6.14.2010

The Typical American

It seems that foreign observers often have keener insights about the fundamental American nature and sense-of-life than do Americans themselves.  The following was written in 1929 by British historian B. H. Liddell Hart, in the preface to his biography, "Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American."  In the years after the Great War, Hart was attempting to learn historical lessons to avoid the horrific and useless mass casualties of deadlocked trench warfare, and in the process, seemingly developed a healthy admiration for the man and his country:
This study of Sherman is an attempt to portray the working of a man's mind, not merely of a man's limbs and muscles encased in uniform clothing.  The man is William Tecumseh Sherman who, by the general recognition of all who met him, was the most original genius of the American Civil War.  And who, in the same breath, is often described as "the typical American."  To reconcile the apparent contradiction, of the exceptional and the general, is a problem which in itself invites study and excites the creative imagination.  It is curious that the attempt at a solution has been neglected for so long.  For if this man was both so original in mind and so characteristically American, that combination—which many in Europe would say was paradoxical, if not improbable—may help to illumine our understanding not only of the last seventy years but of the tendencies still in the womb of fate.

. . .this study of Sherman may serve to give the European reader a clue to the better understanding of the American character as it has evolved from its "prototype," and to give the American reader an opportunity of testing, by the acid of Sherman, the purity of the present product and how far the reality corresponds with the ideal set up by that most realistic of idealists.
If that doesn't get you fired up to continue reading the book, I don't know what would.

Yet, at the same time, I can't help but think about what Liddell Hart—transported 80 years into the future—might have to say about how the "purity of the present product" in America stands up to the acid test.

2 comments:

Brian Fritts said...

I'm glad you posted that. I read his Sherman biography several years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it.

What I found most interesting was Sherman's insight into the cultural psychology of the South. His time in the South really allowed him to understand that their will to fight had to be utterly broken. I also enjoyed some of the descriptions of his time in California.

It was a great book.

Jenn Casey said...

I'm definitely going to get hold of this book. Thanks for the recommendation!