3. Eric Hobsbawm, 2009.
Numero Uno—“Before leaving Boston, I devoted one day to an excursion to Lowell. I assign a separate chapter to this visit; not because I am about to describe it at any great length, but because I remember it as a thing by itself, and am desirous that my readers should do the same.I made acquaintance with an American railroad, on this occasion, for the first time. As these works are pretty much alike all through the States, their general characteristics are easily described.
There are no first and second class carriages as with us; but there is a gentleman’s car and a ladies’ car: the main distinction between which is that in the first, everybody smokes; and in the second, nobody does. As a black man never travels with a white one, there is also a negro car; which is a great, blundering, clumsy chest, such as Gulliver put to sea in, from the kingdom of Brobdingnag. There is a great deal of jolting, a great deal of noise, a great deal of wall, not much window, a locomotive engine, a shriek, and a bell.
The cars are like shabby omnibuses, but larger: holding thirty, forty, fifty, people. The seats, instead of stretching from end to end, are placed crosswise. Each seat holds two persons. There is a long row of them on each side of the caravan, a narrow passage up the middle, and a door at both ends. In the centre of the carriage there is usually a stove, fed with charcoal or anthracite coal; which is for the most part red-hot. It is insufferably close; and you see the hot air fluttering between yourself and any other object you may happen to look at, like the ghost of smoke.
In the ladies’ car, there are a great many gentlemen who have ladies with them. There are also a great many ladies who have nobody with them: for any lady may travel alone, from one end of the United States to the other, and be certain of the most courteous and considerate treatment everywhere. The conductor or check-taker, or guard, or whatever he may be, wears no uniform. He walks up and down the car, and in and out of it, as his fancy dictates; leans against the door with his hands in his pockets and stares at you, if you chance to be a stranger; or enters into conversation with the passengers about him. A great many newspapers are pulled out, and a few of them are read. Everybody talks to you, or to anybody else who hits his fancy. If you are an Englishman, he expects that that railroad is pretty much like an English railroad. If you say ‘No,’ he says ‘Yes?’ (interrogatively), and asks in what respect they differ. You enumerate the heads of difference, one by one, and he says ‘Yes?’ (still interrogatively) to each. Then he guesses that you don’t travel faster in England; and on your replying that you do, says ‘Yes?’ again (still interrogatively), and it is quite evident, don’t believe it. After a long pause he remarks, partly to you, and partly to the knob on the top of his stick, that ‘Yankees are reckoned to be considerable of a go-ahead people too;’ upon which you say ‘Yes,’ and then he says ‘Yes’ again (affirmatively this time); and upon your looking out of window, tells you that behind that hill, and some three miles from the next station, there is a clever town in a smart lo-ca-tion, where he expects you have concluded to stop. Your answer in the negative naturally leads to more questions in reference to your intended route (always pronounced rout); and wherever you are going, you invariably learn that you can’t get there without immense difficulty and danger, and that all the great sights are somewhere else.
If a lady take a fancy to any male passenger’s seat, the gentleman who accompanies her gives him notice of the fact, and he immediately vacates it with great politeness. Politics are much discussed, so are banks, so is cotton. Quiet people avoid the question of the Presidency, for there will be a new election in three years and a half, and party feeling runs very high: the great constitutional feature of this institution being, that directly the acrimony of the last election is over, the acrimony of the next one begins; which is an unspeakable comfort to all strong politicians and true lovers of their country: that is to say, to ninety-nine men and boys out of every ninety-nine and a quarter.
Except when a branch road joins the main one, there is seldom more than one track of rails; so that the road is very narrow, and the view, where there is a deep cutting, by no means extensive. When there is not, the character of the scenery is always the same. Mile after mile of stunted trees: some hewn down by the axe, some blown down by the wind, some half fallen and resting on their neighbours, many mere logs half hidden in the swamp, others mouldered away to spongy chips. The very soil of the earth is made up of minute fragments such as these; each pool of stagnant water has its crust of vegetable rottenness; on every side there are the boughs, and trunks, and stumps of trees, in every possible stage of decay, decomposition, and neglect. Now you emerge for a few brief minutes on an open country, glittering with some bright lake or pool, broad as many an English river, but so small here that it scarcely has a name; now catch hasty glimpses of a distant town, with its clean white houses and their cool piazzas, its prim New England church and school-house; when whir-r-r-r! almost before you have seen them, comes the same dark screen: the stunted trees, the stumps, the logs, the stagnant water—all so like the last that you seem to have been transported back again by magic.
The train calls at stations in the woods, where the wild impossibility of anybody having the smallest reason to get out, is only to be equalled by the apparently desperate hopelessness of there being anybody to get in. It rushes across the turnpike road, where there is no gate, no policeman, no signal: nothing but a rough wooden arch, on which is painted ‘When the bell rings, look out for the Locomotive.’ On it whirls headlong, dives through the woods again, emerges in the light, clatters over frail arches, rumbles upon the heavy ground, shoots beneath a wooden bridge which intercepts the light for a second like a wink, suddenly awakens all the slumbering echoes in the main street of a large town, and dashes on haphazard, pell-mell, neck-or-nothing, down the middle of the road. There—with mechanics working at their trades, and people leaning from their doors and windows, and boys flying kites and playing marbles, and men smoking, and women talking, and children crawling, and pigs burrowing, and unaccustomed horses plunging and rearing, close to the very rails—there—on, on, on—tears the mad dragon of an engine with its train of cars; scattering in all directions a shower of burning sparks from its wood fire; screeching, hissing, yelling, panting; until at last the thirsty monster stops beneath a covered way to drink, the people cluster round, and you have time to breathe again.
I was met at the station at Lowell by a gentleman intimately connected with the management of the factories there; and gladly putting myself under his guidance, drove off at once to that quarter of the town in which the works, the object of my visit, were situated. Although only just of age—for if my recollection serve me, it has been a manufacturing town barely one-and-twenty years—Lowell is a large, populous, thriving place. Those indications of its youth which first attract the eye, give it a quaintness and oddity of character which, to a visitor from the old country, is amusing enough. It was a very dirty winter’s day, and nothing in the whole town looked old to me, except the mud, which in some parts was almost knee-deep, and might have been deposited there, on the subsiding of the waters after the Deluge. In one place, there was a new wooden church, which, having no steeple, and being yet unpainted, looked like an enormous packing-case without any direction upon it. In another there was a large hotel, whose walls and colonnades were so crisp, and thin, and slight, that it had exactly the appearance of being built with cards. I was careful not to draw my breath as we passed, and trembled when I saw a workman come out upon the roof, lest with one thoughtless stamp of his foot he should crush the structure beneath him, and bring it rattling down. The very river that moves the machinery in the mills (for they are all worked by water power), seems to acquire a new character from the fresh buildings of bright red brick and painted wood among which it takes its course; and to be as light-headed, thoughtless, and brisk a young river, in its murmurings and tumblings, as one would desire to see. One would swear that every ‘Bakery,’ ‘Grocery,’ and ‘Bookbindery,’ and other kind of store, took its shutters down for the first time, and started in business yesterday. The golden pestles and mortars fixed as signs upon the sun-blind frames outside the Druggists’, appear to have been just turned out of the United States’ Mint; and when I saw a baby of some week or ten days old in a woman’s arms at a street corner, I found myself unconsciously wondering where it came from: never supposing for an instant that it could have been born in such a young town as that.
There are several factories in Lowell, each of which belongs to what we should term a Company of Proprietors, but what they call in America a Corporation. I went over several of these; such as a woollen factory, a carpet factory, and a cotton factory: examined them in every part; and saw them in their ordinary working aspect, with no preparation of any kind, or departure from their ordinary everyday proceedings. I may add that I am well acquainted with our manufacturing towns in England, and have visited many mills in Manchester and elsewhere in the same manner.
I happened to arrive at the first factory just as the dinner hour was over, and the girls were returning to their work; indeed the stairs of the mill were thronged with them as I ascended. They were all well dressed, but not to my thinking above their condition; for I like to see the humbler classes of society careful of their dress and appearance, and even, if they please, decorated with such little trinkets as come within the compass of their means. Supposing it confined within reasonable limits, I would always encourage this kind of pride, as a worthy element of self-respect, in any person I employed; and should no more be deterred from doing so, because some wretched female referred her fall to a love of dress, than I would allow my construction of the real intent and meaning of the Sabbath to be influenced by any warning to the well-disposed, founded on his backslidings on that particular day, which might emanate from the rather doubtful authority of a murderer in Newgate.
These girls, as I have said, were all well dressed: and that phrase necessarily includes extreme cleanliness. They had serviceable bonnets, good warm cloaks, and shawls; and were not above clogs and pattens. Moreover, there were places in the mill in which they could deposit these things without injury; and there were conveniences for washing. They were healthy in appearance, many of them remarkably so, and had the manners and deportment of young women: not of degraded brutes of burden. If I had seen in one of those mills (but I did not, though I looked for something of this kind with a sharp eye), the most lisping, mincing, affected, and ridiculous young creature that my imagination could suggest, I should have thought of the careless, moping, slatternly, degraded, dull reverse (I have seen that), and should have been still well pleased to look upon her.
The rooms in which they worked, were as well ordered as themselves. In the windows of some, there were green plants, which were trained to shade the glass; in all, there was as much fresh air, cleanliness, and comfort, as the nature of the occupation would possibly admit of. Out of so large a number of females, many of whom were only then just verging upon womanhood, it may be reasonably supposed that some were delicate and fragile in appearance: no doubt there were. But I solemnly declare, that from all the crowd I saw in the different factories that day, I cannot recall or separate one young face that gave me a painful impression; not one young girl whom, assuming it to be a matter of necessity that she should gain her daily bread by the labour of her hands, I would have removed from those works if I had had the power.
They reside in various boarding-houses near at hand. The owners of the mills are particularly careful to allow no persons to enter upon the possession of these houses, whose characters have not undergone the most searching and thorough inquiry. Any complaint that is made against them, by the boarders, or by any one else, is fully investigated; and if good ground of complaint be shown to exist against them, they are removed, and their occupation is handed over to some more deserving person. There are a few children employed in these factories, but not many. The laws of the State forbid their working more than nine months in the year, and require that they be educated during the other three. For this purpose there are schools in Lowell; and there are churches and chapels of various persuasions, in which the young women may observe that form of worship in which they have been educated.
At some distance from the factories, and on the highest and pleasantest ground in the neighbourhood, stands their hospital, or boarding-house for the sick: it is the best house in those parts, and was built by an eminent merchant for his own residence. Like that institution at Boston, which I have before described, it is not parcelled out into wards, but is divided into convenient chambers, each of which has all the comforts of a very comfortable home. The principal medical attendant resides under the same roof; and were the patients members of his own family, they could not be better cared for, or attended with greater gentleness and consideration. The weekly charge in this establishment for each female patient is three dollars, or twelve shillings English; but no girl employed by any of the corporations is ever excluded for want of the means of payment. That they do not very often want the means, may be gathered from the fact, that in July, 1841, no fewer than nine hundred and seventy-eight of these girls were depositors in the Lowell Savings Bank: the amount of whose joint savings was estimated at one hundred thousand dollars, or twenty thousand English pounds.
I am now going to state three facts, which will startle a large class of readers on this side of the Atlantic, very much.
Firstly, there is a joint-stock piano in a great many of the boarding-houses. Secondly, nearly all these young ladies subscribe to circulating libraries. Thirdly, they have got up among themselves a periodical called The Lowell Offering, ‘A repository of original articles, written exclusively by females actively employed in the mills,’—which is duly printed, published, and sold; and whereof I brought away from Lowell four hundred good solid pages, which I have read from beginning to end.
The large class of readers, startled by these facts, will exclaim, with one voice, ‘How very preposterous!’ On my deferentially inquiring why, they will answer, ‘These things are above their station.’ In reply to that objection, I would beg to ask what their station is.
It is their station to work. And they do work. They labour in these mills, upon an average, twelve hours a day, which is unquestionably work, and pretty tight work too. Perhaps it is above their station to indulge in such amusements, on any terms. Are we quite sure that we in England have not formed our ideas of the ‘station’ of working people, from accustoming ourselves to the contemplation of that class as they are, and not as they might be? I think that if we examine our own feelings, we shall find that the pianos, and the circulating libraries, and even the Lowell Offering, startle us by their novelty, and not by their bearing upon any abstract question of right or wrong.
For myself, I know no station in which, the occupation of to-day cheerfully done and the occupation of to-morrow cheerfully looked to, any one of these pursuits is not most humanising and laudable. I know no station which is rendered more endurable to the person in it, or more safe to the person out of it, by having ignorance for its associate. I know no station which has a right to monopolise the means of mutual instruction, improvement, and rational entertainment; or which has ever continued to be a station very long, after seeking to do so.
Of the merits of the Lowell Offering as a literary production, I will only observe, putting entirely out of sight the fact of the articles having been written by these girls after the arduous labours of the day, that it will compare advantageously with a great many English Annuals. It is pleasant to find that many of its Tales are of the Mills and of those who work in them; that they inculcate habits of self-denial and contentment, and teach good doctrines of enlarged benevolence. A strong feeling for the beauties of nature, as displayed in the solitudes the writers have left at home, breathes through its pages like wholesome village air; and though a circulating library is a favourable school for the study of such topics, it has very scant allusion to fine clothes, fine marriages, fine houses, or fine life. Some persons might object to the papers being signed occasionally with rather fine names, but this is an American fashion. One of the provinces of the state legislature of Massachusetts is to alter ugly names into pretty ones, as the children improve upon the tastes of their parents. These changes costing little or nothing, scores of Mary Annes are solemnly converted into Bevelinas every session.
It is said that on the occasion of a visit from General Jackson or General Harrison to this town (I forget which, but it is not to the purpose), he walked through three miles and a half of these young ladies all dressed out with parasols and silk stockings. But as I am not aware that any worse consequence ensued, than a sudden looking-up of all the parasols and silk stockings in the market; and perhaps the bankruptcy of some speculative New Englander who bought them all up at any price, in expectation of a demand that never came; I set no great store by the circumstance.
In this brief account of Lowell, and inadequate expression of the gratification it yielded me, and cannot fail to afford to any foreigner to whom the condition of such people at home is a subject of interest and anxious speculation, I have carefully abstained from drawing a comparison between these factories and those of our own land. Many of the circumstances whose strong influence has been at work for years in our manufacturing towns have not arisen here; and there is no manufacturing population in Lowell, so to speak: for these girls (often the daughters of small farmers) come from other States, remain a few years in the mills, and then go home for good.
The contrast would be a strong one, for it would be between the Good and Evil, the living light and deepest shadow. I abstain from it, because I deem it just to do so. But I only the more earnestly adjure all those whose eyes may rest on these pages, to pause and reflect upon the difference between this town and those great haunts of desperate misery: to call to mind, if they can in the midst of party strife and squabble, the efforts that must be made to purge them of their suffering and danger: and last, and foremost, to remember how the precious Time is rushing by.
I returned at night by the same railroad and in the same kind of car. One of the passengers being exceedingly anxious to expound at great length to my companion (not to me, of course) the true principles on which books of travel in America should be written by Englishmen, I feigned to fall asleep. But glancing all the way out at window from the corners of my eyes, I found abundance of entertainment for the rest of the ride in watching the effects of the wood fire, which had been invisible in the morning but were now brought out in full relief by the darkness: for we were travelling in a whirlwind of bright sparks, which showered about us like a storm of fiery snow.
The beautiful metropolis of America is by no means so clean a city as Boston, but many of its streets have the same characteristics; except that the houses are not quite so fresh-coloured, the sign-boards are not quite so gaudy, the gilded letters not quite so golden, the bricks not quite so red, the stone not quite so white, the blinds and area railings not quite so green, the knobs and plates upon the street doors not quite so bright and twinkling. There are many by-streets, almost as neutral in clean colours, and positive in dirty ones, as by-streets in London; and there is one quarter, commonly called the Five Points, which, in respect of filth and wretchedness, may be safely backed against Seven Dials, or any other part of famed St. Giles’s.The great promenade and thoroughfare, as most people know, is Broadway; a wide and bustling street, which, from the Battery Gardens to its opposite termination in a country road, may be four miles long. Shall we sit down in an upper floor of the Carlton House Hotel (situated in the best part of this main artery of New York), and when we are tired of looking down upon the life below, sally forth arm-in-arm, and mingle with the stream?
Warm weather! The sun strikes upon our heads at this open window, as though its rays were concentrated through a burning-glass; but the day is in its zenith, and the season an unusual one. Was there ever such a sunny street as this Broadway! The pavement stones are polished with the tread of feet until they shine again; the red bricks of the houses might be yet in the dry, hot kilns; and the roofs of those omnibuses look as though, if water were poured on them, they would hiss and smoke, and smell like half-quenched fires. No stint of omnibuses here! Half-a-dozen have gone by within as many minutes. Plenty of hackney cabs and coaches too; gigs, phaetons, large-wheeled tilburies, and private carriages—rather of a clumsy make, and not very different from the public vehicles, but built for the heavy roads beyond the city pavement. Negro coachmen and white; in straw hats, black hats, white hats, glazed caps, fur caps; in coats of drab, black, brown, green, blue, nankeen, striped jean and linen; and there, in that one instance (look while it passes, or it will be too late), in suits of livery. Some southern republican that, who puts his blacks in uniform, and swells with Sultan pomp and power. Yonder, where that phaeton with the well-clipped pair of grays has stopped—standing at their heads now—is a Yorkshire groom, who has not been very long in these parts, and looks sorrowfully round for a companion pair of top-boots, which he may traverse the city half a year without meeting. Heaven save the ladies, how they dress! We have seen more colours in these ten minutes, than we should have seen elsewhere, in as many days. What various parasols! what rainbow silks and satins! what pinking of thin stockings, and pinching of thin shoes, and fluttering of ribbons and silk tassels, and display of rich cloaks with gaudy hoods and linings! The young gentlemen are fond, you see, of turning down their shirt-collars and cultivating their whiskers, especially under the chin; but they cannot approach the ladies in their dress or bearing, being, to say the truth, humanity of quite another sort. Byrons of the desk and counter, pass on, and let us see what kind of men those are behind ye: those two labourers in holiday clothes, of whom one carries in his hand a crumpled scrap of paper from which he tries to spell out a hard name, while the other looks about for it on all the doors and windows.
Irishmen both! You might know them, if they were masked, by their long-tailed blue coats and bright buttons, and their drab trousers, which they wear like men well used to working dresses, who are easy in no others. It would be hard to keep your model republics going, without the countrymen and countrywomen of those two labourers. For who else would dig, and delve, and drudge, and do domestic work, and make canals and roads, and execute great lines of Internal Improvement! Irishmen both, and sorely puzzled too, to find out what they seek. Let us go down, and help them, for the love of home, and that spirit of liberty which admits of honest service to honest men, and honest work for honest bread, no matter what it be.
That’s well! We have got at the right address at last, though it is written in strange characters truly, and might have been scrawled with the blunt handle of the spade the writer better knows the use of, than a pen. Their way lies yonder, but what business takes them there? They carry savings: to hoard up? No. They are brothers, those men. One crossed the sea alone, and working very hard for one half year, and living harder, saved funds enough to bring the other out. That done, they worked together side by side, contentedly sharing hard labour and hard living for another term, and then their sisters came, and then another brother, and lastly, their old mother. And what now? Why, the poor old crone is restless in a strange land, and yearns to lay her bones, she says, among her people in the old graveyard at home: and so they go to pay her passage back: and God help her and them, and every simple heart, and all who turn to the Jerusalem of their younger days, and have an altar-fire upon the cold hearth of their fathers.
This narrow thoroughfare, baking and blistering in the sun, is Wall Street: the Stock Exchange and Lombard Street of New York. Many a rapid fortune has been made in this street, and many a no less rapid ruin. Some of these very merchants whom you see hanging about here now, have locked up money in their strong-boxes, like the man in the Arabian Nights, and opening them again, have found but withered leaves. Below, here by the water-side, where the bowsprits of ships stretch across the footway, and almost thrust themselves into the windows, lie the noble American vessels which have made their Packet Service the finest in the world. They have brought hither the foreigners who abound in all the streets: not, perhaps, that there are more here, than in other commercial cities; but elsewhere, they have particular haunts, and you must find them out; here, they pervade the town.
We must cross Broadway again; gaining some refreshment from the heat, in the sight of the great blocks of clean ice which are being carried into shops and bar-rooms; and the pine-apples and water-melons profusely displayed for sale. Fine streets of spacious houses here, you see!—Wall Street has furnished and dismantled many of them very often—and here a deep green leafy square. Be sure that is a hospitable house with inmates to be affectionately remembered always, where they have the open door and pretty show of plants within, and where the child with laughing eyes is peeping out of window at the little dog below. You wonder what may be the use of this tall flagstaff in the by-street, with something like Liberty’s head-dress on its top: so do I. But there is a passion for tall flagstaffs hereabout, and you may see its twin brother in five minutes, if you have a mind.
Again across Broadway, and so—passing from the many-coloured crowd and glittering shops—into another long main street, the Bowery. A railroad yonder, see, where two stout horses trot along, drawing a score or two of people and a great wooden ark, with ease. The stores are poorer here; the passengers less gay. Clothes ready-made, and meat ready-cooked, are to be bought in these parts; and the lively whirl of carriages is exchanged for the deep rumble of carts and waggons. These signs which are so plentiful, in shape like river buoys, or small balloons, hoisted by cords to poles, and dangling there, announce, as you may see by looking up, ‘Oysters in every Style.’ They tempt the hungry most at night, for then dull candles glimmering inside, illuminate these dainty words, and make the mouths of idlers water, as they read and linger.
What is this dismal-fronted pile of bastard Egyptian, like an enchanter’s palace in a melodrama!—a famous prison, called The Tombs. Shall we go in?
So. A long, narrow, lofty building, stove-heated as usual, with four galleries, one above the other, going round it, and communicating by stairs. Between the two sides of each gallery, and in its centre, a bridge, for the greater convenience of crossing. On each of these bridges sits a man: dozing or reading, or talking to an idle companion. On each tier, are two opposite rows of small iron doors. They look like furnace-doors, but are cold and black, as though the fires within had all gone out. Some two or three are open, and women, with drooping heads bent down, are talking to the inmates. The whole is lighted by a skylight, but it is fast closed; and from the roof there dangle, limp and drooping, two useless windsails.
A man with keys appears, to show us round. A good-looking fellow, and, in his way, civil and obliging.
‘Are those black doors the cells?’
‘Are they all full?’
‘Well, they’re pretty nigh full, and that’s a fact, and no two ways about it.’
‘Those at the bottom are unwholesome, surely?’
‘Why, we do only put coloured people in ’em. That’s the truth.’
‘When do the prisoners take exercise?’
‘Well, they do without it pretty much.’
‘Do they never walk in the yard?’
‘Sometimes, I suppose?’
‘Well, it’s rare they do. They keep pretty bright without it.’
‘But suppose a man were here for a twelvemonth. I know this is only a prison for criminals who are charged with grave offences, while they are awaiting their trial, or under remand, but the law here affords criminals many means of delay. What with motions for new trials, and in arrest of judgment, and what not, a prisoner might be here for twelve months, I take it, might he not?’
‘Well, I guess he might.’
‘Do you mean to say that in all that time he would never come out at that little iron door, for exercise?’
‘He might walk some, perhaps—not much.’
‘Will you open one of the doors?’
‘All, if you like.’
The fastenings jar and rattle, and one of the doors turns slowly on its hinges. Let us look in. A small bare cell, into which the light enters through a high chink in the wall. There is a rude means of washing, a table, and a bedstead. Upon the latter, sits a man of sixty; reading. He looks up for a moment; gives an impatient dogged shake; and fixes his eyes upon his book again. As we withdraw our heads, the door closes on him, and is fastened as before. This man has murdered his wife, and will probably be hanged.
‘How long has he been here?’
‘When will he be tried?’
‘When is that?’
‘In England, if a man be under sentence of death, even he has air and exercise at certain periods of the day.’
With what stupendous and untranslatable coolness he says this, and how loungingly he leads on to the women’s side: making, as he goes, a kind of iron castanet of the key and the stair-rail!
Each cell door on this side has a square aperture in it. Some of the women peep anxiously through it at the sound of footsteps; others shrink away in shame.—For what offence can that lonely child, of ten or twelve years old, be shut up here? Oh! that boy? He is the son of the prisoner we saw just now; is a witness against his father; and is detained here for safe keeping, until the trial; that’s all.
But it is a dreadful place for the child to pass the long days and nights in. This is rather hard treatment for a young witness, is it not?—What says our conductor?
‘Well, it an’t a very rowdy life, and that’s a fact!’
Again he clinks his metal castanet, and leads us leisurely away. I have a question to ask him as we go.
‘Pray, why do they call this place The Tombs?’
‘Well, it’s the cant name.’
‘I know it is. Why?’
‘Some suicides happened here, when it was first built. I expect it come about from that.’
‘I saw just now, that that man’s clothes were scattered about the floor of his cell. Don’t you oblige the prisoners to be orderly, and put such things away?’
‘Where should they put ’em?’
‘Not on the ground surely. What do you say to hanging them up?’
He stops and looks round to emphasise his answer:
‘Why, I say that’s just it. When they had hooks they would hang themselves, so they’re taken out of every cell, and there’s only the marks left where they used to be!’
The prison-yard in which he pauses now, has been the scene of terrible performances. Into this narrow, grave-like place, men are brought out to die. The wretched creature stands beneath the gibbet on the ground; the rope about his neck; and when the sign is given, a weight at its other end comes running down, and swings him up into the air—a corpse.
The law requires that there be present at this dismal spectacle, the judge, the jury, and citizens to the amount of twenty-five. From the community it is hidden. To the dissolute and bad, the thing remains a frightful mystery. Between the criminal and them, the prison-wall is interposed as a thick gloomy veil. It is the curtain to his bed of death, his winding-sheet, and grave. From him it shuts out life, and all the motives to unrepenting hardihood in that last hour, which its mere sight and presence is often all-sufficient to sustain. There are no bold eyes to make him bold; no ruffians to uphold a ruffian’s name before. All beyond the pitiless stone wall, is unknown space.
Let us go forth again into the cheerful streets.
Once more in Broadway! Here are the same ladies in bright colours, walking to and fro, in pairs and singly; yonder the very same light blue parasol which passed and repassed the hotel-window twenty times while we were sitting there. We are going to cross here. Take care of the pigs. Two portly sows are trotting up behind this carriage, and a select party of half-a-dozen gentlemen hogs have just now turned the corner.
Here is a solitary swine lounging homeward by himself. He has only one ear; having parted with the other to vagrant-dogs in the course of his city rambles. But he gets on very well without it; and leads a roving, gentlemanly, vagabond kind of life, somewhat answering to that of our club-men at home. He leaves his lodgings every morning at a certain hour, throws himself upon the town, gets through his day in some manner quite satisfactory to himself, and regularly appears at the door of his own house again at night, like the mysterious master of Gil Blas. He is a free-and-easy, careless, indifferent kind of pig, having a very large acquaintance among other pigs of the same character, whom he rather knows by sight than conversation, as he seldom troubles himself to stop and exchange civilities, but goes grunting down the kennel, turning up the news and small-talk of the city in the shape of cabbage-stalks and offal, and bearing no tails but his own: which is a very short one, for his old enemies, the dogs, have been at that too, and have left him hardly enough to swear by. He is in every respect a republican pig, going wherever he pleases, and mingling with the best society, on an equal, if not superior footing, for every one makes way when he appears, and the haughtiest give him the wall, if he prefer it. He is a great philosopher, and seldom moved, unless by the dogs before mentioned. Sometimes, indeed, you may see his small eye twinkling on a slaughtered friend, whose carcase garnishes a butcher’s door-post, but he grunts out ‘Such is life: all flesh is pork!’ buries his nose in the mire again, and waddles down the gutter: comforting himself with the reflection that there is one snout the less to anticipate stray cabbage-stalks, at any rate.
They are the city scavengers, these pigs. Ugly brutes they are; having, for the most part, scanty brown backs, like the lids of old horsehair trunks: spotted with unwholesome black blotches. They have long, gaunt legs, too, and such peaked snouts, that if one of them could be persuaded to sit for his profile, nobody would recognise it for a pig’s likeness. They are never attended upon, or fed, or driven, or caught, but are thrown upon their own resources in early life, and become preternaturally knowing in consequence. Every pig knows where he lives, much better than anybody could tell him. At this hour, just as evening is closing in, you will see them roaming towards bed by scores, eating their way to the last. Occasionally, some youth among them who has over-eaten himself, or has been worried by dogs, trots shrinkingly homeward, like a prodigal son: but this is a rare case: perfect self-possession and self-reliance, and immovable composure, being their foremost attributes.
The streets and shops are lighted now; and as the eye travels down the long thoroughfare, dotted with bright jets of gas, it is reminded of Oxford Street, or Piccadilly. Here and there a flight of broad stone cellar-steps appears, and a painted lamp directs you to the Bowling Saloon, or Ten-Pin alley; Ten-Pins being a game of mingled chance and skill, invented when the legislature passed an act forbidding Nine-Pins. At other downward flights of steps, are other lamps, marking the whereabouts of oyster-cellars—pleasant retreats, say I: not only by reason of their wonderful cookery of oysters, pretty nigh as large as cheese-plates (or for thy dear sake, heartiest of Greek Professors!), but because of all kinds of caters of fish, or flesh, or fowl, in these latitudes, the swallowers of oysters alone are not gregarious; but subduing themselves, as it were, to the nature of what they work in, and copying the coyness of the thing they eat, do sit apart in curtained boxes, and consort by twos, not by two hundreds.
But how quiet the streets are! Are there no itinerant bands; no wind or stringed instruments? No, not one. By day, are there no Punches, Fantoccini, Dancing-dogs, Jugglers, Conjurers, Orchestrinas, or even Barrel-organs? No, not one. Yes, I remember one. One barrel-organ and a dancing-monkey—sportive by nature, but fast fading into a dull, lumpish monkey, of the Utilitarian school. Beyond that, nothing lively; no, not so much as a white mouse in a twirling cage.
Are there no amusements? Yes. There is a lecture-room across the way, from which that glare of light proceeds, and there may be evening service for the ladies thrice a week, or oftener. For the young gentlemen, there is the counting-house, the store, the bar-room: the latter, as you may see through these windows, pretty full. Hark! to the clinking sound of hammers breaking lumps of ice, and to the cool gurgling of the pounded bits, as, in the process of mixing, they are poured from glass to glass! No amusements? What are these suckers of cigars and swallowers of strong drinks, whose hats and legs we see in every possible variety of twist, doing, but amusing themselves? What are the fifty newspapers, which those precocious urchins are bawling down the street, and which are kept filed within, what are they but amusements? Not vapid, waterish amusements, but good strong stuff; dealing in round abuse and blackguard names; pulling off the roofs of private houses, as the Halting Devil did in Spain; pimping and pandering for all degrees of vicious taste, and gorging with coined lies the most voracious maw; imputing to every man in public life the coarsest and the vilest motives; scaring away from the stabbed and prostrate body-politic, every Samaritan of clear conscience and good deeds; and setting on, with yell and whistle and the clapping of foul hands, the vilest vermin and worst birds of prey.—No amusements!
Let us go on again; and passing this wilderness of an hotel with stores about its base, like some Continental theatre, or the London Opera House shorn of its colonnade, plunge into the Five Points. But it is needful, first, that we take as our escort these two heads of the police, whom you would know for sharp and well-trained officers if you met them in the Great Desert. So true it is, that certain pursuits, wherever carried on, will stamp men with the same character. These two might have been begotten, born, and bred, in Bow Street.
We have seen no beggars in the streets by night or day; but of other kinds of strollers, plenty. Poverty, wretchedness, and vice, are rife enough where we are going now.
This is the place: these narrow ways, diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth. Such lives as are led here, bear the same fruits here as elsewhere. The coarse and bloated faces at the doors, have counterparts at home, and all the wide world over. Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays. Many of those pigs live here. Do they ever wonder why their masters walk upright in lieu of going on all-fours? and why they talk instead of grunting?
So far, nearly every house is a low tavern; and on the bar-room walls, are coloured prints of Washington, and Queen Victoria of England, and the American Eagle. Among the pigeon-holes that hold the bottles, are pieces of plate-glass and coloured paper, for there is, in some sort, a taste for decoration, even here. And as seamen frequent these haunts, there are maritime pictures by the dozen: of partings between sailors and their lady-loves, portraits of William, of the ballad, and his Black-Eyed Susan; of Will Watch, the Bold Smuggler; of Paul Jones the Pirate, and the like: on which the painted eyes of Queen Victoria, and of Washington to boot, rest in as strange companionship, as on most of the scenes that are enacted in their wondering presence.
What place is this, to which the squalid street conducts us? A kind of square of leprous houses, some of which are attainable only by crazy wooden stairs without. What lies beyond this tottering flight of steps, that creak beneath our tread?—a miserable room, lighted by one dim candle, and destitute of all comfort, save that which may be hidden in a wretched bed. Beside it, sits a man: his elbows on his knees: his forehead hidden in his hands. ‘What ails that man?’ asks the foremost officer. ‘Fever,’ he sullenly replies, without looking up. Conceive the fancies of a feverish brain, in such a place as this!
Ascend these pitch-dark stairs, heedful of a false footing on the trembling boards, and grope your way with me into this wolfish den, where neither ray of light nor breath of air, appears to come. A negro lad, startled from his sleep by the officer’s voice—he knows it well—but comforted by his assurance that he has not come on business, officiously bestirs himself to light a candle. The match flickers for a moment, and shows great mounds of dusty rags upon the ground; then dies away and leaves a denser darkness than before, if there can be degrees in such extremes. He stumbles down the stairs and presently comes back, shading a flaring taper with his hand. Then the mounds of rags are seen to be astir, and rise slowly up, and the floor is covered with heaps of negro women, waking from their sleep: their white teeth chattering, and their bright eyes glistening and winking on all sides with surprise and fear, like the countless repetition of one astonished African face in some strange mirror.
Mount up these other stairs with no less caution (there are traps and pitfalls here, for those who are not so well escorted as ourselves) into the housetop; where the bare beams and rafters meet overhead, and calm night looks down through the crevices in the roof. Open the door of one of these cramped hutches full of sleeping negroes. Pah! They have a charcoal fire within; there is a smell of singeing clothes, or flesh, so close they gather round the brazier; and vapours issue forth that blind and suffocate. From every corner, as you glance about you in these dark retreats, some figure crawls half-awakened, as if the judgment-hour were near at hand, and every obscene grave were giving up its dead. Where dogs would howl to lie, women, and men, and boys slink off to sleep, forcing the dislodged rats to move away in quest of better lodgings.
Here too are lanes and alleys, paved with mud knee-deep, underground chambers, where they dance and game; the walls bedecked with rough designs of ships, and forts, and flags, and American eagles out of number: ruined houses, open to the street, whence, through wide gaps in the walls, other ruins loom upon the eye, as though the world of vice and misery had nothing else to show: hideous tenements which take their name from robbery and murder: all that is loathsome, drooping, and decayed is here.
Our leader has his hand upon the latch of ‘Almack’s,’ and calls to us from the bottom of the steps; for the assembly-room of the Five Point fashionables is approached by a descent. Shall we go in? It is but a moment.
Heyday! the landlady of Almack’s thrives! A buxom fat mulatto woman, with sparkling eyes, whose head is daintily ornamented with a handkerchief of many colours. Nor is the landlord much behind her in his finery, being attired in a smart blue jacket, like a ship’s steward, with a thick gold ring upon his little finger, and round his neck a gleaming golden watch-guard. How glad he is to see us! What will we please to call for? A dance? It shall be done directly, sir: ‘a regular break-down.’
The corpulent black fiddler, and his friend who plays the tambourine, stamp upon the boarding of the small raised orchestra in which they sit, and play a lively measure. Five or six couple come upon the floor, marshalled by a lively young negro, who is the wit of the assembly, and the greatest dancer known. He never leaves off making queer faces, and is the delight of all the rest, who grin from ear to ear incessantly. Among the dancers are two young mulatto girls, with large, black, drooping eyes, and head-gear after the fashion of the hostess, who are as shy, or feign to be, as though they never danced before, and so look down before the visitors, that their partners can see nothing but the long fringed lashes.
But the dance commences. Every gentleman sets as long as he likes to the opposite lady, and the opposite lady to him, and all are so long about it that the sport begins to languish, when suddenly the lively hero dashes in to the rescue. Instantly the fiddler grins, and goes at it tooth and nail; there is new energy in the tambourine; new laughter in the dancers; new smiles in the landlady; new confidence in the landlord; new brightness in the very candles.
Single shuffle, double shuffle, cut and cross-cut; snapping his fingers, rolling his eyes, turning in his knees, presenting the backs of his legs in front, spinning about on his toes and heels like nothing but the man’s fingers on the tambourine; dancing with two left legs, two right legs, two wooden legs, two wire legs, two spring legs—all sorts of legs and no legs—what is this to him? And in what walk of life, or dance of life, does man ever get such stimulating applause as thunders about him, when, having danced his partner off her feet, and himself too, he finishes by leaping gloriously on the bar-counter, and calling for something to drink, with the chuckle of a million of counterfeit Jim Crows, in one inimitable sound!
The air, even in these distempered parts, is fresh after the stifling atmosphere of the houses; and now, as we emerge into a broader street, it blows upon us with a purer breath, and the stars look bright again. Here are The Tombs once more. The city watch-house is a part of the building. It follows naturally on the sights we have just left. Let us see that, and then to bed.
What! do you thrust your common offenders against the police discipline of the town, into such holes as these? Do men and women, against whom no crime is proved, lie here all night in perfect darkness, surrounded by the noisome vapours which encircle that flagging lamp you light us with, and breathing this filthy and offensive stench! Why, such indecent and disgusting dungeons as these cells, would bring disgrace upon the most despotic empire in the world! Look at them, man—you, who see them every night, and keep the keys. Do you see what they are? Do you know how drains are made below the streets, and wherein these human sewers differ, except in being always stagnant?
Well, he don’t know. He has had five-and-twenty young women locked up in this very cell at one time, and you’d hardly realise what handsome faces there were among ’em.
In God’s name! shut the door upon the wretched creature who is in it now, and put its screen before a place, quite unsurpassed in all the vice, neglect, and devilry, of the worst old town in Europe.
Are people really left all night, untried, in those black sties?—Every night. The watch is set at seven in the evening. The magistrate opens his court at five in the morning. That is the earliest hour at which the first prisoner can be released; and if an officer appear against him, he is not taken out till nine o’clock or ten.—But if any one among them die in the interval, as one man did, not long ago? Then he is half-eaten by the rats in an hour’s time; as that man was; and there an end.
What is this intolerable tolling of great bells, and crashing of wheels, and shouting in the distance? A fire. And what that deep red light in the opposite direction? Another fire. And what these charred and blackened walls we stand before? A dwelling where a fire has been. It was more than hinted, in an official report, not long ago, that some of these conflagrations were not wholly accidental, and that speculation and enterprise found a field of exertion, even in flames: but be this as it may, there was a fire last night, there are two to-night, and you may lay an even wager there will be at least one, to-morrow. So, carrying that with us for our comfort, let us say, Good night, and climb up-stairs to bed.
One day, during my stay in New York, I paid a visit to the different public institutions on Long Island, or Rhode Island: I forget which. One of them is a Lunatic Asylum. The building is handsome; and is remarkable for a spacious and elegant staircase. The whole structure is not yet finished, but it is already one of considerable size and extent, and is capable of accommodating a very large number of patients.
I cannot say that I derived much comfort from the inspection of this charity. The different wards might have been cleaner and better ordered; I saw nothing of that salutary system which had impressed me so favourably elsewhere; and everything had a lounging, listless, madhouse air, which was very painful. The moping idiot, cowering down with long dishevelled hair; the gibbering maniac, with his hideous laugh and pointed finger; the vacant eye, the fierce wild face, the gloomy picking of the hands and lips, and munching of the nails: there they were all, without disguise, in naked ugliness and horror. In the dining-room, a bare, dull, dreary place, with nothing for the eye to rest on but the empty walls, a woman was locked up alone. She was bent, they told me, on committing suicide. If anything could have strengthened her in her resolution, it would certainly have been the insupportable monotony of such an existence.
The terrible crowd with which these halls and galleries were filled, so shocked me, that I abridged my stay within the shortest limits, and declined to see that portion of the building in which the refractory and violent were under closer restraint. I have no doubt that the gentleman who presided over this establishment at the time I write of, was competent to manage it, and had done all in his power to promote its usefulness: but will it be believed that the miserable strife of Party feeling is carried even into this sad refuge of afflicted and degraded humanity? Will it be believed that the eyes which are to watch over and control the wanderings of minds on which the most dreadful visitation to which our nature is exposed has fallen, must wear the glasses of some wretched side in Politics? Will it be believed that the governor of such a house as this, is appointed, and deposed, and changed perpetually, as Parties fluctuate and vary, and as their despicable weathercocks are blown this way or that? A hundred times in every week, some new most paltry exhibition of that narrow-minded and injurious Party Spirit, which is the Simoom of America, sickening and blighting everything of wholesome life within its reach, was forced upon my notice; but I never turned my back upon it with feelings of such deep disgust and measureless contempt, as when I crossed the threshold of this madhouse.
At a short distance from this building is another called the Alms House, that is to say, the workhouse of New York. This is a large Institution also: lodging, I believe, when I was there, nearly a thousand poor. It was badly ventilated, and badly lighted; was not too clean;—and impressed me, on the whole, very uncomfortably. But it must be remembered that New York, as a great emporium of commerce, and as a place of general resort, not only from all parts of the States, but from most parts of the world, has always a large pauper population to provide for; and labours, therefore, under peculiar difficulties in this respect. Nor must it be forgotten that New York is a large town, and that in all large towns a vast amount of good and evil is intermixed and jumbled up together.
In the same neighbourhood is the Farm, where young orphans are nursed and bred. I did not see it, but I believe it is well conducted; and I can the more easily credit it, from knowing how mindful they usually are, in America, of that beautiful passage in the Litany which remembers all sick persons and young children.
I was taken to these Institutions by water, in a boat belonging to the Island jail, and rowed by a crew of prisoners, who were dressed in a striped uniform of black and buff, in which they looked like faded tigers. They took me, by the same conveyance, to the jail itself.
It is an old prison, and quite a pioneer establishment, on the plan I have already described. I was glad to hear this, for it is unquestionably a very indifferent one. The most is made, however, of the means it possesses, and it is as well regulated as such a place can be.
The women work in covered sheds, erected for that purpose. If I remember right, there are no shops for the men, but be that as it may, the greater part of them labour in certain stone-quarries near at hand. The day being very wet indeed, this labour was suspended, and the prisoners were in their cells. Imagine these cells, some two or three hundred in number, and in every one a man locked up; this one at his door for air, with his hands thrust through the grate; this one in bed (in the middle of the day, remember); and this one flung down in a heap upon the ground, with his head against the bars, like a wild beast. Make the rain pour down, outside, in torrents. Put the everlasting stove in the midst; hot, and suffocating, and vaporous, as a witch’s cauldron. Add a collection of gentle odours, such as would arise from a thousand mildewed umbrellas, wet through, and a thousand buck-baskets, full of half-washed linen—and there is the prison, as it was that day.
The prison for the State at Sing Sing is, on the other hand, a model jail. That, and Auburn, are, I believe, the largest and best examples of the silent system.
In another part of the city, is the Refuge for the Destitute: an Institution whose object is to reclaim youthful offenders, male and female, black and white, without distinction; to teach them useful trades, apprentice them to respectable masters, and make them worthy members of society. Its design, it will be seen, is similar to that at Boston; and it is a no less meritorious and admirable establishment. A suspicion crossed my mind during my inspection of this noble charity, whether the superintendent had quite sufficient knowledge of the world and worldly characters; and whether he did not commit a great mistake in treating some young girls, who were to all intents and purposes, by their years and their past lives, women, as though they were little children; which certainly had a ludicrous effect in my eyes, and, or I am much mistaken, in theirs also. As the Institution, however, is always under a vigilant examination of a body of gentlemen of great intelligence and experience, it cannot fail to be well conducted; and whether I am right or wrong in this slight particular, is unimportant to its deserts and character, which it would be difficult to estimate too highly.
In addition to these establishments, there are in New York, excellent hospitals and schools, literary institutions and libraries; an admirable fire department (as indeed it should be, having constant practice), and charities of every sort and kind. In the suburbs there is a spacious cemetery: unfinished yet, but every day improving. The saddest tomb I saw there was ‘The Strangers’ Grave. Dedicated to the different hotels in this city.’
There are three principal theatres. Two of them, the Park and the Bowery, are large, elegant, and handsome buildings, and are, I grieve to write it, generally deserted. The third, the Olympic, is a tiny show-box for vaudevilles and burlesques. It is singularly well conducted by Mr. Mitchell, a comic actor of great quiet humour and originality, who is well remembered and esteemed by London playgoers. I am happy to report of this deserving gentleman, that his benches are usually well filled, and that his theatre rings with merriment every night. I had almost forgotten a small summer theatre, called Niblo’s, with gardens and open air amusements attached; but I believe it is not exempt from the general depression under which Theatrical Property, or what is humorously called by that name, unfortunately labours.
The country round New York is surpassingly and exquisitely picturesque. The climate, as I have already intimated, is somewhat of the warmest. What it would be, without the sea breezes which come from its beautiful Bay in the evening time, I will not throw myself or my readers into a fever by inquiring.
The tone of the best society in this city, is like that of Boston; here and there, it may be, with a greater infusion of the mercantile spirit, but generally polished and refined, and always most hospitable. The houses and tables are elegant; the hours later and more rakish; and there is, perhaps, a greater spirit of contention in reference to appearances, and the display of wealth and costly living. The ladies are singularly beautiful.
Before I left New York I made arrangements for securing a passage home in the George Washington packet ship, which was advertised to sail in June: that being the month in which I had determined, if prevented by no accident in the course of my ramblings, to leave America.
I never thought that going back to England, returning to all who are dear to me, and to pursuits that have insensibly grown to be a part of my nature, I could have felt so much sorrow as I endured, when I parted at last, on board this ship, with the friends who had accompanied me from this city. I never thought the name of any place, so far away and so lately known, could ever associate itself in my mind with the crowd of affectionate remembrances that now cluster about it. There are those in this city who would brighten, to me, the darkest winter-day that ever glimmered and went out in Lapland; and before whose presence even Home grew dim, when they and I exchanged that painful word which mingles with our every thought and deed; which haunts our cradle-heads in infancy, and closes up the vista of our lives in age.
The upholders of slavery in America—of the atrocities of which system, I shall not write one word for which I have not had ample proof and warrant—may be divided into three great classes.
The first, are those more moderate and rational owners of human cattle, who have come into the possession of them as so many coins in their trading capital, but who admit the frightful nature of the Institution in the abstract, and perceive the dangers to society with which it is fraught: dangers which however distant they may be, or howsoever tardy in their coming on, are as certain to fall upon its guilty head, as is the Day of Judgment.
The second, consists of all those owners, breeders, users, buyers and sellers of slaves, who will, until the bloody chapter has a bloody end, own, breed, use, buy, and sell them at all hazards: who doggedly deny the horrors of the system in the teeth of such a mass of evidence as never was brought to bear on any other subject, and to which the experience of every day contributes its immense amount; who would at this or any other moment, gladly involve America in a war, civil or foreign, provided that it had for its sole end and object the assertion of their right to perpetuate slavery, and to whip and work and torture slaves, unquestioned by any human authority, and unassailed by any human power; who, when they speak of Freedom, mean the Freedom to oppress their kind, and to be savage, merciless, and cruel; and of whom every man on his own ground, in republican America, is a more exacting, and a sterner, and a less responsible despot than the Caliph Haroun Alraschid in his angry robe of scarlet.
The third, and not the least numerous or influential, is composed of all that delicate gentility which cannot bear a superior, and cannot brook an equal; of that class whose Republicanism means, ‘I will not tolerate a man above me: and of those below, none must approach too near;’ whose pride, in a land where voluntary servitude is shunned as a disgrace, must be ministered to by slaves; and whose inalienable rights can only have their growth in negro wrongs.
It has been sometimes urged that, in the unavailing efforts which have been made to advance the cause of Human Freedom in the republic of America (strange cause for history to treat of!), sufficient regard has not been had to the existence of the first class of persons; and it has been contended that they are hardly used, in being confounded with the second. This is, no doubt, the case; noble instances of pecuniary and personal sacrifice have already had their growth among them; and it is much to be regretted that the gulf between them and the advocates of emancipation should have been widened and deepened by any means: the rather, as there are, beyond dispute, among these slave-owners, many kind masters who are tender in the exercise of their unnatural power. Still, it is to be feared that this injustice is inseparable from the state of things with which humanity and truth are called upon to deal. Slavery is not a whit the more endurable because some hearts are to be found which can partially resist its hardening influences; nor can the indignant tide of honest wrath stand still, because in its onward course it overwhelms a few who are comparatively innocent, among a host of guilty.
The ground most commonly taken by these better men among the advocates of slavery, is this: ‘It is a bad system; and for myself I would willingly get rid of it, if I could; most willingly. But it is not so bad, as you in England take it to be. You are deceived by the representations of the emancipationists. The greater part of my slaves are much attached to me. You will say that I do not allow them to be severely treated; but I will put it to you whether you believe that it can be a general practice to treat them inhumanly, when it would impair their value, and would be obviously against the interests of their masters.’
Is it the interest of any man to steal, to game, to waste his health and mental faculties by drunkenness, to lie, forswear himself, indulge hatred, seek desperate revenge, or do murder? No. All these are roads to ruin. And why, then, do men tread them? Because such inclinations are among the vicious qualities of mankind. Blot out, ye friends of slavery, from the catalogue of human passions, brutal lust, cruelty, and the abuse of irresponsible power (of all earthly temptations the most difficult to be resisted), and when ye have done so, and not before, we will inquire whether it be the interest of a master to lash and maim the slaves, over whose lives and limbs he has an absolute control!
But again: this class, together with that last one I have named, the miserable aristocracy spawned of a false republic, lift up their voices and exclaim ‘Public opinion is all-sufficient to prevent such cruelty as you denounce.’ Public opinion! Why, public opinion in the slave States is slavery, is it not? Public opinion, in the slave States, has delivered the slaves over, to the gentle mercies of their masters. Public opinion has made the laws, and denied the slaves legislative protection. Public opinion has knotted the lash, heated the branding-iron, loaded the rifle, and shielded the murderer. Public opinion threatens the abolitionist with death, if he venture to the South; and drags him with a rope about his middle, in broad unblushing noon, through the first city in the East. Public opinion has, within a few years, burned a slave alive at a slow fire in the city of St. Louis; and public opinion has to this day maintained upon the bench that estimable judge who charged the jury, impanelled there to try his murderers, that their most horrid deed was an act of public opinion, and being so, must not be punished by the laws the public sentiment had made. Public opinion hailed this doctrine with a howl of wild applause, and set the prisoners free, to walk the city, men of mark, and influence, and station, as they had been before.
Public opinion! what class of men have an immense preponderance over the rest of the community, in their power of representing public opinion in the legislature? the slave-owners. They send from their twelve States one hundred members, while the fourteen free States, with a free population nearly double, return but a hundred and forty-two. Before whom do the presidential candidates bow down the most humbly, on whom do they fawn the most fondly, and for whose tastes do they cater the most assiduously in their servile protestations? The slave-owners always.
Public opinion! hear the public opinion of the free South, as expressed by its own members in the House of Representatives at Washington. ‘I have a great respect for the chair,’ quoth North Carolina, ‘I have a great respect for the chair as an officer of the house, and a great respect for him personally; nothing but that respect prevents me from rushing to the table and tearing that petition which has just been presented for the abolition of slavery in the district of Columbia, to pieces.’—‘I warn the abolitionists,’ says South Carolina, ‘ignorant, infuriated barbarians as they are, that if chance shall throw any of them into our hands, he may expect a felon’s death.’—‘Let an abolitionist come within the borders of South Carolina,’ cries a third; mild Carolina’s colleague; ‘and if we can catch him, we will try him, and notwithstanding the interference of all the governments on earth, including the Federal government, we will hang him.’
Public opinion has made this law.—It has declared that in Washington, in that city which takes its name from the father of American liberty, any justice of the peace may bind with fetters any negro passing down the street and thrust him into jail: no offence on the black man’s part is necessary. The justice says, ‘I choose to think this man a runaway:’ and locks him up. Public opinion impowers the man of law when this is done, to advertise the negro in the newspapers, warning his owner to come and claim him, or he will be sold to pay the jail fees. But supposing he is a free black, and has no owner, it may naturally be presumed that he is set at liberty. No: he is sold to recompense his jailer. This has been done again, and again, and again. He has no means of proving his freedom; has no adviser, messenger, or assistance of any sort or kind; no investigation into his case is made, or inquiry instituted. He, a free man, who may have served for years, and bought his liberty, is thrown into jail on no process, for no crime, and on no pretence of crime: and is sold to pay the jail fees. This seems incredible, even of America, but it is the law.
Public opinion is deferred to, in such cases as the following: which is headed in the newspapers:—
‘An interesting case is now on trial in the Supreme Court, arising out of the following facts. A gentleman residing in Maryland had allowed an aged pair of his slaves, substantial though not legal freedom for several years. While thus living, a daughter was born to them, who grew up in the same liberty, until she married a free negro, and went with him to reside in Pennsylvania. They had several children, and lived unmolested until the original owner died, when his heir attempted to regain them; but the magistrate before whom they were brought, decided that he had no jurisdiction in the case. The owner seized the woman and her children in the night, and carried them to Maryland.’
‘Cash for negroes,’ ‘cash for negroes,’ ‘cash for negroes,’ is the heading of advertisements in great capitals down the long columns of the crowded journals. Woodcuts of a runaway negro with manacled hands, crouching beneath a bluff pursuer in top boots, who, having caught him, grasps him by the throat, agreeably diversify the pleasant text. The leading article protests against ‘that abominable and hellish doctrine of abolition, which is repugnant alike to every law of God and nature.’ The delicate mamma, who smiles her acquiescence in this sprightly writing as she reads the paper in her cool piazza, quiets her youngest child who clings about her skirts, by promising the boy ‘a whip to beat the little niggers with.’—But the negroes, little and big, are protected by public opinion.
Let us try this public opinion by another test, which is important in three points of view: first, as showing how desperately timid of the public opinion slave-owners are, in their delicate descriptions of fugitive slaves in widely circulated newspapers; secondly, as showing how perfectly contented the slaves are, and how very seldom they run away; thirdly, as exhibiting their entire freedom from scar, or blemish, or any mark of cruel infliction, as their pictures are drawn, not by lying abolitionists, but by their own truthful masters.
The following are a few specimens of the advertisements in the public papers. It is only four years since the oldest among them appeared; and others of the same nature continue to be published every day, in shoals.
‘Ran away, Negress Caroline. Had on a collar with one prong turned down.’
‘Ran away, a black woman, Betsy. Had an iron bar on her right leg.’
‘Ran away, the negro Manuel. Much marked with irons.’
‘Ran away, the negress Fanny. Had on an iron band about her neck.’
‘Ran away, a negro boy about twelve years old. Had round his neck a chain dog-collar with “De Lampert” engraved on it.’
‘Ran away, the negro Hown. Has a ring of iron on his left foot. Also, Grise, his wife, having a ring and chain on the left leg.’
‘Ran away, a negro boy named James. Said boy was ironed when he left me.’
‘Committed to jail, a man who calls his name John. He has a clog of iron on his right foot which will weigh four or five pounds.’
‘Detained at the police jail, the negro wench, Myra. Has several marks of lashing, and has irons on her feet.’
‘Ran away, a negro woman and two children. A few days before she went off, I burnt her with a hot iron, on the left side of her face. I tried to make the letter M.’
‘Ran away, a negro man named Henry; his left eye out, some scars from a dirk on and under his left arm, and much scarred with the whip.’
‘One hundred dollars reward, for a negro fellow, Pompey, 40 years old. He is branded on the left jaw.’
‘Committed to jail, a negro man. Has no toes on the left foot.’
‘Ran away, a negro woman named Rachel. Has lost all her toes except the large one.’
‘Ran away, Sam. He was shot a short time since through the hand, and has several shots in his left arm and side.’
‘Ran away, my negro man Dennis. Said negro has been shot in the left arm between the shoulder and elbow, which has paralysed the left hand.’
‘Ran away, my negro man named Simon. He has been shot badly, in his back and right arm.’
‘Ran away, a negro named Arthur. Has a considerable scar across his breast and each arm, made by a knife; loves to talk much of the goodness of God.’
‘Twenty-five dollars reward for my man Isaac. He has a scar on his forehead, caused by a blow; and one on his back, made by a shot from a pistol.’
‘Ran away, a negro girl called Mary. Has a small scar over her eye, a good many teeth missing, the letter A is branded on her cheek and forehead.’
‘Ran away, negro Ben. Has a scar on his right hand; his thumb and forefinger being injured by being shot last fall. A part of the bone came out. He has also one or two large scars on his back and hips.’
‘Detained at the jail, a mulatto, named Tom. Has a scar on the right cheek, and appears to have been burned with powder on the face.’
‘Ran away, a negro man named Ned. Three of his fingers are drawn into the palm of his hand by a cut. Has a scar on the back of his neck, nearly half round, done by a knife.’
‘Was committed to jail, a negro man. Says his name is Josiah. His back very much scarred by the whip; and branded on the thigh and hips in three or four places, thus (J M). The rim of his right ear has been bit or cut off.’
‘Fifty dollars reward, for my fellow Edward. He has a scar on the corner of his mouth, two cuts on and under his arm, and the letter E on his arm.’
‘Ran away, negro boy Ellie. Has a scar on one of his arms from the bite of a dog.’
‘Ran away, from the plantation of James Surgette, the following negroes: Randal, has one ear cropped; Bob, has lost one eye; Kentucky Tom, has one jaw broken.’
‘Ran away, Anthony. One of his ears cut off, and his left hand cut with an axe.’
‘Fifty dollars reward for the negro Jim Blake. Has a piece cut out of each ear, and the middle finger of the left hand cut off to the second joint.’
‘Ran away, a negro woman named Maria. Has a scar on one side of her cheek, by a cut. Some scars on her back.’
‘Ran away, the Mulatto wench Mary. Has a cut on the left arm, a scar on the left shoulder, and two upper teeth missing.’
I should say, perhaps, in explanation of this latter piece of description, that among the other blessings which public opinion secures to the negroes, is the common practice of violently punching out their teeth. To make them wear iron collars by day and night, and to worry them with dogs, are practices almost too ordinary to deserve mention.
‘Ran away, my man Fountain. Has holes in his ears, a scar on the right side of his forehead, has been shot in the hind part of his legs, and is marked on the back with the whip.’
‘Two hundred and fifty dollars reward for my negro man Jim. He is much marked with shot in his right thigh. The shot entered on the outside, halfway between the hip and knee joints.’
‘Brought to jail, John. Left ear cropt.’
‘Taken up, a negro man. Is very much scarred about the face and body, and has the left ear bit off.’
‘Ran away, a black girl, named Mary. Has a scar on her cheek, and the end of one of her toes cut off.’
‘Ran away, my Mulatto woman, Judy. She has had her right arm broke.’
‘Ran away, my negro man, Levi. His left hand has been burnt, and I think the end of his forefinger is off.’
‘Ran away, a negro man, named Washington. Has lost a part of his middle finger, and the end of his little finger.’
‘Twenty-five dollars reward for my man John. The tip of his nose is bit off.’
‘Twenty-five dollars reward for the negro slave, Sally. Walks as though crippled in the back.’
‘Ran away, Joe Dennis. Has a small notch in one of his ears.’
‘Ran away, negro boy, Jack. Has a small crop out of his left ear.’
‘Ran away, a negro man, named Ivory. Has a small piece cut out of the top of each ear.’
While upon the subject of ears, I may observe that a distinguished abolitionist in New York once received a negro’s ear, which had been cut off close to the head, in a general post letter. It was forwarded by the free and independent gentleman who had caused it to be amputated, with a polite request that he would place the specimen in his ‘collection.’
I could enlarge this catalogue with broken arms, and broken legs, and gashed flesh, and missing teeth, and lacerated backs, and bites of dogs, and brands of red-hot irons innumerable: but as my readers will be sufficiently sickened and repelled already, I will turn to another branch of the subject.
These advertisements, of which a similar collection might be made for every year, and month, and week, and day; and which are coolly read in families as things of course, and as a part of the current news and small-talk; will serve to show how very much the slaves profit by public opinion, and how tender it is in their behalf. But it may be worth while to inquire how the slave-owners, and the class of society to which great numbers of them belong, defer to public opinion in their conduct, not to their slaves but to each other; how they are accustomed to restrain their passions; what their bearing is among themselves; whether they are fierce or gentle; whether their social customs be brutal, sanguinary, and violent, or bear the impress of civilisation and refinement.
That we may have no partial evidence from abolitionists in this inquiry, either, I will once more turn to their own newspapers, and I will confine myself, this time, to a selection from paragraphs which appeared from day to day, during my visit to America, and which refer to occurrences happening while I was there. The italics in these extracts, as in the foregoing, are my own.
These cases did not all occur, it will be seen, in territory actually belonging to legalised Slave States, though most, and those the very worst among them did, as their counterparts constantly do; but the position of the scenes of action in reference to places immediately at hand, where slavery is the law; and the strong resemblance between that class of outrages and the rest; lead to the just presumption that the character of the parties concerned was formed in slave districts, and brutalised by slave customs.
‘By a slip from The Southport Telegraph, Wisconsin, we learn that the Hon. Charles C. P. Arndt, Member of the Council for Brown county, was shot dead on the floor of the Council chamber, by James R. Vinyard, Member from Grant county. The affair grew out of a nomination for Sheriff of Grant county. Mr. E. S. Baker was nominated and supported by Mr. Arndt. This nomination was opposed by Vinyard, who wanted the appointment to vest in his own brother. In the course of debate, the deceased made some statements which Vinyard pronounced false, and made use of violent and insulting language, dealing largely in personalities, to which Mr. A. made no reply. After the adjournment, Mr. A. stepped up to Vinyard, and requested him to retract, which he refused to do, repeating the offensive words. Mr. Arndt then made a blow at Vinyard, who stepped back a pace, drew a pistol, and shot him dead.
‘The issue appears to have been provoked on the part of Vinyard, who was determined at all hazards to defeat the appointment of Baker, and who, himself defeated, turned his ire and revenge upon the unfortunate Arndt.’
‘The Wisconsin Tragedy.
Public indignation runs high in the territory of Wisconsin, in relation to the murder of C. C. P. Arndt, in the Legislative Hall of the Territory. Meetings have been held in different counties of Wisconsin, denouncing the practice of secretly bearing arms in the Legislative chambers of the country. We have seen the account of the expulsion of James R. Vinyard, the perpetrator of the bloody deed, and are amazed to hear, that, after this expulsion by those who saw Vinyard kill Mr. Arndt in the presence of his aged father, who was on a visit to see his son, little dreaming that he was to witness his murder, Judge Dunn has discharged Vinyard on bail. The Miners’ Free Press speaks in terms of merited rebuke at the outrage upon the feelings of the people of Wisconsin. Vinyard was within arm’s length of Mr. Arndt, when he took such deadly aim at him, that he never spoke. Vinyard might at pleasure, being so near, have only wounded him, but he chose to kill him.’
By a letter in a St. Louis paper of the ‘4th, we notice a terrible outrage at Burlington, Iowa. A Mr. Bridgman having had a difficulty with a citizen of the place, Mr. Ross; a brother-in-law of the latter provided himself with one of Colt’s revolving pistols, met Mr. B. in the street, and discharged the contents of five of the barrels at him: each shot taking effect. Mr. B., though horribly wounded, and dying, returned the fire, and killed Ross on the spot.’
‘Terrible Death of Robert Potter.
‘From the “Caddo Gazette,” of the 12th inst., we learn the frightful death of Colonel Robert Potter. . . . He was beset in his house by an enemy, named Rose. He sprang from his couch, seized his gun, and, in his night-clothes, rushed from the house. For about two hundred yards his speed seemed to defy his pursuers; but, getting entangled in a thicket, he was captured. Rose told him that he intended to act a generous part, and give him a chance for his life. He then told Potter he might run, and he should not be interrupted till he reached a certain distance. Potter started at the word of command, and before a gun was fired he had reached the lake. His first impulse was to jump in the water and dive for it, which he did. Rose was close behind him, and formed his men on the bank ready to shoot him as he rose. In a few seconds he came up to breathe; and scarce had his head reached the surface of the water when it was completely riddled with the shot of their guns, and he sunk, to rise no more!’
‘Murder in Arkansas.
‘We understand that a severe rencontre came off a few days since in the Seneca Nation, between Mr. Loose, the sub-agent of the mixed band of the Senecas, Quapaw, and Shawnees, and Mr. James Gillespie, of the mercantile firm of Thomas G. Allison and Co., of Maysville, Benton, County Ark, in which the latter was slain with a bowie-knife. Some difficulty had for some time existed between the parties. It is said that Major Gillespie brought on the attack with a cane. A severe conflict ensued, during which two pistols were fired by Gillespie and one by Loose. Loose then stabbed Gillespie with one of those never-failing weapons, a bowie-knife. The death of Major G. is much regretted, as he was a liberal-minded and energetic man. Since the above was in type, we have learned that Major Allison has stated to some of our citizens in town that Mr. Loose gave the first blow. We forbear to give any particulars, as the matter will be the subject of judicial investigation.’
The steamer Thames, just from Missouri river, brought us a handbill, offering a reward of 500 dollars, for the person who assassinated Lilburn W. Baggs, late Governor of this State, at Independence, on the night of the 6th inst. Governor Baggs, it is stated in a written memorandum, was not dead, but mortally wounded.
‘Since the above was written, we received a note from the clerk of the Thames, giving the following particulars. Gov. Baggs was shot by some villain on Friday, 6th inst., in the evening, while sitting in a room in his own house in Independence. His son, a boy, hearing a report, ran into the room, and found the Governor sitting in his chair, with his jaw fallen down, and his head leaning back; on discovering the injury done to his father, he gave the alarm. Foot tracks were found in the garden below the window, and a pistol picked up supposed to have been overloaded, and thrown from the hand of the scoundrel who fired it. Three buck shots of a heavy load, took effect; one going through his mouth, one into the brain, and another probably in or near the brain; all going into the back part of the neck and head. The Governor was still alive on the morning of the 7th; but no hopes for his recovery by his friends, and but slight hopes from his physicians.
‘A man was suspected, and the Sheriff most probably has possession of him by this time.
‘The pistol was one of a pair stolen some days previous from a baker in Independence, and the legal authorities have the description of the other.’
‘An unfortunate affair took place on Friday evening in Chatres Street, in which one of our most respectable citizens received a dangerous wound, from a poignard, in the abdomen. From the Bee (New Orleans) of yesterday, we learn the following particulars. It appears that an article was published in the French side of the paper on Monday last, containing some strictures on the Artillery Battalion for firing their guns on Sundaymorning, in answer to those from the Ontario and Woodbury, and thereby much alarm was caused to the families of those persons who were out all night preserving the peace of the city. Major C. Gally, Commander of the battalion, resenting this, called at the office and demanded the author’s name; that of Mr. P. Arpin was given to him, who was absent at the time. Some angry words then passed with one of the proprietors, and a challenge followed; the friends of both parties tried to arrange the affair, but failed to do so. On Friday evening, about seven o’clock, Major Gally met Mr. P. Arpin in Chatres Street, and accosted him. “Are you Mr. Arpin?”
‘“Then I have to tell you that you are a—” (applying an appropriate epithet).
‘“I shall remind you of your words, sir.”
‘“But I have said I would break my cane on your shoulders.”
‘“I know it, but I have not yet received the blow.”
‘At these words, Major Gally, having a cane in his hands, struck Mr. Arpin across the face, and the latter drew a poignard from his pocket and stabbed Major Gally in the abdomen.
‘Fears are entertained that the wound will be mortal. We understand that Mr. Arpin has given security for his appearance at the Criminal Court to answer the charge.’
‘Affray in Mississippi.
‘On the 27th ult., in an affray near Carthage, Leake county, Mississippi, between James Cottingham and John Wilburn, the latter was shot by the former, and so horribly wounded, that there was no hope of his recovery. On the 2nd instant, there was an affray at Carthage between A. C. Sharkey and George Goff, in which the latter was shot, and thought mortally wounded. Sharkey delivered himself up to the authorities, but changed his mind and escaped!’
‘An encounter took place in Sparta, a few days since, between the barkeeper of an hotel, and a man named Bury. It appears that Bury had become somewhat noisy, and that the barkeeper, determined to preserve order, had threatened to shoot Bury, whereupon Bury drew a pistol and shot the barkeeper down. He was not dead at the last accounts, but slight hopes were entertained of his recovery.’
‘The clerk of the steamboat Tribune informs us that another duel was fought on Tuesday last, by Mr. Robbins, a bank officer in Vicksburg, and Mr. Fall, the editor of the Vicksburg Sentinel. According to the arrangement, the parties had six pistols each, which, after the word “Fire!” they were to discharge as fast as they pleased. Fall fired two pistols without effect. Mr. Robbins’ first shot took effect in Fall’s thigh, who fell, and was unable to continue the combat.’
‘Affray in Clarke County.
‘An unfortunate affray occurred in Clarke county (Mo.), near Waterloo, on Tuesday the 19th ult., which originated in settling the partnership concerns of Messrs. M‘Kane and M‘Allister, who had been engaged in the business of distilling, and resulted in the death of the latter, who was shot down by Mr. M‘Kane, because of his attempting to take possession of seven barrels of whiskey, the property of M‘Kane, which had been knocked off to M‘Allister at a sheriff’s sale at one dollar per barrel. M‘Kane immediately fled and at the latest dates had not been taken.
‘This unfortunate affray caused considerable excitement in the neighbourhood, as both the parties were men with large families depending upon them and stood well in the community.’
I will quote but one more paragraph, which, by reason of its monstrous absurdity, may be a relief to these atrocious deeds.
‘Affair of Honour.
‘We have just heard the particulars of a meeting which took place on Six Mile Island, on Tuesday, between two young bloods of our city: Samuel Thurston, aged fifteen, and William Hine, aged thirteen years. They were attended by young gentlemen of the same age. The weapons used on the occasion, were a couple of Dickson’s best rifles; the distance, thirty yards. They took one fire, without any damage being sustained by either party, except the ball of Thurston’s gun passing through the crown of Hine’s hat. Through the intercession of the Board of Honour, the challenge was withdrawn, and the difference amicably adjusted.’
If the reader will picture to himself the kind of Board of Honour which amicably adjusted the difference between these two little boys, who in any other part of the world would have been amicably adjusted on two porters’ backs and soundly flogged with birchen rods, he will be possessed, no doubt, with as strong a sense of its ludicrous character, as that which sets me laughing whenever its image rises up before me.
Now, I appeal to every human mind, imbued with the commonest of common sense, and the commonest of common humanity; to all dispassionate, reasoning creatures, of any shade of opinion; and ask, with these revolting evidences of the state of society which exists in and about the slave districts of America before them, can they have a doubt of the real condition of the slave, or can they for a moment make a compromise between the institution or any of its flagrant, fearful features, and their own just consciences? Will they say of any tale of cruelty and horror, however aggravated in degree, that it is improbable, when they can turn to the public prints, and, running, read such signs as these, laid before them by the men who rule the slaves: in their own acts and under their own hands?
Do we not know that the worst deformity and ugliness of slavery are at once the cause and the effect of the reckless license taken by these freeborn outlaws? Do we not know that the man who has been born and bred among its wrongs; who has seen in his childhood husbands obliged at the word of command to flog their wives; women, indecently compelled to hold up their own garments that men might lay the heavier stripes upon their legs, driven and harried by brutal overseers in their time of travail, and becoming mothers on the field of toil, under the very lash itself; who has read in youth, and seen his virgin sisters read, descriptions of runaway men and women, and their disfigured persons, which could not be published elsewhere, of so much stock upon a farm, or at a show of beasts:—do we not know that that man, whenever his wrath is kindled up, will be a brutal savage? Do we not know that as he is a coward in his domestic life, stalking among his shrinking men and women slaves armed with his heavy whip, so he will be a coward out of doors, and carrying cowards’ weapons hidden in his breast, will shoot men down and stab them when he quarrels? And if our reason did not teach us this and much beyond; if we were such idiots as to close our eyes to that fine mode of training which rears up such men; should we not know that they who among their equals stab and pistol in the legislative halls, and in the counting-house, and on the marketplace, and in all the elsewhere peaceful pursuits of life, must be to their dependants, even though they were free servants, so many merciless and unrelenting tyrants?
What! shall we declaim against the ignorant peasantry of Ireland, and mince the matter when these American taskmasters are in question? Shall we cry shame on the brutality of those who hamstring cattle: and spare the lights of Freedom upon earth who notch the ears of men and women, cut pleasant posies in the shrinking flesh, learn to write with pens of red-hot iron on the human face, rack their poetic fancies for liveries of mutilation which their slaves shall wear for life and carry to the grave, breaking living limbs as did the soldiery who mocked and slew the Saviour of the world, and set defenceless creatures up for targets! Shall we whimper over legends of the tortures practised on each other by the Pagan Indians, and smile upon the cruelties of Christian men! Shall we, so long as these things last, exult above the scattered remnants of that race, and triumph in the white enjoyment of their possessions? Rather, for me, restore the forest and the Indian village; in lieu of stars and stripes, let some poor feather flutter in the breeze; replace the streets and squares by wigwams; and though the death-song of a hundred haughty warriors fill the air, it will be music to the shriek of one unhappy slave.
On one theme, which is commonly before our eyes, and in respect of which our national character is changing fast, let the plain Truth be spoken, and let us not, like dastards, beat about the bush by hinting at the Spaniard and the fierce Italian. When knives are drawn by Englishmen in conflict let it be said and known: ‘We owe this change to Republican Slavery. These are the weapons of Freedom. With sharp points and edges such as these, Liberty in America hews and hacks her slaves; or, failing that pursuit, her sons devote them to a better use, and turn them on each other.’” Charles Dickens, American Notes; “An American Railroad. Lowell & Its Factory System,” “New York,” “Slavery,” 1842
The following question arises: Was there something resembling the novel among the indigenous peoples? I believe there was. The history of the original cultures of Latin America has more of what we in the western world call the novel than of history. It is necessary to bear in mind that the books of their history–their novels we would now say–were painted by the Aztecs and Mayas and preserved in a figurative form which we still do not understand by the Incas. This assumes the use of pictograms in which the voice of the reader–the indigenous do not distinguish between reading and reciting since for them it is the same thing–recited the text to the listeners in song form.
The reader, reciting stories or ‘great language’, the only person who understood what the pictograms meant, carried out an interpretation, recreating them for the enlightenment of those who listened. Later, these painted stories become fixed in the memory of the listeners and pass in oral form from generation to generation until the alphabet brought by the Spanish fixes them in their native tongues with Latin characters or directly in Spanish. In this way indigenous texts come to our knowledge with very little exposure to European corruption. The reading of these documents is what has allowed us to affirm that, among the native Americans, history has more of the characteristics of the novel than of history. They are accounts in which reality is dissolved in fable, legend, the trappings of beauty and in which the imagination, by dint of describing all the reality that it contains, ends up re-creating a reality that we might call surrealist.
This characteristic of the annulment of reality through imagination and the re-creation of a more transcendental reality is combined with a constant annulment of time and space as well as something more significant: the use and abuse of parallel expressions, i.e. the parallel use of different words to designate the same object, to convey the same idea and express the same feelings. I wish to draw attention to this point – the parallelism in the indigenous texts allows an exercise of nuances that we find hard to appreciate but which undoubtedly permitted a poetic gradation destined to induce certain states of consciousness which were taken to be magic.
If we return to the theme of the origin of a literary genre, similar to the novel, among the pre-Colombian peoples it is necessary to link the birth of this novel form with the epic. The heroic legend, exceeding the possibilities of historical fiction, was sung by the rhapsodists – the great voices of the tribes or ‘cuicanimes’ who toured the cities reciting the texts in order that the beauty of their songs would be disseminated among the peoples like the golden blood of their gods.
These epic songs that are so abundant in pre-Columbian literature, and so little known, possess what we call ‘fictional plot’ and what the Spanish friars and missionaries termed ‘tricks’.
These fictional tales were originally the testimony of past epochs; the memory and fame of high deeds that others on hearing would desire to emulate, this literature of reality and fable is broken in the instant of servitude and remains as one of the many broken vessels of those great civilisations. Other narratives will follow – in this same documentary form – recounting not the evidence of greatness but of misery, not the testimony of liberty but of slavery, no longer the statements of the masters but those of the subjects and a new, emerging American literature attempting to fill the empty silences of an epoch.
However, the literary genres that flourished in the Iberian peninsulas – the realistic novel and the theatre – were not to put down roots here. On the contrary, it is the indigenous effervescence, the sap and the blood, river, sea and mirage that affects the first Spaniard to write the first great American ‘novel’ for the ‘True Story of the Events of the Conquest of New Spain’ written by Bernal Diaz del Castillo deserves to be called no less. Is it not rather bold to describe as a ‘novel’ what that soldier called not history but ‘true history’? But are not novels frequently the true history? I repeat the question: is it really boldness to describe as a novel the work of this illustrious chronicler?
To those who might call me daring in my description I would invite them to enter the cadenced and panting prose of this versatile foot soldier and they will notice how – on entering into it – they gradually forget that what happened was reality and it will seem to them increasingly a work of pure imagination. Indeed, even Bernal himself says no less, next to the very walls of Tenochtitlan: “this seemed to be the work of enchantment that is recounted in the book of Amadis!” But this is the work of a Spaniard – it will be said – although the only thing Spanish about it is its having been written by a ‘peninsular’ resident in Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala – where that glorious manuscript is kept – and its having been composed in the old language of Castile although it partakes of that masquerade characteristic of indigenous literature. To Don Marcelino Menendez y Pelayo – this expert in classic Spanish literature – the taste of this prose is strange and the fact that it has been written by a soldier he finds surprising. It escapes this eminent writer that Bernal, at the age of eighty, had not only heard many texts of indigenous literature being recited, being influenced by it, but through osmosis had absorbed America and had already become American.
But there is another more impressive parenthesis. In their last sorrowful cantos the indigenous peoples – now subjugated – call for justice and Bernal Diaz Castillo expresses his deepest feelings in a chronicle which is a howl of protest at the oblivion into which they fell after being “fought and conquered.”
As from this moment, all Latin American literature, in song and novel, not only becomes a testimony for each epoch but also, as stated by the Venezuelan writer Arturo Uslar Pietri, an “instrument of struggle”. All the great literature is one of testimony and vindication, but far from being a cold dossier these are moving pages written by one conscious of his power to impress and convince.
Will the south give us a mestizo? The mestizo par excellence since – in order for nothing to be lacking – he was the first American exile: Inca Garcilaso. This Creole exile follows the indigenous voices already extinguished in his denunciation of the oppressors of Peru. The Inca offers us in his magnificent prose not only the native American – nor only the Spanish – but the mixture materialised in the fusion of the bloods, and in the same demand for life and justice.
To start with nobody discerns the ‘message’ in the prose of Inca. This will be clarified during the struggle for independence. Inca will then appear with the dignity of the Indian that knew how to make fun of the empire of “the two knives” – that is to say civil and ecclesiastical censorship. The Spanish authorities, slow to fathom the message containing so much spirit, imagination and melancholy, wisely order the confiscation of the story of Inca Garcilaso where the Indians have “learned so many dangerous things.”
Not only poetry and works of fiction bear witness. The least expected authors such as Francisco Javier Clavijero, Francisco Javier Alegre, Andres Calvo, Manuel Fabri, Andres de Guevara gave birth to a literature of exiles which is – and will continue to be – a testimony of its epoch.
Even the Guatemalan poet Rafael Landívar has his form of rebellion. His protest is silence – he calls the Spanish ‘Hispani’ without qualifying the adjective. We refer to Landívar because, despite being the least known, he should be considered the standard bearer of American literature as the authentic expression of our lands, our people and landscapes. According to Pedro Henriquez-Urena, “among the poets of the Spanish colonies he is the first master of landscape, the first to break definitively with the conventions of the Renaissance and discover the characteristic features of nature in the New World – its flora and fauna, its countryside and mountains, its lakes and waterfalls. In his descriptions of customs, of the crafts and the games there is an amusing vivacity and – throughout the poem – a deep sympathy and understanding of the survival of the original cultures.”
In 1781 in Modena, Italy, there appeared under the title of ‘Rusticatio Mexicana’ a poetic work of 3,425 Latin hexameters, in 10 cantos, written by Rafael Landívar. One year later in Bologna the second edition appeared. The poet called by Menendez y Pelayo ‘the Virgil of the modern age’ proclaimed to the Europeans the excellence of the land, the life and the peoples of America. He was concerned for the people of the Old World to know that E1 Jorullo, a Mexican volcano, could rival Vesuvius and Etna, that the waterfalls and caves of San Pedro Martir in Guatemala were the equals of the famous fountains of Castalia and Aretusa and referring to the cenzontle – the bird whose song has 400 tones – he elevated it above the realm of the nightingale.
He sings the praises of the countryside, of the gold and silver that was filling the world with valuable coins and the sugar loaves offered at royal tables.
His poem is not short of statistics concerning the riches of America. He cites the droves of cattle, the flocks of sheep, the herds of goats and pigs, the sources of medicinal waters, the popular games – some unknown in Europe – and he does not hide the glory of the cocoa and chocolate of Guatemala. But there is something that we should be aware of in the song of Landivar; namely his love of the indigenous. The Indian, for Landivar, is the race that succeeds in everything, he describes the marvels of the floating gardens created by the Indians, he holds them up as examples of charm and skill without forgetting their great sufferings. In this way he imparts poetic substance – in naturalistic poetry far from symbolism – to a fact that has always been denied: the superiority of the American Indian as farmer, as craftsman and worker.
To the image of the bad Indian, lazy and immoral that was so widely propagated in Europe and accepted in America by those who exploit it Landívar opposes the picture of the Indian on whose shoulders has weighed – and continues to weigh – the burden of labour in America. And he does not do it by simply stating it – in which case we would have the right or not of believing it. In his poem we see the Indian on board his charming canoe, transporting his goods or travelling and we admire him extracting the purple and scarlet, laying out the snowy worms that produce the silk, holding on stubbornly to the rocks in order to remove the beautiful shellfish, patiently and doggedly ploughing, cultivating the indigo plant, extracting the silver from his native mines, exhausting the golden veins… The Rusticatio of Landívar confirms what we have said of the great American literature – it cannot accept a passive role while on our soil a famished people live in these abundant lands. In its content it is a form of novel in verse.
Fifty years later, Andres Bello was to renovate the American adventure in his famous ‘Silva’, an immortal and perfect work in which the nature of the New World appears again with maize the leader – as haughty chief of the corn tribe – the cacao in ‘coral urns’, the coffee plants, the banana, the tropics in all their vegetable and animal power, contrasting the impoverished inhabitant with this grandiose vision ‘of the rich soil.’
Bello recalls Inca Garcilaso in his role as an exile, he is of the American lineage of Landívar, both represent the brilliant start of the great American odyssey in world literature. As from this moment the image of nature in the New World will awake in Europe an interest but it will never attain the incandescent fidelity that is achieved in the work of Landívar and Bello. A distorted vision of the marvels is offered us by Chateaubriand in ‘Atala’ and ‘Les Natchez’.
For the Europeans nature is a background without the gravitational force achieved by Creole romanticism. The romantics give nature a permanent presence in the creations of poets and novelists of the epoch. This is exemplified by José Maria de Heredia singing of the Niagara Falls and Estaban Echeverria describing the desert in ‘La Cautiva’ to mention just two.
Latin American romanticism was not only a literary school but a patriotic flag. Poets, historians and novelists divide their days and nights between political activities and dreaming their creations. Never has it been more beautiful to be a poet in America! Amongst the poets influenced by the Patria converted in Muse are José Mármol, author of one of the most widely read novels in Latin America – ‘Amalia’. The pages of this book have been turned by our febrile and sweaty fingers when we suffered in our very bones the dictatorships that have plagued Central America. The critics, when referring to the novel of Mármol, point out inconsistencies and carelessness without realising that a work of this type is written with a madly beating heart – pulsations that leave in the sentence, in the paragraph, on the page that abnormal heartbeat reflecting the distortion of the life force that troubled the entire country. We are in the presence of one of the most passionate examples of the American novel. Despite the years ‘Amelia’ – the imprecations of José, Mármol – continue to move readers to such an extent as to represent an act of faith.
It is at this very moment that the voice of Sarmiento is heard posing his famous dilemma at the threshold of the century: ‘civilisation or barbarism’. Indeed, Sarmiento himself will be startled when he becomes aware that ‘Facundo’ turns his arms against him and against everyone, declaring himself to be the authentic representative of Creole America, of the America that refuses to die and attempts to break – with a breast already hardened – the antithetical scheme of civilisation and barbarism in order to find between these two extremes the point where the American peoples are able to find their authentic personality with their own essential values.
In the middle of the last century another romantic, no less passionate, appears in Guatemala: José Batres Montúfar. In the midst of tales of festive character the reader feels that he should forget the fiesta to listen to the poetry. The immortal José Batres Montúfar, with abundant charm tinged with bitterness, was able to get to the core of issues that already – in the middle of the past century – were highly charged.
Another voice was to ring out from north to south, that of José Martí. His presence was felt, whether as an exile or in his beloved Cuba, the fre of his speech as poet or journalist being combined with the example of his sacrifice.
The 20th century is full of poets, poets that have nothing more to say with very few exceptions. Among the latter stand out the immortal Rubén Darío and Juan Ramón Molina from Honduras. The poets flee from reality, maybe because this is one of the ways of being a poet. But there is nothing living in much of their work which instead tend towards garrulity.
They are ignorant of the clear lesson of the native rhapsodists, they are forgetful of the colonial craftsmen of our great literature, satisfied with the bloodless imitation of the poetry of other latitudes and ridicule those who sang the bold gestures of the liberation struggle, considering them dazzled by a local patriotism.
It is only when the First World War is passed that a handful of men – men and artists – embark on the reconquest of their own tradition. In their encounter with the indigenous peoples they drop anchor in their Spanish home port and return with the message that they have to deliver to the future.
Latin American literature will be reborn under other signs – no longer that of verse. Now the prose is tactile, plural and irreverent in its attitude to conventions – to serve the purpose of this new crusade whose first move was to plunge into reality not so as to objectify but rather to penetrate the facts in order to identify fully with the problems of humanity. Nothing human – nothing which is real – will be foreign to this literature inspired by contact with America. And this is the case of the Latin American novel. Nobody doubts that the Latin American novel is at the leading edge of its genre in the world. It is cultivated in all our countries, by writers of different tendencies, which means that in the novel everything is forged from American material – the human witness of our historic moment.
We, the Latin American novelists of today, working within the tradition of engagement with our peoples which has enabled our great literature to develop – our poetry of substance – also have to reclaim lands for our dispossessed, mines for our exploited workers, to raise demands in favour of the masses who perish in the plantations, who are scorched by the sun in the banana fields, who turn into human bagasse in the sugar refineries. It is for this reason that – for me – the authentic Latin American novel is the call for all these things, it is the cry that echoes down the centuries and is pronounced in thousands of pages. A novel that is genuinely ours; determined and loyal – in its pages – to the cause of the human spirit, to the fists of our workers, to the sweat of our rural peasants, to the pain for our undernourished children; calling for the blood and the sap of our vast lands to run once more towards the seas to enrich our burgeoning new cities.
This novel shares – consciously or unconsciously – the characteristics of the indigenous texts; their freshness and power, the numismatic anguish in the eyes of the Creoles who awaited the dawn in the colonial night, more luminous however than this night that threatens us now. Above all, it is the affrmation of the optimism of those writers that defied the Inquisition, opening a breach in the conscience of the people for the march of the Liberators.
The Latin American novel, our novel, cannot betray the great spirit that has shaped – and continues to shape – all our great literature. If you write novels merely to entertain – then burn them! This might be the message delivered with evangelical fervour since if you do not burn them they will anyway be erased from the memory of the people where a poet or novelist should aspire to remain. Just consider how many writers there have been who – down the ages – have written novels to entertain! And who remembers them now? On the other hand, how easy it is to repeat the names of those amongst us who have written to bear witness.
To bear witness. The novelist bears witness like the apostle. Like Paul trying to escape, the writer is confronted with the pathetic reality of the world that surrounds him – the stark reality of our countries that overwhelms and blinds us and, throwing us to our knees, forces us to shout out: WHY DO YOU PERSECUTE ME? Yes, we are persecuted by this reality that we cannot deny, which is lived in the flesh by the people of the Mexican revolution, embodied in persons such as Mariano Azuela, Agustin Yanez and Juan Rulfo whose convictions are as sharp as a knife; those who share with Jorge Icaza, Ciro Alegría, Jesús Lara the shout of protest against the exploitation and abandonment of the Indian; those who with Romulo Gallegos in ‘Done Bábara’ create for us our Prometheus. Here is Horacio Quiroga who frees us from the nightmare of the tropics, a nightmare that is as peculiar to him as his style is American. ‘Los ros profundos’ of José María Arguedas, the ‘Rio oscuro’ of the Argentinian Alfredo Varela, ‘Hijo de hombre’ of the Paraguayan Roa Bastos and ‘La ciudad y los perros’ of the Peruvian Vargas Llosa make us see how the life-blood of the working people is drained in our lands.
Mancisidor takes us to the oil fields to which are drawn – leaving their homes – the inhabitants of ‘Cases muertas’ of Miguel Otero Silva… David Vinas confronts us with the tragic Patagonia, Enrique Wernicke sweeps us along with the waters that overwhelm whole communities while Verbitsky and María de Jesús lead us to the miserable shanty towns, the Dantesque and subhuman quarters of our great cities…
Teitelboim in ‘E1 hijo del salitre’ tells us of the gruelling work in the saltpetre mines while Nicomedes Guzman makes us share in the lives of the children in the Chilean working class districts. We feel the countryside of E1 Salvador in ‘Jaragua’ of Napoleón Rodríguez Ruiz and our small villages in ‘Cenizas del Izalco’ of Flakol and Clarivel Alegria. We cannot think of the pampas without speaking of ‘Don Segundo Sombra’ by Guiraldes nor speak of the jungle without ‘La voragine’ of Eustasio Rivera, nor of the Negroes: without Jorge Amado, nor of the Brazilian plains without the ‘Gran Sertao’ of Guimaraes Rosa, nor of the plains of Venezuela without Ramón Díaz Sánchez.
Our books do not search for a sensationalist or horrifying effect in order to secure a place for us in the republic of letters. We are human beings linked by blood, geography and life to those hundreds, thousands, millions of Latin Americans that suffer misery in our opulent and rich American continent. Our novels attempt to mobilise across the world the moral forces that have to help us defend those people. The mestizoprocess was already advanced in our literature and in rediscovering America it lent a human dimension to the grandiose nature of the continent. But this is a nature neither for the gods as in the texts of the Indians, nor a nature for heroes as in the writings of the romantics, but a nature for men and women in which the human problems will be addressed again with vigour and audacity.
As true Latin Americans the beauty of expression excites us and – for this reason – each one of our novels is a verbal feat. Alchemy is at work. We know it. It is no easy task to understand in the executed work all the effort and determination invested in the materials used – the words.
Yes, I say words – but by what laws and rules they have been transformed! They have been set as the pulse of worlds in formation. They ring like wood, like metals. This is onomatopoeia. In the adventure of our language the first aspect that demands attention is onomatopoeia. How many echoes – composed or disintegrated – of our landscape, our nature are to be found in our words, our sentences. The novelist embarks on a verbal adventure, an instinctive use of words. One is guided along by sounds. One listens, listens to the characters.
Our best novels do not seem to have been written but spoken. There is verbal dynamics in the poetry enclosed in the very word itself and that is revealed first as sound and afterwards as concept.
This is why the great Spanish American novels are vibrantly musical in the convulsion of the birth of all the things that are born with them.
The adventure continues in the confluence of the languages. Amongst the languages spoken by the people, in which the Indian languages are represented, there is an admixture of the European and Oriental languages brought by the immigrants to America.
Another language is going to rain its sparkle over sounds and words. The language of images. Our novels seem to be written not only with words but with images. Quite a few people when reading our novels see them cinematically. And this is not because they pursue a dramatic statement of independence but because our novelists are engaged in universalising the voice of their peoples with a language rich in sounds, rich in fable and rich in images.
This is not a language artificially created to provide scope for the play of the imagination or so-called poetic prose; it is a vivid language that preserves in its popular speech all the lyricism, the imagination, the grace, the high-spiritidness that characterise the language of the Latin American novel.
The poetic language which nourishes our novelistic literature is more or less its breath of life. Novels with lungs of poetry, lungs of foliage, lungs of rich vegetation. I believe that what most attracts non-American readers is what our novels have achieved by means of a colourful, brilliant language without falling into the merely picturesque, the spell of onomatopoeia cast by representing the music of the countryside and sometimes the sounds of the indigenous languages, the ancestral smack of those languages that flourish unconsciously in the prose that is used. There is also the importance of the word as absolute entity, as symbol. Our prose is distinguished from Castilian syntax because the word – in our novels – has a value of its own, just as it had in the indigenous languages. Word, concept, sound; a rich fascinating transposition. Nobody can understand our literature, our poetry if the power of enchantment is removed from the word.
Word and language enable the reader to participate in the life of our novelistic creations. Unsettling, disturbing, forcing the attention of the reader who–forgetting his daily life–will enter into the situations and personalities of a novel tradition that retains intact its humanistic values. Nothing is used to detract from mankind but rather to perfect it and this is perhaps what wins over and unsettles the reader, that which transforms our novel into a vehicle of ideas, an interpreter of peoples using as instrument a language with a literary dimension, with imponderable magical value and profound human projection.” Miguel Angel Asturias, “The Latin American Novel: Testimony of an Epoch;” Nobel Literary Laureates Lecture, 1967
Numero Tres—“There is a major difference between the traditional scholar’s questions about the past – ‘What happened in history, when and why?’ – and the question that has, in the last 40 years or so, come to inspire a growing body of historical research: namely, ‘How do or did people feel about it?’ The first oral history societies were founded in the late 1960s. Since then the number of institutions and works devoted to ‘heritage’ and historical memory – notably about the great 20th-century wars – has grown explosively. Studies of historical memory are essentially not about the past, but about the retrospect to it of some subsequent present. Richard Overy’s The Morbid Age demonstrates another, and less indirect, approach to the emotional texture of the past: the difficult excavation of contemporary popular reactions to what was happening in and around people’s lives – one might call it the mood music of history.
Though this type of research is fascinating, especially when done with Overy’s inquisitiveness and surprised erudition, it presents the historian with considerable problems. What does it mean to describe an emotion as characteristic of a country or era; what is the significance of a socially widespread emotion, even one plainly related to dramatic historical events? How and how far do we measure its prevalence? Polling, the current mechanism for such measurement, was not available before c.1938. In any case, such emotions – the extremely widespread dislike of Jews in the West, for instance – were obviously not felt or acted on in the same way by, say, Adolf Hitler and Virginia Woolf. Emotions in history are neither chronologically stable nor socially homogeneous, even in the moments when they are universally felt, as in London under the German air-raids, and their intellectual representations even less so. How can they be compared or contrasted? In short, what are historians to make of the new field?
The specific mood Overy looks into is the sense of crisis and fear, ‘a presentiment of impending disaster’, the prospect of the end of civilisation, that, in his view, characterised Britain between the wars. There is nothing specifically British or 20th-century about such a mood. Indeed, in the last millennium it would be hard to point to a time, at least in the Christian world, when it found no significant expression, often in the apocalyptic idiom constructed for the purpose and explored in Norman Cohn’s works. (Aldous Huxley, in Overy’s quotation, sees ‘Belial’s guiding hand’ in modern history.) There are good reasons in European history why the sense that ‘we’ – however defined – feel under threat from outside enemies or inner demons is not exceptional.
The pioneer work in this genre, Jean Delumeau’s history of fear in Western Europe from the 14th to the early 18th century, La Peur en Occident (1978), describes and analyses a civilisation ‘ill at ease’ within ‘a landscape of fear’ peopled by ‘morbid fantasies’, dangers and eschatological fears. Overy’s problem is that, unlike Delumeau, he does not see these fears as reactions to real experiences and real dangers, at least in Great Britain, where, by general consent, neither politics nor society had collapsed and civilisation was not in crisis between the wars. Why, therefore, is it ‘a period famous for its population of Cassandras and Jeremiahs who helped to construct the popular image of the interwar years as an age of anxiety, doubt or fear’?
With learning, lucidity and wit, notably in its brilliant selection of quotes, The Morbid Age disentangles the various strands of catastrophic expectation – the death of capitalism, the fears of demographic decline and corruption, ‘psychoanalysis and social dismay’, the fear of war – mainly through the writings, public and private, of those whom Delumeau, who did the same for his period, called people ‘who had the word and the power’: in his day Catholic clerics, in Overy’s a selection of bourgeois intellectuals and reflective members of the political class. The attempts to escape from the anticipated disasters by pacifism and what the author calls ‘utopian politics’ are seen largely as yet another set of symptoms of the pessimist epidemic.
Let us grant, for the moment, that he is correct about the gloominess of those ‘who had the word and the power’, in spite of some obvious exceptions: the researchers who knew, with Ernest Rutherford, that they were living in the glory days of the natural sciences; the engineers who saw no limits to the future progress of old and new technologies; the officials and businessmen of an empire that reached its maximum extent between the wars and still seemed well under control (except for the Irish Free State); the writers and readers of that quintessential interwar genre, the detective novel, which celebrated a world of moral and social certainty, of stability restored after temporary interruption. The obvious question is how far did the views of Overy’s articulate minority represent or influence the 30 or so million electors who constituted the king’s subjects in 1931?
In Delumeau’s late medieval and early modern Europe, the question may be answered with some confidence. In the Christian West of his period there were organic links between what priests and preachers thought and what the faithful practised, though we cannot regard them as congruent. The Roman Catholic clergy had both intellectual and practical authority. But what influence or practical effects between the wars had the words – to list only those writers who rate more than two lines in Overy’s index – of the Eugenics Society’s Charles Blacker, of Vera Brittain, Cyril Burt, G.D.H Cole, Leonard Darwin, G. Lowes Dickinson, E.M. Forster, Edward Glover, J.A. Hobson, Aldous and Julian Huxley, Storm Jameson, Ernest Jones, Sir Arthur Keith, Maynard Keynes, Archbishop Cosmo Lang, Basil Liddell Hart, Bronislaw Malinowski, Gilbert Murray, Philip Noel-Baker, George Orwell, Lord Arthur Ponsonby, Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw, Arnold Toynbee, the Webbs, H.G. Wells or Leonard and Virginia Woolf?
Unless clearly backed by an important publishing house or journal, as with Victor Gollancz or Kingsley Martin’s New Statesman, or an actual mass organisation like Lord Robert Cecil’s League of Nations Union or Canon Sheppard’s pacifist Peace Pledge Union, they had the word, but little else. As in the 19th century they had a good chance of being talked about and influencing politics and administration within the enclosure of the established elite, if they belonged to it by origin or had been recognised by it, especially if they belonged to the networks of Noel Annan’s ‘intellectual aristocracy’, as several of the announcers of doom did. But how far did their ideas shape the ‘public opinion’ which lay outside the range of the writers and readers of letters to the Times and the New Statesman?
There is little evidence in the culture and way of life of the interwar working and lower middle classes, which this book does not investigate, that it did. Gracie Fields, George Formby and Bud Flanagan did not live in the expectation of social collapse, nor did the West End theatre. Far from displaying morbidity, the working class of Richard Hoggart’s (and my) youth consisted largely of people who ‘feel that they cannot do much about the main elements in their situation, feel it not necessarily with despair or disappointment or resentment but simply as a fact of life’. True, as Overy shows, the dramatic rise of the mass media allowed the ‘core ideas’ of his morbid thinkers to be widely disseminated. However, spreading intellectual gloom was not the object of the omnipresent movies or even the mass newspapers, which reached circulations of two million and more in the early 1930s, though BBC radio, almost universally available by the mid-1930s, gave the spokesmen of doom a tiny fraction – one would have wished Overy to make an estimate – of its vast output. It is not irrelevant that the Listener, which reprinted radio talks and debates, had a circulation of 52,000 in 1935, as against the 2.4 million of the Radio Times.
The book, revolutionised in the 1930s by Penguin and Gollancz, was almost certainly the most effective form of intellectual diffusion: not to the mass of the manual working class for whom the word ‘book’ still meant ‘magazine’, but to the old educated class and the rapidly growing body of the aspiring and politically conscious self-educated. Even among these, Overy’s footnotes show, circulations of more than 50,000 – the order of magnitude of the Left Book Club and above the contemporary level of a bestseller – were unusual, except in the tense prewar months of 1938-39. Overy’s admirable inquiries into publishers’ records show that Walter Greenwood’s Depression novel Love on the Dole (‘few other cultural products of the Slump reached so wide an audience’) sold 46,290 copies between 1933 and 1940. The potential book readership in 1931 (adding together the census categories of ‘professional and semi-professionals’ and ‘clerical and kindred workers’) was about two and a half million, out of the almost 30 million of the British electorate.
Admittedly, ‘the theses of some defunct (or living) thinker’ (to adapt Keynes’s phrase) do not spread by such conventional means, but by a sort of osmosis whereby a few radically reduced and simplified concepts – ‘the survival of the fittest’, ‘capitalism’, ‘inferiority complex’, ‘the unconscious’ – somehow enter the public or private discourse as recognised brand names. Even by such relaxed criteria, several of Overy’s doom-laden forecasts hardly reached outside the corral of the intellectuals, activists and national decision-makers, notably the demographers’ fear of population collapse (which proved mistaken) and what we now see as the sinister plans of the eugenists for eliminating those defined as genetically inferior. Marie Stopes made her impact on Britain not as an advocate of sterilising the subnormal, but as the pioneer of birth control, which in this period came to be recognised among the British masses as a useful addition to the traditional practice of coitus interruptus.
Only where public opinion spontaneously shared the fears and reactions of elite intellectuals can their writings serve as expressions of a general British mood. Almost certainly they coincided on the central problem of the age, the fear of war; probably also in some ways on the crisis of the (British) economy. In these respects the British did not, as Overy suggests, experience the European predicament between the wars at second hand. Like the French, they lived with the dark memory of the mass killings of the Great War and (perhaps even more effective) the living evidence on the streets of its crippled and disfigured survivors. Britons were realistic in their fears of another war. Especially from 1933 on, war loomed over all lives, those of women (about whose take on interwar Britain this book is silent) perhaps more even than men.
In the impressive second half of his book, Overy, who made his deserved reputation as a historian of the Second World War, brilliantly describes the sense of an inevitably approaching catastrophe in the 1930s, which was to overpower the appeal of pacifism. But it did so precisely because it was not a mood of hopelessness, comparable to that expressed in the spectacular understatement of the secret government report on nuclear war of 1955 quoted by Peter Hennessy (‘whether this country could withstand an all-out attack and still be in a state to carry on hostilities must be very doubtful’). To expect to die in the next war, as my contemporaries not unreasonably did in 1939 – Overy quotes my own memories to this effect – did not stop us from thinking that war would have to be fought, would be won and could lead to a better society.
British reactions to the crisis of the interwar British economy were more complex, but the argument here that British capitalism had less cause for alarm is surely wrong. In the 1920s Britons seemed to have more obvious cause to worry about the future of their economy than the rest. Almost alone in the world, Britain’s manufacturing production, even at the peak of the 1920s, when world output was more than 50 per cent above what it had been before the war, stayed below the 1913 level, and its rate of unemployment, very much higher than Germany’s and the US’s, never fell below 10 per cent. Not surprisingly, the Great Slump hit other countries much harder than the already faltering Britain, but it is worth remembering that the impact of 1929 was so dramatic as to make Britain abandon the two theological foundations of its 19th-century economic identity, free trade and the Gold Standard, in 1931. Most of Overy’s quotes of economic doom come from before 1934.
Certainly, the crisis produced agreement among the articulate classes that the system couldn’t go on as before, either because of the basic flaws of capitalism or because of ‘The End of Laissez-Faire’ announced by Keynes in 1926, but discussions on the future shape of the economy, whether socialist or governed by a reformed, more interventionist and ‘planned’ capitalism, were strictly confined to minorities: the first of up to half a million in and around the labour movement, the second probably of a few hundred of what Gramsci would have called the ‘organic intellectuals’ of the British ruling class. However, memory suggests that Overy is right in thinking that the most widespread reaction to the troubles of the economy among the king’s non-writing subjects, outside the new wastelands of the old industrial regions, was not so much the feeling ‘that capitalism did not work, but that it should not work the way it did’. And insofar as ‘socialism’ reached beyond the activists into the 29 per cent of the British electorate which voted for the Labour Party at the peak of its interwar success, it was the result of a moral rejection of capitalism rather than a specific image of the future society.
Yet neither the belief in socialism nor in a planned capitalism implied morbidity, despair or a sense of apocalypse. Both, in different ways, assumed that the crisis could and should be overcome, encouraged by what seemed to be the extraordinary immunity to the Great Slump of the Soviet Five-Year Plans, which in the 1930s, as Overy rightly notes, made the words ‘plan’ and ‘planning’ into a political ‘open sesame’ even for thinking non-socialists. No doubt the bulk of socialists were more utopian in their faith than the pragmatist reformers and vaguer in their prescriptions, which amounted to little more than the nationalisation of all industries. But both looked forward to a better or at least a more viable future. Only the forlorn rearguard of unreconstructed pre-1914 liberal individualists saw no hope. For the great guru of the London School of Economics, Friedrich von Hayek, who does not appear in this book, both socialist and Keynesian prescriptions for the future were predictable stumbles on ‘the road to serfdom’.
This should not surprise us. A great many Europeans had the experience of Armageddon in the Great War. The fear of another and very likely more terrible war was all the more real because the Great War had given Europe a set of unprecedented and fear-inducing symbols: the aerial bomb, the tank, the gas mask. Where past or present provided no adequate comparison, most people were inclined to forget or underestimate the hazards of the future, however minatory the rhetoric surrounding them. That many Jews who stayed in Germany after 1933 took the precaution of sending their children abroad shows they were not blind to the perils of living under Hitler, but what actually awaited them was literally inconceivable in the early 20th century even by a ghetto pessimist. No doubt there were prophets in Pompeii who warned of the dangers of living under volcanoes, but it is doubtful whether even the pessimists among them actually expected the total and definitive obliteration of the city.
There is no single label for how social collectives or even individuals envisage or feel about the future. In any case ‘apocalypse’, ‘chaos’ or ‘the end of civilisation’, being beyond everyday experience in most of Europe between the wars, were not what most people really expected, even when they lived, uncertain about the future, in the ruins of an irrecoverable old social order, as many did after 1917. These things are more easily recognised in retrospect, for during genuinely apocalyptic episodes of history – say, Central Europe in 1945-46 – most non-uniformed men and women are too busy trying to keep going to classify their predicament. That is why, contrary to the champions of air-power, civilian populations in great cities did not wilt under the bombs and fire-storms of the Second World War. Whatever their motivations, they ‘carried on’ and their cities, ruined and burning, continued to function because life does not stop till death. Let us not judge the intimations of disaster between the wars, even when they proved correct, by the unimagined standards of subsequent havoc and desolation.
Overy’s book, however acute in observation, innovative and monumental in its exploration of archives, demonstrates the necessary oversimplifications of a history built around feelings. Looking for a central ‘mood’ as the keynote of an era does not get us closer to reconstructing the past than ‘national character’ or ‘Christian/Islamic/Confucian values.’ They tell us too little too vaguely. Historians should take such concepts seriously, but not as a basis for analysis or the structure of narrative. To be fair to the author, he makes neither mistake. His purpose has clearly been to compose an original set of variations to compete with the other riffs by professional historians on what is assumed to be a universally familiar theme: the history of Britain between the wars. But it is no longer familiar except to the old. The Overy Variations in the key of C (for crisis) are an impressive achievement, though one misses any serious comparison with the situation in other European countries. Since he writes well, his book also becomes what it was not intended to be, a tourist guide to terra incognita for readers to whom the Britain of George V is as remote and unknown as that of George II. It should be read with intellectual pleasure and profit for its perceptiveness and its discoveries of much that was unexplored in some parts of British intellectual life, but not as an introduction to interwar Britain for the inexperienced time-traveller.” Eric Hobsbawm, “C (for Crisis);” London Review of Books, 2009