NORTH AMERICA: Vol. I & II by Anthony Trollope


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As with much travel writing, these lengthy musings and observations made in 1861-1862 tell as much about Trollope and the English as they do about America. He set out to write of society--to wield a ""light pen"" for a popular entertainment--but the Civil War forced politics upon him. This novelist of manners, no journalist, did not leap at the chance to document this pivotal moment, rather wishing he could have made his travels in a calmer era. Indeed, he is a better critic of hotels than of government. The war, nonetheless, is focal. Most striking is his certainty that the South would eventually secede, whether the Confederacy won the war or not. More generally, he also shares a common British apprehension about hot-blooded American radicalism, but is pleased to discover that despite their reverence for the democratic principles of the Constitution, they have an underlying conservative bent. That Trollope was later a Liberal candidate for Parliament shows how much attitudes have changed since. His views seem profoundly undemocratic. He is against universal suffrage--the tyranny of democracy--preferring property qualifications. He has mixed feelings about educating the lower classes, admitting its value to civilization but muttering that a coachman with an education is a less efficient coachman. He suggests a king for Canada, complains that railways have only one class, and recommends more power for the US Senate, as a potential bastion of conservatism. Trollope is also a racist without qualms. Though he doesn't actually visit the rural South, he considers slavery picturesquely patriarchal: ""If a negro slave wants new shoes, he asks for them, and receives them, with the undoubting simplicity of a child."" He also states that slaves eat as much as they like and that their workload is light. The notoriety of his mother Fanny Trollope's caustic volume, Domestic Manners of the Americans, causes the son to temper his social criticism, but he finds much awry nonetheless. A better observer than philosopher, Trollope is pontifical on politics, but his travel notes are often amusing. He states that America exceeds Britain most notably in beef and book learning, and quite seriously theorizes that over-warm central heating systems have baked Americans, leaving them colorless and listless. The length and circumspection of Trollope's writing will daunt the general reader--Dicken's American Notes is a better book, anyway--but these volumes provide an interesting study of popular and British attitudes to the war that tore our young country asunder.

Pub Date: March 19th, 1986
Publisher: St. Martin's