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The Anglic Vices

ISSUE:  Spring 1937

Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen: You English know that we Americans are fond of long speeches. It is said that G. K. Chesterton outraged an audience in New York by addressing them for fifteen minutes when they expected a full hour. Now, I (to contrast small things with large) who am no doubt expected, here in London, to speak for not more than fifteen minutes, shall probably reverse the roles and orate to you for a full-But please don’t stir so uneasily. After all, you are merely an imaginary audience; you may do a fade-away at any moment when my oratory becomes too much for you. What I have to say is of solemn import. To you, however, it may seem rather absurd. My speech may provide you with a few mild after-dinner smiles—even while expressing a very grave conviction of mine. Thus both parties may be partly satisfied.

I have come over here to advocate, what I have been advocating in America, a certain project that is vastly important for the future of the Anglo-Saxon peoples and therefore, obviously, for the future of the human race at large. Unfortunately the scheme is one that requires the assistance of a round dozen of millionaires. And after interviewing fifty-seven of these gentlemen in America I have to confess that fifty-one of them showed practically no symptoms of that happy nervous reaction which we call, in America, “coming across.” The remaining six, however, have agreed to contribute a total amount equal to the total amount that shall be contributed by six persons in Great Britain, provided that the total of the two totals shall not amount to more than six million dollars in American currency. This shrewd attitude on the part of my millionaires brings a look of pain, of course, into your faces. But I am not about to ask contributions from you. For here in this large and pleasant upper room in The New Mermaid Inn, you are all men of letters, not of wealth. Yet surely you are all acquainted, as British men of letters ought to be, and as of course I am not, with many British millionaires. And I request that each of you will bring this important project to the attention of your favorite millionaire.

The project is: to establish endowed chairs of history in the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and Yale for the scientific investigation and exposition of the two leading qualities of the anglic race. . . . First of all, note that word “anglic.” (God forbid that I should say “Anglican,” by a slip of the tongue.) Since the Danish invasion of England, if not earlier, the term “Anglo-Saxon” has become increasingly out-of-date in England. And in America, since the invasion of almost every known species of humanity, it has become not only ludicrously inappropriate but even dangerous. More than half of our population are now not Anglo-Saxon, and many of them hate the racial implications of the term. So that this word is not only disadvantageous for American unity (which, I suppose, is not of profound concern to you) but also for a right understanding between the American and the British peoples. Whereas the word “anglic,” especially if not capitalized, is quite unobjectionable and may become life-giving.

This term is wide and flexible in its meaning. It does not necessarily denote a particular race, though of course it recognizes that a certain race has been the chief exponent, so far, of anglicism. It denotes mainly a certain polity—a polity which has rivaled the Roman polity in its adaptability to various races, and which has certainly surpassed the Roman outlook in responsiveness to modern conditions.

These conditions (just turn them over in your mind) were embryonic when the Roman Empire was in its last phase; and Rome was able to reconstitute herself, by means of Christianity, so as to comprehend those conditions ecclesiastically. But now, to make a long story short, they have obviously grown far beyond the Roman walls and ways. Romanistic institutions and concepts are still with us. But it is clear that Romanism, unlike anglicism, has suffered desperately from over-capitalization. It does not follow, heaven knows, that anglicism, which of course has learned a great deal from Romanism, is its predestined successor. To cherish such a notion is to capitalize anglicism badly— to half-damn it, in fact—as anglic chauvinists on both sides of the Atlantic have tended to do. Anglicism, like all other “isms,” is always on trial and may be deposed at any time by the Lord of Life. It is one of many polities. But at the present time it appears to surpass the others (this is not very high praise) in stamina and vital flexibility. It suffers less than the others from racial, regionalistic, and doctrinal stultifications. And it may do a great deal for the civility of the human world in the centuries just ahead of us if (by divine grace) the anglics shall manage to do such good works as are prepared, not predestined, for them to walk in.

Hence the conception held by leading anglics of the leading anglic qualities is a matter of fateful significance. If these qualities are badly misconceived by our leaders, anglicism is bound to miscarry. Now, you are leaders of current British literature, and your influence upon anglicism at large is not entirely negligible. (This playful litotes does not offend you, to judge from your indulgent smiling.) Which, then, in your heart of hearts, do you consider to be the two leading qualities of the anglic peoples?

Let us take a hint from a pleasant essay by an English writer, Mr. Frank Swinnerton, that appeared in an American magazine some years ago. The title of this attractive essay was in the form of a query: “Are the English Conceited?” . . . I must not keep you in a state of cruel suspense. Mr. Swinnerton’s answer to his question was “No.” Moreover, I think he made his point. The fact is that conceit cannot rightly be said, so far, to be a leading national trait of the English. The author was too polite and circumspect to distinguish the English in this respect from the British, and from the Americans. He avoided overt and odious comparisons. On one point, however, I must censure him. In the course of his essay he several times used the word “arrogant” as synonymous with “conceited”; thus gently killing, on behalf of the English, two bad birds with one stone. In doing so, I fear he evinced a quality that eminently marks the British, namely arrogance. . . . Here you look restless. But if you can compose yourselves I, for my part, shall gladly (that is, sadly) admit that a national trait of us Americans is conceit. So, you see, we have discovered the two leading anglic qualities that may most fruitfully be dwelt upon by anglics—British arrogance and American conceit.

We must consider them with scientific detachment together with deep historical and etymological insight. Arrogance is a state of mind and volition, particularly volition, in which we regard certain vices and virtues (generally, virtues) as inalienably expressive of ourselves and not of other people: we allocate and arrogate these traits to ourselves. Conceit is a state of mind and fancy, particularly fancy, in which we shape up for ourselves certain bad or good possibilities (generally, good) that are more or less at variance with historic human experience: in short, we harbor “conceits,” in the Elizabethan sense of the word. . . . Having pondered those definitions carefully, you perceive that arrogance and conceit are far from being unmixed evils; they are not dead losses. Otherwise God would help the anglic peoples in vain. The fact is that arrogance has in it a power of ordered will, and conceit a power of quickening imagination, which could aid us a great deal if only the evil concomitants could be dissected away. The worst ingredient in both cases is, of course, false pride. Which serves to remind us that both British arrogance and American conceit go back, for good or ill, to old English pride, as it existed, let’s say, about the year 1600.

A few years later, certain parts and parcels of this English pride began agglomerating into stiff bundles that inclined, like saplings in an east gale, towards the American continent. Presently the bundles, painfully clearing their roots, rolled uncomfortably across the Atlantic—into New England and Virginia, up and down the seaboard, back over the Appalachian range, through the forests, down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, across the western plains and mountains, and up and down the Pacific coast. In the course of this multiplex journeying, English pride was permeated by airs from vast, uncouth woods and prairies. It was aerated and expanded into American conceit. Of course the multitudinous foreign stocks that came pouring in have also played their parts. But they have produced no essential change in the original substance. Partly because conceit is much the same everywhere. Largely because anglic conceit was powerful and comprehensive enough to take up into itself, under favorable geographic and climatic conditions, almost every known variety of racial vapours. . . . Old English pride, you see, was simply anglic conceit in bottled form. The thing was a strong insular brew, and it developed an unexampled potency from being so long confined in such a tight little water-sealed homeland. In England, under the restraining thumbs of Topos and Terminus, the thing fizzed out into the most enormously conceited literature— goodly conceited and badly conceited—that the world has so far seen, that is, Elizabethan poetry, prose, and drama. In America, instead of getting into a literature, it frothed and flowed freely over a vast landscape. When Shakespeare wrote that Hotspur’s sweat was “like bubbles in a latedisturbed stream,” he was an American who had stayed at home. He worked off his hyperbolic conceits in words. It was his spiritual kinsmen and contemporaries who were to work their way through the West, with sweat like bubbles on the late-disturbed Mississippi; and, in the middle of the nineteenth century, drowning the breezes of the great plains with tears of remorse and excitement in hugeous religious camp-meetings—as prophesied by Shakespeare’s Macbeth when he exclaimed that “tears shall drown the wind” !

Meanwhile the old English pride that stayed at home was being transformed into modern British arrogance. This metamorphosis took place in close connection with, and by way of reaction from, the anglic conceit that was spurting out continually from its triangular hogshead, England, and foaming across the seas in all directions. For present purposes we may overlook the other lands that were being anglicized and concentrate upon the United States. Picture an old hard-working farmer in Shakespeare’s and Drayton’s county of Warwick receiving a long letter, about the year 1700, from a nephew who had made his way to Springfield, Massachusetts, which was then near the western border. “Coom yur, woife,” shouts the old man after reading a page, “and hear whot this yoong mon writes wi’ his hond anent that plaguey furreign lond.” . . . I shall not try to reproduce the nephew’s letter with its buoyant boastings about crops and pelts and unlimited westerly prospects. You can imagine the old farmer’s indignation at those abnormal earnings and foreign conceits, and the resultant reinforcement of his sense of the superior worth of Warwickshire. Drayton had been beautifully proud of his shire—and also of the Virginian voyage of 1607, at its inception. But suppose Drayton had lived till much later and had been bombarded with long letters from Virginian cousins about (in his own words) “earth’s only paradise . . . the luscious smell of that delicious land . . . fowl, venison, and fish, and the fruitfulest soil . . . three harvests more” —and, above all, the prospects of untold wealth from tobacco? In this case I doubt very much whether the poet, addressing those foreigners as “Britons,” would have oded them in the manner of his famous poem:

You brave heroic minds, Worthy your country’s name,

That honour still pursue,

Go and subdue, Whilst loitering hinds Lurk here at home with shame.

At any rate my old midland farmer, a century later, would surely develop in his soul, as a result of his nephew’s crowing letters, something distinctly different from Drayton’s cordiality and pride. By way of “defence mechanism” he would arrogate to himself and to Warwickshire certain true-English qualities which he would feel that his nephew was losing in western Massachusetts and could never quite regain out there, whatever his other gains.

Think, now, of the millions of variously conceited communications from beyond the seas that have poured into England during the past three centuries by mail, telegraph, and finally radio, as well as by personal visitings. And think of the variously arrogant responses that have been evoked from English persons. Do you not see that here is vast historical source-material, practically untouched, which would yield immense results if investigated and interpreted in the light of the great idea which (to put the matter without conceit or arrogancy) is now finding inadequate expression through a voice crying in the upper banquet-room of The New Mermaid? The development of British arrogance and American conceit was a reciprocal and natural process. It could not have been prevented. But by the second half of the eighteenth century, it might have begun to be amicably recognized and definitely meliorated. Instead, it was exacerbated, terribly, by the American War of Independence. The arrogant stupidity of your government and the conceited propaganda of our border radicals gave a tragic impetus to the two leading anglic qualities.

Now let us take a closer look at British arrogance. . . . Your sudden restless stirring serves to illustrate my first point, namely that you mistakenly think you are sufficiently familiar with this subject already. You arrogate to yourselves an adequate understanding of your own arrogance. What foreigners say upon it, seems to you illuminative of them, not of you. Thus your anglic arrogance is nearly impregnable. Conceit is an airship, sometimes up, sometimes down. But arrogance is a fortress built upon a rock—the rock of power. Your rock during the past two centuries has been naval and industrial supremacy. If this is now crumbling just a little, you may rejoice and be exceeding glad at the potential undermining of your arrogance. But please restrain your gladness by the reflection that the two leading anglic qualities are so vitally related that either may easily pass into the other, and that therefore your arrogance may very well, if you are not watchful, be insensibly transformed into conceit. When England was the world’s creditor, her financial and commercial policy was mainly dictated by her own interests, but she liked to think that it was mainly due to her unique capacity for general fair play. That was arrogance. But today when you fancy that if England were in America’s place as creditor nation, she would promptly cancel War debts and abolish her high tariff, you are guilty of conceit. Of course the thing works both ways. On the American side of the ocean, anglic conceit may easily be transformed by growing power into anglic arrogance. Indeed this possible change is now, I fear, throwing shadows before.

Well, then, if our two leading anglic qualities are at present rather unsettled, if they are about to rise like partridges and perhaps exchange places, now is the times for us to get ready to take effective shots at them on the wing. Who knows, we may succeed in bringing them down. . . . Of the four endowed university-chairs which I am proposing, the two in England will of course be occupied by American historians, and the two in America by British historians. Two suitable Americans will be easy to find. As you know, our American scholars have recently been making remarkable progress in the free and unbiased study of their country’s history, including the War of Independence. I could name half a dozen of them who, clearly alive to the fact of American conceit, would be successful in investigating this phenomenon at its insular source, and in helping you to envisage, and us to avoid, anglic arrogance. But I fear that the right two Britishers will be harder to choose. That is your problem. But let me just suggest that they shall be comparatively young, widely traveled, and richly tinctured with Scotch or Irish blood—with both, if possible!

You laugh. But I assure you that the advice just offered is given in sad earnest. It is based upon a good deal of experience. I have earned my living for more than a quarter of a century mainly by the study and teaching of English literature; my early life was passed in a British colony in contact with many varieties of British fauna; and off and on I have spent some two years in England. My observation has been that, other conditions being equal, an Englishman’s arrogance is in direct proportion to the purity of his blood and to the number of years he has lived uninterruptedly in England or, at least, entirely surrounded by British-colonial neighbors. The effect of blood is, of course, a very ticklish question; it will need careful investigation on the part of our chosen historians. But let me note in passing that among your great statesmen, Edmund Burke and the late Lord Haldane, who were notably free from the national vice, grew up in Ireland and Scotland respectively. On the other hand, two of your outstanding critics, Doctor Johnson and Matthew Arnold, who evinced that vice vividly and unconsciously, were heavily rooted in the south of England. The case of Annold is especially significant since he was so recent and so anxiously cosmopolitan. His case is modernly typical. . . . Your loud cries of “No, no” are due to your current literary reaction from Arnold, who was really an admirable and representative Englishman. In losing his large simplicity and general Tightness, you have shed also the naivete of his arrogance. But you have not lost the arrogance itself; it reappears in your current writings with what may be called a new naive sophistication. To dwell on this point in the present company would be too personal. Instead let me ask you to ponder this fact: English critics in general (like Arnold in particular), while priding themselves justly on their clear perception of the vices of their own nation, have failed to provide, so far, anything like a searching criticism of your leading national vice. Grazing on the mountain, they have not to any extent noticed the mountain.

No wonder, then, that the general run of your people perceive it only dimly. They make love to arrogation, and often ridiculously. For example, an English friend to whom I had sent one of Stephen Leacock’s books replied that he really could not appreciate humour so completely American in spirit. (Mr. Leacock is an Englishman resident in Canada.) Similarly, an annoying practical joke that was recently perpetrated in an American town was denounced by a visiting Englishman as “revealingly American,” until proof appeared that the author of the joke was another visiting Englishman. English friends and relatives in their most benevolent mood still like to encourage us Americans by praising a stroke of “British fair play,” or some other old-country virtue, which has managed somehow to occur in our midst in spite of all the unfair play and other vices which, they say, are “plainly transatlantic.” We used to be much annoyed by this attitude; but, now that we have become the chief creditor nation, we are more likely to smile at it. And I fear that our smile is increasingly tinged with anglic arrogance.

Hence we are seriously anxious that you, now, should set us a good example by a strenuous effort to conquer your own arrogance. You should endeavor to see, with the aid of my proposed historians, and divine grace, that the unfair play, the ugliness, the vulgarity, the lawlessness that rampage in America are characteristically anglic. The dense, horrid ugliness in your towns and the thick-compressed vulgarity in your lower classes, and sometimes in your high classes, have reappeared in America—more strikingly to the eye, there, because of wide extension, but, because of aeration, not quite so oppressive to the spirit (in my experience at least) as in England. Our really dreadful lawlessness, which excites your special wonder, is simply the brutal individualism, the old buccaneering and poaching proclivities, of the anglics, transplanted to a many-frontiered land and flourishing there anew. You may study that lawlessness at home in your fifth and fifteenth centuries and in a number of other centuries. In modem times you have been able to repress it considerably in your over-populated island; you simply had to repress it, as a dozen men in one small bed have to learn to turn together if they are to have any rest at all. In our continent, or half-continent, with its mixed races and numerous disconnected wheels of justice, we have a larger and more complex problem. But the quality of the lawlessness is the same with us as with you. And so in regard to unfair play. The mob that howled against Haldane in the Great War—Haldane, your military savior—well, that howl was anglic: it has been heard often enough on both sides of the Atlantic.

However, a not unintelligent Englishman with whom I was discussing the two leading anglic qualities, summed up his side of the argument thus: “My dear chap, I think it simply comes down to this, that you Americans are accustomed to say about yourselves those laudatory things which we English permit other nations to say about us.” He was heavily shadowed, you see, by the Arrogant Mountain. But he claimed it was a molehill. He admitted British pride; he was proud of it. But he could not see that British arrogance is something distinguishable from, and harmful to, right anglic pride; that it is equal in avoirdupois, though not in surface extension, to American conceit; and that the difference between these two qualities is, as I have shown, merely physical, not at all chemical.

For instance, the anglics on both sides of the Atlantic are just at present harboring the arrogant conceit that we are uniquely peaceful peoples in our dispositions, and that, for one thing, we can be confident that there will never be another war between Britain and America. But let us remember our past. The history of the anglics is one long series of imperious conquests. We began as German pirates; and our westerly thrust into England, Wales, and Ireland was merely continued when we took forcible possession of New England, Texas, and so forth. As to whether our American treatment of the Indians has been as bad as yours of the Irish—such questions are of minor importance. The point is that, apart from the Spanish and the French—so sadly hampered by their peninsularity—we anglics have shown ourselves unrivaled during the Christian era in the lust of dominion. But we have concealed that lust from ourselves, and have tried to conceal it from others, under commercial and moralistic cloakings. The adjectives “perfidious” and “hypocritical,” applied to us by outsiders, have been sufficiently merited, in all conscience. Our poor best defence is that, like our insular antecessor, King Lear, we have ever but slenderly known ourselves. Our official dislike of militarism has time and again given us an immense military advantage over rivals who have known, and shown, more plainly what they wanted. . . . Well, we in America are fully aware of the disguised imperialism of the British. But having broken from you violently a hundred and fifty years back, we imagine we have left that anglic trait behind; our own imperialistic spirit is thus doubly disguised from ourselves. We hug the conceit that, because at present we have plenty of land and no pressing cause of difference with any powerful nation, we are by nature (may God have mercy on us) a peaceful and unaggressive people: we like to fancy that “peace and good-will to men” is our inalienable destiny.

But in my clearest moments I can see no firm reason for assuming that America is exempt from the natural tendency of all powerful nations. Just try to envisage her as she will naturally be several centuries hence; when her “foreigners,” no longer so called, will have been fairly assimilated and educated; when the country will be filled and more land and new resources shall seem to us even more “necessary” (this will be the word) than they did during the three centuries from the Pilgrim Fathers to Theodore Roosevelt; and when the interests of the United States of Europe (let’s say) shall clash in Asia, Africa, and the ocean-islands with the expanding interests of the United States of America. Conceit and arrogance apart, there is no ground for supposing that the strongest of all lusts, the lust for power, is weaker in America than in the older nations, and that she will not act precisely as each of them has acted when “necessity” demands. Theodore Roosevelt, the reverse of a pacifist and Anglophile, was so painfully illumined by the Great War that not long before his death he had a horrid vision of a future struggle in which America would be on one side and Britain on the other, and he issued a statement warning his nation almost prayerfully to do all it could to avert that tragedy. Such a struggle, when all is considered, is not just a possibility: it would be a perfectly natural eventuality.

It can only be averted by supernatural efforts. Sentiment will not help much. At present there is much sentiment in America for the reduction of armaments. But so far that movement is largely actuated by the desire to save money, together with the conceit, very prominent in America but by no means confined to her, that moral ends may be established and sustained by non-moral methods. This conceit can blind millions of people to the plain fact that reduction of armaments can conquer the lust of power about as effectually as Prohibition conquered the lust of drink. A merely legalistic though drastic reduction of armament, as of alcoholic drink, would at once begin to throw a haze of romance over the forbidden thing. We could re-manufacture it with fresh romantic zest when “manifest destiny” should so require. The vast capital which we would save by reduction of armament would be spent in the sudden vast production of armament when it was wanted. . . . Meanwhile let us try to divert a certain amount of capital on both sides of the water into the foundation of the four chairs of historical science that I am advocating. For these have a directer bearing than the question of armaments upon our main moral needs. The Supernature seems a trifle aloof, just now, from our recent graphic plans for reducing arms; but it might possibly send down a blessing upon a quiet and steady scheme to reduce, through education, the formidable armaments of anglic arrogance and conceit. For surely you English men of letters can see—

But I see you have disappeared. I had not noticed. (I wonder if it was arrogant of me not to notice.) One sleepy Cockney waiter, I think, remains in the room, this upper room of The New Mermaid Inn. And I fancy that the expression on his face means that he expects from me, as an American, a very mighty tip. (In which case the poor fellow is suffering from an unhappy conceit.)


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