Domestic Manners of the Americans, by Fanny Trollope

Chapter 9

Schools — Climate — Water Melons — Fourth of July — Storms — Pigs — Moving Houses — Mr. Flint — Literature

Cincinnati contains many schools, but of their rank or merit I had very little opportunity of judging; the only one which I visited was kept by Dr. Lock, a gentleman who appears to have liberal and enlarged opinions on the subject of female education. Should his system produce practical results proportionably excellent, the ladies of Cincinnati will probably some years hence be much improved in their powers of companionship. I attended the annual public exhibition at this school, and perceived, with some surprise, that the higher branches of science were among the studies of the pretty creatures I saw assembled there. One lovely girl of sixteen took her degree in mathematics, and another was examined in moral philosophy. They blushed so sweetly, and looked so beautifully puzzled and confounded, that it might have been difficult for an abler judge than I was to decide how far they merited the diploma they received.

This method of letting young ladies graduate, and granting them diplomas on quitting the establishment, was quite new to me; at least, I do not remember to have heard of any thing similar elsewhere. I should fear that the time allowed to the fair graduates of Cincinnati for the acquirement of these various branches of education would seldom be sufficient to permit their reaching the eminence in each which their enlightened instructor anticipates. “A quarter’s” mathematics, or “two quarters” political economy, moral philosophy, algebra, and quadratic equations, would seldom, I should think, enable the teacher and the scholar, by their joint efforts, to lay in such a stock of these sciences as would stand the wear and tear of half a score of children, and one help.

Towards the end of May we began to feel that we were in a climate warmer than any we had been accustomed to, and my son suffered severely from the effects of it. A bilious complaint, attended by a frightful degree of fever, seized him, and for some days we feared for his life. The treatment he received was, I have no doubt, judicious, but the quantity of calomel prescribed was enormous. I asked one day how many grains I should prepare, and was told to give half a teaspoonful. The difference of climate must, I imagine, make a difference in the effect of this drug, or the practice of the old and new world could hardly differ so widely as it does in the use of it. Anstey, speaking of the Bath physicians, says,

“No one e’er viewed
Any one of the medical gentlemen stewed.”

But I can vouch, upon my own experience, that no similar imputation lies against the gentlemen who prescribe large quantities of calomel in America. To give one instance in proof of this, when I was afterwards in Montgomery county, near Washington, a physician attended one of our neighbours, and complained that he was himself unwell. “You must take care of yourself, Doctor,” said the patient; “I do so,” he replied, “I took forty grains of calomel yesterday, and I feel better than I did.” Repeated and violent bleeding was also had recourse to in the case of my son, and in a few days he was able to leave his room, but he was dreadfully emaciated, and it was many weeks before he recovered his strength.

As the heat of the weather increased we heard of much sickness around us. The city is full of physicians, and they were all to be seen driving about in their cabs at a very alarming rate. One of these gentlemen told us, that when a medical man intended settling in a new situation, he always, if he knew his business, walked through the streets at nights, before he decided. If he saw the dismal twinkle of the watch-light from many windows he might be sure that disease was busy, and the the “location” might suit him well. Judging, by this criterion, Cincinnati was far from healthy, I began to fear for our health, and determined to leave the city; but, for a considerable time I found it impossible to procure a dwelling out of it. There were many boarding-houses in the vicinity, but they were all overflowing with guests. We were advised to avoid, as much as possible, walking out in the heat of the day; but the mornings and evenings were delightful, particularly the former, if taken sufficiently early. For several weeks I was never in bed after four o’clock, and at this hour I almost daily accompanied my “help” to market, where the busy novelty of the scene afforded me much amusement.

Many waggon-loads of enormous water-melons were brought to market every day, and I was sure to see groups of men, women, and children seated on the pavement round the spot where they were sold, sucking in prodigious quantities of this water-fruit. Their manner of devouring them is extremely unpleasant; the huge fruit is cut into half a dozen sections, of about a foot long, and then, dripping as it is with water, applied to the mouth, from either side of which pour copious streams of the fluid, while, ever and anon, a mouthful of the hard black seeds are shot out in all directions, to the great annoyance of all within reach. When I first tasted this fruit I thought it very vile stuff indeed, but before the end of the season we all learned to like it. When taken with claret and sugar it makes delicious wine and water.

It is the custom for the gentlemen to go to market at Cincinnati; the smartest men in the place, and those of the “highest standing” do not scruple to leave their beds with the sun, six days in the week, and, prepared with a mighty basket, to sally forth in search of meat, butter, eggs and vegetables. I have continually seen them returning, with their weighty basket on one arm and an enormous ham depending from the other.

And now arrived the 4th of July, that greatest of all American festivals. On the 4th of July, 1776, the declaration of their independence was signed, at the State-house in Philadelphia.

To me, the dreary coldness and want of enthusiasm in American manners is one of their greatest defects, and I therefore hailed the demonstrations of general feeling which this day elicits with real pleasure. On the 4th of July the hearts of the people seem to awaken from a three hundred and sixty-four days’ sleep; they appear high-spirited, gay, animated, social, generous, or at least liberal in expense; and would they but refrain from spitting on that hallowed day, I should say, that on the 4th of July, at least, they appeared to be an amiable people. It is true that the women have but little to do with the pageantry, the splendour, or the gaiety of the day; but, setting this defect aside, it was indeed a glorious sight to behold a jubilee so heartfelt as this; and had they not the bad taste and bad feeling to utter an annual oration, with unvarying abuse of the mother country, to say nothing of the warlike manifesto called Declaration of Independence, our gracious king himself might look upon the scene and say that it was good; nay, even rejoice, that twelve millions of bustling bodies, at four thousand miles distance from his throne and his altars, should make their own laws, and drink their own tea, after the fashion that pleased them best.

One source of deep interest to us, in this new clime, was the frequent recurrence of thunderstorms. Those who have only listened to thunder in England have but a faint idea of the language which the gods speak when they are angry. Thomson’s description, however, will do: it is hardly possible that words can better paint the spectacle, or more truly echo to the sound, than his do. The only point he does not reach is the vast blaze of rose-coloured light that ever and anon sets the landscape on fire.

In reading this celebrated description in America, and observing how admirably true it was to nature there, I seemed to get a glimpse at a poet’s machinery, and to perceive, that in order to produce effect he must give his images more vast than he finds them in nature; but the proportions must be just, and the colouring true. Every thing seems colossal on this great continent; if it rains, if it blows, if it thunders, it is all done fortissimo; but I often felt terror yield to wonder and delight, so grand, so glorious were the scenes a storm exhibited. Accidents are certainly more frequent than with us, but not so much so as reasonably to bring terror home to one’s bosom every time a mass of lurid clouds is seen rolling up against the wind.

It seems hardly fair to quarrel with a place because its staple commodity is not pretty, but I am sure I should have liked Cincinnati much better if the people had not dealt so very largely in hogs. The immense quantity of business done in this line would hardly be believed by those who had not witnessed it. I never saw a newspaper without remarking such advertisements as the following:

“Wanted, immediately, 4,000 fat hogs.”
“For sale, 2,000 barrels of prime pork.”

But the annoyance came nearer than this; if I determined upon a walk up Main-street, the chances were five hundred to one against my reaching the shady side without brushing by a snout fresh dripping from the kennel; when we had screwed our courage to the enterprise of mounting a certain noble looking sugar-loaf hill, that promised pure air and a fine view, we found the brook we had to cross, at its foot, red with the stream from a pig slaughter house; while our noses, instead of meeting “the thyme that loves the green hill’s breast,” were greeted by odours that I will not describe, and which I heartily hope my readers cannot imagine; our feet, that on leaving the city had expected to press the flowery sod, literally got entangled in pigs’ tails and jaw-bones: and thus the prettiest walk in the neighbourhood was interdicted for ever.

One of the sights to stare at in America is that of houses moving from place to place. We were often amused by watching this exhibition of mechanical skill in the streets. They make no difficulty of moving dwellings from one part of the town to another. Those I saw travelling were all of them frame-houses, that is, built wholly of wood, except the chimneys; but it is said that brick buildings are sometimes treated in the same manner. The largest dwelling that I saw in motion was one containing two stories of four rooms each; forty oxen were yoked to it. The first few yards brought down the two stacks of chimneys, but it afterwards went on well. The great difficulties were the first getting it in motion and the stopping exactly in the right place. This locomotive power was extremely convenient at Cincinnati, as the constant improvements going on there made it often desirable to change a wooden dwelling for one of brick; and whenever this happened, we were sure to see the ex No.100 of Main-street or the ex No.55 of Second street creeping quietly out of town, to take possession of a humble suburban station on the common above it.

The most agreeable acquaintance I made in Cincinnati, and indeed one of the most talented men I ever met, was Mr. Flint, the author of several extremely clever volumes, and the editor of the Western Monthly Review. His conversational powers are of the highest order: he is the only person I remember to have known with first rate powers of satire, and even of sarcasm, whose kindness of nature and of manner remained perfectly uninjured. In some of his critical notices there is a strength and keenness second to nothing of the kind I have ever read. He is a warm patriot, and so true-hearted an American, that we could not always be of the same opinion on all the subjects we discussed; but whether it were the force and brilliancy of his language, his genuine and manly sincerity of feeling, or his bland and gentleman-like manner that beguiled me, I know not, but certainly he is the only American I ever listened to whose unqualified praise of his country did not appear to me somewhat overstrained and ridiculous.

On one occasion, but not at the house of Mr. Flint, I passed an evening in company with a gentleman said to be a scholar and a man of reading; he was also what is called a serious gentleman, and he appeared to have pleasure in feeling that his claim to distinction was acknowledged in both capacities. There was a very amiable serious lady in the company, to whom he seemed to trust for the development of his celestial pretensions, and to me he did the honour of addressing most of his terrestrial superiority. The difference between us was, that when he spoke to her, he spoke as to a being who, if not his equal, was at least deserving high distinction; and he gave her smiles, such as Michael might have vouchsafed to Eve. To me he spoke as Paul to the offending Jews; he did not, indeed, shake his raiment at me, but he used his pocket-handkerchief so as to answer the purpose; and if every sentence did not end with “I am clean,” pronounced by his lips, his tone, his look, his action, fully supplied the deficiency.

Our poor Lord Byron, as may be supposed, was the bull’s-eye against which every dart in his black little quiver was aimed. I had never heard any serious gentleman talk of Lord Byron at full length before, and I listened attentively. It was evident that the noble passages which are graven on the hearts of the genuine lovers of poetry had altogether escaped the serious gentleman’s attention; and it was equally evident that he knew by rote all those that they wish the mighty master had never written. I told him so, and I shall not soon forget the look he gave me.

Of other authors his knowledge was very imperfect, but his criticisms very amusing. Of Pope, he said, “He is so entirely gone by, that in our country it is considered quite fustian to speak of him”

But I persevered, and named “the Rape of the Lock” as evincing some little talent, and being in a tone that might still hope for admittance in the drawing-room; but, on the mention of this poem, the serious gentleman became almost as strongly agitated as when he talked of Don Juan; and I was unfeignedly at a loss to comprehend the nature of his feelings, till he muttered, with an indignant shake of the handkerchief, “The very title!”

At the name of Dryden he smiled, and the smile spoke as plainly as a smile could speak, “How the old woman twaddles!”

“We only know Dryden by quotations. Madam, and these, indeed, are found only in books that have long since had their day.”

“And Shakspeare, sir?”

“Shakspeare, Madam, is obscene, and, thank God, WE are sufficiently advanced to have found it out! If we must have the abomination of stage plays, let them at least be marked by the refinement of the age in which we live.”

This was certainly being au courant du jour.

Of Massenger he knew nothing. Of Ford he had never heard. Gray had had his day. Prior he had never read, but understood he was a very childish writer. Chaucer and Spenser he tied in a couple, and dismissed by saying, that he thought it was neither more nor less than affectation to talk of authors who wrote in a tongue no longer intelligible.

This was the most literary conversation I was ever present at in Cincinnati.1

1 The pleasant, easy, unpretending talk on all subjects, which I enjoyed in Mr. Flint’s family, was an exception to every thing else I met at Cincinnati.

In truth, there are many reasons which render a very general diffusion of literature impossible in America. I can scarcely class the universal reading of newspapers as an exception to this remark; if I could, my statement would be exactly the reverse, and I should say that America beat the world in letters. The fact is, that throughout all ranks of society, from the successful merchant, which is the highest, to the domestic serving man, which is the lowest, they are all too actively employed to read, except at such broken moments as may suffice for a peep at a newspaper. It is for this reason, I presume, that every American newspaper is more or less a magazine, wherein the merchant may scan while he holds out his hand for an invoice, “Stanzas by Mrs. Hemans,” or a garbled extract from Moore’s Life of Byron; the lawyer may study his brief faithfully, and yet contrive to pick up the valuable dictum of some American critic, that “Bulwer’s novels are decidedly superior to Sir Walter Scott’s;” nay, even the auctioneer may find time, as he bustles to his tub, or his tribune, to support his pretensions to polite learning, by glancing his quick eye over the columns, and reading that “Miss Mitford’s descriptions are indescribable.” If you buy a yard of ribbon, the shopkeeper lays down his newspaper, perhaps two or three, to measure it. I have seen a brewer’s drayman perched on the shaft of his dray and reading one newspaper, while another was tucked under his arm; and I once went into the cottage of a country shoemaker, of the name of Harris, where I saw a newspaper half full of “original” poetry, directed to Madison F. Harris. To be sure of the fact, I asked the man if his name were Madison. “Yes, Madam, Madison Franklin Harris is my name.” The last and the lyre divided his time, I fear too equally, for he looked pale and poor.

This, I presume, is what is meant by the general diffusion of knowledge, so boasted of in the United States; such as it is, the diffusion of it is general enough, certainly; but I greatly doubt its being advantageous to the population.

The only reading men I met with were those who made letters their profession; and of these, there were some who would hold a higher rank in the great Republic (not of America, but of letters), did they write for persons less given to the study of magazines and newspapers; and they might hold a higher rank still, did they write for the few and not for the many. I was always drawing a parallel, perhaps a childish one, between the external and internal deficiency of polish and of elegance in the native volumes of the country. Their compositions have not that condensation of thought, or that elaborate finish, which the consciousness of writing for the scholar and the man of taste is calculated to give; nor have their dirty blue paper and slovenly types2 the polished elegance that fits a volume for the hand or the eye of the fastidious epicure in literary enjoyment. The first book I bought in America was the “Chronicles of the Cannongate.” In asking the price, I was agreeably surprised to hear a dollar and a half named, being about one sixth of what I used to pay for its fellows in England; but on opening the grim pages, it was long before I could again call them cheap. To be sure the pleasure of a bright well-printed page ought to be quite lost sight of in the glowing, galloping, bewitching course that the imagination sets out upon with a new Waverley novel; and so it was with me till I felt the want of it; and then I am almost ashamed to confess how often, in turning the thin dusky pages, my poor earth-born spirit paused in its pleasure, to sigh for hot-pressed wire-wove.

2 I must make an exception in favour of the American Quarterly Review. To the eye of the body it is in all respects exactly the same thing as the English Quarterly Review.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:50