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An American temperament

the recent assertion of the London correspondent of the New York Tribune, that Englishmen like every American to be an American, has a curious interest in connection with some remarks of the late Matthew Arnold, which seem to look in an opposite direction. Lord Houghton once told me that the earlier American guests in London society were often censured as being too English in appearance and manner, and as wanting in a distinctive flavor of Americanism. He instanced Ticknor and Sumner; and we can all remember that there were at first similar criticisms on Lowell. It is indeed a form of comment to which all Americans are subject in England, if they have the ill-luck to have color in their cheeks and not to speak very much through their noses; in that case they are apt to pass for Englishmen by no wish of their own, and to be suspected of a little double dealing when they hasten to reveal their [20] birthplace. It very often turns out that the demand for a distinctive Americanism really seeks only the external peculiarities that made Joaquin Miller and Buffalo Bill popular; an Americanism that can at any moment be annihilated by a pair of scissors. It is something, no doubt, to be allowed even such an amount of nationality as this; and Washington Irving attributed the English curiosity about him to the fact that he held a quill in his fingers instead of sticking it in his hair, as was expected.

But it would seem that Mr. Arnold, on the other hand, disapproved the attempt to set up any claim whatever to a distinctive American temperament; and he has twice held up one of our own authors for reprobation as having asserted that the American is, on the whole, of lighter build and has ‘a drop more of nervous fluid’ than the Englishman. This is not the way, he thinks, in which a serious literature is to be formed. But it turns out that the immediate object of the writer of the objectionable remark was not to found a literature, but simply to utter a physiological caution; the object of the essay in which it occurs—one [21] called ‘The Murder of the Innocents,’1 being simply to caution this more nervous race against overworking their children in school; an aim which was certainly as far as possible from what Mr. Arnold calls ‘tall talk and self-glorification.’ If a nation is not to be saved by pointing out is own physiological perils, what is to save it?

As a matter of fact, it will be generally claimed by Americans, I fancy, that whatever else their much-discussed nation may have, it has at least developed a temperament for itself; ‘an ill-favored thing, but mine own,’ as Touchstone says of Audrey. There is no vanity or self-assertion involved in this, any more than when a person of blond complexion claims not to be a brunette or a brunette meekly insists upon not being regarded as fair-haired. If the American is expected to be in all respects the duplicate of the Englishman, and is only charged with inexpressible inferiority in quality and size, let us know it; but if two hundred and fifty years of transplantation under a new sky and in new conditions have made any difference [22] in the type, let us know that also. In truth, the difference is already so marked that Mr. Arnold himself concedes it at every step in his argument, and has indeed stated it in very much the same terms which an American would have employed. In a paper entitled ‘From Easter to August,’2 he says frankly: ‘Our countrymen [namely, the English], with a thousand good qualities, are really perhaps a good deal wanting in lucidity and flexibility;’ and again in the same essay: ‘The whole American nation may be called intelligent; that is, quick.’ This would seem to be conceding the very point at issue between himself and the American writer whom he is criticising.

The same difference of temperament, in the direction of a greater quickness—what the wit of Edmund Quincy once designated as ‘specific levity’—on the part of Americans is certainly very apparent to every one of us who visits England; and not infrequently makes itself perceptible, even without a surgical operation, to our English visitors. Professor Tyndall is reported to have said—and if he did not say it, [23] some one else pointed it out for him—that, whereas in his London scientific lectures he always had to repeat his explanations three times; first telling his audience in advance what his experiments were to accomplish, then during the process explaining what was being accomplished, and then at last recapitulating what had actually been done; he found it best, in America, to omit one, if not two, of these expositions. In much the same way, the director of a company of English comedians complained to a friend of mine that American audiences laughed a great deal too soon for them, and took the joke long before it was properly elucidated. In the same way an American author, who had formerly been connected with the St. Nicholas magazine, was told by a London publisher that the plan of it was all wrong. ‘These pages of riddles at the end, for instance: no child would ever guess them.’ And though the American assured him that they were guessed regularly every month in twenty thousand families, the Englishmen still shook his head. Certainly the difference between the national temperament will be doubted by no American public speaker [24] in England who has had one of his hearers call upon him the next morning to express satisfaction in the clever anecdote which it had taken his English auditor a night's meditation to comprehend.

It is impossible to overrate the value, in developing an independent national feeling in America, of the prolonged series of rather unamiable criticisms that have proceeded from the English press and public men since the days of Mrs. Trollope and down to our own day. It has de-colonized us; and all the long agony of the Civil War, when all the privileged classes in England, after denouncing us through long years for tolerating slavery, turned and denounced us yet more bitterly for abolishing it at the cost of our own heart's blood, only completed the emancipation. The way out of provincialism is to be frankly and even brutally criticised; we thus learn not merely to see our own faults, which is comparatively easy, but to put our own measure on the very authority that condemns us; voir le monde, c'est juger les juges. We thus learn to trust our own temperament; to create our own methods; or, at [25] least, to select our own teachers. At this moment we go to France for our art and to Germany for our science as completely as if there were no such nation as England in the world. In literature the tie is far closer with what used to be called the mother country, and this because of the identity of language. All retrospective English literature—that is, all literature more than a century or two old—is common to the two countries. All contemporary literature cannot yet be judged, because it is contemporary. The time may come when not a line of current English poetry may remain except the four quatrains hung up in St. Margaret's Church and when the Matthew Arnold of Macaulay's imaginary New Zealand may find with surprise that Whittier and Lowell produced something more worthy of that accidental immortality than Browning or Tennyson. The time may come when a careful study of even the despised American newspapers may reveal them to have been in one respect nearer to a high civilization than any of their European compeers; since the leading American literary journals criticise their own contributors [26] with the utmost freedom, while there does not seem to be a journal in London or Paris that even attempts that courageous candor. To dwell merely on the faults and follies of a nascent nation is idle; vitality is always hopeful. To complain that a nation's very strength carries with it plenty of follies and excesses is, as Joubert says, to ask for a breeze that shall have the attribute of not blowing; demander du vent qui n'ait point de mobilite.

1 Out-Door Papers, p. 104.

2 Nineteenth Century for September, 1887.

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