What has always been best and most distinctive about the American character is its sense of adventure. The immigrant knows this: That is what brought him here. Willingness (even eager ness) to take risks, to depart from old ways of doing things, to try the unknownthese represent the ideal of American daring.
This adventurous spirit achieved its best-known expression in the conquest of the Western frontier. An appreciation of this episode must transcend caricatures, whether of today's P demonizers or yesteryear's whitewashers. A good place to begin is Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove (1985), the story of two former Texas Rangers who lead a cattle drive from Texas to Mon tana. It is a beautiful, funny, and immensely entertaining book, and it captures perfectly the reckless, rambunctious vitality that led the Western expansion. In particular, the richly realized character of Augustus McCrae is my idea of what a great American should be: lighthearted, good at his work, sociable but independent, practical but a dreamer.
The primary outlet for American adventurousness today is the workplace. Snobs of both the left and right deny that commerce allows for any largeness of spirit, but they could not be more wrong. Daring and competitive striving were traditionally aristocratic virtues; capitalism democ ratized them, and capitalism's development spreads the opportunities to practice them ever more widely.
An adventure does not require gunfire or death-defiance; it needs only a formidable chal lenge, and the boldness to take it on and meet it. Richard Preston's American Steel: Hot Metal Men and the Resurrection of the Rust Belt (1991) tells the adventure of a steel millspecifically, Nucor's opening of the first flat-rolled minimill. The drama of the story grips like a novel. Read this book to experience capitalism at its best.
Americans are the great pioneers and defenders of a social order based on capitalist-style adventure. And the growth of this orderthe integration of millions of dreams and risks taken through the coordinating forces of the marketmay itself be seen in the larger view as a grand collective adventure. The prize of this quest is described in Max Singer's remarkable Passage to a Human World (1987): the transformation of the normal human life from one mired in igno rance and poverty to one broadened by the possibilities of affluence.
In creating this new world, we are exploring the unknownhuman beings have never lived like this before. It is a world well suited to American adventurousness.
Contributing Editor Brink Lindsey practices trade law in Washington, D.C.
It's a sad fact that most great works of American literature are anti-bourgeois, antismall town, hence, in some way, anti-American. A newly arrived immigrant unlucky enough to read, say, Sister Carrie or Main Street or Winesburg, Ohio, would take away an unmistakable message: "Go back!"
This doesn't make our great works of literature any less great, though, so choosing from them almost at random I would hand our new immigrant a copy, well-thumbed, of Spoon River Anthology (1915). This is Edgar Lee Masters's collection of poems about a small valley in Western Illinois, preWorld War I. Taking names from the headstones of a local cemetery, Mas ters wrote a poem for each townsman, and as you read along the tales interweave and overlap and fold back upon one another, exposing the inevitable small-town lies and hypocrisies but alsoand this is crucialinstances of grace and nobility and redemption. If nothing else, the book shows why Americans were so in a rush to urbanize. If we'd all had to stay in a small valley in Western Illinois, we would have gone crazy.
I would also force upon our immigrant friend a load of Mencken
(probably the Second Chrestomathy, edited by my friend
Terry Teachout and published in 1995), so that he might begin
to glimpse the exuberance and wit the American language is capable of expressing. Along with the singular quality of his prose, Mencken's habits of mindthe skepticism and hardheadedness and unfailing sense of appreciation and pleasureare good habits for anyone caught up in the raucous carnival of American life.
And last I would hand him a copy of Wealth and Poverty by George Gilder (1981). I haven't yet decided whether I agree with Gilder about the altruism that he believes lies at capitalism's heart. But I probably should, for no one shows such an understanding of both the mechanics and the morality of the marketplace. And as our new immigrant would soon discover about the American marketplace, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor of The Weekly Standard.
Gary Alan Fine