Notes from my week of study leave
Back in 1927, a Canadian author named Frederick Philip Grove published a book titled A Search for America. It remains one of my favorite novels of the American experience. Tonight, I was talking on the phone with my older sister, who teaches writing at Indiana East University, and I was trying to tell her about Grove’s book. I couldn’t find my old paperback edition, but I found the full text of the novel online.
The hero of Grove’s novel (perhaps Grove himself?) emigrates to North America, and after taking a series of menial jobs, wanders across the continent searching for America — long before the Beats and the hippies did so later in the 20th C. Near the end of the book, Grove talks about the differences between the ideals and the realities of the American experience:
I was convinced that the American ideal was right; that it meant a tremendous advance over anything which before the war could reasonably be called the ideal of Europe. A reconciliation of contradictory tendencies, a bridging of the gulf between the classes was aimed at, in Europe, at best by concessions from above, from condescension; in America the fundamental rights of those whom we may call the victims of civilization were clearly seen and, in principle, acknowledged — so I felt — by a majority of the people. Consequently the gulf existing between the classes was more apparent than real; the gulf was there, indeed; but it was there as a consequence of an occasional vitiation of the system, not of the system itself. I might put it this way. In Europe the city was the crown of the edifice of the state; the city culminated in the court — a republican country like France being no exception, for the bureaucracy took the place, there, of the aristocracy in other countries. In America the city was the mere agent of the ountry — necessary, but dependent upon the country in every way — politically, intellectually, economically. Let America beware of the time when such a relation might be reversed: it would become a mere bridgehead of Europe, as in their social life some of its cities are even now. [Author’s note: I must repeat that this book was, in all its essential parts, written decades ago.] The real reason underlying this difference I believed to be the fact that Europe, as far as the essentials of life were concerned, was a consumer; whereas America was a producer. The masses were fed, in Europe, from the cities; the masses were fed, in America, from the country….
That was my idea; and it contained the germ of an error. In my survey of the American attitude I was apt to take ideals for facts, aspirations for achievements….
…America is an ideal and as such has to be striven for; it has to be realized in partial victories. (I have since come to the conclusion that the ideal as I saw and still see it has been abandoned by the U.S.A. That is one reason why I became and remained a Canadian.)
I like the United States, and don’t feel any desire to emigrate to Canada. Nor have I abandoned the ideals Grove talks about. But I think Grove may be right in this respect — it’s too easy to take ideals for facts, and aspirations for achievements. Indeed, you could make the same criticism of us Unitarian Universalists in the United States — as grand as our principles may sound, they don’t do much good unless we live them in our lives.
You might want to read the whole book, a grand sweeping novel of adventure and travel. Get it from your library, or read it for free online by pointing your Web browser here: Link.