Friday, February 10, 2017

Classics #3

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2017.

Domestic Manners of the Americans – Frances Trollope

Anthony Trollope’s mother took a trip to the United States in 1827. She had come to join her friend Frances Wright's Nashoba Commune, whose goal was to educate slaves for freedom, near Memphis. After she saw the hard living conditions in the wilds of Tennessee, she changed her plan to making badly-needed money with a retail shop in Cincinnati. Her husband was chronically ill back in England and she had five older children to support.  During her time in the US, note she was not a tourist or student, but a sojourner - one who resides for a lengthy period in another culture for professional reasons. She was therefore able to see the heart of the new culture, not just the skin and brain.

She did not plan to write a book, but she did keep a notebook of her observations on life in the US. The store in Ohio failed, however, so she decided to monetize her notebook. The book she produced is well worth reading, though her observations are filtered through her lack of success (which she does not discuss). The tone is a acrimonious, even vituperative, but the wit has verve and the ring of truth. On American table manners:

The total want of all the usual courtesies of the table, the voracious rapidity with which the viands were seized and devoured, the strange uncouth phrases and pronunciation; 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, soon forced us to feel that we were not surrounded by the generals, colonels, and majors of the old world; and that the dinner hour was to be any thing rather than an hour of enjoyment.

She was certainly one for refinement, deploring the Americans' "coarse familiarity.” A Tory, she has little use for “I’m just as good as you are” Jacksonian, common man democracy:

And here again it may be observed, that the theory of equality may be very daintily discussed by English gentlemen in a London dining-room, when the servant, having placed a fresh bottle of cool wine on the table, respectfully shuts the door, and leaves them to their walnuts and their wisdom; but it will be found less palatable when it presents itself in the shape of a hard, greasy paw, and is claimed in accents that breathe less of freedom than of onions and whiskey. Strong, indeed, must be the love of equality in an English breast if it can survive a tour through the Union.

But, probably due to her unhappy experience doing business with Americans, she gets in forceful jabs:

Yet the Americans declare that "they are the most moral people upon earth." Again and again I have heard this asserted, not only in conversation, and by their writings, but even from the pulpit. Such broad assumption of superior virtue demands examination, and after four years of attentive and earnest observation and enquiry, my honest conviction is, that the standard of moral character in the United States is very greatly lower than in Europe. Of their religion, as it appears outwardly, I have had occasion to speak frequently; I pretend not to judge the heart, but, without any uncharitable presumption, I must take permission to say, that both Protestant England and Catholic France show an infinitely superior religious and moral aspect to mortal observation, both as to reverend decency of external observance, and as to the inward fruit of honest dealing between man and man.

We can easily imagine that her book causes howls of dismay and derision in the United States after it was published. In her own time, Charles Dickens said, "I am convinced that there is no writer who has so well and so accurately (I need not add entertainingly) described America." It was a best seller in both the UK and the US. Later in the 19th century Mark Twain said, "[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."

The prose is workman-like, straightforward enough to read quickly. She organizes the book both chronologically and topically (the camp meeting chapter is incredible). I recommend this book to readers into antebellum America, travel writing and amateur ethnography. Also, to those who would dare to compare religious fanaticism, unapologetic materialism, shaky commitment to probity and ethics, sloppy manners and unconscious conceit then and now.

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