Sunday, 25 February 2007

Americans observed

Ever since they emerged on to the world stage after the Revolution, The United States of America and the unique features of their society have been the object of much comment both from their own citizens and from external observers. Probably the most famous of these were de Tocqueville and Charles Dickens, but there have been others whose writings, now largely forgotten, throw illuminating shafts of light upon both USA past and USA present.




1. THE ENGLISH LADY – 1820s


Mrs Frances Trollope was the mother of the more famous Victorian novelist, Anthony Trollope. She herself was an accomplished and voluminous writer, whose pen kept the family from economic disaster for prolonged periods. Her husband was an unsuccessful barrister and farmer, and they had several children, one of whom, Henry, had left school early without career prospects.


An acquaintance of the Trollopes was a rich, charismatic young lady, Miss Frances Wright, who was a convinced social reformer in the Owenite mould and had purchased a tract of land in the backwoods of Tennessee where she proposed to establish a utopian community dedicated to the education of slaves in preparation for their emancipation. With her husband incapable of making ends meet, Fanny Trollope decided to take all her surviving children except Anthony, who was still at school, to join in this quixotic venture, naïvely believing that, once there, she would be “very happy and very free from care”. Needless to say, it did not turn out like that.


The party sailed up the Mississippi in a steamboat, arriving at Miss Wright’s American “paradise”, Nashoba, in January 1828. What greeted them was three roofless log cabins in a malaria-ridden swamp, with only a handful of ragged, bewildered slaves. So the Trollopes continued up river to Cincinnati, then the fastest-growing city in America, where they settled for the next three years, becoming notorious in the process.


With seemingly boundless energy and determination, Mrs Trollope set the hapless Henry to giving Latin lessons to local gentlemen. When these did not materialise, Henry became the main attraction at the Western Museum in the role of the “Invisible Girl” – an oracle who spouted several garbled languages which evidently impressed the Cincinnatians. Not content with this, the Trollopes launched “The Infernal Regions”, based on Dante’s Divine Comedy, which continued to pull in crowds long after they had departed. Much more ambitiously, Fanny persuaded her husband – who had come out to visit them – to support her financially in establishing an arcade, or bazaar, in central Cincinnati with exhibition, lecture and reading rooms, a theatre, rotunda, coffee house, and a variety of shop stalls – a prototype shopping mall, in fact.


An exotic building, partly modelled on the Brighton Pavilion, was commenced on a central site and Mr Trollope [who had returned to England] sent out “$4000 worth of probably the most trumpery goods ever shipped to America”. With an unfinished building, unsaleable stock, and the bills piling up “Trollope’s Folly” earned the contempt of Cincinnati, which regarded its proprietress as dowdy and tactless, which she probably was. After two years struggling to make the bazaar pay, Fanny decided to move on and set out for the Alleghenies, the East Coast, Washington, Niagara Falls and, eventually, home after a four-year transatlantic sojourn.


Throughout her time in America she had been making copious notes of her impressions and experiences, and on her return home she wreaked her revenge for what she regarded as inconsiderate treatment by writing what became a best-seller on both sides of the Atlantic - Domestic Manners of the Americans, published in 1832. It was an immediate scandalous talking-point, drawing mostly howls of outrage in the US and some quiet amusement in the UK. It was only half a century since the former colonies had declared their independence, and their emotional ties – both positive and negative – to their erstwhile mother country were still strong.


Fanny had crossed the Atlantic with strongly democratic sympathies, but these moderated as she encountered ceaseless American self-praise and often ignorant observations about England. And, while praising the beauty of the country and the enterprise and independent spirit of the inhabitants, she found some of their habits repugnant – especially the universal male habit of spitting tobacco-juice anywhere and everywhere. On the Mississippi steamboat she was confronted with “the total want of all the usual courtesies of the table, the voracious rapidity with which the viands were seized and devoured….the loathsome spitting, from the contamination of which it was absolutely impossible to protect our dresses; the frightful manner of feeding with their knives, till the whole blade seemed to enter into the mouth; and the still more frightful manner of cleaning the teeth afterwards with a pocket knife.”


These uncouth table manners contrasted comically with the Americans’ extremely prudish attitude towards literature and the subordinate place occupied by American women. A well-to-do American housewife, Fanny said, spent a day of almost unrelieved tedium until her husband’s return for dinner, when “he comes, shakes hands with her, spits, and dines. The conversation is not much, and ten minutes suffices for dinner. The husband then goes off to his club for the rest of the evening. And so ends her day.”


Religion made matters worse, with itinerant preachers of many denominations who sound positively creepy [not much change there, then!] insinuating themselves into the good graces of their female congregations with sometimes untoward results. Fanny went to both a revival meeting in Cincinnati and a “camp meeting” in the wilds of Indiana. At the former, after a fire-and-brimstone sermon, a number of young girls “came tottering out, their hands clasped, their heads hanging on their bosoms, and every limb trembling…Young creatures, their features pale and distorted, fell on their knees on the pavement, and soon sunk forward on their faces; the most violent cries and shrieks followed, while from time to time a voice was heard in convulsive accents, exclaiming, ‘Oh Lord!’ ‘Oh Lord Jesus!’ ‘Help me, Jesus!’ and the like. “ The preachers walked among these girls, offering them “ whispered comfortings, and from time to time a mystic caress. More than once I saw a young neck encircled by a reverend arm.”


It didn’t always stop with encircling arms, though. Mrs Trollope relates, in suitably shocked fashion, the tale of a young Philadelphian lady whose feelings for one of these preachers was “a curious mixture of spiritual awe and earthly affection”. Luckily her father noticed what was going on in time to forbid the preacher the house before irreparable damage was done; he left the city, but a few months afterwards “no less than seven unfortunate girls produced living proofs” of the father’s wisdom. Not surprisingly, Mrs Trollope is scathing, and also highly amusing, about the abundance of religious hypocrisy she encountered.


She is also very critical of the Americans’ strange mixture of crudeness and prudery, and their civic hypocrisy. Ceaselessly proclaiming that they enjoyed the best constitution and government in the world, and their devotion to democracy and equality, they nevertheless for the most part enthusiastically endorsed the “peculiar institution” of slavery, and Fanny was shocked to discover that negroes were being bred in the “free” northern states for export to the south, where they were sold as slaves. “You will see them with one hand hoisting the cap of liberty, and with the other flogging their slaves”, she remarked. American treatment of the native Indians she characterised as “treacherous and false almost beyond belief”.


Attitudes to the British were patronisingly contemptuous, and often invincibly ignorant. “One lady asked me very gravely, if we had left home in order to get rid of the vermin with which the English of all ranks were afflicted.” She had been told, on “unquestionable authority”, that it was quite impossible to walk though the streets of London without having the head filled [with lice]. When Fanny demurred, the lady retorted “there is nothing so easy as to laugh, but truth is truth, laughed at or not”. Another enquired how the Trollopes could bear to return to a country where they knew they would be considered as no better than the dirt in the streets. When asked to explain, she said “the fact is, we Americans know rather more than you think for, and certainly if I was in England I should not think of associating with anything but lords. I have always been among the first here, and if I travelled I should like to do the same”. Fanny drily comments that in all the many conversations she held with Americans about England, “it was made clear that I knew much less about it than those I conversed with”.


Mrs Trollope had gone to America something of a liberal; she returned in a much more Tory frame of mind. “Strong, indeed, must be the love of equality in an English breast if it can survive a tour through the Union.“ Her final verdict was uncompromising: “I do not like them. I do not like their principles, I do not like their manners, I do not like their opinions…. If the citizens of the United States were indeed the devoted patriots they call themselves, they would surely not thus encrust themselves in the hard, dry, stubborn persuasion, that they are the first and best of the human race, and that nothing is to be learnt, but what they are able to teach, and that nothing is worth having, which they do not possess.” “All the enthusiasm of America is concentrated to the one point of her own emancipation and independence; on this point nothing can exceed the warmth of her feelings.”


Needless to say, Domestic Manners was a scandalous hit on both sides of the Atlantic. The British were highly amused by it; Americans were furious, their invective bearing out Fanny’s remark that “other nations have been called thin-skinned, but the citizens of the Union have, apparently, no skins at all”. Charles Dickens, who followed in her footsteps a decade later to write American Notes, was also disillusioned of his idealistic vision of the Republic, and told a friend that he believed “the heaviest blow ever dealt at Liberty’s Head, will be dealt by this nation in the ultimate failure of its example to the Earth”. Much later in the 19th century, Mark Twain admitted that Mrs Trollope “was merely telling the truth, and this indignant nation knew it. She was painting a state of things which did not disappear at once. It lasted to well along in my youth, and I remember it.”


FANNY TROLLOPE: Domestic Manners of the Americans, with introduction and notes by Pamela Neville-Sington. Penguin Classics.

12 comments:

1loneranger said...

An interesting post anticant. Well, being the resident semi-uncouth American here, I guess I'll go ahead and put my foot in my mouth now. ;)

Since moving from the States to Canada one of my personal missions has been to identify the elusive Canadian identity? After five years of dwelling on this topic I've concluded that it is not multi-culturalism, as government officials would have us and the rest of the world believe, but more likely the common connection to the environment. The collective Canadian identity can be best described by the communal envitabilty of winter’s coming. Canadian residents are quite possessive of their beautiful unspoiled landmass that comprises most of the North American Continent. Endless ocean coasts, vast prairies, countless great lakes and Rocky Mountains are where people go to seek refuge from the cities. The artic tundra known as the "Great White North" holds a mythical status among Canadians and non-Canadians alike. The fascination with this land’s harsh natural beauty is the true Canadian identity. Almost every Canadian is an avid outdoorsmen and many families keep cottages in rural northern locals to escape to from their city dwellings down south near Uncle Sam's border.

That being said, upon initial observation a visitor or newcomer to Canada might not make this assesment. The most commonly expressed identity trait proclaimed by Canadians would have to be how "unlike Americans" Canadians are. Canucks love to toss around this mantra to help describe themselves and their country. "We're a lot like the States, but we're nicer and more polite." I'm sure everyone reading here that has met a Canadian on a train or airplane knows what I'm talking about.

As annoying as this description might be to an American, this is certainly an understandable reaction for a relatively new country in search of an identity living next to the most powerful nation on the planet and attempting to become recognized among the world's older and more established industrial countries.
The comic, Robin Williams, said of the Maple Leaf country...." Canadians are like the residents of a loft apartment living above a house that's throwing the greatest party on earth, and they’re not invited." It may seem that way to that comic and other Americans. But after living here for five years now, I'd have to say that sentiment rings hollow.

I have a theory that it is this same quest for an identity that Trollope mistakenly described as uncouth mannerisms of early Americans. In an attempt to find themselves in the aftermath of Revolution Americans proclaimed to abandon most everything right and English, most notably the Victorian Era’s rigid behavioral etiquette practiced by certain visiting elitists from England.
Perhaps in this attempt to find a unique national identity the fledgling American citizenry living in the “wilds of the west” lost some of the inherent “English civility” of their former mother country.
After all, aren’t many of those 18th and 19th century Americans just wayward Englishmen.

We all know of course that every nation embodies many sorts of behavioral traits, and it would be naïve to presume and cliché to say that all Americans are uncouth ruffians.
This is why it is so dismaying to watch a certain American President and his administration embody these rough edged stereotypes for the sake of seeming rebellious and individualistic when all it does is make him look like a giant American ass.

As for Trollope’s critique of slavery being contradictory to American liberty, I find it amusing that she considered herself and her motherland above reproach given that several British cities and enterprises were built around the Atlantic slave trade and continued to capitalize on that slave trade and the cheap labor it produced well into the later half of the 19th century. It wasn’t until 1838 that the British Empire formally abolished slavery. And Lloyd’s of London, the National Gallery of London and the Bank of England were all heavily funded by the sugar cane production coming out of the West Indies into the 19th century.

My apologies if this lengthy comment has come off at all defensive. That is not my intent. I would have to agree with Twain’s observation that most of what “Lady English” said is in fact true while at the same time being slightly hypocritical. My only excuse can be….. I’m a bit of rough edged Virginian myself I guess.

It is a shame that America’s gruff liberal exterior forced Trollope to flee for her life and high-tale it back to her homeland and revert to the stifling conservatism of Tory theology.
We could have capitalized on her insight. But, it’s no big secret,…. American’s hated loyalists with a passion. Most of them were forced to flee to Canada eh!

1loneranger said...

Or, maybe we are just a bunch of hill-billies. ;)

toby lewis said...

1loneranger the English have always specialise in a waspish comic criticism so don't take too much offence from the comments.

Great post, Anticant. The problem for the English in retrospect is we seem to have acquired many of the negative aspects of American culture, the disappearance of manners, obesity, arrogance (although we always had that), consumerism and cultural ignorance (best demonstrated by our general failure to learn foreign languages).

The blog -
http://www.eclecticeccentrics.com has been launched and you are free to comment, just pitch a few ideas and Frank will give you posting rights. Contact him via the e-mail on the blog. It turned out that while we were having our conversation the other day about whether it was a good idea or not, Frank had gone and designed it anyway (he is an irrepressible force when he's channelled in the right way). Sorry if it seems undemocratic, but let's not view it as an uber-site but instead another string for our many bows. It seemed a shame to waste his efforts and it might be a good way of pulling in prospective writers to our expanding circle of blogs.

1loneranger said...

Hi Toby-

Really, no offence taken at all by anti's latest. On the contrary, I found the perspective refreshing as always. We Americans have a fairly tuff skin in addition to too much stuff, fat, and hubris.
Our true fault is ignoring history's lessons.

tyger said...

Very much enjoyed this post Antacant. I very much like de Tocqueville; although I preferred Twain and HL Mencken. Alistair Cooke mustn’t be ignored either, even if he was an establishment figure and a bit of a fuddy-duddy.

mutleythedog said...

Brilliant and fascinating post!

Jose said...

I hope I'll be more clear-headed tomorrow and read this article as it deserves.

anticant said...

One of the fascinations of history is that present-day readers KNOW WHAT HAPPENED NEXT, which those in the past didn't. To really get inside their minds - so far as that's possible - we have to forget our later knowledge. The twelve million or so Americans of Mrs Trollope's day were mostly descendants of British [and some French and Spanish] settlers, and bore little resemblance to today's 350 million Americans of very varied ancestry. But there are some abiding similarities. such as their uncritical belief in the superiority of their way of life, and their forms of government, above all others.

lavenderblue said...

Wonderful writing, as always, Anticant.
I love these posts .
Thank you !

Aphra Behn said...

I must admit that I loved Trollope's waspish bitchiness whenver it was that I first read it. She was narrow-minded, snobbish and a cow, but that only made the book all the more wickedly enjoyable.

Interesting comments about Canada, there, 1loneranger. A friend of mine has just come back from skiing in Finnland. Made me miss the North all over again.

Aphra.

anticant said...

Aphra - hope you've latched on to Zola's lovely blog. He's in Lapland, and very partial to intelligent ladies!

Emmett said...

A Lot of what happened, of course, is that by the time of Mrs Trollope's long hiatus, here, the majority certainly of transmontane fifth and seventh generation Scotch-Irish 'whites' were in fact undergoing /barbarisation/ -- this concept is best articulated by texas historian T R Fehrenbach, in his /Comanche: The Death of a People/. /In sum/, the barbarised whites were the 'point' of the westward-expansion. And, necessarily they were 'Manifest Detiny's' hit-men (& 'wimmen'!), as the population of the mainly anglo-american & still-atlantean East Coast by the early-19th century no longer had any direct experience of indian warfare; they had become dainty; they were now writing literature; and, thus, they were no longer capable of the contingent & dionysian, hick-ignorant, brutalities of westward expansion.

GLOOMILY,

Wook, Old Cop & Relentless Historian