Life and Liberty in America: Or Sketches of a Tour in the United States and Canada in 1857-8
REVIEWS AND LITERARY NOTICES.
By Smith, Elder, & Co. 1859., LL.D., F. S. A. London:
"LET him come back and write a book about the ’Merrikins as’ll pay all his expenses and more, if he blows 'em up enough,” urged Mr. Anthony Weller, by way of climax to his scheme for Mr Pickwick’s liberation from the Fleet Prison. Whether Mr. Dickens, in putting forth this suggestion through one of his favorite characters, had or had not a view to subsequent operations of his own, has long been a sore question among his admirers on tins side of the Atlantic. We believe that he had not; and that such "blowingup” as lie imparted to the people of this country was wholly unpremeditated and spontaneous, besides being of so harmless a nature that the patriot of most uneasy virtue need have been nowise distressed in consequence. The language can show few more amusing books than the “American Notes,” especially the serious parts thereof.
Mr. Dickens had plenty of objects besides his future self at which to aim his satirical shot. At the time he discharged it, the literary market of England was overstocked with books on America, the authors of which had apparently tasked the best energies of their lungs in incessant “ blowings-up ” of all that came within range of their breath. Up to that period, though viewing America from various stand-points, they had seldom failed to recognize this one essential element of success. Since then, however, attempts have been made to satisfy the prejudices of all sides,— in which the hitter and the sweet have been deftly mingled, with the obvious belief that persons aggrieved, while suffering from the authors stings, would derive comfort from the consciousness of accompanying honey. These hopes generally proved fallacious, and the authors, falling to the ground between the two stools of American sensitiveness and British asperity, were regarded in the light of stern warnings by many of their successors, who straightway became pitiless.
The critical works on America by English writers, published during the last fifty years, may be numbered by hundreds. Of these, nearly half have at different times been reprinted in this country. Most of them are now unknown, having passed to that oblivion of letters from whose bourn no short-sighted and narrowminded traveller ever ought to return. The annual harvest began to appear about a half-century ago, when little more than descriptions of scenery and geographical statistics were ventured upon, — .although one quaint explorer, John Lambert, vouchsafed, in 1810, some sketches of society, from which we learn, among other interesting facts, that a species of Bloomerisin pervaded New York, and flourished on Broadway, even at that early day. Our visitors very soon enlarged the sphere of their observations, and entered upon the widest discussions of republican manners and morals. Slavery, as was to be expected, received immediate attention. In the course of ten years, “American Tours” had set in with such rigor, that one writer felt called upon to apologize for adding another to the already profuse supply. This was in 1818. For the next fifteen years, the principle of unlimited mockery was quite faithfully observed. The Honorable De Roos, who made a naval examination in 1826, and satisfied himself that the United States could never be a maritime power,— Colonel Maxwell, who entered upon a military investigation, and came to a similar conclusion respecting our prospects as to army, and who gained great credit for independent judgment by pronouncing .Niagara a humbug, — Mrs. Kemble, frisky and fragmentary, excepting when her father was concerned, and then filially diffuse,— Mrs. Trollope, who refused to incumber herself with amiability or veracity,—Mr. Lieber, who was principally troubled by a camp-meeting at which he assisted,— Miss Martineau, who retailed too much of the gossip that had been decanted through the tunnel of her trumpet, — and Captain Marryatt, who was simply clownish,— afford fait examples of the style which dominated until about 1836 or 1887. Then works of a better order began to appear. America received scientific attention, It had been agriculturally worked up in 1818 by Cobbett, whose example was now followed by Shirreff and others. In 1839, George Combe subjected us to phrenological treatment, and had the frankness to acknowledge that it was impossible for an individual to properly describe a great nation. Afterwards came Lyell, the geologist, who did not, however, confine himself to scientific research, but also analyzed the social deposits, and ascertained that Slavery was triturable. The manufacturers of gossip, meanwhile, had revolutionized the old system. Mr. Dickens blew hot and cold, uniting extremes. Godley, in 1844, disavowed satire, and was solemnly severe. Others evinced a similar disposition, but the result was not triumphant. Alexander Mackay, in 1816, returned to ridicule ; and Alfred Bunn, a few years after, surpassed even Marryatt in his flippant falsehood. Mr. Arthur Cunynghame, a Canadian officer, entertained his friends, in 1850, with a dainty volume, in which the first personal pronoun averaged one hundred to a page, and the manner of which was as stiff as the ramrods of his regiment. Of our more recent judges, the best remembered are Lady Emmeline Stuart Wortley. who gave to the world the details of her private experiences,— Mr, Chambers, of whose book there is really nothing in particular to say,—Mr. Baxter, who considered Peter Parley a shining light of American literature,— Miss Murray, who sacrificed her interests at St. James’s upon the shrine of Antislavery,— Mr.Phillipps, scientific,— Mr. Russell, agricultural,— Mr, Jobson, theological,— and Mr. Colley Grattan, who may be termed the Sir Anthony Absolute of American censors, insisting that the Lady Columbia shall be as ugly as he chooses, shall have a hump on each shoulder, shall be as crooked as the crescent, and so forth.
Last of all comes Mr. Charles Mackay’a book. Before proceeding to the few general words we have to say of it, let us look for a moment at a question which he, like a number of his predecessors, has considered with some attention. Why it is that the people of the United States manifest such acute sensibility to the strictures of English writers, and receive their criticisms with so much suspicion, Mr. Mackay is unable fully to determine. He is forced to believe that it is only their anxiety “to stand well in English opinion which causes them to wince”; particularly as “ French and Germans may condemn, and nobody cares what they say.” This is but a part of the truth. Unquestionably, Americans do, as Mr. Mackay says, “ attach undue importance to what English travellers may say”; but this does not account for the universal feeling of mortification which follows the appearance of each new tourist’s story. Americans have not failed to observe, that, of the hundreds of writers who come over, only a few of the most prominent of whom we have mentioned above, not one in fifty is animated by a sincere impulse of honest good-will. They have learned to mistrust them all, as trifters with our reputation, if not predetermined calumniators. They have witnessed over and over again the childish ignorance, the discourtesy, the vulgar deceptions of this class of bookmakers, They are not blind to these repeated struggles to digest a mass ot mental food tor years, in days or weeks. They know their nation cannot be understood by these chance viewers, feebly glancing through greenest spectaeles, any more than the Atlantic can be sounded with a seven-fathom line. They have become familiar with the English traveller only to regard him with contempt. Each new production has opened the old wound. Each new announcement awakens only derisive expectations. As for “ French and Germans,” with them it is very different; and .Mr. Mackay ought to know it. They commonly write, if not with comprehensive vision, at least with integrity of purpose. The best works on America are by Frenchmen. What Englishman has shown the sincerity and fairness of De Tocqueville or Chevalier? Knowing, then, that absurd malice and a capacity for microscopic investigation of superficial irregularities in a society not yet defined are the principal, and in many cases the only, qualifications deemed necessary to accomplish an English book on America, is it matter for wonder that Americans should hesitate to kiss the clumsy rods so liberally dispensed ?
We hasten to say that Mr. Charles Mackay’s “Life and Liberty in America” is unusually free from the worst of these faults. Hasty judgments, offences against taste, inaccuracies, occasional revelations of personal pique it has ; but it is not malicious, Sometimes it is even affecting in its tenderness. It breathes a spirit of paternal regard. But it is, perhaps, the dullest of books. If not “icily regular,” it is “ splendidly null,” The style is as oppressive as a London fog. It is marked, to use the author’s own words, by “ elegant and drowsy stagnation.” After the first few pages, it is with weariness that we follow him. We are inclined to think Mr. Mackay has written too much. Mr. Squeers had milk for three of his pupils watered up to the necessities of five. Mr. Mackay's experiences might have sustained him through a single small volume, but he has diluted them to the requirements of two large ones. This would injure the prospects of his work in America, but may not interfere with them in England. Minute details of toilet agonies, pecuniary miseries, laundry tribulations, and anxieties of appetite may possess an interest abroad which we are unable to appreciate here. We are not excited by the intelligence that Mr. Mackay had an altercation with a negro servant on board a Sound steamer, because he could not have lager-beer at table. Such things have been noticed before. We do not shed a sympathetic tear over the two dollars which ho once had to disgorge in New York, in payment for a ride of two miles; nor do we mourn for the numerous other dollars with which he reluctantly parted to satisfy the rapacity of hack-drivers all over the Union. We do not thrill with indignation, when we learn that he was, on a certain occasion, swept by crinolines into the middle of Broadway. Neither are we in any way stirred by such information as, that he, like an English lord of whom he tells, was accustomed to eat oysters every night in New York ; or that he “ was pervaded, permeated, steeped, and bathed in a longing desire to behold Niagara,” and that, when he beheld it, his “ feelings were not so much those of astonishment as of an overpowering sense of Law” ; or that a peddler in a railroadear sold nine bottles of quack medicine at a dollar a bottle; or that he had eight pages of interview with a Baltimore madman, who proved his insanity by perpetually calling Mr. Maekay the “Prince of the Poets of England.” The dreary solemnity with which these incidents are narrated renders them doubly tedious. A flash of humor might enliven them, but we never see a spark. Mr. Mackay’s comic stories, too, of which there are not a few, are most lamentable specimens of wit, suggesting forcibly the poppy-seeds spoken of by Mr. Pillicoddy, which are soporific in tendency, and which, if taken incessantly for a period of three weeks, produce instant death.
Mr. Mackay’s experiences were not of a startling character. He travelled leisurely, and recorded discreetly. His blunders on a large scale are not numerous ; but of minor facts, he announces many which may be classed among the remarkable discoveries of the season. He states that New York, New Jersey, ( ! ) and Brooklyn form one city; that Broadway, N. Y., is decorated with elms, willows, and mountain-ashes, “drooping in green beauty”; that persons with decent coats and clean shirts in Boston may be safely put down as lecturers, Unitarian ministers, or poets; that Maryland and Virginia are one commonwealth ; that eighteen months before every Presidential election, a cause of quarrel is made with England by both the principal political parties, for the purpose of securing the Irish vote; that measly pork is caused by too hasty insertion in brine after killing, and consequent rapid fermentation; that the people of the United States, unless they have travelled in Europe, are quite unable to appreciate wit. [Mr. Mackay’s wit? If so, certainly.] These are but random pluckings from a rich blossoming.
The subject upon which the author has labored most earnestly is that of Slavery. If the views he sets forth are the result of his own investigation, he is entitled to credit for unusual exactness. There is nothing new about them, to be sure; but there is also nothing absurd, which is a great point. He maintains the argument against Slavery, that it is to be practically considered in its injurious influences on the white people of the Slave States, and, through them, on the nation at large. When he undertakes an emotional view of the “ institution,” he becomes feeble again. He thus describes his sensations while visiting a slave-market in New Orleans: — “I entertained at that moment such a hatred of slavery, that, had it been in my power to abolish it in an instant off the face of the earth by the mere expression of my will, slavery at that moment would have ceased to exist,” — an avowal which will hardly he likely to confound the American people by its boldness,
The statistical information in these volumes is as accurate as that of ordinary gazetteers. In most cases, the author appears to have drawn his information from proper sources. The principal exceptions to this are shown in one or two statements which he makes on the authority of his Pylades, Colonel Puller, and in his remarks upon Canada, which are colored with excessive warmth. Mr. Maekay rests greater hopes upon the future of Canada than upon that of the United States. He considers the Canadians as the rivals in energy, enterprise, and industry of the people of the United States. His testimony differs from that of Lord Durham, who had good opportunities for knowing something about the matter when he had charge of Canadian affairs, and who declared, that “ on the American side of the frontier all is activity and hustle,” etc., “ on the British side all seems waste and desolate.”
Mr. Mackay gives correctly the most prominent names of American literature, but his list of artists is very imperfect. The little that he says about American music is all wrong. The first opera by an American was produced in 1845; and it is not true that this is a solitary example. Were it possible for us to pursue them, we should run down more errors of this kind than a prudent man would have put into print.
Altogether, while we readily admit that Mr. Mackay has honestly, and, in general, good-naturedly, performed his duty as an American chronicler, renouncing in a great measure the old principle of “ blowingup,” and that his essays do not reek with ignorance, like those of many of his predecessors, it is yet proper to say that he has achieved a stupendous bore. His two volumes are to us a melancholy remembrance. Their life is spiced with no variety. The same dead level of dry personal detail speaks through each chapter; or if occasional relief is afforded, it is “in liquid lines mellifluously bland,” and prosier than all the rest. The one source of amusement that the reader will discover is the complacent self-confidence which no assumption of modesty can hide. “A controversy had been raging for at least a week” in Philadelphia about the author’s letters in the “ Illustrated London News.” His defender was “one of the most influential and best-conducted papers of the Union”; his assailant behaved “seurvily.” We cannot lavish examples. This is the type of a hundred. Mr. Maekay seems to expect that his Jeremiad on tobaccochewing and spitting will act in America as St. Patrick’s spells did on the vermin of Ireland. Unfortunately, it will not. Mr. Dickens attempted the same thing in a much better manner,— excepting where Mr. Maekay has copied him exactly, as he has once or twice,— and even the novelist’s efforts were fruitless. On the other hand, the main source of annoyance will be found in the needless elevation of minute evils, and the determination to form general judgments from isolated experiences. But of this we do not much complain. Home derived some benefit from the cackling of a goose. Possibly we may be made in some respects a wiser and a better nation through Mr. Mackay’s influence. For ourselves, however, if our aspirations ever turn toward a literary Paradise, we shall pray that it may he one where travellers cease from troubling and dull tourists are at rest.