- Historic Sites
George Orwell’s America
The author of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ never set foot on our shores, but he had a clear and highly personal vision of what we were and what we had been
February/March 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 2
All this literalistic stir would have surprised and amused Orwell, for he never intended his novel as prophecy. “I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily will arrive,” he wrote, “but I believe… that something like it could arrive.” And indeed, the novel’s dismal setting suggests the dusty, played-out, bombed-out London the author knew more than it does a cityscape of the future. Nevertheless, something in the book lifted it out of its slender genre of political satire: to date it has sold more than ten million copies in English alone. Over four hundred thousand were sold in the first year, most of them in the United States, the book’s powerful “Oceania.” Orwell had contributed a regular letter from London to the Partisan Review during World War II, but it wasn’t until 1945 that the success of his cautionary fable Animal Farm made him well known in America, and not until after his death in 1950—a few months after the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four—that he became widely read over here. But once established, his reputation has held as steadily in the United States as it has in his native England.
This is fitting, for our country always interested Orwell, and although he never set foot on these shores, he was a thoughtful and perceptive critic of the American scene. He was not a sentimental one nor, as the following selections from his writings demonstrate, did he embrace any accepted wisdom. He scores Mark Twain for being a toady, for instance, and he violated a tacit wartime understanding by speaking out against the American servicemen he saw rattling around London with too much money in their pockets and too much liquor in their bellies. People got mad at him for that, but he was used to people being mad at him. A quiet, personable, retiring man, he could be absolutely ruthless in the fight against social injustice that was his life-long occupation.
“I have had a bloody life a good deal of the time,” he wrote in 1936, “but in some ways an interesting one.” He was born Eric Blair in India in 1903, the son of a civil servant. Shortly after his birth he returned to England with his mother and at eight entered St. Cyprian’s, the preparatory school whose harrowing conditions he described in his famous essay “Such, Such Were the Joys.” From there he went to Eton—“five years in a lukewarm bath of snobbery,” he called it—and in 1922 he joined the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. This was “doing the dirty work of Empire,” and he detested it. He came to see the British raj as nothing more than a brutal money-making machine: “We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies.” He quit after five years, came back to Europe, and set about “writing novels and short stories which no one would publish.”
Gradually he began to build a reputation as a left-wing voice. He was a Socialist—which to him represented nothing more or less than “justice and liberty”—but one who made fellow left-wingers uneasy. He did not admire everyone who worked his side of the political street. “If only the sandals and the pistachio-coloured shirts could be put in a pile and burnt,” he said, “and every vegetarian, teetotaller and creeping Jesus sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly.”
He wanted a classless society but knew that English class boundaries were almost unbreachable. During a self-imposed exile among the unemployed in bleak mining towns, he wrote: “I cannot get the men to treat me precisely as an equal. They call me either ‘Sir’ or ‘Comrade.’” Orwell preferred the former title: he despised cant from left or right, and found the word comrade “a ridiculous label which, even after long practice, can hardly be mentioned without a gulp of shame.”
He came closest to finding his classless society in 1936 in Spain, fighting on the Aragon Front against Franco with the POUM, a Marxist outfit that was the smallest of the political militias in action there. “Everyone from general to private drew the same pay, ate the same food, wore the same clothes and mingled on terms of complete equality.…” It did not last. In the spring of 1937 Orwell was shot in the throat; when he returned from the hospital he found that the Communist party had accused the POUM of treason, the militia had been declared illegal, its leaders murdered, and his own life put in danger.
He returned to England with a conviction that would put him increasingly at odds with the mass of the British left: tyranny was tyranny no matter where it came from, and it was morally indefensible to deplore Hitler’s methods while condoning Stalin’s.
During the war he supported Great Britain. “I don’t,” he said, “share the average English intellectual’s hatred of his own country…”
However steadfast, honorable, and commonsensical Orwell’s views, his would have been only one more voice in a crowded era were it not for the extraordinary grace and clarity of his writing. V. S. Pritchett speaks of his “fast, clear, grey, bitter prose with its arguing ring and satirical asides,” but Orwell’s voice is funnier than that, and warmer. “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it.” This is true enough to allow Pritchett to call Orwell “the conscience of his generation” without sounding grandiloquent. But it is not conscience alone that gives his writing an appeal that continues to grow when other political tracts of the time are forgotten. And Orwell was aware that there was more to it than politics: “I could not do the work of writing… if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant.… So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information…”
During the boom years… Paris was invaded by such a swarm of artists… debauchees and plain idlers as the world has probably never seen.
It is this love of the particular that informs the views of America collected in this anthology. The hatred of injustice is here; but so, too, is the pleasure in the language, the love of the sharp detail. In the last, and perhaps the most delightful, of these selections, Orwell reminds us of how post-Civil War monopoly capitalism tarnished the old, untrammeled, egalitarian America of the 1840s. But the article is no polemic; it is, rather, an evocation of the America of George Orwell’s fondest imaginings—the free and buoyant land that is more symbol than geographic or political fact but is none the less real for that.
He had in him an iconoclastic, even revolutionary vein which he obviously wanted to follow up and yet somehow never did follow up.
However, Mark Twain aimed at being something more than a chronicler of the Mississippi and the Cold Rush. In his own day he was famous all over the world as a humorist and comic lecturer. In New York, London, Berlin, Vienna, Melbourne and Calcutta vast audiences rocked with laughter over jokes which have now, almost without exception, ceased to be funny. (It is worth noticing that Mark Twain’s lectures were only a success with Anglo-Saxon and German audiences. The relatively grown-up Latin races—whose own humour, he complained, always centred round sex and politics—never cared for them.) But in addition, Mark Twain had some pretensions’to being a social critic, even a species of philosopher. He had in him an iconoclastic, even revolutionary vein which he obviously wanted to follow up and yet somehow never did follow up. He might have been a destroyer of humbugs and a prophet of democracy more valuable than Whitman, because healthier and more humorous. Instead he became that dubious thing a “public figure”, flattered by passport officials and entertained by royalty, and his career reflects the deterioration in American life that set in after the civil war…
In Life on the Mississippi there is a queer little illustration of the central weakness of Mark Twain’s character. In the earlier part of this mainly autobiographical book the dates have been altered. Mark Twain describes his adventures as a Mississippi pilot as though he had been a boy of about seventeen at the time, whereas in fact he was a young man of nearly thirty. There is a reason for this. The same part of the book describes his exploits in the civil war, which were distinctly inglorious. Moreover, Mark Twain started by fighting, if he can be said to have fought, on the Southern side, and then changed his allegiance before the war was over. This kind of behaviour is more excusable in a boy than in a man, whence the adjustment of the dates. It is also clear enough, however, that he changed sides because he saw that the North was going to win; and this tendency to side with the stronger whenever possible, to believe that might must be right, is apparent throughout his career. In Roughing It there is an interesting account of a bandit named Slade, who, among countless other outrages, had committed 28 murders. It is perfectly clear that Mark Twain admires this disgusting scoundrel. Slade was successful; therefore he was admirable. This outlook, no less common today, is summed up in the significant American expression “to make good.”
In the money-grubbing period that followed the civil war it was hard for anyone of Mark Twain’s temperament to refuse to be a success. The old, simple, stump-whittling, tobacco-chewing democracy which Abraham Lincoln typified was perishing: it was now the age of cheap immigrant labour and the growth of Big Business. Mark Twain mildly satirised his contemporaries in The Gilded Age, but he also gave himself up to the prevailing fever, and made and lost vast sums of money. He even for a period of years deserted writing for business; and he squandered his time on buffooneries, not merely lecture tours and public banquets, but, for instance, the writing of a book like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which is a deliberate flattery of all that is worst and most vulgar in American life. The man who might have been a kind of rustic Voltaire became the world’s leading afterdinner speaker, charming alike for his anecdotes and his power to make businessmen feel themselves public benefactors.
It is usual to blame Mark Twain’s wife for his failure to write the books he ought to have written, and it is evident that she did tyrannise over him pretty thoroughly. Each morning, Mark Twain would show her what he had written the day before, and Mrs Clemens … would go over it with the blue pencil, cutting out everything that she thought unsuitable. She seems to have been a drastic blue-penciller even by nineteenth-century standards. There is an account in W. D. Howells’s book My Mark Twain of the fuss that occurred over a terrible expletive that had crept into [Tom Sawyer]. Mark Twain appealed to Howells, who admitted that it was “just what Huck would have said,” but agreed with Mrs. Clemens that the word could not possibly be printed. The word was “hell”. Nevertheless, no writer is really the intellectual slave of his wife. Mrs Clemens could not have stopped Mark Twain writing any book he really wanted to write. She may have made his surrender to society easier, but the surrender happened because of that flaw in his own nature, his inability to despise success.
Several of Mark Twain’s books are bound to survive, because they contain invaluable social history. His life covered the great period of American expansion. When he was a child it was a normal day’s outing to go with a picnic lunch and watch the hanging of an Abolitionist, and when he died the aeroplane was ceasing to be a novelty. This period in America produced relatively little literature, and but for Mark Twain our picture of a Mississippi paddle-steamer, or a stage-coach crossing the plains, would be much dimmer than it is. But most people who have studied his work have come away with a feeling that he might have done something more. He gives all the while a strange impression of being about to say something and then funking it, so that Life on the Mississippi and the rest of them seem to be haunted by the ghost of a greater and much more coherent book…
This process will probably continue for some time. One cannot check it simply by protesting against it, and in any case many American words and expressions are well worth adopting. Some are necessary neologisms, others (for instance, fall for autumn) are old words which we ought never to have dropped. But it ought to be realised that on the whole American is a bad influence and has already had a debasing effect.
To begin with, American has some of the vices of English in an exaggerated form. The interchangeability of different parts of speech has been carried further, the distinction between transitive and intransitive verbs tends to break down, and many words are used which have no meaning whatever. For example, whereas English alters the meaning of a verb by tacking a preposition on to it, the American tendency is to burden every verb with a preposition that adds nothing to its meaning ( win out, lose out, face up to, etc). On the other hand, American has broken more completely than English with the past and with literary traditions. It not only produces words like beautician, moronic, and sexualise, but often replaces strong primary words by feeble euphemisms. For instance, many Americans seem to regard the word death and various words that go with it (corpse, coffin, shroud) as almost unmentionable. But above all, to adopt the American language wholeheartedly would probably mean a huge loss of vocabulary. For though American produces vivid and witty turns of speech, it is terribly poor in names for natural objects and localities. Even the streets in American cities are usually known by numbers instead of names. If we really intended to model our language upon American we should have, for instance, to lump the lady-bird, the daddy-long-legs, the saw-fly, the water-boatman, the cockchafer, the cricket, the death-watch beetle and scores of other insects all together under the inexpressive name of bug . We should lose the poetic names of our wild flowers, and also, probably, our habit of giving individual names to every street, pub, field, lane, and hillock. In so far as American is adopted, that is the tendency. Those who take their language from the films, or from papers such as Life and Time, always prefer the slick time-saving word to the one with a history behind it. As to accent it is doubtful whether the American accent has the superiority which it is now fashionable to claim for it. The “educated” English accent, a product of the last thirty years, is undoubtedly very bad and is likely to be abandoned, but the average English person probably speaks as clearly as the average American. Most English people blur their vowel sounds, but most Americans swallow their consonants. Many Americans pronounce, for instance, water as though it had no T in it, or even as though it had no consonant in it at all, except the W. On the whole we are justified in regarding the American language with suspicion. We ought to be ready to borrow its best words, but we ought not to let it modify the actual structure of our language.
English has borrowed largely from American while American has shown no tendency to borrow from English.
SOLDIER: “Wharrishay is, perfijious Albion. You heard that? Perfijious Albion. Never trust a Britisher. You can’t trust the b—s.”
ORWELL: “Can’t trust them with what?”
SOLDIER: “Wharrishay is, down with Britain. Down with the British. You wanna do anything ’bout that? Then you can — well do it.” (Sticks his face out like a tomcat on a garden wall.)
TOBACCONIST: He’ll knock your block off if you don’t shut up.”
SOLDIER: “Wharrishay is, down with Britain.” (Subsides across the counter again. The tobacconist lifts his head delicately out of the scales.)
Theodore Dreiser… remarks in a public speech that “the British are horse-riding aristocratic snobs.” (Forty-six million horse-riding snobs!)
This kind of thing is not exceptional. Even if you steer clear of Piccadilly with its seething swarms of drunks and whores, it is difficult to go anywhere in London without having the feeling that Britain is now Occupied Territory. The general consensus of opinion seems to be that the only American soldiers with decent manners are the Negroes. On the other hand the Americans have their own justifiable complaints—in particular, they complain of the children who follow them day and night, cadging sweets.… Before the war there was no popular anti-American feeling in this country. It all dates from the arrival of the American troops, and it is made vastly worse by the tacit agreement never to discuss it in print…
—December 3, 1943
So many letters have arrived, attacking me for my remarks about the American soldiers in this country, that I must return to the subject.
Contrary to what most of my correspondents seem to think, I was not trying to make trouble between ourselves and our Allies, nor am I consumed by hatred for the United States. I am much less anti-American than most English people are at this moment. What I say, and what I repeat, is that our policy of not criticizing our Allies, and not answering their criticism of us (we don’t answer the Russians either, nor even the Chinese) is a mistake, and is likely to defeat its own object in the long run. And so far as Anglo-American relations go, there are three difficulties which badly need dragging into the open and which simply don’t get mentioned in the British press.
Before the war, anti-American feeling was a middle-class, and perhaps upper-class thing, resulting from imperialist and business jealousy and disguising itself as dislike of the American accent etc. The working class, so far from being anti-American, were becoming rapidly Americanised in speech by means of the films and jazz songs. Now, in spite of what my correspondents may say, I can hear few good words for the Americans anywhere. This obviously results from the arrival of the American troops. It has been made worse by the fact that, for various reasons, the Mediterranean campaign had to be represented as an American show while most of the casualties had to be suffered by the British… I am not saying that popular English prejudices are always justified: I am saying that they exist.
We ought to face the fact that large numbers of Americans are brought up to dislike and despise us. There is a large section of the press whose main accent is anti-British, and countless other papers which attack Britain in a more sporadic way. In addition there is a systematic guying of what are supposed to be British habits and manners on the stage and in comic strips and cheap magazines. The typical Englishman is represented as a chinless ass with a title, a monocle and a habit of saying “Haw, haw”. This legend is believed in by relatively responsible Americans, for example by the veteran novelist Theodore Dreiser, who remarks in a public speech that “the British are horse-riding aristocratic snobs”. (Forty-six million horse-riding snobs!) It is commonplace on the American stage that the Englishman is almost never allowed to play a favourable role, any more than the Negro is allowed to appear as anything more than a comic. Yet right up to Pearl Harbour the American movie industry had an agreement with the Japanese Government never to present a Japanese character in an unfavourable light!
I am not blaming the Americans for all this. The anti-British press has powerful business forces behind it, besides ancient quarrels in many of which Britain was in the wrong. As for popular anti-British feeling, we partly bring it on ourselves by exporting our worst specimens. But what I do want to emphasise is that these anti-British currents in the USA are very strong, and that the British press has consistently failed to draw attention to them. There has never been in England anything that one could call an antiAmerican press: and since the war there has been a steady refusal to answer criticism and a careful censorship of the radio to cut out anything that the Americans might object to. As a result, many English people don’t realise how they are regarded, and get a shock when they find out.
It is sad to have to admit it, but we have no monthly… magazines in England to come up to the American ones.
It is now two years since the first American troops reached this country, and I rarely see American and British soldiers together. Quite obviously the major cause of this is the difference of pay. You can’t have really close and friendly relations with somebody whose income is five times your own. Financially, the whole American army is in the middle class. In the field this might not matter, but in the training period it makes it almost impossible for British and American soldier to fraternise. If you don’t want friendly relations between the British army and the American army, well and good. But if you do, you must either pay the British soldier ten shillings a day or make the American soldier bank the surplus of his pay in America. I don’t profess to know which of these alternatives is the right one.
—December 17, 1943
Uncle Tom’s Cabin …is an unintentionally ludicrous book, full of preposterous melodramatic incidents: it is also deeply moving.
I would far rather have written either of those than, say, “The Blessed Damozel” or “Love in the Valley.” And by the same token I would back Uncle Tom’s Cabin to outlive the complete works of Virginia Woolf or George Moore, though I know of no strictly literary test which would show where the superiority lies.
It has perhaps been unfortunate for Bret Harte’s modern reputation that of his two funniest poems, one turns on colour prejudice and the other on class snobbery. But there are a number that are worth rereading, including one or two serious ones: especially “Dickens in Camp”, the now almost forgotten poem which Bret Harte wrote after Dickens’s death and which was about the finest tribute Dickens ever had.
London’s understanding of the nature of a ruling class—that is, the characteristics which a ruling class must have if it is to survive—went very deep. According to the conventional left-wing view, the “capitalist” is simply a cynical scoundrel, without honour or courage, and intent only on filling his own pockets. London knew that that view is false. But why, one might justly ask, should this hurried, sensational, in some ways childish writer have understood that particular thing so much better than the majority of his fellow Socialists?
The answer is surely that London could foresee Fascism because he had a Fascist streak in himself: or at any rate a marked strain of brutality and an almost unconquerable preference for the strong man as against the weak man.… He was an adventurer and a man of action as few writers have ever been. Born into dire poverty, he had already escaped from it at sixteen, thanks to his commanding character and powerful physique: his early years were spent among oyster pirates, gold prospectors, tramps and prizefighters, and he was ready to admire toughness wherever he found it. On the other hand he never forgot the sordid miseries of his childhood, and he never faltered in his loyalty to the exploited classes. Much of his time was spent in working and lecturing for the Socialist movement, and when he was already a successful and famous man he could explore the worst depths of poverty in the London slums, passing himself off as an American sailor, and compile a book (The People of the Abyss) which still has sociological value. His outlook was democratic in the sense that he hated exploitation and hereditary privilege, and that he felt most at home in the company of people who worked with their hands: but his instinct lay towards acceptance of a “natural aristocracy” of strength, beauty and talent. Intellectually he knew, as one can see from various remarks in The Iron Heel, that Socialism ought to mean the meek inheriting the earth, but that was not what his temperament demanded. In much of his work one strain in his character simply kills the other off: he is at his best where they interact, as they do in certain of his short stories. … A … typical story is “A Piece of Steak”. London’s love of boxing and admiration for sheer physical strength, his perception of the meanness and cruelty of a competitive society, and at the same time his instinctive tendency to accept vae victis as a law of Nature, are all expressed here. An old prize-fighter is fighting his last battle: his opponent is a beginner, young and full of vigour, but without experience. The old man nearly wins, but in the end his ringcraft is no match for the youthful resilience of the other. Even when he has him at his mercy he is unable to strike the blow that would finish him, because he has been underfed for weeks before the fight and his muscles cannot make the necessary effort. He is left bitterly reflecting that if only he had had a good piece of steak on the day of the fight he would have won.
There seems to be good reason for thinking that an exaggerated love of animals generally goes with a rather brutal attitude toward humans.
The old man’s thoughts all run upon the theme: “Youth will be served”. First you are young and strong, and you knock out older men and make money which you squander: then your strength wanes and in turn you are knocked out by younger men, and then you sink into poverty. This does in fact tell the story of the average boxer’s life, and it would be a gross exaggeration to say that Jack London approves of the way in which men are used up like gladiators by a society which cannot even bother to feed them. The detail of the piece of steak—not strictly necessary, since the main point of the story is that the younger man is bound to win by virtue of his youth—rubs in the economic implication. And yet there is something in London that takes a kind of pleasure in the whole cruel process…
London had been deeply influenced by the theory of the Survival of the Fittest. His book, Before Adam—an inaccurate but very readable story of prehistory, in which ape-man and early and late Paleolithic men are all shown as existing simultaneously—is an attempt to popularize Darwin. Although Darwin’s main thesis has not been shaken, there has been, during the past twenty or thirty years, a change in the interpretation put upon it by the average thinking man. In the late nineteenth century Darwinism was used as a justification for laissez-faire capitalism, for power politics and for the exploiting of subject peoples. Life was a free-for-all in which the fact of survival was proof of fitness to survive: this was a comforting thought for successful businessmen, and it also led naturally, though not very logically, to the notion of “superior” and “inferior” races. In our day we are less willing to apply biology to politics, partly because we have watched the Nazis do just that thing, with great thoroughness and with horrible results. But when London was writing, a crude version of Darwinism was widespread and must have been difficult to escape. He himself was even capable at times of succumbing to racial mysticism. He toyed for a while with a race theory similar to that of the Nazis, and throughout his work the cult of the “nordic” is fairly well marked. It ties up on the one hand with his admiration for prize-fighters, and on the other with his anthropomorphic view of animals: for there seems to be good reason for thinking that an exaggerated love of animals generally goes with a rather brutal attitude towards human beings. London was a Socialist with the instincts of a buccaneer and the education of a nineteenth-century materialist. In general the background of his stories is not industrial, nor even civilised. Most of them take place—and much of his own life was lived—on ranches or South Sea islands, in ships, in prison or in the wastes of the Arctic: places where a man is either alone and dependent on his own strength and cunning, or where life is naturally patriarchal.
Nevertheless, London did write from time to time about contemporary industrial society, and on the whole he was at his best when he did so. Apart from his short stories, there are The People of the Abyss, The Road (a brilliant little book describing London’s youthful experiences as a tramp), and certain passages in The Vattey of the Moon, which have the tumultuous history of American trade unionism as their background. Although the tug of his impulses was away from civilisation, London had read deeply in the literature of the Socialist movement, and his early life had taught him all he needed to know about urban poverty. He himself was working in a factory at the age of eleven, and without that experience behind him he could hardly have written such a story as “The Apostate”. In this story, as in all his best work, London does not comment, but he does unquestionably aim at rousing pity and indignation. … London’s better angel is his Socialist convictions, which come into play when he deals with such subjects as coloured exploitation, child labour or the treatment of criminals, but are hardly involved when he is writing about explorers or animals. It is probably for this reason that a high proportion of his better writings deal with urban life. In stories like “The Apostate”, “Just Meat”, “A Piece of Steak” and “Semper Idem”, however cruel and sordid they may seem, something is keeping him on the rails and checking his natural urge towards the glorification of brutality. That “something” is his knowledge, theoretical as well as practical, of what industrial capitalism means in terms of human suffering…
One is of a boy sitting in a whitewashed stone schoolroom. He wears braces and has patches on his shirt, and if it is summer he is barefooted. In the corner of the schoolroom there is a bucket of drinking water with a dipper. The boy lives in a farm-house, also of stone and also whitewashed, which has a mortgage on it. He aspires to be President, and is expected to keep the woodpile full. Somewhere in the background of the picture, but completely dominating it, is a huge black Bible. The other picture is of a tall, angular man, with a shapeless hat pulled down over his eyes, leaning against a wooden paling and whittling at a stick. His lower jaw moves slowly but ceaselessly. At very long intervals he emits some piece of wisdom such as “A woman is the orneriest critter there is, ’ceptin’ a mule”, or “When you don’t know a thing to do, don’t do a thing”; but more often it is a jet of tobacco juice that issues from the gap in his front teeth. Between them those two pictures summed up my earliest impression of America. And of the two, the first—which, I suppose, represented New England, the other representing the South—had the stronger hold upon me.
Louisa M. Alcott’s Little Women and Good Wives are, I suppose, still flickeringly in print.…As a child, I loved both of them.
The books from which these pictures were derived included, of course, books which it is still possible to take seriously, such as Tom Sawyer and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but the most richly American flavour was to be found in minor works which are now almost forgotten. I wonder, for instance, if anyone still reads Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm , which remained a popular favourite long enough to be filmed with Mary Pickford in the leading part. Or how about the “Katy” books by Susan Coolidge (What Katy Did at School , etc), which, although girls’ books and therefore “soppy,” had the fascination of foreignness? Louisa M. Alcott’s Little Women and Good Wives are, I suppose, still flickeringly in print, and certainly they still have their devotees. As a child I loved both of them, though I was less pleased by the third of the trilogy, Little Men. That model school where the worst punishment was to have to whack the schoolmaster, on “this hurts me more than it hurts you” principles, was rather difficult to swallow.
Helen’s Babies [by John Habberton] belonged in much the same world as Little Women, and must have been published round about the same date. Then there were Artemus Ward, Bret Harte, and various songs, hymns and ballads, besides poems dealing with the civil war, such as “Barbara Fritchie” (“ ‘Shoot if you must this old grey head, But spare your country’s flag’, she said”) and “Little Gifford of Tennessee”. There were other books so obscure that it hardly seems worth mentioning them, and magazine stories of which I remember nothing except that the old homestead always seemed to have a mortgage on it. There was also Beautiful Joe, the American reply to Black Beauty, of which you might just possibly pick up a copy in a sixpenny box. All the books I have mentioned were written well before 1900, but something of the special American flavour lingered on into this century in, for instance, the Buster Brown coloured supplements, and even in Booth Tarkington’s “Penrod” stories, which will have been written round about 1910. Perhaps there was even a tinge of it in Ernest Thompson Seton’s animal books (Wild Animals I Have Known, etc), which have now fallen from favour but which drew tears from the pre-1914 child as surely as Misunderstood had done from the children of a generation earlier.
Somewhat later my picture of nineteenth-century America was given greater precision by a song which is still fairly well known and which can be found (I think) in the Scottish Students’ Song Book. As usual in these bookless days I cannot get hold of a copy, and I must quote fragments from memory. It begins:
Presently an aged couple and a “village maiden”, described as “beautiful, petite”, get into the carriage. Quantities of cinders are flying about, and before long the student fellow gets one in his eye; the village maiden extracts it for him, to the scandal of the aged couple. Soon after this the train shoots into a long tunnel, “black as Egypt’s night”. When it emerges into the daylight again the maiden is covered with blushes, and the cause of her confusion is revealed when
I do not know the date of the song, but the primitiveness of the train (no lights in the carriage, and a cinder in one’s eye a normal accident) suggests that it belongs well back in the nineteenth century.
What connects this song with books like Helen’s Babies is first of all a sort of sweet innocence—the climax, the thing you are supposed to be slightly shocked at, is an episode with which any modern piece of naughty-naughty would start —and, secondly, a faint vulgarity of language mixed up with a certain cultural pretentiousness. Helen’s Babies is intended as a humorous, even a farcical book, but it is haunted all the way through by words like “tasteful” and “ladylike”, and it is funny chiefly because its tiny disasters happen against a background of conscious gentility. “Handsome, intelligent, composed, tastefully dressed, without a suspicion of the flirt or the languid woman of fashion about her, she awakened to the utmost my every admiring sentiment”—thus is the heroine described, figuring elsewhere as “erect, fresh, neat, composed, bright-eyed, fair-faced, smiling and observant”. One gets beautiful glimpses of a now-vanished world in such remarks as: “I believe you arranged the floral decorations at St. Zephaniah’s Fair last winter, Mr Burton? ’Twas the most tasteful display of the season”. But in spite of the occasional use of “’twas” and other archaisms—“parlour” for sitting-room, “chamber” for bedroom, “real” as an adverb, and so forth—the book does not “date” very markedly, and many of its admirers imagine it to have been written round about 1900. Actually it was written in 1875, a fact which one might infer from internal evidence, since the hero, aged twenty-eight, is a veteran of the civil war.
The book is very short and the story is a simple one. A young bachelor is prevailed on by his sister to look after her house and her two sons, aged five and three, while she and her husband go on a fortnight’s holiday. The children drive him almost mad by an endless succession of such acts as falling into ponds, swallowing poison, throwing keys down wells, cutting themselves with razors, and the like, but also facilitate his engagement to “a charming girl, whom, for about a year, I had been adoring from afar”. These events take place in an outer suburb of New York, in a society which now seems astonishingly sedate, formal, domesticated and, according to current conceptions, un-American. Every action is governed by etiquette. To pass a carriage full of ladies when your hat is crooked is an ordeal; to recognise an acquaintance in church is ill-bred; to become engaged after a ten days’ courtship is a severe social lapse. We are accustomed to thinking of American society as more crude, adventurous and, in a cultural sense, democratic than our own, and from writers like Mark Twain, Whitman and Bret Harte, not to mention the cowboy and Red Indian stories of the weekly papers, one draws a picture of a wild anarchic world peopled by eccentrics and desperadoes who have no traditions and no attachment to one place. That aspect of nineteenth-century America did of course exist, but in the more populous eastern States a society similar to Jane Austen’s seems to have survived longer than it did in England. And it is hard not to feel that it was a better kind of society than that which arose from the sudden industrialisation of the later part of the century. The people in Helen’s Babies or Little Women may be mildly ridiculous, but they are uncorrupted. They have something that is perhaps best described as integrity, or good morale, founded partly on an unthinking piety. It is a matter of course that everyone attends church on Sunday morning and says grace before meals and prayers at bedtime: to amuse the children one tells them Bible stories, and if they ask for a song it is probably “Glory, glory Hallelujah”. Perhaps it is also a sign of spiritual health in the light literature of this period that death is mentioned freely. “Baby Phil”, the brother of Budge and Toddie, has died shortly before Helen’s Babies opens, and there are various tear-jerking references to his “tiny coffin”. A modern writer attempting a story of this kind would have kept coffins out of it.
For some decades, at least, life in America was much better fun than life in Europe—there was more happening.
English children are still américanisée! by way of the films, but it would no longer be generally claimed that American books are the best ones for children. Who, without misgivings, would bring up a child on the coloured “comics” in which sinister professors manufacture atomic bombs in underground laboratories while Superman whizzes through the clouds, the machinegun bullets bouncing off his chest like peas, and platinum blondes are raped, or very nearly, by steel robots and fifty-foot dinosaurs? It is a far cry from Superman to the Bible and the woodpile. The earlier children’s books, or books readable by children, had not only innocence but a sort of native gaiety, a buoyant, carefree feeling, which was the product, presumably, of the unheard-of freedom and security which nineteenth-century America enjoyed. That is the connecting link between books so seemingly far apart as Little Women and Life on the Mississippi. The society described in the one is subdued, bookish and home-loving, while the other tells of a crazy world of bandits, gold mines, duels, drunkenness and gambling hells: but in both one can detect an underlying confidence in the future, a sense of freedom and opportunity.
Nineteenth-century America was a rich, empty country which lay outside the mainstream of world events, and in which the twin nightmares that beset nearly every modern man, the nightmare of unemployment and the nightmare of State interference, had hardly come into being. There were social distinctions, more marked than those of today, and there was poverty (in Little Women, it will be remembered, the family is at one time so hard up that one of the girls sells her hair to the barber), but there was not, as there is now, an all-prevailing sense of helplessness. There was room for everybody, and if you worked hard you could be certain of a living—could even be certain of growing rich: this was generally believed, and for the greater part of the population it was even broadly true. In other words, the civilisation of nineteenth-century America was capitalist civilisation at its best. Soon after the civil war the inevitable deterioration started. But for some decades, at least, life in America was much better fun than life in Europe—there was more happening, more colour, more variety, more opportunity—and the books and songs of that period had a sort of bloom, a childlike quality…