BOOK REVIEW/ Chroniclers of an experiment in democracy: EARLY TRAVELLER S IN NORTH AMERICA, Charles Miller - Alan Sutton, £16.99

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Many history books aim to resurrect the mentality of a bygone age, but few achieve it. Charles Miller, producer of the well-received 1992 BBC television series of the same title, has used his research to put together a detailed and illuminating so cial history of early North America. We see a new land opening up through the inquisitive eyes of 19th-century English chroniclers and, in the process, a great deal is revealed not just about those inhabitants of the bold "democratic experiment", but of the attitudes and prejudices of the chroniclers themselves.

At that time most English voyagers to the New World had never visited a place so inconceivably vast and different from their own. The usual intention was to stay for several months, really get under the skin and understand why and how former English men and women chose to live in such a remote land.

Early Travellers in North America is deceptive. At first glance it might appear to be simply a coffee-table book, with its excellent selection of illustrations. But Miller has taken care to ensure that it is much more: each chapter develops its theme in a way that adds greater depth to an increasingly variegated portrait.

Mining a rich seam of descriptive prose from the pens of professional writers - Dickens, Trollope (mother and son) and Stevenson - plus the private jottings of obscure letter writers and diarists, Miller skilfully organises his material so that it unfolds much in the way impressions might if we, the readers, were embarking on such a trip.

Appropriately, Miller starts with appearances. One of the most marked features, to English eyes, was the round-shouldered, hollow-chested posture of American men. One observer surmised: "Perhaps this is occasioned by [nobody] daring to say to a brother free-born "hold up your head". Another widely remarked upon characteristic, of both men and women, was the "sickly, sallow pallor" as compared to the healthy, rosy cheeks of the English. This was attributed to the custom of installing "hot-air pipes" everywhere: "I think no doubt that to them is to be charged the murder of all rosy cheeks throughout the States", concluded Anthony Trollope.

While there were many compliments for various features of the North American landscape and townscapes, equally there were criticisms. The geometric layouts of large eastern cities, for instance, were a curiosity to visitors, but they soon tired of the monotony of such unimaginative Quaker urban planning. "After walking about [Philadelphia] for an hour or two," wrote Dickens, "I felt that I would have given the world for a crooked street."

Reaction to the natural beauty of uncultivated vistas was perhaps more surprising. English travellers, generally, did not see the "eternal forests" of America as scenic; rather they were considered foreboding in their density, "the picture of death" in their dreariness, not to mention a daunting obstacle to "progress and the comfort of living".

As the book develops we are exposed to democratic manners and attitudes. These were constant topics for newsy missives. For English observers the jury was clearly still out regarding the durability and even the merits of democracy. Nobody appeared to know their place in this seemingly socially confused society where the "tyranny of public opinion'' reigned supreme.

Moreover, there was so much political responsibility bestowed on quite ordinary folk that English visitors tended to be appalled at some of the scenes witnessed and conversational exchanges experienced. The newly elected US president, General Jackson, for example, was anything but remote to the people. One Englishman reported that he pulled up his coach at the front door of the White House and simply ambled in for a chat: "The conversation for the first quarter of an hour was about the state of [the president's] bowels", he noted, not without a small amount of amazement at such instant casual intimacy.

Comments