The more a politician uses the phrase “the American people,” as in “The American people need to know . . .” or “The American people deserve better . . . ,” the more full of beans I take him or her to be. I have chosen my vegetable, beans, with some care, for the speech of such politicians is the spoken equivalent of flatulence. What do these politicians know of the American people, their immense variety, their attainments and points of view? Beans — they know beans.
After some 80 years roaming among these same American people, I continue to be delighted, every so often blown away, by them. I am neither a bartender nor a statistical sociologist, so I have taken neither drunken confessions nor opinion samples to arrive at my conclusions. I am instead a writer, but I seem to be one of the kind that Holden Caulfield claims his brother Buddy was: a writer people like to call up after they read him. In my case, they do not call, but write me letters and of course more frequently send emails. What impresses me is the element of surprise in many of these communications.
Many years ago, when I was editing an intellectual magazine, I received a letter from a physician in Tarrytown, N.Y., informing me that, owing to reading the magazine I edited, he had decided that he could no longer consider himself an educated man unless he knew ancient Greek. “One of the things a medical education confers,” he wrote, “is a good memory, so I taught myself ancient Greek.” I neglected to write back to say that the editor of the magazine that inspired him, me, alas had no Greek whatsoever, ancient or modern.
While working on the same magazine, I would get occasional letters from a woman in Tyler, Texas, offering what she felt were grammatical improvements and syntactical adjustments to the magazine’s prose, not a few of them, I regret to report, well taken. She was — no shock here — a high-school Latin teacher.
A man from Chico, Calif., a World War II veteran, used to write to me regularly about a gallimaufry of items. He was among other things a great admirer of Willa Cather — an admiration I shared — and felt that, in her superior culture and literary refinement and grasp of the great American subject, immigration, Cather made Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald look like high-school boys.
More recently I met, in a home for the blind at which my granddaughter was working as a volunteer, a man named Matt Shanahan, who had lost his eyesight in midlife. He had not finished high school because of the Depression, and had worked in a post office most of his adult life. He claimed he was missing what he called “the ambition gene.” He spent a vast amount of time listening to books on tape. I knew I was dealing with a man who thought well beyond his résumé when, at our second meeting, Matt asked me, “Do you have any notion why Hannah Arendt wanted to sleep with a creep like Heidegger?”
From this brief sampling I hope it is plain that there are vastly more extraordinary Americans than are dreamt of in any politician’s dopey conception of the American people.
This article appears as “People Who Surprise” in the September 9, 2019, print edition of National Review.