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Chapter 29: acts of homage

The members of that highly respectable semi-military association, “The ancient and Honorable artillery company” of Boston, will probably be rather amused — if their arduous military and civic duties permit any moments of levity — to hear that their pleasant little London outing was regarded by high editorial authority in that city as an act of international “homage.” In the narrative written, apparently by one of the corps, in a Boston newspaper, her Majesty the Queen was described as “a pleasant-faced old lady,” who received them very cordially. This seems rather to recall the descriptions given of dignitaries by Major Jack Downing, in the last generation, who was habitually on easy terms with them, and yet would hardly have regarded it as an act of homage even when he pulled off General Jackson's boots. Yet we are distinctly [195] assured by the Spectator (July 1), which is on the whole the most reasonable of the great London weeklies, that “it was no small honor [for the Queen] to receive thus the homage of New England, and to feel that she was greeted not merely as the Queen of England, but of the English race.” It is worth while to know at last what was the equivalent supposed to be given for all these receptions at Windsor Castle, these reviews at Aldershot. The Americans were supposed to bring “homage” from a once rebellious colony, now grown to a nation. It is a good thing to understand this. Hereafter, when the Worshipful Society of London Fish-mongers or the Fabian Society visits this country and is “received” by the Mayor of New York, we shall know that he is receiving in turn the homage of England, and is greeted not merely as the head of Tammany Hall, but of the English-speaking race.

Leaving these various dignitaries and delegations to settle their own affairs, one may be permitted to point out that there has been of late, especially among those disapproving the President's Venezuela policy, a touch of this kind of homage. Never have there been so many compliments to the position and policy of England, so many implied pledges to rally [196] round her flag, boys. This may be all very well, but when it takes the form of extreme deference, one may well smile and draw the line. It is partly, no doubt, a reaction after that intense feeling of aroused nationality which accompanied and followed our great Civil War, and can hardly, perhaps, be sustained in full by the next generation. The day after Lincoln's emancipation proclamation was issued, or after his Gettysburg speech, or after his assassination, there was little disposition visible among us to regard that estimable sovereign, Queen Victoria, as the Queen of the English-speaking race; nor would even the Saturday Review have made that suggestion. As the War of 1812 was called by many “the Second War of the Revolution,” so might the Civil War be almost called the “Third War,” in respect to the completeness of the feeling of independence, not to say of isolation, that it created for a time. It is one of the incidental benefits to set against the vast evils of war that it gives this sense of self-reliance. “When is man strong,” says Browning in one of his finest passages, “but when he feels alone?”

It is very natural, perhaps, that after a period so exalted there should come a little reaction [197] in the direction of colonialism. This we may see both in literature and in manners. “Are we not provincial? Do we not lack the manners of the great world?” These are the questions anxiously asked. Yet all the manners of the great world are but little affairs of spoons and napkins and visiting-cards compared with those essential ingredients of manners which lie in “self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control” ; and which may be acquired in a log cabin or a sod shanty or an Indian tepee from parents who know their business. Given this foundation, the great world can add much in respect to minor details; but without this foundation the teachings of the great world can do little. Addison, pointing this same moral in his day, goes so far as to say, “If you want to know a man who has seen the world, you will know him by his deficiency in those characters which seem to belong to good society.” It is a curious fact that where a foreigner in his published book selects for special praise the manners and bearing of some American, it is very apt to turn out that the person thus praised has never crossed the ocean, or not till middle life, when his manners and bearing were already formed. On the other hand, some of the very rudest Americans [198] one encounters are often those who have seen much of courts and have simply a suit of artificial manners, which they can very easily, on the smallest provocation, lay aside. When the late Richard Grant White went for the first time to England, in middle life, he was described by the London press as having “the figure of a guardsman and the bearing of a duke.” Yet he always maintained that the very finest manners he had ever encountered were those of his grandfather, a modest clergyman in Connecticut.

It is very much the same with our literary phase. Young Americans go to London, catch the latest fashions and the latest slang of the literature of the day, learn the names of a great many authorlings who are happily not yet reprinted in this country, and come back thinking, like Sim Tappertit and his fellow-revellers, that “there's nothing like life.” They yearn to be cosmopolitan, whereas what they need is to be true men and women first, and let cosmopolitanism take care of itself. The most cosmopolitan American writers of the last generation were undoubtedly Willis and Bayard Taylor; but what has become of their literary fame? On the other hand, the American names one sees oftenest mentioned [199] in European books-Emerson, Thoreau, Poe, Whitman — are those of authors who never visited Europe, or under such circumstances as to form but a trivial part of their career. Who can doubt that, fifty years hence, the disproportion will be far greater than now? After all is said and done, the circle of American writers who established our nation's literature, half a century ago, were great because they were first and chiefly American; and of the Americans who have permanently transplanted themselves for literary purposes it is pretty certain that James and Bret Harte would have developed more lasting power had they remained at home. Transplanting helps tulips, but it is a doubtful aid to human intellects. Why is it not as great a thing to be fellow-countrymen of Emerson and Hawthorne as of Tennyson and Browning? Even of these last names, it is to be remembered that Tennyson lived the life of a recluse, and Browning lived so much out of England that the fact was urged strongly by a brother author, James Payn, as a source of objection to his being buried in Westminster Abbey.


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