Augustine Birrell (essay date, 1894)
SOURCE: "Americanisms and Briticisms," in The Collected Essays & Addresses of the Rt. Hon. Augustine Birrell 1880-1920, Vol. Three, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1923, pp. 168-73.
[In the following review of Americanisms and Briticisms, Birrell lambastes what he sees as Matthews's project to erect a barrier of nationalism between national literatures.]
Messrs. Harper Bros., of New York, have lately printed and published, and Mr. Brander Matthews has written, the prettiest possible little book, called Americanisms and Briticisms, with other Essays on other Isms. To slip it into your pocket when first you see it is an almost irresistible impulse, and yet—would you believe it?—this pretty little book is in reality a bomb, intended to go off and damage British authors by preventing them from being so much as quoted in the States. Mr. Brander Matthews, however, is so obviously a good-natured man, and his little fit of the spleen is so evidently of a passing character, that it is really not otherwise than agreeable to handle his bombshell gently and to inquire how it could possibly come about that the children of one family should ever be invited to fall out and strive and fight over their little books and papers.
It is easy to accede something to Mr. Matthews. Englishmen are often provoking, and not infrequently insolent. The airs they give themselves are ridiculous, but nobody really minds them in these moods; and, per contra, Americans are not easily laughed out of a good conceit of themselves, and have been known to be as disagreeable as they could.
To try to make "an international affair" over the "u" in honour and the second "1" in traveller is surely a task beneath the dignity of anyone who does not live by penning paragraphs for the evening papers, yet this is very much what Mr. Matthews attempts to do in this pleasingly-bound little volume. It is rank McKinleyism from one end to the other. "Every nation," says he, "ought to be able to supply its own second-rate books, and to borrow from abroad only the best the foreigner has to offer it." What invidious distinctions! Who is to prepare the classification? I don't understand this Tariff at all. If anything of the kind were true, which it is not, I should have said it was just the other way, and that a nation, if it really were one, would best foster its traditions and maintain its vitality by consuming its own first-rate books—its Shakespeares and Bacons, its Taylors and Miltons, its Drydens and Gibbons, its Wordsworths and Tennysons—whilst it might very well be glad to vary the scene a little by borrowing from abroad less vitalising but none the less agreeable wares.
But the whole notion is preposterous. In Fish and Potatoes a ring is possible, but hardly in Ideas. What is the good of being educated and laboriously acquiring foreign tongues and lingoes—getting to know, for instance, what a "freight" train is and what a bobolink—if I am to be prevented by a diseased patriotism from reading whatever I choose in any language I can? Mr. Matthews' wrath, or his seeming wrath—for it is impossible to suppose that he is really angry—grows redder as he proceeds. "It cannot," he exclaims, "be said too often or too emphatically that the British are foreigners, and their ideals in life, in literature, in politics, in taste, in art" (why not add "in victuals and drink"?) "are not our ideals."
What rant this is! Mr. Matthews, however frequently and loudly he repeats himself, cannot unchain the canons of taste and compel them to be domiciled exclusively in America; nor can he hope to persuade the more intelligent of his countrymen to sail to the devil in an ark of their own sole...
(The entire section is 1548 words.)