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The Englishwoman in America
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Pages (PDF): 323
Publication Date: 1856
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In 1856, Isabella Bird published The Englishwoman in America, the first of what would be many books of her travels around the world. Adopting a tone of aloof bemusement, she describes in detail the hardships and annoyances of her travels by sea from England to Halifax, and on the road to Boston, Cincinnati, and Chicago. The book's 20 chapters are full of keenly observed and entertainingly told stories.
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As a general dislike of prefaces is unmistakeably evidenced by their uncut leaves, and as unknown readers could scarcely be induced to read a book by the most cogent representations of an unknown author, and as apologies for “rushing into print” are too trite and insincere to have any effect, I will merely prefix a few explanatory remarks to my first chapter.
Circumstances which it is unnecessary to dwell upon led me across the Atlantic with some relatives; and on my return, I was requested by numerous friends to give an account of my travels. As this volume has been written with a view to their gratification, there is far more of personal narrative than is likely to interest the general reader. With respect to the people of the United States, I have given those impressions which as a traveller I formed; if they are more favourable than those of some of my predecessors, the difference may arise from my having taken out many excellent introductions, which afforded me greater facilities of seeing the best society in the States than are usually possessed by those who travel merely to see the country.
Where I have offered any opinions upon the effect produced by the institutions of America, or upon any great national question, I have done so with extreme diffidence, giving impressions rather than conclusions, feeling the great injustice of drawing general inferences from partial premises, as well as the impossibility of rightly estimating cause and effect during a brief residence in the United States. I have endeavoured to give a faithful picture of what I saw and heard, avoiding the beaten track as much as possible, and dwelling principally on those things in which I knew that my friends were most interested.
Previously to visiting the United States, I had read most of the American travels which had been published; yet from experience I can say that even those who read most on the Americans know little of them, from the disposition which leads travellers to seize and dwell upon the ludicrous points which continually present themselves.
We know that there is a vast continent across the Atlantic, first discovered by a Genoese sailing under the Spanish flag, and that for many years past it has swallowed up thousands of the hardiest of our population. Although our feelings are not particularly fraternal, we give the people inhabiting this continent the national cognomen of “Brother Jonathan,” while we name individuals “Yankees.” We know that they are famous for smoking, spitting, “gouging,” and bowie-knives — for monster hotels, steamboat explosions, railway collisions, and repudiated debts. It is believed also that this nation is renowned for keeping three millions of Africans in slavery — for wooden nutmegs, paper money, and “fillibuster” expeditions — for carrying out nationally and individually the maxim
“That they may take who have the power,
And they may keep who can.”
I went to the States with that amount of prejudice which seems the birthright of every English person, but I found that, under the knowledge of the Americans which can be attained by a traveller mixing in society in every grade, these prejudices gradually melted away. I found much which is worthy of commendation, even of imitation: that there is much which is very reprehensible, is not to be wondered at in a country which for years has been made a “cave of Adullam” — a refuge for those who have “left their country for their country’s good” — a receptacle for the barbarous, the degraded, and the vicious of all other nations. It must never be forgotten that the noble, the learned, and the wealthy have shrunk from the United States; her broad lands have been peopled to a great extent by those whose stalwart arms have been their only possession.
Is it surprising, considering these antecedents, that much of arrogance, coarseness, and vulgarity should be met with? Is it not rather surprising, that a traveller should meet with so little to annoy — so few obvious departures from the rules of propriety?
An Englishman bears with patience any ridicule which foreigners cast upon him. John Bull never laughs so loudly as when he laughs at himself; but the Americans are nationally sensitive, and cannot endure that good-humoured raillery which jests at their weaknesses and foibles. Hence candid and even favourable statements of the truth by English travellers are received with a perfect outcry by the Americans; and the phrases, “shameful misstatements,” “violation of the rights of hospitality,” &c., are on every lip.
Most assuredly that spirit of envious rivalry and depreciating criticism in which many English travellers have written, is greatly to be deprecated, no less than the tone of servile adulation which some writers have adopted; but our American neighbours must recollect that they provoked both the virulent spirit and the hostile caricature by the way in which some of their most popular writers of travels have led an ungenerous onslaught against our institutions and people, and the bitter tone in which their newspaper press, headed by the Tribune, indulges towards the British nation.
Having made these few remarks, I must state that at the time of my visit to the States I had no intention of recording my “experiences” in print; and as my notes taken at the time were few and meagre, and have been elaborated from memory, some inaccuracies have occurred which it will not take a keen eye to detect. These must be set down to want of correct information rather than to wilful misrepresentation. The statistical information given is taken from works compiled by the Americans themselves. The few matters on which I write which did not come under my own observation, I learned from trustworthy persons who have been long resident in the country.
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