Popular Science Monthly/Volume 20/November 1881/American Climate and Character

629128Popular Science Monthly Volume 20 November 1881 — American Climate and Character1881Edward C. Towne



THE statements given under this head at pages 705 and 706 of "The Popular Science Monthly" for September, 1880, are not borne out by a careful study of facts on English soil, where alone popular American and foreign ideas in regard to the English climate and character can be duly corrected. I have given special attention to the subject in the way of study for very many years, and in the way of observation in England during the past four years, and my conclusion is that the only English and American facts which present a contrast are exceptional ones, and that for the several statements of Mr. Young and the authorities quoted by him there is scarce any foundation at all. Study led me to the conviction long since that the general American or Yankee type, in all its varieties, belonged to England as truly as to America, and that the John Bull type is an exceptional one in England, and exclusively English, partly because it never emigrates, and partly because its characteristics are due to English eating and drinking habits. Observation has shown me that the facts are even more in this direction than I had expected to find them, and that statements such as those of Mr. Young and his authorities could hardly be more wide of the mark.

For more than thirty years I have had a habit of studying the looks of people upon every opportunity, and was most familiar when I came to England with American characteristics in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Chicago, and the Northern States generally, and to a considerable extent in the South. In England I have seen the crowds of London, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, and other places, and have many times made a special study of large companies (one to four thousand) of people where I could walk about among them by the hour together. On one occasion, for example, I made a series of visits to a fair which brought together a large number of the titled ladies of the north of England. I saw there one lady of the type which made Hawthorne write as he did of the beef-eating bigness of English women—a duchess who must have frequently crossed Hawthorne's vision. The duke, her husband, reminded me of my own father, spare and dark, and no way a John Bull. The other ladies of quality had exactly the look in every way of the ladies one sees in the best company in Boston. The company generally, apart from the titled ladies, made no approach to a Boston company, but strikingly lacked quality, whether beauty, refinement, or taste. But there was no such contrast as Mr. Young asserts. There is no ground worth speaking of for his statement as to the contrast between English and American women. It is not at all true. I can compare a country village in Massachusetts with one in Yorkshire, and what Mr. Young says of American women lacking or losing form and beauty is more true of the English example than the American. There are numbers of English women, it is true, who show the type, at one extreme, to which Mr. Young refers, but as you go from that extreme to the other you find the middle type as much the rule in England as in America, and the worn, thin, nervous type fully as common in England as in America, and often more extreme here than in America. It is life more than climate which produces this extreme, and life for Englishwomen is worse than American in the whole lower range of society, and in many sections higher up.

It is quite erroneous for Mr. Young to talk of the drying, irritating effect of American climate as compared with English. The drying, irritating, corrosive effect of the east wind in the streets of London is very much worse than anything known in America. It is a strong, steady Siberian wind, which blows for weeks together, with a biting power which I have seen entirely blacken the early leaves of the horse chestnut. In many seasons, judging by what I have seen myself, and by many statements made by English writers, I should say that, in bad seasons at least, the irritating effects of the English climate are more than twice as bad as those of the American. At any rate, there is no ground whatever for saying that American women are made thin and English are not. More English women than American are made very thin by the greater cruelty to women of English care and toil and suffering. And, if more are kept stout, it is largely because the stout type have stuck to the home soil, and very largely because of beer added to beef.

Mr. Young's conclusion as to America, that "the dry air produces nervous, energetic, large-jointed skeletons, which have little or nothing in common with the stout, fresh, rosy, phlegmatic inhabitants of the mother-country," could not well be more wide of the mark. The type which Mr. Young says is American was produced hundreds of generations ago; and if Mr. Young chooses he can see in the north of England a larger proportion of this type than he can find anywhere in America, except those parts of the South where English and Scotch of this type were numerous in the early colonies. Typical skeletons are not made in a day, nor in seven or eight generations. I should say that, across England by Manchester and Sheffield, the "nervous, energetic, large jointed," not stout, not rosy, and most emphatically not phlegmatic men, are ten to one as numerous as anywhere in America. One supposes that he has seen nervous energy in Chicago, but only in England have I ever had my attention drawn to nervous energy almost gone mad. The impression that the English are phlegmatic is a false inference from peculiar appearances.

The exterior calm is very often that of suppressed temper, and the outbreak of violent temper is very much worse and much more frequent in England than in America. It is common to find gentlemen, who are such in character and position, delightfully genial at one time and violently passionate at another. I met in America a gentleman of the best standing in his English home, the winning charm of whose manners awakened in me the desire to study character in the old country. One of my friends was dining with this gentleman after his return, and was asked, as an American, to state what the case was between the North and the South in the civil war. My friend made a moderate statement of his view as a Northern man, and, when he had concluded, his host, his face white and his lips trembling with passion, replied, "I have been several weeks in your country, in the North and in the South, and there isn't a word of truth in what you have said!" There was a second English gentleman present, who insisted that Mr. Garrison and other American friends had given the same account, and that it must be true. This second gentleman is physically what Mr. Young would call an American, and he has no more reserve of temper than the typical Boston gentleman.

Extreme passion is very much more common in England than in America, and especially in the north of England. But I doubt whether the very strong air and the intense vital vigor which it tends to produce explain it. It seems to me rather a moral survival, one of the signs of barbarism holding on which one so often encounters in England. The habit which many of the working-class have of brutally kicking their wives in the abdomen, and many other forms of British masculine energy, would disappear without reference to climate if education and other moral influences were such as they are in America.

Mr. Young singularly errs in stating that Britons have a stout, fresh, rosy habit, which they directly lose in American air. I am writing where there is a country population of four thousand, and I should make money by giving Mr. Young a dollar for every rosy Briton he could find if he would give me a cent each for every "peculiarly American" member of the population. In the towns, Mr. Young's Britons can be more easily found; but the type is more conspicuous than it is numerous. Of course, the style of dress, the cut of the beard, and the puff and color given to the face by drink, are not due to climate and are not race-characteristics; yet many not sufficiently instructed observers fail to see that, if they were to deduct these characteristics in the case of many who seem strikingly English, the type would look quite American. The last large company of Englishmen whom I have seen showed very many of the "nervous, energetic, large jointed skeletons" of Mr. Young's peculiarly American type, and I have personal knowledge which enables me to say that nowhere in America could an equal number be found of men violently excitable and explosive. Temper, in fact, and nerves, are generally very much worse in England than in America. There is no approach in America to the passion of an English crowd. A throng pressing to get at the doors of a public hall are violent and dangerous to a degree unknown in America. But it is the native barbarism, not the climate. In figure, stature, and aspect, a body of men in England met for intellectual purposes will rarely suggest any contrast between England and America. At the Royal Academy Exhibition in London on my first visit, when I studied the people rather than the pictures, and at the opening of the new Town Hall in Manchester, where four thousand people in full dress were wandering through the hall, corridors, and state apartments of the vast structure, the great mass of the people were not different from American in any of the respects named by Mr. Young. There is a marked difference, which an Englishman living in America expressed by saying that English women are dowdy compared with American. I should not say this, for it is not true; but it is true that, while cultivated and attractive refinement and taste are the same with women of the superior class in both countries, there is much less diffusion of the influence of this class in England than in America; and, so far from Mr. Young's view being true, it is rather the fact that a general crowd is much less good-looking in England than in America, and in no respect will American women suffer in comparison with English.

My first year in England took me over the region from London to Oxford, and I used every opportunity to observe both men and women, with the result that I hardly at all saw Mr. Young's British type. I did see it in a few gentlemen pampered with port and in farmers rosy with beer, but commonly I saw the American type, as Mr. Young would call it. In a society of thirty gentlemen with whom I met weekly, the type was much more American than it would have been in Plymouth, Massachusetts figures slighter and temperament more nervous. The authorities quoted by Mr. Young have spoken much more from hasty theory than from any real facts. Dr. Reich has no warrant whatever for asserting a great difference between English and American physical types. The differences are not so much physical as moral, and they are not, with some exceptions, so much differences of type as differences superficially established by habits. If England had had American education and abstinence for the past fifty years, and could learn freedom, equality, and humanity as Americans do, it would be hard to see any great difference between the two peoples. What Dr. Reich says of the dryness and heat of America is said ignorantly. Is American air so dry along the Atlantic coast, and within reach of the great line of Northern lakes? The truth is, not that America is too dry, but that England is often not dry enough, and at other times is more dry than America. Dr. Reclam is out of sight of the facts completely when he compares the air of America and its effects to those of heights where lightness and dryness prevail, and thinks Americans characterized by peculiarities such as in Europe he supposes due to the dry northeast wind. This wind, from which England and the Continent suffer so much, is very much worse than any wind known to that chief part of America which extends from the Atlantic to the far side of the Mississippi Valley; and, so far as it produces results in exaggerated nervous activity and excesses of the national character, England and Germany are much worse off than America. In England especially, exaggerated nervous activity and excesses of national character are very much worse than they are in America, and, if northeast wind really causes such things, the atrocious blast certainly rages across England as it never does in America. What Matthew Arnold calls the effusion and the confusion and the vulgarity of the middle-class Englishman, that is, of the average Englishman, is something very much worse than any American development, and, so far as climate plays upon and excites this, England has ten days of irritating rawness, dryness of cold wind, and poison of dust, to one that America has.

As for heat, the mistake is no less complete. England suffers more from 78° than America from 98°. There is never a chance to change to summer dress with any security, and heat, when it does come, has to be undergone without preparation. It commonly, moreover, comes with excess of moisture, and has an effect more dangerous than twenty degrees more of American heat. Dr. von Pettenkofer has not done wisely in comparing the case of a person living in dry air with that of one living in damp air. Americans do not live in dry air. and Englishmen, with excess of damp much of the time, do not develop fat, or phlegmatically nervous temperament, or a sluggish want of intense energy. The mad chase after the material things of the world is more mad and feverish and violent in Manchester and its cotton-spinning neighbors than it is in Chicago and the Northwest of America. I think circumstances and not climate chiefly explain it, but for climate the American is much less likely than the English to produce the effect. The European hygienists, who are dealing with the subject by means of speculative observations, ought to try a winter and spring in Oldham, Blackburn, Bolton, or Wigan, and see what a cold wind can do, with dust and coal-smut, to create dry torment, and to sting the bony, skinny, fierce operative into communistic madness. If they would study a Lancashire mob and an English east wind, and would read the tale of speculation, fierce competition, and fraud in manufacture, which the Manchester men know so well, there would be an end of the shallow philosophy into which a totally wrong report of the facts has betrayed them.

Dr. Büchner could not have gone more astray than in his astonishing conclusion that Americans are tending toward the Indian type, not only in the face and form, but in the gestures and movements. The inference can not rest with Dr. Büchner on any adequate observation, either of Indians or of Americans, and its extravagance is wild and ridiculous in any just view of the real facts. It does not follow that gestures and movements, due to, we will say, acute tactical sensitiveness, indicate community of race. Some which I have had myself, I remark in my English housekeeper, and no doubt I might see them in an Indian or a negro. But one decisive fact disposes of Dr. Büchner's inference. The English much oftener suggest the Indian type than the Americans do, and there is much less extravagance in imagining, baseless as the notion would be, that England is turning Indian than in supposing that America shows such a tendency. In America I never saw a markedly Indian type without Indian blood, but I have seen it in England again and again; in one case a lady with the dirty-black skin, straight, intensely black hair, high, fierce temper, indifference to grime and smut on her hands, and habitually very bad breath of a savage, and yet purely English, and as much a lady and a Christian as her peculiarities permitted. America is much further than England from the Indian type, and is not tending toward it, but the contrary. In the earliest American days the opinion was at one time general in England that the climate of Virginia turned the colonists into blacks, and that, besides going black, a man was there harnessed into the plow and the cart and made to do the work of a beast. The like notions, only not quite so outrageous, form now a large part of English and foreign supposed knowledge of America, and Dr. Büchner's notion that Americans tend toward the Indian type is about the worst item of this pseudo-knowledge. English ignorance about America seems to me the worst ignorance anywhere existing. It is largely due to the greed of the general English mind for mean ideas of America. Unfortunately, many Americans unwittingly feed this greed, either from lacking correct comparative knowledge of England and America, or from making assertions or admissions which will be entirely misunderstood by the English mind. It requires a good deal of varied residence and reading for an American to know accurately and adequately his own country, and to know it in comparison with England requires residence in England, and that among the people. The most rural parts of England are best for knowledge calculated to throw light on America. The peculiar Yankee characteristics, as of guessing and questioning and cute getting to know all about a person or matter, I have actually seen in England, in their native seats. They are all old rural English, and have nothing to do with either climate or character in America. In America they have dwindled and been effaced more than they have in England.

But what I would particularly emphasize is the twofold fact that the character and the climate which are said to be American are both English a good deal more than they are American. The nervous temperament; the excess of energy; the exaggerations and intensities of character; the vulgarities and madness of selfish getting; the fierce resort to sham and shoddy as a short cut to profit; and all the forms of headlong service of the devil to which unregenerate, raw, brute humanity can be tempted, are very much worse in England than they are in America. And the air said to favor such characters is much more found in England than in America. I was myself under the impression, before I lived in England, that we had in America more electrical excitement than is known in England. But now I find that it shuts down on you more in England, and that while you see more in America, at a great height above the earth, you feel more of it in England, and have it dropping on you more; and that, although the climate is characteristically damp, there occur more and longer times of irritating dryness and electrical aggravation than are known in America. I am fortunately able to cite a testimony which will make clear what I mean, and prove that I do not imagine my facts. In "Nature" for September 9th, page 437, Professor Tait quotes from an account given him by an Irish correspondent, who tells how the dryness I speak of may come out of the same quarter from which at other times moist air comes, and who expressly says that the same dryness comes with the east wind which is such a curse to the British Isles. Professor Tait's correspondent wrote as follows:

"At the commencement of the present unprecedentedly long and severe storm the wind blew from southwest, and was very warm. After blowing about two days it became, without change of direction, exceedingly bitter and cold, and the rain was from time to time mixed with sleet and hail, and lightning was occasional. This special weather is common for weeks together in March or early April. The air is (like what an east wind brings in Edinburgh) cold, raw, dry, and in every way uncomfortable, especially to people accustomed to the moist Atlantic winds. During these weeks a series of small clouds seem to start at regular intervals from the peaks of hills in Connemara and Mayo. They are all more or less charged with electricity. I have at one time seen such a cloud break into lightning over the spire of the Jesuits' church. At another, I have seen such a cloud pour down in a thin line of fire, and fall into the bay in the shape of a small, incandescent ball. On one occasion I was walking with a friend, when I remarked: 'Let us turn and make a run for it. We have walked unwittingly right underneath a little thunder-cloud.' I had scarcely spoken, when a something flashed on the stony ground at our very feet, a tremendous crash pealed over our heads, and the smell of sulphur was unmistakable."

This sort of greater nearness of the electrical demonstrations is the rule in Great Britain; and the horrid dryness, rawness, and aggravation spoken of in the above account, as due to the east wind when that blows, as it does for weeks together, and also due for weeks together to other wind, are a greater and a more grievous infliction in Great Britain than anything known in America over the chief settled region.

I think the general facts in regard to the English race in England and America and elsewhere should be referred to a history going back, not for the seven American generations, nor even for the forty British generations, but for at least a thousand generations. This great race, whose tongue is now spoken by a quarter of civilized mankind, was not made yesterday, and will not be unmade to-morrow. Its great essential lines are precisely the same in England and in America. New England in America was settled by English of picked moral and intellectual quality, and with the enormous double advantage of freedom to educate everybody and give everybody a chance, and of entire absence of the vile, pauper, and prostitute class which Old-World circumstances had created. The result has been that America, without some superlative advantages possessed by England, has on the broad level done more and done better than England in the direction of mind and quality, character and achievement—truly English in the higher sense of race; and that the British English type mainly differs from the American English by backward relation to barbarism, the Old-World use of war, monarchy and aristocracy, privilege oppressive of the people, as of lords and landlords, priests, pensioners, and publicans, and other forms of grievous denial of the rights and injury to the welfare of man as man. It would take a volume to tell the story of English barbarism. The English race has won on American soil stages of advance not yet won in England; and, when all the facts are discriminated, it will appear that climate in America is anything but unfavorable to this advance, although the opinion is a superficial error that climate has much to do with character in an age when circumstances dominate in the environment of a highly civilized race. As soon as English circumstances overtake American, there will cease to be any marked difference between the English in England and the English in America. And, when verified knowledge shall take the place of speculative, there will be no more Americo-German attempts to describe American climate as dry and damaging as compared with English. The climate of America is as much better than that of England as American civilization is more advanced on the broad level of the common people. It would double the value of England in every respect to have the climate of America. And certainly character would gain more than it would lose by the change.