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James Burnham

America, I Love You

(July 1938)

From The New International, Vol. IV No. 7, July 1937, pp. 220–221.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

My America, 1928–1938
by Louis Adamic
xiii+669 pp. New York. Harper & Brothers. $3.50

Louis Adamic evidently emptied his files and notebooks to manufacture this large volume. Or, rather, drew from them at random. It is the collected by-products, not very thoroughly distilled, of a decade’s operations by a professional writer. Nearly everything is here: patches from the diary; dozens of letters from friends, and the replies to letters; old magazine articles and obscure pamphlets; an excellent ghost story and amateur philosophizing; interviews, character sketches and random meditations.

“Each of us living in the United States has his own America ...,” Adamic begins. “This book is an attempt to draw a partial picture of my America between 1928 and 1938 ... It is made up ... of things and people, chiefly people, within my experience and observation (from various angles, in various moods) during these last ten years in the United States that seem interesting or significant to me personally as an individual and as an American, and lend themselves to telling at this time.”

I am old-fashioned enough to believe that it is an author’s responsibility to integrate his material in terms of a more ordered and objective structure than that which Adamic here suggests. So integrated, and cut in half, My America would, I think, be a much more consistently readable book. However, its present looseness by no means prevents it from being frequently interesting in compensation for the repetitions and dullnesses.

Adamic has at least three important virtues for the writing of this sort of book. He has a genuine and active curiosity. When he hears that the textile towns of New England are in a bad way, he at once visits them, to see for himself. When he reads about sit-down strikes, he goes to Akron to find out how they started. To discover what the depression is like in human terms, he gets himself into the homes of the unemployed. When he becomes interested in a person, through one means or another he meets and talks to and if possible makes himself a friend of that person. From this derives a commendably first-hand quality in much of what he writes.

Adamic has also, or seems from the evidence of his books to have, a higher degree of reportorial honesty than is nowadays usual. Adamic reports what he has seen and heard and felt; and, however cockeyed may be his interpretations and conclusions, the report itself seems to be scrupulously honest and direct. This happens even when he himself cuts none too brave a figure in the report. The habit has, it may be remarked, often got Adamic into trouble, with manufacturers, trade union leaders, and the subjects of his interviews or character sketches.

Lastly, Adamic has a kind of feeling for what is sociologically important. The feeling, not backed rationally, leads him grievously astray, as when it makes him offer Black Mountain College as a first major step toward an American Utopia. But it is sustained enough to cause him to give a large section of this book to the CIO, to insist on the significance of the problem of the thirty million “New Americans” – children of immigrants, and to end with a chapter on The Next War.

These three vitrues would be quite enough to produce an admirable book of “observations” or “impressions”, a book of the sort that is always enjoyable and needed, and seldom found. The values which My America has are due primarily to these virtues. But, unfortunately, Adamic is not content with them. He aspires to another role: to that of theorist, generalizer, on the American scene; and long, dreary pages are up to their necks in his wilted theories and his limp generalizations.

A great scorner of “doctrinaire”, “schematic” thinking – by which he means any thinking stemming from Marx – is Adamic. “Isms” and “shortcuts” have no application to America, legislates Adamic. And, with this as a foundation, the experienced reader will be not at all surprised to find out that Adamic’s own thinking is precisely distinguished as – doctrinaire and schematic; and lurching ever and again toward “ism” and shortcut.

The basic ism is none other than our old friend Reform-ism. The guiding schema for interpretations is certainly a simple one. America is “democratic in politics and absolutist in industry”, and this “basic incongruity” explains all else besides. Quoting, and agreeing with, Edward Adams Cantrell: “America as she stood – democratic politically, absolutist industrially, dynastic economically – was ... an incongruity . . . this incongruity was the source of all manner of contradictions, hidden conflicts, social and political perversions, neuroticism, and violence within the country as a whole, within groups and institutions, and within individuals.” And as for “shortcuts”! Consider that the ultimate “danger” for the CIO is that its leaders are not sufficiently interested in “workers’ education”; that the solution of the problem of the thirty million New Americans lies in a voluntary organization to make them aware of their cultural and historical backgrounds and thus remove their inferiority complexes; and that the present government can keep America out of the war by appropriating now for housing and conservation the forty billion dollars which the war will cost.

The class struggle, revolution, violence, class consciousness, are all Old World notions which have no relevance to America. The hope of America lies most unequivocally in such “fundamental democrats” as Jack Raper of the Cleveland Press, Walter Locke, the “free editor” of James M. Cox’s Dayton Daily News, and Arthur E. Morgan, inconveniently thrown out of Washington for sabotage of the TVA while Adamic was finishing his proofs; and, above all, in the LaFollettes and the Wisconsin Idea, which Idea has also just had a none too savory blossom, but awkwardly after the book had already gone to press.

Adamic, starting out to see America, “a Land Nobody Knew”, with fresh and open eyes, desiring to become, “in some small way determined by my ability”, one of the Darwins “who would get busy in the vast Sargasso Sea that was America”, ends miserably up in these crippled platitudes and Utopian fantasies. There is, it is true, some excuse for him. His own background in Central Europe encourages him to overemphasize and misinterpret this country’s political democracy, seeing it not as one specific form of capitalist rule now getting itself primed and ready for its own fruition in fascism but as an independent ideal divorced from social context. And, secondly, Adamic’s own direct and honest observations of the working class parties in this country – in particular of the Stalinists, about whom he has a good deal to say – have left him rightly convinced, since he identifies Marxism with these parties taken as a whole, that if such be Marxism neither he nor America should wish any of it.

But to react from a too hurriedly scanned European background and a legitimate disgust with the ways and men of the last decade of American socialists and Stalinists to such an extreme of muddled, wishy-washy and indeed Philistine democratism will hardly provide Adamic with the compass he asks for and needs in order to chart and illumine his Sargasso Sea. The “basic incongruity” of AM account of his America is obvious enough at a single reading: his directly observed material painting a land poising mightily for devastating and world-shaking crisis; his theories imagining an indefinitely “long road” of stumbling but evolving “progress.”


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