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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The American Family
By Paul Bourget (1852–1935)
 
From ‘Outre-Mer’

AS the American marriage appears to be above all a partnership, so the American family appears to be more than anything else an association,—a sort of social camp, the ties of which are more or less strong according to individual sympathies, such as might exist between people not of the same blood. I am certain, not from anecdotes but from experience, that the friendship of brother and brother, or sister and sister, is entirely elective. So it is with the relations between father and son, mother and daughter. A young Frenchman much in love with a New York girl said to me, in one of those moments when the coldness of the woman you love drives you to be cruelly frank:—  1
  “She has so little heart that she went to the theatre five weeks after her mother’s death, and no one resented it.”  2
  I knew that he was telling the truth. But what did it prove? What do the inequalities permitted by the laws of inheritance prove? Nothing, if not that our natural characteristics, instincts, sensibilities, are not the same as those of the people of this country. They have much less power of self-giving, much more of personal reaction; and especially a much stronger will. Their will rules their hearts as well as their minds. This seems to us less tender. But are we good judges?  3
  We must continually keep in mind this general want of association in family life if we would in any degree understand the sort of soul-celibacy, if we may use the term, which the American woman keeps all through her married life. No more in this second period of her life than in the first does love bear that preponderating part which seems to us Frenchmen an essential characteristic of the lot of woman. When a Parisian woman of forty reviews her life, the story that memory tells her is the story of her emotions. To an American woman of the same age it is more often the story of her actions,—of what she calls, by a word I have before cited, her experiences. She gained, between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, a conception of her own self which was imposed upon her neither by her traditions—she has none; nor by the instructions of her parents—they never gave her any; nor even by her own nature—for it is characteristic of these easily “adaptable” minds that their first instincts are chaotic and undetermined. They are like a blank check, which the will undertakes to fill out. But whatever the will writes upon it, is written in letters that will never be effaced. Action, action, always action,—this is the remorseless but unchanging device of such a woman. Whether she seeks for a place in society, or is ambitious for artistic culture, or addicts herself to sport, or organizes “classes,” as they say, for reading Browning, Emerson, or Shakespeare, with her friends; whether she travels to Europe, India, or Japan, or gives an “at home” to have some young girl among her friends “pour” tea for her, be sure that she will be always and incessantly active, indefatigably active, either in the lines of “refinement” or of “excitement.”  4
  With what impressiveness these women utter both these words! which we must not weary of returning to; for they perhaps sum up the entire American soul. They are bandied about in conversation like two formulæ, in which are revealed the persistence of this creature, who, born of a stern race, and feeling herself fine, wills to become finer and ever finer; who, reared amid democratic surroundings, wills to become distinguished and ever more distinguished; who, daughter of a land of enterprise, loves to excite continually in herself the sensation of overstrained nerves.  5
  When you see ten, fifteen, thirty, fifty like this, the character of eccentricity, which you first found in them by comparison with the women of Europe, disappears. A new type of feminine attractiveness is revealed to you, less affecting than irritating, enigmatic and slightly ambiguous by its indefinable blending of supple grace and virile firmness, by the alliance of culture and vigor, by the most thrilling nervous sensitiveness and the sturdiest health. The true place of such a creature in this society appears to you also, and the profound reason why these men, themselves all action, leave these women free thus to act with total independence. If it is permitted to apply an old legal term to creatures so subtle, so delicate, these women are the delegates to luxury in this utilitarian civilization. Their mission is to bring into it that which the American has not time to create, and which he desires to have:—the flower of elegance, something of beauty, and in a word, of aristocracy. They are the nobility in this land of business, a nobility developed by the very development of business; since the money which is made in the offices comes at last to them, and manipulated by their fingers, is transfigured, blossoming into precious decorations, made intellectual in plays of fancy,—in fact, unutilized. A great artist, foremost of this epoch by the ardor of his efforts, the conscientiousness of his study, and the sincerity of his vision,—John Sargent,—has shown what I have tried to express, in a portrait I saw in an exhibition; that of a woman whose name I do not know. It is a portrait such as the fifteenth-century masters painted, who back of the individual found the real, and back of the model a whole social order. The canvas might be called ‘The American Idol,’ so representative is it.  6
  The woman is standing, her feet side by side, her knees close together, in an almost hieratic pose. Her body, rendered supple by exercise, is sheathed—you might say molded—in a tight-fitting black dress. Rubies, like drops of blood, sparkle on her shoes. Her slender waist is encircled by a girdle of enormous pearls, and from this dress, which makes an intensely dark background for the stony brilliance of the jewels, the arms and shoulders shine out with another brilliance, that of a flower-like flesh,—fine, white flesh, through which flows blood perpetually invigorated by the air of the country and the ocean. The head, intellectual and daring, with a countenance as of one who has understood everything, has for a sort of aureole the vaguely gilded design of one of those Renaissance stuffs which the Venetians call soprarisso. The rounded arms, in which the muscles can hardly be seen, are joined by the clasped hands,—firm hands, the thumb almost too long, which might guide four horses with the precision of an English coachman. It is the picture of an energy at once delicate and invincible, momentarily in repose; and all the Byzantine Madonna is in that face with its wide-open eyes.  7
  Yes, this woman is an idol, for whose service man labors, which he has decked with the jewels of a queen, behind each one of whose whims lie days and days spent in the ardent battle of Wall Street. Frenzy of speculations in land, cities undertaken and built by sheer force of millions, trains launched at full speed over bridges built on a Babel-like sweep of arch, the creaking of cable cars, the quivering of electric cars, sliding along their wires with a crackle and a spark, the dizzy ascent of elevators, in buildings twenty stories high, immense wheat-fields of the West, its ranches, mines, colossal slaughter-houses,—all the formidable traffic of this country of effort and struggle, all its labor,—these are what have made possible this woman, this living orchid, unexpected masterpiece of this civilization.  8
  Did not the very painter consecrate to her his intense toil? To be capable of such a picture, he must have absorbed some of the ardor of the Spanish masters, caught the subtlety of the great Italians, understood and practiced the curiosities of impressionism, dreamed before the pictures in basilicas like Ravenna, and read and thought. Ah, how much of culture, of reflection, before one could fathom the secret depths of one’s own race! He has expressed one of the most essential characteristics of the race,—the deification of woman, considered not as a Beatrice as in Florence, nor as a courtesan as at Milan, but as a supreme glory of the national spirit.  9
  This woman can do without being loved. She has no need of being loved. What she symbolizes is neither sensuality nor tenderness. She is like a living object of art, the last fine work of human skill, attesting that the Yankee, but yesterday despairing, vanquished by the Old World, has been able to draw from this savage world upon which fate has cast him a wholly new civilization, incarnated in this woman, her luxury and her pride. Everything is illuminated by this civilization, at the gaze of these fathomless eyes, in the expression of which the painter has succeeded in putting all the idealism of this country which has no ideal; all that which perhaps will one day be its destruction, but up to the present time is still its greatness,—a faith in the human Will, absolute, unique, systematic, and indomitable.  10
 
 
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