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Facets of the American Character

ISSUE:  Autumn 1943

And Keep Your Powder Dry: An Anthropologist Looks at America. By Margaret Mead. William Morrow and Company. $2.50. The American Leonardo: The Life of Samuel P. B. Morse. By Carleton Mabee. Alfred A. Knopf. $5.00. Francis Parkman, Heroic Historian. By Mason Wade. Viking Press. $4.50. The Year of Decision: 1846. By Bernard DcVoto. Little, Brown and Company. $3.50.

Of the many books brought forth by the war, Margaret Mead’s “And Keep Your Powder Dry” seems to be one of the most significant. Her subject is the American character. Pier approach is a novel one, that of an anthropologist who for years has studied the conduct of primitive peoples and who now applies the same techniques in analyzing the particular kind of behavior that is American. Her immediate purpose is to limn out some of the fundamental qualities which make up our national character, and to suggest how these qualities, with their inherent strengths and weaknesses, may best be used in winning both the war and the peace.

Looking at America in a manner never before attempted, probing into the behavior patterns of her own people as she has probed into those of Polynesians and Melanesians, she is able to give fresh meaning to that battered and abused phrase, “our American way of life.” Her study is based upon the anthropological premise that it is not blood but upbringing that determines the kind of people Americans (or Germans or Englishmen or New Guinea headhunters) are. Attitudes and aptitudes developed during childhood training are reflected, for example, in the American cult of success, with its virtues and defects; in the fluidity of the American class structure and the mobility of our people; in our attitude toward war (we fight best, she says, when other people start pushing us around); in our versatility, our “willingness to tackle any new task, learn any new skill, quickly, easily, without deep involvement.” Miss Mead writes with vigor and clarity, and her discussion of these and other facts of the American character is informing, provocative, and, at the present time, most useful.

Versatility as an American trait is strikingly illustrated in Mr. Mabee’s life of Samuel F. B. Morse, an excellent biography even though its title, “The American Leonardo,” seems to be somewhat strained. Morse was far more than the inventor of the electric telegraph. He was also an eminent portrait-painter and founder of the American Academy of Design, a shrewd promoter and business man, a politician who once ran for mayor of New York, and a pamphleteer who engaged in an endless succession of controversies growing out of his intense convictions about art, religion, politics, and public morals. There was about him a Calvinistic fervor that ties in with Miss Mead’s analysis of the American cult of success, and with her generalization that we are a moral people who believe that there is a direct connection between effort and efficiency and rewards on this earth.

Morse was convinced that he was but God’s instrument when he made the telegraph a practicable invention, and, revealingly, had those memorable words, “What hath God wrought,” clicked over the wires. He was sure that God was on his side when he assailed all those who questioned the originality of his great invention, or when he attacked Channing and the Unitarians, the growing power of the Catholic Church, Trumbull and the American Academy of Fine Arts, the anti-slavery reformers, or Lincoln and the Black Republicans who had, so he asserted, revolutionized the American system of government and brought on an unnecessary and most deplorable war between the sovereign states. There was, to be sure, a softer and even charming side to his life. One of the many virtues of Mr. Mabee’s scholarly and readable biography is its sympathetic yet well-balanced treatment of this forthright and many-sided American.

Mr. Wade’s life of Francis Parkman presents a contrast in subject and in treatment. Parkman, whom he calls the last of the Boston Brahmins, is less representative of the American character, and this study of him lacks the balance, the depth, the foundation of wide and intensive research that characterizes Mr. Mabee’s book. More than half of Mr. Wade’s biography is devoted to the first twenty-three years in the life of the great historian, and consists largely of quotations from newly discovered manuscript journals. The author provides a running commentary on these extensive quotations, but here and in a lesser degree throughout the book he relies too much upon Parkman’s own words. It is this reliance upon records left by Parkman himself, which are plentiful only for the period of his youth, that explains both the disproportionate space given to the early years and the lack of depth caused by an inadequate development of the background.

Nevertheless, Mr. Wade has given us the best biography yet written of the man. The material from the journals is new, extremely interesting, and valuable for an understanding of Parkman and the Americans of his day. One is impressed by young Parkman’s thorough preparation, as shown by research trips in the Northeast, in Europe, and the West, for the writing of his seven volumes on the struggle of France and England for North America. The journals reveal his energy and intensity of purpose, his power of vivid description, his eye for the significant detail. Of value, also, is Mr. Wade’s critical estimate of Parkman’s historical work. The story of his long fight against blindness and cerebral disorders is well worth re-telling, and justifies the subtitle of “heroic historian.” It is an inspiring story, compelling admiration and high respect even from those who are at first repelled by Parkman’s youthful arrogance and anti-democratic prejudices.

These unpleasant qualities in young Parkman were exhibited fully on his western tour of 1846 to study the Indians. He had only an amused contempt for the crude and sweaty Americans trekking along the Oregon Trail, and a lamentable indifference to those forces at work in his own country, in his own time, which Mr. DeVoto writes about in “The Year of Decision: 1846.” This is a magnificent book, an outstanding achievement. It is, as the author says, “the story of some people who went west in 1846. Its purpose is to tell the story in such a way that the reader may realize the far western experience, which is part of our cultural inheritance, as personal experience.” 1846 has been chosen rather than other years because 1846 best dramatizes personal experience as national experience. The focus is the lives of certain men, women, and children moving west, “commoners of the young democracy,” who played a decisive part at a decisive turn in the history of the United States.

Mr. DeVoto has succeeded in recreating the period in American history when the forces of westward expansion, of Manifest Destiny, were at their peak. In 1846 our dispute with Britain over the Oregon country was amicably compromised and war with Mexico began. The war resulted in the acquisition of California and New Mexico, and in turn brought the slavery issue to the front and made “inevitable” the Civil War. Historians no doubt will ques-tion some of Mr. DeVoto’s interpretations, but they cannot fail to be impressed by his splendid writing and skillful handling of a difficult theme. He draws upon his talents as a creative writer and literary historian, fortifies them by an enormous amount of research, and weaves together scores of personal narratives to make a composite picture of America on the march.

The intricate pattern is chronological. After setting the scene, Mr. DeVoto describes what his diverse groups of characters are doing at given moments of time. He begins with Jim Clyman and the mountain men, shifts to the great mass migration of the Mormons, then takes up the activities of Fremont, the Pathfinder, drops him and follows a typical party of emigrants along the Oregon Trail, then switches to the Mexican border and the outbreak of hostilities. Each segment of his story is with great skill fitted into the composite picture. This method, which he follows throughout, may be compared to driving a twenty-mule team. The author never allows the team to get out of hand. Even though his emigrants and soldiers follow different trails to Oregon and California, to Santa Fe and to Mexico City, he is always master of his narrative. Now and then there is a break, an interlude, which gives him an opportunity to comment generally on the spirit of America at this period. For example, in his four-page interlude called “Doo-Dah Day” he discusses the songs of Stephen Foster, especially that leitmotif of American pioneering, “Oh Susanna I” Whether his interpretative comments are on Foster’s songs, Brook Farm, or American industrial progress, they are all directly related to the general theme.

Mr. DeVoto has written a rich, full-bodied story of the American character at a decisive period in our history, illustrated with scores of sharply etched portraits. Like Parkman, he too has the eye for significant detail and the ability to make his pages glow with life and movement.


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