Saturday, July 21, 2007

Clifton Fadiman on God’s Country and Mine

From American Panorama, edited by Eric Larrabee (New York: New York University Press, 1957):

God’s Country and Mine by Jacques Barzun

Jacques Barzun subtitles his book: A Declaration of Love Spiced with a Few Harsh Words. That is a fair enough summary, though naturally it omits any indication that the declaration is continuously witty and winning.

The main problem in writing about the United States is not that of being interesting. The main problem is to say something that will still be true a few years or ten or fifty after the words are first set down. The United States has a way of confounding its commentators, not by disproving them, but by dating them. We know that de Tocqueville alone has met this test with an almost absolute triumph; and many admirers of Mr. Barzun will wager that, though this work is hardly on a de Tocquevillean scale, what it has to say will bear reflection for years to come.

Mr. Barzun’s master is William James. His is the Jamesian cheerful pragmatic gaze, concerned with what is actually there and what actually seems to be working. He likes the United States because it is a pluralistic universe, in continuous process of change, open-ended, open-handed, crammed with choices, many of them silly, many of them noble. He is not fooled by the European café-society denigration of the American culture; he is too good a European for that. Nor does he assume that the good life has reached its fulfillment here; he is too good an American for that. He is balanced without being a compromiser; and, though amiably merciless in seeking out weaknesses, he keeps always in mind that many of them are the ubiquitous weaknesses of twentieth-century industrial man.

Whether he touches on baseball or advertising, Kinsey or children, doctors or intellectuals, the pressure of the machine or the deification of teamwork, our popular culture (which he thinks Germanic) or our highbrow culture (which he thinks French), he is always sane, humane, and never limited by the blinders of conventional judgment. What gives his book the wonderful quality of lift is his central conviction that “the man of ideas is rising among us as a power: that is why he is being attacked.” As an intellectual’s graceful but never superficial survey of mid-century America, this book may be recommended virtually without qualification.

C. F.

With permission of Anne Fadiman