An Antidote to “Yankee Doodle”

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/April, 1912

UPON the average American’s bilious ignorance of foreigners I made my lamentation last month—how he assumes, as fundamental axioms of ethnology, that all Frenchmen wear corsets, swill absinthe and swap wives with their neighbors; that all Italians belong to the Black Hand and fear the evil eye; that all Greeks are bootblacks and all Norwegians numskulls; that all Germans keep canary birds, drench themselves with malt liquor and condemn their wives to the washtub; that all Hollanders wear wooden shoes and all Spaniards smell of garlic.

And with that marvelous telescope, naturally enough, there goes an equally marvelous mirror. That is to say, the average American is as flattering to himself as he is libelous to the uitlander. Contemplating his own image, he sees a lordly and magnificent creature, a being of absolutely perfect physique, intellect, habits, doctrines, instincts, tastes, consuetudes and table manners. His own way of stoking his buccal cavity with peas is infinitely lovely; all other ways are uncouth and ridiculous, if not downright indecent. His own newspapers, even the worst of them, are better than the Berlin Lokal-Anzeiger or the London Times. His own children, at ten or eleven, show a degree of sapience that would shame and flabbergast an Oxford don. His own ward boss, on the whole, is a more respectable, or, at any rate, a more astute statesman than Bismarck or Cavour. He himself, in pitched battle, would be a sufficient (if not, perhaps, a quite fair or humane) match for six Englishmen, ten Germans or a hundred Chinamen. And as for the great and admitted heroes of his race—his Washingtons, Mad Anthonys, Andrew Jacksons and John L. Sullivans—well, here the American is among such lofty and overpowering fauna that to bring in exotic supermen for comparative measurement, even such insistent supermen as Caius Julius and the son of Hamilcar, seems to him grotesque to the verge of lunacy, like matching Ossa with an archipelago of warts.

Such is the average American, the American patriot, a man with an extraordinarily favorable opinion of himself and his’n. His name, perhaps, is Kraus or Cohen or O’Rourke, but on the psychic, the emotional, the idealistic side, he is part of the divine lineage—and the august stammvaler of his race, its gladiators primordial and incomparable, buckle the floor of Heaven with their heads. Wherefore and by reason of which, it is occasionally entertaining, and at the same time salubrious, for some doughty bravo to come down upon the caputs of these gladiators with a length of ninety-pound rail, and so restore the floor of Heaven to its normal flatness, that the blest may skate serenely.

Such a bravo—with all due respect to a sedate and ancient man, now far less the ruffian than the logician—is the Honorable Charles Francis Adams, of 84 State Street, Boston, Mass., in whose “Studies Military and Diplomatic” (Macmillan) , amid many pleasant blooms and ingenious snarls of speech, you will find a number of lethal weapons lurking. And these weapons do not merely lurk; they are in good and constant service; the noise of their shocks makes a rolling rataplan. But upon what, precisely, do they perform—what targets—what skulk—what magnificoes? Upon General Israel Putnam, for one. Upon General Nathaniel Greene, for another. Upon General George Washington—speak it con sordini—for a third! Yea, even upon George Himself, the Odin of our Valhalla! And if that sacrilege offends, then let it be said in Mr. Adams’s defense that he ameliorates it by striking down devils as well as gods. That is to say, he shows that if George occasionally displayed an amazing ineptness, then General Sir William Howe, his antagonist, displayed an ineptness even more amazing; that if the Continentals at Bunker Hill walked straight into a trap, then the British on that same day amiably broke the spring; that if the campaign of 1777 was a comedy of errors on the one side, then it was a still livelier comedy of errors on the other.

What happened at Bunker Hill? Mr. Adams, stripping the story of its accretions of tinsel and nickel plating, tells it in simple terms. The British forces, eight thousand strong, occupied the city of Boston, and a British fleet lay in Boston harbor. Howe was supreme commander. The American militia, ten thousand strong and with Putnam in command, hovered in the outskirts of the town. The logical aim of the British was to lure the Americans into a stand-up fight, preferably along the waterfront, and so drub them with men and ships. The logical aim of the Americans was to grab as many nearby strongholds as they could, and so harass and demoralize the British. But when the time came to grab, just what strongholds did the Americans select? One only, and that one the weakest of them all! Charlestown Neck, to wit, with Bunker Hill upon it. Charlestown Neck was practically an island. Nothing but a narrow causeway joined it to the main land, and that causeway lay exposed, not only to the attack of landing parties, but also to the heavy fire of the British ships. But out went the Continentals, on the night of June 16, 1775, and by dawn of the next day they had thrown up earthworks on Bunker Hill, or rather on Breed’s Hill, just below it. There the rising sun found them, neatly bottled. All that was necessary to bag them was to seize the causeway, shake them up a bit with ships’ cannon, let them explode all their own scanty ammunition, and then land and handcuff them.

But what did Howe do? Alas, good Howe had an imbecility up his sleeve to match and surpass the imbecility of the ragged Continentals! Just as they themselves had been warned that Charlestown Neck was a trap, so he in his turn had had it pointed out to him how that trap might be easily and safely sprung. But this plan, for all its simplicity and certainty, did not appeal to Sir William. Just why he objected to it no one has ever discovered—here, indeed, we are upon one of the impenetrable mysteries of history—but that he did object we know. In place of it he adopted the astonishing plan of attacking the Americans in front—of landing under their fire, of advancing in the face of their fire, and of bucking, finally, their line of well made earthworks! And not only did he make this insane frontal attack, but to add to the joys of the day he left the causeway to the mainland wide open, so that when he finally succeeded, with staggering loss, in driving the Yankees out of their trenches, they made a safe and quick retreat and were soon with their patriot brethren behind Boston. In brief, Howe not only failed to spring the trap into which his foes had walked, but he actually went to the length, at great loss and trouble to himself, of driving them out of it!

This same incredible strategist gave another affecting performance on Long Island a year later, but here his antagonist was not Putnam, but Washington. In its main plot that second farce was almost identical with the one played on Charlestown Neck. That is to say, Washington, like Putnam, sent his troops into a trap—and then stood by while Howe, with great fuming and fury, drove them out. Brooklyn was the Charlestown Neck of this delightful affair. When Washington crossed the East River from Manhattan and went into camp on the Long Island heights, he placed himself completely at the mercy of Howe, who had thirty thousand men on Staten Island and a fleet in the lower bay. By the simple device of sending his ships into the East River while his army advanced up Long Island, Howe might have bottled George’s little army of some five thousand and then waited for it to starve and surrender. But did he adopt this plan? Of course he did not. A simple plan, certain of success, was always abhorrent to that involute and preposterous mind. Instead, he landed his troops at Gravesend, marched them up to the Yankee front, and there paused for a spring—and while he paused thus Washington slipped across the river and took to the woods! Where was the British fleet that night? Down at Sandy Hook!

But there were blunders on the American side even worse than Howe’s. To Washington’s folly in crossing to Brooklyn, where he found a superior army in front of him and a wide and deep river behind him, delicate allusion has been made. You will find it discussed more frankly, more judicially in Mr. Adams’s book. George blundered again when he threw up his Brooklyn trenches on low ground, with hills commanding them at easy range. But it was Sullivan, his chief field lieutenant, who took the prize for stupidity on that astounding day. Between the American front and the British landing place at Gravesend there was a wooded ridge, and over it came three roads. The British might have advanced by one road, by two or by all three. Sullivan, sallying from his defenses, occupied two of these roads, leaving the third open. By which did the British come? By the open third, of course. And coming thus, they fell upon Sullivan’s rear, turned his force inside out, took him prisoner and killed or wounded nearly half of his entire command! The only thing that may be said in defense of Sullivan is that the British probably took the third road quite by accident. It is incredible that Howe, knowing it to be undefended, should have chosen it deliberately. His invariable plan was to pick the very worst route available.

This habit was well exemplified soon afterward —that is to say, in 1777. Howe was now in New York, and Burgoyne was coming down from Canada in an effort to join him. Washington and the Continentals awaited events out in Jersey. The obvious thing for Howe to do was to send part of his army up the Hudson to meet Burgoyne, who was hard pressed, and so open a British highway through the young republic, breaking its back as Sherman broke the back of the Confederacy. He had the troops and he had the ships; the one thing necessary was to give the word. But such a plan, of course, was beneath the dignity of Howe. He preferred more recondite, more fantastic, more elephantine movements. And so he put his men aboard his ships, and, as Mr. Adams says, vanished into space. Six days later he made a spectral reappearance off the Delaware capes and then dropped out of sight again. A month more and he was in the Chesapeake. But to what end? To the end, it soon became evident, of capturing Philadelphia! But why Philadelphia? Because the Continental Congress met there. But couldn’t the Continental Congress, scared away by redcoats, meet just as well somewhere else? Of course it could. And yet the heavy-witted Howe laid his plans for besieging Philadelphia—and the obliging Washington, instead of leaving him to his folly and striking northward against Burgoyne and so clearing the whole country above New York of Britishers, hurried south to meet him. What followed every schoolboy knows. Valley Forge was the price paid for that combination of follies.

I here give you the substance of but a few of Mr. Adams’s extraordinarily penetrating and interesting chapters. Let it not be supposed that he is a mere mocker, a picker of flaws, a splitter of hairs, a reviler of earnest and honest men. Far from it, indeed. The chief living representative of the most distinguished of all American families, with long years of life behind him and a plentiful experience, not only of men but also of battles, he brings to these critical studies the technical equipment of a military expert, the ripe judgment of an historian and the tolerant philosophy of a man of the world. His is no effort to belittle and pooh-pooh Washington. All he tries to show is that our first great general, for all his virtues, still had his serious faults—that in the days of his apprenticeship he was handicapped alike by the almost comical poverty of his material and by the limitations of his own skill, and that even in later years, after he had had many a hard buffet, there were still lessons that he had not learned. One, for example, was the lesson that a man on horseback could do better service in many important situations than a man on foot. A whole chapter is devoted to Washington’s use of cavalry—and it may be summarized by saying that he scarcely used cavalry at all, despite his crying need of it day by day and the ease with which he might have added it to his resources.

In the latter half of his book, Mr. Adams abandons the Revolution for the Civil War. In one chapter he discusses the ethics of secession; in another he pays tribute to the genius and character of Robert E. Lee; in a third he attempts an analysis of the factors which caused the Confederacy to go to pieces. Then at the end come two chapters upon Civil War diplomacy, the one dealing destructively with the popular legend that Queen Victoria prevented British interference, and the other letting daylight through a remarkable tale told by E. L. Chittenden, Lincoln’s Register of the Treasury. This last chapter recalls in more than one way Huxley’s famous essay “On the Value of Witness to the Miraculous.” Chittenden’s yarn concerns an emergency bond issue in 1863, and inasmuch as he issued the bonds himself and signed every one of them personally, his account of the matter has been commonly accepted as beyond question. But Mr. Adams demonstrates, by an extremely skillful marshaling of proofs, that he must be disbelieved nevertheless —that some of the things he describes as taking place, and to his certain knowledge, never took place at all. A fitting climax to an un usually thoughtful and valuable book. In the midst of all our flubdub and our fustian we need such volumes to show us the truth. Read it if you would get the saccharine taste of the orthodox histories out of your mouth. It has a sharp and novel flavor, not quickly to be for gotten.

Just what Edward Gordon Craig, the son of Ellen Terry, is pleading for in his volume “On the Art of the Theatre” (Browne) is not always crystal clear, for Mr. Craig affects a pontifical and highfalutin’ style, and so the bright faces of his ideas are sometimes obscured by the veils of his verbiage. On the one hand he seems to propose and advocate certain reforms in current stage management, chiefly in the direction of coordinating warring elements, and on the other hand he appears to be convinced that the stage of today is artificial and tawdry beyond all remedy. His main complaint, as I understand it, is that too many cooks now spoil the dramatic broth. First a dramatist writes a play; then a stage director engages and rehearses actors to play it; then a musician writes shiver music to accompany its thrills; then a scene painter daubs its scenes; then a costumer prepares its raiment, and finally a star actor mauls and murders it to suit his own sweet will. There will never be a perfect stage performance, says Mr. Craig, until there arises a man who combines all of these talents and can exercise them all with equal facility—that is to say, a man able, first of all, to write a good play, and then able to paint its scenery, design its costumes, devise its lighting effects, rehearse its performers and play its principal part himself. A rare creature, to be sure, but still not an impossible one. Richard Wagner, swinging his baton over a performance of “The Ring of the Nibelung” at Bayreuth, came very near filling the bill. Mr. Craig, indeed, hints that another is even now among us, his initials being E. G. C. and a certain excellent actress being his mamma. But though he thus establishes the possibility of his proposed reform, he by no means proves its necessity. His own testimony, in fact, shows that performances coming very close to his ideal are now being given at various places in Europe —and with no attempt to avoid the normal and logical division of labor.

When he soars further into space he becomes even more absurd. The art of the theater, he argues, is not based upon ideas but upon movement. It is not the child of poetry, but of dancing. So he pictures a theater of the future in which the dramatist of today will be dethroned, and in which silent uber-marionettes (his own name for them), swaying and bouncing through the mazes of some subtle and portentous pantomime, will take the place of living actors. What Mr. Craig overlooks here is that even a pantomime, to have any intelligible meaning at all, must tell a story, and that the author of such a story must inevitably be a dramatist. Changing his name, he falsely assumes that he has got rid of the fellow—but he hasn’t. And neither has he got rid of the actor after he has elaborately established the fact that the plays of early India were played by puppets. So they were, but we of today demand a greater verisimilitude, and so we use actors. Those actors, of course, have their limitations. A single role may be played perfectly, but not a whole play. There is always a lingering touch of unreality; the spectator must always help in the make-believe. But as the art of acting progresses and the art of playwriting with it, this unreality tends to shrink to the negligible. Such a play as “Ghosts,” for example, is not a real “slice of life,” and no sane spectator believes that it is, but all the same its likeness to reality is so close that it makes a powerful appeal to the intelligence and the emotions.

Thus Mr. Craig’s objection to realism, on the ground that it must ever be imperfect, goes to pieces. His premises are false and his conclusions are false. When he protests, let us say, against a childish fidelity to insignificant details, then he is on safe ground, but when he protests against every effort at literal reproduction, however intelligent and successful, then he is quickly bogged. He himself, in this very book, presents careful designs for small stage properties. Well, if powder puffs and vases should be realistic, then why not kitchen ranges and pots of geraniums? And if ranges and geraniums, then why not the whole of Nora’s sitting room? For heroic and fantastic plays, dealing with places and people that never were on land or sea, his vague masses and flooding lights have their undoubted value. But the really important plays of today deal with the life of today, and it is to our taste that they present that life realistically, and its environment no less than its actual clash of wills.

Comes now a man who sticks closer to earth, and in consequence is far more informing and entertaining. He is Channing Pollock, a dramatic critic of large and ancient practice, and his book is called “The Footlights Fore and Aft” (Badger). What Mr. Pollock tries to explain and expound is not how the theater ought to be conducted, but how it actually is conducted. That is to say, he gives a clear and accurate description of the whole dramatic process, from the first reading of a play to the final reckoning and division of the profits. He overlooks no single detail. He tells us how plays are cast and rehearsed and what wounds they suffer by the business; how a scene is painted and what it costs; how the thousand and one details of lighting are worked out and tested; how dramatic values are augmented by the myriad devices of the stage manager; how actors run amuck and managers tear their hair; how all the principal living playwrights of America manufacture and sell their merchandise; and, finally, how the press agent, that benign hobgoblin of the modern theater, plans and executes his staggering mendacities. Mr. Pollock knows the playhouse as few other men know it. He is not only an acute dramatic critic but also a successful dramatist and librettist, and he has made his living in his time as manager, play reader and press agent. No dark secret of the stage is a secret to him; he has tackled and penetrated them all. And he tells his story in a lively and good-humored fashion, with no sparing of anecdote and example. It is a wonder that so interesting and useful a book was so long in the writing. The American people are vastly concerned about the theater, and in particular about its trans-footlight mysteries. And yet no one, until Mr. Pollock approached his typewriter, thought to give them a book about those mysteries. Well, here it is at last. It evades all the familiar problems and ponderosities. It deals frankly with things as they are.

“The American Dramatist,” by Montrose J. Moses, author of an excellent book on Ibsen (Little- Brown), has considerable value as a record of plays written and forgotten, and you will find in it, here and there, many thoughtful if not always impeccable opinions; but its lack of proportion and coherence is a very serious fault. What Mr. Moses offers his readers, in brief, is not a sagacious and well ordered study of the American drama, but rather a hodge podge of materials for such a study. Discussing dramatist after dramatist, he fails entirely to trace their interrelation, the dependence of one upon another; and what is more, he is not always prudent and accurate in discussing them as individuals. He sees William Gillette, for example, merely as a clever mechanician, and seems to have heard nothing of Gillette’s pioneer adventures in naturalism, or of his great influence upon American farce in the late nineties. Again, he devotes exactly fifteen lines to Charles Hoyt—and gives over a hundred to Owen Davis! Yet again, he puts all that he has to say about “The Easiest Way” in two sentences, separated, one from the other, by more than three hundred pages. Yet again, he sneers absurdly at the libretto of “Robin Hood,” one of the best ever done in English. Altogether a rather irritating book, for all its useful marshaling of names and dates. Mr. Moses is in considerably better form in his “Maurice Maeterlinck” (Duffield), a clear account of the famous Belgian, both as dramatist and as philosopher. It is brief, but it is written with great care, and should prove of value to those who find the plays and essays of Maeterlinck a bit incomprehensible. A far more elaborate study is “Maurice Maeterlinck, a Biography,” by Edward Thomas (Dodd-Mead), which appears as an extra volume to the authorized American edition of the Maeterlinckian theater. In particular, Mr. Thomas makes excellent contributions to an understanding of the dramatist’s poems and of his earlier and more fantastic dramas. The book is illustrated, which that of Mr. Moses is not, but it lacks the exhaustive bibliography of the latter.

Here is another published play. “Disraeli,” by Louis N. Parker (Lane), is a bold and vivid character sketch against a background of conventional theatrical flubdub. Saving only Dizzy himself, not another person in the play has much more reality than the puppets in a Punch and Judy show. But Dizzy stands out clearly—a fellow of wit and sapience, a rare master of intrigue and chicanery, a pricker of pomposities, daring and yet elaborately cautious, accurate in estimating man and men, sharp enough of eye to see through a whole file of hypocrites and two brick walls. The play is not a panorama of his life; it does not attempt to show him undergoing changes. All it seeks to do is to present him at a high-pitched and characteristic moment—the moment, to wit, when he gobbled the Suez Canal. It is not the climbing, insinuating Dizzy that we see, but the cocksure, irresistible, triumphant Dizzy—Dizzy with the fires of youth quenched, but with the wisdom of a sanhedrin of serpents in his heart. A figure that stands out in the round. A human being in the midst of marionettes. The saving grace of an extremely puerile and artificial play.

Next month —the poets. Already they throng my antechamber and the tuning of their lyres is in my ears. While they tune and wait, a chance offers for a recess and refreshment. Auf wiedersehen!

(Source: Hathitrust.org, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101076380466;view=1up;seq=778)