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CHAPTER V Literature
Mr. William Dean Howells, who is one of the leaders of that small band of American authors who have a right to literary consideration in England, has lately published an entertaining romance which he calls “Through the Eye of the Needle.” With Mr. Howells’s story as a story I have nothing to do. In the process of relating it Mr. Howells offers us some candid criticisms of his countrymen which will serve to illustrate the real opinion of the cultivated American as to himself, and all that to him appertains.

“My hero,” writes Mr. Howells, “visited this country when it was on the verge of great economic depression extending from 1894 to 1898, but, after the Spanish War, Providence marked the Divine approval of our victory in that contest by renewing in unexampled measure the prosperity of the Republic. With the downfall of the Trusts, and the release of our industrial and commercial forces to unrestricted activity, the condition of every form of Labour has been immeasurably improved, and[46] it is now united with Capital in bonds of the closest affection.”

Mr. Howells does not mean this passage satirically. He is really of opinion that Providence marked the Divine approval of America’s victory over Spain “by renewing in unexampled measure the prosperity of the Republic.” He believes, good easy man, that the Trusts have been humbled, and that “Labour is now united with Capital in bonds of the closest affection.” Isn’t it delicious? Mr. Howells further informs us that the servant problem in America has been “solved once for all by humanity,” and that New York is no longer a city of violent and unthinkable noises.

“The flattened wheel of the trolley,” he says, “banging the track day and night, and tormenting the waking and sleeping ear, was, oddly enough, the inspiration of Reforms which have made our city the quietest in the world. The trolleys now pass unheard; the elevated train glides by overhead with only a modulated murmur, the subway is a retreat fit for meditation and prayer, where the passenger can possess his soul in a peace to be found nowhere else; the automobile whirrs softly through the most crowded thoroughfare, far below the speed limit, with a sigh of[47] gentle satisfaction in its own harmlessness, and, ‘like the sweet South, taking and giving odor.’” It is beside the mark to note that Shakespeare did not write “taking” but “stealing,” and he certainly did not spell odour Mr. Howells’s way.

Our author proceeds to assure us that American men are not now the intellectual inferiors of American women, “or at least not so much the inferiors”; that American men have made “a vast advance in the knowledge and love of literature,” and that “with the multitude of our periodicals, and the swarm of our fictions selling from a hundred thousand to half a million each, even our business men cannot wholly escape culture, and they have become more and more cultured, so that now you frequently hear them asking what this or that book is all about.”

Later he says of the New Yorkers: “They are purely commercial, and the thing that cannot be bought and sold has logically no place in their life. They applaud one another for their charities, which they measure by the amount given, rather than by the love which goes with the giving. The widow’s mite has little credit with them, but the rich man’s million has an acclaim that reverberates through their newspapers[48] long after his gift is made. It is only the poor in America who do charity—by giving help where it is needed; the Americans are mostly too busy, if they are at all prosperous, to give anything but money; and the more money they give, the more charitable they esteem themselves. From time to time some man with twenty or thirty millions gives one of them away, usually to a public institution of some sort, where it will have no effect with the people who are under-paid for their work, or cannot get work; and then his deed is famed throughout the Country as a thing really beyond praise. Yet anyone who thinks about it must know that he never earned the millions he kept, or the millions he gave, but somehow made them from the labours of others; that with all the wealth left him he cannot miss the fortune that he lavishes, any more than if the check (English, cheque) which conveyed it were a withered leaf, and not in any wise so much as an ordinary working man might feel the bestowal of a postage stamp.”

We have here, as I have said, views on America not by a shouting American bluffer or dealer in hyperbole, but by a man of recognised literary parts and judgment. Furthermore, Mr. Howells is plainly not one of those Americans who[49] affect a contempt for their country. When he speaks of American success he attributes it to the favour of Providence; he can perceive a “vast advance” in the American’s knowledge and love of literature, and while he reproves the American millionaire, he does so more in sorrow than in anger. So that on the whole his testimony cannot fairly be traversed.

And reading between the lines of it, the intelligent observer will not be slow to discern that it amounts practically to a pretty severe indictment of the Americans. A man who has no place in his life for a thing that cannot be bought and sold, is not, after all, the kind of man one can be expected to admire, even though Providence may appear to smile upon him. Neither can I express myself violently taken with the man who is “not so much the intellectual inferior of our women”—and such women—even if you do frequently hear him asking what this or that book is all about. And Mr. Howells’s opinion of millionaires and their charity coincides pretty well with the opinion of Europe.

Mr. Howells, of course, is a well bred, well mannered and entirely discreet author; he sets down naught in malice, his tendency being rather in the direction of a little gentle extenuation. Irony,[50] sarcasm, reproach, and, least of all, flouts and jeers are not among his literary weapons.

It goes without saying, however, that America has been written about in much harsher tones than those of Mr. Howells. From an American book published pseudonymously two or three years back, a book that does not appear to have received anything like its due share of recognition either in England or America, I cull the following picturesque details:—

“From the moment he takes his seat in his office, until he goes home, an American’s business consists of a succession of swindles. He either picks the pocket of each man he interviews, or the men pick his.”

“The American gloats over his ability as a liar. He prides himself upon the fact that his lie is a plausible one and likely to deceive. If it does not come up to the specifications he regards it and himself as failures, and a shadow is cast upon his life.”

“The American who has just borrowed a dollar immediately rushes into the nearest bar room and announces that he has raised 500,000 dollars from a prominent millionaire who has become his partner, and will back him to any amount in any enterprise, sane or insane, in which he may[51] agree to embark. Then for the succeeding three hours he talks about himself so loudly that the entire neighbourhood throngs around him to join in the debate.”

“The American trader in Europe has created the same feeling that prevails among a party of honest cardplayers when the card-sharper appears at the table.”

“The American politician never speaks but always ‘orates.’ If the matter under discussion in the legislative body is a question whether five cents shall be expended on pencils, or whether Mrs. Bridget O’Neill, or Mrs. Patrick O’Reilly shall be appointed scrubwoman of the Senate House, he considers it beneath his dignity to say anything that will not recall the diction of Cicero or Demosthenes. If the ceiling is to be cleaned and a three-and-elevenpenny contract is to be given out, he takes the floor and with a loud preliminary bellow announces that he is an American citizen, and anyone who says that he is not is a confirmed and hereditary liar.”

“If an American learns that a man has been bribed he does not hate him—he envies him.”

“In New York society no man is ever referred to as ‘Mr. Jones’ or ‘Mr. Smith.’ He is always referred to as ‘Mr. Jones, who is worth two million dollars,’ or ‘Mr. Smith, who is worth four million dollars and stole every cent of it.’”

[52]

“The average Chicagoan has not the faintest conception of the true meaning of right and wrong. Right is the method that succeeds in getting money. Wrong is the method that does not.”

I shall beg the reader to observe particularly that I do not myself make these stinging assertions. In the words of the late Sir William Harcourt, “I merely quote them.” In a sense, perhaps, they may be most correctly described as exaggerations. But they are exaggerations of a kind which have more than a substratum of truth in them. I commend them to the swaggering rubber-jawed American for what they are worth.

Did the scope of this book allow, it would be possible to cite numerous other animadversions upon American manners and customs by other pens.

No British author of standing has visited the United States and come back in love with the American people. Dickens loathed them, Thackeray could not put up with them, Mathew Arnold despised them, and Browning laughed at them, while as for Tennyson he absolutely refused to go near them. Even the sensational litterateurs of our own generation, such as Hall Caine or Bernard Shaw, have failed to find much or anything to shriek about. The[53] Bishop of London and Father Vaughan are not authors but diplomats. Rudyard Kipling has been in America more than once, and remains dumb as to the whole concern. Mr. Zangwill is equally travelled and equally silent. Mr. Wells, who went out for the purpose, has written his book and said practically nothing. All of them, and others who might be named, recognise that what ought to be said would be better unsaid—unpleasant for the Americans, and consequently likely to provoke bad feeling. It is gentlest to the Americans to write of them without paying a preliminary visit to their native air. What would happen if a person who wields a plain blunt pen were to make a call upon them and set forth his impressions in good cold type and without fear or pity, no man may tell. Probably the Americans would shoot him.


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