The American Ideal

From Sidelights on New London and Newer York and Other Essays, by G.K.Chesterton, 1932

There is nothing the matter with Americans except their ideals.  The real American is all right; it is the ideal American who is all wrong.  It is the code and conception of life imposed from above, much more than the merely human faults and weaknesses working up from below.

In so far as the citizens of the Western democracy have really gone wrong, they have not inherently or quite naturally gone wrong.  They have been taught wrong; instructed wrong; educated wrong; exalted and uplifted wrong.  A huge heresy, rather peculiar to modern times, yet singularly uncriticised by modern critics, has actually perverted them in a way which is not really very consonant to their personalities.  The real, natural Americans are candid, generous, capable of a beautiful wonder and gratitude; enthusiastic about things external to themselves; easily contented and not particularly conceited.  They have been deliberately and dogmatically taught to be conceited.  They have been systematically educated in a theory of enthusiasm, which degrades it into mere egotism.  The American has received as a sort of religion the notion that blowing his own trumpet is as important as the trump of doom.

It is, I am almost certain, in the main an example of the hardening effect of a heresy, and even of a hostile heresy.  There are more examples of it than those admit who ignore the peril of heresy.  The Scots are an example; they were never naturally Calvinists; and when they break free, it is to become very romantic figures like Stevenson or Cunninghame Graham.  The Americans were never naturally boomsters or business bullies.  They would have been much happier and more themselves as a race of simple and warm-hearted country people eager for country sports or gazing at the wonders in country fairs.  An egotist heresy, produced by the modern heathenry, has taught them against all their Christian instincts that boasting is better than courtesy and pride better than humility.

It is queer to note how raw and recent is the heresy; and how little it has been spotted by any heresy-hunt.  We have heard much of modern polygamy or promiscuity reversing the Christian idea of purity.  We have heard something, and we ought to hear more, of modern capitalism and commercialism reversing the Christian idea of charity to the poor.  But we have not heard much about Advertisement, with its push, publicity; and self-assertion, reversing the idea of Christian humility.  Yet we can at once test the ethics of publicity by removing it from public life; by merely applying it to private life.  What should we think, in a private party, if an old gentleman had written on his shirtfront in large fine flowing hand: “I am the only well-bred person in this company.” What should we think of any person of taste and humour who went about wearing a placard inscribed “Please note quiet charm of my personality.”   What should we say if people gravely engraved on their visiting card the claim to be the handsomest or the wittiest or the most subtly, strangely attractive people about town.  We should not only think, with great accuracy, that they were behaving like asses, and certainly destroying beforehand any social advantages they might really have.  We should also think they were wantonly reversing and destroying a principle of social amenity and moral delicacy, recognized in all civilised states and ages, but especially emphasized in the ethics of Christianity.  Yet modern business, especially in America, does really enforce this sort of publicity in public life; and has begun to press it even in private life.  But the point to be emphasized here is that it is really pressed upon most of the Americans; they are goaded and driven into this sort of public life; large numbers of them would have been perfectly contented with private life.  They would have endured it even if it had retained a ll the old decency and dignity of private life.  For this is where the critic must deal most delicately with the subtlety of their simplicity.

The Americans are always excused as a new nation; though it is no longer exactly a new excuse.  But in truth these terms are very misleading; and in some ways they have rather the atmosphere of an old nation.  Over whole tracts of that vast country, they are certainly what we should call an old-fashioned nation.  In no nation in the world are so many people attached to a certain sort of old texts, familiar quotations, or the pieces of sentiment that were written on the pink pages of Victorian albums.  A popular book was published, while I was in America, bearing the somewhat alarming name of Heart Throbs, from which compilation one might learn that some great and grim judge of High Court had for his favourite poem “Grandmother’s Blessing,” or that some colossus of Commerce, a Steel-King or an Oil-King, preferred the simple lines entitled, “Daddy’s Hat.” It is only fair to say that some of these hard-headed and ruthless rulers had never forgotten the real classical claims of “Love’s Young Dream,” or “The Seven Ages of Man.” Some may sneer at these extracts, but surely not at their novelty or crudity.  I do not mention them for the purpose of sneering at them, but, on the contrary, for the purpose of showing that there must be a great block of solid and normal sentiment, even of traditional sentiment.  And people having that sentiment, people inheriting that tradition, would not necessarily, on their own account, have become believers in selfish, sensational self-advertisement.  Suspect, as a matter of fact, that there is rather less of such callous and contemptuous egoism in America than anywhere else.  The older civilisations, some of which I will venture to call the more civilised civilisations, have a great many advantages in variety of culture and a conspectus of criticism; but I should guess that their wickedness is more wicked.  A Frenchman can be much more cynical and sceptical than an American; a German much more morbid and perverted than an American; an Englishman much more frozen and sophisticated with pride.  What has happened to America is that a number of people who were meant to be heroic and fighting farmers, at once peasants and pioneers, have been swept by the pestilence of a particular fad or false doctrine; the ideal which has and deserves the detestable title of Making Good.  The very words are a hypocrisy, that would have been utterly unintelligible to any man of any other age or creed; as meaningless to a Greek sophist as to a Buddhist monk.  For they manage, by one mean twist of words, to combine the notion of making money with the entirely opposite notion of being good.  But the abnormality of this notion can best be seen, as I have said, in its heathen and barbaric appeal to a brazen self-praise.  Selling the goods meant incidentally, of course, lying about the goods; but it was almost worse that it meant bragging about the goods.

There is a very real sense in which certain crudities in the Americans are not so much a part of American crudity as actually a part of American culture.  They are not mere outbreaks of human nature; they are something systematically impressed upon human nature.  It is not for nothing that some of the most prominent features of their actual academic training are things like schools of commerce or schools of journalism.  There is a vital distinction between these things and all that the world has generally meant by a school; especially the most scholastic sort of school.  Even those who think little of learning Greek and Latin will agree that it carried with it a vague suggestion of admiring Greeks and Latins.  The schoolboy was supposed in some sense to feel inferior.  But even in a commercial academy the boy is not occupied in gazing at some great millionaire doing a straddle in wheat, with the feelings of the simplest pagan of antiquity gazing at the Colossus of Rhodes.  It would not do him much good if he did; but in general practise he does not.  If he learns anything, he learns to do a straddle in wheat himself, or to hope that he will do it as acrobatically as any other acrobat.  He does not even learn to venerate Mr. Rockefeller, but only to imitate Mr. Rockefeller.

Nor does the practical study of journalism lead to any particular veneration for literature.  The qualities inculcated and encouraged are the same as those which commerce inculcates and encourages.  I say it with no particular hostility or bitterness, but it is a fact that the school of commerce or the school of journalism might almost as well be called a school of impudence or a school of swagger or a school of grab and greed.

But the point is that people are taught to be impudent or greedy, not that they are naturally impudent and greedy.  As a matter of fact, they are not.  And that is the whole paradox of the position, which I have already suggested and should like here to expand.  I have seen in the United States young people, coming out of this course of culture, who actually pulled themselves together to be rude, as normal young people have always pulled themselves together to be polite.  They were shy in fact and shameless on principle.  They would ask rude questions, but they were as timid about asking a rude question as an ordinary youth about paying a compliment.  They would use the most brazen methods to induce somebody to see them, and anybody who did see them would pity them for their bashfulness.  They were always storming the stage in a state of stage fright.

The very simple explanation of this puzzling contradiction is that they were perfectly nice and normal people in themselves, but they had never been left to themselves by those who were always telling them to assert themselves.  They had been bounced into bouncing and bullied into being bullies.  And the explanation is the existence of this modern heresy false ideal, that has been preached to everybody by every organ of publicity and plutocracy: the theory that self-praise is the only real recommendation.

I have suggested that the American character might have developed in an infinitely more healthy and human fashion if it had not been for this heresy.  Of course the American character would in any case have been very much more alert and lively and impetuous than the English character.  But that has nothing to do with the particular features and fashions of commercial advertisement and ambition.  There are many other races that are more vivacious or vehement than the English and who yet live the normal life of contented country folk, and practise the traditional ideas of modesty and courtesy.

The trouble with the false commercial ideal is that it has made these men struggle against modesty as if it were morbidity; and actually try to coarsen their natural courtesy, as other men stifle a natural crudity.  I do not think that bragging and go-getting are American faults.  I hate them as American virtues; I think the quarrel is not so much with the men as with the gods: the false gods they have been taught to worship and still only worship with half their hearts.  And these gods of the heathen are stone and brass, but especially brass; and there is an eternal struggle in that half-hearted idolatry; for often, while the gods are of brass, the hearts are of gold.

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Last modified: 23rd September 2015
Martin Ward, De Montfort University, Leicester.