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Richly informative on American manners and morals in the early ninteenth century, this famous travel account also reveals much about the contrast between British and American culture.
Entrance of the Mississippi—Balize.
ON THE 4th of November, 1827, I sailed from London, accompanied by my son and two daughters; and after a favourable, though somewhat tedious voyage, arrived on Christmas-day at the mouth of the Mississippi.
The first indication of our approach to land was the appearance of this mighty river pouring forth its muddy mass of waters, and mingling with the deep blue of the Mexican Gulf. The shores of this river are so utterly flat, that no object upon them is perceptible at sea, and we gazed with pleasure on the muddy ocean that met us, for it told us we were arrived, and seven weeks of sailing had wearied us; yet it was not without a feeling like regret that we passed from the bright blue waves, whose varying aspect had so long furnished our chief amusement, into the murky stream which now received us.
Large flights of pelicans were seen standing upon the long masses of mud which rose above the surface of the waters, and a pilot came to guide us over the bar, long before any other indication of land was visible.
I never beheld a scene so utterly desolate as this entrance of the Mississippi. Had Dante seen it, he might have drawn images of another Bolgia from its horrors. One only object rears itself above the eddying waters; this is the mast of a vessel long since wrecked in attempting to cross the bar, and it still stands, a dismal witness of the destruction that has been, and a boding prophet of that which is to come.
By degrees bulrushes of enormous growth become visible, and a few more miles of mud brought us within sight of a cluster of huts called the Balize, by far the most miserable station that I ever saw made the dwelling of man, but I was told that many families of pilots and fishermen lived there.
For several miles above its mouth, the Mississippi presents no objects more interesting than mud banks, monstrous bulrushes, and now and then a huge crocodile luxuriating in the slime. Another circumstance that gives to this dreary scene an aspect of desolation, is the incessant appearance of vast quantities of drift wood, which is ever finding its way to the different mouths of the Mississippi. Trees of enormous length, sometimes still bearing their branches, and still oftener their uptorn roots entire, the victims of the frequent hurricane, come floating down the stream. Sometimes several of these, entangled together, collect among their boughs a quantity of floating rubbish, that gives the mass the appearance of a moving island, bearing a forest, with its roots mocking the heavens; while the dishonoured branches lash the tide in idle vengeance: this, as it approaches the vessel, and glides swiftly past, looks like the fragment of a world in ruins.
As we advanced, however, we were cheered, notwithstanding the season, by the bright tints of southern vegetation. The banks continue invariably flat, but a succession of planless villas, sometimes merely a residence, and sometimes surrounded by their sugar grounds and negro huts, varied the scene. At no one point was there an inch of what painters call a second distance; and for the length of one hundred and twenty miles, from the Balize to New Orleans, and one hundred miles above the town, the land is defended from the encroachments of the river by a high embankment which is called the Levée; without which the dwellings would speedily disappear, as the river is evidently higher than the banks would be without it. When we arrived, there had been constant rains, and of long continuance, and this appearance was, therefore, unusually striking, giving to "this great natural feature" the most unnatural appearance imaginable; and making evident, not only that man had been busy there, but that even the mightiest works of nature might be made to bear his impress; it recalled, literally, Swift's mock heroic,
"Nature must give way to art;"
yet, she was looking so mighty, and so unsubdued all the time, that I could not help fancying she would some day take the matter into her own hands again, and if so, farewell to New Orleans.
It is easy to imagine the total want of beauty in such a landscape; but yet the form and hue of the trees and plants, so new to us, added to the long privation we had endured of all sights and sounds of land, made even these swampy shores seem beautiful. We were, however, impatient to touch as well as see the land; but the navigation from the Balize to New Orleans is difficult and tedious, and the two days that it occupied appeared longer than any we had passed on board.
In truth, to those who have pleasure in contemplating the phenomena of nature, a sea voyage may endure many weeks without wearying. Perhaps some may think that the first glance of ocean and of sky shew all they have to offer; nay, even that that first glance may suggest more of dreariness than sublimity; but to me, their variety appeared endless, and their beauty unfailing. The attempt to describe scenery, even where the objects are prominent and tangible, is very rarely successful; but where the effect is so subtile and so varying, it must be vain. The impression, nevertheless, is perhaps deeper than any other; I think it possible I may forget the sensations with which I watched the long course of the gigantic Mississippi; the Ohio and the Potomac may mingle and be confounded with other streams in my memory, I may even recall with difficulty the blue outline of the Alleghany mountains, but never, while I remember any thing, can I forget the first and last hour of light on the Atlantic.
The ocean, however, and all its indescribable charm, no longer surrounded us; we began to feel that our walk on the quarter-deck was very like the exercise of an ass in a mill; that our books had lost half their pages, and that the other half were known by rote; that our beef was very salt, and our biscuits very hard; in short, that having studied the good ship, Edward, from stem to stern till we knew the name of every sail, and the use of every pulley, we had had enough of her, and as we laid down, head to head, in our tiny beds for the last time, I exclaimed with no small pleasure,
"To-morrow to fresh fields and pastures new."CHAPTER 2
New Orleans—Society—Creoles and Quadroons—Voyage up the Mississippi.
ON FIRST touching the soil of a new land, of a new continent, of a new world, it is impossible not to feel considerable excitement and deep interest in almost every object that meets us. New Orleans presents very little that can gratify the eye of taste, but nevertheless there is much of novelty and interest for a newly arrived European. The large proportion of blacks seen in the streets, all labour being performed by them; the grace and beauty of the elegant Quadroons, the occasional groups of wild and savage looking Indians, the unwonted aspect of the vegetation, the huge and turbid river, with its low and slimy shore, all help to afford that species of amusement which proceeds from looking at what we never saw before.
The town has much the appearance of a French Ville de Province, and is, in fact, an old French colony taken from Spain by France. The names of the streets are French, and the language about equally French and English. The market is handsome and well supplied, all produce being conveyed by the river. We were much pleased by the chant with which the Negro boatmen regulate and beguile their labour on the river; it consists but of very few notes, but they are sweetly harmonious, and the Negro voice is almost always rich and powerful.
By far the most agreeable hours I passed at New Orleans were those in which I explored with my children the forest near the town. It was our first walk in "the eternal forests of the western world," and we felt rather sublime and poetical. The trees, generally speaking, are much too close to be either large or well grown; and, moreover, their growth is often stunted by a parasitical plant, for which I could learn no other name than "Spanish moss;" it hangs gracefully from the boughs, converting the outline of all the trees it hangs upon into that of weeping willows. The chief beauty of the forest in this region is from the luxuriant under-growth of palmetos, which is decidedly the loveliest coloured and most graceful plant I know. The pawpaw, too, is a splendid shrub, and in great abundance. We here, for the first time, saw the wild vine, which we afterwards found growing so profusely in every part of America, as naturally to suggest the idea that the natives ought to add wine to the numerous productions of their plenty-teeming soil. The strong pendant festoons made safe and commodious swings, which some of our party enjoyed, despite the sublime temperament above-mentioned.
Notwithstanding it was mid-winter when we were at New Orleans, the heat was much more than agreeable, and the attacks of the mosquitos incessant, and most tormenting; yet I suspect that, for a short time, we would rather have endured it, than not have seen oranges, green peas, and red pepper, growing in the open air at Christmas. In one of our rambles we ventured to enter a garden, whose bright orange hedge attracted our attention; here we saw green peas fit for the table, and a fine crop of red pepper ripening in the sun. A young Negress was employed on the steps of the house; that she was a slave made her an object of interest to us. She was the first slave we had ever spoken to, and I believe we all felt that we could hardly address her with sufficient gentleness. She little dreamed, poor girl, what deep sympathy she excited; she answered us civilly and gaily, and seemed amused at our fancying there was something unusual in red pepper pods; she gave us several of them, and I felt fearful lest a hard mistress might blame her for it. How very childish does ignorance make us! and how very ignorant we are upon almost every subject, where hear-say evidence is all we can get!
I left England with feelings so strongly opposed to slavery, that it was not without pain I witnessed its effects around me. At the sight of every Negro man, woman, and child that passed, my fancy wove some little romance of misery, as belonging to each of them; since I have known more on the subject, and become better acquainted with their real situation in America, I have often smiled at recalling what I then felt.
The first symptom of American equality that I perceived, was my being introduced in form to a milliner; it was not at a boarding-house, under the indistinct outline of "Miss C*****," nor in the street through the veil of a fashionable toilette, but in the very penetralia of her temple, standing behind her counter, giving laws to ribbon and to wire, and ushering caps and bonnets into existence. She was an English woman, and I was told that she possessed great intellectual endowments, and much information; I really believe this was true. Her manner was easy and graceful, with a good deal of French tournure; and the gentleness with which her fine eyes and sweet voice directed the movements of a young female slave, was really touching: the way, too, in which she blended her French talk of modes with her customers, and her English talk of metaphysics with her friends, had a pretty air of indifference in it, that gave her a superiority with both.
I found with her the daughter of a judge, eminent, it was said, both for legal and literary ability, and I heard from many quarters, after I had left New Orleans, that the society of this lady was highly valued by all persons of talent. Yet were I, traveller-like, to stop here, and set it down as a national peculiarity, or republican custom, that milliners took the lead in the best society, I should greatly falsify facts. I do not remember the same thing happening to me again, and this is one instance among a thousand, of the impression every circumstance makes on entering a new country, and of the propensity, so irresistible, to class all things, however accidental, as national and peculiar. On the other hand, however, it is certain that if similar anomalies are unfrequent in America, they are nearly impossible elsewhere.
In the shop of Miss C***** I was introduced to Mr. M'Clure, a venerable personage, of gentlemanlike appearance, who in the course of five minutes propounded as many axioms, as "Ignorance is the only devil;" "Man makes his own existence;" and the like. He was of the New Harmony school, or rather the New Harmony school was of him. He was a man of good fortune, (a Scotchman, I believe), who after living a tolerably gay life, had "conceived high thoughts, such as Lycurgus loved, who bade flog the little Spartans," and determined to benefit the species, and immortalize himself, by founding a philosophical school at New Harmony. There was something in the hollow square legislations of Mr. Owen, that struck him as admirable, and he seems, as far as I can understand, to have intended aiding his views, by a sort of incipient hollow square drilling; teaching the young ideas of all he could catch, to shoot into parallelogramic form and order. This venerable philosopher, like all of his school that I ever heard of, loved better to originate lofty imaginings of faultless systems, than to watch their application to practice. With much liberality he purchased and conveyed to the wilderness a very noble collection of books and scientific instruments; but not finding among men one whose views were liberal and enlarged as his own, he selected a woman to put into action the machine he had organized. As his acquaintance with this lady had been of long standing, and, as it was said, very intimate, he felt sure that no violation of his rules would have place under her sway; they would act together as one being: he was to perform the functions of the soul, and will every thing; she, those of the body, and perform every thing.
The principal feature of the scheme was, that (the first liberal outfit of the institution having been furnished by Mr. M'Clure,) the expense of keeping it up should be defrayed by the profits arising from the labours of the pupils, male and female, which was to be performed at stated intervals of each day, in regular rotation with learned study and scientific research. But unfortunately the soul of the system found the climate of Indiana uncongenial to its peculiar formation, and, therefore, took its flight to Mexico, leaving the body to perform the operations of both, in whatever manner it liked best; and the body, being a French body, found no difficulty in setting actively to work without troubling the soul about it; and soon becoming conscious that the more simple was a machine, the more perfect were its operations, she threw out all that related to the intellectual part of the business, (which to do poor soul justice, it had laid great stress upon), and stirred herself as effectually as ever body did, to draw wealth from the thews and sinews of the youths they had collected. When last I heard of this philosophical establishment, she, and a nephew-son were said to be reaping a golden harvest, as many of the lads had been sent from a distance by indigent parents, for gratuitous education, and possessed no means of leaving it.
Our stay in New Orleans was not long enough to permit our entering into society, but I was told that it contained two distinct sets of people, both celebrated, in their way, for their social meetings and elegant entertainments. The first of these is composed of Creole families, who are chiefly planters and merchants, with their wives and daughters; these meet together, eat together, and are very grand and aristocratic; each of their balls is a little Almack's, and every portly dame of the set is as exclusive in her principles as a lady patroness. The other set consists of the excluded but amiable Quadroons, and such of the gentlemen of the former class as can by any means escape from the high places, where pure Creole blood swells the veins at the bare mention of any being tainted in the remotest degree with the Negro stain.
Of all the prejudices I have ever witnessed, this appears to me the most violent, and the most inveterate. Quadroon girls, the acknowledged daughters of wealthy American or Creole fathers, educated with all of style and accomplishments which money can procure at New Orleans, and with all the decorum that care and affection can give; exquisitely beautiful, graceful, gentle, and amiable, these are not admitted, nay, are not on any terms admissible, into the society of the Creole families of Louisiana. They cannot marry; that is to say, no ceremony can render an union with them legal or binding; yet such is the powerful effect of their very peculiar grace, beauty, and sweetness of manner, that unfortunately they perpetually become the objects of choice and affection. If the Creole ladies have privilege to exercise the awful power of repulsion, the gentle Quadroon has the sweet but dangerous vengeance of possessing that of attraction. The unions formed with this unfortunate race are said to be often lasting and happy, as far as any unions can be so, to which a certain degree of disgrace is attached.
Excerpted from Domestic Manners of the Americans by Frances Trollope. Copyright © 2003 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Entrance of the Mississippi.
New Orleans…Society…Creoles and Quadroons…Voyage up the Mississippi.
Company on board the Steam Boat…Scenery of the Mississippi…Crocodiles…Arrival at Memphis…Nashoba.
Departure from Memphis…Ohio River…Louisville…Cincinnati.
Market…Museum…Phrenological Society…Miss Wright’s Lecture.
Absence of public and private Amusement…Churches and Chapels…Influence of the Clergy…A Revival.
Schools…Climate…Water Melons…Fourth of July…Pigs…Moving Houses.
Removal to the country…Walk in the forest…Equality.
Peasantry, compared to that of England…Early marriages…Charity…Independence and equality…Cottage prayer-meeting.
Theatre…Delicacy…Visit of the President.
American Spring…Public ball…Separation of the sexes.
Departure from Cincinnati…Society on board the Steam-boat…Arrival at Wheeling.
Departure for the Mountains in the Stage…Scenery of the Alleghany…Haggerstown.
Baltimore…Catholic Cathedral…St. Mary’s College.
Voyage to Washington…Capitol…City of Washington…Congress…Indians…Funeral of a Member of Congress.
Small Landed Proprietors…Slavery.
Fruits and Flowers of Maryland and Virginia…Elections.
Journey to Philadelphia…Chesapeak and Delaware Canal…City of Philadelphia.
Washington Square…American Beauty.
Quakers…Presbyterians…Itinerant Methodist Preacher…Market…Influence of females in society.
Return to Stonington…Thunder-storm…Emigrants…Illness…Alexandria.
American Cooking…Evening Parties…Dress…Sleighing…Money-getting Habits…Tax-Gatherer’s Notice…Indian Summer.
Journey to New York…Delaware River…Stage-coach…City of New York…Collegiate Institute for Young Ladies…Public Garden…Churches….Morris Canal Carriages.
Journey to Niagara…Hudson…West Point…Hyde Park…Albany…Yankees…Trenton Falls…Rochester…Genesee Falls…Lockport.
Niagara…Arrival at Forsythes…First sight of the Falls…Goat Island…The Rapids…Buffalo…Lake Erie…Canandaigua…State-coach adventures.
Return to New York…Conclusion.
Posted June 8, 2010
Frances Trollope was, as Mark Twain put it, "handsomely cursed and reviled by this nation." Yet she did no more than tell the truth as she knew it. Dame Trollope came from England in 1827 to make her fortune by opening a department store on the American frontier. She settled in the booming town of Cincinnatti, Ohio, then with a population of 20,000, where she thought a fortune could easily be made. Failing to see the real needs of the settlers she didn't yet know, she didn't make that fortune and was made all but destitute by the experience. Her disparagement of America is thus suspected by many of her critics to have rooted in malice. Such motives are futile to prove, however, and it is sufficient to consider her criticism stems from her reputably refined sensibilities as and Englishwoman, one who observed with some disconcertion the comparatively unbridled ways of Americans. Whatever her prejudice, her scrutiny of life in the new world nonetheless equals that of her exceedingly more favored contemporary from France.
The reproval she elicits from Americans in part has to do with how her book, Domestic Manners of the Americans, was received in England. Released to the public in March 1832, it auspiciously concurred with debates in the British Parliament over democratic reform, when agitation for a new Reform Bill modelled on American government feverishly gripped the Whigs and the Tories. The Tories, seeking to curb democratic privileges, seized at Trollope's belittlement of American democracy, what she painted as no more than the pretense and propaganda of the economically endowed landower. The Whig supporters of the Reform Bill countered by denouncing her undemocratic cast. Ordinary Britons, meanwhile, were eating her book up for its lurid account of American life. Mrs. Trollope had found her success at last: at the age of fifty-two she became a literary sensation, thereupon setting her course on the writing of travel books and novels. The fact is, Domestic Manners outraged most contemporary American readers because they saw it as irresponsible and unfavorably disposed in its reporting. Still, newspapers all over the country quoted long sections from her book along with reviling commentaries. Today we value her vivid picture of travel and accomodations as much as her opinion on postcolonial American politics and society while keeping in mind that her experiences were not, by and large, fortunate.
What counts here, however, is the detail with which she embroiders the records of her travel. After leaving Cincinnatti, Mrs. Trollope and her party traveled by stagecoach over the Alleghenies. A harsh journey, Trollope vividly describes it in what may be one of the more surprisingly favorable passages of her entire two-year visit. Commencing at Cumberland, Maryland, in 1808, it was in nine years to stretch some 130 miles across the Alleghenies to Wheeling, Virginia. In 1833 it extended to Columbus, Ohio, and twenty years later to Vandalia, Illinois. Trollope makes this sometimes perilous and turbulent ride sublimely picturesque. Trollope gradually progresses from rancor to rapture, though, of course, always retaining her faculty for precision and minutia and her talent for enunciating what most people only vaguely sense.
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