Saturday, September 8, 2012

24. Foreign Visitors and What They Thought of Us: Mrs. Trollope

Foreign visitors have come to this country for a variety of reasons: to have a look at this raw new democracy and take stock of it (Alexis de Tocqueville, Charles Dickens); to make money (Sarah Bernhardt, Oscar Wilde, Dylan Thomas); to hunt buffalo (Grand Duke Alexis of Russia); to elicit good will (the Prince of Wales in 1860); to
find support for a failed revolution (the Hungarian revolutionary Louis Kossuth).  Most of them passed through New York, often to tumultuous acclaim.  No such acclaim greeted Frances Trollope, the mother of the future novelist, when she arrived in the city in the spring of
1831, and for good reason, but her visit would be long remembered.  What had brought her to the New World was an interest in a cooperative community in Tennessee, plus the prospect of launching a business venture that would redeem the family's dwindling fortunes in England; she was to go first, and her husband would follow later.  The cooperative community turned out to be a wretched and unhealthy place, and her business venture in Cincinnati proved disastrous, following which she decided to tour the cities of the Eastern seaboard, including of course New York.

        When the sharp-eyed English lady came here, she stayed five weeks and did the requisite visits, bustling her small, plump frame through the Collegiate Institute for Young Ladies and the Asylum for the Destitute.  Returning one day to her hotel, she complained to a waiter how a cabman had cheated her.
            “Did you agree with him first on the fare?”
            “Why no, I didn’t.”
            A smile.  “Then the Yankee has been too smart for you.”

            One can imagine her indignation.  Even here on fashionable Broadway, with its fancy shops, neat awnings, and superb trottoir (so welcome after her sojourn in the muck of the hinterland), she wasn’t safe.  It was the hundredth time the Americans had cheated her, the thousandth they had mocked her.  After three years in this untidy land she was sure she knew us only too well: the women dreary as homespun, discussing the latest sermon or dyspepsia pill while stitching pincushions for charity, so some pale young seminarian could go to Africa and die of a fever; the men great braggarts and boors who ate with their knives and nearly swallowed them, put their feet up on the table, chewed, schemed, spat.  Especially spat.  On the street, in restaurants, even in drawing rooms and church.

            For three years she had endured our jangle of barbarisms: “I reckon,” “I calculate,” “If that don’t beat creation!”  At the first jolting twang of our speech, she had tingled with fascinated horror, perked up her ears, scribbled notes.  For three years she had endured our presumption: “Your newspapers ben’t like ours, I reckon; we says and prints just what we likes!”  In those days we were an adolescent nation, and like any teenager worthy of his salt, we delighted in putting down our parent, Mother England, against whom we had already waged two wars.  While the portrait above conveys a sweet-smiling, demure young woman, one suspects that Mrs. Trollope, a ripened forty-eight when she came to us, was, with her preconceived notions and prejudices, her finery, and her shrill, piercing voice, just the sort of English biddy to elicit put-downs and insults from the Yanks.

            She had also observed our greed.  “You’re very rich, Nick,” she remarked to a ten-year-old seller of eggs, noting his pocket change.
            “’Twould be a bad job for I, were that all I’d got to show.”
            “Do you give the money to your mother?”
            “I expect not.”
            “What then do you do with it?”
            A glance from his ugly blue eyes:  “I takes care of it.”

            And had witnessed our strange backwoods religion: hellfire sermons inspiring orgies of repentance seasoned with screams of “Jesus!” and “Glory!” as defenseless young females swooned in the arms of ministers not loath to offer a mystic caress.  And at a camp meeting in the wilds of
Indiana, a ranting preacher exhorting a crowd of penitents, mostly women, who moaned and groaned under conviction of sin, then sprawled convulsively in a confusion of heads and legs, shrieking and screaming as they threw their limbs violently about and sobbed.  Which was not, one suspects, a concept of religion acceptable to a genteel English lady familiar with the decorum and restrained elegance of the Church of England.

            By the time she came to New York, Frances Trollope was not just repelled and scandalized,
but embittered by her experience of this new young nation, allegedly so replete with shimmering opportunities.  In Cincinnati, hoping to sell Jonathan fine imports from London and the Continent, but being woefully deficient in business acumen, she had erected a grandiose Bazaar that the locals, having fleeced her in its construction, promptly labeled “Trollope’s Folly” and declined to patronize.   Debt-ridden, her goods seized, she left.

            Longing in this rutted wilderness for the smooth lanes and tidy hedges of England, she might have gone home, but to round out her impressions and glean some hints of civility, she visited the cities of the East.  Alas, on either side of the Alleghenies (sublime mountains!) the Americans were mean and tricky and gloried in it: as Talleyrand had remarked to Napoleon, “Proud pigs.”  Yes, there were gentlemen, a few, but it was the rough, common article she chafed against.  She was tired of hearing slurs on “British tyranny” and her “paltry little place of an island,” and of being called “the English old woman,” while butcher boys were designated “gentlemen.”

            From New York she had hoped for more, but even here theaters were packed with slouchers and boors, and elegant ladies with infants performing the most maternal of offices.  Even here,
in close proximity to the avenues, she found smelly cattle yards and tanneries provoking memories
of the hog-butchering stink of Cincinnati.  Even here the men schemed, cheated, spat.

            Soon, her notes complete, she whom Americans obviously took for a quaint little English busybody would depart this strange democracy, so removed from the chivalry of life, and sail back over the ocean to where England lay waiting like a set jewel.  Back to clean linen, well-mannered inferiors, and lawns like green handkerchiefs.  But what would she do with those notes? 

            Long since already, an idea had probably flashed in her mind and snapped into place like a clasp:  A book!  Why of course, a book!  She would expose these sturdy sons of freedom, their manners and morals and pretensions of destiny.  The cheaters and spitters would hear from her as she chronicled every insult, every outrage on gossipy pages laced with blue venom.  Thin-skinned, they would cry her down from Maine to Georgia, but they would read her, and so would the world.  So was conceived Domestic Manners of the Americans, which, having departed this objectionable land, she wrote back home in genteel England with spite crackling from the nib of her pen.  It was published in London a year later, in 1832.

             Domestic Manners of the Americans  hit New York at the same time as the cholera, and with as much effect.  When people met on steamboats, on stages, or in the street, their first question was, “Have you read Mrs. Trollope?”  She was reviled in newspapers, mocked in cartoons, and labeled "Old Madam Vinegar," her likeness even exhibited in a traveling menagerie whose patrons were invited to abuse her.  But for years afterward, if someone put his feet up on the railing of a box in the theater, or otherwise misbehaved, the cry “A Trollope!  A Trollope!” rose immediately from the pit.  And when, years later, they asked Mark Twain, who had grown up in rural Missouri, if what she had written was true, he replied that, alas, it was only too true.

Thought for the day:  Behind the wall of noise, silence waits.

                                                        Copyright 2012  Clifford Browder

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