An American Virtue

Wilfred M. McClay | Posted on 04/01/09

The story of the world is mirrored in the history of words. And because that story is full of surprises and paradoxes, the words we use are bound to reflect that fact. Take the humble monosyllable grit , for example. In its fundamental meaning, it could hardly be less ambiguous, or less impressive. A piece of grit is nothing more than a hard granule, such as a grain of sand. In fact, the word comes from the Old English word for sand, though our term grit is used more generally to apply to any such tiny particulate matter, ranging from pulverized or ground-down stone to the airborne byproducts of combustion or heavy industry. Grit is everywhere, one of the smallest and commonest things in the range of our everyday experience, and of little obvious value.

In fact, more often than not grit is a nuisance. It makes things look and feel dirty, unkempt, unclean. It impedes the smooth functioning of life’s machinery. It specializes in creating friction and discomfort, particularly when it is, as it so often is, somewhere it doesn’t belong. Grit in the eye may mean a scratched cornea; grit in your sandwich gives it an unwelcome crunchiness and leaves you with unwelcome grit in your mouth and on your teeth; grit in your collar chafes your neck; grit in your shoes irritates your feet; grit in your car engine, like sand in your gears, is the prelude to massive repairs or worse.

True, grit has its uses. If you must smooth out a rough wooden surface, you’ll want to have plenty of grit in your sandpaper. And Southerners are likely to associate the word with grits, a more pleasing form of particulate matter: finely ground bits of corn or hominy boiled in water, making a much beloved comfort food. But neither of these meanings points to anything glorious or exalted, or beyond the circle of the ordinary. Sanding is no art form, and grits are no delicacy.

But the grit that we are here considering is, of course, something quite different from any of these. We are interested in grit as a word designating a certain feature of human behavior and human character, a certain quality of heart and soul and spirit. Grit taken in this sense denotes a distinct virtue. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), a person possessing grit shows “firmness of character or courage,” and is “full of determination or pluck.” People with grit show dogged perseverance even in the face of overwhelming odds in carrying out their duties or pursuing their chosen aims.

Grit overlaps with and borrows from many other virtues, but it is subtly different from them all. It is somehow a “modern” virtue, which is why it seems anachronistic to speak of the grit shown by the Greek warriors at Thermopylae, even though one probably could. Grit requires immense and sustained courage but disclaims any applause or approval from the crowd. It is honorable, but does not seek honors, and it is never too proud to get down in the dirt and do the necessary (even if lowly) task at hand. It does not obsess about what is owed it. It expects no parades or medals, and it is comfortable with obscurity; the world is full of loyal and resourceful political wives who show far more grit than the marquee figures to whom they are married. It shows fortitude and steadfastness, but with a strong admixture of sheer cussed stubbornness, even ornery pride. It is not a particularly kind or generous disposition, although it may well be needed for the sustained performance of some generous act, such as the succor of the poor or the defense of the victimized.

Which is to suggest that grit is a virtue that shows itself most fully in trials and combat. It disdains the luxury of being open-minded, tolerant, or impartial, nor is it ambivalent or skeptical or changeable. One would never use the words Hamlet and grit in the same sentence. Grit knows what it believes, and has fastened upon what it believes entirely, integrally, with all the force in its being.

It is heroic, but in an understated, unromantic, and unsentimental way, and it is able in times of extreme duress to move forward without relying on inspirational myths or pep-rally sloganeering, or any hopeful claims of grand historical or cosmic significance, or even the promise of light at the end of the tunnel. Instead, grit falls back on the sheer momentum of will, of resolution to do one’s duty, keep one’s promises, and maintain one’s honor, fending off all temptations of paralyzing doubt. Grit doesn’t try to soar; it just keeps on keeping on, willing to trudge ahead patiently and unglamorously, self-propelled, seeking no external props, falling back in the end on the mysterious resources of the individual heart. To put it in the argot of football, the offensive strategy of grit is pure ground ball, three yards and a cloud of dust, rather than the quick scoring and flashy excitement of the passing game. Grit does not allow itself to be diverted when reversals occur or when things go awry, nor is it tempted to switch sides to ally itself with the winner. Such opportunism is repulsive to it. This is not to say that grit is fanatical or imprudent or obsessive, only that once it embarks on a position it is willing to go down with it, if matters should come to that.

The artist Robert Henri, in his book The Art Spirit, puts it this way, expressing the ethos of grit beautifully without using the word: “Do not let the fact that things are not made for you, that conditions are not as they should be, stop you. Go on anyway. Everything depends on those who go on anyway.” Those last words are especially revelatory. Everything depends on those who go on. Showing grit means going on, redoubling one’s effort when the outcome is uncertain. Grit means a doubled-down resolve to be faithful to who and what one is, come what may. It might seem to bear a certain resemblance to the Nietzschean or existentialist exaltation of the will, but it is in fact something altogether more humble and responsible than that. Grit is submission as well as self-reliance. Others are depending on you.

So now that we have a better sense of grit as a virtue, an interesting question arises: Is there some larger significance in the way that the various meanings of this word are connected? Is this an example of how the larger story of things is reflected in this curious history of words? It is a question of more than mere philological interest, as the history of virtue is, rather more than most things, bound up in the history of words — words being the way by which we come to define and express the virtues and identify what is virtuous about them in a particular time and place. The Greeks cannot really be said to have had “grit,” in part because they did not have the means to speak of it. So the question for us is how such a lowly word, representing life’s pesky, commonplace particulate matter, came to represent something so estimable in human character.

The answer may be sitting out in plain view, or rather, back in the pages of the OED. It turns out that only one of the word’s several meanings relates to questions of virtue and character, and that meaning is labeled by the OED as “U.S. slang.” In other words, this usage is an American usage, and it arose as an expression of commonplace American life, particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. To the extent that this usage has spread around the world, to that same extent have spread peculiarly American images of valor and pluckiness, such as the frontiersmen and cowboys of the Old West, epitomized by John Wayne’s Marshall Rooster Cogburn in the movie True Grit, or the Sergeant Yorks and Private Ryans and other immortal “grunts” of American military lore, or the “common men” who have served in the American presidency, from Andrew Jackson to Abraham Lincoln to Harry Truman.

Grit is a democratic virtue, the poor man’s (or woman’s) heroism, the common man’s virtue represented by common stuff: by that granular resistance, that friction, that commonplace particulate material needed to hold the mortar together, that elemental stuff on which everything else in life depends. This collocation of meanings is not the least bit fanciful, and it is no mere coincidence. Consider the fact that the word sand had a similar meaning and usage in the nineteenth century, and was a favorite term of Mark Twain’s; a person with unusual gutsiness and persistence was said to have “sand.”

The rise of “grit” corresponds with the rise of American democracy, the discovery of the heroic potential in the breasts of ordinary people and in the performance of ordinary acts. So “grit” is a quintessentially democratic virtue. Not that it celebrates the lowest common denominator. Quite the opposite: it reflects a Victorian confidence in the potential of individualism and the depths of human character. Yet it remains largely the property of the common man — or, as Americans in its heyday liked to say, the uncommon common man, a term that absorbs the aristocratic into the democratic. Of course, aristocrats can and do show grit. The story of John F. Kennedy’s heroism aboard the PT-109 in the South Pacific was meant to stamp an image of gritty toughness over his glossy manor-born image. But aristocrats have no special claim to grit, and in fact, as in the biblical analogy of the rich man and the eye of the needle, they may find themselves at a considerable disadvantage in demonstrating that virtue convincingly. The factory worker who shows up for work every day for forty years, in sickness and health, in order to feed his family and make a better life for his kids is far closer to the inner core of grit.

But words rise and fall, as do peoples and nations, and there is now something a little old-fashioned, even archaic, about the sound of the word grit. You just don’t hear it used much anymore. It is a soulful and earnest word, not quite in style for our cool and affectless and technocratic times, in which hanging loose and holding our loyalties and attachments lightly is considered a mark of wisdom and a sign of “the courage to change.” An age in which we are constantly reassured about all the things to which we are entitled, all that is owed us, all the ways that we are not responsible for ourselves. An age in which sacrifice is a word honored in rhetoric and shamelessly manipulated in practice, and in which Yeats’s plea that “body be not bruised to pleasure soul” has so completely triumphed that we cannot imagine any cause in life for which it is worth endangering, let alone sacrificing, even the smallest element of our bodily health.

Does this loss of the concept of grit as part of our public speech mean that we don’t admire it anymore? That we don’t see it as an estimable quality in the character of another person, and don’t want to see it in ourselves and our children? Or does it mean that we have lost a sense of what things are worth being gritty about? And either way, what are the implications for the American democratic experiment? After all, the notion of the uncommon common man, which forms the inmost core of the concept of grit and serves as a point of connection between particulate matter and human character, is also at the core of American democracy: the notion that the highest and finest of human virtues can be expressed in the lives of ordinary people. If we lose that, if we turn our culture over entirely to the clever and credentialed, the celebrities and the smooth talkers and the people with lucrative connections and media exposure, we will have lost a very large piece of our soul. We can, and must, summon the grit to resist that. And we can start by restoring the word to our vocabularies, and using it rightly, because it says something essential, and says it best.

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