Gateway to ideas; 1; The American Genius for Self-Examination
Gateway idea is. A. Gateway to ideas. A new series of conversations in which ideas are discussed in relation to reading. Today's program the American genius for self-examination is moderated by Ralph Backlund managing editor of Horizon magazine. For this discussion of the American genius for self-examination we have as I guess Russell Lynes the managing editor of Harper's Magazine who himself has examined the American scene and several books a lot of them as well as the taste makers and another has a surfeit of honey and our other guest is Mr. Allen Price Jones was formerly editor of The London Times Literary Supplement but has been in the United States since 1960 and has also had a chance to examine Americans came here with a grant from the Ford Foundation. It is at present the book critic of The New York Herald Tribune. I think I'll start by making two
observations. They're not my own observations I'm in effect. Constance Warrick in her book on American humor which is published some years ago says that no one can imagine a significant English novel called the Englishman. But when Henry James wrote the American the very title of that book seemed a fulfillment of his thought of an awkward title in the first place. It seems perfectly natural. The other thing is that when Eric B four years ago published a book he was going to call the self-conscious society. It was published the next year and several other countries and Italy the title given us literally translated is America judges itself and the French title was to you cede any sleep uneasy and lucid American to both of those titles are perfectly adequate titles for Mr. Larabee book but it's clear that at least in the Latin countries I don't have any idea of self-consciousness I mean the idea couldn't be got across. Does that make self-consciousness a peculiarly American trait. Mr lines as you examine it yourself.
Well I don't I don't think by any means self-consciousness is a peculiarly American trait. I think that the examination of American society has become a major literary industry in this country. Obviously because Americans like to read about themselves they like to find out what other people think they are. Partly I think because they use this is a guide to the acting the way they think is acceptable. Mr Pryce-Jones said before we went on the air that he thought that the idea of Americans being conformists was a rather nonsensical one and I think it is in a way on the other hand I do think that the the American does like to know how he stands in relation to others in this society this is one of the reasons why we read so many and write so many books of this sort and why we can be said to be self-conscious. Why doesn't the Frenchmen of the Englishman What about a Mr. Price chose. I would think the Brits Americans want to be loved more than some
other peoples of the French resampled encountered them of their loved or hated they just go on being themselves. And what about the English edition I would think suffer from the same sort of consciousness if anything even more so than Americans. She isn't into sex and Trey wouldn't you think that it comes from the fact that. So much of the world speaks the same language speaks English a lot obviously huge differences between Australia New Zealand United States Great Britain and so forth and that if you live in India there's going to be conscious mention also from relation to the others I think that's one thing that is the French speak French with an engine. They know you know six and a thing I would think so I would think though that the British were the least self-conscious at least I think you would find the Americans and the Canadians the Australians in relation to the British are always a little bit afraid that they are behaving the way they ought to. What you're saying that Mr. Lyons is that this goes with new societies new and yes possibly it also goes from a long history of being told how we ought to behave by it by the British our elders and
betters. Yes this began of course probably began the 18th century but certainly began in the 19th and the great stream of British and English travellers came across over here went through as much of the country they could and home wrote a book about it. While the one of the best known ones was Mrs. Trollope's domestic matters the Americans that came out all but when she was here in twenty eight I think eight hundred twenty eight came out about thirty one you know he was one of the earliest and of course her view of us was thought to be a highly unflattering and how we react then we were absolutely furious and bought her book by the millions not millions of course we weren't millions that but it was one of the great bestsellers of the early 19th century both here and in England in the course of still reading quoted all the time she was born in other words if she didn't originate this and I'm not sure that she did a great volume of literature of examination of American society American character I would think mostly written by foreigners before the turn of the century with mostly foreign travel. But beginning to think it just pumped up because the British living in Great Britain
think of themselves up to about a hundred or so anyway as the center of the British speaking the English speaking world and then you could stand it out in the world of English speakers and therefore I mean other people and if they slipped up. I mean about 50 years have to stop and as Americans and everybody else one of the things about about Mrs. trollops and the Harriet Martineau and Captain Marriott and those people who were here in the early part of the of the century was that they were looking on us as a society which was. A society based on and the egalitarianism which I found very odd indeed misses trollop made it quite clear she thought that if we just give up all this nonsense about equality would be really rather nice people and probably would behave ourselves rather better than we did in her. Her view was very middle class kind of morality and kind of manners. But we were looked at with more of a nick as a social political
experiment by these people than as a going concern and we were very young as a nation. But don't you think they also certainly Miss Martin and Mrs. trollop and Dickens later thought of us also as a definitely an offshoot of English culture at least in Anglo-Saxon society which we really aren't anymore. But we were not I mean some of the parent looking at the child if they had looked at us. Of course I suppose took the old dead as a metaphor for enjoyment. If they looked at us as something totally new in the world they might have taken some of those who hadn't had the big immigration agent know they were right. I mean a child of Great Britain the United States in those days was a naughty child for having gone off and there and if you like Henry Adams when he started writing about United States even in the 60s and 70s they were thinking Americans were far too respectful to them I mean they complain very much about the take of the child as being too kind. And as they did it was a bit and still I think when I think of the
Dude. You have to remember Americans were being written. Well I think one of the things that happened was when and in what has been called the First Age of the common man Andrew Jackson era when we had this great wave of a gallop it was accompanied as such things are always by a great wave of snobbism. And one turned for taste and ideas to Europe as as the chic thing to do. And people became awfully self-conscious in the place that they look to for their for their ideas and manners and arts weren't nice to them. Actually that was tough times but with the generation before that it had no need for four letter of advice. That's right it was a kind of society which disappeared and a new kind of commercial and industrial era began to grow up as talk says and this this makes for a kind of new kind of snobbism which turned to England for it's and to France for its curious thing that in the end in 18th century the books of manners
were all taken from France. It's in that it's in the 19th century that we begin to do our own books and that is in the best Amman interest books that's something else that isn't them saying I want to the point of the lead generation was assured and confident though I think even from the very beginning they always felt themselves or something distinctly American. I mean yes it's only later on that we felt we had a certain kind of difference from from Europe. But when did that one of the American wave of self-examination begin. Would you say. After all the books we've been talking about all written the 19th century or. What's a for the first the first influential and I would cry with the first big influential. Then books books reading about other countries. Ot a very good depiction of a good point of view there. And he's a sitting American values against other people's values well more unmarked and of course Henry James who comparison really and reverse I mean
and happily to the old world but the great drip the great wave of books self-conscious books books of self-examination books of self-criticism are certainly come along in the 20th century and while yes it almost I suppose the great way this is the second certainly not why you think that is. Do you think it was because perhaps all the countries of the world with all the other countries. Anyone who had known me in the field since tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of other people out of other people's lives and I think that's part of it I would think that probably a very strong influence factor in this would be the fact that America suddenly found itself in a position of power which has never been before which made it rather an easy and began to make it wonder whether indeed it was in such a place of power and rather embarrassed by it.
I think in the same position you know the Great Britain was in the middle of the 19th century when people started explaining to the British what to the Steins and what generally undesirable people to be in the main position of power in the world. Well Mr Pryce-Jones would you compare Arnold under the kind of person who kind of all that we have in this company who examines us. I'm pretty I think better than any Also writing in his own field in any country. The situation remains the same I was trying to be a sort of peacemaker for the ideal British of his time and a great many people in this country know trying to do the same thing for Americans at this time. But was I will ever taken up in the way a tremendous tremendous excitement went on in the 1860s and 70s and 80s. About tunnels and activities. The sheer multiplication of books say the ease with which books are produced and sold and marketed as a means of memento that of categorial have a great many more but we could. We don't need to do it we could go down a list of titles every month brings out a new book to the camera talking about
as good as we have mentioned and how much of this do you think of simply writing a fad and making a quick buck so to speak. I don't think much like my last. I think it's too hard work to make a quick quick buck out of you read into it is hard work and trouble. I started my first the first piece of this sort that I ever did was a piece called highbrow lowbrow middlebrow which was meant to be a set hair on this kind of thing which I then subsequently discovered with being taken quite seriously by the sociologists. That was very telling. What did the same thing happen with you new business that Nancy is they have sort of as you can certainly begin to descend. This is great through the course of these jokes the term seriously sometimes can cast a ray of light on why we do what I wonder about this kind of book is how much of it is a serious examination of our character will be on the how much of it is simply an attempt to
find some kind of easy self gratification of self justification. I didn't think most of the most self justifying thoughts of such books as I read. I'm thinking of people a Norman Mailer's books or books I read called normal notices by husband and wife whose name was Dr. Parkman and doctor putting their best doctors what is the normal neurosis normal are a symptom of the inadequacy of the parent. What they call adjusted Americans feel in touch with daily life that for example they do terrible things I marrying for love this is much disapproved of by the partners they think this is all wrong and will demand if an enlightened self-interest and taking the adjusted American is someone who is inadequate to cope with the difficulties of American life. My point being that it's attack I think which is the usual I think a lot of these writers that are complaining about their fellow Americans rather than trying to boost them up. I think that's true I think that probably would if it is time now to attack that the normal american This means that all those forms of attack had been used and
I think that the number of books is probably so. Henry still comma just said in that wrote in a recent article examining the American character from someone point of view and he went on to say that one of our characteristics and certainly great self-confidence have been he said. Self-confidence melts easily into complacency and this into arrogance in the American has rather more than his share of votes. He believes that his country has reached the pinnacle of civilization the American constantly asserts that he enjoys a higher standard of living. Scandinavian countries and Canada have a higher that his medicine is the best in the world though his country is 11th and infant mortality that his form of government is in due to believe the best though not one of the some 15 nations have seen fit to copy it. Quite untrue and so I don't know the mother well and I think it might have been true 50 or 60 years ago which isn't true of contemporary Americans I'm sure they haven't. I would suggest Gerald Johnson so look on. Which came out of a while ago called hod carrier which is notes unfinished Cathedral. He takes issue with with that. The idea that anybody has any right to sell
America as is what we are trying to trying to sell America as is what we wish we were going to be. If it's half finished that's that's more finished than he thinks it is. I don't think it's a great deal of complacency I think we try and sell export on America an idea about America which not of a great many of us believe actually is the way it is not made of the world against something synthetic which we. But yes it's a kind of propaganda which we rather distrust. I don't think Americans like propaganda much. I think they pride themselves on seeing through propaganda and therefore they use it rather badly. But are they able to see through the propaganda about themselves. Well if they read everything that is written about them they don't which is so contradictory they must know that somebody is not right about them. Well all these things that have been written about America let's us were supposed to know this because after all he's not he's not lived as long as we have. How many really good ones have you read which seem to say something true about the American character.
Well you know what I know about Dominican killers is that. For a very short time was about four or five years as every day I read how little I know because of the 70 exceptions I think there is nobody can get it as such anymore than is really an English get it. French get it but the English and the Americans seem to me to be fundamentally individual individuals and I wouldn't like the pattern of American life I mean my life in Cincinnati is often like life in New Orleans right down to the individuals. I wouldn't think that Americans in the least impressed by the propaganda. I think they're getting on with life as best they may. I think that some of the books have been used like like White's book on the old position where you know to sort of make the organization in some ways look at itself and pull it that sucks because has more to do however with that with the institution and correcting the faults of the institution direct than the individuals. Own feeling about himself or his relation and the writer has done the
useful work sometimes in calling attention to the flaws in the organization of a sense of exactly I think that's good. I mean this is the reason. As soon as one of these books. So as soon as they give the catch word it does not necessarily mean at least I hope this is true. We no longer just use the word usually our tongue would no longer examine what it means I think it means that we have applied it in some way along the line we've got a new concept as would you agree with I would think so yes I think that Holly White's book and Packard's books are greatly exaggerated in order to make a point of course but the point is made the point is made and I think often usefully. I noticed it seemed to be because I was attached at different times to three men economics one American only group and it struck me that it was the British on it struck me that the British on a high level was not repeat mistakes. Right and we're going to do it this way and they did it three times over the same time. If we try to explain having up to hang up it's to our American
friends this was not the way to do something they had to do it was a complete waste of time and they had to make the mistake that they never did. My point being that Americans I think have a pregnancy sense about how to care for situations which they may have to make a mistake once they didn't make it three times. Yes often perhaps you just have to believe that the state can be skeptical after all the things we pride ourselves on is another matter. Brogan splendid piece on the whole of the American concept of invincibility. No I've not got it right. Which was that was the notion that you mentioned before and that is America does things right it is wrong it has a good export thing and we are constantly being shown that this is not so. I think you're right we don't go into that one again we may go into something based on a similar notion. We don't don't go making the same same mistakes twice. This is this incidentally is Gerald Johnson's great hope he said that one of the one of the positions that this this era has is written history partly.
Removed from the theology only only partially removed but out of written history. He thinks we have a chance of not making the same mistakes again that we have the first Western civilization or a civilization that ever had a real written history. And maybe this accumulation of stuff stuff is part of our written history is in that sense useful and means what he means Western civilization in general. Because the only one of the written history. Yes yes. But I wonder now that so many nations are emerging in other parts of the world. What emerging nations. Anyway there are new nations which in accelerated form are repeating the process that went on in this country I wonder if they also are going to turn on themselves the same searchlight of self-examination that we seem to have done here. A lot comes with the ritual of intrigue and how powerful. And I'm sure the British examined the case when they were from the 19th century. What about that is the United States is what it is about its situation the United States now the British I think having become much put and this powerful. And what about why that's happened and this
person into a frenzy. But all this is a reflection of where you stand in terms of the African states when standing around in terms of pubs they wouldn't have to wear it. Well what they will worry about is precisely what we were worried about when we used this is dried up and Mr. Dickens for the things they said about America and that is these people come here and they spend a few months and they go right away to write a book about it. This is precisely what's happening about a new nation question. Journalists go and write a book about get out and they have every right to resent it. At the same time I think of this poser I notice a pattern form here first at the very beginning before you start wondering about your manners and then about your morals and finally about whether you really exist or not. You do have to manufacture a kind of existence for yourself or a past and I think that many of the new countries are digging into their own history of a first time trying to create another isn't it. So we did that at the beginning. We're still doing it still doing. Yes you're right. I wonder whether. I still want about the popularity of this music this
kind of book. Why do you want to read us all the time. Since many people have read your books Mr. lines maybe you must know. Well I wish that I could say that anywhere nearly as many people would read my books or read Mr. Vance fagots books I think you at exaggerate something said I think there are a lot of these books I think very few of them sell a great many copies. Well I'm not saying that they're all best selling album of the organization man hasn't like it has been read by enormous numbers of people. I think Eric Larry's book which you've mentioned if it sold 10000 copies I'd be really surprised of the taste makers were begging me to people it's sold in hardcover and perhaps 30 40 thousand copies in paper but that's a lot of books. That's over 10 10 years more what I mean is there's a lot of reading mail you know we're just being read Now why is that. It isn't only because we want to find out about our faults or because of massacres. Because they tell us something about ourselves because I think you said earlier it might be because we're always changing but I think the taste makers if I can use this as an example really is
a history of of of of taste in America since the 1830s and is an examination of the kinds of people who made our tastes change. This is not sociological examination in that sense it's historical. We are interested in where we came from. I think in that sense the last book that I did which is domesticated Americans is again to look at the development of our managers social history. And there's nothing new about social history no it is not quite the same kind of thing now it's not you know socialist with privilege which has nothing to do with us. It's the pseudo. Sociology that is this kind of thing. I wonder if a lot of this is because people are unable to read respond. They're looking for this reason. Who is responsible for more ideas that everybody had their hand raised in this
country you have a number of different streams of life outside and coming into an interesting planet I mean countries like Britain was colonized by people a long time ago when people were less interested in what they were really like they will write books they didn't read books they were nuisances they went articulate nuisance streams streams Puerto Rican streams streams of life part of the well coming into the United States about a hundred fifty years or so. And I think it's very exciting to the component parts of this civilization where the other component parts to it. I mean they feel at what point do we all belong to the same country. Where do we ever step is the really embracing civilization of the United States which takes us all in I think there's a lot of information people coming in from outside in second and third generation people that live in first generation people who would like to have some light thrown in on the situation of the United States.
Yes nobody's really thrown in a very hard life. It's a very very complex thing that a lot of well-meaning trying to oversimplify things trying to single homogeneous who doesn't. Who do you think either of you has come close to throwing a light on that you have any books that. Well I suppose the nicest cry is probably my clearness. America is a civilization. I happen to disagree with an awful lot of it because I think just the crap that you are saying and that is that he tries to oversimplify so in order to get everything in about our civilization. What about the book or the making of Americans. I've not read it I am saying I never read it read through I think it's pretty good book. I would think one of his other words explain to you how Americans came about. I think I'd really read a history book like this in the United States and begin to read a fictional book as to what happened over American history. We love conclusions about it because it is making to
have an overall pattern of American life. Because there is the point right there Mr Pryce-Jones that raises some questions about a lot of this kind of literature. It started it or it pretends to offer conclusions which people read because they want because you know if you have a conclusion handed to you received on a platter it's much easier than digging it up yourself. God knows a good many of the books have a conclusion of every page. It's also in the country. I'm astonished by the small extent that in countries they didn't travel about it seems to me a lot of Americans who could endure quite a lot of people who say across the Hudson. I think inevitably because they want to pay into a limited travel time. We don't grovel. We're not in the world and somewhere you know when we go we usually go to the household and stay there.
But of course that might be said of almost anyone. Europeans have come here probably cover much more of the country than Native Americans did with their own country. In France you have a reason to go to the south of France is a bit of a reason to go. If you live in the middle of living dead or have reasons to travel the country but the medical service that is very hard to imagine it will have seen it is enough. Would you suppose same thing happens in Russia which is even even harder to go to Russia. There's one aspect of this I think that we've we've overlooked and that that is not books but magazines and the extent to which the magazines today are devoted to the same kinds of things that we've been doing going in books. Fiction has as more or less more and more disappeared out of the American magazine and pseudo sociology or real sociology in some cases has come and taken it's taken its place.
That's true most lines are maybe because fiction is disappearing as you say I don't think so disappearing but portals at once was that was once a vehicle for this kind of quote exactly. Yes it is no longer think of drives and all of the books with them. The early part of 20th century which where the real voice of criticism of this country had the most fiction that was not so critical as they do but then it was the role of criticism to talk well that's a whole other problem is surprised I think at this time we've at least covered the field of books and we can all go back and read another book Critical or revelatory something of life. Thank you very much. You have been listening to a new series of conversations in which ideas are discussed in relation to reading. Today's program the American genius for self-examination has presented Russell Lynes editor of Harper's Magazine and Alan Pryce-Jones book critic of The New York Herald Tribune. The moderator was Ralph Macchio and managing editor of
Horizon magazine. To extend the dimensions of today's program for you a list of books mentioned in the discussion as well as all those relevant to the subject has been prepared. You can obtain a copy from your local library or by writing to gateway to ideas post office box 6 for a one time Square Station New York. And please enclose a stamped self-addressed envelope right to box 6 for 1 Time Square Station New York gateway to ideas is produced for national educational radio Andro grant from the National Home Library Foundation. The programs are prepared by the National Book Committee and the American Library Association in cooperation with the National Association of educational broadcasters technical production by Riverside radio w r v r in New York City. This is the national educational radio network.
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