Hating America: A History » Chapter 1-A Naturally Degenerate Land
A NATURALLY DEGENERATE LAND
America was a land before it was a society or country. A strange and mysterious place, virtually the first entirely new territory Europe discovered since starting its own modern civilization. The experience might have been the closest in history to finding another planet with alien life forms. Understanding what went on in this strange locale would always be difficult enough for Europeans despite the fact that their culture would be the biggest influence on the place. Comprehension would be far more so for those from societies having even less in common with the United States.
Certainly, it seemed reasonable for people to expect that the climate, soil, and other physical features in such a thoroughly distinctive place would make for a very different type of human being and social order. The very fact that Europeans knew that the new world they found populated with Native Americans was technologically behind them and considered it to be spiritually inferior as well made it easy to conclude that this relative backwardness had been inevitable. Obviously, too, the idea that America was inferior had a great appeal for Europeans since this validated the superiority of themselves and their way of life.
Perhaps America was doomed and destined to be always inferior. If so, any effort to implant civilization there would fail or, even worse, produce a monstrous hybrid, a Frankenstein’s monster, that some day would menace its creators. Even those who accepted the basic principles on which the United States was ostensibly based often strongly rejected the way they were implemented there.
Many themes of later anti-Americanism began to appear from this very start. A key, though often subtle, element would be the view of America as a separate civilization, at first by Europe and later from other parts of the world of the world as well. Though descended from Europe it was also different, an experiment with unique features. Long before America was a power on the world scene, it had power as an example, a role model to be exalted or despised.
Thus, while some Europeans as early as the eighteenth century would think America offered the vision of a better future, others would consider it a horrifying caricature of all that was good in their own society. The debate between these two standpoints, with many variations in each camp, would continue for centuries, shifting emphasis over time but maintaining the same basic themes down to the present. Such arguments, and the divisions between pro- or anti-American sentiments, were also always related to local political or philosophical conflicts.
This dispute’s first round took place in the eighteenth century as part of a broader debate over the proper form of society. Was change a good thing or something better to avoid or limit? Would such new forces as a faster pace of life, lower class barriers, democracy, and a mass rather than elite culture, advance or destroy civilized life? For better or worse, America was seen as a test case of these and other propositions.
Advocates of material progress, like the mercantilists, saw the development of America with its vast natural resources as a remarkable opportunity to enhance Europe’s wealth. By providing raw materials and furnishing markets, colonies there would furnish the mother country with endless riches, though obviously only as long as they remained under European control. It was in this context that Anne-Robert Jacques Turgot, the eighteenth-century French minister of finance and advocate of economic development, called America the “hope of the human race.”
But their rivals, the physiocrats, asked why Europeans should become involved in this far-off land instead of focusing on preserving their way of life at home, with an emphasis on agriculture rather than commerce or industry. They feared the coming of a new type of society whose shape had not yet even become clear. But they already felt that American products or ideas would undermine traditional life. It was a sentiment perhaps best put into words later by the romantic Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi, who warned in 1820, America was a danger because it would destroy Europe’s “supremely poetic” “other world” of “pleasant dreams” and “beautiful imaginings” with a soulless, low-quality, hard-edged society.
America similarly became a test case in the debate over the nature of human beings themselves. Was America’s newness a sign of unspoiled innocence or a rawness that would make it reject higher civilization? If everything good was already created by tradition, if European society was already the peak of achievement, starting afresh was a dangerous and doomed enterprise. To the majority, the new land was simply backward, but a new wave of thinkers—whose agenda was also the renewal of Europe—argued that the very lack of deep-seated traditions and an established structure would let America create a successful society.
One of the American experiment’s most passionate and articulate proponents was Michel- Guillaume-Jean Crèvecoeur , a Frenchman who fought in his country’s losing war against Britain and then became a farmer in upstate New York in 1765. When the United States gained independence two decades later, he wrote lyrically that America was, “The most perfect society now existing in the world” because it was so fresh and flexible. It was welding together immigrants from all over Europe “into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great change in the world.” In contrast to Europeans, Americans did not “toil, starve, and bleed” on behalf of princes but for their own benefit under leaders they freely chose. Europe would learn new ways of living and governance from this people’s achievements.
Crevecoeur was in the minority. Most members of Europe’s governing and intellectual elite believed that civilization was a delicate matter. They feared any deviation from the existing order–a stable class system based on a monarch’s and an aristocracy’s setting of standards–would be a catastrophic failure. From this perspective would arise the conservative version of anti-Americanism.
That is not to say, however, that all advocates of change in Europe liked the American experiment. Many of those had their own vision of society to propose as better and more worthy of global imitation than what the United States offered. While conservatives disdained America’s innovations as too extreme, adherents of the romantic cultural movement and radical political ideas, which spread at the eighteenth century’s end, found them to be too limited.
Both schools would also have much in common, sometimes combining in strange and unexpected ways. When the United States was just a few years old, they were already agreeing to decry it as too materialistic and middle class. Its version of democracy was directionless, amplifying the worst impulses of the masses rather than the leadership of a cultured superior or intellectual elite. Radicals and conservatives certainly concurred that such a society would be a disaster if it was to be the model for their own countries or the world.
But the very first debate on America of all, in the eighteenth century and long before the United States even existed was over whether civilization was possible there at all. The initial thought of eighteenth-century European science, then in its infancy and much taken by ideas of innate and permanent characteristics, was that something “degenerate” about North America’s environment made it innately inferior. This degeneracy theory would be discredited and eventually forgotten yet its basic concept continued to form the basis, a subbasement in effect, for the nagging proposition that the United States was certainly different and somehow inevitably wrong, bad, or a lesser place altogether.
European civilization’s striking discovery that it was more technologically advanced and the belief that it was more spiritually and culturally so than Americas’ native inhabitants had to be explained. Why were the people of this little-known land relatively backward? Were they cursed by the lack of the proper religion, some racial handicap, or an environmental deficiency? Even if one recognized the advanced civilizations of the Aztecs and Incas in South America why was there nothing remotely equal in the north?
The resulting theory would predict that the same plight of backwardness was a powerful force that could strike white Europeans who tried to settle America. This was no abstract or marginal debate. It involved Europe’s best minds, the leading naturalists, scientists and philosophers of the day. Few of those who insisted that America was intrinsically inferior to Europe ever visited there. Like many later anti-Americans, their theories were based on ignorance and misinformation or a distortion of facts designed to prove some political standpoint, philosophical concept or scientific theory.
These claims could also be based on some apparently self-evident observations. Why, European thinkers asked, was the American continent so sparsely populated? Didn’t this imply it lacked the essential requirements for human life? Even if America could eventually be civilized, this task just beginning would require, as it had in Europe, countless generations to achieve. Moreover, they added, in Europe nature was fairly benign and assisted man, while in America such features as hurricanes, floods, lightning storms, poisonous snakes, deadly insects, and epidemic diseases were a wild force which would have to be conquered with great difficulty.
The issue of climate obsessed the Europeans, especially since they heard most about the blizzards of frosty New England, frigid French Canada and the humid south. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with no air conditioning or effective central heating, people were the pawns of weather. The food one ate, health or infirmity, wealth or poverty all depended on the climate. Extremes of hot or cold were said to create unstable people and conditions inimical to progress.
Equally, most Europeans considered the taming of nature to be the basis of civilization. The gardens of England and France were well-ordered affairs in which flowers, waterfalls, and trees were made to march in discipline. Wild nature meant wild men; a disorderly environment engendered a lawless and backward society. The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau might see Native Americans as exemplars of the “noble savage” who enjoyed freedom without the burdens of an oppressive social structure. But most of his contemporaries were convinced that they were only savages plain and simple.
And how could their environment permit anything else? For either it made civilization impossible or, at best, it might take many centuries to wrest a decent society from the hostile wilderness. European thinking leaned toward the view that success was impossible. In his noted 1748 work, The Spirit of the Law, the French philosopher Charles de Montesquieu said that the “temper of the mind” and “passions of the heart” are prisoners to climate. In cooler ones, such as in Northern Europe, people were more vigorous, possessing additional strength, courage, and frankness while being less prone to suspicion. But he also warned that a wilderness that had remained largely uninhabited must have a dangerous climate, perhaps fatal to any colonists who went there. Taming this hostile soil and climate would require a constant, probably losing battle.
Most of the ammunition for the early anti-Americans came from another Frenchman, Georges Louis LeClerc, the Count de Buffon. Although now largely forgotten, Buffon was considered to be the greatest biologist and naturalist of his time. His works were widely read and quoted. Born in 1707 into a family of minor officials in a provincial town, he was at first an indifferent student of law and later of mathematics at the University of Angers. Leaving school, he embarked on extensive travels throughout Europe.
On returning to France in 1732, however, Buffon become both serious and ambitious. Ironically, as a social-climbing, innovative, aggressive self-promoter, Buffon seemed to embody the kind of figure who two centuries later would be the French intellectuals’ negative stereotype of an American. Indeed, Buffon was such a good politician that he even survived the French Revolution with his head intact, no mean feat for a man who became a royal official and aristocrat.
Buffon’s success began when he started translating into French works by the British scientist Isaac Newton and others. He networked with the aristocracy until his contacts brought him to the favorable attention of King Louis XV. As a result, in 1739, Buffon was elected to the prestigious Academy of Sciences and became director of the Royal Botanical Garden, making him officially the country’s top expert on nature. He was a colorful figure known for fancy clothes (his lace cuffs were famous) and the pursuit of women, money and power.
Despite cultivating a superb image, however, he was not a very good scientist. Hhis theories and factual statements were often wrong, not surprising since he rarely did experiments. As an excuse, Buffon claimed that focusing too much on factual details would make it harder to understand the whole, an approach that would characterize the critique of America made by many future French intellectuals.
Buffon’s main work was a multi-volume natural history intended to summarize all human knowledge about geology, zoology, and botany. Each known animal, for example, was described in great detail. When the first three volumes were finally published in 1749 they were translated into most European languages. Buffon became an international celebrity. In honor of his accomplishments, the king made him a count in 1771.
Aside from classifying animals, vegetables, and minerals, Buffon also divided humanity into different subgroups along racial lines. All people, he believed, had originated in a single species but had been modified by the climate, diet, and physical conditions in which they lived. America’s environment was so hostile that adaptation there was the opposite of growth, it was degeneration. America would remain backward because its environment was so hostile as to make civilization there virtually impossible.
Buffon, who never visited America, insisted that nature there was, “Much less varied and…strong” than in Europe. Ignorant of such impressive American animals as the buffalo and grizzly bear, Buffon claimed that the biggest American animals were “four, six, eight, and ten times” smaller than those of Europe or Africa. There was nothing to compare to the hippopotamus, elephant, or giraffe. Even if the same animal could be found in both the old and new worlds—like the wolf and elk–the former version was always better. For example, the American puma was “smaller, weaker, and more cowardly than the real lion.”
The most impressive proof of America’s innate degeneracy, Buffon claimed, was that “all the animals which have been transported from Europe to America–like the horse, ass, sheep, goat, hog, etc–have become smaller.” What went for animals also applied to people. The Native American “is feeble and small in his organs of generation; he has neither body hair nor beard nor ardor for his female; although swifter than the European because he is better accustomed to running, he is, on the other hand, less strong in body; he is also less sensitive, and yet more timid and more cowardly; he has no vivacity, no activity of mind….” In sum, using phrases like those applied by anti-Americans two centuries later to the people of the United States, he concluded, “Their heart is frozen, their society cold, their empire cruel.”
What caused this degeneration? Buffon thought it due to the New World’s being both too cold and humid. Without ever inhaling a breath in America, he felt confident in concluding that its air and earth were permeated with “moist and poisonous vapors” which created a “cold mass” unable to give proper nourishment except to snakes and insects.
This pessimistic belief was widely accepted throughout Europe. Among the many who echoed such views was the great French philosopher Voltaire who said that the American climate and environment was so inimical to human life that it made no sense for France to fight to obtain “a few acres of snow” there. Prospective immigrants, mostly from the poorer classes, either did not hear or ignored such claims and went to America anyway.
Adding grist to the argument, though, was the work done by Peter Kalm, a scientist sent by the Royal Swedish Academy on a three-year study tour of America in 1748. In contrast to Buffin, Kalm was a meticulous scientist who, for example, recorded daily temperature readings in Philadelphia over a four-month period in 1749. But his analysis was also colored by naivety, he believed reports that rattlesnakes caught squirrels by hypnotizing them, and bias, especially against German immigrants he met there.
In his book on America, Kalm claimed that cattle brought from England became smaller. Though he acknowledged that many of the settlers were robust, he also said they had shorter life spans than Europeans, women ceased having children earlier, and everyone was weakened by the constantly changing weather. America’s climate, Kalm, concluded, inevitably made people there disease-ridden and beset by aggressive insects. When Kalm’s book was reviewed in Europe, like other works of the time, his most negative remarks about America were highlighted.
But next to Buffon, the greatest eighteenth-century popularizer of anti-American thinking was Cornelius De Pauw. Born in Holland in 1739 he spent most of his life in Germany at the court of the Prussian king in Berlin. Somehow, De Pauw, who never visited America, became Europe’s leading expert on that land following publication of his book, Philosophical Research on the Americans, in 1768. It was a big hit in both Germany and France.
Like many later anti-Americans, he had a hidden agenda. DePauw worked for the Prussian ruler King Frederick II who launched a systematic anti-American campaign. Thus, Prussia became the world’s first state sponsor of anti-Americanism, based on its regime’s interests. Since Prussia had no colonies in the Americas that region must be made to seem a worthless distraction and even dangerous to discourage growing German emigration to America, where they would become British subjects and enrich that rival country.
According to De Pauw, Europe’s discovery of America was the most disastrous event in the history of civilization. Useful European products—like wheat, clothing and wine—were shipped off to the colonies in return only for useless luxuries like gold and tobacco. Not only were animals in America smaller than in Europe, he explained, they were “badly formed.” Those brought over from Europe became “stunted; their height shrank and their instinct and character were diminished by half.” Indeed, everything in America was “either degenerate or monstrous.” The natives were cowardly and impotent. “In a fight the weakest European could crush them with ease.” Women quickly became infertile and their children, despite an early precociousness, lost all interest and ability to learn.
Initiating another key anti-American theme of later times, De Pauw was the first European to insist also on the innate inferiority of American culture. In 1776, on the verge of the American revolution, De Pauw wrote another book explaining that there was not a single American philosopher, doctor, physicist or scholar of note. He described Americans as stupid, indolent, lazy, drunken, physically weak and therefore—not surprisingly—incapable of making progress.
In similar terms, Abbe Guillaume Thomas Francois Raynal, a Jesuit priest, teacher, economist, and philosopher, was the key person setting the tone for French thinking about America. His history of the Western hemisphere appeared in the 1770s and eventually went through twenty authorized editions and another twenty pirated ones. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson read it with horror.
“Nature,” explained Raynal, “seems to have strangely neglected the New World.” English settlers in America “visibly degenerated” in their new environment. They were less strong and less courage, but also incapable of prolonged thought. America failed to produce a single good poet, mathematician or any superior person in art or science whatsoever. Granted, he explained, Americans were precocious but then they soon slowed down and fell far behind their European counterparts.
In addition to all this, Raynal could also be called the first leftist anti-American. The European conquest of America had brought death, disease, slavery, and destruction to the innocent natives there, he wrote. Since America was the child of such evil imperialism, Raynal insisted, nothing good could come of it.
Degeneration theory formed the bedrock of German as well as French intellectual views about America. Such ideas became so predominant in Germany as to be repeated by that country’s four greatest philosophers of the era. All agreed that America was fatally cursed. Immanuel Kant wrote in 1775 that Americans are “a not yet properly formed (or half degenerated) sub-race” with a “frigidity and insensibility of temperament.” Climate made these people, “Too weak for hard work, too indifferent to pursue anything carefully, incapable of all culture, in fact lower even than the Negro.”
Kant’s colleague, G.W.F. Hegel, like many later ideologues, had to dismiss America because it did not fit into the simplistic linear model he constructed for the development of states and civilizations. Rather than revise his categories, he had to distort the American reality to prove them. In the 1820s, Hegel argued that civilization could only develop in temperate climates whereas in North America surviving the “glowing rays of the sun” and “icy frost” took most of people’s energy. As a result, the New World’s animals were smaller, weaker and more cowardly; their meat was neither tasty nor nourishing; and the birds had unpleasant voices. America lacked such basic requirements of civilization as the presence of iron or the horse.
Hegel combined the degeneration theory with the newer view of America as a failed society. The United States was held back because it had too much geography and not enough history to attain the population concentrations and traditions necessary for real civilization. So far, it had produced nothing original and was of no real interest for Europeans. There was little room in his worldview for a workable democracy which he thought trespassed on two of his main values by putting individualism ahead of community and weakening the state for the sake of private property.
A third influential German philosopher, Friedrich von Schlegel, wrote of America in 1828 that “many of the noblest and most beautiful species of animals did not exist there originally and others were found most unseemly in form and most degenerate in nature.” And Arthur Schopenhauer claimed in 1859 that the inferiority of American mammals went hand-in-hand with the country’s ignorance, conceit, brutal vulgarity, and idiotic veneration of women.
Even in England, which had more experience than any other European country with what would become the United States, similar thinking prevailed. The leading American expert there during the first years of U.S. independence was William Robertson, a historian, Presbyterian minister, and politician who, in his History of America published in 1777, repeated all the familiar arguments about the cold climate, impoverished nature, “rude and indolent people,” and inferior animals. The climate which had “stunted the growth and enfeebled the spirits of its native animals proved pernicious to such as have migrated into it voluntarily.” His book, too, became a huge success and was translated into many languages.
As one can well imagine, these prejudices drove Americans crazy. Knowing their experience totally refuted such claims, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson felt angry and frustrated in trying to prove their inevitable inferiority was a myth, especially when this problem became a vital issue during their independence struggle. If America was ever to be a country instead of a colony ruled by Britain, it had to convince other Europeans to give financial and military help by showing that a viable state and economy could be created in the North American wilderness. This is why they so passionately welcomed Europeans like the Marquis de Lafayette or Alexis de Tocqueville who saw America not as the permanent victim of its past but as the wave of the future.
In 1755, Franklin published a work showing that America’s population was thriving not decaying. For example, he pointed out that there were twice as many marriages in America than in Europe, each resulting in eight births compared to four in Europe, and doubling of the population every 20 years. As the patriots strove to persuade Europe to back independence for the United States, they sent Franklin to Paris as ambassador to mobilize support.
At a banquet he held at his home there in February 1778, Franklin asked all the guests to stand against a wall in order to see who had really “degenerated.” All of the eighteen Americans were taller than the eighteen Europeans there. And, as the most delicious conceivable irony, the shortest of them all—“a mere shrimp” in Franklin’s words—was Raynal himself, the main champion of the claim that Europeans were physically superior!
Jefferson was equally obsessed with proving anti-Americanism wrong. He wrote a book, Notes on the State of Virginia in part to disprove the degeneracy concept. Jefferson compiled records of the weather for information, to prove that America was not so cold and wet and reports of animals that were not so tiny, as detractors had claimed. He pointed out that the American bear was twice as big as its European counterpart and that fossil elephants discovered in America were gigantic. Of fourteen animals common to both continents, he concluded, seven were actually larger in America while seven more were of equal size.” He compiled statistics to demonstrate how rapidly the population grew, disproving the idea that Americans were sickly and relatively infertile.
After the revolution, Jefferson took Franklin’s old job as the American ambassador to France where he continued his predecessor’s efforts to combat anti-American ideas. In 1787, he had the remains of a New Hampshire moose shipped to France and displayed in the lobby of the hotel where he lived to show that American animals were big. In response to Raynal’s claim that there were no distinguished Americans, Jefferson modestly proposed Washington for his military achievements, Franklin as a genius in physics, and David Rittenhouse, a Pennsylvanian who would succeed Franklin as president of the American Philosophical Society, as an astronomer and artist.
Along with Jefferson’s and Franklin’s great efforts, the American victory over Britain in the revolution had some effect in modifying European views. After hearing Franklin describe America’s growth and prosperity, Buffon in 1777 publicly rejected the degeneration theory, conceding, “In a country in which Europeans multiply so readily, where the natives live longer than elsewhere, it is hardly possible that men degenerate….[In] North America, only strong and vigorous men were found, and all accounts agree on this point. .
Even Raynal, impressed by Franklin, admitted that education was spreading in America, children were well brought up, and that Americans had more leisure to develop their intellects than Europeans. Indeed as reflecting his own new uncertainty about the issue, Raynal personally underwrote an essay contest on whether America was a blessing or a curse to mankind.
While after 1783, America was no longer so easily criticized as a formless continent whose climate made it inferior, the degeneracy theory was still repeated by many Europeans. Alongside it, however, new claims arose about the inferiority of the American system and society. The random mixing of different immigrant groups and a democratic system, it was said, undermined any possibility for the development of good manners, fine morals, and high culture.
The revolution’s triumph and the founding of the United States as a republic also encouraged European liberals, who praised America because they wanted to see more freedom and representative government in their own countries. But indeed, as so often was to happen thereafter, institutions and policies that made friends also inspired enemies, especially among conservatives or those soured by the excesses of the French revolution who wanted to blame America as its model. Thus, the creation of the United States as a democratic republic gave birth to the idea that such a system could work elsewhere and thus encouraged those opposing that idea to prove that America was a bad role model.
Thomas Moore, an Irish romantic poet who traveled through America in 1803 and 1804, merged the old and new schools of anti-Americanism in what might have been the first anti-American poems. Despite his Irish nationalism and satires on the British, Moore was horrified at a new society he saw as miserly, quarrelsome, and uncouth. “The rude familiarity of the lower orders” and low level of society might be acceptable if they came from a new and inexperienced people. Instead, the fact that Americans were not merely passing through a naively youthful stage but were already full of a vice and corruption that destroyed any hope that the country would be great in the future.
In a series of poems on America, Moore wrote that a combined degenerate environment of “infertile strife” and a rabble of immigrants created a:
“Half-organized, half-minded race
Of weak barbarians swarming o’er its breast
Like vermin gendered on the lion’s crest.”
Americans were “the motley dregs of every distant clime” who reeked “of anarchy and taint of crime.” Like anti-Americans of two centuries later, Moore concluded that the United States had no future but was already on the decline, a dying empire.
Coming from the opposite end of the political spectrum, Thomas Hamilton, a British conservative, agreed with the rebellious poet. During his visit in the 1830s he concluded that America was plagued by a wretched climate including extreme temperature changes and emanations from swamps that blighted life. Others spoke of excessive heat, thunder showers, and cold winds which supposedly led to disease far in excess of Europe and made Americans weak and narrow-shouldered. Even Charles Darwin, the great British naturalist, could still suggest in the 1830s that Buffon was largely correct. If fossil evidence showed large animals had once lived there this only proved that any vigor or creative force America once possessed “had lost its power.” Thus, America was an example of evolution heading in the wrong direction.
The greatest influence in preserving the theory of degeneracy into the 1830s, as well as spreading anti-Americanism generally during that era, was a young German-speaking, Hungarian poet named Nikolas Lenau. Famous for his melancholy moods, Lenau said he hoped that going to America would cure him. As a liberal, Lenau had considered the United States to be the beacon of liberty and regarded Europe, caught in the toils of monarchist repression, as a lost cause. This, he claimed, motivated him to emigrate to the United States in 1831.
Instead, the experience banished his political ideals. His first year seemed hopeful but then things started going wrong. Lenau became ill and was injured in a fall from a sled. He never learned much English and lost money on a property he bought in Ohio. With his enthusiasm waning, Lenau poured his anger into letters to friends back home which were later published in a book and also inspired a bestselling 1855 novel by the Austrian Ferdinand Kurnberger. It depicts the travels in America of a gradually disillusioned German poet who finds people there to be egotistical, materialistic, vulgar, and immature braggarts who lack civilization, religion, freedom or equality.
Lenau attributed much of his growing dislike for America to the inferiority of nature there. The idea of degeneration, he concluded, was literally true and he claimed to see it in the moral and mental decline of German immigrants who had lost their energy and even sanity. How could such a fate be avoided in a benighted land where nature “has no feelings or imagination” being itself so monotonous that it destroyed the personalities of those dwelling there.
The absence of songbirds was for Lenau a symbol of this spiritual poverty. Lenau had captured birds in Europe and kept them as pets. But in America, he wrote his brother-in-law, “There are no nightingales, indeed there are no real songbirds at all.” He also could not find, “A courageous dog, a fiery horse, or a man full of passion. Nature is terribly languid….”
This and other themes of Lenau would become staples for the critique of America in later eras. “These Americans,” he wrote, “are shopkeepers with souls that stink towards heaven. They are dead for all spiritual life, completely dead. The nightingale is right when he does not want to come to these louts.”
Sounding like many European leftists and rightists of later generations, Lenau found America to be hopelessly materialistic. Everything was based on the all-mighty dollar and the rational calculation of personal interest rather than some organic connection as in an antique and traditional society. “What we call Fatherland is here merely a property insurance scheme. The American knows nothing, he seeks nothing but money. He has no ideas” and so neither state nor society had any spiritual values.
Lenau returned to Europe “cured…of the chimera of freedom and independence that I had longed for with youthful enthusiasm.” The new world represented not liberty but alienation, power, numbers, and money.
There was, however, one terribly ironic detail of his life that Lenau kept from his readers. He had never intended to emigrate to America but merely went there to invest in property he could lease out. The critic who had castigated America for being in the toils of an avaricious materialism had gone there to cash in for himself.
But it is impossible to overestimate the impact in Europe of Lenau’s vision of America. The lack of nightingales became an international symbol of everything wrong with America. Already the British poet John Keats, who had never been in America and whose chronic illness and early death did not prove the superiority of European climes, had called America “that most hateful” and “monstrous” land because, the author of “Ode to a Nightingale,” complained, it had flowers without scent and birds without song. The 1843 lines of the German poet Hoffmann von Fallersleben also touched on the subject:
”And so no grapes hang from your vine
Nor do your flowers have a scent,
No bird can even sing a line,
And poetry its life is spent.”
But the problem was not just a natural one as,
It is a land with dreams deceptive filled
O’er which the concept freedom, passing by,
Enchanting, lets its shadows flutter down.”
It is striking that such criticism came from Fallersleben, an outspoken political liberal who supported the growing unrest in the various German lands and was eventually deported from Prussia. He had never visited America and knew it only second-hand through friends who corresponded with German immigrants in Texas. He even wrote several songs honoring that state and, unlike Lenau’s approach, refused an offer of land if he emigrated there. But like other rebels and romantics of the day, Lenau dreamed of a very different sort of paradise from the American experiment.
Alongside the new political and cultural complaints—which grew louder throughout the nineteenth century—the idea that the United States was a hopeless enterprise doomed by nature lived on, especially in France. Some French scientists continued to insist that the degeneracy theory was right and that Americans aged faster while horses, dogs, and bulls there showed less vigor and courage than in Europe.
Criticism about America based on its environmental conditions, hinting of the degeneracy, survived well into the twentieth century. In 1929, the Frenchman Re´gis Michaud, who taught French literature for twelve years at U.S. universities and wrote a critical book on America, described, among many other vices, the United States as, “A geographic mass without harmony, a country of contrasts and disparities on a grade scale with a violent climate.”
In 1933, the French diplomat and poet Paul Claudel wrote in his journal, while serving in Washington, that the early American statesman Alexander Hamilton had admitted America’s inferior climate stopped dogs from barking. In fact, this was one of De Pauw’s claims that Hamilton had ridiculed. Shortly thereafter, the liberal British poet W.H. Auden bemoaned the excesses of America’s climate, including vast numbers of insects, snakes, and poison ivy. “The truth is,” he wrote, “Nature never intended human beings to live here and her hostility” forced its original inhabitants to a nomadic existence and continued to plague their successors.
During anti-Americanism’s first epoch, the cause of that country’s inevitable failure was placed on the innately inferior nature of the land. After America’s independence, though, this blame was increasingly transferred to a degraded people who lived in a badly structured society. By the 1830s, fear grew in Europe that ideas embodied in the United States—republicanism, materialism, the leveling of classes, a rejection of aristocratic high culture—would spread back across the Atlantic Ocean.
In the reactionary climate following the French revolution’s turn toward terror and dictatorship, Napoleon’s aggressive wars, and the challenge posed by democratic movements, the Old World’s existing system seemed far more welcome to much of the political and intellectual elite there.
It was thought better by those in the most privileged groups to stick with the status quo of monarchy, high culture, a strong class system, traditional economy, and aristocratic-dominated politics than to make risky changes which threatened their interests and were obviously not going to work. Ironically, many of the anti-democratic ideas developed by the European right at this time would later become staples of the leftist critique of America.
Of course, all peoples like to see their innate superiority asserted and “proven.” Americans themselves would certainly be no exception to this rule. Yet once the United States was established as a self-styled challenge to the European monarchies, anti-Americanism came to serve a specific political function. While anti-Americanism still incorporated aspects of the degeneracy theory, it increasingly focused on the claim that the American democratic experiment was a failure leading to a degraded society and culture. As degeneracy theory declined throughout the nineteenth century, in the new version of anti-Americanism the Americans were still judged uncivilized and degenerate. But now they had no one to blame but themselves for this sorry state of affairs.