Skip to main content

What We Are Like

July 2024
3min read

Civilization, in the nature of things, is an experiment, and the test of its excellence (failing a better one) is probably its capacity for survival. The chief difference between our civilization and others may be that from the beginning ours has been a conscious experiment; at every step we have been pragmatists, shooting the works on the chance that what we were up to would somehow bring in the blue chips.

This, in any case, is the suggestion advanced by Bradford Smith in a light, entertaining, and frequently very perceptive book entitled Why We Behave Like Americans . In a way Mr. Smith (who was assisted in this book by Marion Collins Smith) is covering the same field Mr. Lerner plowed so assiduously; he is doing it with less gravity and in less space, and his book makes an excellent companion volume.

We have been trying new things in this country, says Mr. Smith, ever since the Pilgrim fathers were told by the Indians that it would be a good idea to drop a rather dead fish in every corn hill to fertilize it, after which it would be every man for himself. The fathers tried it, it worked, and since then we have been receptive to new ideas, some of which panned out properly.

But although we know a great deal about ourselves, we do not necessarily understand too much; and Mr. Smith’s book is an essay directed toward a broader understanding. Understanding, he believes, grows out of a knowledge of all of the things that go to shape a culture—physical environment, human influences, institutions, artistic expressions, and the way in which the people involved go about making a living, reproducing their kind, and expressing their inner yearnings. His book, accordingly, is directed (without too much solemnity) toward an examination of all of these aspects of American society, and it is highly readable.

There are, as Kipling once remarked, many different ways of constructing tribal lays, and all of them are right. Mr. Lerner’s way is solemn and thorough; Mr. Smith’s is light and occasionally irreverent. As a sample, in his discussion of the American character, he expresses himself thus:

“Americans are a peculiar people. They work like mad, then give away much of what they earn. They play until they are exhausted, and call this a vacation. They love to think of themselves as tough-minded business men, yet they are push-overs for any hard luck story. They have the biggest of nearly everything including government, motor cars and debts, yet they are afraid of bigness. They are always trying to chip away at big government, big business, big unions, big influence. They like to think of themselves as little people, average men, and they would like to cut everything down to their own size. Yet they boast of their tall buildings, high mountains, long rivers, big meals. Theirs is the best family, the best neighborhood, the best state, the best country, the best world, the best heaven. They also have the most traffic deaths, the most waste, the most racketeering.”

Well, so far, so good; and it is fairly easy to go on in this vein, so long as you are not required to touch base anywhere. Mr. Smith does touch base; that is, Ke can think hard while writing easily (not too simple a trick), and he does a really good job of describing the way in which the American spirit expresses itself. It does so, he seems to feel, on a largely informal basis. Every crisis in American history finds people doing some of their biggest jobs through wholly voluntary associations—as via the Sons of Liberty, in the days when a great ferment of libertarian ideas was leading up to the American Revolution; as in the case of the Underground Railroad, which did so much to put the skids under slavery. The point is that Americans always want to remain free private citizens and individuals, but they do realize that they are bound to the community and must exert their influence upon it. They advance democracy not so much through politics as through an ad hoc system of working together on their own hook. We are rugged individualists, but we always recognize that we belong to the group.

Why We Behave Like Americans , by Bradford Smith, assisted by Marion Collins Smith. The J. B. Lippincott Co. 322 pp. $4.95.

So Mr. Smith goes on, sketching in briefly all manner of facets of American life, from public schools to newspapers and from political caucuses to trade associations and the conventions of fraternal organizations. He comes to no more positive final conclusions than Mr. Lerner reaches; like him, he does manage to complete his survey with a feeling of hope—the result of an appraisal of a society which draws vitality and op timism from its youth and its abundance. And like him, too, he has the sense of a nation which has not yet “arrived” but which is still working its way—blindly, and often with great waste and error, but always with energy—through its perplexing but promising formative stages.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.