Date: Sun, 7 Apr 2002
Here are a few thoughts on this week's chapters of 'North America':
Volume 1 Chapter 13 - An Apology for the War
In this chapter the travel narrative comes to a halt as Trollope launches into a political essay - as Ellen suggested, I think chapters like these are the places where he is most deeply engaged. Here we really see how much he has pondered on the root causes of the war. We've talked about whether his book is mainly aimed at British or American readers, and here Trollope seems to be looking both ways.
On the one hand he defends British neutrality, arguing, as he has already done earlier in the book, that it is impossible for the government to come down on one side or the other, and that commercial considerations such as cotton importing should be kept well out of it. Here he is fighting his corner against American critics who feel Britain should be showing definite support for the North.
However, as well as making an "apology" for the British government, he is also concerned to do the same for the warring sides, and to show that the conflict could not have been avoided - clearly with his eye on British readers.
He takes issue with armchair critics in England who describe the Americans as "fools and idiots" for allowing themselves to be drawn into the war, and he clearly shows that it is not that simple. "The South rebelled against the North, and such being the case, was it possible that the North should yield without a war?"
He puts this across to British readers by making comparisons first with countries in continental Europe and then, coming even closer to home, he asks the daring question: "Would England let Ireland walk off by herself if she wished it?" He argues that England would not allow this, and nor can the North allow the South to secede - yet, perhaps having it both ways here, he again says it might be a good thing in the long run for North and South to be separated.
Trollope goes on to make the rather difficult argument that he feels in some cases it is right for former colonies to achieve independence, but there may need to be a war first so that both nationalities can "preserve their greatness". He says he rejoices that England has lost her American colonies, but "I know that England was bound to struggle when the Boston people threw her tea into the water."
A few months back I read 'War and Peace', where Tolstoy includes several long essays about the theory of war, which can make very heavy reading. I think Trollope is not nearly so dry here, even if the chapter does get repetitive at times - and there is a pleasing determination to think all the way round the issue, seeing all sides of the question.
In this chapter he doesn't contemplate the individuals who are forced to fight in order to preserve their nationalities' greatness, so perhaps he is avoiding the human cost. But as readers we remember his earlier descriptions of the thinly-clad, middle-aged men struggling to learn military discipline - he has already given us glimpses of the people caught up in the war.
Volume 1 Chapter 14 - New York Trollope returns to his travel narrative here and immediately makes a pithy and controversial statement:
"Speaking of New York as a traveller I have two faults to find with it. In the first place there is nothing to see; and in the second place there is no method of getting about to see anything."
However, before hackles can start to rise, he quickly explains that he nevertheless regards New York as a "most interesting city." I've just been reading the start of James McPherson's 'Battle Cry of Freedom', which mentions that at this period a higher proportion of the population was educated and literate in America than in England. Trollope pays tribute to the widespread education and democratic system, with universal (male) suffrage, but sees all this as marred by money-worship: "Every man can vote, and values the privilege. Every man can read, and uses the privilege. Every man worships the dollar, and is down before his shrine from morning to night."
Later, by the time he wrote 'The Way We Live Now', he clearly thought that money-worship was also at the core of British society, but at this time he felt it was stronger in America - although he goes on to argue that making money is not necessarily a bad thing, even quibbling with scripture. "For myself I do not believe that Dives is so black as he is painted..."
He pays tribute to the charitable works funded by richer citizens of the city and suggests that private generosity is greater in America than in Britain, praising the excellent hospitals, asylums etc. I was a bit surprised to find that McPherson's book says there was great poverty in New York at this time, worse than in London - something which doesn't come across in Trollope's account. Looking at statistics from 1860, almost exactly the period when Trollope visited, McPherson writes: "...poverty was widespread and becoming more so among laborers in large cities with a substantial immigrant population. New York packed an immense populace of the poor into noisome tenements, giving the city a death rate nearly twice as high as London."
However, Trollope doesn't seem to have ventured into the slum quarters of the city, and he is impressed by the houses and the way in which the streets have been laid out, leaving space for growth. He's not so keen on the transport, though, and doesn't like being thrown together with strangers in the packed streetcars.
I meant to get on to Trollope's views on American women and girls' education, but will save that for a separate posting. I also haven't read Chapter 15 yet, but intend to catch up tonight!
Re: North America, Chs 13 - 15: Genial Dogtrot
These are the two words that come to mind if I try to characterize what is the general and usual mood of this book. There are moments where Trollope can soar; he can dramatize scenes and people powerfully, but for the most part he is a horse in harness riding along, paying for his trip by writing about it; writing about it because he wants to understand what qualities are at the heart of American culture, and something about the dreadful war they had embarked upon. The genial dogtroit prevailed over much of Chapters 14 and 15 (New York and Bostom).
On New York except that he omits the vast underworld of miserably paid overworked (or conversely unemployed) working people, he gives a full description of what I feels like to be in New York city in the streets. It should be noted he also omits slaves. The illustrations have depictions of slaves (ever doing the work). I probably prefer silence to the kind of condescension I have seen in Thackeray. I did want to say about the several postings we've now had about Trollope's depiction of Ruby Ruggles that we may be able to understand this was a typical response of 19th century gentlemen, but that doesn't make his conception of her in a number of ways any less repellent. I know repellent's a strong word, but he does treat her as not quite human in the way of Hetta, and is determined to throw into her faces this marriage to John Crumb and assert it''s got to be happy. In Trollope's remarks on the nature of African people (and on them as property which must be paid for) in this week's chapters I also found him repellent.
He does hate women with crinolines. It's beyond the convenience of their enormous hoops; the language is too indignant and strong for this distaste of his merely to come from not getting a seat on a train.
I'm afraid I have been too negative. Trollope otherwise described New York beautifully. His comments on a culture in which money is a powerful king strike me as apt and true still.
Date: Sun, 14 Apr 2002
We're nearing the halfway point in our group read of 'North America' and I'm still enjoying it, although it isn't quite what I expected. It isn't quite the same as other travel books I've read because, as we've discussed, Trollope holds back more on the personal details - he doesn't want to recount conversations he had with Rose, or tell us what they ate for breakfast and whether their beds were comfortable.
On another list we're reading George Sand's 'Winter in Majorca', which is very controversial (like 'Domestic Manners of the Americans') because it is strongly critical of the people and manners it describes. It's not Sand's best work - but it contains plenty of personal observations, lively anecdotes etc which help to bring the account alive. Trollope doesn't tend to give us this sort of material, but, increasingly, I'm feeling that his personality is strongly stamped on the book nonetheless, in his thoughtfulness and refusal to put up with cant or accept what he is told rather than thinking things through for himself.
Here are a few thoughts on Chapter 16, which is a very long and wide-ranging chapter. Near the start of this chapter Trollope argues that the US has kept the essentials of the British constitution and continued to use English legal precedents as binding on its own courts.
"It was still to be England - but England without a King making his last struggle for political power."
I don't know how long this continued to be the case, but I would imagine that at a time where there was so much ill-feeling against England, as he explains in his long discussions of the war, this may not have gone down too well with American readers.
On his visit to Hartford, Trollope is impressed by the spacious houses, and he uses his favourite figure for a comfortable annual income, £800 a year, as a bench-mark in comparing them with British homes. "The modest dining-room and drawing-room which suffice with us for men of seven or eight hundred a year would be regarded as very mean accommodation by persons of similar incomes in the States."
As with his earlier comments on the army camps he saw, there is another one of those passages where he visited something which would be of strong journalistic interest, in this case a rifle factory, but refuses to give the sort of description a journalist would give, explaining "I do not know that I brought much away with me that was worth any reader's attention". However, his brief description does give a chilling image of the busy factory pouring out all kinds of arms as fast as possible, perhaps in some approach to a production line, showing how the war boosted at least one type of trade.
Modestly, Trollope hasn't so far treated us to many details of his meetings with great and famous people in America, although presumably he must have been lionised to some extent and met many such figures. In this chapter, though, he does give an account of a lecture by Emerson and was plainly impressed. Dickens was also won over by the transcendentalists and says in 'American Notes' that if he had been an American he would have been one of them - a difficult idea to get your head round! Trollope doesn't go that far, but his account of Emerson's talk shows how impressed he was by his common-sense. Reading Emerson's essays, I get the impression he must have been a great speaker - they have so much colloquial force and pithiness - and it is good to have this borne out by this eyewitness account. A pity he doesn't quote many of Emerson's words, but the line he does give has that authentic ring: "Your American eagle is very well. Protect it here and abroad. But beware of the American peacock."
I'm not sure who the politician Mr Everett was. Can anybody enlighten me on this? But I like Trollope's sceptical account of his lecture, including the stage-business with the clergymen, and the modest way he plays down the honour of being invited to sit on the stage.
One of my favourite passages in this chapter, though, is the brief account of the unnamed speaker who came up with no original thoughts. This surely is Trollope at his best and sharpest:
"He went from one soft platitude to another, and uttered words from which I would defy any one of his audience to carry away with them anything. And yet it seemed to me that his audience was satisfied. I was not satisfied, and managed to escape out of the room."
It was interesting to see his claim that lectures were far more popular at this time in America than in Britain. I had always had the impression that lectures were very popular in Britain too - in George Gissing's 'The Odd Women', it sounds as if the main characters' lives revolve round a constant stream of evening lectures, but that was written later in the century.
I have to say that Trollope's thoughts on abolition here make extremely depressing reading, for instance in his account of Wendell Phillips' lecture, where he (Trollope) makes dismissive comments on slaves, lumping four million people together and claiming they have "the necessities of children, the passions of men and the ignorance of savages". It will be interesting to see if he actually talks to any slaves later in the book, and, if so, whether this changes his opinions.
I have the impression that he was actually for abolition but felt it could not be practically achieved at that time and would have to wait until after the war. Probably needless to say that I much prefer Fanny's strong condemnation of slavery in 'Domestic Manners' - but maybe Anthony will have more to say on this front later in the book.
Getting away from the lectures, it's interesting to see that Trollope was so impressed by Hawthorne's powers and especially 'The Scarlet Letter'. By coincidence, I've just been reading some of Dickens's letters and he was quite critical of the novel - he wrote to John Forster:
'I finished 'The Scarlet Letter' yesterday. It falls off sadly after that fine opening scene. The psychological part of the story is very much overdone, and not truly done I think. Their suddenness of meeting and agreeing to go away together, after all those years, is very poor, Mr Chillingworth ditto. The child out of nature altogether. And Mr Dimmisdale certainly never could have begotten her.'
However, a few weeks later Dickens was suggesting Georgy, his sister-in-law, should read the book, so perhaps it made more impression on him than this letter suggests.
I enjoyed Trollope's enthusiastic description of the Boston public library, and his suggestion that something similar could be opened in London. I hadn't realised this idea started in America until reading his account. Does anybody know when the first public libraries did open in Britain, starting to replace private libraries like Mudie's and Boots?
Sorry to go on for so long! I'll write a separate posting about chapters 17 and 18, hopefully later today.