Tolkien on America, democracy, and 'the West'
Here I am going to cite some of J.R.R. Tolkien's letters to illustrate the point of view I discussed here, in which America, far from being part of a Western Civilization whose great theme is democracy, is a different continent, fundamentally alien to a Europe, whose great theme is spirituality, rootedness, and hierarchy.
Here follows a florilegium of quotations, with a bit of commentary (references is to the letter number in the Humphrey Carpenter collection).
One theme in Tolkien's relations with America was his suspicion of American publishers, agents, and movie-makers, whom he tended to suspect of cultural illiteracy and sensationalism, although sometimes he was pleasantly surprised. Here is him trying to be diplomatic:
As for the illustrations [for the Hobbit]: I am divided between knowledge of my own inability and fear of what the American artists (doubtless of admirable skill) might produce . . . It might be advisable, rather than lose the American interest to let the Americans do what seems good to them -- as long as it was possible (I should like to add) to veto anything from or influenced by the Disney studios (for all whose works I have a heartfelt loathing). I have seem American illustrations that suggest that excellent things might be produced . . . (no. 13, May, 1937).
Or else being somewhat amused:
A backwash from the [Science Fiction Convention at which Tolkien received the International Fantasy Award] was a visit from an American film agent . . . who drove all the way in a taxi from London to see me last week, filling 76 Sandfield [Tolkien's home address] with strange men and stranger women -- I thought the taxi would never stop disgorging. But this Mr. Ackerman brought some astonishingly good pictures (Rackham rather than Disney) and some remarkable color photographs. . . . The Story Line or Scenario was, however, on a lower level. In fact bad. But it looks as if business might be done (no. 202, September, 1957).
A more usual theme is this:
The Americans are not as a rule at all amenable to criticism or correction; but I think their effort is so poor that I feel constrained to make some effort to improve it, though without much more hope of effect than in the case of the appalling jacket they produced for the Hobbit (no. 145, May, 1954).
And every once in a while, American artists and publishers lived up to his worst fears, as with the famous Barbara Remington cover pictured here, which went on to be smash success in the USA:
I wrote . . . a short hasty note . . . to this effect: I think the cover [of the new paperback edition of the Lord of the Rings] ugly; but I recognize that a main object of a paperback cover is to attract purchasers, and I suppose that you are better judges of what is attractive in USA than I am. I therefore will not into a debate about taste -- (meaning though I did not say so: horrible colours and foul lettering) -- but I must ask about this vignette: what has it got to do with the story? Where is this place? Why a lion* and emus? And what is the thing in the foreground with pink bulbs? . . . .
Mrs. _____ [a representative of Ballantine Co.] . . . rang me up. I had a longish conversation; but she seemed to me impermeable. . . . When I made the above points again, her voice rose several tones and she cried: 'But the man hadn't TIME to read the book!' (As if that settled it. A few minutes conversation with the 'man' and a glance at the American edition's pictures should have been sufficient.) With regard to the pink bulbs she said as if to one of complete obtusity: 'they are meant to suggest a Christmas Tree'. Why is such a woman let loose? I begin to feel that I am shut up in a madhouse (no. 277, September, 1965).
Of course sometimes he felt he was just defending England against ignorant American prejudice:
I found myself in a carriage occupied by an R.A.F. officer . . . , and a very nice young American Officer, New-Englander. I stood the hot-air they let off as long as I could; but when I heard the Yank burbling about 'Feudalism' and its results on English class-distinctions and social behavior, I opened a broad-side. The poor boob had not, of course, the faintest notions about 'Feudalism', or history at all -- being a chemical engineer. But you can't knock 'Feudalism' out of an American's head, any more than the 'Oxford Accent'. He was impressed I think when I said that an Englishman's relations with porters, butlers, and tradesmen had as much connection with 'Feudalism' as skyscrapers had with Red Indian wigwams, or taking off one's hat to a lady has with modern methods of collecting Income Tax; but I am not sure he was convinced. I did however get a dim notion into his head that the 'Oxford Accent' (by which he politely told me he meant mine) was not 'forced' and 'put on', but a natural one learned in the nursery -- and was moreover not feudal or aristocratic but a very middle-class bourgeois invention. After I told him that his 'accent' sounded to me like English after being wiped over with a dirty sponge, and generally suggested (falsely) to an English observer that, together with American slouch, it indicated a slovenly and ill-disciplined people -- well, we got quite friendly. We had some bad coffee in the refreshment room at Snow Hill and parted (no. 58, April, 1944).
His World War II letters, however, reveal much darker fears about a militant Americo-cosmopolitanism and its threat, along with Russo-Bolshevism, to European civilization. After the Tehran summit of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin, he wrote:
I must also admit that in the photograph our little cherub [Winston Churchill] actually looked the biggest ruffian present. Humph, well! I wonder (if we survive this war) if there will be any niche, even of sufferance, left for reactionary back numbers like me (and you). The bigger things get the smaller and duller and flatter the globe gets. It is going to be all one blasted little provincial suburb. When they have introduced American sanitation, morale-pep, feminism, and mass production throughout the Near East, Middle East, Far East, U.S.S.R., the Pampas, el Gran Chaco, the Danubian Basin, Equatorial Africa, Hirther Further and Inner Mumbo-land, Gondhwanaland, Lhasa, and the villages of darkest Berkshire, how happy we shall be. At any rate it ought to cut down travel there will be nowhere to go . . .
But seriously, I do find this Americo-cosmpolitanism very terrifying. Qua mind and spirit, and neglecting the piddling fears of the timid flesh which does not want to be shot or chopped by brutal and licentious soldiery (German or other), I am not really sure that its victory is going to be so much the better for the world as a whole and in the long run than the victory of ____. I don't suppose letters in [to the R.A.F., in which his son was serving] are censored. But if they are, or not, I need to you hardly add that them's the sentiments of a good many folk -- and no indication of lack of patriotism. For I love England (not Great Britain and certainly not the British Commonwealth (grr!)) . . . (no. 53, December, 1943).
. . . When it is all over, will ordinary people have any freedom left (or right) or will they have to fight for it, or will they be too tired to resist? The last rather seems the idea of some the Big Folk. Who for the most part viewed this war from the vantage point of large motor-cars. Too many are childless. But I suppose the one certain result of it all is a further growth in the great standardised amalgmations with their mass-produced notions and emotions. Music will give place to jiving: which as far as I can make out means holding a 'jam session' round a piano (an instrument properly intended to produce the sounds devised by, say, Chopin) and hitting it so hard it breaks. This delicately cultured amusement is said to be a 'fever' in the U.S.A. O God! O Montreal! O Minnesota! O Michigan! What kind of mass-manias the Soviets can produce remains for peace and prosperity and the removal of war-hypnotism to show. Not quite so dismal as the Western ones, perhaps (I hope). But one doesn't altogether wonder at a few smaller states still wanting to be 'neutral'; they are between the devil and the deep sea all right (and you can stick which D you like on to which side you like). . . . There lies some hope that, at least in our beloved land of England, propaganda defeats itself . . . (no. 77, July, 1944).
Exacerbating his gloom was the sense that World War II would soon be followed by an Americo-Russian war. After his son Christopher in the R.A.F. hoped to be transfered to the Fleet Air Arm in the Far East with the end of the war in Europe, he wrote:
It would not be easy for me to express to you the the measure of my loathing of the Third Service [i.e. the R.A.F.] -- which can nonetheless, and is for me, combined with admiration, gratitude, and above all pity, for the young men caught up in it. But it is the aeroplane of war that is the real villain. . . . My sentiments are more or less those that Frodo would have had if he discovered some Hobbit learning to ride Nazgul-birds, 'for the liberation of the Shire'. Though in this case, as I know nothing about British or American imperialism in the Far East that does not fill me with regret and disgust, I am afraid I am not even supported by a glimmer of patriotism in this remaining war. I would not subscribe a penny to it, let alone a son, were I a free man. It can only benefit America or Russia: prob. the latter. But at least the Americo-Russian War won't break out for a year yet (no. 100, May 1945).
In fact, however, the Americo-Russian war did not break out, and the imposition of Americo-cosmopolitanism on England was far less systematic than he feared. While his travails with obtuse American publicity agents continued, he found the defense of the West from Communism to be much more a meaningful struggle than he had hoped. Contrary to popular belief, he did not think that England had ended up like the Shire after the War of the Ring:
There is no special reference to England in the 'Shire' -- except that as an Englishman brought up in an 'almost rural' village . . . I take my models . . . from such 'life' as I know. But there is no post-war reference. I am not a 'socialist' in any sense . . . but I would not say we have to suffer the malice of Sharkey and his Ruffians here. Though the spirit of 'Isengard', if not of Mordor, is of course always cropping up. The present design of destroying Oxford in order to accommodate motor-cars is a case. But our chief adversary is a member of a 'Tory' government (no. 181, early 1956).
Despite realism about the moral ambiguities, he was a convinced supporter of the anti-Communist side:
Of course in 'real life' causes are not so clear cut -- if only because human tyrants are seldom utterly corrupted into pure manifestations of evil will. As far as I can judge some seem to have been so corrupt, but even they must rule subjects only part of whom are equally corrupt, while many still need to have 'good motives', real or feigned, presented to them. As we see today . . . . There are also conflicts about important things or ideas. In such cases I am more impressed by the extreme importance of being on the right side, than I am disturbed by the revelation of the jungle of confused motives, private purposes, and individual actions (noble or base) in which the right and wrong in actual human conflicts are commonly involved. . . . .
He then explains that Sauron presented himself as a god to the Men in his service, and that his victory would involve extorting universal worship of him from all rational creatures.
So even if in desperation 'the West' had bred or hired hordes of orcs and had cruelly ravaged the lands of other Men as allies of Sauron, or merely to prevent them from aiding him, their Cause would have remained indefeasibly right. As does the Cause of those who oppose now the State-God and Marshal This or That as its High Priest, even if it is true (as it unfortunately is) that many of their deeds are wrong, even if it were true (as it is not) that the inhabitants of 'The West', except for a minority of wealthy bosses, live in fear and squalor, while the worshippers of the State-God live in peace and abundance and in mutual esteem and trust (no. 183, 1956).
Notice how 'The West' is now his referent, not England, or Europe.
But he still was not a 'democrat':
I am not a 'democrat' only because 'humility' and equality are spiritual principles corrupted by the effort to mechanize and formalize them, with the result that we get not universal smallness and humility, but universal greatness and pride, till some Orc gets hold of a ring of power -- and then we get and are getting slavery (no. 186, April, 1956).
See also his tart comments about Greece as the homeland of democracy:
Mr. Eden in the house [parliament] the other day expressed pain at the occurrences in Greece 'the home of democracy'. Is he ignorant or insincere? Demokratia was not in Greek a word of approval but was nearly equivalent to 'mob-rule'; and he neglected to note that Greek Philosophers -- and far more is Greece the home of philosophy -- did not approve of it. And the great Greek states, esp. Athens at the time of its high art and power, were rather Dictatorships, if they were not military monarchies like Sparta! (no. 94, December, 1944).
Later on in the 1960s, the rise of Tolkien clubs in America, and their association with the counter-culture (part of which he approved of and part of which horrified him), disturbed him. After hearing about the creation of a 'New York Tolkien Society' from W.H. Auden who said he feared the members would all be lunatics, Tolkien replied:
Yes, I have heard about the Tolkien Society. Real lunatics don't join them, I think. But still such things fill me too with alarm and despondency (no. 275, August, 1965).
It is in this context that we have to read what is doubtless the most categorically negative thing Tolkien ever wrote about America. After discussing the touching news that his works were being treated as literature on the syllabus in Oxford, he continued:
Not a soil in which the fungus-growth of cults is likely to arise. The horrors of the American scene [of Tolkien mania] I will pass over, though they have given me great distress and labour. (They arise in an entirely different mental climate and soil, polluted and impoverished to a degree only paralleled by the lunatic destruction of the physical lands which Americans inhabit) . . . (no. 328, autumn, 1971).
But the "horrors of the American scene" always drove him more to pity than anger. After citing a letter from a 12 year old Pennsylvanian who had said his Hobbit was "the most wonderful book I have ever read" and said "Gee Whiz, I'm surprised that it's not more popular", Tolkien commented:
It's nice to find that little American boys really do say 'Gee Whiz'.
He added more seriously:
I find these letters which I still occasionally get [this was long before the Lord of the Rings had been published] . . . make me rather sad. What thousand grains of good human corn must fall on barren stony ground, if such a very small drop of water should be so intoxicating! (no. 87, October, 1944).
When on the back cover of the Ballantine edition in addition to his famous plea "Those who approve of courtesy (at least) to living authors will purchase it and no other", he added that this was especially designed for "those over the Water", this was what he meant: designed as a drop of water for those born into the polluted and impoverished mental and physical environment of America.
It is important to remember that Tolkien had never been to America in his life. His comments are thus particularly valuable as a source for studying stereotyped images of America among Englishmen of a certain age and cast of thought, although they are of course that much less valuable as a source for actual knowledge about America.
*There was originally a lion in the Barbara Remington cover picture, which was removed in later editions. As "Major Wooton" notes in the comments, the lion cover version is still available from dealers in Tolkieniana for a reasonable price.