March 30, 2002
Re: Trollope's North America, Chs 10-12: Much Livelier
Having decided to acquiesce in complaining about the book and proposed some reasons for its dryness and lack of a sense of inevitability (we are not made to read on) -- although I was very much enjoying Trollope's tone and persona -- I'd like now to insists this week's chapters were very good.
The cultural analysis, description of landscapre and occasional vignettes hung together to make an impersonal travel book as cultural-political-reportage-polemic with an occasional flair for "the imaginative recreation of a place (armchair travelling) and the culture it emboides through fresh or least "foreign" eyes as at the same time the author examines his own culture. In these chapters we have another argument which runs counter to the culture of deference not gone from England yet. I even felt a little envious as I have never been mid-west except for one weekend when I visited a friend in her house. I would love to see the Mississippi; the only "great" rivers which course over hundreds and hundreds of miles that I have seen are the Hudson and the St Lawrence. I'd like to see those great lakes, the prairie, Chicago I also thought Trollope did recreate the feel of the mid-west and its economic strongholds, especially when he talked of rivers of wheat and corn. There were also many small wise comments (not quite aphorisms but moving in that direction) on aspects of American culture. Trollope describes a number of behaviors which strike me as typical of many Americans still: the smiling and cheating game, the energy and drive to independence, the importance of money.
Among the surprizes was Trollope's attitude towards conscription and military duty. He is against conscription, but says that even if you don't have it, if everyone in the community is for everyone fighting, it is near impossible for any indivdual who might be picked on to avoid it. He sees individuals as taken to be so much fodder. This reminds me of a number of radical attitudes he takes in The Fixed Period. I was not surprized by his even-handedness in treating cultural differences: he provided good-natured humor too, in his depiction of the way Americans treat their children much more leniently (or so he thinks based on what he sees happening in hotels), of over-heated rooms, of silent people. He is a thoughtful man: he cannot just give us a good description of his time moving upriver, but he must analyse the principles and aesthetics of scenes which please the human mind. I noted that in a couple of the more alluring moments, the landscape became to him a flirting woman (see the paragraphs which begin "For these reasons I must say that life on board these steam-boats" and end "A landscape should always be partly veiled, and display only half its charms, Chapter 10, Knopf edition, pp 143-45). He makes us picture and understand how the American mid-west could become the "bread-basket" of the world. That's a phrase I was brough up with; in 3rd through 6th grade, the argument was the US is a "have" nation, very rich in natural resources; hence we could afford more immigration. We also have industrial capability of large extent, so we would want to trade. Trollope is impressed by how vibrant a culture USians are.
I thank Judy for asking over on Victoria. I have read one of the books cited: Richard Wheeler: Voices of the Civil War Ken Burns's TV series on the American Civil war is also a wonderfully educational as well as entertaining experience.
I will treat New York separately tomorrow night.
Cheers to all,
Date: Wed, 10 Apr 2002
Re: The Upper Mississippi
Perhaps Ellen and others who expressed interest in Trollope's description of the upper Mississippi would be interested in the following web site, which contains some good descriptions of the area as well as some appealing photos:
Mississippi River Valley and Lake Pepin
Follow the links in the navigation bar on the left side of the page to find more descriptions and pictures. One of the links, labeled "Red Wing," takes you to the area that AT described as the most beautiful stretch of the river, that is, the area just above Lake Pepin. This is the town in which I grew up (to the extent that I actually grew up). The description of the town sounds a little boosterish, but it is all accurate. It was a wonderful place to spend a childhood.
To get your bearings, click on the link labeled Area Maps.
Re: North America, Chs 10-12: American Midwest
Dear Wayne, Judy and All,
I could have listened to Wayne's for much much longer. I have never been west of Pennsylvania except for the three short days I mentioned earlier but have always wanted to see the central US, especially around the famous Mississippi. Trollope's description of his trip upriver is now added to the other texts I have read which make me long to go.
I did ask myself while I was reading his descriptions why he is not praised for his descriptive powers. It is odd since no novelist can really be great who lacks the ability to picture scenes and Trollope has this ability. People will put the lack of attention paid to Trollope's whole scenes and landscapes to the tendency to pay attention to his brilliance in psychologizing, but one can after all only say so much about that. I wonder if it's that when he describes a place he has a way of detaching himself: in the piece on Niagara and now again as he roams the islands and rivers, he makes conscious efforts to place himself inside the scene and have it physically impinge on him. Even then, as in this book, there is a self-consciousness about it that feels worked at. Trollope doesn't let go: the grain elevators are likened to elephants and the metaphor works, but it is not spontaneous.
A paradoxical element here is spontaneity often produces contradictions (mixed metaphors) and to the rational mind absurdities (we see this in Shakespeare, in Dickens) which leave the writer open to ridicule: it's hard to ridicule Trollope; he is ever aware of the kind of reader who doesn't dream, who isn't poetic, a romancer. We see this here in his occasional comments to the effect that he knows X isn't so very important. Further, I find that although Trollope was personally a sensual man, he does not present himself as sensual except when it comes to intaking food and smoking so again we don't get that "feeler" mentality which really does produce suddenly alive descriptions -- such as the one Trollope recognized to be of this type in his West Indies and the Spanish Main and reprinted word-for-word in this book when he found himself at Niagara.
I am probably aware of this as I am just now still reading George Sand's two travel-memoirs and am half-way through her highly un-novel-like LÚlia and before that read two of her early novels, Valentine and Indiana. In all these we get this intensely felt sense of landscape impinging on the very pores of the person's skin, brushing against a face, invading the psychological presence in the center of the text. I would say Dickens doesn't do this either; we don't get this sense of landscape in English prose fiction until Hardy and that it is an inhibition born of the continual repression of sexual impulses coming out of the continual sensual existence of people which is not given play in most 19th century English or American novels. Characters stand in a room, go about places and what is recorded is their social interaction, their status vis-a-vis other people and everything is seen in terms of this. Trollope is doing this in North America: everything is seen in terms of a cultural paradigms not a sensual reality, the feeling of invisible currents coming out of people thatwe have when we are physically with other people.
I put off writing about Buffalo to New York because there, like Wayne about the Mississippi, Minneapolis and St Paul, I have personal memories which go back to my childhood. I now see Chapter 12 does not take us to New York City, only the state which I don't know very well. I have, however, taken the ferryboat ride which goes up and down the Hudson and used to stop at West Point. The chapter is not very long and once again Trollope moves into culture and politics. I did find funny his description of his wife's difficulties walking alongside him up and down descents (for who else could he be referring?) as what happens to "bipeds laden with petticoats".
I like the cultural and political analysis. It's central to Trollope's purpose. As we get into North America, an ideal for this travel book is emerging: Trollope is determined to capture for the reader what he divines as the inner realities of cultural assumptions which gives rise to social and political behavior for Americans. This book is an attempt to define what it is to be an American in 1862-63, to present what Americans are like, how they think, feel, react, insofar as he can do this. It seems to me he is successful at that as long as you allow for the travel- writer bringing the burden of his own culture with him: this is the US seen through upper class British eyes. This almost fits travel-memoirs:
the imaginative recreation of the place (armchair travelling) is combined with an examination of the culture through fresh eyes as the same time as the author re-examines his own culture.
Trollope eschews the imaginative except for landscape, and he does not re-examine his own culture. He assumes he is right. And sometimes he is. I was not surprized by the real absence of any celebration of death in war in Trollope. His La Vendee showed how little stomach he has for death, how little blood-lust. It may be he values people who are educated as far more of a loss to society when they are turned into so much fodder and obedient packs of male bipeds, but he is himself not for a moment fooled by the kind of identity politics that are nowadays so prevalent (we call this nationalism, patriotism -- they are fuelled by a displaced religious intensities). This accords with his being for cremation; there is a kind of calm in Trollope that sees clearly what is as opposed to emotional longings for self-importance or meaning that others give events that aren't there.
On a less general level, I find him comically right in some ways in the anecdotal area. At least in my experience British people do seem to control their children more effectively in public than my fellow Americans do. His portrait of the sturdy independent little boy also accords with his notion that at the heart of American culture is a firm sense of each individual's rights and importance. The idea seems to be American children are taught this from a young age: I have heard my British relatives talk about snubbing their children, "roaring" at them as a way of putting them in their place. This phrase is not found among Americans. My father-in-law (born 1906, died in 1978) grew up in cold unheated houses (just a fire in 2 fireplaces downstairs was all the heat there was in the Moody residence) would complain about how hot it was in houses with central heat. He would say it was airless. Other British people would speak similarly in the 1960s. I find nowadays such comments have ceased and they like to be as warm as Americans ever did. Trollope does so once people get used to heat they don't want to go back to the cold.
The business about faucets: in the US hot and cold water come out in one spiggot not two so they are mixed to start with; in the UK you still get 2 spiggots so you have to mix the hot and cold water yourself. Americans do like gadgets; the desire to have yet a more improved canopener is probably an important trait in the US national psyche. Of course speaking of culture forgets individuals who live within the continuum of what public discourse praises but don't imitate others who get their values from such discourses. I have never wanted lots of gadgets about, but I know that lots of my relatives and people I've know seem to value themselves more if they have the latest microwave oven or high definition TV for their spanking new DVD player whose buttons are so tiny that when they can figure out which one to push they feel they have proved themselves "efficient". That's a very US value: study the slogans from the 1950s which are less disguised than sophisticated advertising today and you will find connections to what Trollope is pointing out. It is efficient to have your water pre-mixed in one spiggot; if you end up not being able to moderate the temperature and have too hot water coming out (as Trollope seems to have) why this shows you must be lacking something important in your practical getting-through-life genes.
I look forward to Trollope in 19th century New York City.
Date: Thu, 28 Mar 2002
Re: Soldiers Along the Mississippi
In our installment for next week, we hear something about regiments of soldiers traveling down the Mississippi to join the war effort. I am posting this a little early in case anyone is interested in following up on this reading.
Minnesota regiments were among the earliest to join the Union army, and they played a prominent role throughout the war and fought in some of the most important battles. The Minnesota Historical Society web site includes a series of letters written by three Minnesota brothers who served in the war. Here is the introduction to these letters:
"In 1861, two brothers, having just purchased a farm in Southern Minnesota, enlisted in the First Minnesota Battery of Light Artillery. Although neither expected a long tour of duty, William and Thomas Christie served in the First Minnesota Battery through June 1865. Their younger brother, Alexander, enlisted in an infantry regiment in fall 1864. All three brothers were excellent writers, and each wrote extensively while in the Army. Their letters, full of revealing observations on war, society, and contemporary politics, are contained within the James C. Christie and family papers at the Minnesota Historical Society."
The letters, both typescripts and photocopies of the originals, can be read online.
The link to the site is
Date: Sun, 31 Mar 2002
North America, Chs 10-12
I must agree with Ellen that this week's chapters of 'North America' are better. I am now finding myself reading ahead quite eagerly and even picking the book up in preference to a couple of novels I am also reading - whereas earlier on it was a bit more of a struggle.
I especially liked Chapter 10 and found it interesting to read of Trollope's journey to the Upper Mississippi soon after reading Twain's later account of the same area in 'Life on the Mississippi'. Twain complains that British travel writers have tended to ignore this area of the US, but, clearly, Trollope was an exception. I'm impressed by the fact that, during the war, he visited an area others had often missed out (although admittedly for the travellers who went several decades earlier there might have been little to see). This shows how seriously he took his task, trying to see as much of America as possible.
Among the surprizes was Trollope's attitude towards conscription and military duty. He is against conscription, but says that even if you don't have it, if everyone in the community is for everyone fighting, it is near impossible for any indivdual who might be picked on to avoid it. He sees individuals as taken to be so much fodder.
I was also surprised by this attitude and moved by the sentence:
"I know that there must be soldiers; but as to every separate soldier I regret that he should be one of them." (This rings a vague bell with me as reminiscent of something else I've read - does anybody by any chance recognise an echo here?)
It's interesting that Trollope extends his analysis here not only to the Civil War armies, but also to recent conflicts involving British soldiers - he regrets the fate of "every separate soldier". He sees in a very clear-eyed way exactly what lies before the soldiers, the harshness of military discipline and the threat of death, and he does not mince words or blur this reality with vague descriptions of battlefield glory. He describes the soldiers as "a band of heroes", and pays tribute to their "true spirit of patriotism" - but he does not suggest that their heroism or patriotism will make the suffering which lies ahead any less real and painful. There is an element of class-consciousness woven into his description of the recruits, as it strikes him as a cause for regret that many were educated men, by contrast with the "poor yokel in England enlisted with a shilling and a promise of unlimited beer and glory". He also pities the yokel, but suggests that the military life may not be such a shock to somebody who has come from a poor background (although the death would surely be equally terrible to rich and poor alike). However, the thing which strikes him as the greatest cause for regret is the fact that many of the recruits were so old - "there were men among them with grizzled beards, and many who had counted thirty, thirty-five and forty years."
To quote a little more from Ellen's posting, she wrote:
I was not surprized by his even-handedness in treating cultural differences: he provided good-natured humor too, in his depiction of the way Americans treat their children much more leniently (or so he thinks based on what he sees happening in hotels), of over-heated rooms, of silent people.
I was amused by his descriptions of the children - on the whole they sound wonderfully well-behaved to me and I would be very happy if my children would behave like this in a restaurant! These days many parents struggle to get their children to try different items, and would be ecstatic if they asked for pickles. I do wonder if British middle-class children were really quieter and better-behaved than their US counterparts, or if it was just that the English children eating their bread-and-milk were out of their parents' sight under the care of a nanny, so they didn't know how they were behaving. It's hard to believe the diet had much to do with it one way or the other!
The descriptions of silent people are quite poignant. Trollope's loneliness aboard the steam boat comes across clearly, as he struggles to get people to join in a conversation and then gives up the fight. I wonder how far this silence was a reaction to the war. Even though the passengers he describes are concentrating on business rather than the military struggle, surely the atmosphere must have affected them too.
We've already had some discussion of Trollope's portrayal of women, and here he touches the theme again - he will return to it at more length in next week's chapters. Once again, he suggests just how hard life could be for pioneer women struggling to make a home for their family, and how quickly girlhood vanished. "It seemed to me that a future mother of a family in those parts had left all laughter behind her when she put out her finger for the wedding ring."
Ellen also mentioned the central heating. This seems to become something of the obsession for Trollope that tobacco-spitting was for Dickens in 'American Notes' - he refers to it again and again, particularly in his chapter on West Point, and suggests that the heating is somehow sapping all the vitality out of the American people he meets, making them pale and lethargic by contrast with the fires in Britain.
Of course, nowadays central heating is the rule in Britain too, and it's certainly difficult to do without it in the winter. From his descriptions, I can only think that probably in the 19th century the heating systems were not as well-regulated as they are nowadays (on the whole; the one in my office is sometimes just as suffocating as those he describes!) and so perhaps did affect health. Still better than being frozen, however.
The descriptions of the grain and fruit are impressive and interesting, and it's especially striking that all this production could continue at a time when so much of the country was being laid waste by war. One bit which reminded me of Fanny was the passage where Anthony was so surprised to hear that British peaches had no flavour, and started to daydream about all the fruits and vegetables in his garden at home. However, Fanny would probably be more annoyed by such an assertion - Anthony writes with a lighter touch here. Even so, I think you feel some homesickness breaking through.
Bye for now
Date: Sun, 31 Mar 2002
I was very interested in Trollope's description of the Upper Mississippi, because it is an area I know well. AT is not the only one to admire the beauty of the river. Thoreau had visited some of the same spots some 20 years earlier, as I recall from some long-ago reading. In the era of the automobile, the drives along both sides of the river are regularly mentioned as among the most beautiful in the nation. It seems odd to me, however, that Trollope should compare it, to its advantage, with the Rhine, because there almost no points of comparison, so different are the two rivers.
I would just like to clarify a few details in Anthony's descriptions. First of all, Lake Pepin, a widening of the river, is not 50 or 60 miles long, rather closer to about 20 miles. His boat must have steamed up the center of the lake, putting him at great distance from both banks, hence his comment on the lesser beauty of this stretch. If he had traveled on land on either side of the river, however, he would have found this one of the most beautiful parts of the journey. Lake Pepin would have appeared grander to him, and the hills along the river that he so admires are noteworthy, especially on the eastern, or Wisconsin, bank. The lake, or river, makes a nearly 90-degree bend about halfway along its length, so that Anthony's boat would have traveled north and then west. On the inside of this bend is a very large, wooded bluff that from a distance looks like a point or peninsula thrusting out into the lake. Because of this phenomenon, this bluff is known as Point Nopoint.
I was particularly struck by his comment that "the finest stretch of the river was that immediately above Lake Pepin," for this is precisely where I lived my first 29 years. The river divides into several channels and backwaters, forming many large islands, the largest of which is known locally as "the Island." (Poetic folks, those Minnesotans.) The bluffs along this portion of the river are especially beautiful. This landscape was formed at the end of the last ice age as runoff from melting glaciers eroded the wide valleys and left the harder rock of the bluffs in place.
Upstream is St. Paul, the capital of the state but no longer the commercial capital. That distinction lies with Minneapolis, the other of the two so-called Twin Cities. Minneapolis arose to commercial prominence because of the falls of St. Anthony, which Trollope describes. In fact, I recently read that at one time the mills surrounding the falls formed the largest water-powered industrial complex in the world. Lumber milling, fed by timber from the forests to the north, gradually lost prominence as the trees were felled, and flour milling became the dominant industry, making Minneapolis the nation's largest miller and shipper of flour in the late 19th century. Mills such as Pillsbury, still well known in the American food industry, started there. Incidentally, the village of St. Anthony, on the east bank of the falls and mentioned by AT, was incorporated into Minneapolis in 1872.
If you wonder (as Trollope did) at the origin of the name Minneapolis, it is a combination of the Dakota (or Sioux) word for water, plus of course the Greek for city. (The city's official, and completely appropriate, nickname is "City of Lakes.")
The word "minne" also forms part of the name of the other waterfall that Anthony mentions, Minnehaha. This modest falls is in a park near the Minneapolis-St.Paul International Airport, which Trollope did not utilize on his visit, and also near to Fort Snelling, which he did visit. This fort is now property of the Minnesota Historical Society. It stands on the bluffs at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. The book Minnesota Place Names has this to say about the origin of the word Minnehaha, which AT says means "laughing water.":
"The common Dakota word for waterfall is haha, which they applied to the Falls of St. Anthony, to Minnehaha, and in general to any waterfall or cascade. To join the words minne, "water," and haha, "a fall," seems to be a suggestion of white men, which thereafter came into use among the Indians."
This is probably more than you wanted to know about the upper Mississippi.
Date: Tue, 02 Apr 2002
North America, Chs 10 - 12
I have been reading North America and enjoying it; it is an odd book, though, going from academic discussion to personal observation to history to geography, etc. I think what keeps me going is the brief glimpses we get of AT himself and the hope of getting some glimpse of his wife (maybe this latter is a doomed hope; all she has said is two words, and he never even refers to her by name). I imagine we all enjoyed the account of her insisting on walking when the guide said "some of the young ladies walk." I thought the section where he went up to peoples' cabins and almost demanded that someone talk to him was hilarious. And he thought it odd that other people didn't do the same! I even enjoyed his mention of his vegetable garden, just because it is his garden, but again he is so reticent that he doesn't tell us if he does the gardening, or if she does, or if it is hired people who do it. I also enjoyed his thoughts on chivalry and how it is a game in which the women as well as the men were expected to play their parts. But perhaps I am reading ahead. Pat
I enjoyed Pat's comments and want to suggest that maybe it would not seem such an odd book ("going from academic discussion to personal observation to history to geography, etc.") if we knew what a travel book really is. We don't have a grip on the type. We know what a novel is and can say, ah ha, this is a novel and this is not. Among other things, travel books are not read for plot or characters. To me Trollope's genuine struggle with this form (he is fighting using the very anecdotes that amuse us) is one of the most interesting things about his book.
Date: Thu, 11 Apr 2002
Dear Wayne and all,
I followed the links to Red Wing. I liked the first picture which seemed to visualize some of Trollope's descriptions of what he saw as he sailed up river. The town looks picturesque and I can imagine it was a good place for a child to grow up.
I grew up in New York City, a place with a different kind of picturesqueness. I remember we have had this thread before -- as a number of us on this list grew up somewhere in NYC -- but I do recall the trolley cars in Brooklyn which left a good deal of space for people to sit. There were remnants of what Trollope saw in NYC in the early 1950s still; it's all gone now.