WE HAVE just emerged from a national election in which the local and political differences which separate Americans were magnified. Were a stranger in our midst — a man from Mars or, more likely, a man from Moscow — to take seriously all the wild talk he heard and read in the last week of the campaign, he would conclude that we were on the eve of civil war. We ourselves, who go through this thing periodically, know better; we take the oratory and accusations with a large pinch of salt; we realize that underlying this emotion and rivalry is a body of understanding, a network of loyalties held in common, which we take for granted but which we know restores our unity after an election and preserves us through wars, through strikes, or any other major crises when the blood runs hot.
I say we take all this for granted. What do we take for granted? Well, we take it for granted that a citizen will pay his taxes. You remember the time Mr. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was making out his income tax? His male secretary remarked that it seemed to him unfair for a Supreme Court judge to be taxed. “I like taxes,” Justice Holmes replied. “With them a man buys civilization.” We take income taxes for granted. But the French, who are also a democracy, don’t; they do everything in their power to avoid paying taxes. This seems to me regrettable evidence of how the mortar has washed away between the bricks of that valiant country.
We take it for granted that an American will be free to move and work anywhere he likes in this country. But that freedom of movement isn’t taken for granted in Russia or Red China, or anywhere else in the Communist orbit.
Very evidently our creed, what I call our body of understanding, has been developed for our peculiar temperament, and we all know that it is still being added to and modified from time to time. Segregation was once a very determined part of our creed. It is so no longer, although it may take us another half-century to smooth out the differences.
A creed, with its controlling beliefs, is conditioned first of all by climate, which determines whether a people will be energetic, hot-blooded, enormously patient, or lethargic; it is conditioned by inheritance, by which I mean the principles of government people have inherited and the natural resources which they have discovered; and most important, it is conditioned by freedom — or the lack of it.
We were founded by people who wouldn’t stay and suffer. From the first we have been energetic, impatient, rarin’ to go. The American climate made us more so; it made us very active, highstrung, and strenuous. We like to do a whale of a job in the morning and then in the late afternoon watch a ball game. Strenuous activity followed by a respite; any amount of hazard for the relaxation to come. This was true of the Pilgrims in the Bay Colony; true of our Salem sea captains who took command at the age of twenty-one on voyages lasting two years or more and then retired at thirtyone to rear a dozen children and wear out three wives; true of the Irish who dug the Erie Canal; true of the Californians and Chinese who tunneled the Southern Pacific through the Sierra; true of our prospectors in the Yukon and our oilmen in Texas. Get the tough job over with, clean it up, and then relax. Is there a famine in India, a flood in Missouri, a tornado in Kansas? Call on the Red Cross, raise your donations for the survivors — and then let’s go to the movies. If there is one thing more than anything else we hate, it is the tedium of the long pull. But now unfortunately we are offered little respite; the period of peace has been vetoed by Russia and we miss it.
Secondly, we believe in social mobility. We never hesitate to leave home; indeed, it is a very rare thing to find a family which has lived for two generations in the same house. The country is vast, and the green meadows in that uncut valley over the mountain were always more inviting than what we had at home. Mobility is essential in our credo, and, what is more, we are born evangelists who believe that we can do a lot of good to those people who have not yet awakened to democracy. Since we are happy under our democracy we trusted that other nations as they matured would become democratic, too. But now the iron curtain has fallen, we can no longer go where we used to, and in some countries, notably in the East, the people no longer listen.
Wherever we went in times past and whatever we did, we carried with us an unshakable faith in expansion. Our nation, we were sure, was always going to grow, and as it grew we would share in its prosperity. We held a buoyant belief in a beneficent future. But since that fateful year, 1949, when we knew that Russia had the bomb, that belief has not been so cocksure.
Finally, our settlers came from the old continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa, where fear and hatred and enmity were rife. But on our new continent, once we had freed ourselves from the British and subdued the Indian, we no longer had a common enemy. Our treatment of the redmen is a brutal story; as Red Smith says, “If Indians had been good to eat, they would have been extinct long before Custer.” Once they were subjugated we came to live without fearful thinking; our concerns were not permeated with hatred; suspicion and enmity were not part of our creed.
As far as I can judge from my own experience, these were some of the fundamental beliefs of our creed, and yet we have had to modify many of them in less than ten years. We realize that we cannot get the toughest of all jobs over with quickly; by which I mean the problem of coexistence with Communism. We cannot take it for granted that democracy will spread, making other people like us and easier to deal with. We can no longer put blind trust in a beneficent future. Nor can we live with charity for all and hostility towards none, for in Communism we see a system pledged to destroy the values we hold dear.
How liberties are won
A Jeffersonian Democrat, William O. Douglas was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1939 in his forty-first year. A boy of the Northwest who was educated in the public schools of Washington and at Whitman College, an omnivorous reader, and a hardy mountaineer, he has combined his quest for far places with the practice and teaching of law. For his Almanac of Liberty (Doubleday, $5.50) he has selected the personal episodes, the crucial decisions, and a number of character sketches which taken together illuminate our struggle for civil liberties; these he has arranged as nearly as possible on their appropriate dates, beginning with the Declaration of Independence on July 4. Each essay is limited to a single page; their range is wide, their elucidation concise and judgmatic. Under July 12, for instance, we read of the Trial of Trade Unionists and the historic decision by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts which (in 1842) granted the legality of union activity; on November 3 we read of Elijah P. Lovejoy, the editor of Alton, Illinois, who (in 1837) was killed in defense of his printing press and whose death aroused the American conscience; on November 27 we read of Book Banning the world over, and on November 28 of that cockeyed list of books which for a short time in 1953 were banned by our State Department.
The thumbnail sketches include agitators like Sam Adams and William Lloyd Garrison, martyrs like the little-known Walter M. Pierce, a fine page on the trial of Thomas Paine and its aftermath, and an endearing note on Chief Justice Hughes. It is not imperative that you accept Justice Douglas’s interpretations, though in general they strike me as fair. Some are highly controversial — as, for instance, his reference to irrigation and public power; and in the contraction of the discussion to a single page there is bound to be oversimplification. What is imperative is that Americans should be more aware of the struggles which led to these hard-won liberties, and should recognize what individuals and what public opinion did to fix these liberties permanently within “the body of our understanding.”
Good writing does not fade
Founded in 1827 and surviving for just over a century, the Youth’s Companion achieved at one time a circulation upwards of a million. The magazine at the outset was intended for readers ranging from twelve to seventeen, but over the years it became a family magazine read as avidly by the alumni and parents as by those who were earning a catcher’s mitt by selling three subscriptions. For decades it was as widely read as any magazine in this country, and the reason is to be found in the handsome volume. Youth’s Companion, edited by Lovell Thompson (Houghton Mifflin, $6.00). In the golden years, the magazine published the early and versatile work of an extraordinary group of writers — among them Don Marquis, Jack London, O. Henry, Ernest Seton-Thompson, Edith Wharton, Bret Harte, P. T. Barnum, Francis Parkman, Louisa May Alcott, Rudyard Kipling, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Whittier, Longfellow, Emerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Winston Spencer Churchill, Richard Henry Dana, Washington Irving, and John James Audubon; and writing as good as that does not wither.
The stories, poems, articles, and original illustrations which fill this volume of 1100 pages were chosen by three former Youth’s Companion editors, M. A. DeWolfe Howe, Arthur Stanwood Pier, and Harford Powel. They have been warmly edited by Lovell Thompson. His commentary, a blend of social history, biography, and literary evaluation, is a delight to read, and the book would not have been as appealing without it.
Gadfly of gentility
John Marquand’s whole writing career “may be thought of as a series of enlargements,”writes Clifton Fadiman, and a pleasant way to measure that growth is to read Thirty Years (Little, Brown, $5.00), a collection of stories, articles, and talks which have not heretofore appeared in book form. Some of the fiction goes back to the 1920s, long before the Apley era, when Marquand was writing for his idol, George Horace Lorimer. My favorite here is “Golden Lads,” a romantic exuberance which foreshadows Wickford Point. The best of the articles centers on Mr. Marquand’s role as an observer in the Pacific during the war, and his papers on “Iwo Jima before H-Hour,” “Ascension Island,”and “Return Trip to the Stone Age" are very, very good indeed.
Of the later stories, I enjoyed “Lunch at Honolulu,”which the author thinks the best in the book; and of the two which satirize the Mulligatawny Club of Nassau, I vote for “Sun, Sea, and Sand.”But I think it was a mistake to publish the second, “King of the Sea,”for when the two stories are read side by side, the “formula” and the deliberate repetitions are too noticeable. In other respects the author shows himself a good self-critic: the stories are prefaced by lively, penetrating comments which help to show them off. Marquand is keenest when speaking specifically about himself and his time; his essay, “The Same Old Bird,”is trenchant, whereas his generalities about The Novel (a lecture read at the University of Vermont) are as tedious as those of any laboring instructor. His papers on Boston, Harvard, and Newburyport lose some of their humor and quizzicality in cold print. A Professional Yankee, he gives us his sharpest satire in his fiction. Fadiman is right, he is “the particular gadfly of the gentility,”and there he has his fun.
Under the sun
We cruised through the galley proofs of Guy Murchie, Jr.’s book, Song of the Sky (Houghton Mifflin, $5.00), in search of an ideal excerpt for the Atlantic, and in so doing came to admire his knowledge of the heavenly spheres and all that flies. He writes as a navigator who guided transport planes during the war and whose curiosity about space, clouds, storms, wind, birds, and aircraft have led him further and further in his reading and writing. There is everything under the sun in his book: a chapter on navigation, ancient and modern, and some of the famous mistakes which navigators have survived to tell about; a hilarious account of the early balloonists; another on parachutes (“A mouse can drop from an airplane without much risk of injury. A rat is usually knocked out. A dog is killed. A man is broken. A horse splashes. An elephant disintegrates.”) There is a gusty chapter on tornadoes, rainspouts, and hurricanes, of small comfort to those of us who are still clearing up after Carol and Hazel; and many incredible adventures of aviators in the war — including that of the navigator who fell 1800 feet, landed in soft, snow, and lived.