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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

American Possibilities

By Charles Dudley Warner (1829–1900)

[The Finer Issues of American Life.—From “The Southern Collegian.” 1888.]

IT has lately been my fortune to travel over considerable portions of the United States. I cannot tell you how my conception of the extent, the variety, the resources, the power of the country has been enlarged. The kindling vision I have of its magnitude and possibilities, of pride in it, might seem to you the language of extravagance. But what has impressed me more than the magnitude and the almost infinite resources, and what has given me the most glowing hopes for the future of the republic is the diversity, the individuality of towns, cities, States, the independent life and sui generis development of each and all, the local public spirit, the local public pride, the belief of every citizen that his city is the handsomest, his State the best; in short, a pride in his State as, for one reason or another, the most important in the Federal Union. There is not only diversity of climate, of production, but of character, of manners, a free development of life in all conditions, and always some variety in the working out of principles common to all States in each State government; in its institutions of education, of charity, of amusement, of social life. This variety is the charm of America; in this variety is its safety. As to all the rest of the world, says the citizen, there is the federal capitol; as to the other States of the Union, here is my State capitol! This State pride is as strong and assertive in the smallest State as in the largest, in the newest-born as in any of the original thirteen; as active and as boastful in the new territory as in the State—it declares itself as something definite in the fresh settlement as soon as the tents are pitched and the horses coralled, and it is full-blown while yet the capital is on wheels. Since I have seen and comprehended this almost extravagant State appreciation, I have seen where resides the certain check to the inconsiderate spirit of federal centralization. It is simply wondrous how this local spirit plants itself everywhere with the spreading republic, each new community crystallizing itself at once as if it had the traditions of a century, and that it does not weaken, while at the same time the national spirit grows stronger and more assertive. It is a vast territory which we occupy, and it may be still extended; if a spirit of centralization prevailed it would drop to pieces of its own weight; with State autonomy fully and stoutly maintained, with an opportunity for local ambition and the freest local development, it has every calculable chance of permanence….

If the human race ever had a chance to come to something fine and noble it is here in America, where development is so free, so little hindered, and where State communities have had opportunity to evolve so freely their peculiar character. Something fine, I say, ought to be expected in the mingling of so many races—great races—differing in fibre and in temperament, some superior outcome in music, painting, sculpture, literature, in a clearer philosophy of life, in a better conception of what man should be. Of course this will not come about—quite the reverse will come about—if the university is not considered as important as the factory, and the ability to appreciate the best piece of literature is not rated so highly as the smartness which can run a ward caucus or make money by adroit means. The Brooklyn bridge impresses one as almost as much a wonder as the Great Pyramid, yet neither is as valuable to the world as the Iliad. Socrates would probably stand in a maze in Chicago to see seven pigs killed in a minute, but doubtless he would put a few questions as to the great progress in civilization which would make this achievement seem small compared with the writing of the Antigone.

It is a hard struggle to keep up the intellectual life when material forces are so strong and human nature so readily believes that self-indulgence is happiness; but it is not a hopeless struggle, for after all it is a matter of individual choosing—it is left to every one to decide whether he will cultivate the intellectual side in his effort to make a place for himself in the world.

I have sometimes fancied that I could invent a rule by which we can secure most easily that which we all desire, namely contentment. It is a clear delusion to suppose we can attain it by endeavoring to get everything within our reach. If we obtain a thousand dollars, we certainly want another thousand; if we get a million, the necessity is just as imperative to get another million; if we add a piece of land to our possessions, we must add another piece; there is no end to the land we want. I suppose a person never, yet, was satisfied with getting. There is absolutely no limit in that direction. Do you say it is the same with knowledge, with self-cultivation, as it is with property? Very true, but one pursuit enlarges the man, the other materializes him. And since contentment is not to be had by getting, suppose we try to attain it from the other side, by limiting our wants and our desires. It is certainly the easier way, even if only happiness is our object. I cannot imagine a man happy with the inordinate hunger of possession. I can imagine him fairly happy, relieved from this strain, with limited desires, in a life that delights in intellectual pursuits, and enjoys, without envy, books, friendship, the love and companionship of good women, nature—which never denies itself to the humblest—and his fair share of a citizen’s responsibilities. Given contentment as the goal, the man, I am sure, would reach it more certainly in this way than if he let his desire of acquisition of material things rule him. And, then, consider what a State of men and women you would have if this spirit predominated, and not the greed of possession.

Is this Utopian talk, even for a scholar’s holiday? It seems to me the most practical kind of talk, unless it is true that the body is more real than the mind, and matter more real than the things of the spirit. There is a great deal of vague talk about progress, about civilization. It is a natural ambition to want to contribute to the one and to advance the other. But I fancy that the most good a man can do for the world is to be good himself, and his greatest contribution to civilization will be to civilize himself. And in saying this I am not making any vague or impossible condition.