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Europe Sees America

ISSUE:  Spring 1930

He other day on the Champs-Elysees, I ran into an art critic who, like me, had just returned to Paris from America.

“Well,” he asked, “how about your recent trip? What do you think this time about things over there?”

With a flicker of a smile on his lips, he put his hand on my shoulder. He seemed to be ready to hear what I had to say. Yet I felt that his look went past me, and, curiously enough, past even the trees and automobiles of the avenue.

“The New World?” he continued without giving me time to reply. “The Other World, one should say!”

I prepared myself for one of those brilliant, pointed paradoxes of which my friend has as large a supply as a cutler has of knives. He likes to use them to sharpen the edges of blunted truths, sometimes also to fashion ideas which amuse him.

“When you arrive on the other side, across five or six wide white bands of day and night—the cosmic systole and diastole become visible—, haven’t you the feeling of having made a trip in some sort of a machine a la Wells? Of having changed planets? I am sure that the coefficient which measures the transformation of heat into energy is not at all the same over there; that the pull of gravitation is much weaker. I tell you that people is no longer held down to the earth! That explains how the buildings multiply their storeys, how the cornices climb into astronomical figures! . . . A whole nation hurls itself into the sky!”

It is good to contradict N. when he begins to display his arsenal of facts and his “unfoldings” of figures. That lends him new enthusiasm, redoubles his fantasy, and, now and then, forces him to drag out from his reserve stock some solid truths.

“I am glad,” I interrupted, “to see that you are not given to the common error which makes of America an enormous material reality and nothing more. But be sure not to forget that from the factory to the bank, from the oil wells to the mine—”

“Do you imagine you have seen that?” broke in the critic, with the assurance of the metaphysician who denies the objective value of the sensations. “Not at all! I tell you in confidence,” he continued with mock secrecy, “it is up to that people to change the form of our globe; to make a prism of it, or a rhomboid, I hardly know what. . . . At any rate to astonish this poor old Europe which, for so many centuries, has stupidly left the world as it is, round like a ball… .”

“Ane you so sure that the Americans worry themselves as much as that about this little continent of Europe? On the contrary it would seem to me that, formidably retired within itself, the great country over there thinks only of itself when there is a question of inaugurating a new scheme of things, an independent reality where absolutely nothing is taken into account except itself.”

My friend N. withdrew his gaze and attention an instant and obligingly lent them to my remark.

“It is true,” he said, consulting his memory and letting his gaze wander over the double stream of automobiles which passed beside us. “It is true that the great activity which vibrates in the cities over there presents something disturbing, even terrible. What respiration! What hiccoughs of immobility interrupt it! The mighty breathing of that formidable chest! Oh, it is magnificent! Magnificent! However, let us draw up America’s account…

The critic collected his thoughts a moment, then: “They have destroyed the spontaneous art of the American soil, all that confused cry of colors and shapes which the earth itself seemed to utter in the works of the Indians. Their punishment is first of all that they have no painting. . . . Some square kilometers of canvas covered by good pupils, by painters of’some talent’; but not a single picture!”

“That’s nearly true up to the present time. But—” “No sculpture!”

“Take care. You know that, under the inspiration of Bourdelle, chiefly, a whole line of young American sculptors—”

“No architecture!”

“No, no, stop there! Don’t you recognize the ‘buildings’ as original creations. . . . I mean the recent buildings and, particularly, the sky-scrapers of the many stories and the ‘set-back’? American architecture? Today it is the only living architecture in the world, the only one that translates in a plastic and direct manner the force of modern life. There is taking place over there something as spontaneous, as significant, as was Gothic art, for example. Or as the great French painting of the last half century.”

But he took me up peremptorily:

“I have already told you that those structures aren’t so clever since their gravitation is not the same as ours. What! You weren’t surprised to see thirty or forty stories rise in seven or eight months? Machines put together all the steel structure. Machines even lay the brick veneer. What does that signify? Art has no value except through difficulty, conquest, the resistance opposed by the world to its endeavor. Art? Why it is the resistance of the water to the arm of the swimmer. Buildings? They are too easy!”

“It’s easy enough today, thanks to the efforts of a whole civilization. But remember that in every art, after the time of groping, of exploration, of discovery, of reaction, come miraculous moments of ease. The instant great things become natural? That is perhaps the supreme instant 1 Well, to see American cities everywhere shooting buildings heavenward with spires, towers, terraces, cubes, bistre, pink, ochre, black, or gold. . . .”

My friend N. looked at me severely and I, in turn, felt myself in danger of exaggeration. He interrupted without deigning to reply:

“As for literature, poof!”

“All the same,” I persevered, “you aren’t going to accuse modern America of having no literature! Great poetry from Masters to Sandburg! The lane of novelists from Dos Passos to Sinclair Lewis! Essayists of the quality of Mencken, of Waldo Frank—”

“Look at the map of America,” deliberately interrupted my interlocutor. “Observe the situation of all the great cities. This situation is exceptional, absolutely. All the cities flee the interior, as if they are afraid. Or rather, as if they are bored there. Have you ever noticed masons, at the hour of rest, leave their work, and go seat themselves outside, some on a parapet, some on the edge of a ditch? That’s America! An empty country, a country where, except for work, nothing happens. So, the cities abandon it and settle themselves on the shore of the Gulf Stream or of the Pacific.”

“What about St. Louis?”

“The exception! There are, to be sure, some great railroad centers.” “Chicago, Detroit?”

Precisely, those cities also! They are on the northern frontier: on the shores of the Great Lakes, on the shores of that Mediterranean which lacks both salt and wisdom. Think of the great writers over there. For their sakes I have often wanted to do some changing about, not of the roster but the map. All of them seem to be from frontier towns or from seaports. I ask myself if I would put certain of them in America at all. I would place many of them on our continent, in England, or elsewhere. Do you know a single country on earth where the writers have set up their works in such direct opposition to their country, where they, are so frankly on the outer edge of the national spirit? In all the great American literary works there exists the haughtiness which is instilled in its citizens by such a country—one of such ability and magnitude!—but also there is a formal disavowal of American tendencies. It is a very serious fact. . . . Let’s see, is it true? …”

I could say nothing. Emphasizing his victory with a resounding whack on my shoulder, the critic bolted with great strides. And I saw him negotiating the stream of traffic by one of those passages for pedestrians which Paris has exactly imitated after the metropolises of America.


Let us record this reaction: one of the multiple reactions which European aesthetes are able to manifest in regard to the United States. Is this reaction an indictment of the New World? Or does it betray a lack of comprehension on the part of the observer? That remains to be seen. . . . However, let us extend the problem. Let us leave the art critics behind and look about us among the people. What judgment does Europe pass upon the United States?

It is that question which I should like to put forward in these pages. Bonds of contact and antagonisms of peoples were first established between cities: then between nations. Today it is between continents that the true problems exist: I disagreements less numerous, perhaps more profound. People who tell men what they think of each other are in general poorly received. I will try, however, to play that thankless role; to sketch what Europe thinks about America, f We have already, I think, dismissed the aesthetes. Let f us occupy ourselves with the ideas of the masses, before re-1 turning to those of the classes. Then we will try to grasp the shades of European opinion by countries.

I will say first that the masses in Europe do not “think” anything very precise on the subject of America. They are satisfied with certain crude fancies which suit them.

Remember how much the nations into which our poor unhappy Europe has been redivided, hate, despise, misjudge one another. A few superficial differences of food, of dress, or of character suffice them for motive. Thus sauerkraut, spectacles, “brutality,” still play, a considerable role in the notion that Frenchmen have of Germany: macaroni, mandolins, bull-fighters, and castanets are in the foreground of imaginary pictures that the neighbors of Italy and Spain trace for themselves of those countries. Cafe-concert refrains? But that is sufficient for the moral geography of all the nations of the world! Human beings to whom heaven offers every night the image of the infinite like to throw into one another’s faces such petty things. It is easier than to look one another in the eyes.

How could the masses of the people in Europe, who misunderstand so profoundly their near neighbors, conceive any sort of correct idea of the New World ? This subject, America as viewed by Europe, brings up a serious question and one of the gravest importance for the future: and to remain within the limits of truth, one must enumerate false or childish notions. For it is precisely that which constitutes a serious, a terrifying answer.

America is for Europeans first and above all the incredibly, incomparably rich country. That is true; but our people do not know at the price of what great effort this prosperity was bought, what laborious method maintains it. The value of the dollar has impressed the popular imagination, has given it all the nuances of admiration, of envy, at times of hatred. Since the question of debts has been under consideration, the notion of greed—the unjust idea of an American Shylock—has been added to that of American wealth. Europe does not know the real generosity of America, and how over there money plays, in the eyes of the business man, the role of means and not of end; Europe forgets especially the magnificent way in which so many cities, or private individuals, from over the sea, adopting either a village, or a cathedral, or a work of charity, have taken part in the reconstruction of the regions devastated by the war. . . . It is true that the indiscreet behavior and the voracity that the American banks and the American business men display on the Old Continent excuse somewhat that oversight.

Next to the idea of wealth, the idea of mechanical perfection is linked with the United States. If a letter goes astray, if a train is late, there is someone to exclaim: “That is something which wouldn’t happen in America 1” A country chock-a-block with colossal factories, bristling with “buildings”: such is the picture drawn by the people of Europe who derive their impression of the New World from the vague notions that they, have of New York. For them there is not a hamlet without a collection of skyscrapers of forty or fifty storeys. Imagination is prodigious. . . . Add to this conception, that of a life which is supposed to be entirely mechanical, strictly regulated. And on the other hand, naive contradiction, the postulation of an American life always pulsing and new, swept clean of old documents; Europe does America this honor, though unjustified, of believing it free of legalistic mold. Europe believes also that the individual there enjoys supreme liberty: with the exception of prohibition, it is almost entirely ignorant of those “blue laws” whose name and meaning are known on our continent only to the English.

The victories of the American boxers, the successes of the U. S. A. in the Olympic Games, the exploit of Lindbergh, have gained credit among us for an athletic America, winning without effort the first places in sports, of a good na-tured America, reveling whole-heartedly in congenial sport: it is this idea which, often just by good fortune, at the times when Europe flirts with America, replaces the absurd notion of an American Shylock.

â–  But why say any more about the generalizations of the masses? Need it be said that wine and beer drinkers wink whenever anyone invokes the Volstead Act in their presence? Right or wrong—this is not the place to determine it—they are persuaded it is an enormous legal puerility. The consumer of a glass of Munich or a bottle of Burgundy has the consciousness of possessing a complete education, varied and complex, concerning beverages, an education just as important, let us say, as a musical education. And it is with superiority that they look upon the drinkers of water, even iced.

And what more? America, as everyone knows, is preceptress of Cuba, mistress of the Philippines, and menaces with the “big stick” Mexico and Nicaragua. It is well known that the countries which press forward most along colonial channels reproach her with imperialism… .

I am almost ashamed to report this silly gossip of the European peoples; these ideas whose pretext is real enough, but which are, nevertheless, so vague, so distorted. . . .

However, it is an all important fact. The gross practices which are believed to be essential to America, particularly the reign of the mechanical, the standardization of luxury, the disdain of intellectual elements, constitute in the sight of the Old World a superficial Americanism, thoroughly false considered as a picture of the U. S. A., but having an uncanny power of propaganda, a marvelous faculty of contagion. The most cogent reason why it is important to correct in Europe this inexact fancy, of an America enamoured exclusively of material success, is the harm which that misconception does to all our spiritual values, which it puts out of fashion and overthrows. For this false Americanism spreads among us like a kind of religion: which, conquering in the manner of an Islam, utterly saps our intellectual and moral traditions. Yes, the prodigious success of America, due to reasons altogether different from purely material causes, tends to demoralize those who believe it is due solely to those causes. Despite of America, and without her being responsible for it, her success is constantly invoked against the true values Europe still possesses: despite of America, her example, which is splendid, assumes sometimes, for the foreigner, the form of a bad example.

I have just enumerated some notions singularly brief, incomplete, and ill assorted. They are able to subsist thanks only to a profound ignorance. Is there need to remark that this ignorance of Europe regarding America, this ignorance of endeavor, of ideas, of American manners, begins with geography? How many “men of the street,” in Paris or Berlin, have heard the name of Detroit? As to that of Seattle, the great metropolis of the Northwest, I have discovered, in talking with many readers of “The Fortieth Floor,” that the name was ordinarily taken for that of an imaginary city. Now the greater part of these readers belong to the cultured classes.

But that leads us to speak of the form which America assumes in the eyes of the cultured European.

These strokes which I have just indicated, roughly favorable or arbitrarily, hostile, are those with which the European masses draw the portrait of an imaginary America. . . . Well, the elite can hardly place themselves on a more solid foundation.

To be sure we possess many specialists on American questions. A Leon Bazalgette, an Andre Siegfried, a Lucien Romier, a Bernard Fay, and many others, showing the cleverness at best of an American essayist. Certain of their books—particularly the memorable “America Comes of Age” of Siegfried—have, on the other side of the ocean, a merited success. We have also several among these “happy few” who have traveled widely and possess an extensive modern culture. However it may be said that, on the whole, the most cultured among us are rather led astray from a true conception of America by notions derived from history and antiquated books. Neither the actual problems of America, like those of the fusion of races, nor the ideas so essential over there, like those of “achievement,” of “service” (which have in America acceptances sometimes so puerile, sometimes so lofty), are familiar to our “intelligentsia.” Translations of contemporary American authors are still rare. The names of the best mean practically nothing to the select public which reads literary works. “Babbitt” has known, however, a lively success in its German edition. And translations of Sherwood Anderson, of Waldo Frank, of Sandburg, are beginning to penetrate to us: so, too, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” or “The Black Swan.”

In our universities, the powerful cultural endeavor made by America is far better known and appreciated. The treatises from across the sea touching geology, biology, and so on, are immediately studied, analysed, discussed. There is not a single laboratory among those which I have visited in Europe where I have not seen American publications, enjoying high prestige and occupying the place of honor.

The projects undertaken by the U. S. A. to ameliorate social conditions deserve to be better known to our governments. American city planning, which is far superior to all others, that marvelous art of creating cities, of endowing them with organs, of bringing to bear calculation, audacity, of making the present and the future co-operate, ought to be studied at first hand by our statesmen.

In all that has to do with the plastic arts, Europe is practically ignorant of the whole American evolution. And it must be said that in not knowing about it she loses little. In this domain, America has much more to learn than to teach. But there is an art in which, I said a moment ago, we will have to demand lessons. The conception of a building, that spurting of lines which aim at the sky, is the single realization of modern needs, of the desires and powers of the man of today. American architecture is one of the great things of the world. Europe is beginning to be convinced of it. I recently, verified, in visiting at Leipzig the enormous German Library, which is a model of this kind, the influence of American libraries upon the conception which the Old World is making for itself of the art of housing hooks.


There are clearly marked variations among the ideas which the divers countries of Europe have of America.

It is probable that Great Britain is the nation where the people best understand the “sister nation.” Perhaps, on the other hand, the German business men most closely imitate the conceptions from across the sea. There is a kinship between American “building power” and Germanic activity. The rationalization, the standardization of industry in America, the way in which problems of joint responsibility are solved there, have tempted the faculties of adaptation, always so agile, of the innovators across the Rhine.

In France, statecraft has always been an affair of feeling. Passionate and disinterested nation! It is not for our country to know another country as it is, or to seek advantage in economic relations, but simply to like or not to like. There has always been a bit of imagination and passion since the beginning in the conduct of our people toward the U. S. A. France is perhaps the only state in Europe capable of facing America with a disinterested attitude. Besides, our country has always been and will remain’apt to love an idealized America more than the real America. Aren’t there some people one likes better in a photograph? …

As for the countries of Southern Europe, and, above all, the Balkans, they look at America after the fashion of a tramp slyly peeping at the rich owner of a fine farm. They think of nothing except her money. To be just, let us add that certain persecuted races, such as the Roumanian Jews, see above all else in the country of Lincoln a sacred land of equality and refuge: today closed by immigration laws.

There is no country in the world where they dream about America more than in Russia. America—or rather the American social system—is there the object of an admiration poisoned with jealousy, of a hatred which excites astonishment. What, capitalism knows how to lead the peoples to prosperity? That idea shocks the theorists of Leninism, it disconcerts them! Their entire effort is directed toward copying industrial and technical processes after those of the United States, reserving meanwhile the rights of the Marxian theory. Their whole dream is to prove in fact that Leninism is able, as a system of production, to rival Americanism. It is to Pittsburg or Chicago that the Soviet experts go to seek the models which they, disguise in the garments of social mysticism.

In this rivalry between two nations which represent the two extreme poles of the actual world, one must underscore an important fact. Russia can dispense with comfort, but not with religious sustenance, even when there is a question of science and industry. It is a new faith, fundamentally material, which Leninism is attempting to constitute. In it material values are becoming, through a complete transfiguration, moral values. The point of view is absolutely opposed to that of America: for across the sea, the material values on the one hand, and the spiritual values on the other, are of quite different origins. The hiatus which separates the one from the other is at the bottom of the American unrest. But a study of that lamentable duality which is found everywhere in the U. S. A. would demand a separate treatment.

Europe, however, may have great need of understanding America! To content itself with the accolade of La Fayette or with the Taylor system in forming an idea of that formidable country, is insufficient, dangerous! Formidable and fatal are those polished gentlemen, those flatterers, who imagine that nations must engage in reciprocal gallantries, in voluntary delusions. Error which leads to terrible awakenings! I believe that all those who bring into the Old World truths about America—let these truths be favorable or unfavorable—are the ones who are useful to the two continents.

I have just spoken quite bluntly of the ignorance of Europeans concerning America. But let us not forget the reverse side. . . . I visited recently, in the Eastern States, a series of universities: I found there an admirable teaching corps who strive to give the students that harmonious collection of ideas which go to make what was called formerly, in France, “Vhmnetc homme.” And, in particular, they strive to give an understanding of the races and literatures of the Old World. But does this learning received by the youth resist very long after maturity the prejudices which sway the country? I have discovered everywhere, in America, even among well informed business men, certain unbelievable misconceptions respecting the Old Continent.

Without going as far as San Francisco, from whose horizon the European landscapes are seen through the haze of distance, there is at this moment in New York a theater where the program confuses Sweden and Switzerland. . . . Doubtless two islands of the European Archipelago!

Nevertheless the reciprocal misunderstanding of the New and the Old World menaces both with the most far-reaching peril. The white race today is tending to divide itself into two groups, each of which would evolve in its own way. This peril, which I will call for the moment “the bifurcation of the white race” is the work of those who would jeopardize the work of mankind on the planet. Man has something better to do than to divide into blocks this little bit of briefly impregnated clay that ceaselessly wastes away beneath our feet. The earth has become so small that it is perilous for the nations to misunderstand each other. Everything which aids in establishing between continents justice and understanding does a service to humanity.


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