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It is one of the regular jokes in India that people on the strength of the season in Calcutta write a book about the peninsula, but even the tourist of genius, like Charles Dickens, is far more presumptuous when he tackles the United States. India indeed is huge and varied beyond hope of human comprehension, but America, though its population is only a third of that of Hindustan, is composed of elements infinitely more varied, besides which India does at least stand still and allow one to look at it, whereas the United States undergoes a revolutionary change continually. I passed through the country in 1900. In 1906 I found it unrecognizable. My third visit in 1914 gave me another surprise, and during the following five years when I was actually resident the panorama shifted with kaleidoscopic swiftness.
I have now learnt enough to realize that any attempt at description must inevitably be futile and that any opinion cannot but be presumptuous and misleading. Yet the subject is by far the most important in every respect which I have ever had to consider and I cannot possibly offer my autohagiography to the impatient public without doing my best to set down what I think.
Intellectual generalizations must be discarded as insulting to my own intelligence as much as to the reader's. There is only one possible procedure; to state boldly a number of striking facts which came under my direct observation, leaving their significance and importance to fight for their own ends, but also to call upon the only testimony of equally assured liability, my spiritual intuition.
I admit frankly that the whole of my intellectual opinion and practically all my personal prejudice combine to condemn the United States wholesale with absolute contempt and loathing and this attitude will undoubtedly manifest itself whenever the subject crops up in the course of these reminiscences, for my normal conscious self is generally speaking as the writer of these pages. Against this my subconscious intuition, whose judgment is to be trusted absolutely, is altogether opposed. I propose therefore to set forth first of all that which the Holy Spirit within me moves to utter, and afterwards to record the observed facts which influence my human consciousness to be so antagonistic to almost every feature of life and thought as I found it.
I definitely appeal to my American readers to stand apart from their natural gratification at the first and their natural indignation at the second of these sections of my work, and to understand that my spiritual apprehension
of truth represents my real self, while my intellectual perceptions are necessarily coloured by my nationality, caste, education and personal predilection. I am not trying to shirk the responsibility for the harsh judgments which I promulgate. I should prefer to keep silent. I speak only in the hope that Americans may learn how shocking much of their morals and manners is to the educated European, and I insist upon the intensity of my utmost love for them and faith in their future, so that they may discriminate between my criticisms and those of such people as Mrs Asquith who are unable to go deeper than the facts and cherish an unalloyed animosity.
Let me then begin by an analysis of my inmost spiritual sympathy for the people of the United States. First of all, let me explain about Europe. The war of 1914, and its sequel of revolution and economic catastrophe, is in my eyes the culmination of its many centuries of corruption by Christianity. The initial lesion was due to the decay of the Roman republican virtue. The immediate effect of the rise of Christianity was the break-up of social order, the suppression of philosophy and scholarship by fanaticism and the gradual engulfment of enlightenment in the Dark Ages. A partial resurrection was brought about by the Renaissance and from that moment began the long struggle between science and freedom on the one hand and dogmatism and tyranny on the other. During the ninteenth century, the triumph of the former seemed assured and almost complete. The forces of obscurantism and reaction were driven into dark corners but their natural cunning developed by centuries of experience inspired them to a final effort to regain their lost prestige and power. They adopted a new policy. They ceased to oppose openly the advance of science and the associated ethical and political principles which science indicated. They clipped the claws of the Lion of Enlightenment by establishing an unspoken convention to the effect that it was bad form to insist upon applying the new ideas to practical politics. The Church of England was to retain its official status in spite of its spiritual death. Dissent and agnosticism ought to be tolerated indeed but ignored. The system of social snobbery was to continue concurrently with the boast of the triumph of democratic principles. In every subject which might give rise to controversy there was a tacit agreement not to tell the truth. The people who persecuted Byron, Shelley, Darwin, Bradlaugh and Foote smiled amiably at the much more outspoken blasphemies of Bernard Shaw. The hollowness of Christianity and feudalism became shameless. No one dared to defend his convictions, if indeed he possessed them. There was a universal conspiracy to shirk facing the facts of life, with the result that the most complete moral darkness shrouded the causes and conduct of the war. We maintain our stupid shame with desperate determinations. A sham peace succeeded the sham war and the only realities were the revolutions which reduced civilization to chaos. Such reactions as that of Fascismo are manifestly phantasmagoric
and I cannot but conclude that at least for a long period anarchy will triumph in Europe. I turn therefore to America from an expiring solar system to a nebulous mass which I expect to develop into an organized galaxy.
The elements of the United States are heterogeneous in a manner unprecedented in history. Every race, language and creed of Europe is represented. There is, moreover, an established contingent of Africans, a new infiltration of Asiatics, of whom the Jews are a critically important factor in the social and economic problems of the day, while even the Far East, despite fanatical opposition, is seeking to obtain a foothold. That so many inimical elements should consent to even a semblance of fraternity indicates some common spiritual impulse sufficiently strong to dominate lesser prejudices. I find this unity in the aspiration to escape from the restrictions of crystallized conventions. Germans who resented military service, Jews who found the pressure of persecution and ostracism unendurable, Armenians obsessed by the fear of massacre, Italians to whom the pettiness, poverty and priestcraft of their country were paralysing, Irish insulted and injured by English oppression, all alike bring me to America as a paradise of elbow room, liberty and prosperity.
One aspect of this aspiration has a more general bearing. All Americans are eager for power, in one form or another. They therefore pursue with passionate ardour every path which promises knowledge as well as those which lead directly to mastery of environment. So powerful and so irrepressible is this enthusiasm that the most grotesque disillusionments fail to disgust them and no charlatanism so crude, no pretence so puerile, no humbug so outrageous as to deter them from running after the next new religion. Their dauntless innocence persuades me that just as soon as they have acquired the critical faculty, they will progress spiritually more swiftly and sanely than has ever been known.
At present two hindrances hamstring them. Firstly, the desperate death struggles of dogmatism, and secondly the practically universal ignorance of the elements of spiritual science. They insist on impossible ideals and hoax themselves about their holiness to an extreme that English hypocrisy at its zenith never approximates and their credulity is so crass that the followers of Joanna Southcott, the Agapemonites and the peculiar people seem by comparison philosophers and sages. Yet all this extravagance is but as the froth upon the crest of an irresistible breaker. Even the puritan cruelty, the social savagery, the extravagant racial ribaldry and the monomaniac stampede to acquire dollars testify more to the energy and enthusiasm of the people than to its casual concomitants of ignorance, delusion and fatuity which impress the ordinary observer. They are shrewd; none shrewder, lacking only the data to direct the shrewdness. They will soon discover how to distinguish
between genuine teachers and quacks, as also the fact that the power of money is limited and can buy no food either for spirit or soul. They will then pursue the path of evolution on sane and scientific lines eschewing unsound methods and unsatisfactory aims.
My instinct has always assured me of this and stimulated my eagerness to educate and initiate everyone I met. I felt that fundamentally we were brothers, and I believe that this intense sympathy was just what deepened my disgust and darkened my despair at the impossibility of reaching them. Morally, socially, intellectually, the gulf was not to be bridged. There was no common ground of comprehension. When I insisted on scientific methods, I met with fear lest the foundations of their faiths should be shaken and every one of them come to some crazy creed, pompous, pretentious and puerile. When I tried to show them that conventional canons of conduct were children of circumstance, belief in whose absolute ethical value merely masked the face of truth and prevented them from perceiving nature, they were simply shocked. They had never inquired why any given virtue should be valid. The same of course applied to the question of creed. Even those who wandered from teacher to teacher were fanatically convinced that their momentary cult was perfect at every point. I could not persuade them that their admitted fickleness was evidence that their present creed reflected a mere mood.
My real fear for America is that when it finds a few axioms on which a working majority can agree, a few dogmas to which it can rally, there will be an immediate effort to crush out all incompatible ideas, and even to atrophy its own possibilities of further development by extirpating any growth of genius within its own ranks, exactly as was done by Rome. In this event the tyranny would be infinitely worse than anything in the history of Christianity, for the worst of the moral defects of Americans is cold-blooded cruelty — their struggle against nature and the corrupting influences of such vices as drunkenness and sexual immorality has let them to value the harder virtues at the expense of the more human.
The latter indeed are regarded as vices even by those who cherish them in secret. Thus, in spite of the extraordinary diversity of creeds, cults, codes, fads and ideals, there lies the instinct to compel conformity. The whole history of the country has hammered into their heads the evident truth that unity is strength. Their very motto affirms it — E Pluribus Unum. Their history itself bears witness to this. What was the Civil War but a murderous struggle against secession? Prussian methods were used to dragoon the pacifist majority into fighting Germany, and prohibition was put over by every unscrupulous trick against the will of the people. Today, we see the Ku Klux Klan attempting to impose, by secret society methods of anonymous menace backed by boycott, arson and assassination, the ideals of a clique; and nearly
as noxious are the arrogant aims and brutal tactics of Catholics and freemasons.
In their own way capital and labour are influenced by the same idea, that of imposing a rigid and uniform rule on the entire community regardless of local conditions or any other considerations which might make for diversity. I need hardly point out that this principle is in flat contradiction with the Declaration of Independence in the constitution. I am afraid that the root of the evil lies in the psychological fact that men proclaim the principles of freedom only when they are suffering from oppression. No sooner do they become free and prosperous than they begin to perceive the duties of discipline.
It is already shockingly manifest that the moral correspondences of this tendency are in operation. As Fabre D'Olivet points out in his examination of The Golden Verses of Pythagoras, initiation, that is progress, requires that at every point the candidate should be confronted with the free choice between actions dependent upon the three principal virtues, courage, temperance and prudence. The aim of American statecraft is on the contrary to atrophy these virtues by making them unnecessary, and indeed limiting full choice to unimportant matters. A third spiritual danger arises from the dogmatic idealism which determines social and economic conditions. So multiform is the prevailing error that the only course is to oppose to it the true doctrine as follows:
The growth of a nation depends on its ability to draw the greatest nourishment from the greatest area of soil as against the pressure of rival plants. This depends, certeris paribus, on the numbers. Now numbers depend on the willingness and ability of women to make child-bearing and rearing the main business of life, and of the men to protect them and support them at their task. The surplus wealth may, nevertheless, be invested in another way, calculated to increase efficiency and potential; that is, in the support of a class which is not directly wealth producing as such, the class of the learned. This class must be abundantly supplied with leisure and the apparatus for research and freed from all anxiety or similar distractions. It should in fact be treated as a guild or spiritual fraternity. The existence of any other class which does not pull its own weight in the boat is evidence of plethora.
The above principles are extremely simple and self-evident, but in America they have been pushed out of sight by doctrinal propositions based on a priori considerations of things as they ought to be in the mind of the dogmatist.
I still hope that experience will eliminate these errors, and in that hope I address myself first of all to the American republic.
Having thus affirmed the instinctive attitude to the American people, let me turn to the other extreme and record a number of observations which
seem specially significant, the deductions from which appear unmitigatingly damning, but the antinomy with my spiritual standpoint is to be overcome by interpreting these flagrant and atrocious faults as symptomatic only of infantile and adolescent aberration, with the exception of a very few individuals indeed, and those, almost invariably, either of pedigree stock or educated by experience of Europe.
An adult American is a rara avis. The actual conditions which confront the developing intelligence are so incoherent and unintelligible that the unity of background which Europeans inherit and imagine to be the common property of mankind is absent.
Let me illustrate my meaning. In Europe we take for granted such first principles as the limits of the possibility of development of any given type of energy. We assume, for instance, that the efficiency of the areoplane depends upon the ratio of power to weight in the first place, the increase of the former being limited by the theoretical potential of the sources of energy at our disposal. We also reflect that increase of size, power and velocity involves the overcoming of obstacles which become more formidable in geometrical progression. Again, at certain points in the advance, entirely new considerations begin to apply, such as the resistance of our material to the pressure of air, and the physiological potentiality of the airman. To us this nexus seems an integral element of necessity.
The average American argues in complete ignorance of any such restriction. To him, to double the power is to double the pace and so on. His whole experience inflamed by his native enthusiasm reminds him that during the last century innumerable inventions, which the greatest authorities declared to be theoretically impossible, are now in daily use.
Consider the discovery of radium; how it revealed the existence of a form of energy enormously greater in quality than anything previously known. More, we can now calculate that atomic energy — could we only grasp it — would stand to radium as radium to steam, or more so. He is therefore perfectly right in refusing to discredit, on common sense grounds,the report that a cannon has been constructed to carry a shell across the Atlantic, or a flying machine to go to the moon; an instrument capable of detecting any conceivable fact about a man from a drop of his blood; of penetrating the past or foretelling the future. There is, in fact, no theoretical limit to human attainment, for the simple reason that nature is known to contain all conceivable and inconceivable forms of energy and perceptive potentiality. Concentrated on this conviction, he constantly makes himself ridiculous, through ignorance of the details of the patient progress of science. Like other varieties of faith it lays its votaries open to the most fantastic follies.
I have shown elsewhere the psychological considerations which make Americans accept this liability to error as an evil less than that of hypocritical
scepticism. The condition is, of course, somewhat similar to that produced by the administration of cocaine and the analogy is confirmed by the fact that American nerves are ragged and raw. The realities of life wreck their victim. In case of a general collapse of civilization under economic stress, such as seem actually imminent at present, it is to be feared that the shock to their spiritual self-sufficiency will find them unable to resist reactions. America, resenting the arrogance of Europe, refuses angrily to admit the extent of her indebtedness, but in the case of European anarchy, the main source of energy would be withdrawn. Few Americans realize that the moral, economic and selfish attitude towards sex means ultimate disaster. The emancipation of women, her ambition to compete with men in commercial and intellectual pursuits is, at bottom, a refusal to bear children, and this evidently implies the excessive increase of a parasitic class which the community will be unable to support.
It is notorious that the birth-rate is maintained by the immigrants. After very few years of life in the States sterility sets in. This, again, is a symptom of the insensate idealism of American psychology. Perceiving that progress depends on transcending animality, and refusing to realize the theoretical limitation of any such aspiration, they plunge into perdition. It is as if a man, admiring the beauty and perfume of the water-lily and loathing the miry darkness of the bed of the lake, were to sever the blossom from its root. This fatuity is shown directly by their attitude towards sex and indirectly by the attempt to suppress everything that suggests self-indulgence. The policy is disastrous.
We should found society upon a caste of “men of earth”, sons of the soil, sturdy, sensual, stubborn and stupid, unemasculated by ethical or intellectual education, but guided in their evolution by the intelligent governing classes towards an ideal of pure animal perfection. In such a substratum variation will produce sporadic individuals of a higher type. History affords innumerable examples of the lofty intelligence and the noblest characters shooting up from the grossest stock. Keats, Burns, Sixtus the Fifth, Lincoln, Boehme, Faraday, Joseph Smith, Whitman, Renan, Arkwright, Watts, Carlyle, Rodin and innumerable other men of the highest genius came of peasant parentage. Few indeed of the first class have been born of intellectually developed families.
The conditions of genius are not accurately known. But we may divide the class into two great groups; those in whom the development is a system of degeneration, and those who, though sometimes exhibiting the most exquisite fruition, fail to attain full development and achieve the work of which they should be capable through their frailty. The men whose achievement is uniform are always constitutionally robust; despite all difficulties they attain a great age and produce continuously. Rodin, Browning,
Carlyle, Pasteur, Lister, Kelvin, Gladstone, Whitman were all grand old men. (That Carlyle was an invalid merely emphasizes this essential figure.)
To insure the supply, we need only plant a prosperous and prolific peasantry, watch the children for indications of genius, and pick out any promising specimens for special training on the lines which their tendencies indicate. The worst thing they can do is what is done in America, to disenchant the man of earth with his destiny; to fill him with the facts and fancies that enthral etiolated and degenerated idealists and unfit him for his evident purpose, that of supplying society with supermen. It is not only impossible to try to make a silk purse our of a sow's ear. It is an idealistic imbecility. The demand for silk purses is extremely limited, whereas sows' ears always come in handy.
America is seething with anarchy on every plane, because of the constantly changing economic conditions, the conflict between creeds, casts, codes, cultures and races. Society has never had a chance to settle down. The expansion westward, the discovery of gold, coal, iron and oil, the slavery question, the secession question, the constant flux caused by the development of technical science, the religious and moral instability, the conflict between federal centralization and state sovereignty, the congestion of cities, the exploitation of the farmer by the financier, the shifting of the economic centre of gravity, these and a thousand other conditions arising from the unprecedented development of the country combine to make it impossible even to imagine stability in any plane of life. There is thus a radical distinction between Europe and her daughter. We know more or less what to expect in any set of circumstances. Heterogeneous as we are there is a common ground of thought and action. We are even able to draw reasonable conclusions about Asia and Africa. London and Tokyo are sufficiently alike in essentials to make our relations intelligible, but in spite of the community of language, customs, commercial conventions, and so on, between London and New York, the difference between us is really more radical. There are many incalculable factors in any formula which connects the United States with Europe.
Let me give a few obvious illustrations. Almost all Europeans suppose skyscrapers to be monstrosities of vanity. They are in fact necessary consequences of the conditions of New York City, as fogs were of the climate and situation of London and the physical properties of the available fuel. New York expanded as it had on account of, first, the vastness of its harbour, and, second, its situation on the Hudson, and as the most convenient outlet for the produce of the hinterland.
Manhattan Island, being so long and narrow, presented peculiar problems of transportation. To this is due the system of elevated and underground
railways. The width of the water which separates if from Long Island, New York State and New Jersey limited its expansion in those directions. Even with bridges and subways, transport was tedious and congested. The evident consequence was that the value of land in Manhattan became prohibitive. The final determinant is the fact that the island consists of a scant deposit of soil on a foundation of granite capable of supporting any possible strain. It was accordingly an architectural possibility and an economic advantage to increase the height of the buildings, and this height was, in its turn, limited by economic considerations.
The early architects went gaily ahead. They saw no reason to suppose that they need ever stop, but presently actuarial calculation showed that thirty-six storeys represented the maximum of economic efficiency. Beyond that height the disproportionate increase in the cost of building and the difficulty of renting the loftier suites, on account of the fear of fire, made the higher buildings unprofitable. It is of perculiar interest, by the way, to observe that the artists were so impregnated with with the Buddhist ideal of impermanence that in even the costliest buildings they calculated the life of the plumbing as at no more than twenty years; that is, they expected, from one cause or another, that the building would be superseded within that period.
The actual situation, by the way, is critical. There are, roughly speaking, two and a half of the seven and a half million people of Great New York put to grave inconvenience by the congestion and all alike are embarrassed by the ratio of rent to income. In Europe we reckon that rent should not absorb more than one tenth or at most one eighth of one's earning. In New York, this proportion is rarely less than one fourth and sometimes more than on third. Again, despite all efforts to establish a satisfactory system of transport, conditions are appalling. In the rush hours, the people are crushed like corn in a mill. One sees clusters of citizens hanging to the steps of a trolley car like a swarm of bees. The surface traffic is practically paralysed. I have know it take fifty minutes for a motor bus to get from 34th to 58th Street, walkable easily in less than twenty minutes. Except the few plutocrats with automobiles of their own, or residences within reasonable distance of their places of business, the average citizen has anything from fifty minutes to two hours to travel in this packed and pestilential conveyance twice daily. The waste of energy, the nervous strain, the physical fatigue and the annoyance all tell on his health and spirits. No wonder if indigestion and neurasthenia make him an old man at thirty-five.
But the worst is yet to come. Every year the congestion increases. The percentage of time and strength and money wasted and unnatural effort becomes more oppressive and exhaustive. Every desperate device imaginable is being tried,but the problem grows faster than the palliatives and one really wonders what will happen when things reach a deadlock, when
nobody can pay his rent or get to his business; when, in short, it becomes impossible to carry on, what will follow the crash. Any diminution in the population would mean that rates and taxes would have to be further increased and so drive more and more away from the city. The logical issue seems to be desertion and decay; this obviously involving the collapse of the machinery of export, and so the ruin of the producer in the interior.
In the past, if my suspicions be sound, cities like Nineveh perished in some such way. Their prosperity led them to live beyond their means. They made up the deficit by constantly bleeding the provinces, thus eventually killing the goose the laid the golden eggs. To me, the present prosperity of the United States, like that of England under Queen Victoria, is due to the coincidence of various favourable but temporary conditions. In England, the invention of the spinning jenny, the steam engine and similar automatic ways of producing wealth, the opening up of new markets, the expansion of commerce and colonial success made us rich factiously. Similar processes are still at work in the States.
The vast wealth in almost every commodity became easy to exploit through the introduction of scientific methods and labour-saving machinery. The supply of cheap labour from exhausted Europe, and the removal of all restrictions to expansion by the extent of elbow room and the overcoming of natural obstacles; all these conditions have made America the commercial mistress of the planet.
She has not even been disturbed and hampered by any serious internal or external struggle since 1865. The Spanish War was a holiday and the A. E. F. little more than an organized extension of the normal tide of tourists. She has never had to fight for her life; she has never had a serious sickness, but now this curve is approaching if it has not already attained its summit. The colonization is complete. People are beginning to jostle each other. Europe can no longer pay for her produce. The absence of moral unity is creating class conflict. The problems of politics are too vast and varied for even genius to grasp; the apparatus of order, both moral and physical, is showing signs of an imminent breakdown. The interests of the five principal sections of the country become more obviously incompatible. Any serious setback might cause disaster in a dozen different directions.
They talk of the melting pot. The metaphor is not bad. For the last sixty years they have pitched into it indiscriminately everything that came along. They protest passionately that the product must be that perfect gold, the “one hundred per cent. American”, which may be defined as the wish phantasms of a Sunday School superintendent, a romantic flapper, an unscrupulous usurer, and a maudlin medium, worked up into a single delirious nightmare. More likely the interaction of all these formidable forces will result in an explosion. My faith in the future of the States is fixed on
some rational reconstruction after revolution. The present attempt to amalgamate this fortuitous hotch-potch, neither calculating probabilities nor observing actualities, but asserting an amiable postulate as if it were axiomatic, is born of an illusion invented by despair of acting with intelligence; and when the moment of awakening arrives the disillusionment may shock them at first into insanity. Nothing less is likely to show them that human nature is a stubborn reality which no amount of humouring, befooling and bullying will alter.
These preliminary speculations set forth, I will now try to justify the diagnosis by exhibiting the salient symptom. For convenience I have classed my observations under a few principal heads. I shall show how America differs from Europe in its attitude towards law and order. I shall give examples of the unfathomable ignorance which prevails even among the most highly educated people, not merely of well established facts of what in Europe is called common knowledge, but of the most elementary principles of nature, that is to say of facts which quite illiterate Europeans would know instinctively without having to learn them. I shall give examples of the impotence of their extravagant idealism to preserve them from outraging European convention of honour and good manners. Lastly, I shall illustrate the callousness and cruelty which characterize the people as a result of their fanatical faith in absolute standards of rectitude and definition of duty to one's neighbour as espionage and tyranny. I will ask the reader to analyse each incident in order to discover the simple and radical motive which underlies the overt action. I hope thus to make it clear that even the most absurd and atrocious abominations are, so to speak, accidents caused by the impact of facts with which the American is unfitted to deal, owing to his childlike ignorance, inexperience and lack of all sense of proportion; so that to every crisis he can bring only the intense impulsive energy of instinct.
In 1912 I took it into my head to write three essays on American art and literature, past, present and future. I only completed the first, which is published in the English Review. It aroused a hurricane across the Atlantic and, hard as it is to believe, the echoes have not yet died away.
Within the last twelve months it was violently attacked by one of America's best poets, Robert Haven Schauffler. I make a point of mentioning the fact. He accused me of prejudice and unfairness, ignorant of course that my essay was but one of three and that my plan had been to express the friendliest faith in the future. As it stands, my judgment is no doubt severe, but I see little to modify.
Poe and Whitman are still in my opinion the only first-rate writers until very recent years. I still find Longfellow, Bryant, Whittier, Emerson, Bret
Harte, Mark Twain and the rest devoid of any title soever to rank among the sons of genius. I might admit that they possessed great talents, but that is foreign to the question. I had been prevented from writing the other two essays partly because the editor, following his invariable rule, broke his pledged word to me, and partly because my heart was broken by the perusal of the books which I had asked Leila Waddell to bring back from America to furnish me with material. They left me without a glimmer of hope. The trashiest piffle of England was Swinburne and Stevenson by comparison. The morality of American authors was too ghastly to contemplate. The artistic unity of the entire output consisted in its commonplace coarseness, behind which was the fixed determination to go for the dollars. There was neither ambition nor conscience anywhere. My already zero opinion dropped below the liquid air mark.
My first personal acquaintance with the actual conditions of the present time did not improve matters noticeably. My first glimmer of hope was supplied by the “candle and the flame” of George Sylvester Viereck. Here at least was a man with a mind of his own, a worthy aspiration and an excellent technique, even though the actual achievement was nothing to leave home for. His prose was better. The Confessions of a Barbarian which purport to describe Europe are excellent. Europe is the stalking horse from behind which he shoots his wit. Every shot tells, and all are aimed at America. No better study of the United States has ever been written.
Through Viereck I met his friend Alexander Harvey who professed to admire my work and offered me the opportunity to reciprocate. At first I failed. I had somehow got the fine idea that he lacked virility and seriousness, and that his work was a shadow show. I had not understood my author. Only after reading Shelley's Elopement and his book on Howells did I attain full insight into his mind and manner. But, having done so, a great light dawned upon me. I had to acknowledge him as a master. In the series of essays on which I am working at present I have consecrated one to him. I need only observe there that Alexander Harvey, more subtle and ethereal than Poe himself, possesses a delicacy and a sense of humour as exquisite, elfish, elusive as any man that ever wrote. His irony is incomparably keen. That I should have missed the point taught me a much needed lesson.
To pick up a book, persuaded that no good thing can come out of Nazareth, makes appreciation impossible.
Harvey introduced me to Edwin Markham, whose The Man with the Hoe, and other poems is assuredly first-rate of its kind. His work is uneven and it would be absurd to assert that he is of outstanding excellence. He lacks the stature of the sacred legion, but at least he proved to me the existence of what I had till then doubted; a poet true to himself and fearless of opinion; capable oh high aims, conscientious in pursuing them and
courageous in proclaiming them. I looked about me from that moment for a second poet, but here indefatigable research proved fruitless. Self-styled poets and poetesses are as common in America as common bacilli in a choleraic colon. They swim and squeal and squabble and stink unbelievably.
The principal poetess present was E. W. Wilcox, looking exactly like a shaved sow plastered with brilliant unguents in a Greek dress and with a wreath on her wig. It was to vomit! In Europe, outside negligible cliques in Soho, buzzing round people like Ezra Pound and even smaller patchers of pretence in Paris, poets have some sense of dignity. They do try to write, and talk as little as possible about it. In America poetry is a branch of the patent medicine business. The medicine does not matter; what does is the label, the puff and the faked testimonial.
A very few manage somehow or other to turn out occasional stanzas, with some kind of idea in them fluently and even powerfully, but with the exception of Markham and Schauffler there is practically nobody at all who even understands what poetry means. The one aim is self advertisement.
In the matter of prose, the situation is altogether different. As remarked elsewhere, the first urgent need of the country is a critic whose words carry weight, who knows good from bad, and could not be bullied or bribed. These were found in William Marion Ready, Michael Monahan and H. L. Mencken. The two former were not fully efficient. They were too refined to take off their shirts and plunge head foremost into the rough and tumble, but Mencken understood the psychology of the cattle he was out to kill, and he poleaxed them properly. Having thus secured the services of of a fighting editor the rest of the staff felt free to do their work as they wanted it done and the result has been the startling sudden appearance of a regular army of authors and even dramatists who really matter. Conditions being as they are all red revolutionists are necessarily savage satirists; they dare not waste time in wooing beauty till the war is won. We find, therefore, Theodore Dreiser, Lewis Sinclair (as opposed to his hysterical, though well-intentioned, namesake Upton) and others of their school, who seem to regard themselves as a committee appointed to report on the ravages of respectability. Novel after novel describes unflinchingly the realities of life in America in its various departments.
Upton Sinclair and his school fail by overdoing it. Their sentimental indignation is just as false as the shop on the other side of the street. Howells and Chambers and all those pullulating boosters of the red-blooded, clean living hundred per cent. Gibson young man and his female rival them in invertebrate idealism. But the new school of realism makes a point of being just. The characters live; they are not mere excuses for piling up epithets. Yet beneath the feet of the actors is the stage and behind them a background.
That stage is rotten. The foundation is equally social injustice and moral falsity. The background is equally bad. The scene is set for an obscene farce. The work of this school is at last beginning to tell. A constantly increasing percentage of Americans are beginning to understand that the vague horror which haunted them is the miasma of manufactured immorality. They see that the deliberate attempt to standardize social conditions, to trample originality under foot, to ostracize genius, to discipline life in every detail is turning the land of the free into a convict settlement and modelling civilization upon that of the ant.
Alexander Harvey stands outside this body of Warriors. His spirit is less in touch with the brutalities of daily life. His race is unblemished and he began his career in diplomacy. He was thus able to develop his fine and intricate passion for pure beauty without being constantly jostled by the hurrying fiends of commerce. He is able to treat American society as a joke. His characters are, for the most part, raised above the hubbub of hustle. America wounds him only in his spiritual nerves. The most hideous of the demons which haunts him is what he calls the native American of Anglo-Saxon origin and his ivory is aimed at the less obvious atrocities of his environment.
One other figure stands apart, olympic and titanic in one. As I have tried to show in my essay (The Reviewer, July 1923) James Branch Cabell is a world genius of commanding stature. He comes of famous stock and occupies an excellent social position, being secluded on his own property in Virginia. The turmoil of Main Street and the animal noises of the jungle are born to him as echoes from afar. The realities of modern America consequently occupy only one salient of his battle front, which extends from the seat of Jove himself to deepest Tartarus. All periods of history contribute to his pages and his characters include personifications of eternal principles, legendary demons an monsters of every type; eponymous heroes of fables and romance, and the everyday individuals of the modern world. Between these infinitely diverse orders of being, he makes no difference. All are equally real and mingle freely with each other. His epic includes Mother Cerida, one of the seven powers of destiny, her function being to cancel everything out. Helen of Troy, Merlin, the tyrant Dionysys and President Roosevelt fall each one in the proper place. His thesis covers the whole field of philosophy, but its ultimate conclusion — to date — seems to be almost identical with that of Main Street: that all aspiration is futile, attainment impossible in the nature of things.
Like James Thomson, however, as I have demonstrated in my essay on him, he has so extended the scope of his argument as to leave no possible escape by withdrawal to some loftier plane. Nevertheless, his intellectual acquiescence in the ineluctable futility of life, his gentle blood and his godlike
genius compel him to make an irrational exception of this law in some quite inexplicable manner, and heroism wins through. Even as things stand, I regard Cabell as by far the greatest genius of his genus that has yet appeared on this planet. Before him nobody ever conceived so all-embracing a theme. Yet I am still unsatisfied! I demand that he shall be developed towards the solution of his problem, and perceive that the contradictory thesis is equally true: that the most trivial, vain and fatuous events, if rightly understood, are sublime; that the slough of despond is but an optical illusion created by the shadow of the snow-pure summits of success.
I have been accused of exaggerated enthusiasm for Cabell. The more stupid and mean-minded have even explained my ardour by my appreciation of the compliment which Mr Cabell paid me by using my Gnostic Mass as the material for Chapter XXII of his Jurgen. The suggestion is utter rubbish; though, at the same time, I admit cordially that no other form of appreciation of my work would have pleased me half so well.
I regard his epic of such supreme importance to mankind as an exposition of the nature of the universe that I have not only sent him a copy of The Book of the Law in the hope that he may find in it the way out of his Buddhistic demonstration that “everything is sorrow” but followed it up by letter after letter urging him to use it, for his work cannot attain perfection until it culminates in a positive conclusion.
For many years he toiled at his task almost neglected. It is hardly nice to reflect that he only became famous when the smut-smeller society succeeded in suppressing “Jurgen” as obscene. I must admit, none the less, that when Beyond Life was sent me for review (the first I had heard of him) while perceiving straight away its excellence, I had no idea of its importance. It let the matter rest there. Then Jurgen reached me and I saw at once not only that the book was a supreme masterpiece, but extended my understanding of its stable companion. I proceeded to grab as many of his books as I could. Each volume opened a new world to my vision. It was not clear why he had not impressed even the best critics as he deserved. Nobody had seen that each volume, apparently self-sufficient, was in reality one chapter, a single vast epic. The more I read and re-read, the more fully I realize the extent of his empire.
I have gone into this at some length in order to firstly stress the importance of the work, and to prevent any reader supposing that any one book will give an adequate idea of his genius.
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