John R. Alden: Pioneer America Hutchinson. 30s.
Pioneer America is a survey of the British North American colonies and the United States from 1607, when the London Company established a colony at Jamestown, Virginia, to 1865, when the Civil War ended. Obviously the author has set himself an immense and difficult task; even so, the difficulties recognized, it must be confessed that this book is a disappointment. Other than a few conventional pieties about the hardships confronting colonist and frontiersman, little sense of the real experience, the real problems, drives, and conflicts, the unreal but potent myths of Pioneer Americans is communicated. In retrospect, Pioneer America seems almost a misnomer; this is just an oldfashioned tale of personalities (‘Stephen Austin, a scholar, a performer upon the flute, and an introvert, was also intelligent, generous-minded, and honest’), legislation at Government level, battles, and belligerent escapades.
Professor Alden writes as a dedicated Anglophile: ‘In a sense, in 1776, the Americans were more English than the English, for they had inherited their allegiance to the cause of freedom from the noblest traditions of the Mother Country.’ His politics are those of an old-style patrician democrat: ‘Social revolution was also to be feared;’ in the old south ‘Alas, there were more of those shiftless, degraded, and ignorant folk than there were patricians.’ Those ‘ignorant folk’ are the ‘poor white trash’ at whom he takes continual swipes from a safe, liberal vantage-point, without making any concerted attempt (momentarily, on page 196) to discover how and why these whites became ‘poor’ and ‘trash’. Gross generalities abound: ‘Englishman in [the eighteenth] century were usually satisfied at home.’ Any jabbering conscience about white treatment of the Indians is hushed by the possibility that the natives’ gift to the newcomers, syphilis, ‘balanced all the wrongs inflicted by all the whites upon all the Indians of the Americas’.
Says the blurb, Professor Alden ‘has not hesitated to give more space to literary genius than to political mediocrity’. Unfortunately, he demonstrates neither understanding of the social forces affecting literature, nor ability to assess literary achievement. The criticism seldom rises above the level of ‘on occasion Poe wrote truly glorious lines’. Whitman ‘composed crude, banal, pretentious, preposterous, and even meaningless lines:’ yet, of course, he ‘could, when it pleased him to do so, write splendid conventional poetry, as he did in “O Captain! My Captain!’”
In his preface Professor Alden hopes that his book ‘will not drive away readers, whether academic or lay, because of gross deficiencies in style’. In that context the whole work reads like an American College textbook: ‘However, there were those who believed that Boston, falling behind in quantity of citizens, retained quality.’ There is an extraordinary lack of verbal economy in a work where compression surely ought to have been a primary virtue: ‘The trains tended to run from east to west and west to east, rather
Incidentally, English socialists may like to learn that they have for some time been living in ‘a socialist monarchy’. Knowing this, they will not be surprised to discover that the principal challenge to the contemporary United States is the ‘rising tide of Communist despotism’.
Of course, there is plenty of information in Pioneer America. It can be recommended to readers of this journal for a bird’s-eye, distorted view of American diplomatic, military, and legislative history; but for little else.