While perusing the interesting Pittsburgh: A New Portrait by Franklin Toker, I came across a word sketch of the city by none other than Anthony Trollope. His abundant scribblings have been on my list for years, but aside from the excerpts that make frequent appearances on the blog Wuthering Expectations, I haven’t read any of his work. I decided to put the Pittsburgh Carnegie Library system to the test and successfully dug out a copy of Trollope’s North America, a travel log that apparently fulfilled an ambition of the author’s literary life – ‘to write a book about the United States‘. In it, he strove to present to his fellow Englishmen a view of America which (unlike other popular writings on the subject) created less laughter on one side of the Atlantic and less soreness on the other, while adding to ‘the good feeling which should exist between two nations which ought to love each other so well‘.
In his Introduction, after proclaiming this admirable intent, he hastily adds that, of course, ‘it is very hard to write about any country a book that does not represent the country described in a more or less ridiculous point of view.‘ And ‘a writer may tell all that he sees of the beautiful; but he must also tell, if not all that he sees of the ludicrous, at any rate the most piquant part of it.‘ With his arse suitably covered, Trollope then embarks for America, arriving in Boston in early September, 1861, with plans to travel around throughout the fall and winter and return to England in the spring.
I thought I would just dip in and out of this book, reading the bits that interested me, but Trollope is an entertaining writer and I’m enjoying every step of his adventure.
From Boston (where ‘it was not the beauty of the harbour of which I thought the most; but of the tea that had been sunk there‘) to Newport, Rhode Island, he goes with his wife in tow. Newport at the end of the season is dull, and it’s overwhelming hotels (with their drawing-rooms large enough to swallow the House of Commons) depress the poor man. He is annoyed by the fully-clothed style of sea-bathing that prevails (apparently he is a skinny-dipper – ‘I own that my tastes are vulgar and perhaps indecent; but I love to jump in the deep clear sea from off a rock, and I love to be hampered by no outward impediments as I do so.’) He hardly dares to call “children” the ‘perfectly civilized and highly educated beings‘ of three or four years of age whom he encounters, gliding to the floor after excusing themselves from a dinner that they handled with ‘epicurean delicacy‘. ‘A little girl in Old England would scramble down, but little girls in New England never scramble.‘ I find these impressions of Americans hard to believe, but then I’ve never been to Newport.
Trollope cheers up when he heads to Maine. He likes Portland very much, commenting on it’s broad and well built streets, which do not run ‘in those absolutely straight parallels that are so common in American towns, and are so distressing to English eyes and English feelings.‘ The place is beautifully situated on a long promontory and is ‘so guarded and locked by islands as to form a series of salt-water lakes running round the town‘ (as I know so well!) The view from the hill called Mountjoy (‘though the obstinate Americans will write it Munjoy on their maps‘) ‘out to the harbour and beyond the harbour to the islands is, I may not say unequalled, or I shall be guilty of running into superlatives myself; but it is, in its way, equal to anything I have seen.’
The people of Portland seem more as I would expect, if the keeper of the Observatory is anything to go on – ‘He will come out in his shirt sleeves, and, like a true American, will not at first be very smooth in his courtesy; but he will wax brighter in conversation, and if not stroked the wrong way will turn out to be an uncommonly pleasant fellow. Such I believe to be the case with most of them.’
Next, Trollope is surprised by the White Mountains of New Hampshire: ‘Now I would ask any of my readers who are candid enough to expose their own ignorance whether they ever heard, or at any rate whether they know any thing of the White Mountains. As regards myself I confess that the name reached my ears; that I had an indefinite idea that they formed an intermediate stage between the Rocky Mountains and the Alleghenies, and that they were inhabited either by Mormons, Indians, or simply by black bears. That there was a district in New England containing mountain scenery superior to much that is yearly crowded by tourists in Europe, that this is to be reached with ease by railways and stage-coaches, and that it is dotted with huge hotels, almost as thickly as they lie in Switzerland, I had no idea. Much of this scenery, I say, is superior to the famed and classic lands of Europe. I know nothing, for instance, on the Rhine equal to the view from Mount Willard, down the mountain pass called the Notch.‘ So there! Bully for the White Mountains!
Trollope had the great good fortune of traveling through New England in the autumn, and he recommends that others follow suit, for reasons that I can verify: ‘The great beauty of the autumn, or fall, is in the brilliant hues which are then taken by the foliage. The autumn tints are fine with us. They are lovely and bright wherever foliage and vegetation form a part of the beauty of scenery. But in no other land do they approach the brilliancy of the fall in America. The bright rose colour, the rich bronze which is almost purple in its richness, and the glorious golden yellows must be seen to be understood. By me at any rate they cannot be described.‘
Trollope points out that ‘The traveller who desires to tell of his experience of North America must write of people rather than of things,’ and while he despairs once again over hotels in the United States, with their waking and dining routines ruled by horrible loud gongs, and their waiters who never let your coffee cup go empty, and their utter lack of understanding when it comes to tea time…he does enjoy his ‘excellent friend Mr. Plaistead, who keeps an hotel at Jefferson.’
‘ “Sir,” said Mr. Plaistead, “I have everything here that a man ought to want; air, sir, that ain’t to be got better nowhere; trout, chickens, beef, mutton, milk – and all for a dollar a day. A-top of that hill, sir, there’s a view that ain’t to be beaten this side of the Atlantic, or I believe the other. And an echo, sir! – We’ve an echo that comes back to us six times, sir; floating on the light wind, and wafted about from rock to rock til you would think the angels were talking to you. If I could raise that echo, sir, every day at command I’d give a thousand dollars for it. It would be worth all the money to a house like this.” And he waved his hand about from hill to hill, pointing out in graceful curves the lines which the sounds would take. Had destiny not called on Mr. Plaistead to keep an American hotel, he might have been a poet.‘
Dodging questions and commentary regarding the Civil War and the topic of secession from all sides, Trollope continues his journey, heading into the wilds of “the Canadas”, and there I’ve left him for the moment. He won’t reach Pittsburgh for 21 more chapters, but so long as the book holds together (it is flaking apart with dangerous enthusiasm…the original library stamp reads Aug. 31 1927…!) I believe I’ll continue along for the rest of the ride.