Story type: Essay
There used to be a notion going round that it would be a good thing for people if they were more “self-centred.” Perhaps there was talk of adding a course to the college curriculum, in addition to that for training the all-competent “journalist,” for the self-centring of the young. To apply the term to a man or woman was considered highly complimentary. The advisers of this state of mind probably meant to suggest a desirable equilibrium and mental balance; but the actual effect of the self-centred training is illustrated by a story told of Thomas H. Benton, who had been described as an egotist by some of the newspapers. Meeting Colonel Frank Blair one day, he said: “Colonel Blair, I see that the newspapers call me an egotist. I wish you would tell me frankly, as a friend, if you think the charge is true.” “It is a very direct question, Mr. Benton,” replied Colonel Blair, “but if you want my honest opinion, I am compelled to say that I think there is some foundation for the charge.” “Well, sir,” said Mr. Benton, throwing his head back and his chest forward, “the difference between me and these little fellows is that I have an EGO!” Mr. Benton was an interesting man, and it is a fair consideration if a certain amount of egotism does not add to the interest of any character, but at the same time the self-centred conditions shut a person off from one of the chief enjoyments to be got out of this world, namely, a recognition of what is admirable in others in a toleration of peculiarities. It is odd, almost amusing, to note how in this country people of one section apply their local standards to the judgment of people in other sections, very much as an Englishman uses his insular yardstick to measure all the rest of the world. It never seems to occur to people in one locality that the manners and speech of those of another may be just as admirable as their own, and they get a good deal of discomfort out of their intercourse with strangers by reason of their inability to adapt themselves to any ways not their own. It helps greatly to make this country interesting that nearly every State has its peculiarities, and that the inhabitants of different sections differ in manner and speech. But next to an interesting person in social value, is an agreeable one, and it would add vastly to the agreeableness of life if our widely spread provinces were not so self-centred in their notion that their own way is the best, to the degree that they criticise any deviation from it as an eccentricity. It would be a very nice world in these United States if we could all devote ourselves to finding out in communities what is likable rather than what is opposed to our experience; that is, in trying to adapt ourselves to others rather than insisting that our own standard should measure our opinion and our enjoyment of them.
When the Kentuckian describes a man as a “high-toned gentleman” he means exactly the same that a Bostonian means when, he says that a man is a “very good fellow,” only the men described have a different culture, a different personal flavor; and it is fortunate that the Kentuckian is not like the Bostonian, for each has a quality that makes intercourse with him pleasant. In the South many people think they have said a severe thing when they say that a person or manner is thoroughly Yankee; and many New Englanders intend to express a considerable lack in what is essential when they say of men and women that they are very Southern. When the Yankee is produced he may turn out a cosmopolitan person of the most interesting and agreeable sort; and the Southerner may have traits and peculiarities, growing out of climate and social life unlike the New England, which are altogether charming. We talked once with a Western man of considerable age and experience who had the placid mind that is sometimes, and may more and more become, the characteristic of those who live in flat countries of illimitable horizons, who said that New Yorkers, State and city, all had an assertive sort of smartness that was very disagreeable to him. And a lady of New York (a city whose dialect the novelists are beginning to satirize) was much disturbed by the flatness of speech prevailing in Chicago, and thought something should be done in the public schools to correct the pronunciation of English. There doubtless should be a common standard of distinct, rounded, melodious pronunciation, as there is of good breeding, and it is quite as important to cultivate the voice in speaking as in singing, but the people of the United States let themselves be immensely irritated by local differences and want of toleration of sectional peculiarities. The truth is that the agreeable people are pretty evenly distributed over the country, and one’s enjoyment of them is heightened not only by their differences of manner, but by the different, ways in which they look at life, unless he insists upon applying everywhere the yardstick of his own locality. If the Boston woman sets her eyeglasses at a critical angle towards the ‘laisser faire’ flow of social amenity in New Orleans, and the New Orleans woman seeks out only the prim and conventional in Boston, each may miss the opportunity to supplement her life by something wanting and desirable in it, to be gained by the exercise of more openness of mind and toleration. To some people Yankee thrift is disagreeable; to others, Southern shiftlessness is intolerable. To some travelers the negro of the South, with his tropical nature, his capacity for picturesque attitudes, his abundant trust in Providence, is an element of restfulness; and if the chief object of life is happiness, the traveler may take a useful hint from the race whose utmost desire, in a fit climate, would be fully satisfied by a shirt and a banana-tree. But to another traveler the dusky, careless race is a continual affront.
If a person is born with an “Ego,” and gets the most enjoyment out of the world by trying to make it revolve about himself, and cannot make-allowances for differences, we have nothing to say except to express pity for such a self-centred condition; which shuts him out of the never-failing pleasure there is in entering into and understanding with sympathy the almost infinite variety in American life.