Love-Hate Relations: English and American Sensibilities
No country can tell us more about ourselves than England can. Americans who refresh their sight with visits to that mirror image learn to see their national character with the lucidity that an adult gains from comparing himself to his siblings. Our common language opens mysterious depths; and in surveying the two literatures one hardly starts a contrast without receiving an insight. The simple challenge of a literary career means something different to each people. For a young American it brings into view the direction of the national conscience, a leadership more important than lawmaking, more lasting than empire. But for three hundred years the men of England have been loosening their hold on a hereditary estate of drama, narrative, and the high forms of prose.
Milton and Dryden wrote the last works that a respectable judge would call epic or tragedy; and since the Revolution of 1688 all the best comedies in English have been of Irish manufacture. Among novelists the eighteenth century sent forth a quadrumvirate of great Englishmen: Defoe and Richardson, Fielding and Sterne. But the native male was then overbalanced by women, Scots, and Irishmen. In our own century the count is Hardy and Lawrence against Conrad, Joyce, and Woolf.
The less imaginative forms tip the scales the same way. After Locke, the gifted philosophers are the Irish Berkeley, the Scottish Hume, and the Austrian Wittgenstein. Neither Boswell nor Burke nor Carlyle was English; and Mill was educated by his Scottish father. It is only as poets and critics that Englishmen have remained thoroughly in charge of their tradition; for in these arts one’s ear for language means more than all one’s other faculties. Here, aboriginal Anglophones can take their superiority for granted—if one disregards Eliot and Yeats.
An effect of this shrinkage of English authorship has been a lack of pushing and shoving, of competitive professionalism, which in England belongs to the humblest levels of popular literature more than to men of talent. The late Georgette Heyer shaped her best-selling novels to suit her unintellectual clients, and kept ahead of rivals in a profitable trade. But Iris Murdoch and Angus Wilson (with a smaller, if substantial, audience) explore at leisure worlds they have discovered by themselves.
Amateurism has allowed the English tradition to keep in touch with every grade of reader. Instead of a sudden, breathtaking rise from housewives’ fiction to subsidized experimental writing, the English enjoy a delicately shaded landscape of vulgarized history, narrative biography, fiction, academic studies, upper journalism, poetry for periodicals, and hieratic art. They can do so because a common standard of style permits authors to move easily across this landscape.
English writing and English speech have an intimate connection that American writing has lost. Outside the South we have few authors who try to speak with the grace or color they infuse into their work. English people of all ranks are used to reading aloud what they write, and they enjoy verbal wit in a way that would discomfit most Americans. The letters of Wallace Stevens will depress anyone who compares them with those of Lawrence.
The large features of American literary tradition are due to the size of the country and to the fact that immigrants populated it. Although our speech and our main political institutions were derived from England, our writers were as much rivals as pupils of those whose works they studied. Socially and intellectually, women have from the start held a more privileged place in a culture that was during its formative centuries shorthanded in every way; yet Emily Dickinson is the one female author to stand with our foremost males. Literary nationalism has always had a special appeal for a people who felt they had chosen their citizenship and not passively received it; and authorship has grown not less but more glamorous as the nation matured. But the standard of style could hardly be the spoken tongue in a nation engulfed by foreign accents; and correctness rather than flavor had to be the guiding principle for instructors taming the wilderness of immigrant error.
With an audience so mobile and varied, a land so resistant to easy travel, the writers of America have enjoyed little of the community (with one another or with readers) that the English have taken for granted. So our tradition has given too explicit an attention to matters of technique and to the measures of success. These could not be implicit among men who seldom met one another. Contemplating the nightingale as an emblem of English literary tradition, John Crowe Ransom wrote,
How could her delicate dirge run democratic,
Delivered in a cloudless boundless public place
To an inordinate race?
The attitude of American authors to that tradition has changed as naturally as the seasons. Our revolution ended the period when we had to see ourselves as an extension of the mother culture; and during the century that followed, the normal posture of American intellectual leaders was a fascinated ambivalence. Emerson, Hawthorne, and a hundred other travelers left records of the quarrel between their patriotism and their recognition that England possessed an accumulation of aesthetic or social resources which any visitor must covet. Only in moral integrity did America surpass her; but that—one said—was worth it all.
From England Hawthorne writes to Ticknor that the United States “are fit for many excellent purposes, but they certainly are not fit to live in.” Yet he feels at other times that he “should never be at home” in England. When he visits York Minster, he sympathizes with the Puritans for “being out of patience with all this mummery”; and in the British Museum he wishes the Elgin Marbles “were all burnt to lime.” Charles Sumner was far younger than Hawthorne when he visited England, and his rapid admission to the highest society intoxicated him. He learned to change his shirt daily and looked down on the “narrow impertinence” of Cambridge, Mass. Yet in the midst of his infatuation he had to say he would not exchange “the priceless institutions” of his own country for all that he had seen abroad.
Gradually, these difficult attitudes changed into the view of England as a testing ground. One went there during the 1890s and the first decade of this century in the spirit of Penelope’s suitors trying the bow of Odysseus; and one seldom succeeded. The achievement of James or Eliot only proved the difficulty of the task. And what was so hard to do sometimes seemed not worth the effort: Ransom said of the nightingale’s song,
My ears are called capacious but they failed me,
Her classics registered a little flat!
Only after the Second World War did the present stage begin, when some English writers consider our country a testing ground, and when Americans think of England as simply the oldest inhabited region of their own empire. It is ironical that our visitors now cling to their moral integrity and reject our wealth and corruption for the sake of a purer element. Meanwhile, unlike the English, we are also at home on the continent. All the literatures of Europe belong to our close ancestry, and we draw on them by instinct. American poets and novelists take for granted the widest range of reference. Mann and Proust are read by our undergraduates (when they read at all) as familiarly as Austen and Dickens. This amplitude might have been expected in a people formed from other peoples. Whether it hinders or frees the creative mind is less certain. Added to the lack of community, it probably leaves the author more diffident about his orientation. What some critics blame as English provinciality may work along with amateurism to deepen an English poet’s self-confidence.
Although Stephen Spender has written a study of Anglo-American relations, he passes too lightly over most of the scene I have sketched. Instead, he lingers on ground that will hardly look new to American readers. Mr. Spender would like to establish a frame of moral and social principles within which an Anglo-American culture might flourish. He finds our culture more energetic and subjective than the English, more detached from the past and obsessed with the present. So much has already been said about American energy and out tick of continually starting afresh that he could not add new insights without a depth of erudition that no one would ask him to acquire.
American subjectivity as opposed to English objectivity is less of a commonplace. According to Mr. Spender, absorption in the present is absorption in the self; and the habit of feeling identified with the people and landscape around one is also a mark of subjectivity. Unfortunately, this distinction does not prove to be consistent between the two countries, because T. S. Eliot comes out as a form of objective genius; and Woolf, Forster, and Lawrence are cited as cases of the “subjectively imaginative view of the world.” This whole line of thought takes a bizarre turn when Mr. Spender declares that being cut off from the past, Americans study it from the outside, analytically, and have corrupted English writers into doing so as well, instead of experiencing the past directly. If Mr. Spender gave more of his attention to Faulkner, Wallace Stevens, and Southern writers in general, he might reconsider his opinion of our ahistoricity. He too often treats the Middle West or New England as America, just as he treats London and the home counties as Britain, or as he sometimes treats England and Europe as interchangeable.
“Patria” and “life” are other terms that Mr. Spender finds helpful. By “patria” he means the true or ideal nation—English or American—which a writer conceives as an essence imperfectly realized in the existing nation and toward which it should strive. The “life” of a writer’s work depends on his feeling in touch with such an ideal, drawn from the history and landscape of his country. As Mr. Spender uses these terms, they become devices to establish a vital connection between the social or political structure of a country and the excellence of its literature. Students of Mr. Spender’s work know he has longed for such a connection since he began worrying about social problems as an undergraduate.
Unfortunately, however, it is through patronage alone that a political order limits the quality of a national literature. When England had a court that promoted comedies of manners, Etherege wrote comedies of manners. When English statesmen rewarded brilliant essayists for writing about politics, Addison wrote political essays. Once the patronage of literature passed into the hands of a miscellaneous public, the quality of the writing could not depend on the quality of the regime. Great authors have attacked excellent governments, and Hawthorne wrote a campaign biography of Franklin Pierce.
Mr. Spender supports his general argument with particulars of doubtful weight. The true, historic England he identifies with innocence, rural landscapes, and history; it is not to be observed in the “French-influenced, urbanized writing of Dryden, Pope, and Johnson.” So the industrial revolution has to be damned as a betrayal of the English “patria”; and Mr. Spender must believe that the common people were better off in the old days when they lived on farms. His attitude is not unusual, but it raises a few questions. Since people streamed out of the country into the towns and continue to do so, it is hard to suppose that they fled from bliss to misery without some compulsion. And yet we know that laws were passed to impede the free movement of humble men and women, and to keep them on the land. One must also ask how such a principle separates the United States from England; for even without enclosure acts the belief that we were happier and better in the rural past than the urban present is at least as strongly rooted in our country as in his.
More than a fifth of the book deals with Henry James. Mr. Spender promises more than he delivers when he calls this part, “Henry James as Center of the English-American Language.” In his views on language James followed the usual line of talented men and backed the “conservative influence” (not “interest,” as Mr. Spender has it). Visiting the United States, the expatriate winced to hear the accents of barbarians and immigrants defile our vocabulary and corrupt our voice. In England, ugly speech is only too common, but the gates of polite society are closed against it. There one associates barristers and statesmen with a markedly pure idiom. In America, eloquence is the last favor one expects from the leaders of society. This is what offended James. He found “many odd and pleasant harmonies” in Whitman’s letters to a street-car conductor, though he called them “illiterate colloquy.” But he was shocked to see people chewing gum while they talked about Parsifal.
Language as distinct from style was not fundamental to James’s idea of art. In his reflections on literature he gave little thought to matters of syntax or diction—no doubt because he thought the same speech belonged to all civilized men, poets or not. But his own style remained loyal to the rhythms of speech; his diction was signed with irony and wit; in these ways he stayed with the English tradition. James said he wished to write so that an outsider could not tell whether it was an American writing about England or an Englishman writing about America; but language is not primary here. He meant that his attitude toward each country’s part in the common culture—manners, tastes, institutions—should be as sympathetic or critical as that of a native.
Blurring these discriminations, Mr. Spender exaggerates the novelist’s concern with an “English-American language.” He finds this concern where it is not, and fails to document his assertions about it. He plays up James’s linguistic conservatism (which hardly separates James from Samuel Johnson or Edmund Wilson) while neglecting the real difference between the English and ourselves.
Among the literary extracts analyzed as evidence for Mr. Spender’s brief, one will serve to reveal the difficulties involved. Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is taken to illustrate the various traits of American literature. It is subjective, Mr. Spender says, because its style narrowly limits our view to the flat descriptions affected by Hemingway. It is obsessed with movement in the present. Jake has a uniquely American mentality because he is not analytical or fluent in speech, and responds strongly to aesthetic experience of landscape, painting, and literature without caring to discuss his response. Instead of reaching out to the European scene, Hemingway absorbs it into his subjective consciousness.
The trouble is that another critic might notice how Hemingway’s avoidance of subordination or emphasis in his style compels the reader to supply the intensities. He might notice how subtly the rhythms of the sentences alter to suggest not motion but pleasure or dissatisfaction. He might notice in a description of landscape how delicately Hemingway repeats and varies certain words in order to convey the poetry of the scene. And he might conclude that the point of Hemingway’s understatement is to suggest the profundity of feelings that another author might convey through obtrusive figures of speech. I am not asserting that Hemingway’s style succeeds. I only assert that Mr. Spender’s principles do not lead him into its workings. As for Jake’s manliness, taciturnity, and buried feelings, it would be instructive to hear Mr. Spender explain how Jake differs from Forster’s characterization of Stephen in The Longest Journey—a person who might, says Mr. Spender, stand for the England that is eternal.
The drift of Love-Hate Relations is that Americanization has polluted England. Mr. Spender is a good-natured man, genuinely free from the feline impulses that English critics often yield to. So his censures of us are commonly expressed in the words of American fault-finders. Yet I have already suggested that the men of England began disburdening themselves of their literary tradition long before an American was in a position to nudge them. And if they had not done so, one would have to ask why they were not more resistant to subjective, urban blight than their cousins.
If Mr. Spender does not cringe before the idols of logic and consistency, neither does he overvalue novelty. The present book gives much room to examinations of Henry James, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, and Wilfred Owen. Those who remember The Destructive Element—an earlier book by Mr. Spender—will know it also treated these topics. Then the focus was James’s novels; now it is his criticism. Then it was his awareness of the destructive elements in our society; now it is his idea of an Anglo-American culture. Yet the bons mots reappear (James could “stand a good deal of gold”), and the conclusions fix the same values of intelligence, tact, and understanding.
Mr. Spender’s talent is not analytical. He has often labeled it autobiographical; and the best things in the present volume may be the stories about his uncle, J. Alfred Spender. Alas, they are better told in yet another book, World Within World (1951), which gave more scope to Mr. Spender’s powers of comic narrative. In fact, if one puts the two earlier books together, one will find little of real interest to add to them in the new one, different as it is.
Taking Sides January 23, 1975