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A Defense of Enthusiasm Henry Theodore Tuckerman

A Defense of Enthusiasm

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One of the most obvious consequences of these traits appears in social intercourse. Foreigners have ridiculed certain external habits of Americans, but these were always confined to the few, and where most prevalent have yielded readily to censure. There are incongruities of manners still more objectionable, because the direct exponents of character and resulting from the philosophy of life. Delicacy and self-respect are the fruits, not so much of intellect as sensibility. We are considerate towards others in proportion as our own consciousness gives us insight. The sympathies are the best teachers of politeness; and these are ever blunted by an exclusive reliance on perception. Nothing is more common than to find educated New Englanders unconsciously invading the privacy of others, to indulge their idle curiosity, or giving a personal turn to conversation in a way that outrages all moral refinement. This is observable in society professedly intellectual. It is scarcely deemed rude to allude to one's personal appearance, health, dress, circumstances or even most sacred feelings, although neither intimacy nor confidence lend the slightest authority to the proceeding. Such violation of what is due to others is more frequently met with among the cultivated of this than any other country. It is comparatively rare here to encounter a natural gentleman. A New England philosopher, in a recent work, betrays no little fear of "excess of fellowship." In the region he inhabits there is ground for the apprehension. No standard of manners will correct the evil. The peasantry of Southern Europe and the most ignorant Irishwomen often excel educated New Englanders in genuine courtesy. Their richer feelings teach them how to deal with others. Reverence and tenderness (not self-possession and intelligence) are the hallowed avenues through which alone true souls come together. The cool satisfaction with which character is analyzed and defined in New England is an evidence of the superficial test which observation alone affords. A Yankee dreams not of the world which is revealed only through sentiment. Men, and especially women, shrink from unfolding the depths of their natures to the cold and prying gaze which aims to explore them only as an intellectual diversion. It is the most presumptuous thing in the world for an unadulterated New Englander, however acute and studious, to pretend to know another human being, if nobly endowed; for he is the last person to elicit latent and cherished emotions. He may read mental capacities and detect moral tendencies, but no familiarity will unveil the inner temple; only in the vestibule will his prying step be endured.

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Another effect of this exaggerated estimate of the intellect is that talent and character are often regarded as identical. This is a fatal, but very prevalent error. A gift of mind, let it ever be remembered, is not a grace of soul. Training or native skill will enable any one to excel in the machinery of expression. The phrase "artistical," whether in reference to statuary, painting, literature, or manners, implies only aptitude and dexterity. Who is not aware, for instance, of the vast difference between a merely scientific knowledge of music and the enlistment of the sympathies in the art which makes it the eloquent medium of passion, sentiment, and truth? And in literature, how often do we find the most delicate perception of beauty in the writer, combined with a total want of genuine refinement in the man! Art is essentially imitative; and its value, as illustrative of character, depends not upon the mental endowments, but upon the moral integrity of the artist. The idea of talent is associated more or less with the idea of success; and on this account, the lucrative creed of the New Englander recognizes it with indiscriminate admiration; but there is a whole armory of weapons in the human bosom, of more celestial temper. It is a nobler and happier thing to be capable of self-devotion, loyalty, and generous sympathies, to cherish a quick sense of honor and find absolute comfort only in being lost in another, than to have an eye for color, whereby the rainbow can be transferred to canvas, or a felicity of diction that can embalm the truest pictures in immortal numbers. Not only or chiefly in what he does resides the significance of a human being. His field of action and the availability of his powers depend upon health, education, self-reliance, position, and a thousand other agencies; what he is results from the instincts of his soul, and for these alone he is truly to be loved. It is observable among New Englanders that an individual's qualities are less frequently referred to as a test of character than his performances. It is very common for them to sacrifice social and private to public character, friendship to fame, sympathy to opinion, love to ambition, and sentiment to propriety. There is an obvious disposition among them to appraise men and women at their marked rather than their intrinsic value. A lucky speculation, a profitable invention, a salable book, an effective rhetorical effort or a sagacious political ruse--some fact which proves, at best, only adroitness and good fortune is deemed the best escutcheon to lend dignity to life, or hang as a lasting memorial upon the tomb. Those more intimate revelations and ministries which deal with the inmost gifts of mind, and warmest emotions of the heart, and through which alone love and truth are realized, are but seldom dreamed of in their philosophy.

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A Defense of Enthusiasm
Henry Theodore Tuckerman

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