A Celebration of Women Writers

"The Nervous American." by Mrs. Martha Cleveland Dibble.
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 704-707.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 704] 



Nations, like families, usually develop certain traits and peculiarities which are recognized as characteristic and typical. The pugnacity, virile courage and beef-eating capacity of the Englishman, the wit, vivacity, and alas! the fickleness of the Frenchman, the painstaking persistence of the German, the indolent indifference which veils the Spaniard's volcanic nature, have all been generally acknowledged. And though there may be an occasional protest at some pungent thrust, the nations themselves usually accept the universal verdict. Each nation colors for itself the legends which it inherits, and it is difficult to identify in the heroes of one people those whose acquaintance we have already made under far different guise and surroundings. Indeed, the Orient and Occident are not geographically farther apart than they are separated in habits of life and thought.

Conceding all this, I think we may not be astonished if the dwellers in these United States have gained the reputation of being a peculiar people. And when we read or hear of the nervous American, we recognize its allusion to ourselves and take it home as tolerably descriptive. The word nervous is somewhat ambiguous, but we understand it to mean in this connection that hurry and restlessness, that lack of repose, which seems to permeate not only our business circles, but social life as well.

Uncle Sam and Brother Jonathan have been so many times faithfully described and pictured that you can readily recall their personal appearance. Then the high-keyed voice, louder than your ear quite relishes, the rapid jerking out of sentences at the risk of losing a part of the words, the direct, brusk manner which wastes no time in formalities–all these things are familiar to everybody. And then this nervous American is so busy. No time to stop; the days all too short to carry out his plans; no leisure for home or friends or amusements.

Of course it is the American who revels in a trip around the globe in sixty days, and who yearns to whirl along one hundred miles an hour. Said a witty Russian: "The American seems to have a wager with Time, and I am really interested as to which will win."

Night travel is nowhere so popular as in this country. To retire at night to one's Pullman couch and awake the next morning in a distant city with a full day's work before him, is great gain to the average American, and if he can repeat the performance and be ready for business at home on the following day, his happiness is doubled. Any possible fatigue is not to be counted in the transaction. Now all this [Page 705]  is, according to popular verdict, nervous; and it is quite pertinent to ask the cause of such a trait–whether it is a permanent characteristic, and its probable effect upon our welfare, present and future.

It has been somewhat widely discussed, and various causes assigned. Some hold that it is due to the dryness of our climate; others consider the electrical currents of this continent especially stimulating, and that their great prevalence affects our temperament. Still others believe that it depends on the large quantity of meat which forms so prominent a part of the diet of our people. Again it is held to be indicative of a defective nervous development, an irritable unstable condition which accompanies a weak organization. This is a favorite theory with those who believe in the poor, frail physique of the Americans.

It may be that all these contribute to the same end, though they are somewhat contradictory.

We know that food and climate have a powerful influence upon the general condition of a race; its wealth, its physical development, its mental and moral status. The immense amount of work which has advanced this nation so rapidly could never have been done except by a people well fed. Our relatively small population, distributed over a large and fertile territory, has made food cheap and plentiful, so that even our poorest classes, as a rule, have had an abundant and nourishing diet. Mental quickness and ingenuity, large brain power, and equally great muscular activity and endurance, are a legitimate result. And it is true that muscle without the propelling, directing vitality or nervous force would have been useless. Our nervousness, then, is what has done it, and if it has been sometimes over-stimulated, there is a comfort in knowing that, up to date, it has made an unparalleled record.

The question whether the perfected American type has been reached must certainly be answered in the negative. We are yet in the formative stage, and conditions tend to keep us there. While our advancement in business methods, in manufactures, agriculture and scientific research, shows great precocity in this infant nation; we must remember that we have inherited much, and that we have been continually receiving from outside both brawn and brain, so that what we might be if left to ourselves is yet to be determined. Successive generations of a homogenous people are necessary to perfect a type, and only during our colonial period, before the Revolution, was there a century in which our evolution was comparatively undisturbed, and what is distinctively American belongs to the influence of that time.

The handful of men and women who set their faces westward builded better than they knew. They braved undreamed of perils in the wilderness, but they conquered a new world. Before them, waiting for the magic touch of intelligent toil, was a continent with limitless forests, mighty lakes and rivers, golden, swelling prairies, treasures of precious metals, and all the harvests which were garnered in the bosom of mother earth for the future blessing of her children.

The star moved westward; they followed. Through blood and flame, in poverty and distress, they fought their way; beaten back only to advance farther tomorrow, stronger for the rebuff, discovering new resources which lured them forward, even though the way was beset by a new foe; ever on, till they reached the shore of the sunset land and gazed on the waters of a new ocean.

I need not bring statistics to show you what has been the result of that pioneering. This great Exposition, which holds the world by sample, as one might say, brings us into very favorable comparison with the older countries, and if the American bosom swells with pride and complacency, and if American lips utter words of self- congratulation, and, perchance, of self-laudation, there is surely sufficient material excuse to free us from the charge of mere bombast and save us from ridicule.

Those who share in our triumphs today are not all descended from the Revolutionary forefathers. Fair Columbia, holding aloft her liberty cap, and lighting with flaming torch the path across the deep, has smiled a welcome to millions of eager helpers. Not from the ranks of the rich and happy, certainly, but largely from the [Page 706]  toilers, from among the poor and illiterate of other lands longing to find in a new home, under a new flag, that comfort and reward for labor which could not be theirs in the already over-crowded fatherland.

The consideration shown them, their independent and responsible position, filled them with a novel sense of individual importance, and stimulated them to ambitions heretofore unknown. They have swept over the whole country, and that they have not entirely uprooted and blotted out the native stock is proof of its original strength.

But while it is in a sense still the controlling force, how under these circumstances could a national type be formed? Look around you in any city of the land. Do you see Americans? Do not your eyes fall rather upon faces unmistakably Irish or German or Swedish, Italian, or other marked nationality? How many generations will be needed to harmonize these dissimilar types, even if today were to witness the coming of the last immigrant? Give time for the embryo American to come forward and claim his heritage.

Whether he will possess all the nervous energy of his predecessors is doubtful. So far as climate affects him, he will, of course, be much the same; but the relations of food supply to population, the inevitable change in habits and pursuits and all those conditions which the years will impose upon us, must affect the temperament of later generations. Even now the first settled parts of the country are accused of looking with an assumption of dignity upon the crudities of younger sections. And these in return have shown the customary heedless disregard of the wisdom of their elders, dubbing them old fogies, and scorning the quiet respectability of New England villages as the decrepitude of old age. Ah! but there is a pace which kills, and the decadence of a nation comes only by the follies of its constituents. Its life may be long or short; its influence great or small; its career brilliant or inglorious; its fame enduring or transient. it will be strengthened by the morality, conservative business methods and true patriotism of its people; it may be destroyed by reckless speculation, individual ambition, sectional strife, or anything else which weakens its physical or moral fiber.

How many of our men live, or seem to live, only to do business. The man seems lost, submerged under its exactions. The thing he created to serve him as a means to an end is transformed into the master, to which he is chained. He no longer seeks amusements; home sees little of him; wife and children are small incidents in his daily life; friendship is an almost forgotten word; general reading is out of the question; and the grind of the counting room or office goes on year after year, till the wheels stop, utterly worn out. These men tell us, when they are implored to give up business and take needed rest, that they would rather "wear out than rust out." Rust out, indeed! Does money-making–for that is the great incentive in most cases–does this constitute the only legitimate and worthy employment of time? Is there not today a large field in philanthropy, science, art, literature and healthy recreation of many kinds, which can profitably and agreeably occupy one's powers, conferring benefit in the change it affords, as well as by enlarging the bounds of human sympathy and knowledge? Why should one's success in life be measured by the amount of wealth he has acquired? It does not always represent industry or honesty or any other virtue, and to accept such a standard would be to prove that during our exceptional progress we have lost something precious that we once had. Such gross materialism is not a worthy result of all this toil and struggle, nor an acceptable answer to the prayers and hopes of our fathers.

Where are our grand old men, the Gladstones of our country, hale and hearty, still young at eighty-four, enjoying life and foremost in questions relating to our welfare? We have a right to the accumulated wisdom of those who have had the experiences of life as teachers. "Young men for action, old men for counsel," is still and always will be the natural order. We can ill afford to lose the services of our leaders who have been falling so fast around us. And the almost universal verdict is: "Killed by overwork." Not by age, nor by accidental disease, but cut off in their prime, the victims [Page 707]  of nervous exhaustion. The tremendous strain upon the nervous system, which is wearing out our people in business, social and domestic life, is a serious matter. All seem keyed up to an extreme tension, and the evil does not end with the individual. The law of heredity is that an overtaxed vitality reproduces itself in a feeble offspring, at least having strong tendencies to mental, as well as physical, infirmities. Insanity is increasing among us. Our asylums are quite inadequate to the demands upon them. There is a constant cry for more room in which to shelter the poor demented beings who have become a menace to the peace and safety of their homes. Certainly parents have no right to bequeath this affliction to their children, neither have they the right to bestow a wrecked nervous system, which is the legitimate predecessor of insanity. Isolation, hard and monotonous work, have filled many wards of the retreats in our agricultural sections with the wives and daughters of farmers. These women have not neglected the wash-tub for the piano; they have not written books instead of rocking the cradle; they have listened to the steady thud of the churn-dasher, rather than to the silvery and enticing accents of the "female orator;" they have brewed and baked and scrubbed according to the most orthodox prescriptions; they have literally staid at home and looked carefully after the welfare of their households; and yet these patterns of domestic industry head the list of demented women. "True 'tis pity, and pity 'tis 'tis true." Some sage has observed that "it is worry, not work, which kills;" and it must certainly be true that work with worry is doubly exhausting, for it depresses both mind and body, preventing that quiet rest which is so necessary for recuperation.

Now that physical culture is attracting so much attention, what with rowing and running and tennis and bowling, riding, swimming and base-ball, the muscle of our sons and daughters bids fair to be tolerably developed. True, this may, and probably will, be abused; but it is a move in the right direction, and will give to the country some superb physical specimens of men and women. The future race is partly dependent on our women, and nervous, hysterical girls will produce children with nerves irritable and over sensitive. It is popular to publish articles exhorting them to do thus and so, because upon them must rest the responsibility of motherhood. To many of these I say heartily, "Amen." But after all, that is only half the matter. Young men are to bear the responsibilities of fatherhood, and it is therefore just as important that they should be virtuous and temperate, deserving the respect and confidence which their position should command. Healthy minds in healthy bodies the coming generations demand from all.

In the name of our watchword, liberty; in the name of our English-speaking ancestry, in the name of our early defenders against foreign interference, and of later upholders of the nation's right to decide as to its citizenship and their duties, and for the sake of those who will come after us and who will have to suffer for our mistakes, let us think upon these things, squarely face the issues, and act in the courage of conviction for justice, patriotism and self-preservation. Then will "the nervous American" stand as a shining example of wisdom and prudence as well as of energy and industry.

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Mrs. Martha Cleveland Dibble is a native of Bath. N. H. Her parents were Rev. Edward Cleveland, a Congregational clergyman, a graduate from Yale, and Mary M. Lang, a very cultured lady. Mrs. Dibble is a graduate from Iowa College, Grinnell, Iowa; later studied medicine in this country and in Europe. and holds a diploma from the Woman's Hospital College, of Chicago. She has traveled quite extensively through this country and in Middle and Southern Europe. In 1878 she married, in Michigan, Dr. LeRoy Dibble. Her special work has been in the interest of hospital and reformatory effort for women. Her profession is that of medicine, to which she gives most of her time. In religious faith she is Protestant. She is a member of the Protestant Episcopal Church. Her postoffice address is Kansas City, Mo.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Mary Mark Ockerbloom.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom