Tuesday, May 29, 2018

'England Viewed Through a Solar Microscope'

“I deeply regret the anti-American articles of some of the leading reviews. The Americans regard what is said of them in England a thousand times more than they do any thing said of them in any other country. The Americans are excessively pleased with any kind or favourable expressions, and never forgive or forget any slight or abuse. It would be better for them if they were a trifle thicker-skinned.”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was an Olympic-class gas-bag who never met a particular he couldn’t turn into an airy generality – the anti-Johnson. He was afflicted with the disease of theory, an ailment only encouraged by his daily intake of laudanum. But a man who opined as often and as strenuously as Coleridge had to be on to something at least occasionally. The observation above is dated May 28, 1830 in Specimens of the Table Talk of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1835). America was then a newly minted country, adolescent in its pride and sensitivities. Yes, we still like to be liked, a quality that betrays our naivete. On the same date, Coleridge is next recorded as saying:   

“The last American war [which we know as the War of 1812] was to us only something to talk or read about; but to the Americans it was the cause of misery in their own homes.”

Coleridge’s sympathy for the Americans, less than two decades after the most recent war, during which some 15,000 Americans were killed and roughly 8,600 British, is gratifying. Next, he moves from the specifics of geopolitics to a more general assessment:

“I, for one, do not call the sod under my feet my country. But language, religion, laws, government, blood, — identity in these makes men of one country.”

I would like to concur, but America is more than an idea. “Sod” gives us a place to call our own and defend, and that proud impulse solidifies our identity as Americans. Coleridge is stirringly correct: “language, religion, laws, government, blood” unite us. Or they did at one time. Our selfishness has undermined our Americaness. Later in Table Talk, on April 10, 1833, Coleridge writes:

“The possible destiny of the United States of America,—as a nation of a hundred millions of freemen,—stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, living under the laws of Alfred, and speaking the language of Shakspeare and Milton, is an august conception. Why should we not wish to see it realized? America would then be England viewed through a solar microscope; Great Britain in a state of glorious magnification! How deeply to be lamented is the spirit of hostility and sneering which some of the popular books of travels have shown in treating of the Americans! They hate us, no doubt, just as brothers hate; but they respect the opinion of an Englishman concerning themselves ten times as much as that of a native of any other country on earth. A very little humouring of their prejudices, and some courtesy of language and demeanour on the part of Englishmen, would work wonders, even as it is, with the public mind of the Americans.”

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