Story type: Essay
What we want is repose. We take infinite trouble and go to the ends of the world to get it. That is what makes us all so restless. If we could only find a spot where we could sit down, content to let the world go by, away from the Sunday newspapers and the chronicles of an uneasy society, we think we should be happy. Perhaps such a place is Coronado Beach –that semi-tropical flower-garden by the sea. Perhaps another is the Timeo Terrace at Taormina. There, without moving, one has the most exquisite sea and shore far below him, so far that he has the feeling of domination without effort; the most picturesque crags and castle peaks; he has all classic legend under his eye without the trouble of reading, and mediaeval romance as well; ruins from the time of Theocritus to Freeman, with no responsibility of describing them; and one of the loveliest and most majestic of snow mountains, never twice the same in light and shade, entirely revealed and satisfactory from base to summit, with no self or otherwise imposed duty of climbing it. Here are most of the elements of peace and calm spirit. And the town itself is quite dead, utterly exhausted after a turbulent struggle of twenty-five hundred years, its poor inhabitants living along only from habit. The only new things in it–the two caravansaries of the traveler–are a hotel and a cemetery. One might end his days here in serene retrospection, and more cheaply than in other places of fewer attractions, for it is all Past and no Future. Probably, therefore, it would not suit the American, whose imagination does not work so easily backward as forward, and who prefers to build his own nest rather than settle in anybody else’s rookery. Perhaps the American deceives himself when he says he wants repose; what he wants is perpetual activity and change; his peace of mind is postponed until he can get it in his own way. It is in feeling that he is a part of growth and not of decay. Foreigners are fond of writing essays upon American traits and characteristics. They touch mostly on surface indications. What really distinguishes the American from all others–for all peoples like more or less to roam, and the English of all others are globe-trotters–is not so much his restlessness as his entire accord with the spirit of “go-ahead,” the result of his absolute breaking with the Past. He can repose only in the midst of intense activity. He can sit down quietly in a town that is growing rapidly; but if it stands still, he is impelled to move his rocking-chair to one more lively. He wants the world to move, and to move unencumbered; and Europe seems to him to carry too much baggage. The American is simply the most modern of men, one who has thrown away the impedimenta of tradition. The world never saw such a spectacle before, so vast a territory informed with one uniform spirit of energy and progress, and people tumbling into it from all the world, eager for the fair field and free opportunity. The American delights in it; in Europe he misses the swing and “go” of the new life.
This large explanation may not account for the summer restlessness that overtakes nearly everybody. We are the annual victims of the delusion that there exists somewhere the ideal spot where manners are simple, and milk is pure, and lodging is cheap, where we shall fall at once into content. We never do. For content consists not in having all we want, nor, in not wanting everything, nor in being unable to get what we want, but in not wanting that we can get. In our summer flittings we carry our wants with us to places where they cannot be gratified. A few people have discovered that repose can be had at home, but this discovery is too unfashionable to find favor; we have no rest except in moving about. Looked at superficially, it seems curious that the American is, as a rule, the only person who does not emigrate. The fact is that he can go nowhere else where life is so uneasy, and where, consequently, he would have so little of his sort of repose. To put him in another country would be like putting a nineteenth-century man back into the eighteenth century. The American wants to be at the head of the procession (as he fancies he is), where he can hear the band play, and be the first to see the fireworks of the new era. He thinks that he occupies an advanced station of observation, from which his telescope can sweep the horizon for anything new. And with some reason he thinks so; for not seldom he takes up a foreign idea and tires of it before it is current elsewhere. More than one great writer of England had his first popular recognition in America. Even this season the Saturday Review is struggling with Ibsen, while Boston, having had that disease, has probably gone on to some other fad.
Far be it from us to praise the American for his lack of repose; it is enough to attempt to account for it. But from the social, or rather society, point of view, the subject has a disquieting aspect. If the American young man and young woman get it into their heads that repose, especially of manner, is the correct thing, they will go in for it in a way to astonish the world. The late cultivation of idiocy by the American dude was unique. He carried it to an extreme impossible to the youth of any nation less “gifted.” And if the American girl goes in seriously for “repose,” she will be able to give odds to any modern languidity or to any ancient marble. If what is wanted in society is cold hauteur and languid superciliousness or lofty immobility, we are confident that with a little practice she can sit stiller, and look more impassive, and move with less motion, than any other created woman. We have that confidence in her ability and adaptability. It is a question whether it is worth while to do this; to sacrifice the vivacity and charm native to her, and the natural impulsiveness and generous gift of herself which belong to a new race in a new land, which is walking always towards the sunrise.
In fine, although so much is said of the American lack of repose, is it not best for the American to be content to be himself, and let the critics adapt themselves or not, as they choose, to a new phenomenon?
Let us stick a philosophic name to it, and call it repose in activity. The American might take the candid advice given by one friend to another, who complained that it was so difficult to get into the right frame of mind. “The best thing you can do,” he said, “is to frame your mind and hang it up.”