Misinforming a Nation/Chapter 01

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Misinforming a Nation by Willard Huntington Wright
Chapter I: Colonizing America




The intellectual colonization of America by England has been going on for generations. Taking advantage of her position of authority — a position built on centuries of aesthetic tradition — England has let pass few opportunities to ridicule and disparage our activities in all lines of creative effort, and to impress upon us her own assumed cultural superiority. Americans, lacking that sense of security which long-established institutions would give them, have been influenced by the insular judgments of England, and, in an effort to pose as au courant of the achievements of the older world, have adopted in large degree the viewpoint of Great Britain. The result has been that for decades the superstition of England's preëminence in the world of art and letters has spread and gained power in this country. Our native snobbery, both social and intellectual, has kept the fires of this superstition well supplied with fuel; and in our slavish imitation of England — the only country in Europe of which we have any intimate knowledge — we have de-Americanized ourselves to such an extent that there has grown up in us a typical British contempt for our own native achievements.

One of the cardinal factors in this Briticization of our intellectual outlook is the common language of England and America. Of all the civilized nations of the world, we are most deficient as linguists. Because of our inability to speak fluently any language save our own, a great barrier exists between us and the Continental countries. But no such barrier exists between America and England; and consequently there is a constant exchange of ideas, beliefs, and opinions. English literature is at our command; English criticism is familiar to us; and English standards are disseminated among us without the impediment of translation. Add to this lingual rapprochement the traditional authority of Great Britain, together with the social aspirations of moneyed Americans, and you will have both the material and the psychological foundation on which the great edifice of English culture has been reared in this country.

The English themselves have made constant and liberal use of these conditions. An old and disquieting jealousy, which is tinctured not a little by resentment, has resulted in an open contempt for all things American. And it is not unnatural that this attitude should manifest itself in a condescending patronage which is far from being good-natured. Our literature is derided; our artists are ridiculed; and in nearly every field of our intellectual endeavor England has found grounds for disparagement. It is necessary only to look through British newspapers and critical journals to discover the contemptuous and not infrequently venomous tone which characterizes the discussion of American culture.

At the same time, England grasps every opportunity for foisting her own artists and artisans on this country. She it is who sets the standard which at once demolishes our individual expression and glorifies the efforts of Englishmen. Our publishers, falling in line with this campaign, import all manner of English authors, eulogize them with the aid of biased English critics, and neglect better writers of America simply because they have displeased those gentlemen in London who sit in judgment upon our creative accomplishments. Our magazines, edited for the most part by timid nobodies whose one claim to intellectual distinction is that they assiduously play the parrot to British opinion, fill their publications with the work of English mediocrities and ignore the more deserving contributions of their fellow-countrymen.

Even our educational institutions disseminate the English superstition and neglect the great men of America; for nowhere in the United States will you find the spirit of narrow snobbery so highly developed as in our colleges and universities. Recently an inferior British poet came here, and, for no other reason apparently save that he was English, he was made a professor in one of our large universities! Certainly his talents did not warrant this appointment, for there are at least a score of American poets who are undeniably superior to this young Englishman. Nor has he shown any evidences of scholarship which would justify the honor paid him. But an Englishman, if he seek favors, needs little more than proof of his nationality, whereas an American must give evidence of his worth.

England has shown the same ruthlessness and unscrupulousness in her intellectual colonization of America as in her territorial colonizations; and she has also exhibited the same persistent shrewdness. What is more, this cultural extension policy has paid her lavishly. English authors, to take but one example, regard the United States as their chief source of income. If it were the highest English culture — that is, the genuinely significant scholarship of the few great modern British creators — which was forced upon America, there would be no cause for complaint. But the governing influences in English criticism are aggressively middle-class and chauvinistic, with the result that it is the British bourgeois who has stifled our individual expression, and misinformed us on the subject of European culture.

No better instance of this fact can be pointed to than the utterly false impression which America has of French attainments. French genius has always been depreciated and traduced by the British; and no more subtle and disgraceful campaign of derogation has been launched in modern times than the consistent method pursued by the English in misinterpreting French ideals and accomplishments to Americans. To England is due largely, if not entirely, the uncomplimentary opinion that Americans have of France — an opinion at once distorted and indecent. To the average American a French novel is regarded merely as a salacious record of adulteries. French periodicals are looked upon as collections of prurient anecdotes and licentious pictures. And the average French painting is conceived as a realistic presentation of feminine nakedness. So deeply rooted are these conceptions that the very word “French” has become, in the American's vocabulary, an adjective signifying all manner of sexual abnormalities, and when applied to a play, a story, or an illustration, it is synonymous with “dirty” and “immoral.” This country has yet to understand the true fineness of French life and character, or to appreciate the glories of French art and literature; and the reason for our distorted ideas is that French culture, in coming to America, has been filtered through the nasty minds of middle-class English critics.

But it is not our biased judgment of the Continental nations that is the most serious result of English misrepresentation; in time we will come to realize how deceived we were in accepting England's insinuations that France is indecent, Germany stupid, Italy decadent, and Russia barbarous. The great harm done by England's contemptuous critics is in belittling American achievement. Too long has bourgeois British culture been forced upon the United States; and we have been too gullible in our acceptance of it without question. English critics and English periodicals have consistently attempted to discourage the growth of any national individualism in America, by ridiculing or ignoring our best æsthetic efforts and by imposing upon us their own insular criteria. To such an extent have they succeeded that an American author often must go to England before he will be accepted by his own countrymen. Thus purified by contact with English culture, he finds a way into our appreciation.

But on the other hand, almost any English author — even one that England herself has little use for can acquire fame by visiting this country. Upon his arrival he is interviewed by the newspapers; his picture appears in the “supplements”; his opinions emblazon the headlines and are discussed in editorials; and our publishers scramble for the distinction of bringing out his wares. In this the publishers, primarily commercial, reveal their business acumen, for they are not unaware of the fact that the “literary” sections of our newspapers are devoted largely to British authors and British letters. So firmly has the English superstition taken hold of our publishers that many of them print their books with English spelling. The reason for this un-American practice, so they explain, is that the books may be ready for an English edition without resetting. The English, however, do not use American spelling at all, though, as a rule, the American editions of English books are much larger than the English edition of American books. But the English do not like our spelling; therefore we gladly arrange matters to their complete satisfaction.

The evidences of the American's enforced belief in English superiority are almost numberless. Apartment houses and suburban sub-divisions are named after English hotels and localities. The belief extends even to the manufacturers of certain brands of cigarettes which, for sale purposes, are advertised as English, although it would be difficult to find a box of them abroad. The American actor, in order to gain distinction, apes the dress, customs, intonation and accent of Englishmen. His great ambition is to be mistaken for a Londoner. This pose, however, is not all snobbery: it is the outcome of an earnest desire to appear superior; and so long has England insisted upon her superiority that many Americans have come to adopt it as a cultural fetish.

Hitherto this exalted intellectual guidance has been charitably given us: never before, as now, has a large fortune been spent to make America pay handsomely for the adoption of England's provincialism. I refer to the Encyclopædia Britannica which, by a colossal campaign of flamboyant advertising, has been scattered broadcast over every state in the union.

No more vicious and dangerous educational influence on America can readily be conceived than the articles in this encyclopaedia. They distort the truth and disseminate false standards. America is now far enough behind the rest of the civilized world in its knowledge of art, without having added to that ignorance the erroneous impressions created by this partial and disproportioned English work; for, in its treatment of the world's progress, it possesses neither universality of outlook nor freedom from prejudice in its judgments — the two primary requisites for any work which lays claim to educational merit. Taken as a whole, the Britannica's divisions on culture are little more than a brief for British art and science — a brief fraught with the rankest injustice toward the achievements of other nations, and especially toward those of America.

The distinguishing feature of the Encyclopædia Britannica is its petty national prejudice. This prejudice appears constantly and in many disguises through the Encyclopædia's pages. It manifests itself in the most wanton carelessness in dealing with historical facts; in glaring inadequacies when discussing the accomplishments of nations other than England; in a host of inexcusable omissions of great men who do not happen to be blessed with English nationality; in venom and denunciation of viewpoints which do not happen to coincide with “English ways of thinking”; and especially in neglect of American endeavor. Furthermore, the Britannica shows unmistakable signs of haste or carelessness in preparation. Information is not always brought up to date. Common proper names are inexcusably misspelled. Old errors remain uncorrected. Inaccuracies abound. Important subjects are ignored. And only in the field of English activity does there seem to be even an attempt at completeness.

The Encyclopædia Britannica, if accepted unquestioningly throughout this country as an authoritative source of knowledge, would retard our intellectual development fully twenty years; for so one-sided is its information, so distorted are its opinions, so far removed is it from being an international and impartial reference work, that not only does it give inadequate advice on vital topics, but it positively creates false impressions. Second- and third-rate Englishmen are given space and praise much greater than that accorded truly great men of other nations; and the eulogistic attention paid English endeavor in general is out of all proportion to its deserts. In the following chapters I shall show specifically how British culture is glorified and exaggerated, and with what injustice the culture of other countries is treated. And I shall also show the utter failure of this Encyclopaedia to fulfill its claim of being a “universal” and “objective” reference library. To the contrary, it will be seen that the Britannica is a narrow, parochial, opinionated work of dubious scholarship and striking unreliability.

With the somewhat obscure history of the birth of the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica, or with the part played in that history by Cambridge University and the London Times, I am not concerned. Nor shall I review the unethical record of the two issues of the Encyclopædia. To those interested in this side of the question I suggest that they read the following contributions in Reedy's Mirror: The Same Old Slippery Trick (March 24, 1916). The Encyclopædia Britannica Swindle (April 7, 1916). The Encyclopædia Britannica Fake (April 14, 1916); and also the article in the March 18 (1916) Bellman, Once More the Same Old Game.

Such matters might be within the range of forgiveness if the contents of the Britannica were what were claimed for them. But that which does concern me is the palpable discrepancies between the statements contained in the advertising, and the truth as revealed by a perusal of the articles and biographies contained in the work itself. The statements insisted that the Britannica was a supreme, unbiased, and international reference library — an impartial and objective review of the world; and it was on these statements, repeated constantly, that Americans bought the work. The truth is that the Encyclopædia Britannica, in its main departments of culture, is characterized by misstatements, inexcusable omissions, rabid and patriotic prejudices, personal animosities, blatant errors of fact, scholastic ignorance, gross neglect of non-British culture, an astounding egotism, and an undisguised contempt for American progress.

Rarely has this country witnessed such indefensible methods in advertising as those adopted by the Britannica's exploiters. The “copy” has fairly screamed with extravagant and fabulous exaggerations. The vocabulary of hyperbole has been practically exhausted in setting forth the dubious merits of this reference work. The ethics and decencies of ordinary honest commerce have been thrown to the wind. The statements made day after day were apparently concocted irrespective of any consideration save that of making a sale; for there is an abundance of evidence to show that the Encyclopædia was not what was claimed for it.

With the true facts regarding this encyclopædia it is difficult to reconcile the encomiums of many eminent Americans who, by writing eulogistic letters to the Britannica's editor concerning the exalted merits of his enterprise, revealed either their unfamiliarity with the books in question or their ignorance of what constituted an educational reference work. These letters were duly photographed and reproduced in the advertisements, and they now make interesting, if disconcerting, reading for the non-British student who put his faith in them and bought the Britannica. There is no need here to quote from these letters; for a subsequent inspection of the work thus recommended must have sufficiently mortified those of the enthusiastic correspondents who were educated and had consciences; and the others would be unmoved by any revelations of mine.

Mention, however, should be made of the remarks of the American Ambassador to Great Britain at the banquet given in London to celebrate the Encyclopædia's birth. This gentleman, in an amazing burst of unrestrained laudation, said he believed that “it is the general judgment of the scholars and the investigators of the world that the one book to which they can go for the most complete, comprehensive, thorough, and absolutely precise statements of fact upon every subject of human interest is the Encyclopædia Britannica.” This is certainly an astonishing bit of eulogy. Its dogmatic positiveness and its assumption of infallibility caused one critic (who is also a great scholar) to write: “With all due respect for our illustrious fellow-countryman, the utterance is a most superlative absurdity, unless it was intended to be an exercise of that playful and elusive American humor which the apperceptions of our English cousins so often fail to seize, much less appreciate.” But there were other remarks of similar looseness at the banquet, and the dinner evidently was a greater success than the books under discussion.

Even the English critics themselves could not accept the Britannica as a source for “the most comprehensive, thorough and absolutely precise statements on every subject of human interest.” Many legitimate objections began appearing. There is space here to quote only a few. The London Nation complains that “the particularly interesting history of the French Socialist movement is hardly even sketched.” And again it says: “The naval question is handled on the basis of the assumption which prevailed during our recent scare; the challenge of our Dreadnought building is hardly mentioned; the menace of M. Delcassé's policy of encirclement is ignored, and both in the article on Germany and in the articles on Europe, Mr. McKenna's panic figures and charges of accelerated building are treated as the last word of historical fact.” The same publication, criticising the article on Europe, says: “There is nothing but a dry and summarized general history, ending with a paragraph or two on the Anglo-German struggle with the moral that ‘Might is Right.’ It is history of Europe which denies the idea of Europe.”

Again, we find evidence of a more direct character, which competently refutes the amazing announcement of our voluble Ambassador to Great Britain. In a letter to the London Times, an indignant representative of Thomas Carlyle's family objects to the inaccurate and biased manner in which Carlyle is treated in the Encyclopædia. “The article,” he says, “was evidently written many years ago, before the comparatively recent publication of new and authentic material, and nothing has been done to bring it up to date. . . . As far as I know, none of the original errors have been corrected, and many others of a worse nature have been added. The list of authorities on Carlyle's life affords evidence of ignorance or partisanship.”

“Evidently,” comments a shrewd critic who is not impressed either by the Ambassador's panegyric or the photographed letters, “the great man's family, and the public in general, have a reasonable cause of offense, and they may also conclude that if the Encyclopædia Britannica can blunder when handling such an approachable and easy British subject as Carlyle, it can be reasonably expected to do worse on other matters which are not only absolutely foreign, but intensely distasteful to the uninformed and prejudiced scribes to whom they seem to be so frequently, if not systematically, assigned.”

The expectation embodied in the above comment is more fully realized perhaps than the writer of those words imagined; and the purpose of this book is to reveal the blundering and misleading information which would appear to be the distinguishing quality of the Britannica's articles on culture. Moreover, as I have said, and as I shall show later, few subjects are as “intensely distasteful” to the “uninformed and prejudiced” British critics as is American achievement. One finds it difficult to understand how any body of foreigners would dare offer America the brazen insult which is implied in the prodigal distribution of these books throughout the country; for in their unconquerable arrogance, their unveiled contempt for this nation — the outgrowth of generations of assumed superiority — they surpass even the London critical articles dealing with our contemporary literary efforts.

Several of our more courageous and pro-American scholars have called attention to the inadequacies and insularities in the Britannica, but their voices have not been sufficiently far-reaching to counteract either the mass or the unsavory character of the advertising by which this unworthy and anti-American encyclopædia was foisted upon the United States. Conspicuous among those publications which protested was the Twentieth Century Magazine. That periodical, to refer to but one of its several criticisms, pointed out that the article on Democracy is “confined to the alleged democracies of Greece and their distinguished, if some time dead, advocates. Walt Whitman, Mazzini, Abraham Lincoln, Edward Carpenter, Lyof Tolstoi, Switzerland, New Zealand, Australia, Finland, Iceland, Oregon are unknown quantities to this anonymous classicist.”

It is also noted that the author of the articles on Sociology “is not very familiar with the American sociologists, still less with the German, and not at all with the French.” The article is “a curious evidence of editorial insulation,” and the one on Economics “betrays freshened British capitalistic insularity.” In this latter article, which was substituted for Professor Ingram' s masterly and superb history of political economy in the Britannica's Ninth Edition, “instead of a catholic, scientific survey of economic thought, we have a ‘fair trade’ pamphlet, which actually includes reference to Mr. Chamberlain,” although the names of Henry George, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, John A. Hobson, and William Smart are omitted.

The Eleventh Edition, concludes the Twentieth Century, after recording many other specimens of ignorance and inefficiency, “is not only insular; it betrays its class-conscious limitation in being woefully defective in that prophetic instinct which guided Robertson Smith in his choice of contributors to the Ninth Edition, and the contributors themselves in their treatment of rapidly changing subjects.” Robertson Smith, let it be noted, stood for fairness, progressiveness, and modernity; whereas the Britannica's present editor is inflexibly reactionary, provincial, and unjust to an almost incredible degree.

The foregoing quotations are not isolated objections: there were others of similar nature. And these few specimens are put down here merely to show that there appeared sufficient evidence, both in England and America, to establish the purely imaginary nature of the Britannica's claims of completeness and inerrancy, and to reveal the absurdity of the American Ambassador's amazing pronouncement. Had the sale of the Encyclopædia Britannica been confined to that nation whose culture it so persistently and dogmatically glorifies at the expense of the culture of other nations, its parochial egotism would not be America's concern. But since this reference work has become an American institution and has forced its provincial mediocrity into over 100,000 American homes, schools and offices, the astonishing truth concerning its insulting ineptitude has become of vital importance to this country. Its menace to American educational progress can no longer be ignored.

England's cultural campaign in the United States during past decades has been sufficiently insidious and pernicious to work havoc with our creative effort, and to retard us in the growth of that self-confidence and self-appreciation which alone make the highest achievement possible. But never before has there been so concentrated and virulently inimical a medium for British influence as the present edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. These books, taken in conjunction with the methods by which they have been foisted upon us, constitute one of the most subtle and malign dangers to our national enlightenment and development which it has yet been our misfortune to possess; for they bid fair to remain, in large measure, the source of America's information for many years to come.

The regrettable part of England's intellectual intrigues in the United States is the subservient and docile acquiescence of Americans themselves. Either they are impervious to England's sneers and deaf to her insults, or else their snobbery is stronger than their self-respect. I have learned from Britishers themselves, during an extended residence in London, that not a little of their contempt for Americans is due to our inordinate capacity for taking insults. Year after year English animus grows; and to-day it is the uncommon thing to find an English publication which, in discussing the United States and its culture, does not contain some affront to our intelligence.

It is quite true, as the English insist, that we are painfully ignorant of Europe; but it must not be forgotten that the chief source of that ignorance is England herself. And the Encyclopædia Britannica, if accepted as authoritative, will go far toward emphasizing and extending that ignorance. Furthermore, it will lessen even the meagre esteem in which we now hold our own accomplishments and potentialities; for, as the following pages will show, the Britannica has persistently discriminated against all American endeavor, not only in the brevity of the articles and biographies relating to this country and in the omissions of many of our leading artists and scientists, but in the bibliographies as well. And it must be remembered that broad and unprejudiced bibliographies are essential to any worthy encyclopaedia: they are the key to the entire tone of the work. The conspicuous absence of many high American authorities, and the inclusion of numerous reactionary and often dubious English authorities, sum up the Britannica's attitude.

However, as I have said, America, if the principal, is not the only country discriminated against. France has fallen a victim to the Encyclopædia's suburban patriotism, and scant justice is done her true greatness. Russia, perhaps even more than France, is culturally neglected; and modern Italy's æsthetic achievements are given slight consideration. Germany's science and her older culture fare much better at the hands of the Britannica's editors than do the efforts of several other nations; but Germany, too, suffers from neglect in the field of modern endeavor.

Even Ireland does not escape English prejudice. In fact, it can be only on grounds of national, political, and personal animosity that one can account for the grossly biased manner in which Ireland, her history and her culture, is dealt with. To take but one example, regard the Britannica's treatment of what has come to be known as the Irish Literary Revival. Among those conspicuous, and in one or two instances world-renowned, figures who do not receive biographies are J. M. Synge, Lady Gregory, Lionel Johnson, Douglas Hyde, and William Larminie. (Although Lionel Johnson's name appears in the article on English literature, it does not appear in the Index — a careless omission which, in victimizing an Irishman and not an Englishman, is perfectly in keeping with the deliberate omissions of the Britannica.)

Furthermore, there are many famous Irish writers whose names are not so much as mentioned in the entire Encyclopaedia for instance, Standish O'Grady, James H. Cousins, John Todhunter, Katherine Tynan, T. W. Rolleston, Nora Hopper, Jane Barlow, Emily Lawless, “A. E.” (George W. Russell), John Eglinton, Charles Kickam, Dora Sigerson Shorter, Shan Bullock, and Seumas MacManus. Modern Irish literature is treated with a brevity and an injustice which are nothing short of contemptible; and what little there is concerning the new Irish renaissance is scattered here and there in the articles on English literature! Elsewhere I have indicated other signs of petty anti-Irish bias, especially in the niggardly and stupid treatment accorded George Moore.

Although such flagrant inadequacies in the case of European art would form a sufficient basis for protest, the really serious grounds for our indignation are those which have to do with the Britannica's neglect of America. That is why I have laid such emphasis on this phase of the Encyclopædia. It is absolutely necessary that this country throw off the yoke of England's intellectual despotism before it can have a free field for an individual and national cultural evolution. America has already accomplished much. She has contributed many great figures to the world's progress. And she is teeming with tremendous and splendid possibilities. To-day she stands in need of no other nation's paternal guidance. In view of her great powers, of her fine intellectual strength, of her wide imagination, of her already brilliant past, and of her boundless and exalted future, such a work as the Encyclopædia Britannica should be resented by every American to whom the welfare of his country is of foremost concern, and in whom there exists one atom of national pride.