James Fenimore Cooper.

Notions of the Americans: picked up by a travelling bachelor (Volume 1-2) online

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are probably to be found in the whole of Europe
united. In this single fact may be traced the history
of the character of the people, and the germ of their
future greatness. Their axe is admirable for form,
for neatness, and precision of weight, and it is wield-
ed with a skill that is next to incredible. Reapers
are nearly unknown; but I have seen single indi-
viduals enter a field of grain in the morning, and


clear acres of its golden burthen, by means of the
cradle.^' with a rapidity that has amazed me. The
vast multitude of their inventions, as they are exhibit-
ed in the Patent Office in this city, ought to furnish
food for grave reflection to every stranger. Several
large rooms are filled with the models, many of which
give evidence of the most acute ingenuity. When
one recollects the average proportion of adults to
which the population must have been confined during
the last thirty-five years,! the number of their inven-
tions is m.arvellous. A great many of these models
contain no new principle, nor any new application
of an old principle; but, as in such cases money has
been paid by those who deposit them there without an
object, it is fair to presume that they were inventions
so far as the claimants were concerned. There are
so few means by which men, in remote districts of
this country, can profit by the ideas of other people
in these matters, that it is probable there are not a
dozen machines, lodged in the office, of which the
parties concerned did not honestly believe them-
selves the inventors. You may estimate the activity
of thought, which distinguishes the mass of this na-
tion from all other people, by this fact. It is in itself
a prodigious triumph to a young people to have given
form and useful existence to the greatest improve-
ment of our age; but the steam-boats are not the only
gift of this nature, by many, that Europe has already
received from the western hemisphere.

The general accumulation of science in this coun-
try is exceedingly great, though it is quite likely that
few men have yet attained to a very eminent degree
of knowledge in any one particular branch. ■ Still it
is probable, that the amount of science in the United

* The writer does not know whether this implement is an
American invention or not.

t The whole period that the Patent Office has been in ex-


States, at this day, compared to what it was even
fifteen years ago, and without reference to the in-
crease of the population, is as five to one, or even in
a still much greater proportion. Like all other learn-
ing, it is greatly on the advance.

In architecture the Americans have certainly no
great reason to exult. They appear to have inherited
the peculiarity of their ancestors, in all matters of
mere taste. Their houses are mostly built of wood
in the country and in the villages, and of bricks in
the towns. There are, however, exceptions, in all
cases, which reverse the rule. There are many
farm-houses, seats, churches, court-houses, &c. in the
country and smaller towns, which are of stone.
Marble and granite are getting a good deal into use,
too, in the more northern cities. The principal
motive which controls their taste is economy. It is
commonly cheapest to build of wood in the country,
but where stone is at hand, and of a good quality, it
begins to be preferred, in what may be called the
second and third stages of the settlements. As the
materials are cheap, the buildings are in common
much larger than would be occupied by men of the
same wealth in Europe. A house of forty or of forty-
five feet front, and of thirty or thirty-five feet in
depth, of two stories, with cellars, and garret, and
with offices attached, is a usual dwelling for the owner
of one or of two hundred acres of land, in a part of
the country that has been under cultivation thirty or
forty years. Such a man may be worth from five to
ten thousand dollars. He has his growing orchard ;
fifty sheep ; some eight or ten cows ; a stock of
young cattle ; three or four horses ; one or two yoke
of oxen ; hogs, poultry, and all the other provisions
of a small farm. He grows his ow^n maize ; fattens
his own pork ; makes his own cider ; kills his own
beef; raises his own wheat, rye, and flax ; and, in
short, fives as much as possible on the articles of his


ov/n prodaction.' There are thousands and tens of
thousands of these sturdy, indqiendent yeomen in
the eastern, middle and north-western States.

The villas and country-seats are commonly pretty,
without ever attaining much elegance of size. A better
sort of American country-house will cover perhaps
sixty or seventy feet of ground in length, -and from Mty
to sixty in depth. There are some of twice this size ;
but I should say the first was a fair average. There
are a great many a size smaller. The expense ot
building is, of course, in proportion to the general
cost of every article in the particular place where
the house is erected. I am told the best buildings in
New-York cost from thirty to forty thousand dollars.
A few are even much more expensive. But the
town-houses, occupied by a majority of their gentle-
men (those who own their own dwellings), cost prob-
ably something under twenty thousand.* These are the
habitations of the rich, exclusively. They are every
where exceedingly neat, prettily furnished, frequently
with great elegance, and are always comfortable.

As some general idea of the state of the useful arts
must have been obtained, in the course of my pre-
vious letters to the fraternity, I shall now pass to
those which are intended exclusively to embellish

- The United States, considered with reference to
their means and opportunities, have been exceedingly
prolific in painters. It is rather remarkable, that, in
a country where active and less hazardous employ-

* The writer afterwards saw a row of buildings in New-
York of the following cost and dimensions; twenty-five feet
front, (in marble) fifty-five feet deep, and of three stories, be-
sides the basement. The lots were two hundred feet in depth-
The buildings were about as well finished as a third-rate Lon-
don town-house. The cost of the whole was ten thousand
dollars, and the rent six hundred dollars a-year. These houses
were in the dearest city of America, but not in the dearest
part of the town.


meiits are so open to talent, men should take an in-
clination to a pursuit that is rarely profitable, and in
which mediocrity is as annoying as success is tri-
umphant. I cannot say that the majority of these
gentlemen acknowledge that the fine arts are greatly
encouraged in America, nor has it yet been my happy
lot to enter a country in which artists and authors
were very generally of opinion that the pen and the
pencil received the rewards and honours which no
one will deny they merit. A very great majority of
the American artists are portrait painters. Some of
them are highly esteemed by their own countrymen,
and certainly there are a few of a good deal of merit.
They are generally more distinguished for spirit and
character, than for finish or grace ; but it is quite
evident that, as a class, they are rapidly improving.
Drawing is the point in which they chiefly fail ; and
this, too, is probably an inherited defect, since most
of them are disciples of the English school.

There are some highly respectable professional
landscape painters. One of them (a Mr. Cole) pos-
sesses the rare faculty of giving to his pictures the
impression of nature, to a degree so extraordinary,
that he promises to become eminent. You know
my eye is only for nature. I have heard both high
eulogiums and sneering critiques on the powers of
this younc^ man, as an artist ; some declaring that he
has reached a point far beyond that attained by any
of his competitors, and others denying that he knows
how to make a sky look blue, secundum artem. To
me his scenery is like the scenery from which he
drew ; and as he has taste and skill enough to reject
what is disagreeable, and to arrange the attractive
parts of his pictures, I only hope he will continue to
study the great master from whom he has drawn his
first inspirations. America has produced several his-
torical painters. West, though a native of this coun-
try, and, perhaps with a pardonable vanity, claimed


as such by these people, was, to all intents and pur
poses an English artist. There are one or two of
his pupils who practise their skill here, and a few
others have aspired to the highest branch of their art.
One of them (Mr. Alston) is said to be employed on
a great and elaborate picture (the handwriting on
the wall ;) and as his taste and merit are universally
admitted, a good deal is expected from his pencil.
It may serve to give you a better idea of the taste
for pictures in this country, or rather of the desire
which exists to encourage talent, if I mention the
price he is to receive for this work. A company of
gentlemen are said to have bought the picture, in
advance, by agreeing to pay ten thousand dollars.
I believe it is their intention to remunerate them-
selves by exhibiting it, and then to deposit the work
in some public place. Cabinet pieces, by this artist,
are readily sold for prices of between three hundred
asd a thousand dollars, and the pencil of Cole is
employed as much as he pleases. There are many
other artists that paint portraits and landscapes, who
seldom want orders. The government of the United
States has paid Trumbull thirty-two thousand dollars
for the four historical paintings that are destined to
fill as many compartments in the rotunda, or the
great hall of the Capitol.

It is plain that the system of elementary education
pursued by this country, must bring an extraordinary
quantity of talent, within the influence of those causes
which lead to renown. If we suppose one hundred
men in America to possess the same amount of native
talent as one hundred men in any other part of the
world, more of it will, of necessity, be excited to
action, since more individuals are placed in situations
to feel and to improve their infant powers. Although
a certain degree of excellence in the higher branches
of learning and of art, may yet be necessary to create


a standard, and even for the establishments of higher
schools or real universities, still the truth of this po-
sition is proved by the fact, that there already exists,
among this people, a far more advanced state of im-
provement in all that relates to the familiar interests
of life than among any other. It is true that a division
of labour, and vast competition, may create a degree
of minute perfection in many articles of European
manufacture, that is not known in the same articles
manufactured here ; but I think it will be commonly
found, in all such cases, that these wary people have
counted the profit and the cost with sufficient accu-
racy. As circumstances vary, they instantly improve ;
and, once induced to persevere, they soon fearlessly
challenge competition.

The purely intellectual day of America is yet in
its dawn. But its sun will not arise from darkness,
like those of nations with whose experience we are
familiar ; nor is the approach of its meridian to be
calculated by the known progress of any other peo-
ple. The learned professions are now full to over-
flowing, not so much with learning as with incum-
bents, certainly, but so much so, as to begin to give
a new direction to education and talents. Writers
are already getting to be numerous, for literature is
beginning to be profitable. Those authors who are
successful, receive prices for their labours, which
exceed those paid to the authors of any country,
England alone excepted ; and which exceed even the
prices paid to the most distinguished authors of the
mother country, if the difference in the relative -\alue
of money in the two countries, and in the luxury of
the press, be computed. The same work which is
sold in England for six dollars, is sold in the United
States for two. The profit to the publisher is ob-
tained out of a common rate of per centage. Now,
as thirty-three and a third per cent, on six thousand


dollars, is two thousand,* and on two thousand dol-
lars, only six hundred and sixtj-six, it is quite evi-
dent, that if both parties sell one thousand copies of
a work, the English publisher pockets three times the
most profit. And yet, with one or two exceptions,
and notwithstanding the great difference in the popu-
lation of the two countries, the English bookseller
rarely sells more, if he does as many, copies of a
book, than the American. It is the extraordinary
demand which enables the American pubhsher to
pay so well, and which, provided there was no Eng
lish competition, would enable him to pay still better
or rather still more generally, than he does at present.

The literature of the United States is a subject oi
the highest interest to the civilized world ; for when
it does begin to be felt, it will be felt with a force, a
directness, and a common sense in its application, that
has never yet been known. If there were no other
points of difference between this country and other
nations, those of its political and religious freedom,
alone, would give a colour of the highest importance
to the writings of a people so thoroughly imbued with
their distinctive principles, and so keenly alive to
their advantages. The example of America has been
silently operating on Europe for half a century ; but
its doctrines and its experience, exhibited with the
understanding of those familiar with both, have never
yet been pressed on our attention. I think the time
for the experiment is getting near.

A curious inquiry might be raised as to the proba-
ble fate of the English language, among so many
people having equal claims to its possession. I put
this question to my friend, who has kindly permitted
me to give you the substance of his reply. You will

* This calculation supposes one-third of the price to go to
the trade in discount, one-third to the expenses, and the other
third to constitute the joint profit of the author and publisher.


at once understand that this is a subject which re-
quire's a greater knowledge of the matter in dispute,
than what I, as a foreigner, can claim : —

" In order to decide which nation speaks the Eng-
hsh language best, it becomes necessary to refer to
some standard. If it be assumed that the higher
classes in London are always to set the fashion in
pronunciation, and the best living waiters in Eng-
land are to fix the meaning of words, the point is
clearly decided in their favour, since one cannot see
on what principle they are to be put in the wrong.
That the better company of London must set the
fashion for the pronunciation of words in England,
and indeed for the whole English empire, is quite
plain ; for, as this very company comprises all those
whose manners, birth, fortune, and political distinc-
tion, make them the objects of adm.iration, it becomes
necessary to imitate their affectations, whether of
speech or air, in order to create the impression that
one belongs to their society. It is absurd to think
that either parliament, or the stage, or the universi-
ties, or the church, can produce any very serious
effect on the slighter forms of utterance adopted by
this powerful caste. The player may hint at the laws
of prosody for ever, unless his rule happens to suit
the public ear, it becomes no more than the pronun-
ciation of the stage. The fellow, when he gets be-
yond his cloisters, is glad to conceal the habits of
retirement in the language of the world ; and as for
the member of Parliament, if he happen to be of the
caste, he speaks like the rest of them ; and if not, he
is no better than a vulgar fellow, who is very glad to
conceal his provincialisms by having as little said
about them as possible. In short, the bishop might
just as well expect to induce the exquisite to wear a
copy of his wig, or the representative of Othello, to
set the fashion of smooty faces, as either of them to
Ihink of giving the tone to pronunciation, or even to


the meaning of words. A secret and lasting influ-
ence is no doubt produced by education ; but fashion
is far more imperious than even the laws of the
schools. It is, I think, a capital mistake, to believe
that either of the professions named, produce any
great impression on the spoken language of England.
They receive more from fashion than they give to it ,
and they each have their particular phrases, but they
rarely go any farther than their own limits. This is
more or less the case in all other European nations.
The rule is more absolute, however, in England than
in France, for instance, because the former has no
academy, and because men of letters have far less
circulation, and, of course, far less influence in so-
ciety there, than in the neighbouring kingdom. The
tendency of every thing in England is to aristocracy.
I can conceive that the King of England might very
well set a fashion in the pronunciation of a word,
because, being the greatest aristocrat of the nation,
the smaller ones might be ambitious of showing that
they kept enough of his company to catch his imper-
fections of speech ; but, as for the King of France,
he sits too much on a pinnacle for men to presume
to imitate his blunders. A powerful, wealthy, he-
reditary, but subsidizing aristocracy, rules all things
in England ; but, while wit gives up to the King and
la charte, the control of politics in France, it asserts
its own prerogative over every other interest of the
empire, religion, perhaps, a little excepted.

" There exists a very different state of things in
America. If we had a great capital, hke London,
where men of leisure, and fortune, and education,
periodically assembled to amuse themselves, I think
we should establish a fashionable aristocracy, too,
which should give the mode to the forms of speech,
as well as to that of dress and deportment. Perhaps
the influence of talent and wit would be as much


felt in such a town as in Paris ; for it is the ^eat
pecuHarity of our institutions to give more influence
to talents than to any' one other thing. But we have
no such capital, nor are we likely, for a long time to
come, to have one of sufficient magnitude to produce
any great effect on the language. In those States
where many men of leisure and. education are to be
found, there are large tow^ns, in w^hich they pass
their winters, and where, of course, they observe all
those forms which are more or less peculiar to them-
selves. The habits of polite life, and even the pro-
nunciation of Boston, of New- York, of Baltimore,
and of Philadelphia, vary in many things, and a prac-
tised ear may tell a native of either of these places,
from a native of any one of the others, by some little
peculiarity of speech. There is yet no predominating
influence to induce the fashionables of these towns to
wish to imitate the fashionables of any other. If any
place is to possess this influence, it will certainly be
New-York ; but I think, on an examination of the
subject, that it can be made to appear that an entirely
different standard for the language must be established
in the United States, from that w^hich governs so ab-
solutely in England.

" If the people of this country were like the people
of any other country on earth, we should be speaking
at this moment a great variety of nearly unintelligible
patois; but, in point of fact, the people of the United
States, with the exception of a few of German and
French descent, speak, as a body, an incomparably
better English than the people of the mother country.
There is not, probably, a man (of English descent)
born in this country, who would not be perfectly
intelligible to all whom he should meet in the streets
of London, though a vast number of those he met in
the streets of London would be nearly unintelligible
to him. In fine, we speak our languaire, as a nation,


better than any other people speak their language.*
When one reflects on the immense surface of country
that we occupy, the general accuracy, in pronuncia-
tion and in the use of words, is quite astonishing.
This resemblance in speech can only be ascribed to
the great diffusion of intelligence, and to the inex-
haustible activity of the population, which, in a man-
ner, destroys space.

" It is another peculiarity of our institutions, that
the language of the country, instead of becoming
more divided into provincial dialects, is becoming,
not only more assimilated to itself as a whole, but
more assimilated to a standard which sound general
principles, and the best authorities among our old
writers, would justify. The distinctions in speech
between New-England and New- York, or Pennsyl-
vania, or any other State, were far greater twenty
years ago than they are now. Emigration alone
would produce a large portion of this change ; but
emigration would often introduce provincialisms with-
out correcting them, did it not also, by bringing acuie
men together, sharpen wits, provoke comparisons,
challenge investigations, and, finally, fix a standard.

" It has been a matter of hot dispute, for the last
twenty years, in which of our large towns the best
English is spoken. The result of this discussion
has been to convince most people who know any
thing of the matter, that a perfectly pure English is
spoken nowhere, and to establish the superiority, on
one point in favour of Boston, on another in favour
of New- York, and so on to the end of the chapter.
The effect of all this controversy is, to make men
think seriously on the subject, and thinking seriously
is the first step in amendment. We do amend, and

* Of course the writer calls Italy one nation, and all Germany
one nation, so far as language is concerned.


each year introduces a better and purer English into
our country. We are obliged, as you may suppose,
to have recourse to' some standard to settle these
contentions. What shall this standard be ? It is not
society, for that itself is divided on the disputed
points ; it cannot be the church, for there is none
that will be acknowledged by all parties ; it cannot
be the stage, for that is composed of foreigners, and
possesses little influence on morals, poHtics, or any
thing else ; nor the universities, for they are provin-
cial, and parties to the dispute; nor Congress, for that
does not represent the fashion and education of the
nation ; nor the court, for there is none but the Presi-
dent, and he is often a hot partisan ; nor the fashions
of speech in England, for we often fmd as much fault
with them as we do with our own. Thus, you see,
we are reduced to the necessity of consulting reason,
and authority, and analogy, and all the known laws
of language, in order to arrive at our object. This
we are daily doing, and I think the conse(jnence will
be, that, in another generation or two, far more rea-
sonable English will be used in this country than
exists here now. How far this melioration or purifi-
cation of our language will affect the mother country,
is another question.

" It is, perhaps, twenty years too soon to expect that
England will very complacently submit to receive
opinions or fashions very directly from America."
[What she will do twenty years later, is a question
that httle concerns us, dear Abbate, since I have not,
and you ought not to have, any very direct interests
in the fortunes of posterity.] "But the time has
already arrived, when America is beginning to re-
ceive with great distrust fashions and opinions from
England. Until within the last fifteen years, the
influence of the mother country, in all things con-
nected with mere usages, was predominant to an in-


credible extent; but every day is making a greater

" On a thousand subjects we have been rudely
provoked into comparisons, — an experiment that the
most faultless generally find to be attended with
hazard. We are a bold though a quiet people, and
names and fashions go for but little when set in op-
position to the unaccommodating and downright good
sense of this nation. It may be enough for an Eng-
lishman that an innovation on language is supported

Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperNotions of the Americans: picked up by a travelling bachelor (Volume 1-2) → online text (page 39 of 58)