Monday, July 23, 2012

America: Fat and Greedy--But Always Speedy

From time to time I bump into an International traveler visiting America for the first time, and I love to ask what about our country has surprised them most. Inevitably they comment on the giant portions at restaurants, probably a kind way of saying how fat we all are.  One young man last summer said, “You’re all shorter than I expected” (nothing like feeding a complex).  New York, I’m sometimes told by first-time visitors, is dirty but a blur of sound and motion.  California is sunny (even if they haven’t been there yet, and certainly not if they have been to San Francisco).  And all of them want to visit Disney World, though whether that lives up to their expectations, I’m not sure.

While not always pleasant, these critiques are certainly illuminating. Sometimes, too, they take a more serious tone.

From 1946 to 2004, Englishman Alistair Cooke delivered his Letter from America every week on BBC4.  Cooke’s first letter, written when he departed aboard the Queen Mary from a bleak London starved for heat and electricity, is here.  He found eggs and bacon and sausage and pancakes for breakfast five mornings in a row, but stomachs too shrunk from the war’s deprivations for anyone to enjoy the feast more than two consecutive days.  He arrived in a New York City that had been unable to build new hotels during the war and was now unable to accommodate its flood of visitors, taxis hobbling along with doors secured by string, and women (with their complicit husbands standing awkwardly in a second line) hoping to purchase nylons.

Arguably the most famous "international visit" to America ever was that of Frenchman Marquis de Lafayette, second only to Washington as a “rock star” in the early Republic.  Arriving in New York Harbor 122 years before Cooke, he went on a 13-month “Farewell Tour” through 24 states where he received an outpouring of affection, honors and gifts almost daily. In June 1825, before departing, he helped lay the cornerstone of the Bunker Hill Monument.  He also kept a journal, or more accurately, his private secretary, Auguste Lavasseur, did.  It said a lot of things Americans wanted to hear--Lavasseur’s major goal was in publicizing to French Liberals the success of the great American experiment--so it gets re-published regularly.

Lafayette, Dickens and Kipling: Speed

One of the defining characteristics of America, Lavasseur found in 1824, was the speed of the country.  Traveling an average of 11 miles per hour, Lavasseur wrote, “Often we passed through so many villages and so many towns on the same day that my memory could not retain all the names faithfully.” And in Lockport, New York, alongside the building of the Erie Canal, he was struck “with astonishment and admiration.  In no other place have I seen the activity and industry of man grappling with nature as in this burgeoning Town.   Short on necessities to “satisfy the prime needs of life,” he still found “a school in which the children come to be taught while their fathers build the dwelling which is to shelter them,” and “a printing press which each morning gives birth to a newspaper.”

Now skip ahead just 18 years to 1842 when the American railroad had begun to put an end to the canal age, almost before it began. Just 30 years old, renowned British author Charles Dickens visited the country for the first time, writing home to a friend about American railroads.  You walk down the main street of a large town: and, slap-dash, headlong, pell-mell, down the middle of the street; with pigs burrowing, and boys flying kites and playing marbles, and men smoking, and women talking, and children crawling, close to the very rails; there comes tearing along a mad locomotive with its train of cars, scattering a red-hot shower of sparks (from its wood fire) in all directions; screeching, hissing, yelling, and painting; and nobody one atom more concerned than if it were a hundred miles away.” 

Now, jump ahead another 57 years to a second renowned British author. Rudyard Kipling toured Chicago in 1899 and was profoundly unimpressed.   “Having seen it,” he wrote, “I urgently desire never to see it again.  It is inhabited by savages.  Its water is the water of the Hugli, and its air is dirt. . .They told me to go to the Palmer House, which is a gilded and mirrored rabbit-warren, and there I found a huge hall. . .crammed with people talking about money and spitting about everywhere. Other barbarians charged in and out of this inferno with letters and telegrams in their hands. . . there was no colour in the street and no beauty—only a maze of wire ropes overhead and dirty stone flagging underfoot.

Chicago, about 1899
When Kipling hired a cab driver “to show me the glory of the town,” the driver “conceived. . .that it was good to huddle men together in fifteen layers, one atop of the other, and to dig holes in the ground for offices.  He said that Chicago was a live town, and that all the creatures hurrying by me were engaged in business. That is to say, they were trying to make some money.  Then, he concluded, “the papers tell their readers in language fitted to their comprehension that the snarling together of telegraph wires, the heaving up of houses, and the making of money is progress.”


Kipling, of course, gave us a glimpse of America in its Gilded Age--and it wasn’t pretty.  But with “barbarians charging in and out,” and “creatures hurrying by me” engaged in making money, it certainly was speedy.

There are other visitors throughout the years, some more charitable than others.  A countryman of Lafayette and another accomplished statesman, Georges Benjamin Clemenceau, worked in New York City from 1865 to 1869 and summed up his impressions succinctly with, “America is the only nation in history which miraculously has gone directly from barbarism to degeneration without the usual interval of civilization.”

Emil Ludwig and the Future of Speed

The most fascinating visit, however, at least as it anticipated modern times, was from German author and biographer Emil Ludwig, who toured the United States in 1928 and wrote about it for The New York Times.

First, like Lafayette and Kipling, he found everything, everywhere on the move.  “Speed has become the goddess of the new era,” he wrote.  In fact, Ludwig described a scene that can only be termed an early form of "surfing": “When a young man in New York lured me into his motor car and showed me with tokens of much satisfaction how he could listen by radio, while motoring, to the latest jazz hits, and, at the same time, enjoy the details of the latest crimes supplied him in gigantic headlines by the newspapers handed to him as he drove, he seemed to me merely the most scatterbrained youth imaginable—able to appreciate in reality neither the road ahead of him, nor the music, nor the newspapers; capable merely of gliding quite blasé along a warm stream of piled—up sensations.”

Does that not sound a little bit like 2012?

Then Ludwig warned--and this will hit home with my Luddite friends (not to mention Nicholas Carr and maybe Jaron Lanier): “This is man’s memory being weakened. . .for such a person the echo of a talk, of a walk, of a glance at a starry sky, or a letter or a book is lost in the blur of a thousand fleeting images.”

Then, for those of us moderns with a “password problem,” Ludwig addressed the bane of early 20th-century America: numbers.  “For how many numbers does this modern technical age of ours imprint upon the brain of a modern human being, even as it drives out worldly wisdom and the finer feelings!  Numbers, numbers—how many numbers must he retain concerning his motor car, hat, shoes, collar—concerning streets, houses, floors—telephones, street railways, sport scores, exchange quotations. . .Small wonder that, with every brain cell packed to overflowing, he can find no place for poetry, none for aphorisms, none for the precious thoughts of philosophers—none even for God!”

Through it all, Ludwig noted, Americans appeared better adapted to such a world.  More charitably than Kipling in Chicago a generation before, he wrote, “I marveled at the calmness of people in the turmoil of the streets, the riot of numbers, the confusion of mechanized melodies and noises—everything.”  Europeans had experienced quiet for centuries, he said, whereas “Americans trained from early youth in the hard school of impressionability and strife.”

Again, reflecting a fear many of us feel now, Ludwig wrote that there would be no more legends created.   “Now that every happening becomes known. . .to the whole world within a few hours, the mystic veils behind which men in earlier days sought to make themselves better or their foes worse are rent asunder, and reality is revealed beyond fear of distortion. Gutenberg was reproached with having overcome priests and kings and made himself the first democrat in a new world; similarly, the inventors of the rapid tempo of modernity, of the wireless telephone, of the reproduction of word, tone and image, may be credited with having speeded up this development one thousandfold.”

Finally, in what can only be called a “pre-Twitter moment,” Ludwig remarked on the incredible ability of two lovers to communicate across the sea: ”Let us imagine him, during those embarrassed moments which always occur in love talks, whispering to her: ‘Speak—just speak—no matter what you say!’”

So, my fellow American: we are fat, we crave money, we multitask to the detriment of God and our neighbors, we speak without having anything to say, and we do it all at chaotic, breakneck speeds.

I think it must be true. 200 years of international visits can’t be completely wrong.

Though, maybe someday we should clue them in about doggie bags.