Flanders an English historian has called the battle-field of Europe, while the United States of America seem to be particularly regarded by the English as a chosen land, on which author-errants may vent their humours. Nearly all these travelled writers profess a wish to cultivate and improve the good understanding which should prevail between the child and parent countries, and they then, with some honourable exceptions, proceed to show (strange means to such an end) how rude and perverse is the overgrown baby America, disregardful of parental admonitions, and perseverant with ridiculous obstinacy in thinking, speaking, and acting for herself. It pleases these travellers to declare, on their return to England, that they regard the United States with kindly feelings and gay good-humour. It may well be so; so much of their evil-humour has been packed up, forced into manuscript to appear in print, that it was exhausted in the process: their declarations are as the hum of the insect -- their books, its sting . . . .
British travellers, perhaps, their transatlantic voyage accomplished, have a foreign, a from-home sort of feeling; and thinking of foreign parts, find the United States like a Greater Britain, and are dissatisfied that it is not as their Britain; the difference in manners, pronunciation, and phraseology they gravely and sagely censure, precisely as they would provincialisms in their own country, impertinent departures from the London standard; but America, like France or Germany, is surely entitled to establish a standard of her own . . . .
It is hoped the following familiar letters may show how several of these authors have erred; and that they will, moreover, be found to present a fair, just, and unexaggerated character of the English as they are.
That the work will produce any impression upon the English themselves, the authoress has not for a moment contemplated; for when it is told of themselves, they are a people singularly unmoved by -- the Truth.
from Letter I.
Do not suppose that I am slow to acknowledge the great merits of Boz -- the lion par excellence of his day. I have not to be informed of his originality -- of his opening and working a new vein in his land's literature. One feels better after reading his books -- better after the humour of his Wellers -- the amenity of his Pickwick . . . ; one's heart warms to poor Oliver Twist; one's indignation rises against Ralph Nickleby; one's disgust at the Squeerses, and one' gorge at Pecksniff. But (these buts!) if he be creative as a novelist, he is most meager as a traveller; our country was beyond his powers, and, indeed, is beyond the four months' power of any man . . . . In the Mississippi he beholds but a muddy stream flowing through the woody wilderness; his mind's eye catches no prescient glimpse of the cities that in the fulness of time will adorn it banks; he alludes not to the "all hail, hereafter!" He is diffuse upon prisons and madhouses . . . brief when he tells of senates, laws, religions, literature, or science; things that have prospective influences, and are not merely for the moment . . . . He says little upon great things, and much upon little things; looks not through parts to the whole, but regards trifling parts for their own trifling sake . . . .
from Letter IV.
My Dearest Julia -- I dare say you would be surprised to learn -- I was -- that "the most obliging, considerate, and gentlemanly person Mr. Dickens ever had to deal with" (strong language) was an innkeeper at Harrisburg. I pretend not to be a judge of what men consider gentlemanly bearing in their intercourse one with another, but I know the Americans are accused of being deficient in that respect . . . . Most assuredly no one can deny the deference, the tone of good manners towards our sex, not only prevalent, but universal in America.
I am told the English mean (more good intentions -- more masses of pavement) to testify as respectful a regard as the Americans; if it be so, certainly their way of doing it is full of oddness and originality. Better the Yankee inquisitiveness, of which travellers complain, than utter and contemptuous silence; better "an imbodied inquiry" [see American Notes, chapt. 10 (p.174) -- ed.], an animated note of interrogation with the twist in the mind, than the surly masculine selfishness I have so often met with here. I am inclined to think Englishmen consider this repulsiveness a becoming, and even national attribute -- a sort of birthright. Esau's example has not been followed; this personal property is rarely disposed of, but is handed down intact from father to son. the English appear to regard the "petits soins," the attention ladies are taught to expect in society, as a tax upon their time and speech, and like a tax they pay it -- that is, grudgingly, or not at all if they can help it . . . .
from Letter VI.
My Dearest Julia -- Mr. Dickens has devoted thirty-five pages to an account of a blind and deaf and dumb girl, Laura Bridgman, and thirteen to Oliver Caswell, a boy almost similarly afflicted. The cases are undoubtedly well worthy of record, interesting alike to the metaphysician and philanthropist, and admirably told . . . ; but one is driven to remark the peculiarity of a work that devotes forty-eight pages to these cases, and not so many lines to important national subjects.
Did you ever hear of a craft called book-making? A writer undertakes to enlighten the world on a certain subject, but his stock of light falls short, and he is fain to supply its place with any indistinct glimmering, in order to complete his task somehow or other; he even plants a sorry twinkling taper in an out-office, and hopes it may pass for an illumination of the whole premises! To drop metaphor -- when an author, whose works are sure to sell, has to write a book in a given time, and with a mind unoppressed with information on the weightier matters of his theme, he introduces a few episodes, as necessary to illustrate his subject as a painted flag is to navigate a man-of-war; and thus helped, the printer has matter enough, and the public are satisfied that the volumes have a guinea-sized look to them. It may be true that little information is conveyed to the reader -- but what then? Was not the book written by the famous Quizzicus? Does not the name of the author atone for the deficiencies of the volumes? . . . .
from Letter XIII.
My Dearest Julia -- It appears from Mr. Dickens's accounts that to be "smart" is the quality or phrase covering a multitude of sins in America -- here, it is to be "respectable." [see American Notes, chapt. 18 (p. 287) -- ed.]
"I wonder," say I, "to see a man like Mr. ---- in society: is he not known to be a worthless husband; an avaricious and tyrannical father, and constantly in disreputable quarrels?" "Very true, but then he's such a respectable man." "And Mr. ----, I am told his fortune has been made by strange means, and many attribute their ruin to his plausibility." "Yes, but he's a very respectable man too" . . . .
from Letter XV.
. . . . I remember when we returned from Abney Park we visited the India House . . . . Here meet the Indian governors -- the British merchants, who are literally princes. We saw a collection of Eastern curiosities, the details of which might not interest you much. Mr. Dickens states the interest he felt in viewing, at Harrisburg, the treaties between the Indians and the Whites -- the poor natives not appending their sign manual, but graphic -- a sketch of the distinguishing sobriquet of the chief, the Great Turtle, or the War Hatchet; indeed, the contemplation of the ever-progressive change in the being and numbers of the red men is most painful; but when of late the North American Indians have agreed to the cession of territories on terms stated, they have fully understood the nature of the compact.
Had I been of the bolder sex, I might have asked them at the India House to gratify me with a sight of the treaties of cession, on terms of purchase or exchange agreed upon between English officers and Hindoo rulers. Really those who live in a very glass island should not throw so many stones at the people of other countries. I am convinced the Hindoos are happier under the British rule than under that of their fierce, treacherous, and cowardly native princes; but the mildness or equity of the sway is no justification of the means of its attainment -- the means are easily defined -- a judicious mixture of force and fraud . . . .
from Letter XXIII.
Dearest Julia -- I always avoid arguments upon slavery, but sometimes they are forced upon me; and those English ladies who know just the least of the matter, are the most energetic in their abolition advocacy. Why can't America emancipate her slaves as England did? is a common query, as coolly advanced as if the occurrence took place some time last century. Why, the British government, out of its enormous resources, purchased the freedom of the slaves; and if all America had the same desire, has she the means? Philanthropic as the English are, especially when the object is afar off, and even while their wealth is greater than their philanthropy, no one can expect that they will ever offer to pay to another country a full and fair price for their bondsmen, that slavery may be no more. Then how is the manumission to be accomplished? But more of this, perhaps, some other time . . . .
from Letter XXXVII
. . . . That selfishness is the bane of the Englishman's character generally is, I believe, undeniable -- he lives for little but himself -- while equally undeniable is it that this very selfishness leads to great results. When men have overweening notions of their individual superiority, it is common and natural for them to endeavour to act up to their pretensions; the selfishness which makes them cold, unamiable, and uncharitable, little susceptible of the softer affections, and derisive of virtue and genius in others (because loath to admit an inferiority in themselves), makes them also bold, persevering, and wary, when personal advantages are to be acquired . . . . The American's self pride is of a nobler cast, for it is more of his country, her glory, and her prowess.
Of the superior intelligence of the mass in America there can be no doubt, for the care bestowed upon general education, with the universality and cheapness of books and newspapers, must ensure it; it is proved, moreover, by the fact, that while almost all Americans familiarly understand almost all English questions, literary or political, the English (I speak here of the body of the people) understand the nature of the politics and literature of the Unites States as thoroughly as they do those of the Mountaineers of the Moon . . . .
I have said little of the ladies of England; perhaps a gentleman would have written far more of them and less of the rougher sex. It is difficult to describe when no striking characteristics present themselves. The ladies are elegant, beautiful, and good; and that said, what remains? Their influence upon society is most beneficial; their beauty is somewhat fuller in its character than with us; perhaps it would be more correct to say they are less slim in form and less delicate in feature (as a rule) than are American ladies. I have no hesitation in saying they are not selfish like the men -- indeed, I think it is not in woman's nature to be so. It may be said selfishness, like disease, is everywhere: why dwell upon its prevalence in England? Because among the English this quality presents a wondrous freedom from alloy not found elsewhere; it has been purged from all deteriorating adjuncts -- it is the very purity of selfishness . . . .