Nathaniel Hillyer. Egleston.

The North American review (Volume 139) online

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MANY more years than I like to acknowledge have passed
away since a day when my father caught me slinking out of his
library with Mrs. Trollope's "Travels in the United States"
under my arm. He laughed at my absurd precocity, for I was
little more than a child, and as he took the book away from me,
he said, " My boy, that is not a book for you to read. It is not even
true. You shall go to America yourself one day, when you're
a man, and you'll know better than to write that kind of stuff."
It was a great hope that was stirred by that promise that I
should go to America myself some day. I used to think about
it, and wonder when I might look forward to being a man, and
how it could be managed, and who would help me, and whether
I should settle there and own a slave. A hundred times I have
dreamt of Boston, and of Richmond, for somehow I never
thought of New York, and there was no Chicago then, and no
San Francisco. Perhaps, too, the United States might collapse
before I ever grew to be a man, and that was a prospect that
made my heart sick to think of. I have been told, indeed, that
one night I awoke with a cry, and was heard to exclaim, " Pray,
God, keep America till I've been and seen it ! "

And yet I never have seen America, and I am afraid I never
shall see it now, though my youthful prayer has been answered,
and America has been kept and seems in small danger of collaps
ing yet awhile. I have read a great many books about America
since those days ; but I am bound to say they have not made me
much in love with the writers, and I am also bound to say that
they have given me very, very little information upon exactly
those points that I most wished to inquire into. Of late years
I have altogether given up this kind of literature. I believe
the last time I looked into any one of these so-called " Travels/'
or " Tours," or u Reminiscences," was when Mr. Anthony Trol-
lope's volumes appeared, and I could not get through them.



Somehow my father's words on the mother's book seemed to
apply to the son's, and spite of myself his voice seemed to be
saying to me, " It is not even true ! "

But though I have ceased to read books about America, the
strong desire to see the New World has never faded j nay, it has
increased in intensity as the years have gone on, and what was
at Urst but a vague hankering after something merely visionary,
gradually became a definite longing to see and know an attain
able reality. My friends laugh at me and assure me I should be
very much disappointed j that I should not like it ; that no man
ought to go to the States after thirty ; that at Cincinnati there
are only hogs to see, and at Chicago only monstrous corn ware
houses, at New York only monster hotels, and at Boston oh ;
dear ! such arrogant prigs ; finally, that it would be quite impos
sible for me to continue wearing a white cravat over there, for
the washing of my linen would simply ruin me. I hold my
peace, but I am not convinced, and I still wish to visit America.
And why is this wish so -strong in me? I will try to answer
that question as briefly as I can, but I must needs answer it in a
disorderly kind of way, and give my reasons as they occur to
me, without any attempt at systematic arrangement.

First and foremost, let it be understood that I wish to visit
America because I am so ignorant about the real life of a great
nation that has sprung into magnificent maturity in a single
century. History has nothing like a parallel to produce, which
can for a moment be compared with the growth of this nation
ality. I use that word advisedly. As to the mere progress in
wealth and numbers, that does not impress me much. From any
thing I have heard or read, it does not seem to me inconceivable
that a horde of Chinamen, urged on by avarice and selfishness,
might have done quite as much as has been done in the United
States in the same time, if John Chinaman had happened to get
the start ; but if they had done so, they would, I am convinced,
have remained a horde of Chinamen still. There would have
been no new nation ; there would have been nothing like the
sublime patriotism that, to my mind, characterizes the great
American nation ; none of that incomparable chivalry that ani
mated a whole people during the war of secession ; none of that
proud sensitiveness that surprises cosmopolitan philosophers
when they hear Americans speak of " the flag." This is what I
should like to look into, like to ask about, like to study on the


spot, namely, What is the amazing cohesive force so infinitely
potent to bind together into one corporate, living nationality,
atoms so dissimilar as the population that makes up the great
American people ; which, as I understand it does, seems to give
a new focus to whatever old love of home warmed the breast of
German, or Dane, or Swiss, or Englishman; which makes them,
one and all, forget their old country and their father's house,
and lose all desire to return ; which, extinguishing the old love
of fatherland, replaces it by a new love, a passion for the glory
of the present, with its boundless hopes and ambitions, and an
almost haughty contempt for traditions ; this exulting confidence
in a great destiny which disdains the lessons of experience, and
does not ask from them guidance or instruction or warning ?
Am I wrong 1 or is it not the fact that Americans have incom
parably more faith in the solvitur ambulando principle than in
any other, and that, whenever it is a question between looking
back to see what others have done, and looking forward regard
less of all precedent, they always prefer striking out a new line
rather than following another's lead ? Above all men upon earth,
Americans are self-reliant, self -asserting. Yet, was there ever
a people so much at unity with itself ? Selfishness never seems
to diminish the intense national pride 5 the fierce war of parties
in politics never seems to affect patriotism. A whisper of
disrespect to " our country," or the semblance of a sneer at it,
and woe to you ! Is not this so I I should like to see the work
ing of this mysterious and, to my mind, awful force, a force that
acts upon the new-comer with exceeding rapidity. How soon
does the immigrant feel its operation ? By what processes does
it exercise its prodigious sway ? How is it that the Dutchman,
who has spent all his life in Java, looks to lay his bones with
his father's at Amsterdam or the Hague ; that our own Austral
ian colonists, when they have " made their pile," come back to
us and call England still their home ; that the Frenchman is
always a Frenchman, with an astonishing faculty of producing a
bad copy of French fashions wherever he settles, and no power
of assimilating himself to the manners and customs of the
people among whom he sojourns ; but that, when people go to
America, it is only a question of time when they will become
Americans become absorbed, that is, into a new nationality ?
These are questions I should like to ask on the spot, and, if pos
sible, test the truth of the answers suggested.


As there are these problems that present themselves in what
I may call the national life of America, so there are others in the
political life of the American people that I have never been
fortunate enough to find discussed adequately.

We in England have been spending fifty years in timidly
feeling our way toward giving our masses a voice in the election
of members of Parliament. We are on the eve of a great change,
when something very like manhood suffrage will be ushered in
among us. It is undeniable that among the upper and middle
classes there is a feeling of great uneasiness at the prospect,
amounting in some quarters to absolute terror and despair, of
what may be coming in the not very distant future. Yet America
has prospered in spite of universal suffrage, and, as far as I
know, seems to be by no means afraid of it. One hears, indeed,
of numbers of dainty people, who are sometimes spoken of as
" the upper classes " in American society, affecting to hold aloof
from political life and taking no part in the strife of parties. It
may be so ; but do not these citizens of the great commonwealth
who give themselves such airs these a^atoi icoX-crai, as somebody
calls them, who, like naughty children, wont play because they
can't always be on the inside constitute a very insignificant
number? The fact remains that the enormous majority
of Americans are not only earnest and, if I am rightly in
formed, passionate politicians, but they go to the polls in
shoals. That fact alone strikes some of us here with wonder ;
and the wonder increases upon us enormously when we are
assured that this deep interest in political questions appears to
be wholly distinct from the political excitement that intermit
tently rouses the masses in Europe to outbreaks of frenzied hate
against established institutions. In France men get wild with
panic lest the ouvriers should turn upon the bourgeoisie. In Ger
many the socialists have their own ends in view, and do not
disguise them. In Ireland the wretched peasantry avow their
designs to confiscate the land. The war of politics with us is
eminently selfish, and in proportion as it is carried on with
more and more passion the less there seems to be of real pa
triotism. On our side of the Atlantic it is becoming increasingly
apparent that the characteristic of our political warfare may be
described as

" Each man lusting for all that is not his own."


Mr. Lowell lias summed it all up in one of those stinging
antitheses that are so stinging they can hardly be true, when
speaking from the American point of view, he says :

"Their people's turned to mob our mob's turned people."

How is it that in America the masses can be disciplined so
readily to take their side, and to engage so heartily in the fray,
moving together as mysteriously as the swallows that with scarce
audible twitterings gather in thousands, plume their wings for
flight, seem to hesitate for a brief hour, and the next are gone ?
We, indeed, have of late been aping some American practices,
and trying our hands at the caucus, and the three hundred, and
what not. I suspect it is a very feeble imitation, and I suspect
that one of my American friends was right when he said with a
laugh : " Your fellows don't know their business ; they don't
understand what they are talking about. They're first-rate at
turning out steel pens and such small ware, but they'd better
leave our political machinery alone. You're too crowded up in
your little island to find room for one of our big fly-wheels ! "
But how is all this enthusiasm for politics kept up with compar-
ativety so little appeal to the lowest selfishness? and how are
these immense numbers manipulated, the vast armies handled
as skillfully as if they were soldiers in parade ? It is all inexpli
cable to large numbers of wiseacres in England, who will persist
in talking of petty " motives " and " reason " as if they were the
prime factors in every social problem.

And this leads me to touch upon another matter, on which
I feel myself profoundly ignorant, and which I am sure that
others here are quite as ignorant about as I am. We are told
that in America there is a recognized profession of politics, just
as here there is a medical profession or a legal profession, or, if
this is putting the case too strongly, just as here there is the
profession of journalism. How in the world do the members of
this profession get along ? A new President is elected, and we
are told that all the old officials are turned out. Where do they
go ? What becomes of them f What is the effect upon the execu
tive ? With us the patronage of the government, at any rate in
the civil service, has been reduced to a minimum. Our executive
is to a very great extent, indeed, independent of the government
of the day. " Men may come and men may go," but permanent
secretaries " go on forever/' So do commissioners and their clerks,


and the thousands of stipendiaries to whom it matters not one
straw whether the Radicals are in or the Tories. With us, when
a man has gained an appointment by passing a good examina
tion at eighteen or nineteen years old, it is his own fault if he
ever loses it. Practically, there is no getting rid of him as long
as he can do his work ; he is as safe as a judge, and irremovable.
But in America, we hear, every four years they shuffle the cards,
and away they go ! What results from this ? Am I wrongly
informed? or is there more absolute patronage, patronage pur
et simple, in the hands of the President of the United States than
in any other hands on the face of the earth ? Assuming that it
is so, what, I ask, must be the effect upon the moral sentiments
of the people at large, inevitably brought day by day and hour
by hour into relations with a class of eager office-seekers, hungry,
alert, jealous, disappointed, unprincipled, or vindictive, according
to their success or failure, in getting what they consider their
due. Do the " outs" accept the logic of facts without demur, and
forthwith betake themselves to other callings ?

That in every change in the chief magistracy of a nation
every stipendiary of the executive, from the postman to the judge
of the supreme court, should get his dismissal, and the Demo
crat clerk in the custom-house who was behindhand with his
work on Monday evening should leave his arrears to be made up
by his Republican successor on Tuesday morning; that when
President A enters upon his office, a new game should be begun,
and the pieces be all set up again, regardless of the position in
which the 'knights or the pawns were when President B was
checkmated, all this seems to us, from our point of view, not
only difficult to understand, but difficult to imagine. Surely,
theory and fact in this matter must differ very widely. Am I
only exposing my ignorance ?

I have used the terms "upper and middle classes" on a
previous page. When I have asked Americans what the subtle
barriers are that in American society separate class from class,
they have replied more than once, " In America there are no
classes! We have no differences of rank with us. 77 Strange!
And yet we hear of colonels and generals and senators often
enough, and I am much mistaken if such titles are at all less
esteemed on that side of the water than on this. Be it as it may,
however, rank and title may be shadows, but class differences are
substantial things. With us the titular aristocracy constitute


a class, an inner circle, that at one time united in itself shadow
and substance, and now tends to "become less exclusive and less
influential, however loudly some may complain that

"Within these British Islands
7 Tis the substance that wanes ever,
>Tis the symbol that exceeds."

We love rank, because we have a lingering suspicion that it
somehow symbolizes wealth, or power, or brilliant intellectual
gifts, or great public services, that have forced their possessors
into the front rank at some time or other, and received their due
recognition in the shape of titular distinction conferred either
recently or in days gone by. But if a title is found to be disso
ciated from any nobleness of character, and is unsupported by
brain power or purse power, it will not save a man from humil
iating snubs, or give him the entree to any of our upper classes.
For we have more than one upper class among us, as other
nations have had and will continue to have while the world lasts.
In that social world where Mrs. Grundy bears sway, our titular
aristocracy undoubtedly are the acknowledged leaders, and to
them great homage is paid. But it is not only because a man
is an earl, or a lady is a duchess, that the one or the other is sur
rounded by a little court, approached with deference and treated
with studied respect, but because both the one and the other are
rich enough to " support the title," as we say. Yes, it is true
that in some sense or other

"Our nobles wear their ermine on the outside or walk blackly,
In presence of the social law, as most ignoble men."

You may protest that society in England is under the dominion
of a plutocracy, then. Yes ! and No ! Yes, in so far as it is true
and always must be true, that no man or woman can live on
familiar terms, and keep up the habitual intercourse with the
leisure classes, without a certain amount of money ; no, in so far
as it is also true that money alone, however abundant it may be,
will never, among us, give any one an introduction to what we
call society. I have heard of cases, and I know of one, where a
millionaire from our colonies has taken a palace in London, and
lived en prince ; has been visited by no one, failed to get into any
but a third-rate club, found no one to entertain and but few


people to speak to j and finally lias gone back from whence he came,
astonished, disappointed, and soured. They tell me that wealth
in America will gain admission to any society for any one. I
have been repeatedly assured by intelligent Americans that this
is so ; yet I cannot understand that it should be so. I can quite
understand that, whatever a man's rank, or gifts, or prospects
may be, he would find it very painful to mix with the upper ten
thousand if he could not afford to pay for cab-hire, or keep
up his subscription at the club, every day finding it hard to get
his dinner, and every night perplexed de lodice paranda / but I
can no more understand how a mere expenditure of cash could
get X, Y, or Z into the best society, than I can understand how
a payment of, say 10,000, would get an average cricketer into
the All-England eleven, or a second-rate oar into the University
crew. The Corporation of London is a plutocracy ; but society,
while accepting his lavish hospitality, treats even the Lord
Mayor of London de haut en las. The Lady Mayoress receives
ambassadors with condescension ; next year some young attache
stares at Mrs. Tomkins, and wonders where he has met that

Who are the upper classes in America ? It is nonsense to say
there are none. Not to speak of those states in pre-Christian
times that tended more or less to become dominated over by an
oligarchy, Athens was at least as pure a republic as America
is ; her people were as proud, as self -asserting, as audaciously
enterprising, as ambitious, as shrewd in commercial ventures, as
greedy for money, and as lavish in spending it, as the Americans
are ; yet the " first families " among the Athenians were as
haughty as Spaniards, as exclusive as the old French noblesse,
and bragged of their ancestry as absurdly as Scotchmen do. If
a loud-voiced, bawling demagogue came to the front by sheer
force of will and impudence, his political opponents never allowed
the populace to forget that he was brought up in a tan-yard.
Demosthenes gives point to his most withering sarcasms against
^schines by reminding his audience that he was the son of a
school-mistress, and had to scrub the ink off the desks at which
his mother taught the dirty little urchins j and who that has
read the " Clouds " can forget Strepsiades's doleful lamentation
over his fatal mistake in marrying a fine lady with a pedigree,
and begetting a son who did not take after his father ? There
must be an aristocracy in America who stand upon their birth

VOL. cxxxix. NO. 335. 24


rather than their mere wealth, yet how little we hear of them*
What recognition do they receive ? How is it they so seldom
come to be leaders ? How is it that Hyperbolus seems to push
aside Cimon, and Cleon is quite too much for Alcibiades ?

It used to be said that no two Englishmen could be found to
maintain a conversation together for five minutes without one
asking the other what he thought of the weather. It is true
still ; but there is another question that of late years has become
the stock question when two people meet one another, and that
is, " When are you going away ? " If a man replies boldly that
he is not going away at all, he is looked upon as the very imper
sonation of eccentricity. "Not going away! Why, what are
you going to do?" This "going away" means leaving our
country-houses when the flowers are in their splendor and all
nature bids us stay where we are, and starting off for Norway
or Switzerland to spend our money among strange faces, drink
bad wine, get in late for table-d'Mte when we are faint and
weary, or find ourselves five flights of stairs from our pocket
handkerchief in a towering edifice without a lift. But go where
we will, we are sure to find ourselves not two chairs away from
American tourists ; they are everywhere. Sir James Boss used
to say that if ever he reached the North Pole he would be sure
to find a Scotchman sitting upon it. I don't know what has be
come of all the Scotchmen ; they and the gypsies have grown
rarer since I was a boy ; but you can never escape from Ameri
cans. Of course there are Americans and Americans ; they
differ from one another as much as any other people do, as much
and no more ; but this is true of all the transatlantic tourists,
they are abundantly supplied with money, and they do not
grudge spending it ; in fact, if we were to judge by the Ameri
cans we meet with in Europe, we should be forced to the con
clusion that all Americans are rich, even very rich. But when
I have asked them how clergymen and doctors and lawyers and
elderly people with strictly limited incomes live in the United
States, such people as among us live in comfort with a couple of
female servants, or even keep a pony chaise, I have found my
tourist acquaintances very much amused at my supposing that
in America helps could be got to" stay in such a household.
"Are there, then, no small people in America?" I have asked.
The answer has been more often than not, " If there are, we don't
know them. 77


It is obvious that quiet, domestic people of small means are
not to be met with among tourists at luxurious hotels, and
equally obvious that such people are hard to get at by travelers
who are themselves birds of passage. When a householder is
living very near the wind, he does not like to expose his small
economies and humble ways to a stranger ; and because he is
living a quiet, unostentatious life, he has little to offer to those
whose occupation is seeing sights. But any man or woman who
wishes to gain some insight into our domestic life may easily
obtain it if he will but take the trouble to read our works of
fiction. Our novelists come from the middle classes, not from
the rich or leisure classes, and they speak as they do know. They
tell us all about the habits and sentiments and ways of talking
among clergymen and doctors and farmers and millers and
clerks and shopkeepers in England ; they show us the good and
the bad side with equal impartiality, and no more faithful de
lineations have ever been made of the inner and outer life of the
lowest struggling classes than are to be found in English litera
ture. But if we want to get an insight into the morale of such
people in America, we do not know where to look for it. Such
a character as Kitty Ellison in Mr. Howell's " Chance Aquaint-
ance," whose heart is with Uncle Jack and his anxieties and
troubles while she is enjoying all the gayeties and luxuries that
wealth can bestow, is a rarity in America ; and, moreover, all the
people one meets with in Mr. HowelPs stories are away from
home. In the " Biglow Papers " one does now and then get a
hint that there are shrewd farmers and hard-headed country
folk somewhere in the States, who do not wander very far,
but one never gets to know them. That exquisite story
of Mr. Stockton's, " Rudder Grange," as far as I know,
occupies a unique position in American literature, and has
for many of us lifted the veil from a whole world of little
people across the Atlantic, of whose very existence some on
our side the water had almost begun to entertain doubts. Yet
we are in the habit of thinking that it is precisely among these
people that we must look for the real heart of a great nation,
and that the pulse of every great nation is to be felt among
them, if at all.

But of all subjects of inquiry that a thoughtful Englishman
could set himself to work at, the most instructive, the most sug
gestive, would be the effect of perfect equality between the vari-

Online LibraryNathaniel Hillyer. EglestonThe North American review (Volume 139) → online text (page 31 of 60)