The Spike or Victoria University College Review 1933
A View of U.S.A
A View of U.S.A.
O Divine average!
Never was average man, his soul, more energetic,
more like a God!
(Walt. Whitman: Democratic Chants.)
Everybody who visits U.S.A. seems to feel an itch to write a book or at least to give a lecture about it. And of course if you want to make a book or a lecture interesting you must pick out and dwell upon exceptional and even sensational things. America certainly lends itself to such treatment: in some important respects its ways are exceptional when compared with English and New Zealand ways. And of course it makes rather a hobby of sensations. But it is all a little misleading. The course of American life is very far from being wholly exceptional, and having regard to the different scale of things its sensations are not so frequent as you would expect. Indeed there is a sense in which it may be said that American life is the most ordinary and un-exceptional thing in the world and that American people are the most ordinary and unexceptional people living. They actually are. And especially they have in abundance the ordinary virtues of mankind. If I were to be asked what was the dominant impression made upon me during a stay of seven months by the American people at large I would say without hesitation: It is the simple goodwill, the general desire to please. Everywhere I went—California, Kansas, Michigan, Pennsylvania—it was the same, I didn't know there were so many kind people in the world.
I could give many illustrations of this, but one will do. It is one that will impress all who have travelled. I refer to the demeanour of landladies in apartment houses. They conveyed to us the feeling that they had a respect for themselves and that as one good citizen to another meant to see that we had a good time. At San Francisco our host was agreeable, but did no more than was nominated in the bond; at Lawrence, Kansas, a neat German woman (who worked all day in an office) fairly laid her house at our feet and said, "Surely the Lord sent you!" as we parted; in Chicago it was much the same, and in Ann Arbor quite overwhelming. We were scarcely settled in out flat when our landlord turned up with his wife and a car to take us for an 80 mile ride to Jackson City to see an illuminated waterfall! and before we left the landlady of one of our friends invited us to go for a three days' ride to Traverse City to see the autumn woods of Northern Michigan!
But examples don't bring out what I mean: What I would like to describe is a spirit of good-will which you find everywhere—not a forced, rationalised, Rotarian, backslapping habit, but a merely human unforced cheerfulness that goes into all they do. The Rotarians are really only trying to recover something they have lost—some-thing that is native to America, and one of its best possessions. It is no doubt the honest neighbourly spirit of the pioneers. You meet it in all they do—in small things as well as great. You hear it in the shop assistants' voices: from the Sure! that meets a request, to the neat You're Welcome that returns your thanks.
Then what is everybody complaining about? What is wrong with America?
Well, first of all let me say that my impressions are chiefly of the West and Middle West and not of the East. In the Eastern and North-eastern industrial cities you have a different America no doubt, with vast masses of unassimiated foreigners. It is from these cities which nearly all European visitors get their impressions —but the real America is to the West.
Now, I am not going to say that this real America has not got its drawbacks. It's first great drawback is simply that it is fiat. I had read about the vast central plain and its influence in Belloc's book, "The Contrast," but I didn't realise what it was until I travelled across it. Why, you can go from New Mexico to Quebec and never see a hill worth talking about; and you have to go far and fast to get anywhere and to see anything. You can go from Dodge City to Buffalo and just see one thing and one man after another and hardly any difference between them. (Even the difference in colour loses much of its effect where speech and ideas are so uniform: for the negro is a true American.) The only way to distinguish yourself is to see more of them than your neighbours: as at home so abroad, and you page 18 have the impulse that creates the American tourist. If this fails, you must do something desperate.
And the flatness of the country is a symbol of the life. So flat, so nice, so uniform!—as the country so the food and so the conversation.
The food is wonderful: all so neat and clean and hygienic and perfectly innocuous—completely standardised. You buy your meat and your bread and your fruit and your groceries all at the same shop, at the ubiquitous chain-store: all produced on the very largest scale and all guaranteed free from germ, taint, imperfection and interest. Meat and bread are carefully wrapped in dust-paper; but the meat is extremely dear and rather tasteless, and the bread is generally without crust —so soft that you buy it sliced. I had the feeling that people were rather afraid of meat: Afraid of germs and indigestion. They certainly eat but little. I think they have lost the taste for it. They must be taught very strictly at school about disorders of the stomach; for they drink gallons of water a day—even when the water is abominably ill-flavoured. It is true that they drink a great deal of very good coffee, but I found some who were doubtful about this and favoured a harmless subsritute. The water is a ritual: you never order an ice-cream or a cup of tea but a glass of water is placed before you. Even when they go abroad they still must have water, however impure; and they solemnly prepare for the ordeal by expensive and troublesome inoculations. On the other hand, they eat large quantities of excellent fresh fruit, and show much skill in pre-paring salads. They eat a good deal of poultry, and at Thanksgiving and other great occasions turkeys disappear by the thousand—roasted with loving care and served with all manner of jellies and juices and gravies. But on the whole the food is oppressively standardised.
As the food so the conversation. Conversation is a neglected art. I think this is due to the long hours that people work, and even more to the constant preoccupation with the business of life: people are too busy or too tired to talk. And even if they were not busy or tired, they have something of the Puritan scorn of the vanity of mere talk and of anything not meant to issue at once in action—of mere ideas. I don't think it is unfair to attribute this to religion: the great mass of pre-twentieth-century Americans are Baptists and Methodists and Lutherans, and even when belief has loosened its grip the habits implanted by it keep their hold: life is a serious business. You have no idea until you go there how hard they work—women as well as men. The flat in which we lived for four months was owned by a real-estate agent whose wife worked all day in his office. The three other flats in our house were occupied by young married couples and the wives all had jobs and of course no children. The idea of a home where you can rest and read and talk and raise a family has lost much of its attraction for them. House-keeping has been marvellously simplified, but you can't have children in flats, and when the wife comes home from work she is too tired to talk; she wants to be excited, to "go places" in the car or to go to the movies or to listen to some lively music on the air. On these terms conversation is out of the question: it takes time. Slang and anecdotes and eloquence are substituted for it. Slang is brief and mechanical—it eliminates thought. Lots of people never talk anything else. On the other hand they are very susceptible to eloquence—the smooth flow of well-rounded periods, all the better if it conveys facts, but mere words will do. The Americans are great tellers of anecdotes; and of course nothing kills a good conversation so surely as a well-told story.
I think it is this flatness and dullness of life that has something to do with the prevalence of spectacular crime: it is the result of boredom! I used to give lectures about the English poets and the Industrial Revolution, showing how their fine spirits and mere animal impulses were prevented from finding a natural outlet in the life about them and escaped from the hideous sights into poetry—the magic casements opening on the perilous seas of romance. Just think what would have happened if Byron or Shelley had been born in Kalamazoo or Emporia or Dayton-Ohio, or Lincoln-Nebraska! Out of sheer boredom they would have become bandits! (Think of Byron as Little Caesar!) They couldn't have helped themselves—and these people can't help themselves. That's why all the people who don't go into bootlegging or racketeering go every week to see the bootleggers and racketeers and great lovers on the films—it's just escape.
My first impression of America is, then, that the ordinary American is a simple, kindly person, extremely good natured and quite unsensational. He has the democratic virtues: he really believes that people are equal and one man as good as another, and he greets you on those terms. On the other hand, just because he is so unsensational, just because Americans are so like one another in their tastes and habits, life becomes rather flat and uninteresting. Food and dress and houses, speech and ideas, are standard page 19 ised. And you get a lively desire for relief. Hence the taste for speed, and even to some extent the prevalence of crime: it is just escape from routine, from boredom.
But there was another thing that impressed me very much—as indeed it does everybody else. I mean the cult of bigness.
Americans live in a big country and, what is more important, have actually done big things. In a hundred and fifty years they have subdued a vast wilderness and built up an industrial machine which is one of the marvels of the world. And this thing has entered into their soul. It has produced an atmosphere of achievement. Is there a problem?—lead me to it! That's the American attitude. And of course it is not simply achievements, but big achievements that take the American fancy: the Panama Canal, Ford's works, Hoover's Dam, Roosevelt's promises. Elaborate organisation and decisive action, there is without doubt a passion for such things. While I was in the Middle West an engineer submitted a scheme to the St. Louis County Board of Commissioners at Duluth for heating Lake Superior by electricity, and so altering the climate of the whole lake region! In Chicago I listened for two hours, fascinated, while a librarian sketched his plan of a bookstack 30 storeys high, with room for six million books; he talked like a man inspired. I read his annual reports and I found that he conceived his work on a Napoleonic scale, where vast forces were being marshalled to serve great issues: he wrote of "objectives," "campaigns," of "this year's big push," his advisers formed a "cabinet"; I was informed that when a measure affecting libraries had been obstructed he had overawed Congress! At Ann Arbor I went to a football match. It was tremendous! To begin with, it was played in a vast stadium, with seats for 90,000 people and simply stupendous facilities for traffic management. (It had been dug out of the top of a hill.) The Varsity Band—100 players—was marching up and down the field, led by a gigantic fellow in a busby, carrying a sort of staff which he tossed over the cross-bar of the goal post and caught as it came down. Suddenly the music stopped, the band manoeuvred into a P-formation on the side of the field where the Princeton visitors were gathered, the whole great crowd arose and removed their hats, and the Princeton visitors proceeded to sing their Varsity Song. (There were some thousands of these visitors, with special trains waiting outside to take them home as soon as the game was over.) I noticed that a tarpaulin—about 150 yards long —bad been removed from the field where it had lain all night to protect the surface. And then the game began. There were nearly as many referees and umpires as players, and every now and then two line umpires rushed on with stakes and tape to measure the ground gained in the last rush. The game is indeed one long succession of "scrums," each one of which is the occasion of a real smoko, while the side which have the ball "huddle" into a heap to get their orders for the next move. (The Detroit News took a count at one of their games and found that, although over all the game lasted two hours, the ball was actually in play only twelve minutes!) While the team huddles the trainers of the other side rush on with drinks—a separate glass for each man for fear of infection!—and one man moves about with a bucket of water and a towel and wipes the players' necks. A tremendous signboard—one at each end of the ground—flashes on electric signs, showing the number of the last player who had the ball, number of the last sub. who came on, number of yards gained in the last rush, number of minutes to go and other things as well. And as if this was not enough, every few minutes an announcer calls out with a great booming amplified voice the name of the last man who carried the ball, and at intervals bawls out the score of games played elsewhere. One of the referees keeps time, and there is great excitement as he holds out a big clock and raises a revolver to signal time. On the edge of the ground sit about fifty substitutes, every one wrapped in the same great fur-collared coat; and now and then a husky lad throws off his coat and prepares to go on. While waiting he runs up and down the line, loosening his joints and warming up, for its devilish cold. Presently he runs on and presents a ticket from his coach, advising the referee who to send off. (This coach is of course the great man of all. When the game is reported, he gets the headlines: "Kipke leads Wolverines to victory!" in block capitals right across the top of the page; and he carries off a salary higher than any Professor. I read of a coach whose salary had been reduced to 18,000 dollars. At Michigan, he is called Professor of Coaching.) All along the edge of the ground are the cheer leaders, for even enthusiasm must be organised, and each has a megaphone as big as himself. And just behind us we hear all the time the steady rattle of a hundred type-writers, where on the Press in the Gallery is reporting progress—machine guns to the artillery page 20 of cheers. All this organisation is called into action perhaps six times a year. At other times the stadium is as empty as the Coliseum! But there it is—a visible witness to a great enthusiasm; but not so much an enthusiasm for football as for enterprise and organisation; the game itself is only the excuse for bringing the gigantic machine into action!
Now these two things which I have dwelt upon —the taste for equality and simplicity and the taste for energy and bigness—and their results are a well-worn theme. Alt I wish to add about them is, first that they are nowhere more savagely criticised than in America itself, and second that powerful forces are already in fact beginning to modify them.
As for criticism, it is now the popular thing to denounce in verse "the soft evangel of equality," and the American novel is become purely and simply a criticism of American life. This may not be good for literature, but it will surely be good for America! (I think we should have reason to be happier about the future of New Zealand if we had shown any sign of producing a Main Street or a Spoon River Anthology or an American Tragedy or if we could produce a periodical which remotely suggested The New Republic.) It is the fateful pause that follows a great achievement: the old men have piled up wealth and the young men are looking for ideas. They are hunting them as savagely as their fathers hunted wealth. They mean business: they are not satisfied with America and they mean to rebuild it nearer to the heart's desire. For the American not only means business, but he is so constituted that he cannot do things without a religion to justify them. In the past, in spite of all the warring sects, there has been a common working religion. It still exists. Its chief features are belief in energy and knowledge and a general tendency to substitute health for piety as an ideal of the inner life: religion is a tonic for tired men, a generator of enthusiasm, and prosperity is a mark of Divine favour. But that religion is badly battered: economic reverses have only completed the work of popular science. The young American intelligenzia is full of scorn and busy with substitutes, with Communism, with Freudian Psychology, with Catholicism. Will these new ideas transform America? It would not be likely, unless powerful forces of a more material kind were also making for transformation.
There are such forces—on the one hand Economics and on the other Race. As for economics, there are good reasons for thinking that America has come to the end of a chapter. Westward expansion has stopped: there is no more free land; immigration has stopped and the domestic market has ceased to expand; diminishing returns have set in agriculture. "America," says a German economist, "has finally divested herself of her colonial character . . . The most important and fundamental difference between her and Europe has disappeared." He describes, as a result, the beginnings of a profound modification of the inner structure of American society and the break-up of the old democratic solidarity and the appearance of a system which he does not hesitate to call feudal. (See M. J. Bonn: Prosperity—American Myth and Reality.) At the same time new racial influences are becoming conspicuous. About 1890 Latins and Slavs and Jews began to pour into America, far outnumbering Anglo Saxon and North European newcomers. So far they have remained apart, especially in the great cities of the East and the Great Lake region in the North-East; but they may be expected more and more to mingle in American Society and to modify its habits and ideas.
For these reasons it seems to me that there is ground for thinking that America is going to be transformed. I will go further and say that, so far as it is transformed, it will become more and more like Europe. For generations Americans have lived apart: they had their own ample resources and were satisfied with their own ideas. They had a single sufficient task. Three generaions of Americans went forth to struggle with Nature; and with incredible speed they compelled her to yield up her riches. In the struggle they learned to believe in themselves, in the human will. Not simply in its power to subdue Nature: there were many who believed in its power to banish not only poverty but evil itself from the universe, and there were some who believed, not simply that God Himself drew strength from their efforts, but even that in some sense they had brought Him into existence. For Mrs. Eddy and William James were borne along on the wave of Western expansion. But Western expansion came to an end. America is once more part of the World—the bad old World of diplomacy and poverty and priestcraft, the wise old World of scepticism and patience and humility, where History is no longer bunk but a present reality, and where man is no more the measure of all things, but clay in the Potter's page 21 hand. Is it an accident that the English man of letters pre-eminently distinguished to-day by a European and Catholic outlook—I mean Mr. T. S. Eliot—is come out of America? The Waste Land and Ash Wednesday show America turning to Europe:
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks
Our peace is in His will.
America—to use Andre Siegfried's phrase—is coming of age. That she will pass through a stormy manhood there are not wanting signs. But who that has observed her vast material resources, her unexhausted spiritual energies, her organising talent, her solid foundation of simplicity and goodwill, and her new accession of cultural resources, can doubt that her great days are still to come?