“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.”***
*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.