Critical Observations of an Evolving Culture
The time that Frances Trollope spent traveling the United States, would prove to be the most tumultuous era of cultural redefinition in our nation’s history. As the years unfolded, the United States firmly rebuked its colonized heritage and allowed a socio-political wedge to divide the nation firmly along the notion of what it means to be a man worthy of freedom. As Trollope traveled, she wrote extensively on the natural beauty found throughout the wilderness of the United States as well as the incredibly varied beauty and inspiration of city structure and life. Her engagement with the American people produced stark commentary on the customs of America, a large portion of which she found to be horrendously lacking in the finer aspects of life, as well as general European manners. Her criticisms of these manners (or perceived lack there of) ultimately highlight how the culture of the United States had begun to shift due to the politics of populism, the dynamic role of religion in society, and the ever present and increasingly pressing question of race.
Despite Trollope’s many criticisms of the American south, she never failed to find an inherent beauty in the natural environments that surrounded the sparsely placed urban centers. Of the New Orleans forest as well as the New Orleans and Memphis waterways, she recounted the peace and awe she felt at observing “the luxuriant undergrowth of palmetos…” (Trollope 4) as well as the serene enjoyment she found onboard a steam boat in observing ” the clear bright beauty of American moonlight long after every passenger but ourselves had retired…” (Trollope 10). Similar rapture with nature was expressed for only a few areas of the American north, including Baltimore of which Trollope recounted the “the wild, rocky, narrow, rapid little rivers we encountered, [that] were a thousand times more beautiful” (Trollope 122) than the massive waterways traversed by steamboats throughout the nation. Her account of the trip from Utica to Albany as leading her to be unable to “conceive that any country can furnish a drive of ninety-six miles more beautiful, or more varied in its beauty…” (Trollope 246) however, is the most revealing insight with regards to the view that Trollope took with the budding United States. In nature, Trollope sees the only part of the United States that is dominantly un-American. The diversity of the national landscape on which Trollope lavishes praise is the physical embodiment of the purity that she finds to be lacking in much of American society. The wilderness, to Trollope, embodies neither the refined grace of European society, nor the brash harshness of American life, but instead offers a blank, unadulterated canvas with which Trollope cannot find inherent fault.
The varied nature of American cityscapes provided Trollope with a variety of environments, all of which appeared to her as fun-house mirror versions of urban Europe, and exasperated her to varying extents. The simple nature of southern and Midwestern cities, such as New Orleans and Cincinnati did not enthrall Trollope and her children as they were “were too fresh from Europe to care much for,” (Trollope 7) comforts that although common in Europe, were scarce on the frontier. In Cincinnati, Trollope commented on the city’s overall dull appearance and lack of distinctive architecture, but found herself attracted to the expansive steamboat port present on the riverfront. This halfhearted fondness of American cityscapes vanished when she reached Baltimore, which she praised as “one of the handsomest cities to approach in the Union.” (Trollope 122). In Washington, Trollope spoke extensively of the raw power that was projected through the city’s sprawling architecture and public works of art, commenting that “The view from the capitol commands the city and many miles around, and it is itself an object of imposing beauty to the whole country adjoining.” (Trollope 130). In New York, Trollope found the Europeanized environment that she yearned for. The city’s highly nostalgic architecture and entertainment, mixed with the beauty of the surrounding wilderness, called forth memories of her home in England and caused her to proclaim that she “never saw a city more desirable as a residence.” (Trollope 208). Trollope’s engagement with the cities of America, beyond serving as a facilitator for the interactions between Trollope and ‘poor mannered’ Americans, demonstrate that Trollope was ultimately searching for somewhere that reminded her of her home in England.
The vast majority of Trollope’s criticism of America comes directly from her interactions with the American people. Throughout her journey, Trollope comments on the proud (to the point of a superiority complex) nature of white Americans when dealing with foreign cultures. Beginning with her steamboat rides, Trollope is constantly subjected to constant sneering references from Americans regarding the “tyranny” that all British subjects live under, but also notes that, “It is among themselves, and from themselves, that I have heard the statements which represent them as treacherous and false almost beyond belief in their intercourse with the unhappy Indians.” (Trollope 133). This dualistic nature of believing foreign nations to be guilty of treason while selectively ignoring oppressive tendencies domestically extends to distinctions made between servants. White women who engaged in domestic servitude did so while demanding a high amount of respect as it was taught that, “it is more than petty treason to the Republic, to call a free citizen a servant. The whole class of young women, whose bread depends upon their labour, are taught to believe that the most abject poverty is preferable to domestic service.” (Trollope 32). These young women would often quit abruptly or snap angrily at Trollope if they felt they were not being paid well or respected as an equal. However, these young ladies also felt comfortable utilizing slaves to do the same work for free as one demonstrated when she told Trollope, “You must just give me a dollar and half a week, and mother’s slave, Phillis, must come over once a week, I expect, from t’other side the water, to help me clean.” (Trollope 32)
Trollope found the US to be full of many strange customs which she asserted were unnecessary and harmful to good order, such as one “New York custom… the changing house once a year” (Trollope 215). While small customs such as this were found by Trollope to be merely frivolous and amusing, the segregating of the sexes at public and private functions infuriated Trollope. She found this practice to be abhorrent as while “The women invariably herd together at one part of the room,… look at each other’s dresses till they know every pin by heart,” (Trollope 36) eat, and drink tea, “The gentlemen spit, talk of elections and the price of produce, and spit again.” (Trollope 36). The result of this practice, according to Trollope is both the deterioration of social interaction skills and, due to the fact that, “In America, with the exception of dancing, which is almost wholly confined to the unmarried of both sexes, all the enjoyments of the men are found in the absence of the women,”(Trollope 91) that “large evening parties are supremely dull” (Trollope 184). Trollope goes on to assert that if men and women were to dine and socialize together more often, “The men will not indulge in the luxury of chewing tobacco, or even of spitting, and the women will contrive to be capable of holding a higher post than that of unwearied tea-makers.” (Trollope 91). Trollope found this practice of spitting and chewing tobacco to be one of many unacceptable lapses in American manners that she was forced to endure during her travels in the US. The starkest offense of mannerism that Trollope identified by far, was undue familiarity between strangers, especially strangers that Trollope identified as being of different social classes. Behaviors such as coachmen quarrelling with members of foreign aristocracies and servants demanding to dine with their masters caused great alarm for Trollope, although no occurrence of this sort made such an impression as Trollope’s original steamboat ride up the mighty Mississippi River. While on board, Trollope found herself within a cabin of mixed company and “The gentlemen in the cabin (we had no ladies) would certainly neither, from their language, manners, nor appearance, have received that designation in Europe; but we soon found their claim to it rested on more substantial ground, for we heard them nearly all addressed by the titles of general, colonel, and major.” (Trollope 10-11). Unlike the refined, reserved officers of the British military, these Americans were more than willing to discuss traditionally private matters such as politics and familial relations in addition to the general offenses of chewing tobacco and spitting. This type of altercation was often mimicked when travelling by steamboat and as such, the method of travel often received Trollope’s scorn as the summation of several poor American manners (the women were segregated to a dull section of the ship while the men drank, chewed tobacco, spat and engaged in taboo conversation).
Perhaps the most American activity to draw Trollope’s ire was the common obsession with monetary enrichment present amongst the citizenry of all ages, races, and creeds. Trollope personally witnessed this pursuit comically when attempting to purchase chickens from a neighbor only to discover young son to be both the leader of the chicken farming operation and the sole recipient of its monetary fruits. Less amusing was the manner in which Trollope and her children were robbed of their afternoon walks by the rancid runoff from a swine slaughter house. When a second such slaughter house was to be opened closer to Trollope’s residence, her requests that the building be moved were dismissed with the condescending assertion that such an action, “may do very well for your tyrannical country, where a rich man’s nose is more thought of than a poor man’s mouth; but hogs be profitable produce here, and we be too free for such a law as that, I guess.”(Trollope 63). Trollope even witnessed this desire for money extend to efforts in congress to rebuke attempts by the national government to spearhead internal improvement campaigns for fear that these expanded powers could, at some unknown point in the future, lead to efforts to end the economically prosperous practice of slavery.
Many of Trollope’s complaints ultimately concerned the process of redefinition that was slowly taking root in America as the colonial ties previously held with British culture were severed by time. The taboo of publicly discussing politics was becoming a fixture in American culture as many of the successor generation, who had never lived under British rule, asked “How should freemen spend their time, but looking after their government, and watching that them fellers as we gives offices to, doos their duty, and gives themselves no airs?” (Trollope 61). The other, previously private matter that became publicized as American culture evolved was the practice of religion. No longer was prayer a private, daily task to be accomplished by pious practitioners, but instead became a public fashion statement as “The whole people appear to be divided into an almost endless variety of religious factions, and I was told, that to be well received in society, it was necessary to declare yourself as belonging to some one of these” (Trollope 64). To accompany this newly fashionable Christianity, revivalist preachers traveled the nation, hosting circus style prayer meetings with dynamic sermons, dramatic testifying and lively hymns. In addition to this spreading of Christianity, some atheists boldly hosted public debates on the truth of religion, which seemed to be aimed at entertaining the audiences they drew rather than actually finding an answer to the question that facilitated the debate. Ultimately Trollope’s examination of the changes sweeping religious practice in the US indicate it’s shift from a private activity to, as Karl Marx would later state, the opioid of the masses.
In contrast with the good natured evangelism that was sweeping the nation, slavery was becoming a question on which it seemed the nation could not agree. Trollope readily acknowledged the contradiction present in the keeping of slaves when she stated that “you will see them [white Americans] with one hand hoisting the cap of liberty, and with the other flogging their slaves.” (Trollope 133). However, while she and many Americans harbored abolitionist views, they also rationalized the presence of slavery by telling each other that “The condition of domestic slaves, however, does not generally appear to be bad; but the ugly feature is, that should it be so, they have no power to change it.” (Trollope 148). By making this claim, they were both able to maintain the moral superiority present in the condemnation of slavery, while also rationalizing their reaping the benefits of forced labor through the assertion that the conditions slaves lived and worked in were acceptable.
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