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The American, This New Man

ISSUE:  Winter 1944

The Growth of American Thought. By Merle Curti. Harper and Brothers. $5.00. Man: Real and Ideal. By Edwin Grant Conklin. Charles Scribner’s Sons. $2.50. American Heroes and Hero-Worship. By Gerald W. Johnson, Harper and Brothers. $3.00. Mainstream. By Hamilton Basso. Reynal and Hitchcock. $2.50. The American: The Making of a New Man. By James Truslow Adams. Charles Scribner’s Sons. $3.00. Journey into America. By Donald Culross Peattie. Houghton Mifflin Company. $3.00.

The beauty of Croce’s definition of history as contemporary thought about the past lies not only in its apt simplicity but also in its enormous flexibility. It is perhaps the only blanket sufficiently elastic to cover the present examples of introspective Americanism and still bear a single label, unless we resort to the Bismarckian cynicism which regards history as merely a piece of paper covered with print. Merle Curti’s “The Growth of American Thought,” a scholarly study of the interplay of dominant ideas and interests, thrown against a background of social, political, and economic factors, would naturally be included whatever the definition, for it is by a professional historian and it attempts to weigh all of the evidence, to avoid oversimplification, and to present bibliographical and other scholarly apparatus. Edwin Grant Conklin’s “Man: Real and Ideal,” the wise summation of a lifetime of distinguished teaching and writing, presented in a series of essays on man’s nature, development, and destiny, is modestly called “Observations and Reflections.” These essays, again, are history in the best sense, but they are included in this review primarily as giving perspective to the particular studies of the American—and as a corrective to distortions that inevitably result from the short view. In “American Heroes and Hero-Worship,” Gerald W. Johnson’s incisive comments on the ironies in American history, as reflected in the careers of du Pont de Nemours, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, Thomas E. Watson, William Jennings Bryan, and Woodrow Wilson, though prefaced by an essay on history that all historians ought to read, are eclectic comments, not systematic history. Mr. Basso’s admitted “prejudice in favor of people”—in reality a prejudice in favor of ideas advanced by people—caused him, in “Mainstream,” to use the same device adopted by Mr. Johnson, though Mr. Basso, influenced by Turner, Beard, Henry Adams, and Gamaliel Bradford, is interested in the dichotomy between government by the elect and government by the people, as exemplified in the ideas of Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, John C. Calhoun, Phineas T. Barnum, Huey Long, the two Roosevelts and other figures intercepted in the mainstream of American history. James Truslow Adams in “The American: The Making of a New Man” attempts to block out a full canvas, but he draws the curtain at the turn of the century, leaving with us the implication that the frontiersman’s individualism was one with that of the captain of industry. Donald Culross Peattie strains the elasticity of the Crocian definition most of all: his symbolical “Journey into America” is a journey into the past, to be sure, but his vehicle is emotional rather than intellectual. Moreover, he discovers some things hitherto unknown to historians, as, for example, that James Wilson suggested the self-evident clause in the Declaration.

History, of course, is robbed of some of its ancient dignity as a great art by the process of bracketing Mr. Curti’s earnest and useful tracing of intellectual effort in America with Mr. Peattie’s discursive impressionism, punctuated by poetic flights as well as by the use of first names for Washington and (“Long Tom”) Jefferson. But history gains vigor and strength by the inclusion of such essays as those of Mr. Johnson and Mr. Basso. Mr. Johnson may be guilty of over-simplification when he calls Jefferson a realist and Hamilton a romantic idealist, but his penetrating comments throw the argument into high relief—and we move one step further toward an understanding of the two great figures. Mr. Basso may not wish us to take him literally when he dismisses the great similarities between Jefferson and Cal-’ houn in order to emphasize their differences; but when he says that the whole South is the grave of Calhoun, he is writing history as well as poetry, even though he overlooks the fact, pointed out by Mr. Johnson, that Jefferson predicted both Calhoun and the grave. Professional historians would do well to ponder the meaning of Mr. Johnson and Mr. Basso. They may not have gone with laborious effort through all of the records. Who has—and what of it? They have formed intelligent opinions and they have set them down skilfully and interestingly. Aside from Mr. Basso, what formal historian has seriously emphasized the historical force and meaning of American myths—the force of things remembered for what they promise rather than for what they are? The formal historian may boggle at Mr. Basso’s statement that Barnum’s “Art of Money Getting” stands in the same relation to modern industrial America that the Declaration of Independence had to the Revolution or that Calhoun’s “Disquisition” had to the ante-bellum South. But he would do well to ponder Mr. Basso before he attempts to pulverize him. Mr. Basso and Mr. Johnson will be read—and with profit—while many of the formal histories remain on the shelf.

Crevecoeur’s famous question, “What then is the American, this new man?” grows wearisome with repetition and yet is endlessly fascinating. A vast literature has attempted to supply the answer, and the question remains unanswered. The problem was old when Crevecoeur restated it, for Americans have always been self-conscious about themselves, their distinctive characteristics, and their role in the world. The question must continue to be asked and each generation must continue to supply the answer from its point of view, including, of course, the hoary distinction now made again by Mr. Adams between the legal American and the real American. One common denominator of the present outpouring of books about Americans and the American Dream is traceable to the events of the past ten years. Always excepting the courageous statement of faith of Mr. Conklin, the present answers to Crevecoeur’s question are indubitable products of this generation. They would have been unthinkable twenty years ago, even though the 1920’s were neither the complete disavowal of all values as Mr. Basso believes nor the nostalgic yearning for an earlier America as Mr. Adams thinks. They may be unthinkable twenty years hence. Their common denominator is a significant change in the character of the American Dream: the recent prolific searching of the American past and the intense preoccupation with the distinctiveness of the American way of life, representing at best a resurgence of nationalistic thinking and at worst an eagle-screaming chauvinism, coincides with the greatest of all drives to make the American Dream embrace the world. This paradox, of course, collides with some parts of the democratic dialectic, notably the belief in the sovereignty of the individual on which, in turn, rests the principle of self-determination. Furthermore, as some of the recent foreign commentators have observed, too much preoccupation with the supposed distinctiveness of our racial blends, our political institutions, our intellectual processes, our mechanical and scientific ingenuity, and our particular brands of freedom may too easily cause us to slip over into a conviction of racial supremacy. When that happens, the demagogues take over with well-stocked arsenals.

This common characteristic is, of course, present in the volumes under review in varying degrees of virulence. If one were to give them rank according to the intensity with which they embrace the paradox, I should place Mr. Peattie far in the lead, followed at a more sedate pace, in the order named, by Messrs. Basso, Johnson, and Curti. Mr. Adams, because he suspends comment with McKinley or thereabouts, belongs in a class by himself. If it should be thought that the paradox is overstated, let Mr. Johnson, who has a gift for the ironical, speak: “Our frontier is farther away than the Rhine. Our frontier is at the utmost limit of human freedom. Wherever a man is enslaved by violence—a yellow Manchurian, a swarthy Spaniard, an ebony Ethiopian, as well as a blond Norwegian—our frontier is invaded. It does not follow, of course, that we should fly to arms to avenge every border incident; but we should recognize these incidents for what they are—not the inconsiderable troubles of inferior peoples, which we can dismiss with a shrug, but denials of the validity of the principles by which we live, hence denials of our right to our way of life.” Mr. Peattie goes much further. His essay is addressed to a former Riviera acquaintance from Germany: “We are going to get through to you all, Baldur, one of these days, and, dead or alive, you’ll be set free. . . . It is an expansion greater than our conquest of the West, a revolution greater than the complete democratizing of this one country of ours, a commingling into a vaster brotherhood than even America’s. . . . So that this forward surge in our national life comes from a newly realized obligation to the world outside ourselves.”

Thomas Jefferson had a great deal to do with the statement of the American ideal. It is by no means certain that he would agree with the implied assumptions in these contemporary expositions of the American Dream: (1) that America historically has been blind or indifferent to acts of tyranny in other parts of the world; (2) that all peoples everywhere are ready for or even desire our particular ideal of democratic freedom; (3) that the American obligation to the world should require an abandonment of its role as an example, a beacon, and a haven for the oppressed; (4) that, instead, this obligation should take the form of a worldwide crusade, presumably sustained by force; and (5) finally, that the great experiment in democratic government in America has so far progressed, has so far been perfected, as to permit its extension to the world. We do not, of course, know what Jefferson would have said on these profound issues of today; we do know that he did not embrace the paradox in his own day.

Another characteristic of current essays about the American is the tendency to regard as distinctively American qualities which are merely human. These studies, it should be noted, are not anthropological or ethnological treatises. They begin with the assumption that “To be an American [it is Mr. Basso speaking] is to be something new under the sun. . . . there is an American character and . . . it has been shaped by a series of influences which, in their sum, may be taken to represent that other ideal figment we call the American tradition.” This assumption calls for a definition, but the definition is not supplied. It is, of course, obvious that Americans have produced a distinctive amalgam of racial elements, have united in a political society that has many claims to uniqueness, have developed a genius for mechanical and scientific activity, have marked themselves off by sectional loyalties overlaid by the bonds of faith and tradition that constitute true nationality, and have created the most powerful nation on earth. Was this miracle wrought by any magic quality in the soil? In the climate? In the geography of the continent—the geography, that is, South of the Great Lakes and North of the Rio Grande? In the political institutions? In the peculiar characteristics of those who had the courage to emigrate hither? Did God really sift the British Empire to found New England? Mr. Basso admits that if the American had belonged to a tribe of head-hunters or to a race of African pygmies, there would be a vast anthropological and ethnological literature about him. Facts would be identified, isolated, systematized, and compared. This Mr. Curti has done admirably with respect to the American’s beliefs, superstitions, and thought processes. Mr. Basso and Mr. Hamilton have, from different points of view, given us more eclectic but more colorful impressions of the American as a political being. Mr. Adams has given us an American who in the making, and presumably after McKinley, “had scant use for blueprints, bureaucrats, or regimentation.” Mr. Peattie has discovered some things about the American that the historians, for all their researches, have overlooked, though he has not cited documents in support of his singular discoveries. All suffer from the short view and the arbitrariness of geographical boundaries.

For this reason, Mr. Conklin’s perspective of man’s long past, rising above artificial national traits and disregarding arbitrary political boundaries, provides both courage and corrective. From such a vantage point, even the vast achievements of America, performed in an incredibly short time, will appear as much the result of qualities that belong to the race as of qualities distinctive to the undefined American: “Through all the ages of man’s past history, and in spite of many mistakes and failures, the current of his development has been leading to wider intellectual horizons, to broader social outlooks, and to more generous forms of ethics. In spite of wars that ‘threaten civilization,’ there is no sufficient reason to believe that this great current will cease to flow today or tomorrow. In the course of ages man will learn, by trial and error if not by intelligence and reason. We are today only children in the morning of time, and before us lie the countless centuries and millennia of man’s vast future.”

The dangers of nationalistic overemphasis subside before the broad sweep of such a perspective.


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