In Praise of the Americans

At the start of the Great Depression, a moonlighting professor described U.S. culture perfectly. Scott McLemee unearths a classic.

November 24, 2010

Over the weekend -- while busily procrastinating here in the main library of the University of Texas at Austin -- I stumbled across something suitable for the Intellectual Affairs column running just before Thanksgiving. Inside Higher Ed has a growing international readership. Still, I hope it will not be too provincial to call attention to a long-forgotten essay called “In Praise of the Americans” by Stephen Leacock, a Canadian political scientist and economist who was also one of the best-known humorists of his day. The essay appeared during the Great Depression, as the final word in an anthology intended to explain the United States to European readers.

The volume in question, America as Americans See It, was published by the Literary Guild in 1932. It contains more than 40 essays by various eminent and near-eminent figures of that era, plus dozens of photographs and cartoons. The editor, Fred J. Ringel, says in the introduction that he intended to prepare a study of the national culture after he arrived in the United States. (From where, he doesn’t indicate, and this seems to be his one major publication.) But he gave up and decided to edit an anthology instead. Among the better-remembered contributors are W.E.B. Du Bois and Upton Sinclair. There is also an essay by one Clare Boothe Brokaw, an editor at Vanity Fair, on the rituals and pretenses of high society. This author would become somewhat better known when she changed surnames after marrying Henry Luce, and her observations would be recycled into more memorable form in a play called The Women.

Although Ringel doesn’t mention it, many readers of the time would have recalled a similar volume called Civilization in the United States, published in 1922. I'd guess that America as Americans See It appearing on its tenth anniversary was not a total coincidence. The editor of the previous collection was Harold Stearns, who had also published a volume of his own writings called America and the Young Intellectuals (1921) that looks, with hindsight, like a sort of opening salvo in the culture wars. In Civilization in the United States, he joined forces with H.L. Mencken, Lewis Mumford, Van Wyck Brooks, and others to produce a landmark work of social criticism.

On the day it was published, Stearns boarded a ship to Paris – where, in celebration of having escaped Prohibition, he promptly got drunk, staying that way pretty much continuously for the next decade. Legend has it that when Stearns ended up sleeping in the gutter, one expatriate pointed him out to another and said, “There’s Civilization in the United States.” (In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway bases a character on Stearns at his booziest.)

All of which forms part of the backdrop for America as Americans See It, and in particular to Stephen Leacock’s essay, which the editor retitled “A Neighbor Looks at America.” A short biographical headnote in the anthology notes that Leacock’s syndicated articles were reaching “as many as nine million readers in the United States and Canada alone,” while some of his work had worldwide circulation. His first volume, Elements of Political Science (1906), was for a long time the standard undergraduate textbook and was translated into 19 languages, including Chinese and Urdu. But he was best known for his humorous writings, which also fed the great demand for him as a lecturer. These extracurricular activities earned him about five times as much as his salary as a head of the department of political economy at McGill University in Montreal.

When his first collection of anecdotes and satires appeared in 1910, it became an international best-seller and earned him comparisons to Mark Twain, who had just died. “Theirs were common gifts for broad burlesque, grotesque exaggeration, juxtaposition of irrelevant ideas, and casual shifting from one comic pose to another,” points out Leacock's biographer David M. Legate. I’d say there is also some resemblance to Robert Benchley and Ring Lardner.

Leacock wrote an enormous amount -- there were one or two collections of his essays every year until his death in 1944. Much of it doesn't hold up very well, after all this time. When you need a footnote to get a joke, it’s not really a joke any more; it is a fossil. But his observations on the civilization just south of Canada are another matter. Apart from a couple of topical references, they still apply after almost eighty years.

“Americans are a queer people,” he writes. “They can’t rest…. They rush up and down across their continent as tourists; they move about in great herds to conventions, they invade the wilderness, they flood the mountains, they keep the hotels full. But they can’t rest. The scenery rushes past them. They learn it, but they don’t see it. Battles and monuments are announced to them in a rubber neck bus… So they go on rushing until the Undertaker gathers them to the last convention.”

The same state of distracted haste prevails in the educational system and in publishing. Americans “have more schools,” Leacock writes, “and better schools, and spend more money on schools and colleges than all of Europe. They print more books in one year than the French print in ten. But they can’t read. They cover their country with 100,000 tons of Sunday newspapers every week. But they don’t read them. They’re too busy. They use them for fires and to make more paper with.” Today, of course, we publish everything digitally, then ignore it.

If they ever bothered to read anything, Americans would probably be unhappy. But we don’t. So (as the quintessential American phrase now goes) it’s all good: “All the world criticizes them and they don’t give a damn….Moralists cry over them, criminologists dissect them, writers shoot epigrams at them, prophets foretell the end of them, and they never move. Seventeen brilliant books analyze them every month; they don’t read them .… But that’s all right. The Americans don’t give a damn; don’t need to; never did need to. That is their salvation.”

That is the last word of his essay -- but also of America as Americans See It, which, like other such volumes, Leacock treats as a symptom of American overproduction, destined to meet American indifference.His notion of total indifference as a basis for salvation is, no doubt about it, ironic. But you can do worse than to run a political campaign on that basis.

Either way, the man clearly had our number. The more things change, the more they stay the same. So happy Thanksgiving.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top