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Art. X.-Men and Manners in America.
THORNTON, etc. 8vo. Philadelphia. 1833.
In our last number, we noticed at some length the observations of the Rev. Isaac Fidler upon the state of society and literature in this country. Some of our contemporaries have expressed the opinion, that we gave to that work an importance disproportionate to its value. It should be recollected, however, that in order to convey to the public a correct notion of the spirit of the British press, in relation to the United States, the works most suitable for notice are precisely the best and the worst; on the one hand, those which, from the ability and information displayed in them, may really be thought to require refutation, and on the other, those in which the prejudices common to most British travellers are exhibited in their naked proportions, without any accidental advantages of style or general learning, and of course in the form most open to detection and exposure.
Mr. Fidler's work is a brilliant specimen of the latter class, and has a fair chance of retaining, through all succeeding ages, the distinction of being the most absurd book of travels that was ever written,—at least by a clergyman of more than ordinary acquirements. The work before us belongs to the other category, and may, perhaps, be considered in respect of literary execution and general ability as the best British account of this country that has yet been published. The work of Captain Hall is the only one that can come in these respects into competition with it, and the two are in fact so nearly alike, both in spirit and execution, that it would be hardly worth while to attempt to settle their comparative merits. The work before us is described in the title page as written by the author of Cyril Thornton, a novel which is also anonymous, but is known to be the production of a Mr. Hamilton of Edinburgh. This person is, we believe, an officer of the army, living in retirement upon half-pay, of what rank we are unable to say with certainty, the newspapers having complimented him successively with various titles, such as Colonel, Major, Captain, and Lieutenant, some one of which is probably the true one. His Cyril Thornton, though of no great value as a novel, exhibits a good deal of literary ability, and would justify us in expecting from its author a work of a pretty high order upon a subject like that of the one before us, to which we think his talent better adapted than for fictitious writing.
This expectation will not be entirely disappointed, nor yet very fully satisfied by the character of the present work. It is undoubtedly, as we have said, in point of literary execution, one of the best that have yet appeared upon the United States. The style is not deficient in strength or spirit, and evinces at times a remarkable power of description, as in the passages on the Falls of Niagara and the river Mississippi. On the other hand, it is far from being uniformly so pure and correct as might be wished, is often unpardonably coarse, and is pervaded throughout by an affected pertness, and a silly air of pretension, which are offensive from the beginning, and finally become by repetition completely nauseous.
We shall have occasion, in making extracts for other purposes, to give some specimen of these defects in style: and will merely add here, that one of the most remarkable transgressions against the purity of the language occurs in the very passage, in which the learned author is taking the Americans to task for their manifold and flagrant offences in this particular. At the close of his chapter on Boston, he introduces a page or two of observations upon barbarisms in language with the following sentence. Even by the educated and respectable class, the commonest words are often so transmogrified as to be placed beyond the recognition of an Englishman. Transmogrified!!! and this too from the pen of a purist, and in the very sentence in which he is condemning a supposed want of purity in the use of language by others. Truly has it been said, that Nemesis is always on the watch. After this auspicious commencement, our author runs over the usual enumeration of clever, guess, and the use of progress as a verb, and having denounced, in addition to these stock examples, two or three other supposed American barbarisms, all of which may be found recorded in the British provincial glossaries, and are more frequently used in the mother country than they are here, jumps at the following astounding conclusion ; ' unless the present progress of change be arrested by an increase of taste and judgment in the more (better) educated classes, there can be no doubt that in another century the dialect of the Americans will become utterly unintelligible to an Englishman, and that the nation will be cut off from the advantages arising from their participation in British literature.'
Within the limited compass of our reading, we hardly recollect an example of a conclusion, that stands at so utterly hopeless a distance from its premises. Our readers, who have ears and nerves, will, we think, agree with us that the word of fear' which we have quoted above from our author's pages, and which, that we may have the full benefit of the invention, is repeated elsewhere, and followed out into the not less delightful derivative noun,-transmogrification,-constitutes of itself a grosser offence against the purity of the language ---we will not say than all the minor peccadillos which he has mustered up against us put together, because these really amount to nothing but than the sum total of all the errors of this kind that came under his observation, in tolerably good company, in the course of his travels from Boston to New Orleans.
So much for the mere matter of style, which, with the deductions we have mentioned, is in the main good. Of the spirit in which the work is written,---a far more important consideration ---we are compelled to speak in less favorable terms. As friends of the two countries, anxiously desiring, not merely the continuance of the present political good understanding, but the establishment of,—what has never yet existed,-a really kind and cordial feeling between them, we deeply regret that the ablest and best-written work upon this country which has yet appeared from the pen of a British traveller, is also the one which exhibits in the most inveterate and malignant form the common prejudices of the class. The causes that have led to this unfortunate result, it is of course not for us,-imperfectly acquainted as we are with the author's history, to pretend to investigate. He seems himself to have anticipated the objection which we make to the temper of his book, and in a short apologetic preface, in the form of a dedication, attempts to parry it in the following manner.
How far, in writing of the institutions of a foreign country, I may have been influenced by the prejudices natural to an Englishman, I presume not to determine. To the impartiality of a cosmopolite I make no pretension. No man can wholly cast off the trammels of habit and education, nor (or) escape from the bias of that multitude of minute and latent predilections, which insensibly affect the judgment of the wisest.
But apart from such necessary and acknowledged influences, I am aware of no prejudice, which could lead me to form a perverted, estimate of the condition, moral or social, of the Americans. I visited their country with no antipathies to be overcome; and I doubt not you can bear testimony, that my political sentiments were not such, as to make it probable, that I would regard with an unfavorable eye the popular character of their government. In the United States I was received with kindness, and enjoyed an intercourse, at once gratifying and instructive with many individuals for whom I can never cease to cherish the warmest sentiments of esteem. I neither left England a visionary and discontented enthusiast, nor did I return to it a man of blighted prospects and disappointed hopes. In the business or ambitions of the world I had long ceased to have any share. I was bound to no party, and pledged to no opinions. I had visited many countries, and may, therefore, be permitted to claim the possession of such adyantages as foreign travel can bestow.
Under these circumstances, I leave it to the ingenuity of others to discover by what probable, what possible temptation I could be induced to write in a spirit of unjust depreciation of the manners, morals or institutions of a people, so intimately connected with England by the ties of interest and the affinities of common ancestry.'
That a spirit of unjust depreciation is the one that predominates in his work, is,—as we shall have occasion abundantly to show,-very certain. Why this is so, it is, we repeat, not for us to say, but the author has, we think, answered the question in a very satisfactory manner, in the passage immediately preceding the one just quoted.
• When I found the institutions and experience of the United States deliberately quoted in the Reformed Parliament, as affording safe precedents for British legislation, and learned that the drivellers who uttered such nonsense, instead of encountering merited derision, were listened to with patience and approbation by men as ignorant as themselves, I certainly did feel that another work on America was yet wanted, and at once determined to undertake a task, which inferior considerations would probably have induced me to decline.'
The amount of this is, that the object of the author, in writing his work, was to furnish his countrymen with a reply to the argument in favor of reform, deduced from the supposed successful operation of democratic principles in this country.
After making this perfectly candid statement, it strikes us that he need not have been so much at a loss to imagine what temptation he could possibly have had to an unjust estimate of our institutions and character. That a person, writing with an avowed political purpose, will, to a certain extent, so color his representations, as may best fit them to effect this purpose, is not perhaps absolutely certain ; but the case is undoubtedly a very common one,-so common, indeed, that no individual, however correct his general intentions may be, ought to hesitate a moment in admitting the possibility of its occurrence in his own person. Every impartial and discerning reader must perceive, on the slightest inspection of the work before us, that it did in fact occur in the present instance; that the disposition under which the author made his observations, and of course to a certain extent the character of their results, were determined by his political objects; and that his book, instead of being a real account of Men and Manners in America, as it purports to be, is in substance nothing more than a long tirade against the Bill, the whole Bill, and nothing but the Bill.
A considerable portion of the work is in the form of a direct commentary on the political institutions of the United States, and is of course entitled to all the consideration which the arguments alleged against them may fairly deserve. In another and a more extensive portion, the author aims less directly at his mark, and endeavors to prove that the Government is bad, by showing that the people are occasionally deficient in polish and elegance of manner. Now supposing this point to be made out, we cannot think that the conclusion drawn by the worthy traveller would necessarily follow. If it were admitted, for example, that the practice of chewing tobacco, with its natural concomitants, is too common among certain classes of the community, it would not be safe to draw from this fact the inference that the laws of the country are tyrannical, insufficient, or in any way objectionable, for the plain reason that the practice of chewing tobacco is not commanded by law, but is a mere matter of taste and habit.
Again: if the only proper and polite way of eating eggs be --as our author supposes,—to convey the substance directly from the shell to the mouth, without the intervention of a wine-glass, a dish, or any other instrument except, perhaps, a spoon ;-and on this point there are great authorities against