How the Other Half Lives

The following is excerpted and adapted from Chapter Five: How the Other Half Lives of my book The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Publishers, 2013). It pertains to the cultural divide reflected in our politics in 2018:

The American identity was imagined and written in New England, imagined and crafted separately by the southern white elite, and endured in the early West (from the Appalachian foothills on). The great debates of the country in the 19th century centered on the conflicting views of North and South, reaching their peak with the outbreak of the Civil War. The West, in the context of this divide, either continued to be seen as grounds for extension of the North/South conflict or was ignored. Ignored, that is, until toward the end of the century when it became the new symbol of a grand American unity, a myth crafted by the intellectual elite of New England.

While New England and New York were developing the first real American intellectual and artistic culture and the South was building its antebellum “paradise” on the backs of slaves, the white Americans of the growing West were busily engaged in a genocide that no one wanted to praise or even admit was happening. At the same time, they were eking out a living on land that often, as soon as they tried to lay claim to it, already seemed to be “owned” by someone from the East. More frequently than we imagine, they were forced once again to move farther west and start from scratch — again. Poverty breathed down their necks.

*****

If the landscape makes the man, then why were the westerners seen as so “devolved” in the east, so unlike their urban countrymen? The land they were “opening,” after all, was abundant, filled with possibility. Why had the white people on the frontier not become more like the “noble” Native Americans they were destroying? Numerous theories were put forward to explain the differences between the uncouth of the “interior” of America and the civilized people of the east coast. Some writers actually blamed the land that had seemed so promising, others blamed class distinctions, and still others saw the lack of civilizing government as the problem. As most writers were from the East (or from Europe) until well into the 19th century, those actually from the frontier culture had no voice in the discussion, no ability to ground the debate in the actual facts of their lives. Few outsiders understood either their perspective or their background, allowing erroneous conceptions to be put forward unchallenged.

To account for the cultural slide that they thought they were seeing (or hearing about) on the frontier, many writers came to promote a

theory of social stages which places the West below the East in a sequence to which both belong. The West has no meaning in itself because the only value recognized by the theory of civilization is the refinement which is believed to increase steadily as one moves from primitive simplicity and coarseness toward the complexity and polish of urban life. The values that are occasionally found in the West are anomalous instances of conformity to a standard that is actually foreign to the region.[1]

In other words, the frontier had no culture — and it was the duty of the East to impose one. Here, we have one of the classic patterns of colonialism, the metropole putatively bringing “civilization” for the benefit of the local population of the periphery — while lining its own pockets, of course.

Once the Native Americans had been all but destroyed, one of the only differences between traditional conceptions of colonialism and the colonialism going on as the American West was populated by Europeans (who were then exploited by the monied of the East) was that many of the people being colonized were little different in language and bodily appearance from their “saviors.” Most were white. As a result, a much greater percentage of Americans than is generally admitted come from traditions where they have felt the brunt of colonialism rather than simply having been the colonizers. For many of us descended from both cultures, our ancestors have been both colonizer and colonized, but the experience of many as colonized lasted long after real independence came to the secular-liberal culture of the coast.

*****

Though today’s Trump supporters and fundamentalist Christians try to gainsay it, the United States was founded on Enlightenment principles that excluded religion from the public political sphere and made science and “rational thought” the pillars for what was hoped would be a new type of society. Though the secular-liberal founders of the country themselves tried to deny it — even going so far as to construct the Constitution in both a populist and an elitist fashion — most of them were elitists. They believed that most of their fellow Americans were not as “enlightened” as they were and that the vast majority needed learned guidance. Take Benjamin Franklin: As John Cawelti claims, his “conception of self-improvement was closely related to his belief in the necessity of a self-selecting and self-disciplining elite, men of virtue voluntarily assuming the leadership of society.”[2] Like many of today’s elitists, he skipped over cultural distinctions by substituting this idea of self-selection for success and leadership.

*****

Though attitudes toward Americans of the interior as uncouth and unlearned were seconded by coastal Americans, they could be seen most clearly through the eyes of the British who, paradoxically, often saw only one American whole, an uncouth one:

The contrast between nineteenth-century English and American attitudes toward self-improvement appeared often in the comments of English travelers in America. Mrs. Trollope, who visited America in the 1830’s, was stupefied by the pride that leading Americans took in the fact that they were self-taught and self-made, which, as she acidly remarked, meant to her only that they were badly taught and badly made.[3]

Frances Trollope was a delightful writer (one can see where her son Anthony got his talent), but she was the product of a society of rigid class lines defined from the top. She recounts a conversation she had while on the road:

For the great part of this day we had the good fortune to have a gentleman and his daughter for our fellow-travellers, who were extremely intelligent and agreeable; but I nearly got myself into a scrape by venturing to remark upon a phrase used by the gentleman, and which had met me at every corner from the time I first entered the country. We had been talking of pictures, and I had endeavoured to adhere to the rule I had laid down for myself, of saying very little, where I could say nothing agreeable. At length he named an American artist, with whose works I was very familiar, and after having declared him equal to Lawrence (judging by his portrait of West, now at New York), he added, “and what is more, madam, he is perfectly self-taught.”
I prudently took a few moments before I answered; for the equalling our immortal Lawrence to a most vile dauber stuck in my throat; I could not say Amen; so for some time I said nothing; but, at last, I remarked on the frequency with which I had heard this phrase of self-taught used, not as an apology, but as positive praise.
“Well, madam, can there be a higher praise?”
“Certainly not, if spoken of the individual merits of a person, without the means of instruction, but I do not understand it when applied as praise to his works.”
“Not understand it, madam? Is it not attributing genius to the author, and what is teaching compared to that?”
I do not wish to repeat all my own bons mots in praise of study, and on the disadvantages of profound ignorance, but I would, willingly, if I could, give an idea of the mixed indignation and contempt expressed by our companion at the idea that study was necessary to the formation of taste, and to the development of genius. At last, however, he closed the discussion thus, — “There is no use in disputing a point that is already settled, madam; the best judges declare that Mr. H — g’s portraits are equal to that of Lawrence.”
“Who is it who has passed this judgement, sir?”
“The men of taste of America, madam.”
I then asked him, if he thought it was going to rain?[4]

Mrs. Trollope is completely unwilling to contemplate that there might be other aesthetics equal to her own from the English gentry — or that there might be other forms of “study” than those with which she was familiar. At another point, she writes,

The social system of Mr. Jefferson, if carried into effect, would make of mankind an unamalgamated mass of grating atoms, where the darling “I’m as good as you,” would soon take place of the law and the Gospel. As it is, his principles, though happily not fully put in action, have yet produced most lamentable results. The assumption of equality, however empty, is sufficient to tincture the manners of the poor with brutal insolence, and subjects the rich to the paltry expediency of sanctioning the falsehood, however deep their conviction that it is such. It cannot, I think, be denied that the great men of America attain to power and to fame, by eternally uttering what they know to be untrue. American citizens are not equal. Did Washington feel them to be so, when his word outweighed (so happily for them) the votes of thousands? Did Franklin think that all were equal when he shouldered his way from the printing press to the cabinet? True, he looked back in high good humour, and with his kindest smile told the poor devils whom he left behind, that they were all his equals; but Franklin did not speak the truth, and he knew it. The great, the immortal Jefferson himself, he who when past the three score years and ten, still taught young females to obey his nod, and so became the father of unnumbered generations of groaning slaves, what was his matin and his vesper hymn? “All men are born free and equal.” Did the venerable father of the gang believe it? Or did he too purchase his immortality by a lie?[5]

Mrs. Trollope puts her finger on one of the core problems with the American myth — and it is no wonder her book caused such disapprobation in America.

*****

Though two of the great American cultures, the Calvinist and the secular-liberal, continued to grow side by side, never quite melding, there was still a great deal of influence, one upon the other. Quite a few from the coast joined the movement west, many of them integrating into the interior culture. Some figures from interior states, such as Abraham Lincoln and Samuel Clemens, were able to negotiate the coastal culture well enough to operate in it extremely successfully.

*****

Written in response to the British writer and philosopher Thomas Carlyle’s 1829 essay “Signs of the Times” (which Leo Marx depicts as a “passionate attack upon the ‘Age of Machinery’”[6]), Timothy Walker’s North American Review article “Defense of Mechanical Philosophy” presents an argument quite in keeping with the sentiments of Americans of the interior. In his depiction of what he sees as Carlyle’s doom-and-gloom attitude, Walker foretells similar attitudes by contemporary conservatives against what they see as the handwringers over global warming and environmental destruction. Writing specifically about Carlyle’s attitudes, he says that

throughout the whole article… he draws most cheerless conclusions from the course which human affairs are taking. If the writer do not, as he humanely assures us in the end, ultimately despair of the destinies of our ill-starred race, he does, nevertheless, perceive baleful influences hanging over us. Noxious ingredients are working in the caldron. He has detected the ‘midnight hag’ that threw them in, and her name is Mechanism. A more malevolent spirit, in his estimation, does not come from the hateful abodes. The fated inhabitants of this planet are now under her pernicious sway, and she is most industriously plotting against their weal.[7]

He goes on to state his counter-position, again not unlike that of contemporary “red staters”:

We cannot perceive that Mechanism, as such, has yet been the occasion of any injury to man. Some liberties, it is true, have been taken with Nature by this same presumptuous intermeddler. Where she denied us rivers, Mechanism has supplied them. Where she left our planet uncomfortably rough, Mechanism has applied the roller. Where her mountains have been found in the way, Mechanism has boldly levelled or cut through them.[8]

All that we have was given to us by God; therefore, we have the God-given right — duty, in fact — to use those gifts for our own betterment:

When we attempt to convey an idea of the infinite attributes of the Supreme Being, we point to the stupendous machinery of the universe. From the ineffable harmony and regularity, which pervade the whole vast system, we deduce the infinite power and intelligence of the Creating Mind. Now we can perceive no reason, why a similar course should not be pursued, if we would form correct concepts of the dignity and glory of man. Look at the changes he has effected on the earth; so great, that could the first men revisit their mortal abodes, they could scarcely recognize the planet they once inhabited.[9]

Anyone who has ever walked behind a plow understands the advantage of the tractor.

The intellectuals of the East and of Britain saw a difference between the mechanical world and the natural world that few of the American interior accepted. As poor farmers, for the most part, they interacted with the natural world on a level no longer even possible for the city dwellers and the gentry who had already experienced the split between the lives they now led and the land. What the urban people and the intellectual elite (and even those who became the new working class) would feel to be a further alienation from nature through machines was seen, in agricultural places, as simply an augmentation of processes that had gone on for generations. Mechanization allowed farmers to do more with land with a little less physical effort, a change of degree, not substance.

We cannot go back to the origin of mankind and trace them down to the present time, without believing it to be a part of the providence of God, that his creatures should be perpetually advancing. The first men must have been profoundly ignorant, except so far as the Supreme Being communicated with them directly. But with them commenced a series of inventions and discoveries, which have been going on, up to the present moment. Every day has beheld some addition to the general stock of information. When the exigency of the times has required a new truth to be revealed, it has been revealed.[10]

Walker goes on the claim that genius “was not the result of accident, but the work of an overruling Providence.”[11] Even the greatest possible individualist, in this view, would have to humble himself or herself before God — something many of even the staunch individualists of today’s Trump supporters would agree is true (though the followers of Ayn Rand probably would not).

Having presented a case much in keeping with the mind-set of the frontier — probably more than with the views of New England, where the pastoral and other myths still had a great deal of influence — it is hardly surprising that Walker had left his native Massachusetts by the time his article appeared, settling in what was then the great city of the West, Cincinnati. He founded a law school there, and his grandson, Nicholas Longworth, would be the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in the late 1920s.

Cincinnati, right on the Ohio River, where Mrs. Trollope had also proposed to settle, had become an important Borderer town by the time Walker got there. Its population, in 1800, was less than 1,000. In 1810, there were more than twice as many people in town, about 2,500. By 1820, Cincinnati was home to almost four times as many as that, approaching 10,000. By 1830, a year or so after Walker moved there, nearly 25,000 people lived in the city. In 1840, it had nearly doubled once more, having reached 46,000. This, of course, was the pattern of the West, and it would be repeated over and over again. The first people there were Scots-Irish. They were followed by immigrants from the East and abroad, people like Walker who, no matter how much affinity they might feel for the westerners, brought in another, more powerful culture and grafted it on top of that established by the Scots-Irish and those who had first joined them.

*****

Though the urban cultures did not arise from a Calvinist base, the experience of the city can also be used to illuminate this American phenomenon, if for nothing but contrast or complement to the rural vision — or for both. After all, the cultures of America have never existed in silos. Each one influences all of the others. Just like African American culture influences the lives of white Americans, and vice versa, the rural-based culture has influenced the cities and has been influenced by them. Population movement in America has always been so strong that few groups have been able to live their lives in relative cultural isolation.

The general bifurcations of America can be expressed in quite a number of ways: North/South, of course, and Black/White. Another way to describe the American dualities is through its political parties. The debates that led to their development, the struggle between those wanting a strong centralized government and others seeking a much more diffuse system, have continued ever since bickering started among George Washington’s advisers (particularly between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson), and it too can be used to pin basic philosophical differences to American contentions.

*****

Though immigrants were important in many parts of America in the 19th century, the greatest impact of immigration was, not surprisingly, on the coasts or near the great inland waterways. It was not until well into the second half of the century, after all, that the railroads would be able to compete in numbers with the traffic on the rivers and coastal waterways. “Of the thirty-eight million to arrive between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, half came before 1900. Some five million entered prior to the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, with the result that by 1860 Boston’s population was 36 percent foreign-born, Brooklyn’s 39 percent, and New York’s 48 percent.”[12] The impact of these numbers was phenomenal, of course, immigrant attitudes melding with established ones, creating a culture even more different than before from the interior culture and the southern culture linked to it after the Civil War.

*****

To start to understand the differences in culture between “red state” and “blue state” America, one need look no further than the different visions of individualism and self-sufficiency exhibited within the two cultures, especially in their rural and urban incarnations. In the interior culture, individuality has a great deal to do with lack of restraint, with being left alone to make or create. In the secular-liberal culture, individualism is more often linked to opportunity and to the taking advantage of it. The self-made person, in the former, succeeds through throwing off a yoke. In the latter, he or she finds ways to make themselves successful through working around, or even with, existing constraints. The former stresses freedom; the latter, ingenuity.

*****

In many American families, there remain vestiges of what was once a great sense of shame even at the idea of being “on the county” (as public assistance was once known in rural communities). This would be not only a last resort but also an absolute moral and personal catastrophe. Public assistance meant subservience and a loss of independence. Though families with backgrounds in the secular-liberal culture may similarly see public assistance as something to be avoided, they may (and many do) also see it as opportunity, as a bit of breathing room allowing them to get back on their feet or to allow them time, if they happen to be new immigrants, to learn enough about America to negotiate it successfully. The safety net, for the former, may stop a fall; for the latter, it can also spring one back. This simple description of differing attitudes toward public assistance, though perhaps seeming to be making a distinction without a practical difference, points out something of real consequence: When one group sees another seeming to embrace what the first believes is a negative, all sorts of conclusions can easily be drawn, many quite distinct from the truth. Images such as that of the “welfare queen” result and resentments grow as the rural Americans see what they think is a gaming of the system by the urban poor who often do not appear to be native born or either culturally or racially similar to those who feel they are paying for the services themselves.

*****

Norman Vincent Peale opens his phenomenally successful The Power of Positive Thinking with these lines:

Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities! Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers you cannot be successful or happy. But with sound self-confidence you can succeed. A sense of inferiority and inadequacy interferes with the attainment of your hopes, but self-confidence leads to self-realization and successful achievement.[13]

Peale, one of the most successful American preachers of his time, reflected for new generations the attitudes of New Thought and other success movements of a generation before his, movements that, once again, often crossed the divide between the Borderer culture and that of much of the rest of America outside of the educated urban elite. The old ideas did not die but were simply incorporated into new presentations.

*****

Perhaps one of the most famous examples of the ‘only in it for myself’ paradigm is Sammy Glick, the title character in Budd Schulberg’s 1941 novel What Makes Sammy Run? Glick has ambition but no skill but is willing to “steal” the skills of others to get his way. To Glick, it is the result that matters, not the way one gets there or even what one learns along the route. Narrator, Al Manheim, tries to school Sammy on the old secular-liberal idea of what it means to be a successful individual:

“Sammy,” I began wisely, “society isn’t just a bunch of individuals living alongside of each other. As a member of society, man is interdependent. Not independent, Sammy, inter-dependent. Life is too complex for there to be any truth in the old slogan of every man for himself. We share the benefits of social institutions, like take hospitals, the cops and garbage collection. Why, the art of conversation itself is a social invention. We can’t live in this world like a lot of cannibals trying to swallow each other. Learn to give the other fellow a break and we’ll all live longer.”
I felt pretty pleased with myself after I said that because I was convinced that it was one of the most sensible things I had ever said. But I might as well have been talking to a stone wall. In fact that might have been better. At least it couldn’t talk back.
Sammy’s answer was, “If you want to save souls, try China.”[14]

Sammy, the ultimate cynic, shows exactly the other side of the coin of self-reliance: “‘Talent can get you just so far,’” he [Glick] said. “‘Then you got to start using your head’”[15] — and must start using what other people have done. Even thievery does not matter — as long as one is not stupid enough to be caught.

The cynic like Glick can even look to Henry David Thoreau for justification, even if a false one and a purposeful misunderstanding of Thoreau’s purpose: “Law never made me a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.”[16] So why respect laws of any sort?

Though Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” can be misconstrued as primarily anti-state, its real purpose is to justify resistance to an unjust state. The difference comes in an understanding of “what men are prepared for,”[17] as in understanding just what the role of government should be. To Thoreau, an overreaching government is as bad as an overreaching man. The government must depend on the governed, but the governed must be dependable:

The authority of government, even such as I am willing to submit to — for I will cheerfully obey those who know and can do better than I, and in many things even those who neither know nor can do so well — is still an impure one: to be strictly just, it must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it. The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual. Even the Chinese philosopher was wise enough to regard the individual as the basis of the empire. Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. I please myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow men. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which I have also imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.[18]

Instead of being shrunken to the point where it could be drowned in Grover Norquist’s bathtub, the state becomes a respecter and, by implication, a supporter of the individual. The implication is that the state can wither away, but only when the individual makes full use of his or her “higher and independent” power. Those “few” who could live “aloof” from the state, “not meddling with it, nor embraced by it,” can do so because they have learned to respect their neighbors and can live with them without conflict.

Thoreau’s vision melds well with the ideals of individualism in America of both the Borderers and the secular-liberals. However, it has always surprised me that he has never been quite so popular with the people of the interior as with the secular-liberals. The reason probably has to do not with his views on government but with those on nature. Walden can seem extremely naive, though still gorgeous and energizing, to those who grow up without the removal from the land that industrialization has forced on a growing percentage of people everywhere.

*****

At one point late in What Makes Sammy Run?, Manheim tries to explain his feelings about Glick to a woman:

I told her a little of how balled up I felt inside because there were times when I wanted to say what I had to say as honestly as possible, and times when I felt as ambitious as Sammy without being able to free myself from the sense of relationship with everybody else in the world, which made it difficult to do anything which I thought might cause them pain.[19]

Sammy has no such constraints. As Manheim explains,

I saw Sammy Glick on a battlefield where every soldier was his own cause, his own army and his own flag, and I realized that I had singled him out not because he had been born into the world any more selfish, ruthless and cruel than anybody else, even though he had become all three, but because in the midst of a war that was selfish, ruthless and cruel Sammy was proving himself the fittest, the fiercest and the fastest.[20]

This is the perversion of individualism that scared — and still scares — so many Americans of the secular-liberal tradition, people who see the individual as best residing within the constraints of society. What was becoming more and more apparent over the course of America’s cultural development, however, was that it was the Glicks, for the most part, who were getting ahead.

American individualism, though it can be scarily like the completely amoral selfishness of Schulberg’s imagination, has a great deal more to it — and a great deal more restraint. Though they can talk a good Glick/Ayn Rand line, most followers of the cult of individualism temper their beliefs through strong allegiances to family and friends — and, in the “red state” culture, through their commitment to religion. The secular-liberals, who do not view either family or religion as central elements to public (as opposed to personal) action, often fall into the trap of seeing this as corruption and bias rather than as personal responsibility and faith, the very building blocks, to many American minds, of real and successful community.

The rural American vision of individualism starts within each of them, with faith in the person and in God. It next moves, in a spreading circle, to family, to friends, and only then to others in the broad realm of human interaction. If each person acted responsibly, by these lights (and just as Thoreau argues), there would be little need for government — each individual having a tempering effect on those they interact with. The secular-liberal vision starts in a different place, with a structured base created and maintained by the group. Once responsibilities to it are met, the individual is free to — is encouraged to — act on his or her own to whatever ends seem appropriate, as long as those ends do not threaten or compromise the group structure. Here again we see Thoreau, but from another perspective. The secular-liberal sees a duty to resist the state when it becomes corrupt, while the Borderer seeks to avoid it, to move away from it, as has been done since first arrival in America, if not before.

In these ways and others, these two visions are fundamentally different, even if they do overlap a great deal of the time or end up looking the same — even if the word used to describe them is the same. In fact, it is that similarity that causes much of the problem between those descended from the Scots-Irish Calvinist culture and those from the secular-liberal culture: Though the words are the same, the meanings are not, so the two cultures end up speaking at cross-purposes, neither one able, at the end of the day, to understand how the other half lives.

[1] Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960), 229.

[2] John G. Cawelti, Apostles of the Self-Made Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), 14.

[3] Cawelti, Apostles of the Self-Made Man, 3.

[4] Frances Milton Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1901), 281.

[5] Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans, 160–161.

[6] Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964), 181.

[7] Timothy Walker, “The Defense of Mechanical Philosophy,” North American Review 33, no. 72 (July 1831): 122.

[8] Walker, “The Defense of Mechanical Philosophy,” 123.

[9] Walker, “The Defense of Mechanical Philosophy,” 126.

[10] Walker, “The Defense of Mechanical Philosophy,” 135.

[11] Walker, “The Defense of Mechanical Philosophy,” 136.

[12] Arthur Mann, “From Immigration to Acculturation,” in Luther Luedthe, ed. Making America: The Society and Culture of the United States (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 69.

[13] Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking (New York: Fawcett Crest, 1952), 13.

[14] Budd Schulberg, What Makes Sammy Run? (New York: Random House Modern Library, 1952), 9–10.

[15] Schulberg, What Makes Sammy Run?, 151.

[16] Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience,” http://www.gutenberg.org/files/71/71-h/71-h.htm.

[17] Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience.”

[18] Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience.”

[19] Schulberg, What Makes Sammy Run?, 167.

[20] Schulberg, What Makes Sammy Run?, 249.