Saturday, January 15, 2011

Varieties of American Enthusiasm

Like many editorials about avid behavior in the 19th century, the “The Absurdities of Enthusiasm” (The Galaxy, July 1873, 141-145) has a slightly mocking tone. Nevertheless, it is a bit more sympathetic than most: “Enthusiasm seems to me a kindling of the soul toward a favorite object or idea, to almost the entire controlling of our thoughts and purposes and emotions. By its very nature it is uncalculating and unselfish. In this, you can distinguish true from false enthusiasm. But this effervescence of the imagination often leads to mental intoxication, and the understanding reels and totters. Hence the element of absurdity. The enthusiasm of some souls is so grand that we are never tempted to smile at their eccentricities.”

After accounting for various European enthusiasms--for mathematics, alchemy, the Holy Land, South Seas speculation, tulips--the writer observes: “The Americans cannot boast of superior coolness. We had a Jenny Lind fever, and an excitement about Dickens which might be called an intermittent attack, for the “Notes” gave a chill between the spasms of wild admiration. We play croquet rainy nights aided by glimmering lanterns, and are ready for base-ball matches while a digital stump remains. We shake hands with our heroes until the poor member resembles a dropsical lobster; run the maddest kind of races on the Mississippi; and chew more tobacco and burst more engines than any other country. Then we had the “Moris Multicaulis” to an insane degree. (I prefer to appear learned, and so leave this a mystery to many). And not many years ago we had the hen fever. The papers were full of the excitement. The largest kind of eggs were laid—on editors’ tables—and extraordinary prices were paid for the fashionable fowls. Mr. Burnham, the gentleman who raised the excitement, assures us that in the summer of 1850 dozens of full-grown men, enthusiastic hen-fanciers, came to his house for Cochin China eggs at one dollar each, and on being informed that there were none at present, would sit down and wait three of four or six hours for the hens to lay them a few. ‘Who’s dead?’ the stranger would query, seeing the rows of vehicles standing in long lines by his fence.”

Conclusion: “Enthusiasm is a good thing. If you have it, be thankful. You will need it all before you get through life.”

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