Date: Tue, 14 May 2002
Missouri, Cairo and Camp Woods
Here, slightly belatedly, are some thoughts on this week's chapters of 'North America', Volume 2 Chapter 5: Missouri and Chapter 6: Cairo and Camp Wood.
Over the last couple of weeks we've had some discussion on Trollope's apparent depression in the face of all the misery he sees around him caused by the war. However, in this week's chapters I feel he becomes more enthusiastic about travelling and we also see that intrepid spirit which it seems all the family shared - that determination not to be beaten when he really wants to get somewhere.
At Rolla, when all the wagons are needed by the army, he and his travelling companion stagger through the ice and snow, up a hill, to get to the hotel, carrying their heavy trunks in their arms.
I enjoy the humour of Trollope's description at his own expense, when he writes:
"Why is it that a stout Englishman bordering on fifty finds himself in such a predicament as that?... As I slipped about on the ice and groaned with that terrible fardle on my back, burdened with a dozen shirts, and a suit of dress clothes, and three pairs of boots, and four or five thick volumes, and a set of maps, and a box of cigars, and a washing-tub, I confessed to myself that I was a fool."
I'm especially amused by the washing-tub in this list. There's a saying that somebody is carrying everything bar the kitchen sink - but it seems as if Trollope just about managed to fit that in too!
He says he was also tempted to travel forward with the army, but he reluctantly abandoned this idea because it might have meant weeks of hanging around before they started marching. Also, as he explains: "It was my wish, moreover, to see what I could of the people, rather than to scrutinize the ways of the army."
All the same, he does give us accounts of the army - and, clearly, he showed that same intrepid spirit in venturing into the camps, often in extremely difficult conditions. The description of Benton barracks is memorably grim, and told with terse power. I'll just quote a few lines:
"The stench of those places was foul beyond description. Never in my life before had I been in a place so horrid to the eyes and nose as Benton barracks. The path along the front outside was deep in mud. The whole space between the two rows of sheds was one field of mud, so slippery that the foot could not stand. Inside and outside every spot was deep in mud. The soldiers were mud-stained from head to foot."
He carries on to describe the wretched state of health of the men, telling how hundreds have died of disease, but he makes it very clear he is not only criticising the running of the American armies. He points out that
"It may be that our own soldiers were as badly treated in the Crimea, or that French soldiers were treated worse on their march into Russia..." The passage ends "This I say - that the degradation of men to the state in which I saw the American soldiers in Benton barracks, is disgraceful to humanity."
The power of a passage like this makes me wonder why Trollope didn't include more social criticism in his novels. He could clearly write about the evils he saw to devastating effect if he felt strongly enough.
He takes a very different view of the soldiers he meets at Camp Wood, who are in better health and spirits and not so deep in mud.
In the light of our continuing discussion about Fanny's book and its reception in America, I was interested to see that Anthony was warmly welcomed by a newspaper correspondent because he was her son. " 'Air you a son of the Mrs Trollope?,' said the correspondent. 'Then, sir, you are an accession to Rolla.' "
This shows that, however controversial, her work commanded professional respect from fellow-writers (something which is also very noticeable in Mark Twain's 'Life on the Mississippi', where he quotes from her approvingly. Personally, I have mixed feelings about 'Domestic Manners' - I often find Fanny very witty and I especially like her scathing attacks on slavery and religious cant. I think her book is livelier than her son's more thoughtful offering, but, at the same time, I can certainly see why her comments caused so much offence. And I'm also aware of course that, as a British reader, I may well react in a different way from readers in America, even more than 150 years on. Trollope has hesitated to write too much about his mother's book, but in Chapter 6, as he visits Cairo, he does refer frequently and sardonically to Dickens's portrayal of it as "Eden" in 'Martin Chuzzlewit'. I find it interesting that he refers to Dickens so often, but not to Fanny, who went there first and whose description may have helped to inspire Dickens - I remember Rory pointed out there were strong parallels.
In any case, the Cairo Trollope saw really does sound as if it was in a wretched state, torn apart by the war. His descriptions of the mud, fever and ague and general misery are horrifying. "Men and women grow up with lantern faces like spectres. The children are prematurely old; and the earth which is so fruitful is hideous in its fertility."
I have read an account of when Dickens's son Alfred visited Cairo and found it very different from his father's description - he was very enthusiastic and thoroughly enjoyed himself. Twain's view of this area is also sharply different from this account, but it seems as if a lot of the suffering when Trollope visited was a result of the war.
Does anybody else have views on these chapters?
Bye for now
May 15, 2002
Re: Trollope's North America: Missouri, Cairo and Camp Woods
These chapters are more entertaining than the middle of the book (we are coming to the end); as in the opening sequence, Trollope dramatizes his adventures, picturing places, making himself a character in the landscape, investing the narrative in strong emotional and self-deprecatingly comic reactions that accompany his analysis of the mores and customs of Americans in the mid-west as well as of the behaviors of a people in a country at war.
What is strongest in these chapters is the validity of Trollope's comments be they comically about the absurdities of travellers (like himself taking all these clothes, all the books, knowing he really ought not, but feeling himself curiously too vulnerable without them) or seriously about the cultures he is seeing.
On St Louis, people on our list might like to know this city was and probably continues to be a secondary cultural center to Chicago in the later 19th and early 20th century. T. S. Eliot and several other famous and not-so-famous American literary figures (Allen Mandelbaum, translator and poet) came from St Louise; it's accurate to call it the upper class and genteel counterpart to the writers of the Chicago school (from Dreiser to Saul Bellow and Richard Wright, muckrakers, radicals, socially concerned writers all). The wealth Trollope sees brought leisure and the children of the leisured with brains created a higher culture.
Trollope's depiction of slavery continues to be contradictory: he is against slavery; he is courageous enough to call it the cause of the war; but when it comes to freeing the slaves, he immediately talks of the money owed their owners (the response is what about the money they would have paid these people for their free labor, which is more than offset by the ways they have been degraded and abused. Does Fanny ever seriously talk about freeing the slaves and what is to be done for them as a people? Trollope does. He worries over education and jobs. Then he paints a comical scene of a German general who, says Trollope, inveighs passionately against slavery, all the while having slaves wait on him hand and foot. What disturbs me in that scene is how Trollope only alludes to these people: he never describes them; they are absent continual presences throughout this book. When in Washington Trollope says he stayed in a hotel owned by a "coloured man". That would be a freed slave. He says he had good service, and the man didn't want him to leave. But no sense of the man as a human being. In St Louis Trollope tells us it "has none of the aspects of a slave city," by which he means he didn't see slaves on the streets and the peculiar behavior such a forced-low caste of people exhibits in any culture, but he was told that "a large proportion of the slaves of Missouri are employed near the Missouri River in breaking up hemp. In this passage he is aware that the reason people use slaves is they by brutal force get them to do jobs most people would not do for money (he talks earlier of how slavery is used for vile labour in very hot climes in ways that make such labour profitable), but he does not explicitly attach this to the nice lifestyle of St Louis. My feeling is he expects the reader to see this. It is so ingrained in him to present this world's order as acceptable -- something he learned to do in his novels.
Judy asks why Trollope didn't write more generally socially concerned fiction when he clearly saw the larger truths about his society: because he was writing for money to a bourgeois audience. I feel towards the end of his career he wishes intensely he could give up these genteel courtship plots, but knows if he throws them over altogether he will lose a good deal of his audience.
Judy mentions the effectiveness of the description of the camps and psychological as well as physical realities of war. I liked how Trollope can describe the world of work; he is alive to the immensities of the US continent and how by the mid-19th century its people were sufficiently organized to use its "sublime" (Trollope's word) natural resources. The "world of work" equivalent of Albert Bierstadt may be found in Trollope's effective pictorial description of the enormous military and mercant ships steaming along the Missouri river banks. I like how he doesn't paint false cliched pictures of pretty places now; instead (as he has written earlier) he says nature untamed, unprettied up stirs the spirit but is at the same time often desolate:
This armada [the above ships] was moored on the Ohio against the low reedy bank, a mile above the levee, where the old unchanged forest of nature came down to the very edge of the river, and mixed itself with the shallow overflowing waters. I am wrong in saying that it lay under the boughs of the trees, for such trees do not spread themselves out with broad branches. They stand thickly together, broken, stunted, spongy with rot, straight and ugly, with ragged tops and shattered arms, sheemingly decayed, but still ever renewing themselves with the rapid moist life of luxuriant vegetation. Nothing to my eyes is sadder than the monotonous desolation of such scenery. We, in England, when we red and speak of the primeval forests of America, are apt to form pictures in our minds of woodland glades, with spreading oaks and green mossy turf beneath -- of scene than hwihc nothing that God has given us is more charming. But these forests are not after that fasion; they offer no allurement to the lover, no solace to the melancholy man of thought. the ground is deep with mud, or overflown with water. the soil and the river have no defined margins. Each tree, though full of the forms of life, has all the appearance of death. Even to the outward eye they seem to be laden with ague, fever, sudden chills, and pestilential malaria (North American, Knopf ed, Ch 25, p 49).
This is as good as anything in Darwin's Voyage to the Beagle as sheer description from "the melancholy man of thought." For a moment Trollope lifts the veil and thus identifies himself. Nature is indifferent to man. Malaria rarely makes it into popular or school history books; in fact it was a central killer in the US for much of the 19th century in the deep south and could be found along the river banks of the west. Malaria kills the white hero and heroine of Uncle Tom's Cabin.
There are other such realistic descriptions, some exhilarating (as in the description of a magnificent bridge -- I love a great big bridge (Ch 25, pp. 417-418) which recall Trollope on the grain elevators he saw earlier in the more northern reaches of the midwest.
Trollope was a patient listener: he is amused to hear Americans talk of England in a vein which reminds me of Fanny Trollope talking of America (e.g., "the house of Commons was an acknowledged failure", p 416). Probably the closest equivalent of her book by a traveller in Europe is Twain but he did not concentrate his satiric and angry energies on the class systems and manners of English people -- probably he thought them not important enough, or only one small facet of larger phenomenon he was after. Trollope's is an "educated eye" (his phrase, p. 417) and he is aware when he doesn't know enough to pronounce.
Again, as throughout the book, Trollope has little perceptions about Americans which may not catch attention unless you live here and can see that they are the result of a person brought up in a country like England looking at the US: for example, England is physically so much smaller than the US and distances are accounted large which here seem small. In fact US people today jump in their cars and drive 2 hours and call it a small trip: says Trollope, "It seems that everybody travels in America and that nothing is thought of distance" (Ch 23, p. 370). I am very aware of this partly because as a NYC person I think of things as very far away when I have to get into a car and travel two hours. Not my neighbours.
Trollope again comments on the centrality of money to US cultural mores, how we are aware of things as indications of money first; how accepted it is in the US that one man will exploit and abuse the other for his labour insofar as that man must let him (the man may in our century combine with others to form a union and fight back). US people like to appear to accept boom and bust on a personal level . It's a matter of pride in public. But the reality is they hate like hell to be exploited, to lose out to the next guy; at the heart of the appeal of the Republican party to the working class in this country is repressed anger which is twisted and aims itself at those who will admit to disliking the exploitation and fighting it generally.
We can see how Trollope has managed to get inside the US skin when he uses the world of native Americans (Indians) for a metaphor to get at just this centrally important complex of feeling: "No men love money with more eager love than these western men, but they bear the loss of it as an Indian bears his torture at the stake" (Ch 24, p. 399). US people hate to lose money for that is to lose caste.
The distrust of politicians is here too and expressed in terms similar to those used today (p. 389)
These are strong chapters in which Trollope gets inside the US spirit once again, this time through his dramatic imagination instead of through analysis -- as in his discussions of the relationship between egalitarianism and real respect for the individual as such, not as a part of a lineage when he goes into the educational level of the average person, their behavior in public and the public school systems in the middle of his book. They make me understand why in his Anthony Trollope: A Victorian in His World Richard Mullen praised this book so strongly and argued that Trollope's strongest ego identifications were with Americans. This may seem strange to English readers, and I for one see a strong id (the passions) identification in Trollope with the Irish. But I can see how Trollope was gratified and satisfied to see this world of people who in their innermost spirit refuse to kowtow to perceived individual injustice. Gary Cooper at High Noon. Jean Arthur standing alongside Cary Grant in Talk of the Town with her face set, determined.
For those interested who have been reading North America and interested in a sympathetic analysis of Trollope's earnest travel book from the point of view of its relationship to Trollope's inner life (i.e., where is Trollope's deepest real identification?), Mullen's chapter on North America is worth reading. My only proviso is Mullen seems (actually) on the "side" of the south, or at least sympathetic to the "southern" cause. He opens with a quotation from Mary Chesnut and keeps saying most people who wrote about the south didn't see the situation from a balanced point of view. Mr Mullen has never seen slavery, but has he not read about it? I recommend to him Fanny Kemble, Olmsted, even Dickens.
Cheers to all,