The characteristic of provincialism, in society and literature, is imitation: provincials dare not be themselves; they dare do nothing for which they have not, or think they have not, a warrant from the metropolis. In regard to society, this remark is too hacknied to need illustration. It is equally true in respect to literature. In the one, as in the other, the provinces take their tone from the capital. It rarely happens that a book has any success in the provinces, unless a reputation acquired in the capital has preceded its arrival. But, in regard to literature, Boston and New York are as much provincial cities as Norwich or Liverpool, and much more so than Edinburgh (which indeed is a kind of literary and social metropolis in itself, and partakes but partially of the provincial character). There been a Franklin, and there has been a Burns: there will always be persons of extraordinary genius, or extraordinary energy, capable of making their way against one kind of obstacle as against another. But, of the illustrious men of letters in France and England, though a majority have been provincials by birth, nearly all have spent their best years in the capital, and their works have been written in and for London and Paris. The courage which has made them dare trust to their own inspirations, either in thought or in language, as well as the modesty which has saved them from (what stops the progress of most aspirants in a very early stage) the misfortune of being too easily pleased with their own performances—have been learned in the literary metropolis of the nation, and in contact with the direct influence of its leading minds.
There is one topic on which we desire to say a few words, particularly as it is one on which the testimony of travellers is not uniform—the inordinate national vanity of which the Americans are accused, and their imputed excess of sensitiveness to criticism. On these points the testimony of M. de Tocqueville, M. de Beaumont, and Mr. Abdy, is extremely unfavourable. They all agree in representing the mass of Americans as not only offended by any disparagement of their country, even in the most unessential particular, but dissatisfied with any moderate praise; and as nourishing the most extravagant ideas of the superiority of their country over all others. All these authors agree also in ascribing this national weakness to the fulsome flattery heaped on the nation by nearly all their politicians and writers: flattery, of which Mr. Abdy (who excels almost any traveller we remember in the abundance of specific facts with which he usually substantiates his general observations) produces a number of very ludicrous instances.
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To what an extent doctrines intrinsically fitted to make the deepest impression upon the mind may remain in it as dead beliefs, without being ever realized in the imagination, the feelings, or the understanding, is exemplified by the manner in which the majority of believers hold the doctrines of Christianity. By Christianity I here mean what is accounted such by all churches and sects—the maxims and precepts contained in the New Testament. These are considered sacred, and accepted as laws, by all professing Christians. Yet it is scarcely too much to say that not one Christian in a thousand guides or tests his individual conduct by reference to those laws. The standard to which he does refer it, is the custom of his nation, his class, or his religious profession. He has thus, on the one hand, a collection of ethical maxims, which he believes to have been vouchsafed to him by infallible wisdom as rules for his government; and on the other, a set of every-day judgments and practices, which go a certain length with some of those maxims, not so great a length with others, stand in direct opposition to some, and are, on the whole, a compromise between the Christian creed and the interests and suggestions of worldly life. To the first of these standards he gives his homage; to the other his real allegiance. All Christians believe that the blessed are the poor and humble, and those who are ill-used by the world; that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven; that they should judge not, lest they be judged; that they should swear not at all; that they should love their neighbour as themselves; that if one take their cloak, they should give him their coat also; that they should take no thought for the morrow; that if they would be perfect, they should sell all that they have and give it to the poor. They are not insincere when they say that they believe these things. They do believe them, as people believe what they have always heard lauded and never discussed. But in the sense of that living belief which regulates conduct, they believe these doctrines just up to the point to which it is usual to act upon them. The doctrines in their integrity are serviceable to pelt adversaries with; and it is understood that they are to be put forward (when possible) as the reasons for whatever people do that they think laudable. But any one who reminded them that the maxims require an infinity of things which they never even think of doing, would gain nothing but to be classed among those very unpopular characters who affect to be better than other people. The doctrines have no hold on ordinary believers—are not a power in their minds. They have an habitual respect for the sound of them, but no feeling which spreads from the words to the things signified, and forces the mind to take in, and make them conform to the formula. Whenever conduct is concerned, they look round for Mr. A and B to direct them how far to go in obeying Christ.