Title: British Side-Glances at America

Periodical: Lippincott's Monthly Magazine

Date: November 1890

Author: Wharton, Anne H.

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To hear an American octogenarian still hurrahing for King George, and boasting that his family had never thought much of Mr. Washington, is a specimen of British atavism scarcely to be expected on the free soil of the republic; yet such an anomaly has recently been encountered in one of our large cities. This, which may be called the revolutionary point of view, is that from which many Britons still regard the quondam colonies of their crown. They have, as a rule, relinquished the idea of the native savage in war-paint and feathers, that for several decades has stood for the American, although this effete type is still cherished on some portions of the Continent, as an Italian journal recently announced that Colonel Cody (Buffalo Bill), who was drawing immense crowds in the Eternal City, had gained his military rank "in wars against the Indians conducted by Washington." Such a mistake as this would of course be impossible to the average Englishman, yet with regard to our civilization he pertinaciously clings to a type only a few degrees removed from the picturesque red man, and with regard to our geographical relations formulates hypotheses that may without exaggeration be called eminently ingenious. The anecdote of the foreigner who expatiated on the beauty and grandeur of the Rocky Mountains as viewed from the banks of the Hudson is congenially companioned by that of the Englishman who, by his remarks to a Philadelphian on Mexico, evidently presupposed a nearness that would admit of sociable visiting between Philadelphians and citizens of the capital of that country.

We are all familiar with such tales of travellers as these, and that of the English lady of rank, who, on meeting a New-Yorker abroad, took it for granted that she knew her son, who was spending some months in the American metropolis, and was greatly disappointed that her new acquaintance "had not had the pleasure" and was consequently unable to unfold a chapter of pleasant recollections of the absent son with which to cheer her motherly heart. Of the same character was the mistake of another English lady, who was greatly interested in the welfare of a young maid-servant about to emigrate to the United States. On hearing that a New-York woman was in the same hotel, she asked for an introduction to her, and begged her to keep an eye on the friendless girl beginning life in a strange land. When the American asked where her protégée was to live, the naïve reply was, "Oh, in Albany!"—as if Albany were but a ten minutes' walk from New York. Such instances as these could be adduced ad infinitum; and the curious coincidence of a distinguished American prelate, while visiting at an episcopal palace in England, being waited on by a cousin of the valet of one of his ecclesiastical brothers on this side of the Atlantic, to whom he was able to give information about his absent relative while his coat was being brushed, furnishes such random queries with a peg to hang upon, and will probably, like a sowing of dragons' teeth, raise a fresh crop of inquiries and surmises to be combated by the sorely-tried and much-questioned American tourist.

It is not to be expected that English people will know just how many miles intervene between New Orleans and New York, or on what rivers our principal towns are situated; but when a map of the United States was brought out, several years since, by the Marcus Ward Company, it did seem a trifle inaccurate to place the capital of New Jersey on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River, especially as the crossing of the Delaware by the Federal army at Trenton was a sufficiently noteworthy event of the War of Independence to have emphasized the fact of its location to the British student of geography and history.

In view of these and other misconceptions with regard to the United States, we ought not to be surprised at the following statement made in one of the leading British magazines in an interesting paper on capital punishment: "Since the first day of the present year [1889] it has been the law in America that executions should be carried out by electricity." As we all know, electricity as a death-penalty has been legally adopted by only one State of the Union, New York, which does not presuppose its adoption by all the other States, as the British writer quoted from seems to infer, much less does it make it the law of America, whatever that may be.*

As an offset to such statements as this, we find the editor of one of the most free-spoken English journals animadverting on the misrepresentations of a writer to the Boston Globe, this so-called society lady deposing, with regard to the customs of English royalty, that when the queen is visited by a foreign relative tea is served in the Frogmore mausoleum. [1] That the Frogmore mausoleum has been given a prominent place in the history of this reign none can deny, but the announcement that it is used as the scene of royal tea-drinkings is one that Americans are quite as unlikely to believe as native-born Britons. Nor are we more ready to credit a story from the same source, that a young American girl, who was invited to pass a week at Windsor Palace, discovered that the queen liked to hear blood-curdling tales of wholesale Southern murder and lynching. Absurd and extravagant as are such stories, they are no more so than hundreds of others circulated in British journals with regard to America, and, although they may be considered in the light of fair reprisals, the balance of grievance is still greatly on our side. Mr. James Russell Lowell [2] said, a few years since, "For some reason or other, the European has rarely been able to see the American except in caricature. Hence such facts in the natural history of the American have been long familiar to Europeans as that 'he abhors privacy, knows not the meaning of reserve, lives in hotels because of their greater publicity, and is never so pleased as when his domestic affairs (if he may be said to have any) are paraded in the newspapers.'" Thus, while there are few thoughtful Americans who accept au sérieux such distortions of humanity are depicted in "Aristocracy" and kindred novels as types of the English nobility, they unquestioningly receive Octavia Bassetts, Asa Trenchards, Hon. Elijah Pograms, and Hannibal Chollops [3] as representative Americans, with the same charming gullibility that distinguished a certain foreign littérateur who was pleased to speak of Mr. Clemmens's [4] "Roughing It" as perhaps not very amusing, but valuable as a picture of American civilization.

It must be admitted that our novelists, poets, and dramatists, with their keen sense of the humorous in character and situation, are responsible for many instances that the British generalizer has converted into types. For example, when Mr. Henry James [5] draws a singularly attractive and pretty girl who is neither intelligent nor well bred, with the accompaniment of an inconsequent mother utterly ignorant of the usages of polite society, or when there is presented upon the foreign boards "a Yankee, so called, such an one as has never been seen in North America," as the poet Whitman [6] humorously describes "Our American Cousin," it may not be remarkable that the British reader should accept them as types of the average American, although the reader on this side of the water does not feel bound to accept Mr. Dickens's [7] "Flora Finching" [8] as the invariable type of the British widow of her class, or "the young man Guppy" [9] as a fair specimen of the Chesterfield [10] of middle-class life. Or, again, when Professor Boyesen, [11] who has lived in the United States long enough to know something of the social life of the people, introduces into one of his novels, and to the best American and English circles in Rome, an enterprising and untrammelled young creature from the "Wild West," whose vocation in life is to recommend a certain "emancipation waist" [12] to all whom she meets, and to sell the same article to all whom she can persuade to be purchasers, it may not appear strange that the English reader should conclude, although he shows some lack of imagination as well as knowledge in reaching such a conclusion, that what is called the first society in the cities of New York and Boston is composed of just such elements. Nor is it to be expected that he will at once grasp the idea that the higher circles of New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington are as different from those of Leadville and Guthrie [13] as are the soirées of London from the native dances of Timbuctoo [14] or Kuka. [15] Having, however, once appreciated the fact that the United States embraces within its limits more square miles than are comprised in a group of all the leading powers of Europe, Russia excepted, it should not be difficult for Europeans to understand that in such a vast extent of territory, with its accompanying varieties of climate and modes of living, considerable diversity may reasonably be expected in what they are pleased to call the American type.

It is true, as may be alleged, that the tide of travel has of late been setting westward, but the few educated English people, who explore this country for themselves, are to the great mass of the nation as those Americans, who visit the Orient and have taken to Alaskan journeyings, to those who never get beyond the beaten track of European travel.

What most strikes the American abroad is not only the extensive ignorance of otherwise well-informed Englishmen with regard to our life, customs, institutions, and geographical divisions, natural and artificial, but their entire self-satisfaction in such ignorance. Like the proverbial lady, who was distinguished for possessing a singularly large and varied assortment of misinformation from which she was ready to contribute to the conversation on all occasions, our British brothers seem ever willing to display their stock in trade, with an equally amiable ingenuousness. Such a frank manifestation of ignorance, and absence of remorse when confronted with controverting facts, are surely not due to lack of proper self-esteem on their part. We are inclined to believe that such feelings find their rooting in the same soil that produces the nil admirari school, which is one of the latest fads in some so-called fashionable circles, where elegant indifference seems to be regarded as the acme of good breeding. Among the nil admirari [16] enthusiasm and admiration have gone out, because nothing is really worth while, you know, and consequently there is no use exciting one's self about anything. On this principle, perhaps, the United States, being a crude young country, is not worth the trouble of serious study on the part of those who boast the advantages of a more ancient civilization.

On the other hand, we sometimes find among the higher types of Englishmen a knowledge and appreciation of American life and institutions that demonstrate to us that whatever the British student undertakes to know he will master thoroughly. Such a book as Robert Mackenzie's "America," [17] with its fine clear presentation of our representative system of government, which has proved instructive to many citizens of the republic as well as to foreigners, and Mr. James Bryce's full and fair portrait of American life and characteristics, [18] no less valuable because national shortcomings are set forth as plainly as national virtues, are sufficiently intelligent and appreciative to outweigh a large amount of ignorance and misconception.

Anne H. Wharton.

* Since writing the above, the unsatisfactory nature of recent experiments in New York in the employment of electricity as an agent of destruction renders the chances of its speedy adoption by the other States of the Union more than doubtful.

Note 1: Refers to the Royal Mausoleum, a burial site for the British Royal Family on the grounds of the Frogmore Estate. [back]

Note 2: James Russell Lowell (1819-1891), an American Romantic poet, critic, editor, and diplomat. [back]

Note 3: American characters in the works of English authors/playwrights. [back]

Note 4: Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910), an American author who wrote under the pseudonym Mark Twain. [back]

Note 5: Henry James (1843-1916), an American-born author and naturalized British citizen. [back]

Note 6: Likely refers to American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892). [back]

Note 7: British author Charles Dickens (1812-1870). [back]

Note 8: A character in Dickens' novel Little Dorrit. [back]

Note 9: Likely refers to William Guppy, a character in Dickens' novel Bleak House. [back]

Note 10: May refer to Dickens' satirization of Lord Chesterfield (Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield) in the novels Barnaby Rudge and Bleak House. [back]

Note 11: Likely refers to Norwegian author and professor Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen (1848-1895). [back]

Note 12: Also known as a "liberty bodice," it was a less restrictive alternative to the traditional 19th century corset. [back]

Note 13: May refer to the American cities of Leadville, Colorado and Guthrie, Oklahoma. [back]

Note 14: Likely refers to the West African city of Timbuktu. [back]

Note 15: May refer to the settlement Kuka in the West African country of Ghana. [back]

Note 16: Nil admirari, or nihil admirari, a Latin phrase meaning "to admire nothing," referring to an individual's quality of self-possessed indifference. [back]

Note 17: May refer to The United States of America. A History, by Scottish author Robert Mackenzie (1823-1881). [back]

Note 18: May refer to The American Commonwealth by Scottish author James Bryce (1838-1922). [back]