The American

H.L Mencken

The Smart Set/June, 1913

DOES he exist? Is there actually such a fowl as the Homo Americanus? Has he yet emerged from his welter of parent races, his wallow of mongrelism, different, divergent, distinct? Does the thought of him bring up a picture of a definite human type, set off sharply from all other types? Is he recognizable physically; does he think and feel in his own peculiar way? Finally, does he show any signs of what the biologists call fixity of species: is he handing on to his children a something that is ponderable and characteristic, a something apart from and rarer than their common human heritage of hands and eyes, kidneys and warts, lusts and rascalities, malaises and pediculida?

There was a time, of course, when the answer to every one of these questions would have been a ready and perhaps accurate negative. That was during the Colonial era, and down to the War of 1812. The American who then flourished and begot his kind was merely an Englishman living in America, or, more rarely, a German or Dutchman or Irishman or Scotchman. If he showed any separate character it was only in small and unimportant ways. Physically and mentally he was practically identical with his brothers in blood across the sea. Even his revolt against English misrule was a revolt essentially English in principle and method; even his Puritanism was an imported madness. But once the young republic stood firmly on its own four legs, the American began to develop into a creature that had never been on land or sea. Physically and by habit he took on a certain gawkiness and gaucherie: he ceased to be a gentleman, or even the larva of a gentleman, by any European standard. And psychically he proceeded to processes of mind and a theory of life which departed more and more from the characteristics and ideas of his grandfathers. Finally he stood forth boldly: distinct, unprecedented, incomparable, a new man under the sun. And when strangers came from overseas to sell out and share his land he forthwith swallowed them up, so that the children they presently spawned were more his children than their own, and their grandchildren were his entirely.

Today, I take it, there is no longer any serious doubt of his differentiation. Ethnologists may argue learnedly that he does not and cannot exist, but the world in general recognizes him at sight. In all his grosser characters he is marked off plainly from the races that have contributed corpuscles to his blood. Every schoolboy knows that he is taller than the Italian, and lighter than the Spaniard, and darker than the Scandinavian, and leaner than the South German, and less moon-faced than the Slav. Again, on the psychic side, it is patent that he is less imaginative than the Frenchman, and more mercurial than the Englishman, and more optimistic than the Russian, and less stolid than the Scotchman, and more practical than the Irishman. So much indeed is visible to the naked eye; no proof is needed of what everyone admits. But if, in an effort to make the obvious doubly plain, such proof is actually sought out, with tape line, calipers and scale, it will be found beyond peradventure that the American differs, in some way or other, from every other type of white man, sometimes only in small details, but often very widely and strikingly.

Consider one element: his height. Measurements made of hundreds of thousands of native-born Americans, of all lines of ancestry, show that the average lies somewhere between five feet seven and one-half inches and five feet seven and two-thirds. That is the mean height of the normal adult American male, and it is substantially the same East, West, North and South. Now, how does this American compare to the men of other races? Is he larger or smaller? A study of the figure shows that only the Scotchman overtops him. The Swede, a tall, well made man, is nearly half an inch shorter. So is the North German. So is the Sikh, the tallest of all Orientals. The Welshman is a full inch shorter. The Greek, the Turk, the Italian, the Russian and the Swiss are two inches shorter. The Pole is three inches shorter, the Russian Jew is four. The Spaniard and the Hun, full five inches shorter, scarcely come up to the American’s nose: he can look over them and into the eyes of the Norwegian, the Irishman and the Englishman, who are exactly his own height. But does this last prove merely that he is still an Englishman himself, perhaps with a dash of the Scotchman to draw him up and a dash of the German to draw him down, and dashes of the Irishman and Norwegian to keep him steady? Not at all. If you will examine the measurements lately made by Dr. Franz Boas, a very able and careful man, you will find that the American tends to be five feet seven and a half inches in height even when he hasn’t a drop of English blood in his body. When immigrants come here who are shorter—and all of them now are—their children promptly shoot up toward the average. Thus the invading Bohemian, who is but five feet six inches in height, produces children who grow to five feet seven and a half. And thus the Pole, the Slovak, the Hungarian and the Russian Jew, who are from three to five inches shorter than the American, gain between an inch and two inches in the first American-born generation, and will probably reach the American average in the second.

This same curious movement toward a racial mean is visible in all other measurements. For example, in weight. It used to be thought that lean immigrants fattened in this country simply because they got more and better food, but now it appears that the process is far more subtle, for children born abroad, even when brought here while still very young, do not develop into as heavy men and women as those born on this side of the water. Perhaps the better feeding of the mothers explains it. But how explain the fact that, while the height and weight increase, the shape of the skull also changes? How is it, for example, that a Russian Jew born in this country has a rounder head than his brother born in Kiev? And how is it that a South Italian has a longer head? Here we come upon movements toward the American mean from both directions. The American, as the anthropologists have it, is sub-brachycephalic. That is to say, his head is about four-fifths as wide as it is long: his cephalic index oscillates between 80 and 82. The Jew, on the other hand, is more brachycephalic: his index runs beyond 83. And the Italian tends to be dolichocephalic, or long-headed: his index is below 78. But the children of Jews, born in America, show an average index of 81.4, and the children of Italians show an index of 81.5. In brief, both lose their original characters and take on American characters. Both, in the very first generation, sprout essentially American skulls.

But all this by the way. The present bright day is not one for exploring too intimately the persons of immigrants, an enterprise trying to the patience and the nose. Nor is it worth the trouble it takes. We all know very well how perfectly the diverse stocks of past generations have been absorbed and amalgamated, and we see the same process going on around us today. With bell and book and by procedures less pious the strangers that come pouring into our ports are intermating and interbreeding with the native stock and with each other. Young Jewish bucks marry Irish girls, and Lithuanians take fair Bohemians to wife. Their children will marry the children of Italians and Greeks, Huns and Slovaks, Swedes and Danes. And into the cauldron, from time to time, there will shoot streams of English blood—English blood, that is, tinctured with German blood, Scotch blood and Spanish blood. I myself bear a German name, but one-fourth of me is a fantastic of English and Irish, and the only girl I am sorry I didn’t marry was half German, a quarter Irish and a quarter French. The fellow who carried her off was a Scotchman with vague New England quarterings. Their children will be as thoroughly American as Theodore Roosevelt. Their grandchildren will be more American than Abraham Lincoln, or Thomas Jefferson, or Andrew Jackson, or George Washington.

No, the immigrant does not last. A few whirls in the machine and he emerges wrapped in the Star-Spangled Banner, with American slang in his mouth, American sentimentality in his heart, and an American indictment hanging over him. He may hold to his national customs for a generation, but no longer. Ridicule makes him ashamed of them; ambition makes him abandon them. His highest aim is to speak American without an accent, to belong to an American lodge, to be an American. Nature helps him by lengthening his legs, by squeezing in his high cheek bones, by blocking his head to the national model. Nature helps still further by the process known as alternating heredity, whereby so-called dominant or strong characters crowd out recessive or weak ones, not by compromise and coalescence but by actual obliteration. The characters of the native type are dominant; they fit the American’s environment. Thus they fasten themselves upon the stranger, helping out his sub-brachycephalic noddle, his elongating shank. And before this physical transformation has gone half way, the psychical metamorphosis is in full force and effect. The German-American’s view of things, even of things German, gradually becomes an American view. The Irish-American, for all his ferocious loyalty to Ireland, ends by seeing her remotely, darkly, almost as he sees Armenia. And the gorged Italian-American, going back to his sunny vineland to drowse away his days, is urged into politics by some force beyond him, and plays the game American style, his hands outstretched, his eyes alert for spoil.

But back to the American, the native and indubitable American, two long generations removed from the swarming immigrant ships! Back to that sub-brachycephalous and sentimental fellow, with his sudden sobs and rages, his brummagem Puritanism, his childish braggadocio, his chronic waste of motion, his elemental humor, his great dislike of arts and artists, his fondness for the grotesque and melodramatic, his pious faith in quacks and panaceas, his curious ignorance of foreigners, his bad sportsmanship, his primitive feeding, his eternal self-medication, his weakness for tinpot display and strutting, his jealous distrust of all genuine distinction, his abounding optimism, his agile pursuit of the dollar. Of all these habits and qualities, which is the dominant one? Which lies over and vitalizes all the others, as the grail motive vitalizes “Lohengrin”? Which may be said to give the American his peculiar cut and color, setting him off, not only in his actions but also in his way of thinking, his theory of life, his attitude toward the great problems of life and living, from all other civilized white men?

The average intelligent foreigner, I dare say, will offer a ready and easy answer to all these questions. He will tell you at once that the outstanding mark of the American is his money madness, and assume it thereafter as a primary and immutable premise. He will point, in support of it, to the huge fortunes of American millionaires, swollen beyond all estimate and dreaming; to the graft which penetrates to every nook and cranny of the public service, national, state and municipal; to the vast structure of privilege that has been built up by the mere power of money, so that the worst of all aristocracies is nurtured at the breast of the greatest of all democracies. And behind him, in this estimate, will be the practically unanimous public opinion of the world. It is rare, indeed, for America to be mentioned by a European without some reference, direct or indirect, to the American pursuit of the dollar. It is rarer still for an immigrant to come to these shores without the fixed intent to join in the chase. It is unheard of for a visitor to go home without carrying marvelous tales of American riches, American cupidity and American prodigality. In all European languages, and in most of those more remote, the United States is frankly spelled “United $tate$.”

For all this weight and circumstance of evidence, this universal concord of opinion, I doubt that the indictment of dollar worship is one that may be fairly brought against the American people. In that idolatry, indeed, there are devotees overseas who make the pale ardor of the Yankee seem almost atheistic. For example, the French. For example, the Scotch. For example, the Germans. What a Frenchman regards as no more than prudence and thrift, the average American would regard as avarice; what a Scotchman or German looks upon as decent economy, the American would reject as hoggishness. The American, true enough, receives more for his labor than these other fellows, not only actually but even perhaps relatively. He demands far more pay for his short day than they are able to get for their long one. But the money he thus acquires with ease he at once spends with prodigality. No other man of the same degree of civilization saves a smaller proportion of his net income in hard cash, or puts less of it into permanent property. No man is more swindled by useless middlemen and criers of gewgaws. He is poorer in all those goods which represent shrewd bargaining and self-denial than either the German or the Scandinavian; it is only the enormous natural wealth of his country, so vast as to be almost waste-proof, that makes him seem richer. And even counting in this natural wealth, he is poorer than the Britisher and the Frenchman. He has less money in the bank, he is less a lender, his annual excess of income over outgo is relatively smaller. In brief, his alleged worship of the dollar is a great deal more an appearance than a reality. His mania for getting it is out matched and overshadowed by his mania for getting rid of it. If he must be given a financial label, then let it be that of spendthrift, and not that of money grubber. No man in Christendom is less a hoarder-up of riches. No man has less genuine reverence for money.

This is shown plainly by the American attitude toward men of great wealth. Are they heaped with admiration and adulation? Are they revered as superior beings? Are they held up as models for the youth of the country? Are they showered with honors by the nation? Of course they are not. As Maurice Low has sagaciously pointed out, the United States is perhaps the only country in the world in which money, in itself, carries no public honor with it, and in which even the most lavish heaving of coins to the rabble goes unrewarded. An English Carnegie would have had a seat in the House of Lords twenty years ago; a French Rockefeller would have sported the grand cordon of the Legion of Honor before ever he sported a toupee; a German Morgan could never have escaped the Red Eagle and Privy Council. But in the United States a great fortune is the most effective of all bars to public dignity and preferment, and even to private respect. Our Ryans and Harrimans are not idols but targets: the one sure way to make a stir in politics is to attack them successfully, or, failing that, merely savagely. And our spectacular philanthropists, our Rockefellers, Carnegies and Sages, get only mocking for their philanthropy. They are public butts, fair game for every wayside clown and spellbinder. Imagine the roar that would go up if it were proposed to erect a monument to one of them, or to send him to Congress or to make him President! Now and then, true enough, a millionaire buys his way into the Senate, but it is seldom that he lasts long or gains any appreciable influence there; he has scarcely taken his seat before a hue and cry is raised against him. The immorality of wealth, in truth, has been one of the fundamental doctrines of the American people since they first developed a settled public opinion. The whole history of our politics, from the day of Jackson’s historic rousing of the chandala, has been a history of incessant warfare upon opulence. Every first-rate leader that the country has produced, from Jefferson to Bryan, has pictured wealth as something loathsome in itself and its possessors as familiars of the devil, and no open preacher of the contrary principle has ever won to an elective office of national importance.

But if all this is true, if the foreigner is wrong (in his view, if the American is not the dollaromaniac that he is usually thought to be—even by himself, if the elegies of his moralists truly represent him—then what is he? What salient lust or weakness is his hallmark, as unruliness is the hallmark of the Latin-American, and melancholy of the Russian, and molelike patience of the German? What habit of thinking gives color to all his ideas, and direction to his aspirations, and form and substance to his character? Let me answer with a habit that is not really a habit of thinking at all, but rather a habit of feeling. A habit of dramatizing, of romanticising, of sentimentalizing. A habit of reasoning almost wholly by emotion, abruptly, irrationally, extravagantly, even when the problem to be solved is as intrinsically devoid of emotional content as a theorem in geometry. In brief, the American thinks with his nerve ends, his liver and his lachrymal ducts, and only revises and regrets with his cerebellum. A member of the most numerous democracy ever seen upon earth, he pushes the tricks and weaknesses of democracies to lengths never matched in history. A unit in the largest crowd ever brought into reciprocal understanding and accord, his psychology is frankly the egregious, preposterous psychology of the mob The men of other nations, true enough, also have their national saturnalia, their occasional debauches of enthusiasm and rage, their orgies of hero worship and their butcheries of heroes following after, but it is only in the United States that the body politic is chronically in this state of tumescence, it is only here that a pathological state is almost the normal state. Say that the American is the master money grubber of the world and you do him wrong, for there are fellows overseas who grub for money harder; but say that he is the master sentimentalist, and you come close to giving him his authentic label, for there is no man in Christendom who puts pretty poetry higher above sober prose, or who views cold logic with a more bilious suspicion, or who is misled more easily or more systematically by undisguised appeals to his prejudices, his superstitions and his infantile vanities.

Perhaps we may find the first cause of all this in his fantastic mixture of blood, with its warring and irreconcilable feeding streams. No doubt it takes years for such a compound to settle. Much the same excess of emotion is visible in other mongrel races, for example, the Iberian, the Southern Italian and the Latin-American. A restless bubbling goes on until one element conquers all the others, or until some new and stable combination is precipitated. In the veins of the American, of course, this process is constantly interrupted by the entrance of new elements. Before the original mixture of English, Scotch and Dutch plasmas could arrive at equilibrium, there came an acid dash of Irish, and then a heavy stream of German, and now, in our own time, there are toxic, epileptogenic additions of Slavic and Scandinavian, Latin and Semitic. Add to this incessant stirring up within the individual or small group the ease with which ideas and emotions are communicated from one group to another, and you may come to some understanding, perhaps, of the peculiar excitability of the American people. No high wall, physical or psychical, separates one part of the country from the other parts. There is unanimity of language, of ideals, of present interests, of fundamental assumptions. The same theory of virtue runs from Maine to Texas, and the same theory of truth, and the same theory of heroism. It is impossible for the Pacific Slope to be profoundly moved without awakening some echo of its feeling in New England and the South. With a thousand foci of possible inoculation, there is almost perfect machinery for spreading the infection. Let a new divine healer arise in some Arkansas hill town, or a new trust buster come forward with his panacea in Oregon, or a new kidnapping flabbergast the gendarmes in New York, or a new muckraker toss up a city dungpile in Ohio, or a new divorce inflame the pulpit thumpers in Boston—and in five days the whole country will rock with the news, and Americans three thousand miles away will miss meals to gabble over it, and make enemies in maintaining their views of it.

A cause contributing to this circular hysteria, this incurable eagerness to be startled and astounded, this childish interest in the trivial, this firm faith in the preposterous, is to be found in the large leisure of the American people. In their own view, of course, they have no leisure at all: they like to think of themselves as the prime hustlers of the world, the race prestissimo, the champion burners of the candle. But, as a matter of fact, they work less and play more than any other civilized nation. Their hours of labor are the shortest in the world; they increase their holidays yearly; they show none of that meticulous and insatiable diligence which characterizes, for example, the Germans and French. The result, on the one hand, is a general frowziness: a spick and span community is rare in the United States, and so is a spick and span home. And, on the other hand, the effect is to put a premium upon a host of devices, all more or less banal, for occupying the lengthening hours of ease. Nowhere in Europe will you find a people who devote as much time to any communal recreation, not even excepting religious rowdyism, as the American people devote to baseball. Nowhere will you find a people with so much time for the fripperies and futilities of fraternal orders, Christian Endeavor Societies, “pleasure” clubs, idle visiting, interminable card playing, precinct politics and other such timewasters. And nowhere, finally, will you find a people with less disposition to consider the sober things of life with that care and patience which they demand. The typical American is all for the short cut, the dramatization of a situation, the quick, spectacular solution. As Dr. Munsterburg puts it, he suffers from a congenital “inability to suppress and inhibit.” He is perpetually drunk upon his own chromatic and effervescent blood.

Naturally enough, this attitude toward life in general leads to a wholesale corruption of those institutions which depend for their dignity and value upon their philosophical remoteness, their superiority to transient passions. For example, the judicial system. A court of law, in the United States, is not a thing above and apart from the stream of everyday life, but a bobbing craft upon that stream, subject to infinite suctions and hazards. The least citizen is competent to criticise the highest judge, and he exercises that divine right whenever he is sufficiently attracted by the judge’s doings. Nine times out of ten, of course, he is not attracted by them, and could not understand them if he were, but the tenth time he lifts his voice in hideous objurgation, and brave indeed is the rare Taney who disregards him. The result is that a case of any public interest whatever commonly resolves itself into a mixture of circus and camp meeting, with the newspapers in the dual role of clown and exhorter. Whether the defendant be a corporation accused of making money or an individual accused of murder, the actual weighing of the evidence is conducted outside the courtroom, and the verdict reached within is merely a weak echo and ratification of the circumambient vox populi. In the case of the corporation, of course, that verdict is always one of guilt, whatever be the merits of the defense. So thoroughly is this true, indeed, that no sane corporation lawyer ever goes into court with any notion of trying such a case upon its merits alone. His one effort is to keep its merits out of it, to combat public prejudice and passion with professional ingenuity, to convert the issue from one of fact into one of mere procedure and etiquette, and so to achieve the salvation of his client by his superior knowledge of those recondite sciences. Technicalities have saved many an American criminal from his just dues, but for every criminal so favored, they have probably saved ten innocent men from legal lynching. Even so, the prisons of the United States are full of scapegoats — the helpless victims of popular prejudice, superstition and rage.

No sense of abstract justice seems to reside in the soul of the American. A mob man in his ways of thinking, he shows all of the mob’s sentimentality, suggestibility, credulity, irascibility, bad sportsmanship and lust for cruelty. On the one hand, the United States is probably the only country in Christendom in which Christ might reappear and preach to the people without danger from the police; and on the other hand, it is the only country, save perhaps England, in which utter social and political extinction is the portion of the man who departs in the slightest from the current fashions in morals, theology, political theory or dress. It is but a few years since it was almost certain ruin for an American politician, save in a few large cities, to wear dress clothes; it is still ruin for him to wear court costume at a foreign court, or to defend its wearing by others. To prove that a man is an agnostic—i.e., that his private attitude toward religion is that of such giants as Huxley and Spencer, Haeckel and Ibsen—is to debar him automatically from all public office save the most degraded. To convict him of adultery is even worse, despite the fact that fully sixty per cent of all American men are unchaste, and the further fact that most of the rest would be likewise if they had the courage. It is a definite crime in the United States for a man to argue publicly against many of the doctrines set forth in the Declaration of Independence; he may actually get into jail for it. Republican France has her royalists and all the kingdoms of Europe have their republicans, but it would be almost suicide for an American to propose the overthrow of the republic and the election of a king.

Much of this sharp rage against heretics, of course, is mere thirst for butchery. The fact that someone has committed a crime is of far less interest to the American than the fact that someone is being punished for a crime. This is shown by his readiness to pursue and brickbat his heroes of yesterday, for crimes purely theoretical or for no crime at all. The dramatic downfall and savage excoriation of Chauncey M. Depew, a favorite of the mob for years, afford a case in point. Chauncey was not taken in unsuspected deviltry; he merely admitted freely, being asked, what everyone already knew about him. But the demand of the moment was for a shining mark, and so the jester found himself suddenly chased by blood hounds. The same appetite for torture explains the easy success of most so-called “good government” campaigns in American cities, and their quick collapse after succeeding. Let a newspaper but announce the discovery that some notorious political rogue is stealing, and at once the whole community takes to his trail. He is commonly very game, or at least very well intrenched; and so the pursuit of him is good sport. First, there is the fun of shaking him loose from his grafts, and secondly, there is the greater fun of forcing him into prison. But the moment he is behind the bars all interest in the business evaporates. The chances are two to one that the reformer who has followed him in power will be grafting himself within two years, and if, by any excess of virtue, he refrains, then he is sure to be succeeded by a professional grafter at the end of his service. It is rare, indeed, for an American reform movement to last longer than the term of the ordinary reformer. The public resents the tedium of decency. Its thirst for a good show is vastly more powerful than its thirst for an honest man.

But here I invade the domain of American morals, the which will engage us at length in a future essay. What I really want to do, in the short space remaining, is to call attention (a) to the American’s lack of individual enterprise, and (b) to his lack of communal enterprise. The first of these accusations, of course, he will sharply resent, as a statement of a palpable and libelous absurdity. His chief boast, indeed, is that the civilization he adorns puts a high premium upon enterprise and originality, that his country is preeminently the land of opportunity. But opportunity to do what? To make money, yes. To launch new religions, to market new patent medicines, to combine the two in new and bizarre ways—yes again. To change the old platitudes into new platitudes, the superstitions of yesterday into the superstitions of today—yes a third time. But certainly not opportunity to tackle head on and with a surgeon’s courage the greater and graver problems of being and becoming, to draw a sword upon the timeworn and doddering delusions of the race, to clear away the corruptions that make government a game for thieves and morals a petty vice for old maids and patriotism the last refuge of scoundrels—to think, in brief, as men think whose thinking is worthwhile, cleanly, innocently, ruthlessly! Alas, no. The American is not hospitable to such toying with his principia. Tell him that Mrs. Eddy was divine and he will be all ears, but tell him that his other dead gods were not divine and he will be for burning you. Dispute about democracy’s failures all you please, but don’t argue that democracy itself is a failure! Attack his party program until you are tired, but don’t attack his party! If you start out from one of his fallacies he will hear you, but if you start out against his fallacies he will damn you—and it will make but slight difference whether the concrete thing you are advocating be aristocracy or cannibalism, the disfranchisement of job holders or polygamy, the foolishness of preachers or the assassination of Presidents.

And as he thus represses, with all the force of a national taboo, the free cavorting of individualists, he clings with sentimental hunkerousness to the ideas and customs that would perish by their freedom. The United States is the largest democracy ever seen on earth, but it has never been a leader of other democracies, it has never made pioneer experiments with new democratic inventions. After nearly a century and a half of starting forward and going back, it is still far from universal manhood suffrage—a commonplace in all other republics, and a probability of tomorrow in most monarchies. It has hesitated over giving the vote to women for forty years, and is still afraid to make the trial. It waited for Australia to devise a fair and secret ballot. It debates today, as perilous novelties, democratic contrivances that have already grown hoary elsewhere—the direct primary, the initiative and referendum, minimum wage laws, compulsory arbitration in labor disputes, the recall of erring office holders, the commission form of city government, old age pensions, workingmen’s accident insurance, the public ownership of public utilities, the federal control of corporations. It was the last civilized country to adopt the merit system in public office —i.e., the thoroughly democratic rule of putting a man’s intrinsic value above the influence of his friends and family. It was the last civilized country to abolish slavery.

Thus the American, viewed in his outlines, and not too closely. In the main he clings close to his archetype, the mob man. He shows the same disordered emotionalism, the same incapacity for sober self-analysis, the same distrust of distinction, the same great fondness for ready and sophistical formulae. But in detail he departs widely from this mean. In detail he has lusts and weaknesses, habits and axioms that are all his own. Of these anon.

(Source: Hathitrust.org, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101076380425;view=1up;seq=281)