• U.S.

Books: New Old Book

7 minute read

RETROSPECT OF WESTERN TRAVEL—Harrief Martineau—Harper (2 vols., $4).

To celebrate their first 125 years of publishing Harper & Bros, this week reissued these two neatly bound and boxed volumes by an Englishwoman, whose name, once known to all U.S. literates, has been all but forgotten. Harriet Martineau visited the U.S. only 20 years after the bitter War of 1812, first published in 1838 this account of what she saw. But few books could be more timely. Reason: few Britons have ever seen the U.S. so clearly or reported what they saw with such understanding and fairness. But Harriet Martineau’s book is important in another way. It looks, through the author’s fresh and enthusiastic eyes, on an America that was itself fresh and enthusiastic, and leads to a thoughtful stocktaking of what America (and Britain) were and what they have become.

The 32-year-old spinster (she was born lacking a sense of taste or smell; became deaf in childhood) first saw “the dim shore” of her destination as “a long line of the New Jersey coast, with distinguishable trees and white houses.” “I was taken by surprise,” she wrote, “by my own emotions. All that I had heard of the Pilgrim Fathers, of the old colonial days, of the great men of the Revolution, and of the busy, prosperous succeeding days stirred up my mind. . . .”

Last Hope. For the land at which Miss Martineau stared was not merely a country but one of the last best hopes of the world and by some British instinct of freedom she knew it. Europe was a prison and a charnel house. This was the land on which all men’s dreams of freedom had come to rest. It was one of the last unoccupied lands in the world. This land had fought for and established a revolutionary principle—political liberty. If that succeeded, the world’s weary history of successive tyrannies would change. If it failed, the bloody pattern of European and Asiatic history would merely have asserted itself in the world’s last great unoccupied Lebensraum. It was with these thoughts in mind that Spinster Martineau looked at the U.S., 1834. And she looked at it on a scale that would have horrified her fellow spinsters in England and a good many Americans.

Vast Land. Her energy and courage were extraordinary. She traveled thousands of miles by coach, bumped over “corduroy” roads, put up at strange cabins and hostels. She talked and listened to statesmen, slaves, Abolitionists, jailbirds, men, women & children, in the East, West and South. From New Orleans she sailed up the Mississippi on the Henry Clay to Cincinnati. She was fascinated by the “sudden and overwhelming . . . perils of this extraordinary river” where “snags,” “planters,” and “sawyers” might “at any moment pierce the hull.” Along the huge river she saw hundreds of miles of cotton and sugar fields. “[What] vast materials of human happiness,” she wrote, “are placed at the disposal of the real administrators of this great country.”

When an Irishman confided that he “feared that the independence of the Americans made them feel themselves independent of God,” Harriet snapped: “This consequence of democratic government had not struck me before.”

She visited Washington (still rebuilding after the British burned it in 1814), was bewildered by the sight of a capital built by plan. “[It] is unlike any other that ever was seen,” she wrote, “straggling out hither and thither, with a small house or two a quarter of a mile from any other; so that in making calls ‘in the city’ we had to cross ditches and stiles. … I was taken by surprise at finding myself beneath the splendid [Capitol], so sordid are the enclosures and houses. . . .” Washington, she decided, “is a grand mistake.” She believed the capital was likely to be shifted any day to more central Cincinnati.

Great Republicans. But Washington had “a society of the highest order”—the great republicans Harriet had come so far to see. She saw everybody. Congressmen “reposed themselves” by Harriet’s fireside. “Mr. Clay, sitting upright on the sofa, with his snuffbox ever in his hand, would discourse for many an hour in his even, soft, deliberate tone. . . . Mr. Webster, leaning back at his ease, telling stories, cracking jokes, shaking the sofa with burst after burst of laughter . . . would illuminate an evening. Mr. Calhoun, the cast-iron man, who looks as if he had never been born and never could be extinguished, would come in sometimes.” She visited Madison at his home, an old man “in his chair, with a pillow behind him; his little person wrapped in a black silk gown; a warm grey and white cap upon his head, which his lady took care should always sit becomingly.” Harriet thought he was wonderful, remarked acidly: “It is something that, living under institutions framed by the few for the subordination of the many, the English feel the interest they do about such men as Jefferson and Madison.”

Harriet never tired of studying the regional types of the new nation. She was full of admiration for the Yankee who would not kneel to the Pope, but was willing to take off his hat. “The same respect,” he said, “I would show to the President of the United States, and I can’t show any more to anyone.” But the Yankee who came to Washington did not seem happy. He appeared “to bear in mind perpetually that he cannot fight a duel, while other people can.” Of Southern society, she said: “Its characteristic is a want of repose. It is restlessly gay or restlessly sorrowful. It is angry or exulting; it is hopeful or apprehensive. It is never content.”

Harriet was puzzled by the “odd mortals that wander in from the western border.” These pioneer statesmen of the expanding Union, she said, “cannot be described as a class, for no one is like anybody else.” But she noted: “All [have] shrewd faces, and [are] probably very fit for the business they come upon.”

Black Evil. Because Miss Martineau saw in America the hope of the worldwide struggle for freedom, she spoke out boldly against “evils as black as night” that crowded in on her as she moved South. Slavery she hated. She was horrified to think it could exist in the U.S. when Britain had already forbidden it. Friends warned her against entering the slave States where her Abolitionist opinions were known. She ignored the warnings, argued her way firmly, courteously through the South. Later on in Boston she met William Lloyd Garrison (“I thought Garrison the most bewitching personage I had met in the U.S.”), spoke vigorously at an Abolitionist meeting which was in danger of being mobbed. She was indignant to think that the “pirate colony” of Texas might be admitted to the Union, condemned the admission of Missouri (“a nest of … rapacious slavedrivers”) as a shattering blow to those who saw in America’s “moral power” the beginning of a “long series of conquests over physical force and selfish cunning.”

Her last words to the American people:

-“In the retrospect of the recent traveler in America, the happiest class is clearly that small one of the original abolitionists; men and women wholly devoted to a lofty pursuit, and surrendering for it much that others most prize: and in the retrospect of the traveler through life, the most eminently blessed come forth from among all ranks and orders of men, some being rich and others poor; some illustrious and others obscure; but all having one point of resemblance, that they have not staked their peace on anything so unreal as money or fame.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com