They say in Berlin that the town has a headache brought on by too much squinting: one eye on New York and the other on Moscow. All Europe suffers more or less acutely from the same malady; its preoccupation with what is going on in Russia and in the United States amounts to a kind of nervous disease.
All over Europe they are reading, writing, talking about America. I have met peasants in the mountain valleys of western Austria who can speak a sort of English which they pronounce with a strong Scots accent, having learned it from radio lessons broadcast by a Scottish professor at the University of Vienna. They are not learning it in order to read Shakespeare or Shaw, but because English is, above all, the language of America and—well, that’s quite a country over there, by all accounts. If one were to go there, or young Berchtold here were to go there, he’d come forward quicker if he spoke a bit of English, wouldn’t he?
I know a hotel keeper in Budapest who has an English governess for his three-year-old child who cannot speak German, because in Budapest — that bi-lingual city — you can pick up German any time, but English is another matter. And if one were to go to America one day—?
In any bar or cafe from Prince’s Street, Edinburgh, to the suburbs of Athens, you will hear enunciated sooner or later, and sooner rather than later, some evaluation of America, ranging all the way from the simplicity of the judgments that start, “The trouble with these—Americans is—,” to refinements in the genre of that cultured contributor to the Paris Figaro’s recent symposium on “American Civilization,” who opined that “American Civilization is in a way the civilization of the Greeks adapted to the modern world.”
Millions of printed words, millions of feet of film feed this appetite for news of America, and stimulate while they feed. Europe’s daily ration of facts about America, of comment on America, is enormously larger than it has ever been before. In that sense Europe knows more about America than it did thirty, twenty, ten years ago. And yet there is plenty of evidence, far more than enough, to arouse a doubt as to whether the composite pictures of America that form and reform in the European mind are really much more like the original than the America pictured by Europe thirty years ago was like the America of that day.
In a theatre in Munich not long ago I saw a revival of one of those ancient musical comedies whose stock characters, well-worn jokes, and easy-going melodies still delight the hearts of provincial German audiences. There was an American in the piece; the stock stage American of a short generation ago, the breezy, open-hearted, open-handed, rich uncle from America; a generous, simple-minded soul whose sudden return to the old world blew away, as by a breeze from God’s open spaces, the tangled, stuffy, convention-ridden, hide-bound, caste-bound difficulties of the persons into whose midst, at the end of the first act, and to the applause of the audience, he burst.
Further down the street they were showing a popular American film. I think it was “Chicago”; anyway it was about gangsters. In Berlin, at the same time, they, were doing a new play, in which the only American character was a suave and unscrupulous politico-financier who, so far as I recollect, was engaged in swindling four European governments, not to mention the local proletariat, out of a piece of valuable oil land.
The European’s mythical figure of “America” changes. America was Prometheus; an audacious figure, scaling the battlements of tradition to bring back the fires of a new way of living. It was Croesus. It was Nero, fiddling its ragtime life-tune while Europe burned. It was Shylock. What is the myth becoming today? And what will it be tomorrow? Is it, with the much vaunted progress of international communication, getting any nearer reality? Contemplating Europe’s misconceptions of America, one has sometimes the feeling that it is as though, after years of research and improvement in radio transmission, reception were still as faulty in 1931 as it was in 1925. Europe, as it were, tunes in on America more often than it has ever done before. Is it getting the reception it ought to get?
The point is not that Europe does not understand America: no one does. Nor is it a question whether Europe’s picture of America is a pretty one or not, for a pretty picture is not necessarily a good one, and in international affairs it is doubtful whether “tout comprendre” is always “tout par-donner.” The question is simply, whether the impression Europe has of America is as full and accurate as the technical improvements in the machinery, of communication and the huge increase in the volume of communication would lead one to expect. Europe is hungry for news of America. What sort of news, in the widest sense, does it get, and how does it get it?
According to the schoolboy “boner,” the Press is “the mouth organ of the people.” Diplomats and newspaper publishers, at “get-together” dinners and places where they talk delicately, more suavely describe it as “a great agency of international understanding; a great interpreter.” Call it what you like, the daily newspaper remains the most important agency, more important perhaps than all others combined, in the building of that ramshackle construction which roughly (and how roughly 1) represents one continent’s view of another.
To the question, how does Europe get its daily news of America? the answer is: chiefly through American reporters. The great majority of European newspaper correspondents are stationed inevitably in New York. Their effective working day is short, because when it is five o’clock of the afternoon in New York it is ten o’clock in London and eleven in Berlin. Most of the day’s news has to be cabled before four o’clock, and most of it is inevitably taken from successive editions of the New York newspapers. The correspondents of the big national news agencies, Reuter, Havas, Wolff, and Stefani, being supplied with the greater part of their news by the Associated Press, are as dependent on American reporters as are the special correspondents. To a great extent the same is true of American reporters in Europe, who have to get a large part of their news from the newspapers of the country to which they are assigned.
But in America there enter into this process of rewriting and relaying the news a number of important factors absent in Europe. It is as far from New York to San Francisco as it is from London to Baghdad. But so far as news is concerned, the United States is treated as though it were no larger and no less of-a-piece than Germany or Great Britain, although it is at least debatable whether Portland, Maine, is any more like Houston, Texas, than Kiel is like Trieste, or whether Brussels differs much more spectacularly from Prague than Salt Lake City from Baltimore. A rather formidable English lady once asked me whether all American towns were not terribly standardized. Thinking, at random, of Cleveland and San Antonio, I began to mention some of the differences. With that air of irritated defeatism which formidable English ladies have when confronted with something unexpected, she said, “Well, of course that all sounds dreadfully American to us,” and left it at that.
The European press, for the most part (there are some admirable exceptions), leaves it at that, too. If all America’s news of Europe and Asia Minor were sifted through Paris, America’s view of Europe would be a great deal more lopsided than it is. America looks to Europe as though it were just sufficiently of-a-piece to allow all news of it to be sifted through New York and Washington. So that is what happens. Europe sees America through the spectacles of the Atlantic seaboard. There are plenty of objectionable and ludicrous things about Europe’s attitude to the United States, but if you go through the list of European shortcomings in this regard you will find that half of them are a mere reflection, and a pale reflection at that, of the attitude of Easterners in general and New Yorkers in particular to their own hinterland; an attitude which in its curious blend of condescension, admiration, and uneasiness, oddly, resembles the attitude of Londoners to Australians and Canadians. New York had been talking about the “hicks” for years before Europe heard of them. The term was, I believe, first introduced into England by Mr. Robert Nichols, who heard it in New York and Hollywood and wrote home about it. Even in their most exasperated and arrogant moments it would scarcely have occurred to Europeans to refer, like Senator Moses of New Hampshire, to the population west of the Mississippi as “sons of the wild jackass.” During a recent “circus” election in Chicago at least one American correspondent in London took occasion to poke fun gently at the stories about Chicago that British correspondents in America were sending to their newspapers, having apparently forgotten that these stories originated not in patronizing British brains but in the New York newspapers.
In a dozen different ways Europe’s news of America is silently subjected to the instinctive, unproclaimed censorship of the New York press, which, be it noted, is metropolitan without being national. European countries are small and compact enough to permit the existence of a metropolitan press that is at the same time a national press. News that interests London or Berlin newspapers is, as a rule, news that is interesting the whole of Great Britain or Germany. The New York press is, in this sense, a sectional press, and the news that interests it and to which it gives precedence is news that may be important, exciting, or entertaining to New York, and even, in a less degree, to all the industrial East, but which would be crowded out by some other more immediate news in Kansas City or Los Angeles. WTien a New York banker with international connections makes a speech at the Bond Club advocating cancellation of war debts, he gets a great deal of space in the New York papers, and in consequence, as a general rule, a good deal of space in the European papers too. By the time an incident of this kind has been repeated several times, Europeans are beginning to remark across tables in clubs and cafes that America is moving towards cancellation of the debts, although west of the Alleghenies there is likely to have been scarcely any notice of the speech in the newspapers, and certainly, none of that change of heart which the stethoscope of the New York press magnifies so gratifyingly to the ears of foreign correspondents.
If New York were the political as well as the commercial capital of the country the horizon of its newspapers would be enlarged, and daily contact with outside influences, with “the sons of the wild jackass” in the flesh, for example, would counteract that Eastern urbanism which foreign correspondents now are compelled to reflect from New York to the European press. A correspondent in Paris, however much his range of vision is apt to be limited by the circle of the Grands Boulevards, has only to spend an hour or two in the corridors of the Chamber of Deputies to be aware of quite other currents that may be stirring in Alsace and the Basses-Pyrenees. The voices of Glasgow and Liverpool are louder in the political babel of London than the voices of Chicago and Kansas City are in New York, whether they reach New York direct or are relayed via Washington. When the political capital of the United States was fixed at Washington it was, by one of those technical accidents which so often make history, automatically cut off from its fair share of representation and interpretation in the world’s news. Most of the European papers feel that they cannot afford correspondents in Washington as well as in New York. The excellent Manchester Guardian is a striking example. Agencies have their correspondents in Washington, but an agency has to sell its news to widely, differing newspapers, and selects news that will have a sort of highest common factor of interest for very widely differing readers, so that its correspondents are seldom able to write as fully as a special correspondent writing for a known and limited circle of readers.
Loss of proportion, loss of contact with the rest of the country, follow inevitably on prolonged residence in the East, even in Washington. These are losses suffered not only by foreign correspondents but by American politicians. I think it was Mark Sullivan who pointed out at the time of the debate in the Senate last year on the nomination of Mr. Hughes to the Chief Justiceship of the Supreme Court, that, whenever a debate of this kind can be kept going long enough, the influence of the West increases with every day of debate because the Western newspapers have time to arrive in Washington, and the politicians of the West are confirmed and heartened by the editorial cheers of their hometown organs. Newspaper correspondents are supposed to know more about the country as a whole than the politicians know. Some of them do. True, they cannot wait, like the politicians, for the arrival of the Western newspapers before taking a stand, because the cables and the presses are waiting and at four the story has to be handed across the cable desk. Nevertheless there are foreign correspondents of outstanding brilliance who by, an intimate knowledge of America combined with an indefinable and infinitely valuable “feel” for a situation are able instinctively to overcome the myopia of Washington and the myopia of New York. Their influence is limited by the fact that they are naturally more often than not correspondents of the weightier newspapers whose circulation is less than that of their more sensational rivals. There are also plenty of correspondents working for sensational newspapers who have the necessary feel for the value of an event, but they are not often allowed to use it.
Moreover, whatever the character of the newspaper, it is the naked fact—unadorned by comment, because there is neither time nor space for comment—that counts. Unfortunately the naked fact, supposedly so desirable and innocuous, is often as misleading as the most elaborate tissue of false suggestions. Take, for instance, the fairly recent decision of Judge Clark in holding the Eighteenth Amendment unconstitutional. It came late in the afternoon and made a tremendous splash in the New York newspapers, which happened to be short that day of useful first-page news. There was just time for the news agencies and any correspondents who thought it worthwhile to cable across the Atlantic the news that a Federal judge had declared that prohibition had never been constitutionally, introduced into the United States. No time for explanations—the bare facts. That is the story that M. Durand, sipping his bock at the Hotel du Cheval Blanc somewhere in Touraine, read the next morning; and that, on account of its novelty and terseness—on account, in fact, of the qualities which gave it such excellent news value in the first place—is the story which will remain in M. Durand’s head, however learnedly and unanimously the Supreme Court may have rejected Judge Clark’s interpretation of the Constitution.
Although the Clark story was an exceptionally striking instance, this kind of thing is happening almost every week of the year in connection with prohibition. Small wonder that owners of French vineyards, brewers in Munich, Scottish distillers, all estimate the probabilities of a repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment with a hopefulness that would arouse scepticism in the heart of the most optimistic “wet” in Manhattan or Jersey City.
It is not the fault of the correspondents—most of them extremely able journalists—; it is not anybody’s “fault.” It must be attributed to what is called in accident insurance policies “an act of God.” If the United States were smaller and more centralized, the fact that news of it had to be poured through the bottle neck of New York would not matter much. If Europe were richer, so that its newspapers had more advertisements and so more space and more money, regular correspondents could be kept in Chicago and San Francisco at least, just as they are kept in Milan and Constantinople.
Things being as they are, the foreign correspondents must continue to take most of their basic news—the facts on which everything else is founded — from American reporters. When Alfred Lingle, crime reporter of the Chicago Tribune, was shot by gangsters last year, all Europe’s early news of the crime came through correspondents connected with the Chicago Tribune, for the merely technical reason that most of the out-of-town correspondents in Chicago are associated with the Tribune because it provides the best seven-day-week service of news. When the Chicago Tribune men said that Lingle was a gallant exposer of the underworld who had finally lost his life in the fearless conduct of what amounted to a public duty, that was the story that was passed on to Europe. When the Chicago Tribune changed its mind about Lingle and suggested that on the contrary he might have been a wicked racketeer who had amassed hundreds of thousands in graft while deceiving his employers into supposing he was a reporter living on seventy-five dollars a week and a small legacy from his uncle, Europe had to change its mind too. What the Chicago Tribune says about Chicago today, Europe will tend to think about Chicago tomorrow, until such time as the European newspapers think it worth their while to send their own correspondents there. It is not the fault of the Chicago Tribune if Europe has a lopsided view of Chicago; it is not the business of the Tribune to explain Chicago to the Europeans. The Tribune is writing for the people of Chicago, who are able to fill in for themselves the necessary background. Europeans, receiving the news at second hand, are presented with successions of startling and often apparently self-contradictory facts which are not explained until long afterwards, if at all. The result is that Americans travelling in Europe are astonished by the frequency with which they are asked, “Is Chicago really like that?”
The same thing happens in varying degrees with almost every phenomenon—social, political, economic—of life in the United States. The basic facts are collected by American reporters for American readers. American readers have at least some measure of first-hand knowledge with which to interpret the facts. But the gaping residents of Wimbledon or Nottingham, Saint-Germain or Rouen, Potsdam or Cas-sel, have no such measure. To them, in spite of the most strenuous efforts of some foreign correspondents to overcome these technical obstacles, the life of the United States appears like some sort of fantastic film, as inconsequent and unexplained as a dream, as surprising in its lack of palpable background and motive as a grin without a Cheshire cat.
There is, or used to be, a French lady, owner of a villa near Hyeres, whose chief diversion it was to sit in the cafes of the town watching the American visitors. The only comment she was ever known to make on them was to the effect that she did not care for Americans; they were, she said, “des Babeets.” Once in all innocence a compatriot asked her what she meant by a “Babeet.” She replied irritably, with explanatory gestures, that Babeets were—well, they were a sort of American. It turned out later that she had never read any of the works of Mr. Sinclair Lewis and indeed supposed him to be the same person as Mr. Upton Sinclair. “Babbittry” as a quality pertaining to Americans was just something she had picked up: it was, as they say, in the air.
The difference between this vague lady of Hyeres and thousands upon thousands of better read and less hazy people in Europe is one of degree rather than of kind. For during the last ten years the portraits of America painted by American novelists and American essayists have profoundly affected the European mind. Indeed, when Senator Smoot was declaiming in the Senate on behalf of his bill to increase the rigors of censorship for the purpose of barring from American soil the decadent and corrupting literature of Europe, a diplomat in the gallery once suggested that if the “de-bunking” tendency, in American literature went much further it would soon be more in the interests of the United States Government to prohibit the export of defamatory home-made literature, on the ground that “the facts about America” as reported by American novelists would be found more harmful to American prestige than “the facts of life” as examined by D. H. Lawrence were ever likely to be to American morals.
There used to be too little articulate comment on America by Americans. Now there sometimes seems to be too much. For several decades after Dickens’s visit, Americans justly complained that their country was the happy hunting ground of itinerant lecturers who came, saw a little, and felt that they had conquered sufficiently the problems presented to justify them in writing books about America, There were thousands of books about America by Europeans, of all degrees of goodness and badness. The good perhaps were as good as anything written since; the bad—if anyone had the courage to undertake the melancholy comparison—would no doubt turn out to have been as bad as the worst books written about America by Europeans today. For Europeans still come to America to observe and to write books; some bad, some good. “Paradies Amerika,” by Egon Erwin Kisch, was among the non-fiction best sellers in Germany last year. Paul Morand’s “New York” was a best seller in France.
With the hugely increased demand for explanations of America that has accompanied the rise of the United States to the position of the most powerful nation in the world, Europe has been avid of opportunities to study “native sources” at first hand, and the output of reports and comments on America has been enormously enlarged. Sinclair Lewis, Dreiser, Mencken, and Upton Sinclair figure as large in the European book lists as in the American. In the European’s view of America, the figure of Babbitt, like the grotesquely enlarged and unnaturally clear-cut figure in the foreground of an amateur snapshot, obscures the blurred forms that throng the middle distance and throws a superhuman shadow across the landscape background. Given the slightest encouragement, people will believe what they want to believe, and “Babbittry” is one of the qualities which Europe is peculiarly delighted to ascribe to America. The Babbitt legend spread through Europe with the rapidity, and took root with the tenacity, with which the story of the domestic infelicity, of an unpopular manager will spread and take root in an office. It appeared to be the authentic “low-down” on the rich, successful, and aloof Uncle Sam, and it is not fanciful to see in the whole-hearted acceptance of Babbitt the rather bitter and perhaps inevitable sequel to the premature canonization of Woodrow Wilson.
Now more than ever before, the self-critical, self-analytical literature of America is taken in Europe to be “the truth about America.” For one thing, the audience is larger and more critical than it used to be. Frank Norris and Henry James, for example, both had a fair-sized European public, but compare their public with the audience reached by “Pay Day,” the novel by Mr. Nathan Asch, which was dramatized and broadcast by the central German radio station; or Gaston Means’s “Strange Death of President Harding,” reproduced in the London Daily Express with a circulation of approximately two million copies daily. An audience of this kind accepts a good deal as gospel which at best is apocryphal, so that too often in talking to Europeans about America one is reminded of that English innkeeper who has been so much impressed by, the reality of Dickens’s characters that he is prepared to show you the room in his hotel “where Mr. Pickwick slept when he came through this way.”
It is not that the pictures of American life presented by most of the American authors who have attained wide popularity, in Europe today are untrue; on the contrary they are probably truer than anything written before their time. It is only that by the time they have emerged on the other side of the Atlantic they are found to have suffered a certain sea change. Their nuances of meaning and implication are blurred and coarsened. They are, these books, one of the most important sources of European information about America, and yet the passage from one continent to another, from one civilization to another, affects them, by the time they have been digested in Europe, rather as the characters of ancient kings are affected by the passage of centuries before they become embedded in the pages of those simple-minded history books which in childhood are among the most important sources of our knowledge of the past. “King Henry the This was a weak king who permitted the resources of his country to be wantonly squandered and died regretted by, none.” “King Francis the That was cruel, crafty, and inordinately ambitious, and his reign was a gloomy one.” The European anxiously peruses his five-foot shelf of volumes from America, and by the time he has digested and talked about them and half-forgotten them, that is the kind of over-simplified notion of the United States that remains in his mind. It is not the fault of the books; they were not written as guide books to the United States for the benefit of Europeans; but that is the way, they are accepted in Europe.
Where the books and magazines reach their tens of thousands, the films reach hundreds of thousands. The Department of Commerce used to estimate that every foot of American film exported sold a dollar’s worth of American goods. British and Europeans rush to Americanize themselves; they buy American hats, shoes, automobiles, refrigerators. In Paris, stenographers struck, demanding offices with magnificent appointments such as they had seen an cinema. Lyon’s tea house near Leicester Square, where typists and clerks drank pots of Ceylon and China tea, sells cocktails now. It is like that scene outside the government offices in Moscow just after the Kerensky revolution in Petrograd, when hundreds of minor government officials and university students, considering that the fall of the Tsar had emancipated Russia at last from the backward Orient and aligned her with the nations of western Europe, appeared on the streets each carrying a brief case such as they had seen carried by French and German engineers and bankers; most of them were empty and half of them were made of paper in imitation of leather, but it was “so-o European.” Europe learns from the films to be “so-o American.” And beyond that, what sort of publicity do the films give America in Europe? Newsreels recording arrivals in New York of a whole gallery of celebrities from Gertrude Ederle to Ramsay MacDonald have familiarized office workers in the City of London and the Place de la Bourse with the skyscrapers of lower Broadway, but most of them have never seen those skyscrapers otherwise than draped in ticker tape. It is typical of the sort of America films present to wide-eyed millions from Cadiz to Riga. As though in revenge for the harsh dreariness that Europe ascribes to America after reading America’s self-critical literature, the films present a richly star-spangled parade, a glossier, flossier world than the eye of man has ever looked upon outside the doors of what in England they still call a “picture palace,” a world where even the crimes are new and shiny, even the harshness and dreariness goes with a swing, even the rare not-so-happy ending has a silver lining.
It is not America. It is not anywhere this side of cloud-cuckooland. Often it does not even pretend to be America; but how is Herr Schlachter, on the mezzanine in Breslau, to disentangle the buildings from the ticker tape, to see domestic fife in the Bronx through the gripping drama, the palpitating love interest, the whimsical human humor, in short the swell story, in which it has been draped by a score of gentlemen in Hollywood devoutly hoping they know what the public in the “key cities” of the movie theatre chains in the United States imagines it wants? It has to be seen to be believed: and lo, it is seen.
It is not Hollywood’s fault; it is its job thus to present a world in false face. As the conjurors used to say, “I wouldn’t deceive you for worlds; but as I’m paid to deceive you, if I didn’t deceive you I should be deceiving you.” The quickness of the hand deceives the eye. The eye is a gullible spectator. What is shown to it creates a greater illusion of reality than what is conveyed to the brain by any other means. The eye that sees ticker tape and more ticker tape is stronger than the little notion in the back, as they say, of the head that in real life ticker tape is rather rare.
The American films succeed partly because they have more money behind them, partly because as entertainment they are so often better than the general run of films produced in Europe. The Europeans complain that they are being “Americanized” by the American films. They nervously scan the crime statistics for indications that the spate of American crime films is undermining the law-abiding character of the local citizenry. They are shocked when they look into the nursery and find their children playing gangsters, though it is rather difficult to see why this should be more reprehensible than the more traditional games in which children played at war between French and English or at pirates. Moreover, one’s sympathy with, for instance, the tremendous outcry in France some time back against American films, which were allegedly ruining French national culture, would be stronger if it were not a matter of more or less common knowledge that at the same moment several leading French film companies were privately conducting negotiations with the object of selling themselves, lock, stock and barrel, to wealthier American film interests. The rush to penalize American films in the interests of French culture followed a failure to agree on a price.
Perhaps, after all, Americans have just as much right to complain of some of the effects of American films abroad as the foreigners have. When films began to be shown in India and elsewhere in the Far East, officials and other white residents of the Orient complained on the ground that the films were lowering the prestige of the white man with their suggestion of the erotic, dishonest, or merely nonsensical antics in which he indulged when once safe at home with his well-known burden comfortably deposited somewhere east of Suez. The orientals did not, so far as is known, complain at all. On the contrary, they lapped it up. On this analogy it would surely be reasonable for the State Department to take exception to the lowering of American prestige abroad by presenting American men and American women as consisting to so large an extent of handsome morons, racketeers, gold diggers, dipsomaniacs, sugar babies, sugar daddies, and clowns: as though it were true to say of America what one of Mr. William Gerhardi’s characters remarked of pre-war Russia: “There are honest men in Russia and there are clever men in Russia, but there are no honest clever men, and if there are they are probably heavy drinkers.”
The talkies have, temporarily, at least, caused a hitch in the penetration of American films into non-English-speaking countries. (When one of the first American talking pictures was shown in Budapest the only people in the audience who seemed to like it much were some American Negro entertainers who were in town for an engagement at a cabaret.) But in the English-speaking countries the process of so-called Americanization goes on, and in Liverpool and Sydney the films continue to spread the mad tidings of a cocktail-shaking, hip-shaking, safe-cracking, wise-cracking world which now can be not only seen but heard.
Newspapers, books, and films: these are the three main channels of communication between America and Europe. Beyond their immediate impact on the minds exposed to their influence, there goes on that curious process of simplification already noticed, so that things that are exceptional in the United States, or usual only in limited sections of them, come to be regarded as “typically American.” They put up a skyscraper in Hamburg: “typically American” until you think of fhe little brick residences of Georgetown, or the bungalows of California, or the miles of frame huts in South Chicago. One is reminded a little of the lady who returned to her New England village after her first visit to New York and remarked that she liked the town well enough except for the custom of having elephants loose in the streets, the fact being that her visit had coincided with a brief escape from captivity, of some of the animal performers in a travelling circus.
There goes on too another process which might be described as a sort of crystallization, and which results in all sorts of phenomena which are as much European as American being dubbed characteristically American just because they are the sort of thing that Europeans have come to think of as American. Londoners often talk of the sensational London newspapers as “Americanized,” which is plausible until you reflect that the Mr. Harmsworth, who started the sensational Daily Mail of the ‘nineties, had acquired, by virtue of its rising circulation, the title of Lord Northcliffe before the birth of the New York tabloids. It is the same sort of crystallization of gravitation that makes people attach anecdotes to some outstanding figure of the day, although if the humorists and wits from Mark Twain to Dorothy Parker had really said half the amusing things they are supposed to have said, they would certainly not have had time to do half the amusing things they are supposed to have done.
The functioning of our means of international communication leaves a good deal to be desired. But as Dr. Johnson isaid of a dog’s walking on his hind legs, “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Perhaps we demand rather too much of our interpreters. Even at very close range the job of making one commimity, intelligible to another is difficult. There are two villages in the Cevennes only about fifteen miles apart and of very similar character, and yet the inhabitants of one village warn the stranger against having anything to do with the other, and the two communities have as little truck with one another as possible, each believing of the other unspeakable things only to be expressed in the words of the schoolboy who answered an examination question on the “manners and customs of the South Sea Islanders” with the brief statement, “Manners they have none and their customs they are beastly.”
It has been the fate of America to be discovered piecemeal under a series of misconceptions. Early explorers thought it might be a narrow strip of land on the way to India, all contained between the Atlantic Ocean and the Alleghenies; there are plenty of Europeans today who think it may be all contained between the pages of the newest “great American novel.” Peter Minuit bought Manhattan Island for twenty-four dollars’ worth of glass beads, and there are plenty, of Europeans who hope to acquire a knowledge of the United States for two pennyworth of newspaper and a half-dollar seat in a film theatre. Still, the process of discovery goes on, although its pace and progress are often optimistically overrated. And, although it would be a mistake to proclaim one’s arrival at the Pacific Ocean when one had only reached the Mississippi, it would be equally mistaken to suppose that because this is only the Mississippi the Pacific Coast is utterly unattainable.