In a Shoddy Land

Abandoned House, Lyons

“There is considerably too much guessing about this large nation.

Rudyard Kipling, From Sea to Sea: Letters of Travel (1899)*

“One report says that six cars were derailed and fell off the bridge into the big lake of water below.”

Brenham Daily Banner (Sep. 1, 1889)

Kipling had this thought while passing over “a groaning, shivering trestle” on a train from California to Oregon in 1887.  His train did not suffer the misfortune of of the train that jumped the tracks near here two years later, but that it didn’t was due to nothing but providence or dumb luck.

By “guessing” Kipling referred to the vernacular locution with which Americans expressed their often groundless confidence in providence or their own dumb luck.  An American “guessed” the trestle would support the train, timbers charred by forest fire notwithstanding.  He “guessed” this just as he “guessed” that he lived in the finest city, in the finest country, in the finest century, that God or Man had ever known.

But what an American most readily guessed was that he could himself turn his hand to most any task and “put the thing through somehow.”  The American was, under radically different circumstances, not unlike the citizen of Marx’s ideal communist society, who could, Marx said,  “do one thing today and another tomorrow . . . hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as [he] has a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”*

Kipling called the American trait “versatility, and said of the American, “he is versatile—horribly so.”

Kipling said the American was “horribly” versatile because American versatility was, in truth, “mere casualness, and dangerous casualness at that.”  American trains often jumped the shoddy American tracks.  Shoddy American trestles often disappointed all the guessers and fell down.

But the bloody toll of American amateurism did not quell, and in many quarters has still not quelled, the democratic dogma that one man can do just about anything as well as another.

Kipling explained American versatility as the fruit of “the unlimited exercise of the right of private judgment,” “blatant cocksureness” and a “dry-air-bred restlessness.”  I think he should have added the exigencies of life in a new and thinly populated land, but his list of causes is good so far as it goes.  I say this as an American who admires and exhibits versatility, not to mention “private judgment,” “blatant cocksureness,” and “restlessness,” whether “dry-air-bred” or not.

I say this as an American who can also see the horrible fruits of American versatility.

One of those fruits is the appalling shoddiness of so much of the American landscape, the ungainly and graceless design, the premature and then permanent dilapidation.   So much of the American landscape is shoddy because so much of it was made by amateurs who “guessed” they could “put the thing through somehow,” and somehow is just about all one can say about the way that they put it through.

Kipling explains that doing things right is always much harder than it looks.:

“No man can grasp the inwardness of an employ by the light of pure reason—even though that reason be republican.  He must serve an apprenticeship to one craft and learn that craft all the days of his life if he wishes to excel therein.  Otherwise he merely ‘puts the thing through somehow’; and occasionally he doesn’t.”***

Lyons, Texas

*Rudyard Kipling, From Sea to Sea: Letters of Travel (New York: Doubleday and McClure Company, 1899), p. 24.
**) Karl Marx, The German Ideology (1846)
***) Kipling, Sea to Sea, p. 127.

11 thoughts on “In a Shoddy Land

  1. I remember reading some Revolutionary history recently and thinking the Founders really were just kind of making it up as they went along. I’m sure it was quite the rush at the time–a brand spanking-new country, modeled rigorously on Enlightenment and Masonic principles with none of that Old World baggage! That train left the station and there was no stopping it.

    Slavery was an insoluble problem so we just kicked the can on it. Immigration was never even a consideration with a whole frontier to the West and no welfare or civil rights laws for the immigrants to bang their hosts over the head with. Naturalization and membership in the American nation-state were never rigorously qualified other than the vague description of “white;” that’s how the anarchists, bolsheviks and critical theorists got here. The whole federal/State structure really couldn’t work which, among other phenomena, is why the feds took over immigration in the 1850’s.

    Fast forward 246 years, and we’re still just making it up as we go along. And there’s no organic hierarchy, the aesthetics are anti-human, and there’s no transcendent, unifying creed. Sir John “Pasha” Glubb forecast it all.

    I saw a provocative comment on Gab: In 5 years time, you’re either going to support sexual touching of children or you’re going to be throwing up a Roman salute. We’ll see.

    • American statesmen have seldom had to be smart. Their only nearby enemies were primitive and they never fought a war against the odds. They have never been poor and their human capital was mostly very good.

    • Here is a question that often perplexes Europeans – What does it mean to be an American?

      We can talk of the Swedish minority in Finland, the Hungarian minority in Romania, but can one imagine a (permanent) American minority in some other country? Is there a “national,” as opposed to a purely “political” component to American identity?

      • This is not so deep a mystery as many people would like us to believe, nor are we Americans as half-baked as Europeans sometimes say. Americans are the folks over here who have no other identity (they are not “hyphenated” Americans), and this is because a large number of their ancestors (it doesn’t have to be all of them) were Americans too. Like English, French, or German identity, the American identity has fuzzy boundaries, but it is, culturally and biologically, primarily British with a strong German strain. People with this identity had ancestors who fought in the Civil War, or even better the Revolution. I have ancestors who, as best we can tell, fought in King Philip’s War (1675-1676), and they were born on this side of the fish pond.

        There is, I readily admit, a problem of nomenclature. We need a name for people like me and also a name for the congeries of “wretched refuse” that have more recently come here from the “teeming shores” of the earth. WASP doesn’t work for people like me because too many of us are low class and too few are protestant. “Racist,” “supremacist” and “domestic terrorist” are catching on. I expect to be ticking one of those boxes on the census form soon.

        We will very soon be able to speak of an American minority in America. My children were a rather small minority (20%) in public school. I am always a minority (sometimes a minority of one) at the grocery store. In these settings we are categorized as “whites.”

      • “[I]t is, culturally and biologically, primarily British…”

        As a Scotsman, I wonder if there is such a thing as “British” identity.

        Even Scotland, although an ancient kingdom was scarcely a nation, certainly not before the Forty-five and probably not before the Highland Clearances. In their famous visit to the Western Isles, the Englishman, Dr Johnson, mourned the passing of the ancient way of life; Boswell, the Lowland Scot, writes like a Yankee journalist of the old school, visiting an Indian reservation.

        Although I consider myself Scottish, my family are originally from Saint-Maur-des-Fossés, in the Île-de-France and were Vidames of the abbey. Until the 17th century, our name was commonly spelt “St. Maur.” It is an origin I share with not a few Scottish noble and landed families. For example, Robert the Bruce was a descendant of Robert de Brus who fought with William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings. King Charles III is a lineal descendant, through Bruce’s heiress Marjorie, the founder of the Stuart line.

        Likewise, Bissett, Boyle, Colville, Corbett, Gifford, Grant, Hay, Kinnear, Masson, Melville, Norris, Wallace and Fraser are all Norman names, which first appeared in Scotland in the 12th century, as are Menzies and Graham. Now, the Normans, as the name implies, had an admixture of Norse blood. As for the Seymours, who knows if they were of Frankish or Gallo-Roman descent (or a mixture)?

      • My wife was born in Austria, but always considered herself Styrian. Many Texans consider themselves more Texan than American. The scale of identification shifts with circumstances but the various identities still exist. My deep heritage is mostly “British” because the English and Scotts-Irish tributaries combined into a single stream.

      • The scale of identification shifts with circumstances

        Yes, the same man who is Scottish in Britain is British in France and a European in Dubai.

        However, I do believe that nationality and citizenship tend to be equated in the United States in a way they are not in Europe. Wittgenstein, born in Vienna and a citizen of the Dual Monarchy (He wrote the Tractatus while serving as an artillery officer in the K. u. K. on the Italian front), always referred to himself as German; that is, he regarded himself as, linguistically and culturally, a member of the German nation.

        In the same way, the Basque Country straddles the frontier between France and Spain, yet “Basque” is for many a primary identity.

        English has no equivalent to Volksdeutsche, perhaps because the German state, like the Italian is of comparatively recent origin. Compare the concept of Italia irredenta, which, for some, included Cosica, Malta and Nice.

      • JMSmith wrote:

        …and also a name for the congeries of “wretched refuse” that have more recently come here from the “teeming shores” of the earth.

        Speaking of which:

        “Racist,” “supremacist” and “domestic terrorist” are catching on. I expect to be ticking one of those boxes on the census form soon.

        No joke, as soon as I’d read that line the argument between Wykowski and Jerome in the chow hall scene from Biloxi Blues popped into my head. Here is how I imagine Neil Simon would write the exchange today:

        Wykowski: “I have three enemies now, Jerome: Racist White Supremacists, Domestic Terrorists, and you!”

        Jerome: “I wasn’t in on that January 6th thing.”


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