America as Americans See It. Edited by Fred J, Ringel. New York; Harcourt, Brace and Company. $375. A Picture of America. By Charles Cross. New York: Simon and Schuster. $1.50.
Europe’s popular, as distinguished from its selective, curiosity concerning the United States dates, in its acute form, from the tempestuous week-end the nations spent together at Armageddon, and from the animated international exchanges provoked by its scandalous consequences. Partners, no less than opponents, in a knock-down and drag-out fight, after the broken noses heal and the fury of the fray has become a troubled memory, preserve for at least a short time thereafter a friendly interest in one another’s personal affairs. It does not last long. Soon normal indifference takes the place of abnormal interest. But while it lasts it is marked by an insatiable reciprocal curiosity.
We are still in that stage internationally, I think. The guests at the week-end party have all sobered up but they have not yet, by a long shot, settled up. Before they had achieved complete sobriety they met in the mirror-paneled ballroom and drew up a contract fixing the responsibility for the damage to furniture and shrubbery and defining the humiliating penance to be done for the larger obscenities. As the result of this befuddled contract, the late roisterers hold one another’s I. O. U.’s, most of them for preposterous unpayable sums. The principal winners of the poker session find it impossible to cash them. The losers demand the return of the watches, motor cars, and jack-knives of which they were stripped by way of security, loudly insisting that they cannot make a living without these accessories, much less pay their gambling debts. So the wild party lives on in the quarrel over the settlement that was designed to terminate it, and all the late participants remain absorbed in one another’s vices, pleasures, prospects, and chattels.
The distinguishing quality of this reciprocal international curiosity, I have suggested, is its horizontality. The old, elegant means of disseminating information concerning overseas economies and cultures—scholarly monographs, learned articles in the encyclopedias, morocco-bound travel books, and belletristic tourist articles in the magazines—could not have begun to satisfy it. Fortunately, the business of making nations better acquainted with one another has benefited by a providentially timed improvement in technique. The movies and the radio now enable us to see and hear another country’s life; and in every country those who can see and hear must vastly outnumber those who can read and think. For those who persist in their preference for the more taxing method, services of information have been devised that have robbed it of its old tedium—that have transformed the ingestion of overseas facts into something like an adventure.
It is now possible for everybody everywhere, literate or otherwise, each to the limit of his apperceptive faculties, to learn about other nations without a struggle.
One of the least taxing and most pleasantly stimulating of the new Better Acquaintance efforts addressed to the literates, is Mr. Ringel’s round-table on “America as Americans See It.” Mr. Ringel is a correspondent of Berlin newspapers, for some time domiciled in New York, who knows both his America and his Europe. First he thought he would himself write a book about America for the enlightenment of Europeans whose thinking about America was swamped in a morass of cliches and stereotypes. Then he bethought himself that such a job of interpretation could be done best by Americans. So, with the aid of forty-six citizens, some of them but recently naturalized, some famous and some not, the job was done and put between covers. One of the very best things about Dad’s taking Junior to the circus is that it gives Dad a chance to see the circus. One of the best things about writing perspicaciously and entertainingly concerning America for the benefit of Europeans, is that it affords Americans an opportunity to learn about themselves. That is what happened with Mr. Ringel’s book. It turned out that the book intended for Europeans was so good for Americans that instead of being published first abroad, as Mr. Ringel planned, it was published first here.
Forty-six American celebrities and ersatz celebrities accepted Mr. Ringel’s invitation to take part in the speaking, although Henry Mencken and Lewis Mumford, he regretfully notes, declined. Each speaker brought with him, or was supplied by the toastmaster, a private introducer. For example, right after Stuart Chase, superfluously introduced by Ordway Tead, finishes a salty, eleven-page discussion of “The Heart of American Industry,” one Richard Connel comes forward with a necessary 100-word biographical note on John Chapman Hilder, who then obliges with four pages of treacle on the subject of “American Brotherhood.” Mr.
Hilder is managing editor of the official organ of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks. Sherwood Anderson, who still insists that the lovely machines are not only making for us a new world on the surface, but also “doing things”—deep, vital things—to our inner lives, to our very hormones, perhaps, alone speaks without benefit of prior identification. Perhaps in Europe that omission will be less troubling than in America.
Of the forty-six speakers offered by Mr. Ringel, only four are women. Their batting average, it seems to me, is somewhat better than the men’s. Clare Boothe Brokaw (“American Society and Near-Society”), Faith Baldwin (“Love and Marriage”), Doris E. Fleischman (“Women: Types and Movements”), and Muriel Draper (“The Wings of an Ostrich”), make a highly entertaining report on the governing half of our population. Mrs. Brokaw’s scintillating and grimly humorous examination of our Almanach de Gotha, and Miss Draper’s lapidarian note on how American women “are organized in separation, are extremely active in it, and subtly distorted by it,” rank with the most stimulating pieces in the book.
Religion is purposely left untouched by Mr. Ringel’s soothsayers, and politics and prohibition are only casually discussed as incidents of crime and racketeering. But the remainder of America’s present-day being is raked from many angles—skyscrapers, Hollywood, Chicago, sports, crime, graft, radicals, chain stores, advertising, radio, newspapers, magazines, humor, art, literature, education, music, and the quality of American thinking (“On American Thought,” by Scott Buchanan, of the University of Virginia)—to provide a swiftly moving, not too profound, occasionally superficial, but consistently interesting lecture sequence on life as it is lived today in the greatest of all republics. Liberally interspersed between and within the readings—like the colored stereopticon slides in the old town hall lectures—are pictures by a hundred contemporary American artists. A surprising number of these bear names bespeaking a not-distant Old World derivation, their opulent nudes and modernistic studies of less carnal aspects of the American decor faithfully mirroring the prevailing art canons of the Left Bank of the Seine, rather than the art traditions exemplified on the walls of America’s “home-beautiful” living rooms.
A fortuitous companion-piece to Mr. Ringel’s collation and, within its special field, serving the same broad purpose of painless edification, is Charles Cross’s “A Picture of America”—a visual presentation, on the strictly tabloid level, of the economic failure of American capitalism. Its theme, thumpingly developed with the aid of juxtaposed photographs, thumbnail summaries, black-face admonitions and bold headlines, is that there is no saving escape from the tragic dilemma of penury in the midst of plenty that distinguishes the present depression, save along “the peaceful, orderly road of Socialism.” It is a clamant, camera-eye examination of a perplexity that is being widely discussed by solemn pundits who, although disdaining Mr. Cross’s the-atricalism, are saying approximately the same thing that he says, with considerably less clarity and with a cagy avoidance of the obvious conclusion.