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On taking ourselves seriously

Tolstoi says, in ‘Anna Karenina,’ that no nation will ever come to anything unless it attaches some importance to itself. (Les seules nations qui agent de l'avenir, les seules qu'on puisse nommer historiques, sont celles qui sentent l'importance et le valeur de leur institutions.) It is curious that ours seems to be the only contemporary nation which is denied this simple privilege of taking itself seriously. What is criticised in us is not so much that our social life is inadequate, as that we find it worth studying; not so much that our literature is insufficient, as that we think it, in Matthew Arnold's disdainful phrase, ‘important.’ In short, we are denied not merely the pleasure of being attractive to other people, which can easily be spared, but the privilege that is usually conceded to the humblest, of being of some interest to ourselves.

The bad results of this are very plain. They [36] are, indeed, so great that the evils which were supposed to come to our literature, for instance, from the absence of international copyright, seem trivial in comparison. The very persons who are working the hardest to elevate our civilization are constantly called from their duties, and, what is worse, are kept in a constant state of subdued exasperation, by the denial of their very right to do these duties. ‘My work,’ says Emerson, ‘may be of no importance, but I must not think it of no importance if I would do it well.’ Those of us who toiled for years to remove from this nation the stain of slavery, remember how, when the best blood of our kindred was lavished to complete the sacrifice, all the intellectual society of England turned upon us and reproached us for the deed. ‘The greatest war of principle which has been waged in this generation,’ wrote Motley in one of his letters, ‘was of no more interest to her, except as it bore upon the cotton question, than the wretched little squabbles of Mexico or South America.’1 And so those Americans who are spending their lives in the effort to remove the very defects visible in our [37] letters, our arts, our literature, are met constantly by the insolent assumption, not that these drawbacks exist, but that they are not worth removing.

How magnificent, for instance, is the work constantly done among us, by private and public munificence, in the support of our libraries and schools. Carlyle, in one of his early journals, deplores that while every village around him has its place to lock up criminals, not one has a public library. In the State of Massachusetts this condition of things is coming to be reversed, since many villages have no jail, and free libraries will soon be universal. The writer is at this moment one of the trustees of three admirable donations just given by a young man not thirty-five to the city of his birth,—a city hall, a public library, and a manual training school. He is not a man of large fortune, as fortunes go, and his personal expenditures are on a very modest scale; he keeps neither yachts nor racehorses; his name never appears in the lists of fashionables, summer or winter; but he simply does his duty to American civilization in this way. There are multitudes of others, all over [38] the land, who do the same sort of thing; they are the most essentially indigenous and American type we have, and their strength is in this, that they find their standard of action not abroad, but at home; they take their nation seriously. Yet this, which should be the thing that most appeals to every foreign observer, is, on the contrary, the very thing which the average foreign observer finds most offensive. ‘Do not tell me only,’ says Matthew Arnold, ‘. . . of the great and growing number of your churches and schools, libraries and newspapers; tell me also if your civilization—which is the grand name you give to all this development—tell me if your civilization is interesting.’

Set aside the fact of transfer across an ocean; set aside the spectacle of a self-governing people; if there is no interest in the spectacle of a nation of sixty million people laboring with all its might to acquire the means and resources of civilized life, then there is nothing interesting on earth. A hundred years hence, the wonder will be, not that we Americans attached so much importance, at this stage, to these [39] efforts of ours, but that even we appreciated their importance so little. If the calculations of Canon Zincke are correct, in his celebrated pamphlet, the civilization which we are organizing is the great civilization of the future. He computes that in 1980 the English-speaking population of the globe will be, at the present rate of progress, one billion; and that of this number, eight hundred million will dwell in the United States. Now, all the interest we take in our schools, colleges, libraries, galleries, is but preliminary work in founding this great future civilization. Toils and sacrifices for this end may be compared, as Longfellow compares the secret studies of an author, to the submerged piers of a bridge: they are out of sight, but without them no structure can endure. If American society is really unimportant, and is foredoomed to fail, all these efforts will go with it; but if it has a chance of success, these are to be its foundations. If they are to be laid, they must be laid seriously. ‘No man can do anything well,’ says Emerson, ‘who does not think that what he does is the centre of the visible universe.’ [40]

There is a prevailing theory, which seems to me largely flavored with cant, that we must accept with the utmost humility all foreign criticism, because it represents a remoter tribunal than our own. But the fact still remains, that while some things in art and literature are best judged from a distance, other things—including the whole department of local coloring—can be only judged near home. The better the work is done, in this aspect, the more essential it is that it should be viewed with knowledge. Looking at some marine sketches by a teacher of a good deal of note, the other day, I was led to point out the fact that she had given her schooner a jib, but had attached it to no bowsprit, and had anchored a whole fleet of dories by the stern instead of the bow. When I called the artist's attention to these peculiarities, the simple answer was: ‘I know nothing whatever about boats. I painted only what I saw, or thought I saw.’ In the same way one can scarcely open a foreign criticism on an American book, without seeing that, however good may be the abstract canons of criticism adopted, the detailed comment is as [41] confused as if a landsman were writing about seamanship. When, for instance, a vivacious Londoner like Mr. Andrew Lang attempts to deal with that profound imaginative creation, Arthur Dimmesdale, in the ‘Scarlet Letter,’ he fails to comprehend him from an obvious and perhaps natural want of acquaintance with the whole environment of the man. To Mr. Lang he is simply a commonplace clerical Lovelace, a dissenting clergyman caught in a shabby intrigue. But if this clever writer had known the Puritan clergy as we know them, the high priests of a Jewish theocracy, with the whole work of God in a strange land resting on their shoulders, he would have comprehended the awful tragedy in this tortured soul, and would have seen in him the profoundest and most minutely studied of all Hawthorne's characterizations. The imaginary offender for whom that great author carried all winter, as Mrs. Hawthorne told me, ‘a knot in his forehead,’ is not to be viewed as if his tale were a mere chapter out of the ‘Memoires de Casanova.’

When, at the beginning of this century, [42] Isaiah Thomas founded the American Antiquarian Society, he gave it as one of his avowed objects ‘that the library should contain a complete collection of the works of American authors.’ There was nothing extravagant, at that time, in the supposition that a single library of moderate size might do this; and the very impossibility of such an inclusion, at this day, is in part the result of the honest zeal with which Isaiah Thomas recognized the ‘importance’ of our nascent literature. A disparaging opinion of any of these American books, or of all of them, does no more harm than the opinion of Pepys, that ‘Comus’ was ‘an insipid, ridiculous play.’ In many cases the opinion will be well deserved; in few cases will it do any permanent harm. Since Emerson, we have ceased to be colonial, and have therefore ceased to be over-sensitive. The only danger is that, Emerson being dead, there should be a slight reaction toward colonial diffidence once more; that we should again pass through the apologetic period; that we should cease for a time to take ourselves seriously.

1 Letters, I., 373.

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