It surprised me to come across an early review by Woolf of Elizabeth McCracken’s book The Women of America. The review appeared in The Guardian of May 31, 1905, written when Woolf was only 23 years old. She has some interesting points to make. Let’s have a look.
Let me begin by quoting the review, since we need Woolf’s words on which to operate:
“There are many types of the American woman — more, perhaps, than of the English woman — but they have a curious unity. We begin with the pioneer who is set down in the Western prairie where ‘one need not yet keep to the path, for there is none. You make your own trail.’ She and her husband have to make their own house, their home, and their town, and the woman’s work here is even more important than the man’s. ‘I want to help try new ways,’ says one of these pioneer women who lived in a small cattle-ranch thirty-five miles from the nearest town. ‘We have our whole lives before us […[ And […] we intend to make them good.’ The woman in the small town does, perhaps, the most important work done by women in America. America, says Miss McCracken, is a nation of small communities, and the influence of home, which is the influence of woman, is paramount here. It is significant that almost all the public libraries in these towns were founded by women, their librarians were usually women, and the women read almost exclusively ‘real books.’ In the South she found that the women who had suffered most during the war were teaching the negroes and fitting them for public life.
… Indeed, the American view of charity is typical and peculiar. A charitable English lady, for example, may read to the blind in her village, but the work is personal, and probably ceases in the case of her illness or death. An American woman in the same circumstances at once organised a society from the members of her club to help the blind. Then, not content with this, she got a commission appointed by the State of Massachusetts to inquire into the condition of the blind, with the result that the State will probably institute schools for the training of the blind at public expense. There are many other illustrations of the same genius for organisation, and of the peculiar nature of American charity, which is not satisfied with relieving suffering, but must find out and, if possible, eliminate the cause of it.
We have not space to comment upon the many interesting lines of thought that Miss McCracken opens up. One remark of hers seems to us to suggest the essential difference between American and other women, which gives them their special interest, and which has made it possible to paint such a sketch as this of a whole race with marked and recognisable features. … ‘The oldest of us in America are still rather new,’ said one lady, who went on to say that they were not old enough yet to be even really democratic. A mother can point to her own mother, herself, and her daughter as representing three stages of development, and can lay her finger on the causes which have made them different. So many causes have combined to make an Englishwoman, that it is impossible to trace their effects, and the succession of influences may well have neutralised each other. But everything that alters her own or her country’s life at present tells upon the American woman, and to watch the process is a study of exceeding interest.”
Coming from the pen of a Bloomsbury aesthete I find this assessment a clear showing of Woolf’s openness of mind and willingness to see things in themselves, as she describes in A Room of One’s Own. It would have been easy for her to say something dismissive, in the manner of Rebecca West’s quip about Americans “pursuing odd religions” while Europe was busy about the business of the Enlightenment. So the surprise I felt on reading Woolf’s review was decidedly pleasant. It also sparked some thoughts about who we Americans are today in comparison to the portrait of us given by Ms. McCracken in 1905 and by Woolf in her review.
Woolf’s opinions and insights struck me so forcefully because I’ve been nomading for a good while now, thus finding myself with my American traits sticking out like shirttails that catch on the cultural protrusions one encounters along the nomad road. Over the course of three years I’ve managed to get the shirttails tucked in well enough so that they scarcely catch on anything in a visible way, but I still find myself reacting to things like an American. Reasonable enough, I suppose, since I am one. But what does that mean when one is out and about in the world? Is what Woolf identified in her review still applicable to Americans in the 21st century?
I was surprised at Woolf’s assessment of an Englishwoman as a creature of so many sources that her complexity is impossible to unravel. Woolf’s characterization of English charity as a purely individual endeavor also surprised me, since I think of England as the pinnacle of committee society — they have an organization with committees for absolutely everything. We Americans do the same, of course, having learned it from across the pond back in the day, but we usually do it with a looser framework for the formal goings-on. There’s no regimental plate on display and no silver loving cup passed round the circle of associates sitting at the table in strict hierarchical order. How odd to read Woolf’s comment that turns the table so that we Americans are the ones with the irrepressible organizational bent.
But her point about Americans expanding the scope of their efforts at improvement to the general level is absolutely the case. We Americans tend to think of the big picture and feel that the individual should have the power to work change at the level of society as a whole. That idea is at the core of our model of the successful reformer, philanthropist or politician, whose effectiveness is judged by the achievement of structural change rather than positive effect limited to a particular set of circumstances. That impulse also forms a part of English public life — certainly it was so in the 19th century and into the 20th century — but English society is so much more rigid that it becomes triply difficult to effect such change unless it comes from the top down. Change from the bottom up is still possible in the USA in a way that was not so possible in Woolf’s England. That awareness must underlie Woolf’s differentiation between the American and English approaches.
The amusement I felt while reading Woolf’s review came both from her hearty approval of the “get ‘er done” attitude of Americans and from consideration of my own activity abroad in the domain of philanthropy. As I consider my own actions over the course of the past three years I see that Woolf is absolutely correct when she describes “the peculiar nature of American charity, which is not satisfied with relieving suffering, but must find out and, if possible, eliminate the cause of it.” It makes me think of the Peace Corps, American to the core, with its desire to help developing nations in their march forward by applying two core American values: American ingenuity and American efficiency. We go in, get things on the right track (according to our own lights), use our intelligence (and our money) to create something designed to be self-sustaining and to grow into something even better than the startup. We apply ourselves with the wide-eyed hope that we will have made a structural change in the lives of the people we worked to help.
Those who’ve done Peace Corps work — as did my elder sister for two years in Kyrgyzstan — often come away disillusioned by seeing their efforts flounder on the thin substrate of native impetus or go awry because of corruption. It’s an American weakness to think that reason is inherently applicable to human endeavors. Reason doesn’t govern human affairs in most of the world, things like tradition, status, hierarchy or religion rule the roost far more often. For Americans there’s a reasonable and right way to do things that proceeds from clear and objective perception of the best approach based on science, rational thought, engineering or some such measure of intelligent engagement to which, it seems to us, no rational person could legitimately object. That approach doesn’t always work even in the USA. It fails much more frequently and abjectly in countries outside the USA, as I’ve learned from my own experience abroad both during my working life and as a global nomad after retirement.
I’d like to offer a tribute to the American qualities Woolf identifies, which I believe are still part of the American psyche. We’ve changed a lot in the last hundred years but that spirit of energy, optimism and effective action still forms part of our cultural repertoire. It has served us well within the borderss of our own country by providing impetus forward into new ideas, technical innovations and development that have created a remarkably organized and comfortable way of daily life for most of the population.
That we have our downside is only too obvious these days, but that downside comes from human nature rather than specifically from our American cultural patterns, despite the fact that the downside manifests itself in ways recognizably American. When we’re crass and venal and stupid we do it in an identifiably American way (and usually in spades), such that it makes your eyes roll back in your head. But the motive engines of those defects appear throughout humanity and don’t single us out especially. Human beingness itself is at the root of that problem, unfortunately. If the cause of the trouble could be located in a set of characteristics specific to America, no doubt some organization would form dedicated to its elimination. But no, in that regard being human is the problem and like all the other nations of the world we’ve never come up with any good measure to limit the collateral damage stemming from what appears to be regrettably inherent in our very beingness.
After spending the last five years of my working life abroad I determined when I began nomading as a retiree that I’d remain mindful of what I learned as an overseas worker. Working in the Middle East had shown me that people outside the USA aren’t always interested in how we Americans do things. I also learned that the best policy was to keep your trap shut if what you saw going on offended your American sense of how things should be done. In other words, it doesn’t matter if it’s senseless, wasteful, counterproductive or inefficient — that’s the way it is. Cold comfort as you watch (as I did) millions of dollars being thrown down the drain, but mine was not to question why.
That experience proved to be excellent training for what I later encountered in my nomading. In my efforts to live abroad in three different countries I consistently found that my American approach to the business of living made my own life much easier than it would otherwise have been, regardless what country I found myself in. I also found that the natives of whatever country I inhabited looked at how I lived as though I were from another planet. Let me give you one small example.
In Colombia one of my acquaintances described a trip he had recently taken with his brother to the coastal area of the country. The trip itself was a surprise for him — it was by way of a birthday present and from one day to the next he found himself embarking on a four-day trip to the beach. If you think that the brother had meticulously arranged the whole trip, think again. He’d bought airplane tickets, that’s it. So after I asked for a quick rundown of the course of the trip and heard the story, I showed my acquaintance the planning I had in place for a trip to take place two months in the future — sights to see chosen, hotels booked, everything arranged down to the day. He looked incredulously at the itinerary and said, “We don’t organize things like that.” If that doesn’t qualify as stating the obvious, I can’t think what does.
He and his brother showed up in their chosen coastal destination without a hotel reservation, in fact without knowing how much money they’d need for their stay of four days. They spent the better part of the first day hunting for lodging they could afford. It was during high season and the hotels were full, especially those they could afford. Going to the beach meant paying for beach chairs and umbrellas. They ran out of money before the end of the trip and had to have a relative send them some so they could make it through the fourth day.
For people of such ilk that’s Business As Usual. I’d rather be shot and put out of my misery than do things in that way. At first glance it may seem that my preference stems simply from a lack of spontaneity or a willingness to do things by the seat of my pants. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Certain things in life are facts regardless what opinion you have of them. Take for example this fact: human beings need housing. If you go on a trip, you have to stay somewhere. You can be in nice housing or nasty housing. If it’s nasty then your enjoyment of the trip is diminished unless you’re a complete masochist. The physical overhead and necessary infrastructure of human life doesn’t simply disappear when you travel. For that reason I take the housing issue very seriously when I travel because I know that if I end up in a dump I’m going to be very grumpy. It’s entirely in my self-interest to arrange nice housing before I arrive somewhere. That’s exactly what I had done for my trip two months out, the itinerary of which I showed to my acquaintance. I had chosen hotels I thought would bring me the greatest pleasure and convenience. I left nothing to luck of the draw. I’d never dream of doing that in a million years.
Likewise, I often discovered that I knew more about various parts of the country and the sights and activities they offered than the natives themselves did. The reason is simple: I do a goodly amount of research before I travel to any destination. It puts me in a position to know what’s what and steer myself to those things I find most interesting. Trying to do that on the ground after arrival is doing things a day late and a dollar short in my opinion.
I’ve had multiple people abroad tell me during the years of my nomading that they learned from me how to get organized. It amuses me, because I don’t think of myself as a paragon of organization — I’m just a typical American doing things in a typically American way. That it strikes people in other countries as highly organized says much more about their own culture than it does about my organizational skills. What I do is not rocket science, not by any stretch of the imagination.
In a certain sense my experience abroad as a retiree mirrored my experience working abroad in the last years of my career. In that foreign work setting the foreign managers relied on Americans and Europeans to organize things. It’s second nature to us. They hated us for it but try as they might, they couldn’t match our organizational abilities. It was as if their brains lacked those circuits. Yes, they controlled the money and yes, they called the shots, but if they wanted to get something done quickly and efficiently they relied on the expat workforce to make it happen.
I noticed the same pattern repeating itself in my experience as a retiree abroad. I found myself taking on the responsibility for organizing things if a group of us friends were to do something together. I found the venue, made the reservation(s), organized the transportation, etc. etc. To leave it to one of the locals would, I knew from experience, likely end in calling off the plans because things were left to the last minute or some emergency intervened to leave things undone.
All my experience abroad as a retiree has been in developing nations. After returning from my latest nomad stint abroad and coming across Ms. Woolf’s pronouncements on the American character, I decided to take stock anew both of myself and of my fellow Americans to see what advantages and disadvantages our way of doing things brings. Such thoughts on the matter have hovered in the back of my mind all the while I was abroad but I haven’t dragged them into conscious awareness until now. My psyche has been resistant to the idea because such thoughts are persona non grata when you’re abroad dealing with what you find on the ground. I’m back in the States now and actively appreciative of the effects the American way has on daily life — things work relatively well, are for the most part tidy and orderly, people don’t drive like lunatics intent on killing themselves and everyone in their path — the advantages do indeed add up. When you’re living abroad such awarenesses only lead to grumpiness and discontent if entertained while you’re embedded in a social fabric where none of those qualities form part of the general cultural aspiration.
Woolf’s perspective on the American way is, of course, vastly different from my own. She stands outside what she describes, I’m shot through with it as a native. My foreign experience also offers no similarity of perspective to hers because I’ve been roaming about in developing countries, not in Europe. The advantages offered by any developed country are not diffiult to recognize — order, functionality, predictability, ease of independence to name but a few — and they accrue to any developed nation, not only to the United States.
Woolf was part of the upper middle class and knew very well that she occupied a privileged position within her own society. She’s often described as an insufferable snob and a wannabe bluestocking, but recently I came across another essay of hers in which that notion bites the dust. It carried the title “Memories of a Working Women’s Guild” and appeared in The Captain’s Death Bed and Other Essays, published by Hogarth Press in 1950. Many years after attending a meeting of the Guild in Manchester in 1913 Woolf was asked to write a preface to a collection of pieces written by some of its members. Woolf recalls her experience and then addresses the head of the Guild to reveal what she thought and felt as she observed the meeting:
“Let me again telescope into a few sentences and into one scene many random discussions at various places. We said then — … that the Congress had roused thoughts and ideas of the most diverse nature. it had been a revelation and a disillusionment. We had been humiliated and enraged. To begin with, all their talk, we said, or the greater part of it, was of matters of fact. The want baths and money. When people get together communally they always talk about baths and money: they always show the least desirable of their characteristics — their lust for conquest and their desire for possessions. To expect us, whose minds, such as they are, fly free at the end of a short length of capital, to tie ourselves down again upon that narrow plot of acquisitiveness and desire is impossible. We have baths and money. Society has supplied us with all we need in that direction. Therefore however much we sympathized, our sympathy was largely fictitious. It was aesthetic sympathy, the sympathy of the eye and of the imagination, not of the heart and of the nerves; and such sympathy is always physically uncomfortable. Let us explain what we mean, we said.
“The women are magnificent to look at. Ladies in evening dress are lovlier far, but they lack the sculpturesque quality that these working women have. Their arms are undeveloped. Fat has softened the lines of their muscles. And though the range of expression is narrower in working women, their expressions have a force and emphasis, of tragedy or humour, which the faces of ladies lack. But at the same time, it is much better to be a lady; ladies desire Mozart and Cezanne and Shakespeare; and not merely money and hot water laid on. Therefore to deride ladies and to imitate, as some of the speakers did, their mincing speech and little knowledge of what it pleases them to call “reality” is not merely bad manners, but it gives away the whole purpose of the Congress, for, if it is better to be a working woman, by all means let them remain so and not claim their right to undergo the contamination of wealth and comfort.
“In spite of this, we went on, apart from prejudice and bandying compliments, undoubtedly the women at the Congress possess something which ladies have lost, something desirable, stimulating, and at the same time very difficult to define. one does not want to slip easily into fine phrases about “contact with life,” about “facing facts,” the teaching of experience,” for they invariably alienate the hearer, and moreover no working man or woman works harder with his hands or is in closer touch with reality than a painter with his brush or a writer with his pen. But the quality that they have — judging from a phrase caught here and there, a laugh, or a gesture seen in passing — is a quality that Shakespeare would have liked. One can fancy him slipping away from the brilliant salons of educated people to crack a joke in Mrs. Robson’s back kitchen. Indeed, we said, one of our most curious impressions at your Congress was the “the poor, “the working classes,” or by whatever name you choose to call them are not down-trodden, envious, and exhausted; they are humorous and vigorous and thoroughly independent. Thus, if it were possible to meet them not as sympathizers, as masters or mistresses with counters between us or kitchen tables, but casually and congenially as fellow beings with the same ends and wishes even if the dress and body are different, a great liberation would follow. …”
I put it to you that Elizabeth McCracken in her book The Women of America puts forward a conception of human activity very much like that of the women of the Working Women’s Guild. It’s practical, it’s no-nonsense and it means to get things done. From her position in the upper middle class Woolf looks at that stance and nods approval. In point of fact it has everything to recommend it, as one finds in the results obtained by American women of the early 20th century as they went about constructing their society, despite the massive disadvantages that accrued to women in the public sphere in those days.
While Woolf identified the qualities of women in the Guild as stemming from the working class, the American mindset stems from the middle class. Woolf’s English middle class was geared toward aping as much as possible the aristocracy. In the United States the middle class emerged as the proponent of those workaday values that in England were associated with the working class. So we got the workaday mentality without the class baggage that attached to it in England. Had Woolf been born American, or had she spent a long time in America, I think she would have found herself adapting to the American middle-class mentality without any difficulty at all. Like the rest of us she may well have had trouble working into the picture Mozart, Cezanne and Shakespeare, but that difficulty would have been offset by the lack of the rigidity that characterizes English class structure.
As for me, I find in Woolf’s pieces a confirmation of my own sense of rightness about the Americanness I carry around the world with me wherever I go. Given the times I certainly don’t broadcast it, but it remains a foundation on which my house of self rests. The practicality and energy it embraces serve the purposes of life rather than detract from it. So along with Woolf I salute those qualities and recognize their usefulness and inherent value.
And believe me, that’s the last thing in the world I expected to get from the author of To The Lighthouse. 🙂