In his recently published masterpiece, Henry Steele Commager8 describes the American character as being a product of heredity and environment, ”both varied and complex.” The fact that the heterogeneity of the hereditary factors has led to such a decidedly homogenous character proves for Commager that the environment has been the decisive factor here. He uses the term ‘environment’, however, in an extremely broad sense. To quote:
”It was not, in short, particular environments that determined the American character or created the American type, but the whole of the American environment the sense of spaciousness, the invitation to mobility, the atmosphere of independence, the encouragement to enterprise and to optimism.”
The force of the external surroundings, in particular that of earth and nature, is indeed striking in America. Not only must the earth here be given particular consideration, but certain subterranean forces, working in the form of magnetism and electricity, are also especially strong here. There are different parts of America where one can get an electrical shock from static electricity upon inserting the house key into the lock or touching the surface of a car, while the metal door knobs in a number of office buildings in Washington, D.C., have been given a covering of rubber to relieve the staff from having to put up with similar continual shocks. The earth formations are so tremendous here and there and so impressive that one can only confront them with intense humility and admiration. The world famous Grand Canyon is 155 miles long and has a width of six to fifteen-and-a-half miles. The Colorado River, which created this gigantic chasm, courses along a full 1600 feet below the rim. As one stands on the rim of the abyss contemplating the different layers of the earth’s crust here visible to the eye in their varying colors, it seems as if the ‘Powers that Be’ have here allowed the human eye a glimpse into the Supreme Workshop. Seen in the light of numbers, the Grand Canyon is merely the largest of the eight canyons through which the Colorado River flows.
There are many such deeply impressive natural monuments revealing the grandeur of terrestrial creation. Not to be forgotten are the cave complexes of Kentucky and the Carlsbad Caverns of New Mexico.
But, aside from such overpowering phenomena, the very earth itself possesses forces more powerful than anywhere in Europe. This enormous continent, stretched out between two oceans, resembling in large part a single enormous tableland, combines, as earth, its forces with a subterranean element with such magnitude that one feels the direct influence of this combination upon the human organism in the course of a very short time. It is thus understandable that such a population changes rapidly under the influence of these forces. Regardless of the varied national and racial origins of its individual members, certain evolutionary changes of bodily structure are to be found among all of them as early as the second or third generation. The arms and hands achieve a greater length, while a certain particular facial structure becomes noticeable, characterized by, among other things, a broadening of the lower jaw. A certain similarity of both male and female features with those of the Indian natives gradually begins to make its appearance. John Gunther9 who knew so many of America’s leading personages, describes how numerous leading political and industrial figures display a curious resemblance to the native Americans.
The forces of earth and nature manifest themselves in an especially impressive manner through the growth of trees such as the Redwoods and the Sequoias, ancient coniferous types which still flourish proudly in the Sierra Nevadas at elevations of 3500 to 7000 feet, as well as along the California coast in the San Francisco area. The latter, the so-called Coast Redwoods are, in general, somewhat more slender than the former and reach heights of 350 feet and more, while the Sequoias of the Sierra Nevadas have a more sturdy appearance but reach somewhat lesser heights. These trees live as long as 3,000 to 4,000 years. Not only do they stand there as remnants of an age long past, but they still thrive vigorously and are to be found in all sizes and ages.
In contemplating trees such as these, which are several thousand years old, one experiences feelings similar to those which one has upon seeing the Grand Canyon or the immense stalactite caves. One feels oneself carried back to the primeval ages of creation, the primeval stages of human development. The human soul, as it is today, finds it difficult to imagine itself placed in a world such as this, nor can it establish intimate ties with it.
The traveler journeying throughout Europe will inevitably find impressive and majestic landscapes, the Swiss and the Austrian Alps, for example, or the Norwegian fjords. But however mighty and powerful these may be, one always feels oneself a part of them. The mountains, valleys and gulfs to be found there can still be encompassed by the soul; so can the forests of middle-Europe or Sweden. The beeches, the birches and the oak trees as they grow there are familiar to one, belong to one. There one can feel oneself amid nature, attached to nature. This ceases to be the case in America where one feels oneself facing nature, or rather feels that nature faces man as a power, a creative force, that forms and transforms his entire being, and even influences his physical structure.
Proceeding from this point of view as a foundation in one’s study of the so-called American ‘people’, it appears more justifiable to refer here to the formation of a new race. In checking off the characteristics of a race of people according to its own particular anatomical and physiological phenomena, taking into account such factors as skin color, hair growth, position of the eyes, the formation of the skull, etc., all in accordance with older racial theories, it becomes obvious that, here in America, out of a large number of European peoples, there is something in formation which exhibits all the characteristics of a race in genesis. However, this means that, in the study of its psychological characteristics as a people, one must constantly bear in mind that such characteristics cannot possibly have become fully developed in such a short time span, and that one thus describes something which stands in between the two conceptions of race and people.
The youthfulness of the American people has often been described; it has almost become a matter of course to regard it in this manner. Yet a highly interesting ethnological problem is concealed within this youthfulness. Those who were among the first to emigrate to the United States, the English, French, Spanish and the Dutch, all belonged to old, more or less ‘completed’ peoples. The forces which, in the new country, went to work on these old peoples, thereby producing a single new, definitely young people, must certainly be particularly powerful forces and of an entirely different nature than the forces to which these peoples were previously exposed. The strength of the previously referred to earthly and subterranean forces may hereby serve as a partial explanation. There is, however, another factor which is of equally great importance.
It was the youngest and, at the same time, most powerful force belonging to the human soul—the will—which was the prompter of all, regardless of national or racial background, who streamed to America. The will to realize one’s religious ideals in freedom, the will to escape tyranny, the will to build up a better economic existence, or the will to hasten forth into the great unknown. But always the will, which is the most unconscious, least formed, but strongest power of the soul. In his last work about America, André Siegfried6 describes the American people under the heading of ”The dynamics of the Americans.” Truly, in searching for a single word with which to express the situation, one cannot find a better one than that. Nowhere else on earth could this ‘dynamics’ have had the chance to run its course so completely or perfect itself better on the obstacles which it met on its way than in this gigantic, completely untamed nation.
Nowhere else on earth does one find a will which, to the same extent, becomes a deed on the spot, where obstacles are regarded as nothing more than incentives to be used in conquering them—never as difficulties. Railroads were laid down from ocean to ocean over endless table-lands, and mountain ridges as high as 8000 feet; enormous bridges were built, eight miles long and with spans of more than half a mile. Skyscrapers can also be primarily explained by this dynamic will. The limited space and the rocky ground of Manhattan Island may well have led originally to the idea of building high into the air, but skyscrapers are also to be found where there is plenty of building space. The 1471-foot high Empire State Building is, in a sense, one of the most impractical buildings that can be imagined. Where the entire city of New York, with its much too narrow streets for the use of modern traffic, presents in advance almost insoluble traffic problems, a building of this type is scarcely within reach for the many thousands of people who work there and who would like to be able to reach their workplace with their own cars. Everyone in New York is aware of this, but that does not alter the fact that New Yorkers regard the Empire State Building, or the truly beautiful Rockefeller Center, as perfect manifestations of the dynamics of American life, and which they cherish as such.
An integral part of such roaring dynamics is also the optimistic attitude of living which characterizes Americans in general. Just like a child or a very young person, the American regards anything as being possible, nor is his nature bothered by a reflective, contemplative way of thought. This optimism expresses itself in just about everything, in his smile, in his manner of speech, or the way in which he moves. Whoever has come from Europe and lived in America for a number of weeks begins to feel as if he were as old as the hills, and whether or not he takes to the youthful optimism about him, finding it refreshing, or instead, lets it irritate him immeasurably, depends entirely upon himself.
Inherent to this entire way of life is a carefree attitude of unconcern. Commage8 describes this ”carelessness” as being ”perhaps the most pervasive and persistent quality in the American.” He is ”careless” in his speech, his manners and his clothing. Wasteful and careless with his food as well, and everything else which the European (and certainly the European of two World Wars) handles with thrift and care. When a large package from one shop or another is delivered at his door, it is a matter of course for the European to store the cardboard box in the attic, neatly folding up the paper in which it was wrapped, and placing it, together with the piece of string with which it was tied, in a drawer. In America, where all such packaging materials are on the whole much nicer and stronger, they are immediately discarded. Overall, where the machine age has made a swift and successful entry, people have forgotten the art of handwork. This also means that it is better to buy a new sofa than to have the old one repaired. And the cities are marked by this same carelessness. Half-finished sections of a city remain as they are, and whatever has fallen into ruins is rarely cleared away.
The degree to which this tendency toward wastefulness has already made mischief with soil and forest reserves is only too well known. Entire areas of the southern states owe their ruthless deforestation to the cotton culture; the result of which was an almost disastrous destruction of the structure of the soil through dehydration and erosion. The enormous wealth which one found everywhere on the new Continent made it possible to continue to live in this carefree manner for a long time. One had gotten the idea that anything was possible, and that there were no longer any limits to human prosperity. This frame of mind reached its climax after the first World War between the years 1920 and the financial crisis of 1929. The inner tragedy connected with such an attitude of living, entirely centered as it is upon the quantitative elements of life, has been described by various authors, among them, F. Scott Fitzgerald, in two moving books: The Great Gatsby and his unfinished work, The Last Tycoon.
This dynamic attitude of life, added to the youthfulness of the American people, also gave rise to the concept of the ‘self-made man’. There are also certain times in the life of the child when he wants to do everything by himself, even though Big Brother can do it much better for him. He wants to do it all by himself because he can then experience his own awakening personality. The term ‘self-made’ bears, of course, first and foremost, a quantitative character. It means that one has built up his own business, or that one has attained a high position in the higher income brackets—in short, that one has reached ‘prosperity’. Inner, spiritual qualities, the development of the mind, feelings, or soul, are all scarce, or entirely irrelevant.
The American likes to experiment, modestly as well as on a large scale. ”Why shouldn’t we try to see whether or not a certain idea can be put into practice?” And what is worth trying at all, is worth trying in grand style. One meets this delight in experimenting everywhere, in social life as well as in the fields of pedagogy or politics.
The average American wants to learn, and exhibits great interest in everything that is happening in the world. He likes to listen to anybody and everybody who has something to tell him, although the European may perhaps feel that his interest at times takes on perhaps a somewhat too shallow a character. Particularly striking is his interest in all psychological and social problems. And thus one sees how, in the last analysis, he is in search of the true being of man: man as an individual and man as a part of society. Although the scientific basis of his psychology is still quite primitive, the fact remains that the enthusiasm with which he casts himself into its intricacies is particularly noticeable.
The philosopher who has given the previously referred-to American attitude of life its scientific foundations is William James10, the son of the well-known writer of short stories, Henry James. The former is the creator of what was later referred to as pragmatism—a philosophy which is entirely one with the vital powers of the American will, which, in turn, is always centered upon the manifestations of the conception of practicality. In brief, this philosophy states as follows: The human being stands in the midst of the many opportunities life offers him. What is he going to make of them? Are the ideas which he forms for himself important or not? If he gets an idea, or has a plan, is it capable of being realized? And does it lead to success? ”Does it work?” And, last but not least, does it lead to prosperity? Thus, the importance of an idea is not to be found in the idea itself, nor does it depend upon the grade of the truths which it contains by intrinsic virtue. Not by thinking, but by doing, by acting, does the truth make itself evident, or, to use James’ words: “The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events: its verity is, in fact, an event, a process, the process namely of verifying itself, its verification.”
Commager8 writes as follows: ”True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify. False ideas are those that we cannot.” This is concise and pithy. As he further remarks: ”Pragmatism was a philosophy of expedience. It put ideas to work and judged them by their results.”
Here, one is inclined to think of the words of Goethe: ”Only that which is fruitful is true” whereby, to all outward appearances, somewhat the same idea is expressed. Upon comparing the words of James with those of Goethe, however, and taking into consideration the respective backgrounds out of which both appear (James speaks forth out of the dynamics of the American people, while Goethe belongs to the period of German idealism of around 1800), one discovers that practically the same words can be used to express entirely opposite truths. For Goethe, the search for the truth is a process that takes place in the inner recesses of the human spirit with its relationship to the world about it. ”When I have found my own relationship to myself and to the world about me, I call it the Truth. Thus everyone possesses his own special truth and yet this truth is common to all.” This truth of Goethe’s is certainly not an abstractly definable entity, but a spiritual reality, forever in flux, forever in development. It is continuously reborn anew through the fact that one gradually learns to know and to experience the relationship of ‘man’ and ‘world’. It demonstrates its fruitfulness through practical life.
James, without doubt, has had a great influence upon the way of thought of the educated person in America, and to a lesser extent, of those in Europe as well. He is to be regarded primarily as a person who was able to give expression to that which in truth was existent about him. No more than a thermometer produces warmth, but merely measures the temperature of the surrounding area, so has such a philosopher as William James clearly and distinctly formulated into words the attitude of life prevailing about him.
Although, in characterizing people, one must guard against using meaningless generalities, which are all too often of a subjective and accidental nature, there are, at the same time, certain definite qualities which become so conspicuously obvious that one may, without hesitation, attribute them to the national character.
The urge for movement, which belongs so intimately to the Americans as a people, must here be mentioned first and foremost. In a word, the American who is not doing something, or is not in the process of going somewhere, can scarcely be called an American. His attitude toward life is anything but contemplative; the passive, reflective character of the Oriental is entirely alien to his nature. The European finds it difficult to establish a just relationship toward this attitude, and easily falls victim to false judgments. Upon arriving at the Grand Canyon, the European has the need to remain standing in deepest reverie on the brink of the abyss, attempting to absorb something of this wonder of nature and to digest it in silence. The American does things differently. Upon arrival, he casts a hasty glance over the edge, and then goes to eat breakfast, knowing that he will presently take a drive in his car or a bus along the edge of the precipice or descend into its depths on the back of a mule. Or, when he takes a trip through the Sequoias and comes to ‘the biggest tree in the world’, he promptly jumps out of his car and takes a couple of snapshots preferably in color or uses a movie camera, and away he goes a few minutes later. Referring to the European whom he found sitting quietly in silent wonder at the foot of the tree when he came, and who was still sitting in the same position when he left, he may possibly ask himself, ”what’s that fellow doing there, anyhow?” The European easily has the tendency to conclude that the American just doesn’t see anything, and that he is highly superficial in making his observation.
But the truth is quite a different story. The American does see things, but in quite another manner, a manner with which we, as Europeans, are quite familiar and recognize as an old friend out of the psychology of the child. For the adult, observation is a process of inner circumspection. Whenever the eye has seen something of importance or beauty, the adult has the tendency to dwell upon it inwardly for a moment. The impressions made by the senses are followed up by a process of reflection; the adult attempts to absorb inwardly what he has seen or experienced. The child, on the other hand, makes his observations through playing, doing, acting. Whoever has stood holding a small child by the hand in front of the elephant’s cage at the zoo, will know how it feels when one’s efforts to call the child’s attention to this ever-impressive natural phenomenon are in vain; the child insists upon looking at something else in the vicinity, or shows more interest in the toy that he has brought along. We easily get the idea that the elephant does not interest him, or that it is still beyond his comprehension. How great is our surprise when we later discover quite unexpectedly that the child has seen the elephant better than we have!
This childlike manner of observation, if one may refer to it thus, is typical of the American in general. His powers of observation are connected with motion and action. With regard to the object to be observed, or in connection therewith, he finds it necessary to do something in order to establish a relationship with this object.
Upon having made an appointment with a university professor, it makes a curious impression upon the European when he finds the former seated in a large office filled with a number of desks and tables complete with secretaries and switchboards, and where the professor himself is seated at one of the desks typing and telephoning. He is occupied with preparing a lecture. Perhaps the next point on his agenda after one has left is a matter concerning social affairs of one sort or the other, ‘a social gathering’ with a group of students, or what have you. One goes along with him to eat lunch in the university cafeteria, where a large number of other people are doing the same, and thus one constantly finds oneself in the midst of a lively bustle. This, of course, is not always the case, but I have repeatedly experienced situations such as these on my lecture trips.
Every visitor to the United States is immediately struck by the warm, friendly humor which, at least on the surface, prevails everywhere. Upon returning to his own country after having spent several months in America, he experiences a somewhat unpleasant feeling at the coolness and reserve which even expresses itself in the physiognomy of the people there. The American is much more prone to displaying a generous smile or an accommodating gesture, a jovial word or a genial attitude. He is good-natured and ready to help. One quickly notices, however, that this is not the proper soil for truly deep friendships. The many friendly words, which are often uttered quite emphatically, do not possess the same depth of meaning to which the European is accustomed. They are sooner to be regarded as an expression of the cheerful, optimistic and, above all, magnanimous way of life. Contrary to the way of doing things in western and central Europe, where one begins by showing the foreigner a negative attitude, the American begins by giving him a chance. Hasn’t he also had a chance in this enormously great and rich country? It is self-evident that he wants to give the newly-arrived stranger the feeling that America stands open to him, too. ”You are welcome” is the expression which one hears many times in the course of a single day.
In travelling throughout the country as a lecturer, one experiences this magnanimity of spirit to a very high degree in one’s audiences. There is no European country in which I have found such a warm attitude and accommodating spirit as in America, whether it be by students, intellectuals or artists.
America and Americanism