The Land of Contrasts eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 289 pages of information about The Land of Contrasts.


Lights and Shadows of American Society

By “society” I do not mean that limited body which, whether as the Upper Ten Thousand of London or as the Four Hundred of New York, usually arrogates the title.  Such narrowness of definition seems peculiarly out of place in the vigorous democracy of the West.  By society I understand the great body of fairly well-educated and fairly well-mannered people, whose means and inclinations lead them to associate with each other on terms of equality for the ordinary purposes of good fellowship.  Such people, not being fenced in by conventional barriers and owning no special or obtrusive privileges, represent much more fully and naturally the characteristic national traits of their country; and their ways and customs are the most fruitful field for a comparative study of national character.  The daughters of dukes and princes can hardly be taken as typical English girls, since the conditions of their life are so vastly different from those of the huge majority of the species—­conditions which deny a really natural or normal development to all but the choicest and strongest souls.  So the daughter of a New York multimillionaire, who has been brought up to regard a British duke or an Italian prince as her natural partner for life, does not look out on the world through genuinely American spectacles, but is biassed by a point of view which may be somewhat paradoxically termed the “cosmopolitan-exclusive.”  As Mr. Henry James puts it:  “After all, what one sees on a Newport piazza is not America; it is the back of Europe.”

There are, however, reasons special to the United States why we should not regard the “Newport set” as typical of American society.  Illustrious foreign visitors fall not unnaturally into this mistake; even so keen a critic as M. Bourget leans this way, though Mr. Bryce gives another proof of his eminent sanity and good sense by his avoidance of the tempting error.  But, as Walt Whitman says, “The pulse-beats of the nation are never to be found in the sure-to-be-put-forward-on-such-occasions citizens.”  European fashionable society, however unworthy many of its members may be, and however relaxed its rules of admission have become, has its roots in an honourable past; its theory is fine; not all the big names of the British aristocracy can be traced back to strong ales or weak (Lucy) Waters.  Even those who desire the abolition of the House of Peers, or look on it, with Bagehot, as “a vapid accumulation of torpid comfort,” cannot deny that it is an institution that has grown up naturally with the country, and that it is only now (if even now) that it is felt with anything like universality to be an anomaly.  The American society which is typified by the four hundred of New York, the society which marries its daughters to English peers, is in a very different position.  It is of mushroom growth even according to American standards; it has theoretically

Project Gutenberg
The Land of Contrasts from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
Follow Us on Facebook