Saturday, March 15, 2008

America Revisited

Campaign season -- a perfect time to reflect on our history ...

You might think with a high-tech gadget like the Sony ebook reader I got for Christmas that the first things I would try it out on would be science fiction or computer programming texts. But instead I cashed in on the free classics that Sony lets you download. So three of the first books I read were about visits to America in the 19th century--works that were between 117 and 165 years old. (Note to publishers: good books have a long life; they are not like this month's hit songs.)


First of these travelogs was Charles Dickens' American Notes, an account of his visit to the States in the 1840's. It begins with a hilarious diatribe about the extremely small size of the "state room" that he and his wife shared on their voyage across--a sentence that seems to go on for pages, during which the room continually shrinks as the sense of humor expands. From there it becomes more somber as we are reminded how arduous and perilous such voyages were, even in the early days of the steamship. And it echoes the experience of countless immigrants who made the same voyage. To cross the Atlantic then was to give oneself up for lost, and hope to be reborn at the other end of the passage.

Upon landing in Boston, being Dickens, his first order of business was to examine the institutions for the poor, sick, and infirm. The facilities of Boston passed with flying colors, and are held up as examples of their kind. It would seem that in our earlier days our nation established standards which we have forgot to maintain. If we ourselves could go back and see what was being done in the 1840's it would be hard to say where we have made any progress since, and easy to see where we have fallen behind--particularly in the area of mental health care.

One notable example is an institute for the blind, many of them children. Dickens spends a great deal of time on a single case, a girl who lost her sight, hearing, sense of smell, and most of her sense of taste due to illness at the age of three. I confess my imagination fails to be able to encompass such a degree of isolation--to think of being a mere child, lost alone in the silent dark.

Several years later the girl was brought to this establishment where the doctor, much like the woman who taught Helen Keller many years later, managed to teach her to recognize letters carved of wood, to assemble letters into words, that words had meanings and could be used to communicate, and finally how to make signs for the letters using her fingers. She quickly became proficient at this, and was able to make friends and to play with the children around her, who were merely blind. She even learned how to sew and to knit, if you can believe that.

Having accomplished all this, the doctor told Dickens that his next task was going to be to try to give the girl some conception of God. Only then did he seem to think his responsibility would be fulfilled and his work complete. It's hard to imagine a modern doctor taking this point of view. He would probably call in a specialist if he did anything at all. But I think it speaks well for this Victorian-era doctor that he would take on the challenge of treating the whole person, not just the symptoms, and that he recognized the paramount importance of the spiritual element of being human.

The remainder of Dickens' wandering about the country is more protracted. He visits New York, Buffalo, Chicago, and lower Canada, and treats us to a poetic evocation of Niagara Falls. Everywhere he goes, he visits hospitals and prisons and whatever other such institutions are available, though not all of them live up to the high standard of the ones he encountered in Boston. He also visits the brand new capital city of Washington, D.C., which apart from the public buildings is not much more than a sprawling construction site.

At this fringe of the South he first encounters the institution of slavery. The importation of slaves had been banned by this time, but this did not prevent slave owners from breeding their captives like cattle and continuing to trade in them within the country's boundaries. Needless to say, it was a practice that Dickens took a dim view of.

One of the most powerful parts of the book is a compilation of advertisements that he culled from Southern newspapers. Each contains a description of a runaway slave that the owner is seeking recovery of, and each describes the marks of physical torture that will identify his property--ears missing, brands on the face, whip scars on the back, hobbled limbs, an endless litany of abuse. Any wonder why they tried to escape?

Having praised us, Dickens lays this burden on our doorstep, claiming we will never be a great nation so long as the shame of slavery hangs about our necks.


This is a perfect segue into the second book, North America, by Anthony Trollope. The novelist followed in Dickens' footsteps about 20 years later, in 1861-2, when the country had fallen into civil war between the free and slave states. From the outset the author gives us his own prediction of the outcome. He believes that eventually the South will be established as an independent nation regardless of the outcome of the war, because the cultural differences between North and South are too great to be overcome, and because he cannot imagine that the North would readmit the seceded states to membership in the Union in the wake of all out war.

Modern readers know that he was wrong in this, but it demonstrates the magnitude of what the country has accomplished over the long years of Reconstruction and eventually up through the Civil Rights period. It may have taken more than a century, but an African-American now stands as a front runner for the presidency and even garners wide support throughout the former Confederate States. It also reminds us that the institution of slavery, once so widely held to be inevitable, has been done away with--at least within our borders. Any modern instances are rightly treated as corporate malfeasance or bizarre crimes akin to rape and serial murder. And whatever evils may remain in the form of prejudice or injustice are nothing compared to how monstrous it used to be.

Though he came along later than Dickens, Trollope still visited in a time when he could claim to have explored North America by going no further south than Washington (still acres of mud and still under construction), no further north than lower Canada, and no further West than St. Louis. He, too, visited Niagara Falls, and left behind a lyrical depiction of the experience as lush as any period oil painting by a great master--far exceeding in breadth and depth the comments of his predecessor.

In all he is an admirable observer. Learning that a detachment of Union soldiers is about to disembark from a riverboat, he has to stand by the gangway to see the men's faces and take their measure as they file past. Not content to collect statistics or to rely on interviews, he has to stand in the middle of a grain elevator as it transfers its river of wheat from a barge on one side to railway cars on the other--a process that went on 24/7 during harvest time--gaining a visceral experience of what millions of bushels feel like.

Like Dickens, Trollope had no love for slavery, yet he seems to consider it likely to continue indefinitely in the South, and to have few hopes for those who might be liberated in the border states. (His belief was that the North would take control of Kentucky, Tennessee, Kansas, Missouri, and maybe even Virginia and the Carolinas, leaving the "Gulf States" their independence with slavery intact.) In fact, his speculation about the inability of freed slaves to care for themselves reveals all the traditional bigotry that we associate today with racism.

Also like Dickens, he was concerned that his many criticisms of America and its social order would outweigh his equally strong praises for what he found good and admirable. The closing chapter is largely an apology and an appeal to his many American friends to understand the spirit of his remarks.


The young Rudyard Kipling seems to have felt himself under no such restraints when he published his own American Notes in 1891. Fresh off the boat from India (by then you could cross the Pacific in about three weeks and relative comfort) he lands in San Francisco with poison pen at the ready, and begins lashing out immediately at journalists, city planners, advertising, accents, culture or the lack thereof, and anything else that forced itself upon his attention.

An editor's forward to this slim volume explains that it has been out of print for many years and is seldom listed in bibliographies of Kipling's work, largely because of the negative reaction to it by American readers. Also, I suspect Kipling later regretted his acid tone. We know that he married an American woman, lived for some years in Vermont, and purchased a lovely piece of property there. Presumably he moderated his opinions over time.

The book has an unfinished feel to it, as if he left off in the middle and never got back to it. At the outset he tells us that he is traversing the country from West to East, rather than the usual reverse direction, yet the narrative leaves off at Chicago. There, instead of standing in a grain elevator, he witnesses the assembly line slaughter of pigs, presaging Sandburg's depiction of the city as "hog butcher to the world."

Still, the story has its bright moments. In one chapter Kipling rhapsodizes over a salmon fishing trip outside of Portland (then part of California). Like a youthful Hemingway he revels in the struggle of the sport, the glory of the outdoors, the brotherhood with his companions. The sense of satisfaction seems to outweigh all the negative impressions he collected in the city, and he claims he could now die happy and complete.

Visiting The Past

The wonderful thing about the past is that you can visit it, walk its empty streets and peer through its boarded up windows. You can pluck its newspapers from the trash and discover what was going on, how it looked and felt to those who lived there.

Each of these books places the reader into the body of its author for a first person encounter with America the way it was. Perhaps we are still as touchy about criticism, both pro and con, as we were back then. I confess my chest swelled when both Dickens and Trollope commended us for teaching everyone how to read, and observed that all Americans did so avidly, consuming multiple daily newspapers and myriads of books that dwarfed the per capita sales in England. If we have fallen away from that golden age it is only because we have moved on, ever restless, to consuming information in forms that did not exist in the 19th century. (And if you think TV is bad, you should read what Trollope has to say about our newspapers.)

On the other hand, my lips curled in disgust and shame over the depictions of universal tobacco chewing and consequent spitting that darkened the sidewalks, floors, and carpets everywhere--even in the halls of the Capitol. I suppose we replaced this national habit with cigarette smoking, and are now trying to wean ourselves from that. But we can certainly be glad that the spittoon is a fixture of the past.

Charles Dickens made another visit to America in 1868--twenty-five years after his first one, six years after Trollope, and three years after the end of the Civil War. Addressing members of the press, he expressed his admiration for how far the country had advanced in this time, particularly in ridding itself of the scourge of slavery. Indeed, he promised to add these remarks as a postscript to his earlier book, and to instruct his publishers that they must be included in all future printings.

Little did he imagine that 140 years later those words would still be included in a digital text that could be obtained anywhere through a global network of wires and painted page by page on a reading device he could only have considered magical. Kind of makes me wish I could return the favor and invite Dickens to see us now through my own eyes. But the deal only works in one direction.

[All three of these books can be downloaded free of charge from Project Gutenberg.]

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