Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Englishman in America

North America, Anthony Trollope

Every chain bookstore seems to have the same two Trollope novels, The Warden and Barchester Towers, with an occasional copy of The Way We Live Now for variety.  I've been very lucky lately in the used bookstores, which is where I found North America a few months ago.

I first learned that Trollope had written a travel book about America from his autobiography.  And not just about America, but about a visit in 1861, in the first year of the Civil War.  It immediately went on my reading list, via a request through interlibrary loan (the local libraries aren't much better stocked with Trollope than the chain bookstores).  After such a build-up, I found the book a tough read.  It was packed with facts, detailed descriptions of ships, hotels, trains, meals, scenery, buildings.  It was overwhelming, and it wasn't that interesting.  I gave up somewhere in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Several months later, as I said, I came across a Penguin edition of North America.  It's a small paperback, only 218 pages, and I didn't stop to think about the difference in size from the hefty library book.  I probably thought vaguely that it was just smaller type and different formatting.  In actuality, as I learned from the introduction, this is a condensed version, cut by two-thirds.  In explaining his cuts, the editor commented that "there were long dull areas and technical discourses of little interest now, and numerous repetitions," and I can testify to that.

I found even this condensed version a bit slow going at first, until I caught Trollope's unique authorial voice.  He wanted, he said, to write of people, not things, but he still spent a lot of time describing scenery.  Niagara Falls he declared the greatest sight in the world.  He did, though, write a lot about the people of the United States, and also of Canada.  Like Isabella Bird, he crossed back and forth between the States and Canada, and I was reminded of her The Englishwoman in America.  I don't know if Trollope read it.  One major point of difference between the two is that Bird constantly noted the presence, and the baleful influence, of Irish immigrants and their Romish priests in the US.  Trollope noted both Irish and German immigrants, but only in passing.  He praised the Germans for their industry, and he had warm words for the Irish.  From what I can tell Trollope's early life in Ireland, working for the Post Office, left him with an affection for the Irish and for Ireland.

Like Bird, Trollope clearly saw slavery as the cause of conflict and of secession.  But he seemed to think that a division of the US was only to be expected, because of the deep cultural and economic differences between the two sections, and because the US was growing too big to succeed.  He saw abolitionism only as a political tool or weapon, and he called the northern states on their racism and unequal treatment of free persons of color.  But at the same time he believed that the slaves were not fit for freedom, and that slavery was a benign paternal care of dependent peoples.  He seems to have encountered slavery only in the upper south and in the border states, which undoubtedly gave him a rosy picture of the conditions of slave life.  He could write with sincerity that the slaves are well-treated and get everything they want or need in material goods; and that in Kentucky, it was considered improper to split slave families by sale.  Had he met Frederick Douglass or Sojurner Truth, had he traveled to the deep South, he might have gotten a fuller picture.

Trollope spent some time in Washington, D.C., a town he despised for its filth and incomplete state (he predicted that the Washington Monument would never be completed).  He chose not to try and get an appointment with Abraham Lincoln, and he apparently didn't want to risk the daily crush of people in the White House reception rooms.  I would love to have heard his assessment of Lincoln; to think that he had the opportunity and did not take it!

One of Trollope's main complaints about America is overheated rooms.  He repeated it again and again, with variations, including an assertion that overheated air bakes the beauty out of American women.  He also had strong words about spoiled American children: "They eat and drink just as they please [especially pickles!]; they are never punished; they are never banished, snubbed, and kept in the background as children are kept with us; and yet they are wretched and uncomfortable...[frequently] in agonies of discontent and dyspepsia."

Some day I may request the complete version of North America, but in the meantime I'm glad to have this version on my shelves.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!