope of all liberal, freedom-loving people.
Of the war itself they spoke very little, but they spoke a great deal of the world revolution the dictators are trying to accomplish through this war: to wipe out, by military or economic force, the democratic principles of the Declaration of Independence and of the French Revolution of 1789.
When I told some of them that there are many Americans who do not want America to play a big role in world affairs, because big roles, they think, cost money, their answer was: But America, willingly or unwillingly, is already doing it, and not for philanthropic reasons, but for her own safety. Fortunately for America and the rest of the world, American leaders recognized the nature of Hitler’s revolution long before the European leaders did. The tragedy of Europe lies in the fact that her statesmen followed the slogan of the blind isolationists: “If we only mind our own business, we shall remain safe.”
Observing these foreigners, who frankly admit that America is the only country that made them feel the moral force that is still hidden in the democratic principles; that made them realize that although at present their countries, separately, amount to nothing, together they are still a living force, I wondered whether there was ever in the history of the human race a country like America of today, which appears as the only hope and the only promised land to all mankind.
I admit, the passionate faith of these foreigners in America’s role sometimes frightens me. I often wonder whether this country realizes what a stupendous and glorious mission Destiny threw in her lap. The attempt alone to fulfill that mission stirs me and makes me feel proud that I am an American citizen. All the sacrifices we are making today are small and petty by comparison with the value of that mission. And when it is fulfilled (I refuse to believe that it will not be fulfilled), the skill and quality, the beauty that radiates from eighteenth century American arts, will enter our homes again. That beauty will symbolize not only the return of prosperity and comfort; it will also symbolize our return to eighteenth century principles. Time has proved that when we neglected these principles we deteriorated and began to drift, politically and artistically.
I will now quote a passage from an article in the New York Sun for December 5, 1941, three days after the opening of the M. and M. Karolik Collection and two days before the treacherous attack on Pearl Harbor. The article describes the opening: “Seeing the crowd that panted and sweated and fainted and exclaimed aloud at the beauty revealed, it would have been extremely simple and easy to prophesy a trend toward the past, and more than a trend — a surge, a veritable stampede to refurnish homes with the things or in the style of the past.” I am not going to say I wonder whether this will happen, because the word “wonder" expresses doubt. I say it will happen.
That “veritable stampede to refurnish homes with the things or in the style of the past” does not mean, I hope, the refurnishing of homes with reproductions made by machines or by mediocre craftsmen. The “trend toward the past” I interpret as the return to creative craftsmanship. That trend I. will not call going back to the eighteenth century, but rather a coming forward, because it is only now, nearly a century and a half later, that the great mass of American people is beginning to understand what eighteenth century America left us — what it represents and what it stands for. I will call it the creative continuation of that “style of the past,” from which, no doubt, something new will develop.
It would be well for us, first, to admit that we have not yet created anything that approaches the beauty of our eighteenth century arts and crafts; and second, to acknowledge that we must become conscious of that beauty and realize what it means to us. At present I can say that I have taken action — not only talked — toward a possible recovery of creative craftsmanship, as a need in American home life. The future will tell whether or not this action brings forth results worth further comment.