JF Ptak Science Books Post 2474
Sydney Smith was a cleric and critic; I don't know much about the former, but I have seen some of the later, and it could be insightful and acidic. Here's an example that I had seen years ago and then bumped into again this morning, a massive and stinging observation on the United States, in general. It comes in a review of a seemingly brickish/factoid work by Seybert, and is a data-trove publication of statistical information, and appears in The Edinburgh Review.
After a lengthy appreciation of the work, Smith can hold himself no more. It is in the final two paragraphs of the review in which he freezes everything stock still, wanting whomever was reading his words to answer his series of questions so that they can form the answers themselves--but no matter, Smith provides the answer in the end, impatient for someone else to do the thinking. That's okay--the man made a good point.
In my experience if this wit is remembered at all it is for the opening fragment about the American book--that actually comes way at the end of the page-long paragraph; and it is really in the rejoinder, the final bit of that long sentence ending the paragraph, where the real venom sits, waiting for its victim to step into it.
"...In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? Or goes to an American play? or looks at an American picture or statue? What does the world yet owe to American physicians or surgeons? What new substances have their chemists discovered? Or what old ones have they advanced? What new constellations have been discovered by the telescopes of Americans? What have they done in mathematics? Who drinks out of American glasses? or eats from American plates? or wears American coats or gowns? or sleeps in American blankets? Finally, under which of the old tyrannical governments of Europe is every sixth man a slave, whom his fellow-creatures may buy, and sell, and torture?"
"When these questions are fairly and favourably answered their laudatory epithets may be allowed. But till that can be done we would seriously advise them to keep clear of superlatives." --Review of Adam Seybert’s Annals of the United States, published in The Edinburgh Review (January, 1820).1
Ouch. I wanted to get to the main quote straight-away in this short blog post; it is preceded by some rougher stuff, as insightful as the above but not as committed to the overall social memory:
"...The Americans are a brave industrious and acute people but they have hitherto given no indications of genius and made no approaches to the heroic either in their morality or character. They are but a recent offset indeed from England and should make it their chief boast for many generations to come that they are sprung from the same race with Bacon and Shakspeare and Newton. Considering their numbers indeed and the favourable circumstances in which they have been placed they have yet done marvellously little to assert the honour of such a descent or to show that their English blood has been exalted or refined by their republican training and institutions. Their Franklins and Washingtons and all the other sages and heroes of their revolution were born and bred subjects of the King of England and not among the freest or most valued of his subjects. And since the period of their separation a far greater proportion of their statesmen and artists and political writers have been foreigners than ever occurred before in the history of any civilized and educated people. During the thirty or forty years of their independence they have done absolutely nothing for the Sciences for the Arts for Literature or even for the statesman like studies of Politics or Political Economy..."
The entire review is worth a read--it is a good overview of the data, and is also peppered with choice nuggets, like this one on Florida:
1. The review is reprinted in The Literary and Scientific Repository, and Critical Review, Volume 1, by Charles Kitchell Gardner, pp 177-186.
- Read a short, interesting insight into the book that Smith was reviewing here, by Eric Salughter.