The American is an extreme individualist, in the sense that he appreciates being able to express his independence. He does this through his bearing, his gestures, his conduct and, above all, in his clothing. The eternal tie, with its variegated, queer—sometimes very queer—patterns and designs, serves as a typical example. This self-assuredness has a character entirely of its own, difficult to describe. Surrounding every American, in particular when he comes from the South, the Midwest, or the Far West, there is still something of the immensity, the endlessness, of the prairie. Even when he spends his life in an office, there is something in his appearance that reminds one of a cowboy. This shows itself in the most diverse shades and degrees imaginable, but one soon learns to distinguish even the slightest nuances in the land itself. As an individual, he knows that he is equal to his fellow citizen; he has the same rights, the same opportunities, and the same big world is open for him, too. Whether or not his social standing is higher or lower than that of his neighbor is of no consequence. ”I am as good as the next man” is a typical expression of this attitude.
And yet there is no country on earth where ‘public opinion’ plays such an important part as it does in America. However great an individualist the American thinks himself to be, the part which `public opinion’ plays in forming his views and ideas is enormous. Newspapers and periodicals, of which millions of copies are published, all take care that certain ideas, opinions, and political viewpoints are spread in the most effective manner possible. If someone has a particular idea which he wishes to make known, he is forced to clothe it in a highly attractive facade in order to influence the public: ”You have to sell your idea.” The power of advertising is enormous and nothing, neither the advertiser, the media, the product or the public is immune to it.
On the occasion of a broadcast of a lecture about folk psychology in San Francisco, I was scheduled between an advertisement for ladies’ nylons and one for peanuts. Such occurrences do not bother one at all, however, in a country where broadcasts of concerts of the highest calibre, directed by world-famous conductors, are sponsored by some candy firm which, with the help of jingles and jokes, praises its wares during the intermission. Even the religious life of the people is not left untouched. The deepest religious truths are advertised in the same manner as the latest brand of chewing gum.
And yet, one would be mistaken if one thought that these enormous and continuous propaganda campaigns, regardless of how effective they may be in some respects, were all-powerful. The presidential elections of 1948 demonstrated this fact quite well. The newspapers carried articles week after week about ”Dewey, our next president,” while almost no one gave thought to the possibility of his being defeated.
However much the American may talk and think in terms of generalities, somewhere in the depths of his soul, he possesses an individual will all his own, a will that has something unflinching about it, and that, in times of necessity, leads him to taking quick and effective measures. It is a will that, without much dilly-dallying, leads to action. In the moving story by William Faulkner, Two Soldiers, one finds a sublime portrayal of this American will which, to the European mind, may seem somewhat primitive, but which is somehow rooted in a deep morality, and which can only be described as being wholesome through and through.
Whereas we have already called attention several times to the youthfulness, even childlikeness, of the qualities of the American soul, it is important that we do not forget to mention the immense technical skill which America displays on all sides. Here, one sees the results brought about by the dynamic, impelling will to act, combined with the technical sciences in toto, just as they have been developed in all modern countries, but which have been applied to a higher degree in the United States.
America and Americanism