Americans at Home

BOTH as a nation and individually we profess to like to see ourselves as others see us, and the Marchioness de San Carlos has given us the chance of knowing how we strike a foreign woman of fashion. Madame San Carlos has had unusual opportunities of seeing Americans at home and abroad, and of comparing New York with London, Paris, Havana, and Madrid. She has embodied her impressions in a book, rather loosely put together and without serious method, but which will be read with interest and improvement by every woman in this country who is curious about the judgment of an impartial tribunal. The volume may be divided into two portions : the first deals with society, woman, the young girl, propriety, the new man, music, the machine, by which is meant not political organization, but the vast whir and whiz of American life ; the other and larger part is devoted to art, literature, and the drama in the United States, to religion, education, the state, and the labor question.

Madame San Carlos writes with the light touch and amiable temper of a true woman of society, looking for the agreeable side of things. She has not fallen into the vulgar mistakes about this country to which even intelligent foreigners are prone ; if some of her remarks appear to us stereotyped, it is because certain of our faults cannot fail to strike everybody from other countries in the same way. As long, for instance, as frivolity and extravagance are the besetting sins of our women, they must expect to hear about them. “ The trouble a young American will take to gratify her slightest whim is inconceivable! ” Madame San Carlos exclaims. But she has taken the measure of the American woman with remarkable accuracy, and while giving her credit heartily for her virtues shows a good deal of penetration in asserting them to be unconscious rather than the result of effort. Madame San Carlos does not adopt the tone or gesture of a censor; her attitude from the outset is a recognition that there are more ways than one of living and looking at life ; a slight shrug or shake of the head marks her dissent or disapproval. She owns that there must be some excellence in customs which make women so frank and independent. She adverts to one danger in the free intercourse between our young unmarried men and women which we never before heard any one mention,—the risk of a girl’s falling hopelessly in love with a flirt or with a man who has only friendship for her. Against this and other flaws in our polite system for women, Madame San Carlos sees a safeguard in their general habit of reading; it is this, she says, which prevents the trifling American from becoming commonplace, or worse. It must depend in great degree on the nature of the reading, but she is no doubt right in supposing that the practice is on the whole strengthening and salutary. In her estimate of our national character, she gives the highest place to truthfulness, and she makes a good point in saying that the story of Washington and his cherry-tree, which is told to every American child, at once teaches and typifies the quality we prize most.

Madame San Carlos has not only a very lively, graceful way of writing, but an uncommon gift of description ; her style is easy and unstudied, and though not what is at present known as graphic it gives a clear impression in a few words. A single page devoted to the ordinary New York house is as exact as a ground plan, and as faithful and unflattering as a photograph ; after reading it one might paint, paper, and furnish every room to order without crossing the threshold. Another example of her descriptive power is the picture of the guest arriving at an evening party in overcoat and galoshes, blinded by the light of the long, narrow entry, down which the icy air from the street rushes in his wake straight upon the staircase with its crowded tiers of pretty girls in ball dress, whom he must face and trample on his way to the host’s bed-room, where he leaves his wraps. She finds a painful sameness in New York parties notwithstanding the pleasant, cordial nature of social intercourse, owing to the practice of inviting too many people into too narrow quarters. The highest art of Madame San Carlos’s talent for description is in her chapter on Niagara, for which she finds some fresh colors and original touches ; of the whirlpool she says : —

“ There one may sometimes see the prow of a canoe, or the hideous spectre of a wretch who has been drawn into the current far above the rapids. Strange ! in the whirlpool every waif rises to the surface before being swallowed up forever. It is the sole spot where the uprooted pines once more behold the blue sky, and a man may look for an instant on the lifeless body of his friend.”

In the chapters on the school, the church, taxation, and trades unions, not only is the subject matter more solid than in the previous ones, but the handling is so much heavier as to raise a suspicion that the Marchioness’ pen began to tire her fingers, or that she passed it on to somebody else. The peculiarity of her book is that it has a moral: Madame San Carlos concludes from her observation of this country that the only power which can check the swing of irreligion and license is that of the Roman Catholic Church. Her inference reaches a possible consequence of our present condition, though not the cure for it. The decline of authority, parental, spiritual, conventional, and the defiance of every rule are giving a preponderance to tendencies in our national character which sooner or later will be compensated by a reaction of the self-adjustive balance of temporal affairs. If we do not seek for a safer counterpoise, we may feel the heavy hand of Rome on the beam, settling order; and it will take a long and costly struggle to shake it off and restore the true equilibrium.

  1. Les Américains chez eux. Par MADAME LA MARQUISE DE SAN CARLOS DE PEDROSO. Paris. Brentano : New York. 1890.