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The Return to America

ISSUE:  Autumn 1938

My America, By Louis Adamic. New York: Harper and Brothers. $3.75. Green Worlds. By Maurice Hindus. New York: Doubleday, Doran and Company. $3.00.

Having come to love America, and having observed, as how could they fail to observe, that native Americans take their treasures too alarmingly for granted, Louis Adamic and Maurice Hindus, volunteer countrymen of ours, have set down records of what we are like. In each instance their fresh sight has made old things clearer. Their books are ledgers of what we stand to lose should we become too casual about our spiritual belongings. Mr. Adamic is more aware of our pitfalls and our dangerous but promising incongruities. Mr. Hindus, in a less harried manner, has discovered the basic congruity which Mr. Adamic has missed.

Outside of the fact that their authors are of foreign origin, and that they have in common their quest to understand America, the books are not alike in any respect; they cover separate ground and their very different manners reveal dissimilar spirits. Louis Adamic’s “My America,” long and sometimes absorbing to the point of excitement, is shapeless and badly put together. Like a thick soup without binder, it is held together only by the rich and sometimes unrelated morsels he has thrown into it. Possibly the author feels that only by amorphousness can he convey the huge contradictions and disparate qualities of a nation whose parts are held together like filings in a magnetic field, by a somewhat loose act of God. I believe that this effect could have been more fully conveyed if the author had not spared himself the drudgery of organization. As the reader proceeds he obtains the same pleasure he would obtain from a compilation of source material, his reward being proportionate to his initial interest. The Ross Wills letters alone make it worth the reader’s while to stay with the book, but long before these have been reached other rich enticements have urged him along. To change the figure entirely, the book is like a bus ride with an informative and enthusiastic driver; there is a great variety of passengers getting on and off; there are fine landscapes, vistas of danger, historic landmarks; there is jostling, gear and tire trouble. The reader hangs on to the back seat for dear life.

In temper and in choice of subject matter “My America” is metropolitan. It deals with causes, trends, movements, episodes, eras. Intent upon learning, in almost a frenzy to learn, the author makes acquaintances, friends, hurries here and there, scurries to accumulate facts, strives to fit them together into an understandable shape. As a result he spends his time with talkers, thinkers, do-ers, organizers, believers or, equally important, nonbelievers; in other words, with people who cohere into movements and people who have causes. A discriminating observer, he brings in little that is useless in creating his picture of incongruousness and hope. Perhaps because of this hurry to learn rather than to experience he seems to have ignored the great American cohesive agent— the untalkative, but by no means inarticulate protestant community that straggles over 3,300 counties, with a long and to them unknown history of protestantism, domesticity, individualism, and unconcern behind them. Shocked out of their places by economic disasters which they are slow to understand, or forged temporarily into dynamic groups by exhortation, they relax into their own concerns before the word is given to relax. This omitted material is supplied by Maurice Hindus in “Green Worlds.” Against the background of his childhood days in rural Russia, he describes his youth as a hired man among New York farmers. His theme, if he has one, is the enduring, protesting, and pervasive quality of American independence. He never states it, but it emerges from his beautifully perceived and beautifully written experience of an American village whose like, I believe—and the American Guide Series supports my belief—could be found in every state in the Union. “Green Worlds” shows only one set of American origins, but they are the origins of millions of Americans upon whom have been printed all but ineffaceable spiritual characteristics, even if their inheritors can now look out only upon worlds distorted by an expropriated agriculture, mechanized industry, and cash-and-carry security. It is even possible to believe that much of the American individualism which the author of “Green Worlds” met in its purest form can be found where every economic force—dependence upon relief, organized violence, and racial boycott —is hostile to it.

I feel sure that many thousands of Americans who in common with me have felt fainthearted in the recent past, and have weakened toward other means than those indigenous to us for bringing us out of our miseries, will be greatly heartened by these stiffening books. They will be grateful to think that these authors belong to us; grateful to Mr. Adamic that he makes us feel his urge, and grateful to Mr. Hindus for showing our best character so clearly.


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