Matthew Arnold & Mark Twain

[While to many of his contemporaries "Mark Twain" stood for what was best about America, to Matthew Arnold he was a symbol of what was worst. In "A Word About America" (published in May 1882 in The Nineteenth Century) Arnold attacked him by name:

"The Quinionian humor of Mr. Mark Twain, so attractive to the Philistine of the more gay and light type both here and in America, [a] French critic fixes upon as literature exactly expressing a people of this type, and of no higher. 'In spite of all its primary education,' he says, 'America is still, from the intellectual point of view, a very rude and primitive soil, only to be cultivated by violent methods. These childish and half-savage minds are not moved except by very elementary narratives composed without art, in which burlesque and melodrama, vulgarity and eccentricity, are combined in strong doses.'"

MT let that pass in silence, but when, six years later, Arnold published "Civilization in the United States" and, without using MT's name, called "the funnyman" America's "national misfortune," MT wrote a rebuttal in which he declared that "a discriminating irreverence is the creator and protector of human liberty." He had this speech set in type, but never delivered it. It's clear, however, that Arnold's essay, which appeared as MT was finishing Connecticut Yankee, helped fuel his determination to burlesque and deconstruct one of the most cherished icons of Old World cultural reverence.

[Included here is about half of Arnold's long article. If you want to skip right to Arnold's one-liner about "the funnyman," the passage that MT would have taken most personally, CLICK HERE. The whole text, however, is worth reading as a means toward recovering the contemporary context in which MT wrote, and in which his American and English readers read, Connecticut Yankee, his un-Arnoldian comparison of modern America with Old World civilization.]

The Nineteenth Century
Vol. XXIII.--No. 134. April 1888.

From Civilization in the United States.
By Matthew Arnold

...But we must get nearer still to the heart of the question raised as to the character and worth of American civilisation. I have said how much the word civilisation really means--the humanisation of man in society; his making progress there towards his true and full humanity. Partial and material achievement is always being put forward as civilisation. We hear a nation called highly civilised by reason of its industry, commerce, and wealth, or by reason of its liberty or equality, or by reason of its numerous churches, schools, libraries, and newspapers. But there is something in human nature, some instinct of growth, some law of perfection, which rebels against this narrow account of the matter. And perhaps what human nature demands in civilisation, over and above all those obvious things which first occur to our thoughts--what human nature, I say, demands in civilisation, if it is to stand as a high and satisfying civilisation, is best described by the word interesting. Here is the extraordinary charm of the old Greek civilisation--that it is so interesting. Do not tell me only, says human nature, of the magnitude of your industry and commerce; of the beneficence of your institutions, your freedom, your equality; of the great and growing number of your churches and schools, libraries and newspapers; tell me also if your civilisation--which is the grand name you give to all this development--tell me if your civilisation is interesting.

An American friend of mine, Professor Norton, has lately published the early letters of Carlyle. If any one wants a good antidote to the unpleasant effect left by Mr. Froude's Life of Carlyle, let him read those letters. Not only of Carlyle will those letters make him think kindly, but they will also fill him with admiring esteem for the qualities, character, and family life, as there delineated, of the Scottish peasant. Well, the Carlyle family were numerous, poor, and struggling. Thomas Carlyle, the eldest son, a young man in wretched health and worse spirits, was fighting his way in Edinburgh. One of his younger brothers talked of emigrating. 'The very best thing he could do!' we should all say. Carlyle dissuades him. 'You shall never,' he writes, 'you shall never seriously meditate crossing the great Salt Pool to plant yourself in the Yankee-land. That is a miserable fate for any one, at best; never dream of it. Could you banish yourself from all that is interesting to your mind, forget the history, the glorious institutions, the noble principles of old Scotland--that you might eat a better dinner, perhaps?'

There is our word launched--the word interesting. I am not saying that Carlyle's advice was good, or that young men should not emigrate. I do but take note, in the word interesting, of a requirement, a cry of aspiration, a cry not sounding in the imaginative Carlyle's own breast only, but sure of a response in his brother's breast also, and in human nature.

Amiel, that contemplative Swiss whose journals the world has been reading lately, tells us that 'the human heart is, as it were, haunted by confused reminiscences of an age of gold; or rather, by aspirations towards a harmony of things which every day reality denies to us.' He says that the splendour and refinement of high life is an attempt by the rich and cultivated classes to realise this ideal, and is 'a form of poetry.' And the interest which this attempt awakens in the classes which are not rich or cultivated, their indestructible interest in the pageant and fairy tale, as to them it appears, of the life in castles and palaces, the life of the great, bears witness to a like imaginative strain in them also, a strain tending after the elevated and the beautiful. In short, what Goethe describes as 'was uns alle bändigt, das Gemeine--that which holds us all in bondage, the common and ignoble,' is, notwithstanding its admitted prevalence, contrary to a deep-seated instinct of human nature and repelled by it. Of civilisation, which is to humanise us in society, we demand, before we will consent to be satisfied with it--we demand, however much else it may give us, that it shall give us, too, the interesting.

Now, the great sources of the interesting are distinction and beauty: that which is elevated, and that which is beautiful. Let us take the beautiful first, and consider how far it is present in American civilisation. Evidently this is that civilisation's weak side. There is little to nourish and delight the sense of beauty there. In the long-settled States east of the Alleghanies the landscape in general is not interesting, the climate harsh and in extremes. The Americans are restless, eager to better themselves and to make fortunes; the inhabitant does not strike his roots lovingly down into the soil, as in rural England. In the valley of the Connecticut you will find farm after farm which the Yankee settler has abandoned in order to go West, leaving the farm to some new Irish immigrant. The charm of beauty which comes from ancientness and permanence of rural life the country could not yet have in a high degree, but it has it in an even less degree than might be expected. Then the Americans come originally, for the most part, from that great class in English society amongst whom the sense for conduct and business is much more strongly developed than the sense for beauty. If we in England were without the cathedrals, parish churches, and castles of the catholic and feudal age, and without the houses of the Elizabethan age, but had only the towns and buildings which the rise of our middle class has created in the modern age, we should be in much the same case as the Americans. We should be living with much the same absence of training for the sense of beauty through the eye, from the aspect of outward things. The American cities have hardly anything to please a trained or a natural sense for beauty. They have buildings which cost a great deal of money and produce a certain effect--buildings, shall I say, such as our Midland Station at St. Pancras; but nothing such as Somerset House or Whitehall. One architect of genius they had--Richardson. I had the pleasure to know him; he is dead, alas! Much of his work was injured by the conditions under which he was obliged to execute it; I can recall but one building, and that of no great importance, where he seems to have had his own way, to be fully himself; but that is indeed excellent. In general, where the Americans succeed best in their architecture--in that art so indicative and educative of a people's sense for beauty--is in the fashion of their villa-cottages in wood. These are often original and at the same time very pleasing, but they are pretty and coquettish, not beautiful. Of the really beautiful in the other arts, and in literature, very little has been produced there as yet. I asked a German portrait-painter, whom I found painting and prospering in America, how he liked the country? 'How can an artist like it?' was his answer. The American artists live chiefly in Europe; all Americans of cultivation and wealth visit Europe more and more constantly. The mere nomenclature of the country acts upon a cultivated person like the incessant pricking of pins. What people in whom the sense for beauty and fitness was quick could have invented, or could tolerate, the hideous names ending in ville, the Briggsvilles, Higginsvilles, Jacksonvilles, rife from Maine to Florida; the jumble of unnatural and inappropriate names everywhere? On the line from Albany to Buffalo you have, in one part, half the names in the classical dictionary to designate the stations; it is said that the folly is due to a surveyor who, when the country was laid out, happened to possess a classical dictionary; but a people with any artist-sense would have put down that surveyor. The Americans meekly retain his names; and indeed his strange Marcellus or Syracuse is perhaps not much worse than their congenital Briggsville.

So much as to beauty, and as to the provision, in the United States, for the sense of beauty. As to distinction, and the interest which human nature seeks from enjoying the effect made upon it by what is elevated, the case is much the same. There is very little to create such an effect, very much to thwart it. Goethe says somewhere that 'the thrill of awe is the best thing humanity has':--

Das Schaudern ist der Menschheit bestes Theil.

But, if there be a discipline in which the Americans are wanting, it is the discipline of awe and respect. An austere and intense religion imposed on their Puritan founders the discipline of respect, and so provided for them the thrill of awe; but this religion is dying out. The Americans have produced plenty of men strong, shrewd, upright, able, effective; very few who are highly distinguished. Alexander Hamilton is indeed a man of rare distinction; Washington, though he has not the high mental distinction of Pericles or Caesar, has true distinction of style and character. But these men belong to the pre-American age. Lincoln's recent American biographers declare that Washington is but an Englishman, an English officer; the typical American, they say, is Abraham Lincoln. Now Lincoln is shrewd, sagacious, humorous, honest, courageous, firm; he is a man with qualities deserving the most sincere esteem and praise, but he has not distinction.

In truth everything is against distinction in America, and against the sense of elevation to be gained through admiring and respecting it. The glorification of 'the average man,' who is quite a religion with statesmen and publicists there, is against it. The addiction to 'the funny man,' who is a national misfortune there, is against it. Above all, the newspapers are against it.

It is often said that every nation has the government it deserves. What is much more certain is that every nation has the newspapers it deserves. The newspaper is the direct product of the want felt; the supply answers closely and inevitably to the demand. I suppose no one knows what the American newspapers are, who has not been obliged, for some length of time, to read either those newspapers or none at all. Powerful and valuable contributions occur scattered about in them. But on the whole, and taking the total impression and effect made by them, I should say that if one were searching for the best means to efface and kill in a whole nation the discipline of respect, the feeling for what is elevated, one could not do better than take the American newspapers. The absence of truth and soberness in them, the poverty in serious interest, the personality and sensation-mongering, are beyond belief. There are a few newspapers which are in whole, or in part, exceptions. The New York Nation, a weekly paper, may be paralleled with the Saturday Review as it was in its old and good days; but the New York Nation is conducted by a foreigner, and has an extremely small sale. In general, the daily papers are such that when one returns home one is moved to admiration and thankfulness not only at the great London papers, like the Times or the Standard, but quite as much at the great provincial newspapers too--papers like the Leeds Mercury and the Yorkshire Post in the north of England, like the Scotsman and the Glasgow Herald in Scotland.

The Americans used to say to me that what they valued was news, and that this their newspapers gave them. I at last made the reply: 'Yes, news for the servants' hall!' I remember that a New York newspaper, one of the first I saw after landing in the country, had a long account, with the prominence we should give to the illness of the German Emperor or the arrest of the Lord Mayor of Dublin, of a young woman who had married a man who was a bag of bones, as we say, and who used to exhibit himself as a skeleton; of her growing horror in living with this man, and finally of her death. All this in the most minute detail, and described with all the writer's powers of rhetoric. This has always remained by me as a specimen of what the Americans call news.

You must have lived amongst their newspapers to know what they are. If I relate some of my own experiences, it is because these will give a clear enough notion of what the newspapers over there are, and one remembers more definitely what has happened to oneself. Soon after arriving in Boston, I opened a Boston newspaper and came upon a column headed: 'Tickings.' By tickings we are to understand news conveyed through the tickings of the telegraph. The first 'ticking' was: 'Matthew Arnold is sixty-two years old'--an age, I must just say in passing, which I had not then reached. The second 'ticking' was: 'Wales says, Mary is a darling;' the meaning being, that the Prince of Wales expressed great admiration for Miss Mary Anderson. This was at Boston, the American Athens. I proceeded to Chicago. An evening paper was given me soon after I arrived; I opened it, and found under a large-type heading, 'We have seen him arrive,' the following picture of myself: 'He has harsh features, supercilious manners, parts his hair down the middle, wears a single eyeglass and ill-fitting clothes.' Notwithstanding this rather unfavourable introduction I was most kindly and hospitably received at Chicago. It happened that I had a letter for Mr. Medill, an elderly gentleman of Scotch descent, the editor of the chief newspaper in those parts, the Chicago Tribune. I called on him, and we conversed amicably together. Some time afterwards, when I had gone back to England, a New York paper published a criticism of Chicago and its people, purporting to have been contributed by me to the Pall Mall Gazette over here. It was a poor hoax, but many people were taken in and were excusably angry, Mr. Medill of the Chicago Tribune amongst the number. A friend telegraphed to me to know if I had written the criticism. I, of course, instantly telegraphed back that I had not written a syllable of it. Then a Chicago paper is sent to me; and what I have the pleasure of reading, as the result of my contradiction, is this: 'Arnold denies; Mr. Medill [my old friend] refuses to accept Arnold's disclaimer; says Arnold is a cur.'

I once declared that in England the born lover of ideas and of light could not but feel that the sky over his head is of brass and iron. And so I say that, in America, he who craves for the interesting in civilisation, he who requires from what surrounds him satisfaction for his sense of beauty, his sense for elevation, will feel the sky over his head to be of brass and iron. The human problem, then, is as yet solved in the United States most imperfectly; a great void exists in the civilisation over there: a want of what is elevated and beautiful, of what is interesting.

The want is grave; it was probably, though he does not exactly bring it out, influencing Sir Lepel Griffin's feelings when he said that America is one of the last countries in which one would like to live. The want is such as to make any educated man feel that many countries, much less free and prosperous than the United States, are yet more truly civilised; have more which is interesting, have more to say to the soul; are countries, therefore, in which one would rather live.

The want is graver because it is so little recognised by the mass of Americans; nay, so loudly denied by them. If the community over there perceived the want and regretted it, sought for the right ways of remedying it, and resolved that remedied it should be; if they said, or even if a number of leading spirits amongst them said: 'Yes, we see what is wanting to our civilisation, we see that the average man is a danger, we see that our newspapers are a scandal, that bondage to the common and ignoble is our snare; but under the circumstances our civilisation could not well have been expected to begin differently. What you see are beginnings, they are crude, they are too predominantly material, they omit much, leave much to be desired--but they could not have been otherwise, they have been inevitable, and we will rise above them;' if the Americans frankly said this, one would have not a word to bring against it. One would then insist on no shortcoming, one would accept their admission that the human problem is at present quite insufficiently solved by them, and would press the matter no further. One would congratulate them on having solved the political problem and the social problem so successfully, and only remark, as I have said already, that in seeing clear and thinking straight on our political and social questions, we have great need to follow the example they set us on theirs.

But now the Americans seem, in certain matters, to have agreed, as a people, to deceive themselves, to persuade themselves that they have what they have not, to cover the defects in their civilisation by boasting, to fancy that they well and truly solve, not only the political and social problem, but the human problem too. One would say that they do really hope to find in tall talk and inflated sentiment a substitute for that real sense of elevation which human nature, as I have said, instinctively craves--and a substitute which may do as well as the genuine article. The thrill of awe, which Goethe pronounces to be the best thing humanity has, they would fain create by proclaiming themselves at the top of their voices to be 'the greatest nation upon earth,' by assuring one another, in the language of their national historian, that 'American democracy proceeds in its ascent as uniformly and majestically as the laws of being, and is as certain as the decrees of eternity.'

Or, again, far from admitting that their newspapers are a scandal, they assure one another that their newspaper press is one of their most signal distinctions. Far from admitting that in literature they have as yet produced little that is important, they play at treating American literature as if it were a great independent power; they reform the spelling of the English language by the insight of their average man. For every English writer they have an American writer to match. And him good Americans read; the Western States are at this moment being nourished and formed, we hear, on the novels of a native author called Roe, instead of those of Scott and Dickens. Far from admitting that their average man is a danger, and that his predominance has brought about a plentiful lack of refinement, distinction, and beauty, they declare in the words of my friend Colonel Higginson, a prominent critic at Boston, that 'Nature said, some years since: "Thus far the English is my best race, but we have had Englishmen enough; put in one drop more of nervous fluid and make the American." And with that drop a new range of promise opened on the human race, and a lighter, finer, more highly organised type of mankind was born.' Far from admitting that the American accent, as the pressure of their climate and of their average man has made it, is a thing to be striven against, they assure one another that it is the right accent, the standard English speech of the future. It reminds me of a thing in Smollet's dinner-party of authors. Seated by 'the philosopher who is writing a most orthodox refutation of Bolingbroke, but in the meantime has just been presented to the Grand Jury as a public nuisance for having blasphemed in an alehouse on the Lord's day'--seated by this philosopher is 'the Scotchman who is giving lectures on the pronunciation of the English language.'

The worst of it is, that all this tall talk and self-glorification meets with hardly any rebuke from sane criticism over there. I will mention, in regard to this, a thing which struck me a good deal. A Scotchman who has made a great fortune at Pittsburg, a kind friend of mine, one of the most hospitable and generous of men, Mr. Andrew Carnegie, published a year or two ago a book called Triumphant Democracy, a most splendid picture of American progress. The book is full of valuable information, but religious people thought that it insisted too much on mere material progress, and did not enough set forth America's deficiencies and dangers. And a friendly clergyman in Massachusetts, telling me how he regretted this, and how apt the Americans are to shut their eyes to their own dangers, put into my hands a volume written by a leading minister among the Congregationalists, a very prominent man, which he said supplied a good antidote to my friend Mr. Carnegie's book. The volume is entitled Our Country. I read it through. The author finds in evangelical Protestantism, as the orthodox Protestant sects present it, the grand remedy for the deficiencies and dangers of America. On this I offer no criticism; what struck me, and that on which I wish to lay stress, is, the writer's entire failure to perceive that such self-glorification and self-deception as I have been mentioning is one of America's dangers, or even that it is self-deception at all. He himself shares in all the self-deception of the average man among his countrymen, he flatters it. In the very points where a serious critic would find the Americans most wanting he finds them superior; only they require to have a good dose of evangelical Protestantism still added. 'Ours is the elect nation,' preaches this reformer of American faults--'ours is the elect nation for the age to come. We are the chosen people.' Already, says he, we are taller and heavier than other men, longer lived than other men, richer and more energetic than other men, above all, 'of finer nervous organisation' than other men. Yes, this people, who endure to have the American newspaper for their daily reading, and to have their habitation in Briggsville, Jacksonville, and Marcellus--this people is of finer, more delicate nervous organisation than other nations! It is Colonel Higginson's 'drop more of nervous fluid over again. This 'drop' plays a stupendous part in the American rhapsody of self-praise. Undoubtedly the Americans are highly nervous, both the men and the women. A great Paris physician says that he notes a distinct new form of nervous disease, produced in American women by worry about servants. But this nervousness, developed in the race out there by worry, overwork, want of exercise, injudicious diet, and a most trying climate--this morbid nervousness our friends ticket as the fine susceptibility of genius, and cite it as a proof of their distinction, of their superior capacity for civilisation! 'The roots of civilisation are the nerves,' says our Congregationalist instructor again; 'and, other things being equal, the finest nervous organisation will produce the highest civilisation. Now, the finest nervous organisation is ours.'

The new West promises to beat in the game of brag even the stout champions I have been quoting. Those belong to the old Eastern States; and the other day there was sent to me a Californian newspaper which calls all the Easterners 'the unhappy denizens of a forbidding clime,' and adds: 'The time will surely come when all roads will lead to California. Here will be the home of art, science, literature, and profound knowledge.'

Common-sense criticism, I repeat, of all this hollow stuff there is in America next to none. There are plenty of cultivated, judicious, delightful individuals there. They are our hope and America's hope; it is through their means that improvement must come. They know perfectly well how false and hollow the boastful stuff talked is; but they let the storm of self-laudation rage, and say nothing. For political opponents and their doings there are in America hard words to be heard in abundance; for the real faults in American civilisation, and for the foolish boasting which prolongs them, there is hardly a word of regret or blame, at least in public. Even in private, many of the most cultivated Americans shrink from the subject, are irritable and thin-skinned when it is canvassed. Public treatment of it, in a cool and sane spirit of criticism, there is none. In vain I might plead that I had set a good example of frankness, in confessing over here, that, so far from solving our problems successfully, we in England find ourselves with an upper class materialised, a middle class vulgarised, and a lower class brutalised. But it seems that nothing will embolden an American critic to say firmly and aloud to his countrymen and to his newspapers, that in America they do not solve the human problem successfully, and that with their present methods they never can. Consequently the masses of the American people do really come to believe all they hear about their finer nervous organisation, and the rightness of the American accent, and the importance of American literature; that is to say, they see things not as they are, but as they would like them to be; they deceive themselves totally. And by such self-deception they shut against themselves the door to improvement, and do their best to make the reign of das Gemeine eternal. In what concerns the solving of the political and social problem they see clear and think straight; in what concerns the higher civilisation they live in a fool's paradise. This it is which makes a famous French critic speak of 'the hard unintelligence of the people of the United States'--la dure inintelligence des Américains du Nord--of the very people who in general pass for being specially intelligent--and so, within certain limits, they are. But they have been so plied with nonsense and boasting that outside those limits, and where it is a question of things in which their civilisation is weak, they seem, very many of them, as if in such things they had no power of perception whatever, no idea of a proper scale, no sense of the difference between good and bad. And at this rate they can never, after solving the political and social problem with success, go on to solve happily the human problem too, and thus at last to make their civilisation full and interesting.

To sum up, then. What really dissatisfies in American civilisation is the want of the interesting, a want due chiefly to the want of those two great elements of the interesting, which are elevation and beauty. And the want of these elements is increased and prolonged by the Americans being assured that they have them when they have them not. And it seems to me that what the Americans now most urgently require, is not so much a vast additional development of orthodox Protestantism, but rather a steady exhibition of cool and sane criticism by their men of light and leading over there. And perhaps the very first step of such men should be to insist on having for America, and to create if need be, better newspapers.

To us, too, the future of the United States is of incalculable importance. Already we feel their influence much, and we shall feel it more. We have a good deal to learn from them; we shall find in them, also, many things to beware of, many points in which it is to be hoped our democracy may not be like theirs. As our country becomes more democratic, the malady here may no longer be that we have an upper class materialised, a middle class vulgarised, and a lower class brutalised. But the predominance of the common and ignoble, born of the predominance of the average man, is a malady too. That the common and ignoble is human nature's enemy, that, of true human nature, distinction and beauty are needs, that a civilisation is insufficient where these needs are not satisfied, faulty where they are thwarted, is an instruction of which we, as well as the Americans, may greatly require to take fast hold, and not to let go. We may greatly require to keep, as if it were our life, the doctrine that we are failures after all, if we cannot eschew vain boasting and vain imaginations, eschew what flatters in us the common and ignoble, and approve things that are truly excellent.

I have mentioned evangelical Protestantism. There is a text which evangelical Protestantism--and for that matter Catholicism too--translates wrong and takes in a sense too narrow. The text is that well-known one: 'Except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.' Instead of again, we ought to translate from above; and instead of taking the kingdom of God in the sense of a life in Heaven above, we ought to take it, as its speaker meant it, in the sense of the reign of saints, a renovated and perfected human society on earth, the ideal society of the future. In the life of such a society, in the life from above, the life born of inspiration or the spirit--in that life elevation and beauty are not everything; but they are much, and they are indispensable. Humanity cannot reach its ideal while it lacks them: 'Except a man be born from above, he cannot have part in the society of the future.'