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chapter 115: Creative Intellectual Power - Viscount James Bryce, The American Commonwealth, vol. 2 
The American Commonwealth, with an Introduction by Gary L. McDowell (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1995). Vol. 2.
Part of: The American Commonwealth, 2 vols.
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Creative Intellectual Power
There is a street in Florence on each side of which stand statues of the famous Florentines of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries—Dante, Giotto, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Ghiberti, Machiavelli, Michael Angelo, and others scarcely less illustrious, all natives of the little city which in their days had never a population of more than seventy thousand souls.1 No one can walk between these rows of world-famous figures, matched by no other city of the modern world, without asking himself what cause determined so much of the highest genius to this one spot; why in Italy herself populous Milan and Naples and Venice have no such list to show; why the succession of greatness stopped with the beginning of the sixteenth century and has never been resumed? Questions substantially the same constantly rise to the mind in reading the history of other countries. Why did England produce no first-rate poet in the two stirring centuries between Chaucer and Shakespeare, and again in the century and a half between Milton’s birth and Wordsworth’s? Why have epochs of comparative sterility more than once fallen upon Germany and France? And why has music sometimes reached its highest pitch of excellence at moments when the other arts were languishing? Why does the sceptre of intellectual and artistic leadership pass now to one great nation, now to another, inconstant and unpredictable as are the shifting winds?
These questions touch the deepest and most complex problems of history; and neither historian nor physiologist has yet been able to throw any real light upon them. Even the commonplace remark that times of effort and struggle tend to develop an unusually active intellectual movement and therewith to awaken or nourish rare geniuses, is not altogether true; for some of the geniuses have arisen at moments when there was no excitement to call them forth, and at other times seasons of storm and stress have raised up no one capable of directing the efforts or interpreting the feelings of his generation. One thing, however, is palpable: numbers have nothing to do with the matter. There is no average of a man of genius to so many thousands or millions of persons. Out of the seventy thousand of Florence there arise during two centuries more men of undying fame than out of huge London during the last three centuries. Even the stock of solid second-class ability does not necessarily increase with increasing numbers; while as to those rare combinations of gifts which produce poetry or philosophy of the first order, they are revealed no more frequently in a great European nation now than they were in a Semitic tribe or a tiny Greek city twenty-five or thirty centuries ago.
There is therefore no reason why the absence of brilliant genius among the ninety millions in the United States should excite any surprise; we might as well wonder that there is no Goethe or Schiller or Kant or Hegel in the Germany of today, so much more populous and better educated than the Germany of their birthtime. It is not to be made a reproach against America that men like Tennyson or Darwin have not been born there. “The wind bloweth where it listeth;” the rarest gifts appear no one can tell why or how. In broad France a century ago no man was found able to spring upon the neck of the Revolution and turn it to his will. Fate brought her favourite from a wild Italian island, that had but just passed under the yoke of the nation to which it gave a master.
The question we have to ask as regards the United States is therefore not why it has given us few men of the highest and rarest distinction, but whether it has failed to produce its fair share of talents of the second rank, that is, of men capable of taking a lead in all the great branches of literary or artistic or scientific activity, men who instruct and delight their own generation, though possibly future generations may not hold all of them in remembrance.
Have fewer men of this order adorned the roll of fame in the United States, during the years since 1776, than in England, or France or Germany during the same period? Obviously this is the fact as regards art in all its branches; and also, though less distinctly so, as regards physical and mathematical science. In literature there is less disparity, yet most candid Americans will agree with Englishmen that it is greater than those who know the education and intelligence of the younger people would have expected. I pass by oratory and statesmanship, because comparison is in these fields very difficult. The fact therefore being admitted, we have to endeavour to account for it.
If the matter were one of numerical averages, it would be pertinent to remark that of the total population of the United States about one-tenth are Negroes, at present altogether below the stratum from which production can be expected; that of the whites there may be four or five millions to whom English is virtually a foreign language, and that many millions are recent immigrants from Europe who are below the educational stratum in which literary gifts can be expected to germinate. This diminishes the contrast between numbers and intellectual results. But numbers have so little to do with the question that the point scarcely deserves a passing reference.
Those who have discussed the conditions of intellectual productivity have often remarked that epochs of stir and excitement are favourable, because they stimulate men’s minds, setting new ideas afloat, and awakening new ambitions. It is also true that vigorous unremitting labour is, speaking generally, needed for the production of good work, and that one is therefore less entitled to expect it in an indolent time and from members of the luxurious classes. But it is not less true, though less frequently observed, that tranquillity and repose are necessary to men of the kind we are considering, and often helpful even to the highest geniuses, for the evolving of new thoughts and the creation of forms of finished and harmonious beauty. He who is to do such work must have time to meditate, and pause, and meditate again. He must be able to set his creation aside, and return to it after days or weeks to look at it with fresh eyes. He must be neither distracted from his main purpose, nor hurried in effecting it. He must be able to concentrate the whole force of his reason or imagination on one subject, to abstract himself when needful from the flitting sights and many-voiced clamour of the outer world. Juvenal said this long ago about the poet; it also applies, though possibly in a lower degree, both to the artist and to the serious thinker, or delicate workman, in any field of literature, to the metaphysician, the theologian, the philosophic historian, the economist, the philologist, even the novelist and the statesman. I have heard men who had gone from a quiet life into politics complain that they found their thinking powers wither, and that while they became far more expert in getting up subjects and speaking forcibly and plausibly, they found it harder and harder to form sound general views and penetrate beneath the superficialities of the newspaper and the platform. Interrupted thought, trains of reflection or imaginative conceptions constantly broken by a variety of petty transient calls of business, claims of society, matters passing in the world to note and think of, not only tire the mind but destroy its chances of attaining just and deep views of life and nature, as a wind-ruffled pool ceases to reflect the rocks and woods around it. Mohammed falling into trances on the mountain above Mecca, Dante in the sylvan solitudes of Fonte Avellana, Cervantes and Bunyan in the enforced seclusion of a prison, Hegel so wrapt and lost in his speculations that, taking his manuscript to the publisher in Jena on the day of the great battle, he was surprised to see French soldiers in the streets; these are types of the men and conditions which give birth to thoughts that occupy succeeding generations; and what is true of these greatest men is perhaps even more true of men of the next rank. Doubtless many great works have been produced among inauspicious surroundings, and even under severe pressure of time; but it will, I think, be almost invariably found that the producer had formed his ideas or conceived his creations in hours of comparative tranquillity, and had turned on them the full stream of his powers to the exclusion of whatever could break or divert its force.
In Europe men call this a century of unrest. But the United States is more unrestful than Europe, more unrestful than any country we know of has yet been. Nearly everyone is busy; those few who have not to earn their living and do not feel called to serve their countrymen, find themselves out of place, and have been wont either to make amusement into a business or to transfer themselves to the ease of France or Italy. The earning of one’s living is not, indeed, incompatible with intellectually creative work, for many of those who have done such work best have done it in addition to their gainful occupation, or have earned their living by it. But in America it is unusually hard for anyone to withdraw his mind from the endless variety of external impressions and interests which daily life presents, and which impinge upon the mind, I will not say to vex it, but to keep it constantly vibrating to their touch. Life is that of the squirrel in his revolving cage, never still even when it does not seem to change. It becomes every day more and more so in England, and English literature and art show increasing marks of haste. In the United States the ceaseless stir and movement, the constant presence of newspapers, the eagerness which looks through every pair of eyes, even that active intelligence and sense of public duty, strongest in the best minds, which make a citizen feel that he ought to know what is passing in the wider world as well as in his own, all these render life more exciting to the average man than it is in Europe, but chase away from it the opportunities for repose and meditation which art and philosophy need, as growing plants need the coolness and darkness of night no less than the blaze of day. The type of mind which American conditions have evolved is quick, vigorous, practical, versatile; but it is unfavourable to the natural germination and slow ripening of large and luminous ideas; it wants the patience that will spend weeks or months on bringing details to an exquisite perfection. And accordingly we see that the most rich and finished literary work America has given us has proceeded from the older regions of the country, where the pulsations of life are slower and steadier than in the West or in the great commercial cities. It is from New England that nearly all the best books of the last generation came; and that not solely because the English race has been purest there, and education most generally diffused, for the New Englanders who have gone West, though they have carried with them their moral standard and their bright intelligence, seem either to have left behind their gift for literary creation, or to care to employ it only in teaching and in journalism.
It may be objected to this view that some of the great literary ages, such as the Periclean age at Athens, the Medicean age at Florence, the age of Elizabeth in England, have been ages full of movement and excitement. But the unrestfulness which prevails in America is altogether different from the large variety of life, the flow of stimulating ideas and impressions which marked those ages. Life is not as interesting in America, except as regards commercial speculation, as it is in Europe; because society and the environment of man are too uniform. It is hurried and bustling; it is filled with a multitude of duties and occupations and transient impressions. In the ages I have referred to men had time enough for all there was to do, and the very scantiness of literature and rarity of news made that which was read and received tell more powerfully upon the imagination.
Nor is it only the distractions of American life that clog the wings of invention. The atmosphere is over full of all that pertains to material progress. Americans themselves say, when excusing the comparative poverty of learning and science, that their chief occupation is at present the subjugation of their continent, that it is an occupation large enough to demand most of the energy and ambition of the nation, but that presently, when this work is done, the same energy and ambition will win similar triumphs in the fields of abstract thought, while the gifts which now make them the first nation in the world for practical inventions, will then assure to them a like place in scientific discovery. There is evidently much truth in this. The attractions of practical life are so great to men conscious of their own vigour, the development of the West and the vast operations of commerce and finance which have accompanied that development have absorbed so many strenuous talents, that the supply of ability available not only for pure science (apart from its applications) and for philosophical and historical studies, but even for statesmanship, has been proportionately reduced. But, besides this withdrawal of an unusually large part of the nation’s force, the predominance of material and practical interests has turned men’s thoughts and conversation into a channel unfavourable to the growth of the higher and more solid kinds of literature, perhaps still more unfavourable to art. Goethe said, “If a talent is to be speedily and happily developed the chief point is that a great deal of intellect and sound culture should be current in a nation.” There is certainly a great deal of intellect current in the United States. But it is chiefly directed to business, that is, to railways, to finance, to commerce, to inventions, to manufactures (as well as to practical professions like law), things which play a relatively larger part than in Europe, as subjects of universal attention and discussion. There is abundance of sound cultur, but it is so scattered about in divers places and among small groups which seldom meet one another, that no large cultured society has arisen similar to that of European capitals or to that which her universities have created for Germany. In Boston in 1860 a host could have brought together round his table nine men as interesting and cultivated as Paris or London would have furnished. But a similar party of eighteen could not have been collected, nor perhaps even the nine, anywhere except in Boston. At present, culture is more diffused: there are many cities where men of high attainments and keen intellectual interests are found, and associate themselves in literary or scientific clubs. Societies for the study of particular authors are not uncommon among women. I remember to have been told of a Homer club and an Æschylus club, formed by the ladies of St. Louis, and of Dante clubs in some Eastern cities. Nevertheless a young talent gains less than it would gain in Europe from the surroundings into which it is born. The atmosphere is not charged with ideas as in Germany, nor with critical finesse as in France. Stimulative it is, but the stimulus drives eager youth away from the groves of the Muses into the struggling throng of the marketplace.
It may be thought fanciful to add that in a new country one whole set of objects which appeal to the imagination are absent—no castles gray with age; no solemn cathedrals whose altering styles of architecture carry the mind up or down the long stream of history from the eleventh to the seventeenth century; few spots or edifices consecrated by memories of famous men or deeds, and among these none of remote date. There is certainly no want of interest in those few spots: the warmth with which Americans cherish them puts to shame the indifference of the English Parliament to the historic and prehistoric sites and buildings of Britain. But not one American youth in a thousand comes under the spell of any such associations. In the city or state where he lives there is nothing to call him away from the present. All he sees is new, and has no glories to set before him save those of accumulated wealth and industry skilfully applied to severely practical ends.
Someone may say that if (as was observed in last chapter) English and American literature are practically one, there is no need to explain the fact that one part of a race undivided for literary purposes leaves the bulk of literary production to be done by the other part, seeing that it can enter freely into the labours of the latter and reckon them its own. To argue thus would be to push the doctrine of the unity of the two branches rather too far, for after all there is much in American conditions and life which needs its special literary and artistic interpretations; and the question would still confront us, why the transatlantic branch, nowise inferior in mental force, contributes less than its share to the common stock. Still it is certainly true that the existence of a great body of producers, in England of literature, as in France of pictures, diminishes the need for production in America. Or to put the same thing in another way, if the Americans did not speak English they would evidently feel called on to create more high literature for themselves. Many books which America might produce are not produced because the men qualified to write them know that there are already English books on the same subject; and the higher such men’s standard is, the more apt are they to overrate the advantages which English authors enjoy as compared with themselves. Many feelings and ideas which now find adequate expression through the English books which Americans read would then have to be expressed through American books, and their literature would be not only more individual, but more copious and energetic. If it lost in breadth, it would gain in freshness and independence. American authors conceive that even the nonrecognition of international copyright has told for evil on their profession. Since the native writer was undersold by reprints of English and French books, which, paying nothing to the European author, can be published at the cost of the paper and printing only, native authorship was discouraged, native talent diverted into other fields, while at the same time the intellectual standard of the public was lowered and its taste vulgarized. It might be thought that the profusion of cheap reprints would tend to quicken thought and diffuse the higher kinds of knowledge among the masses. But experience proves that by far the largest part of these reprints, and the part which is most extensively read, were novels, and among them many flimsy novels, which drove better books, including some of the best American fiction, out of the market, and tended to Europeanize the American mind in the worst way. One may smile at the suggestion that the allegiance of the working classes to their democratic institutions will be seduced by descriptions of English duchesses; yet it is probably true—eminent observers assure one of it—that the profusion of new frothy or highly-spiced fiction offered at ten or twenty-five cents a volume did much to spoil the popular palate for the enjoyment of more wholesome and nutritious food. And whatever injures the higher literature by diminishing the demand, may further injure it by creating an atmosphere unfavourable to the growth of pure and earnest native literary talent.
What then of the newspapers? The newspapers would need a chapter to themselves, and their influence as organs of opinion has been already discussed. The vigour and brightness of many among them are surprising. Nothing escapes them; everything is set in the sharpest, clearest light. Their want of reticence and delicacy is regretfully admitted by all educated Americans—the editors, I think, included. The cause of this deficiency is probably to be found in the fact that, whereas the first European journals were written for the polite world of large cities, American journals were, early in their career, if not at its very beginning, written for the bulk of the people, and published in communities still so small that everybody’s concerns were already pretty well known to everybody else. They had attained no high level of literary excellence when towards the middle of last century an enterprising man of unrefined taste created a new type of “live” newspaper, which made a rapid success by its smartness, copiousness, and variety, while addressing itself entirely to the multitude. Other papers were almost forced to shape themselves on the same lines, because the class which desired something more choice was still relatively small; and now the journals of the chief cities have become such vast commercial concerns that they still think first of the mass and are controlled by its tastes, which they have themselves done so much to create. There are cities where the more refined readers who dislike flippant personalities are counted by tens of thousands, but in such cities competition is now too severe to hold out much prospect of success to a paper which does not expect the support of hundreds of thousands. It is not, however, with the æsthetic or moral view of the newspaper that we are here concerned, but with the effect on the national mind of the enormous ratio which the reading of newspapers bears to all other reading, a ratio higher than even in France or England. A famous Englishman, himself a powerful and fertile thinker, contrasted the value of the history of Thucydides with that of a single number of the Times newspaper, greatly to the advantage of the latter. Others may conceive that a thoughtful study of Thucydides, or, not to go beyond our own tongue, of Bacon, Milton, Locke, or Burke, perhaps even of Gibbon, Grote, or Macaulay, will do more to give keenness to the eye and strength to the wings of the mind than a whole year’s reading of the best daily newspaper. It is not merely that the matter is of more permanent and intrinsic worth, nor that the manner and style form the student’s taste; it is not merely that in the newspaper we are in contact with persons like ourselves, in the other case with rare and splendid intellects. The whole attitude of the reader is different. His attention is loose, his mind unbraced, so that he does not stop to scrutinize an argument, and forgets even valuable facts as quickly as he has learnt them. If he read Burke as he reads the newspaper, Burke would do him little good. And therefore the habit of mind produced by a diet largely composed of newspapers is adverse to solid thinking and dulling to the sense of beauty. Scorched and stony is the soil which newspaper reading has prepared to receive the seeds of genius.
Does the modern world really gain, so far as creative thought is concerned, by the profusion of cheap literature? It is a question one often asks in watching the passengers on an American railway. A boy walks up and down the car scattering newspapers and books in paper covers right and left as he goes. The newspapers are glanced at, though probably most people have read several of the day’s papers already. The books are nearly all novels. They are not bad in tone, and sometimes they give incidentally a superficial knowledge of things outside the personal experience of the reader; while from their newspapers the passengers draw a stock of information far beyond that of a European peasant, or even of an average European artisan. Yet one feels that this constant succession of transient ideas, none of them impressively though many of them startlingly stated, all of them flitting swiftly past the mental sight as the trees flit past the eye when one looks out of the car window, is no more favourable to the development of serious intellectual interests and creative intellectual power than is the limited knowledge of the European artisan or peasant.
Most of the reasons I have hazarded to account for a phenomenon surprising to one who recognizes the quantity of intellect current in America, and the diffusion, far more general than in any other country, of intellectual curiosity, are reasons valid in the Europe of today as compared with the Europe of last century, and still more true of the modern world as compared with the best periods of the ancient. Printing is by no means pure gain to the creative faculties, whatever it may be to the acquisitive; even as a great ancient thinker seems to have thought that the invention of writing in Egypt had weakened the reflective powers of man. The question follows, Are these causes, supposing them to be true causes, likely to be more or less operative in the America of next century than they now are? Will America become more what Europe is now, or will she be even more American?
I have elsewhere thrown out some conjectures on this point. Meantime it is pertinent to ask what are the most recent developments of American thought and research, for this will help us to see whether the tide of productive endeavour is rising or falling.
The abundant and excellent work done in fiction need be mentioned only for the sake of calling attention to the interest it has, over and above its artistic merit, as a record of the local manners and usages and types of character in various parts of the Union—types which are fast disappearing. The Creoles of Louisiana, the Negroes under slavery, with African tales still surviving in their memories, the rough but kindly backwoodsmen of early Indiana, the bosses of rural New England, the mountain folk of Tennessee, the humours of the Mississippi steamboat and the adventurous life of the Far West, were all made known to Europe through the tales of writers of the last or present generation, as the Indians of long ago became known through the romances of Fenimore Cooper. However, this is familiar ground to European readers, so I pass to work of a less generally attractive order.
In the middle of last century the standard of classical scholarship was low, and even the school commentaries on classical authors fell far short of those produced in Germany or England. Nowadays both in classical and in Oriental philology admirably thorough and painstaking work is produced. I have heard high European authorities observe that there is an almost excessive anxiety among American scholars to master all that has been written, even by third-rate Germans, and that the desire they evince to overtake Germany in respect of knowledge betrays some among them into the German fault of neglecting merits of form and style. In the sciences of nature, especially in those of observation, remarkable advances have been made. Dr. Asa Gray, was one of the two or three greatest botanists of his age, and Simon Newcomb one of the greatest mathematical astronomers. Much excellent work has been done in geology and palæontology, particularly in exploring the Rocky Mountain regions. Both for the excellence of their instruments and the accuracy of their observations, the astronomers stand in the front rank; nor has America fallen behind Europe in the theoretical part of this science. In some branches of physics and chemistry, such as spectrum analysis, American investigators have won like fame. Competent authorities award the highest praise to their recent contributions to biology and to medical science and are perhaps still more impressed by the achievements of their surgeons. In economics they seem to stand before either England or France, both as regards the extent to which the subject is studied in universities and as regards the number of eminent persons whom it occupies. In jurisprudence and law, American textbooks are of high excellence;2 and one author, the late Mr. Justice Story, deserves, looking to the quantity as well as to the quality of his work, to be placed at the head of all who have handled these topics in the English tongue during the nineteenth century. Political science has begun to be studied more energetically than in England, where, to be sure, it is scarcely studied at all; and every year sees treatises and articles of permanent value added to the scanty modern literature which our language possesses on this subject. Similarly there is great activity in the field of both secular and ecclesiastical history, though as the work done has largely taken the direction of inquiries into local American history, and has altogether been more in the nature of research than of treatises attractive to the general public, its quantity and its merits have not yet been duly appreciated even at home, much less in Europe. Indeed, it is remarkable how far from showy and sensational is the bulk of the work now done in America. It is mostly work of a solid, careful, exact, and often rather dry type, not at all the sort of work which theorists about democracy would have looked for, since it appeals rather to the learned few than to the so-called general reader. One receives the impression that the class of intellectual workers, who until recently wanted institutions in which the highest and fullest training could be had, have now become sensible that their country, occupied in developing its resources and educating its ordinary citizens, had fallen behind Europe in learning and science, and that they are therefore the more eager to accumulate knowledge and spend their energy in minutely laborious special studies.3
I may be reminded that neither in the departments above mentioned, nor in statesmanship, can one point to many brilliant personalities. Perhaps this is true of Europe also; perhaps the world is passing through an age with a high level of mediocrity in literature, art, and science as compared with the outstanding figures of last century. There have been periods in history when striking figures were lacking, although great events seemed to call for them. As regards America, if there be few persons of exceptional gifts, it is significant that the number of those who are engaged in scientific work, whether in the investigation of nature or in the moral, political, and historical sciences, is larger, relatively to the population of the country, than it was fifty years ago, the methods better, the work done more solid, the spirit more earnest and eager. Nothing more strikes a stranger who visits the American universities than the ardour with which the younger generation has thrown itself into study, even kinds of study which will never win the applause of the multitude. There is more zeal and heartiness among these men, more freshness of mind, more love of learning for its own sake, more willingness to forego the chances of fame and wealth for the sake of adding to the stock of human knowledge, than is to be found today in Oxford or Cambridge, or in the universities of Scotland. One is reminded of the scholars of the Renaissance flinging themselves into the study of rediscovered philology, or of the German universities after the War of Liberation. And under the impressions formed in mingling with such men, one learns to agree with the conviction of the Americans that for a nation so abounding in fervid force there is reserved a fruitful career in science and letters, no less than in whatever makes material prosperity.
 Petrarch saw the light in Arezzo, but his family was Florentine, and it was by a mere accident that he was born away from his own city.
 The number of legal journals and magazines in the United States is very much larger than in England, and the average level of workmanship in them equally high. Two journals are dedicated to political science, a subject only just beginning to be represented in the British press.
 The extreme pains taken in America to provide every library with a classified catalogue directing readers to the books on each subject, seem to illustrate this tendency.