The God that failed – Fanny Trollope’s America

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R. J. STOVE remembers a classic work of anti-travel literature

So far as Anglo-American relations are concerned I have always felt that they would probably have been better had the two nations spoken different languages. In the latter years of the eighteenth century there was a school of thought which held that German, rather than English, should be the official tongue of the new state, and on many grounds it is to be regretted that their views did not prevail. Because the Englishman and the American speak the same language they are inclined to take it for granted that they mean the same thing, with the result that misunderstandings arise. (Sir Charles Petrie, 1895–1977, Anglo-Irish historian)

Now that COVID has made us all empathise with Macbeth’s complaint ‘I am cabined, cribbed, confined, bound in / To saucy doubts and fears’ – unless of course we have the privilege of political office enabling us to swan around G7 meetings – maybe we can take special pleasure in that healthy, much underrated sub-genre of travel literature: anti-travel literature. Any halfway competent Public Relations Officer for a tourist bureau can make foreign lands seem attractive; it requires much more exalted authorial aptitude to make foreign lands seem repulsive. The foundational masterwork of English-language anti-travel literature must be Frances ‘Fanny’ Trollope’s 1832 Domestic Manners of the Americans. One hundred and eighty-nine years after it exploded upon the consciousness of British and American readers alike, it can still be hailed with the aphorism once coined about a truly great library: it ‘contains something to offend everyone.’

Imagine a quaint little period piece, endurable only by vigilant exercise of the historical imagination, and you will acquire a near-perfect idea of what Mrs Trollope’s chronicle is not. It remains one of those books which makes the centuries roll back. Goodness knows what a present-day reader of it who had never visited the USA would make of it. But for those of us who have repeatedly spent time in the States, usually in unglamorous capacities – who have performed work for American enterprises, had American clients, seen America itself at its awe-inspiring best and at something like its hellish worst; whose own experiences range from Detroit at its slummiest to Los Angeles at its sleekest and Washington DC at its most patrician – the overwhelming sensation derived from the book is that of plus ça change. To reach Mrs Trollope’s final pages is to ask: can there be any country in the world, except perhaps for Russia, where the national character’s fundamentals have changed less than America?

Mrs Trollope really knew how, as youngsters now say, ‘to push people’s buttons.’ The chief reaction among Americans themselves to her exposé consisted of disgust mingled with fear. As she herself archly mused:

 Other nations have been called thin-skinned, but the citizens of the Union have, apparently, no skins at all; they wince if a breeze blows over them, unless it be tempered with adulation.

A new verb, to trollopize (meaning ‘to revile others’ etiquette’) briefly entered American English. American cartoonists ransacked their armoury of visual invective to portray her as a goblin and a harridan. One ambitious versifier, coyly hiding under the pseudonym ‘Nil Admirari, Esq.’, made her the target of an epic poem entitled The Trollopiad. Within seven years Domestic Manners of the Americans had already achieved a fifth edition, guaranteeing protracted affluence for its hitherto impoverished author, who had embarked on the project mainly because of financial need. American readers railed against the book but, for whatever obscure psychological reason, could not bring themselves to ignore it. (Which would have been the sensible response for those existentially affronted by it.)

Not all American readers joined the choruses of vituperation. Washington Irving found much merit in the travelogue. So did Mark Twain, who clearly recognised in Mrs Trollope a fellow scourge, and who knew better than anyone how much scourging depends for its lasting effectiveness on a strict (albeit usually implied rather than stated) moral code. The author of The Innocents Abroad paid fitting tribute to the English non-innocent abroad:

She lived three years in this civilization of ours; in the body of it – not on the surface of it, as was the case with most of the foreign tourists of her day. She knew her subject well, and she set it forth fairly and squarely, without any weak ifs ands and buts. She deserved gratitude … Nearly all the tourists were honest and fair; nearly all felt a sincere kindness for us; nearly all of them glossed us over a little too anxiously … but Mrs Trollope, alone of them all, dealt what the gamblers call a strictly ‘square game’. She did not gild us; and neither did she whitewash us.   

Without naming any obvious names, let this be said in 2021: the political phenomena which have dominated America over recent years, the last five years especially, were unimaginable to our Eisenhower-revering, Reagan-liking, and Nixon-tolerating parents. Were these parents still alive to witness post-2016 America, they would have concluded that the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave’ – in which they themselves had invested so much allegiance, and so much deserved allegiance, during the Cold War – increasingly resembled one vast insane asylum.

Mrs Trollope’s chief literary assets include her unconscious ability to make us perceive how much a departure the (mostly) fortunate happenstance of Cold War decorum represented from the national default mode. She had the historiographical benefit of seeing America at something like its pre-Civil-War societal nadir: during the 1829–1837 presidency of Andrew Jackson, whose iconoclastic wrath against what are now called ‘elites’ (pronounced, Stateside, ‘eeleets’) has in 2021 a familiar ring. Through another far-sighted strategy, Jackson revealed exceptional enthusiasm for making local non-Caucasians wish that they had never been born. The ethnic cleansing of Native Americans which Jackson did so much to carry out, and to which history has accorded the name ‘the Trail of Tears,’ inspired some of Mrs Trollope’s most caustic paragraphs.

Young America, by Thomas Le Clear

Nothing in Mrs Trollope’s pre-American life led her to expect an overwhelming allergy to the USA. In her world-view, there lurked the acrimony of a cultural love-affair gone hopelessly wrong. The truest parallels to her experience can be found in those subsequent authors – George Orwell, W.H. Auden, Arthur Koestler, André Gide – who at first welcomed communism in theory at home, recoiling from it with justified terror when they saw it in practice abroad: Gide through his direct experience of Stalin’s USSR, the others through their direct experience of notionally independent but actually communist-ruled Spain.

Neither Moscow nor Barcelona seemed more exotic to 1930s foreign travellers than America did to foreign travellers a hundred years earlier. To cross the Atlantic at all in 1827, let alone to live for three years on the other side of the ocean, presupposed steady nerves coupled with an almost deranged optimism about one’s prospects. These advantages the forty-eight-year-old Mrs Trollope abundantly possessed. She had planned to join the Neshoba Commune in rural Tennessee, which a friend of hers, Frances Wright, had established with the aim of educating former slaves. Her own husband, Thomas Trollope, had already shown much greater talent at running up debts than at contributing usefully to his household. When, seeking relief from his disabling headaches, he became habituated to a mercury-based drug, his already few credentials for the paterfamilias’s role became still fewer. Much asperity can be forgiven a woman with children to feed, when she has been yoked to such an unreliable spouse.

After a fashion, the marriage (which produced not just the great Anthony Trollope but another novelist, Thomas Trollope Junior) survived. The friendship with Frances Wright – one hitherto much deeper than Mrs Trollope’s cryptic published allusions to it would imply – did not. No prizes are offered for guessing what Miss Wright thought when she read Mrs Trollope’s printed observations at her expense:

 … it was my purpose to have passed some months with her [Miss Wright] and her sister at the estate she had purchased in Tennessee. This lady, since become so celebrated as the advocate of opinions that make millions shudder, and some half-score admire, was, at the time of my leaving England with her, dedicated to a pursuit widely different from her subsequent occupations. Instead of becoming a public orator in every town throughout America, she was about, as she said, to seclude herself for life in the deepest forests of the western world, that her fortune, her time, and her talents might be exclusively devoted to aid the cause of the suffering Africans. Her first object was to show that nature had made no difference between blacks and whites, excepting in complexion; and this she expected to prove by giving an education perfectly equal to a class of black and white children. Could this fact be once fully established, she conceived that the Negro cause would stand on firmer ground than it had yet done, and the degraded rank which they have ever held amongst civilized nations would be proved to be a gross injustice.

Already we can discern how Miss Wright has become a trial run for Mrs Jellyby. It should be stressed that Dickens himself grew to cherish Mrs Trollope’s account (having initially deplored it), and underwent a similar metamorphosis in his attitude to America.

At home when young, Dickens had raved about the country for the same reasons which many of his most voluble compatriots ever since George III’s time – from Charles James Fox and William Cobbett, to Kenneth Tynan and Christopher Hitchens well within living memory – have raved about it. They have rhapsodised over its democratic institutions, its freedom from chip-on-shoulder class warfare, its fundamental egalitarianism, its self-confessed global obligation as ‘the city upon a hill.’ (This phrase originated, not with Woodrow Wilson in 1917 or with George W. Bush in 2001, but with Massachusetts Puritan John Winthrop as long ago as 1630.) All these American characteristics are most readily detected from that distance which proverbially lends enchantment; all, when sought in America itself, are less immediately conspicuous, and, when conspicuous, less charming. Such starry-eyed pro-Americanism among Englishmen – it almost never afflicts Englishwomen – moved Mrs Trollope to the following acidulous verdict:

 … the theory of equality may be very daintily discussed by English gentlemen in a London dining-room, when the servant, having placed a fresh bottle of cool wine on the table, respectfully shuts the door, and leaves them to their walnuts and their wisdom; but it will be found less palatable when it presents itself in the shape of a hard, greasy paw, and is claimed in accents that breathe less of freedom than of onions and whiskey. Strong, indeed, must be the love of equality in an English breast if it can survive a tour through the Union.

Dickens’s own love of equality failed to last the distance. Once on American soil, he wailed to his actor friend William Macready: “I am disappointed. This is not the Republic I came to see. This is not the Republic of my imagination”. When he wrote Martin Chuzzlewit, he took his revenge. Yet somehow the American reading public found Dickens’s wild anger forgivable, in a way that it never found forgivable Mrs Trollope, with her profound belief in revenge as a dish best eaten cold. To this day, mentioning Mrs Trollope to all Americans outside the ranks of one’s closest friends can be a risky gesture; sometimes one almost feels as if one is recommending them to enthuse over pornography or Mein Kampf.

Frances Trollope, by Auguste Hervieu

Perhaps she amounted to collateral damage in the sex war. Rightly or wrongly, her portraits make her look both aristocratic and somewhat cunning, in a very English fashion that even now many Americans could well dislike. Certainly her rather small eyes and mouth accord with no American criterion, past or present, of physical pulchritude. She can easily be envisaged administering rat-poison amid an episode of Midsomer Murders, while murmuring banalities about the weather in a refined BBC voice.

Routinely Mrs Trollope laments what she views as the inferior social position of American women, ‘guarded by a sevenfold shield of habitual insignificance.’ This finding will seem odd to most non-American readers nowadays, who all too reasonably dread the surrender of our media, administrative, and academic institutions to America’s forever unhinged viragos, among whom the moaning maenads of #MeToo are simply the latest example. Still, Mrs Trollope knew better than to ignore the emotional depths below the American female surface. Not for nothing was she a novelist, and in her own day a much appreciated one. She devotes to American womanhood one of the book’s most penetrating and clairvoyant sentences:

 There is a great quietness about the women of America (I speak of the exterior manner of persons casually met), but somehow or other, I should never call it gentleness.

Any suggestion that Mrs Trollope’s anti-American sentiment precluded pro-American sentiment needs to be halted forthwith. Repeatedly in her book, she praises individual Americans. She marvels at the natural beauty that so often surrounds her (however much she insists that she lacks a descriptive pen, she manages to describe this beauty with great effectiveness). New York City and, to a lesser extent, the national capital prompt her to open delight. In her age’s American literature she takes a serious, and periodically an admiring, interest. She congratulates American painters and sculptors for their diligence and craftsmanship in economic circumstances more burdensome than anything which their European counterparts usually faced.

What she always refused to do was to pretend that black was white – an apt metaphor in the American racial context – concerning America’s amour-propre. She would have been much readier to grant America’s contributions to liberty and human progress if the locals themselves had not thrust these contributions down her throat, in season and out of season. We can witness from her account the cheap demagogic trick which any number of Third World Marxists have exemplified since, and to which any number of Americans resorted in Mrs Trollope’s day: the trick of adopting the first principle ‘I must be judged by my intentions, which are glorious; my enemies must be judged by their results, which are atrocious.’

Naturally this comprises the perfect method of making oneself look good and one’s foes look bad. It turned Mrs Trollope’s stomach. Her entire volume may be legitimately viewed as a full-length sequel to the unanswerable question with which the great Dr Johnson, in 1775, taunted American revolutionists: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?”

Or, for that matter, among the drivers of Amerindians. Here is Mrs Trollope on the latter theme:

Had I, during my residence in the United States, observed any single feature in their national character that could justify their eternal boast of liberality and the love of freedom, I might have respected them, however much my taste might have been offended by what was peculiar in their manners and customs. But it is impossible for any mind of common honesty not to be revolted by the contradictions in their principles and practice. They inveigh against the governments of Europe, because, as they say, they favour the powerful and oppress the weak. You may hear this declaimed upon in Congress, roared out in taverns, discussed in every drawing-room, satirized upon the stage, nay, even anathematized from the pulpit: listen to it, and then look at them at home; you will see them with one hand hoisting the cap of liberty, and with the other flogging their slaves. You will see them one hour lecturing their mob on the indefeasible rights of man, and the next driving from their homes the children of the soil, whom they have bound themselves to protect by the most solemn treaties.

Sometimes she changed her mind. When she could be shown to have committed an honest mistake, she conceded the mistake and, in later editions, regretted it. On no issue did she more clearly avow an alteration of her assessments than on the issue of chattel slavery.

Never did she openly defend that ‘peculiar institution.’ But at first, not least when exploring Louisiana and Virginia, she extenuated it as the lesser of two evils. Initially she shared the belief – articulated by Cobbett, although she nowhere mentions him – that chattel slavery in domestic environs had its merits compared with the conscienceless sweatshops and dark satanic mills of Industrial Revolution England, inimical as those were to any save the most utilitarian and transactional family ties. (Brazil retained chattel slavery long after Jefferson Davis’s downfall, without thereby inspiring hysterical rage generations thence, least of all among Brazilians.) Over the passing years, her limited forbearance towards slavery deserted her. By 1839 we find her writing:

I have had the pleasure of receiving acknowledgements from many who at first raised their voices to contradict me, that my statements were essentially correct, and that in many cases they have been useful; nor have American voices been wanting to confirm this judgement … I should have no fear of meeting anything but a friendly reception from the educated classes were I to revisit America. But this must not be till slavery be abolished, OR, till that part of the Union which has a right to call itself free, shall separate for that whose fame and whose history rests, and will forever rest, more on its reputation for slavery, than on its claim to freedom. Till then, indeed, the Union must be a negative one; it is life and death bound up together.

There was Mrs Trollope, a Cassandra predicting the Civil War two decades before it broke out. Few Americans shared her prescience; fewer still imagined that by the time an exhausted peace could reign (peace which Mrs Trollope, dying in 1863, never saw), 600,000 of their fellow Americans would have forfeited their lives, and that a further century and a half would not avail to eliminate the bitterness of the vanquished or the evangelistic hubris of the victors. In one of her deadliest passages, she holds up to the most thorough derision Thomas Jefferson’s mixture of tireless libertarian ranting with the most shameless sexual predation upon his slave-girls.

Illustration from the first edition of Domestic Manners of the Americans

This is but one area where Mrs Trollope’s analysis seems to have been ripped from today’s newspaper headlines. Another is her treatment of American religion. Do you find yourself, gentle reader of 2021, contemplating with mingled disbelief and nausea the shrieking, bellowing, gibbering brainlessness which distinguishes several hundred thousand of the USA’s church services each Sunday? Does these services’ unexamined equation of Christianity with American world conquest instil in you a passionate desire to vomit? Fear not: Mrs Trollope was there before you, marvelling and blanching. And whilst she would later attain considerable popularity by writing not one but two explicitly anti-Catholic novels (to write one is a misfortune, to write two seems like carelessness), she found American Catholicism something of a relief after the local brands of Protestantism:

It is impossible, in witnessing all these unseemly vagaries, not to recognise the advantages of an established church as a sort of headquarters for quiet unpresuming Christians, who are contented to serve faithfully, without insisting upon having each a little separate banner, embroidered with a device of their own imagining. The Catholics alone appear exempt from the fury of division and subdivision that has seized every other persuasion. Having the Pope for their common head, regulates, I presume, their movements, and prevents the outrageous display of individual whim which every other sect is permitted.

She supplied a glowing commendation of Edward Dominic Fenwick, Cincinnati’s Catholic archbishop from 1822 to 1833. ‘I … have never known in any country,’ she insisted, ‘a priest of a character and bearing more truly apostolic.’

Yet an entire episcopal conference’s worth of Fenwicks could not have made her amenable to her American hosts’ curious ideas of what constituted adequate schooling. Now that almost every month newspapers and current-affairs websites notify us of yet another American school massacre – invariably perpetrated by males on government-run premises, and usually perpetrated by white males – we can consult Mrs Trollope for proof that already, in her epoch, such evils lay in the womb of time. They required for their eventual parturition nothing more than changed external circumstances, four in particular: mindless affluence; the likewise mindless ascription to Freud, John Dewey, and suchlike grotesques of a moral wisdom which threescore Father Damiens would be hard-pressed to reach; a mass-media and social-media culture without the slightest residue of a conscience; and the quaint belief in the salvific operation of antidepressant-dependence upon the adolescent brain.

Mrs Trollope’s painter friend, the Frenchman Auguste Hervieu, voiced with fascinated dismay a finding which has echoed down the ages: ‘American parents never reprimand their children.’ For her own part, Mrs Trollope comments on whatever occurrences of sensibly conceived tuition she can find in the USA, if only because of their rarity value. She is likelier to issue such grim warnings as this:

I have conversed with many American ladies on the total want of discipline and subjection which I observed universally among children of all ages, and I never found any who did not both acknowledge and deplore the truth of the remark. In the state of Ohio they have a law (I know not if it exists elsewhere), that if a father strike his son, he shall pay a fine of ten dollars for every such offence. I was told by a gentleman of Cincinnati, that he had seen this fine inflicted there, at the requisition of a boy of twelve years of age, whose father, he proved, had struck him for lying. Such a law, they say, generates a spirit of freedom. What else may it generate?

What indeed? Try the following varieties of pseudo-intellectual garbage, Mrs Trollope. An American campus gulag archipelago purporting to offer something called ‘higher education,’ where grown men hourly tremble in dread of the latest outrage by hormonal yahoos against insufficiently sycophantic visiting speakers and even against insufficiently woke statuary. Police forces so terrified of having another George Floyd on their watch that they must stoically indulge every form of Oregonian rioting, and every type of obscene abuse from every ululating pubescent with a Twitter account. A milieu where each American adult with two functioning brain-cells will admit in private that only the most comprehensive program of enforced military service can possibly stave off – at least in the interim – endless, still bloodier repeats of last January’s insurrection; but where no such adult will dare hint at the need for this program in public, because the usual suspects will Get Offended. The elementary political will needed to impose such military service on American youth (modern America being an unmistakable embodiment of Chairman Mao’s notorious epigram ‘Political power comes from the barrel of a gun’) is as non-existent after four years of presidential rule by an alleged conservative, as it was in the heyday of Herbert Marcuse and Ho Chi Minh.

One could continue citing Mrs Trollope’s gifts as a seer. She exhibited remarkable insight into the hideous isolation that had already come to differentiate America’s backwoodsmen – about whose supernal virtue Jefferson loved to fantasise – from even the most ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ lives of communitarian rural England:

These people were indeed independent, Robinson Crusoe was hardly more so, and they eat and drink abundantly; but yet it seemed to me that there was something awful and almost unnatural in their loneliness. No village bell ever summoned them to prayer, where they might meet the friendly greeting of their fellow men. When they die, no spot sacred by ancient reverence will receive their bones – Religion will not breathe her sweet and solemn farewell upon their grave; the husband or the father will dig the pit that is to hold them, beneath the nearest tree; he will himself deposit them within it, and the wind that whispers through the boughs will be their only requiem. But then they pay neither taxes nor tithes, are never expected to pull off a hat or to make a curtsy, and will live and die without hearing or uttering the dreadful words, God Save the King.

J.D. Vance, for taking several hundred pages to say less than Mrs Trollope here says inside four sentences, is regularly hailed as a genius. Might not Mrs Trollope’s own ‘hillbilly elegy’ receive its due meed of praise?

But enough. One day the pandemic will abate; America will regain some kind of tourism industry; and we might discover for ourselves the relevance or otherwise of Mrs Trollope’s reportage to a post-COVID polis. The chances are that this reportage will require little revision, and that what little revision is needful will concern outward and visible signs alone (just as improved public health has already rendered socially unacceptable a particular aversion of Mrs Trollope’s: the constant spitting and tobacco-chewing to which most American males of 1827 were addicted). Meanwhile – for however many years the only two political movements maintaining traction in the USA can be summed up as, respectively, the 1619 Project and the 1776 Project – the cool sardonic voice of Mrs Trollope the European Tory realist can continue to work its magic.