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The trick of self-depreciation

the two great branches of the Englishspeaking race have this in common, that they criticise themselves very frankly, in a way one rarely finds among Germans or Frenchmen. It comes, perhaps, from the habit of local self-government. If the streets are not well lighted, or if one's horse stumbles over an ill-kept pavement, the natural impulse is to complain of it to every one we meet, and to write about it in the local newspaper. Instead of putting only our strong points forward, we are always ready to discuss our weakest side. This must always be remembered in digesting the criticisms of Englishmen. Dickens, Carlyle, Ruskin, Arnold, have said nothing about Americans more unpleasant than they had previously said about their own countrymen; and why should we expect to fare any better? It is only in foreign countries that even we Americans stand up [207] resolutely for our own land. I lived for some time with a returned fellow-countryman of very keen wit, who, after long residence in Europe, found nothing to please him at home. One day, meeting one of his European companions, I was asked, ‘How is ——? Does he stand up for everything American, through thick and thin, as he used to do in Florence?’ Turning upon my neighbor with this unexpected supply of ammunition, I was met with the utmost frankness. He owned that while in Europe he had defended all American ways, through loyalty, and that he criticised them at home for the same reason. ‘I shall abuse my own country,’ he said, ‘so long as I think it is worth saving. When that hope is gone, I shall praise it.’

In the once famous poem of ‘Festus,’ recalled lately to memory by its fiftieth anniversary, there is a fine passage about the uselessness of indiscriminate censure:—

The worst way to improve the world
Is to condemn it. Men may overget
Delusion, not despair.

For example, I cannot help admiring the patient [208] fidelity with which my old friend Professor Norton holds up everything among us to an ideal standard, and censures what he thinks the vanity of our nation. But those who think with me that behind that apparent vanity there is a real self-distrust, which is a greater evil,—those who think that timidity, not conceit, is our real national foible,—can easily see how these very criticisms foster that timidity; so that ‘meek young men grow up in libraries,’ in Emerson's phrase, who feel that what they can say can claim no weight in either continent, so long as they do not say it in the Saturday Review. So some rather impulsive remarks in a New York newspaper as to the large number of persons in this country, as in all countries, who assume a clean shirt but once a week, probably did little or no good to the offending individuals, while it has winged a fatal arrow for Matthew Arnold's bow, as for many others. Comparisons are often misleading. David Urquhart, the English traveller, was always denouncing his fellow-countrymen as exceedingly dirty when compared with the Mohammedan races, and used to wish that [209] Charles Martel had not finally driven back the Saracen forces at the battle of Tours, because if he had been defeated, Urquhart says, the Mohammedans would have overrun all Europe, ‘and then even we English should have been gentlemen.’

Of all the points on which we Americans are apt to satirize ourselves, the much-discussed American girl is the most available. There is not in this wide land a journalist so callow as not to be able, when news runs short, to turn a paragraph on this theme, with some epigram as sparkling as his brains and as comprehensive as his experience. Thus, opening a Western magazine, one comes upon the amazing statement that the New York girl ‘dines heavily, drinks wine at all meals, smokes cigarettes, and revels at all times in the effects of the most advanced usages,’ —whatever this last vague and awful intimation may mean. On the next page the same author assures us, with equally close and unerring knowledge, that ‘the Southern girl is the most truly learned of her sex; . . . she is seldom otherwise than beautiful; . . . she plays all classical [210] music without notes.’ Why are we so severe on poor stray Englishmen, who know no better, when we ourselves furnish such social observation as this? Yet this kind of thing may be read far and wide under the head of ‘Society Chit-chat,’ and is apt to leave the impression that the writer was about as near to the wondrous creatures he describes as that coachman mentioned by Horace Walpole, who, having driven certain maids of honor for many years, left his savings to his son on condition that this chosen heir should never marry a maid of honor.

The real test of the manners and morals of a nation is not by comparison with other nations, but with itself. It must be judged by the historical, not by the topographical, standard. Does it develop? and how? Manners, like morals, are an affair of evolution, and must often be a native product,—a wholly indigenous thing. This is the case, for instance, with the habitual American courtesy to women in travelling,—a thing unparalleled in any European country, and of which, even in this country, Howells finds his best type in the Californian. [211] What comes nearest to it among the Latin races is the courtesy of the high-bred gentleman toward the lady who is his social equal, which is a wholly different thing. A similar point of evolution in this country is the decorum of a public assembly. It is known that at the early town meetings in New England men sat with their hats on, as in England. Unconsciously, by a simple evolution of good manners, the practice has been outgrown in America; but Parliament still retains it. Many good results may have followed imperceptibly from this same habit of decorum. Thus Mr. Bryce points out that the forcible interruption of a public meeting by the opposite party, although very common in England, is very rare in America. In general, with us, usages are more flexible, more adaptive; in public meetings, for instance, we get rid of a great many things that are unutterably tedious, as the English practice of moving, seconding, and debating the prescribed vote of thanks to the presiding officer at the end of the most insignificant gathering. It is very likely that even [212] our incessant self-criticism contributes toward this gradual amelioration of habits. In that case the wonder is, that our English cousins, who criticise themselves quite as incessantly, should move so slowly.

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