Monday, December 07, 2009

Frances Trollope: American Dreams, American Nightmares

Illustration of Frances Trollope from Domestic Manners of the Americans

“On the 4th of November, 1827, I sailed from London, accompanied by my son and two daughters; and after a favourable, though somewhat tedious voyage, arrived on Christmas-day at the mouth of the Mississippi.”

So wrote Mrs. Frances Trollope (1780-1863), a genteelly adventurous English woman who came to America in 1827 and left in 1831 with a deep dislike of Americans in general and of the people of southwestern Ohio in particular. Influenced by Frances “Fanny” Wright, the Scottish-born radical feminist and Abolitionist, Trollope had come to America with mixed motives. She came to join Wright’s Tennessee commune whose noble purpose was to help Negroes. But she had also come to America, partly in desperation, to improve her family’s precarious finances, which is why after a disillusioning visit to Wright’s commune in Tennessee, she ended up in Cincinnati, trying to make a go of it in a retail business. Her husband, Thomas A. Trollope, whom she left behind in England, was a barrister, or English lawyer, who had the lesser title of baronet. But he was apparently bi-polar as well as a baronet and not a good breadwinner.

In going from Wright's commune to Cincinnati, with a population of not much more than 16,000, Trollope was going from the frying pan into the fire. Cincinnati was in its early stage of development, when there were more pigs than people and when it was beginning to earn the nickname “Porkopolis.”

After she returned to England from her sojourn in Cincinnati, Mrs. Trollope wrote Domestic Manners of the Americans (1835) in which she made the case that America was not only not God’s Country, but for a refined person like herself was a cultural wasteland as well as a waste of time. (Domestic Manners can be read online at Google Books.) What bothered her most about Americans and the residents of Cincinnati in particular were their appalling manners, which she attributed to the democratic cult of equality, which reduced everything and everybody in the money grubbing republic to the lowest common denominator. Yes, she agreed with the boastful Americans: they were equal—equally ignorant, equally arrogant, and equally expectorant. Baseball was not yet the national pastime—spitting was. America had adopted the eagle as its national symbol, but based on Trollope’s observations the spittoon would have been a more fitting hit-and-miss symbol.

Getting Religion 

Next to their boorish manners, what offended Trollope most about Americans was their religiosity. As the daughter of an Anglican clergyman, she attached a great deal of importance to religion. The Preface to Domestic Manners states, portentously, “it is the moral and religious condition of the people which, beyond everything else, demands the attention of the philosophical inquirer . . .” To the extent that she qualified as a philosophical inquirer, she concluded that there was too much of the wrong kind of religion being propagated in “God’s Country,” by far too many proliferating sects and denominations. In her opinion, religion in America was at best much too emotional and at worst outrageously mindless, with a lot of hypocrisy thrown in for good measure. For example, in an apparent effort to keep them from contact with unrelated males, American women were segregated nearly as much as slaves, but at religious revivals and camp meetings women became as fair game for male preachers  as deer were for hunters. 

Trollope got a lesson in what she took for religious hypocrisy early on from Nancy, a young woman she was considering hiring as household help. In interviewing for the position, Nancy told Trollope of her hard life as a country girl beset by all kinds of hardships and evil influences. But since she had come to Cincinnati, Nancy assured her prospective employer, she had found the answer for all her problems. “Thanks and praise for it,” she said with deep emotion, “I have got religion.” Trollope hired her, agreeing to let her attend church meetings every Tuesday and Thursday evenings. But on one of Nancy’s church nights, when Mrs. Trollope couldn’t sleep because of mosquitoes, she heard her entering below. It was very late. Going to the top of the stairs, she called down and asked her why she was so late getting home. “Oh, Mrs. Trollope,” Nancy replied, “I am late, indeed! We have this night had seventeen souls added to our flock. May they live to bless this night!” It was only later that Mrs. Trollope learned that Nancy was a young woman of loose morals, and if she was going to church early on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, she was otherwise engaged later those evenings. Nancy was what the English call, ironically, a trollop, i.e., a promiscuous woman or prostitute. But it is possible Nancy was not so much a rank hypocrite as someone for whom religiosity and sensuality were opposite sides of the same coin.

Trollope concluded that there was a thin line in America, or at least in southwestern Ohio, between Christian piety and pagan hanky-panky. She witnessed goings-on at a revival between preying preachers and god-drunk young women that shocked her. She also attended a camp meeting that was more like a Rolling Stones concert than a religious gathering, a gathering at which prayer was the pot and the ranting preaching the crack. If she had a crystal ball, she might have looked ahead, to 1975, when eleven fans were trampled to death in Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum, where the featured attraction, ironically, was the English rock group the Who. The word “fan” is derived, of course, from “fanatic,” which is what Trollope thought many Americans were when it came to religion.

Preying Preachers 

Following a hellfire sermon at a revival meeting, one of the preachers looked to her like a lunatic. “The perspiration ran in streams from [his] face; his eyes rolled, his lips were covered with foam, and every feature had the deep expression of horror it would have borne, had he, in truth, been gazing at the [hellfire] scene he described.” This was obviously not the way English Anglican ministers, like Mrs. Trollope’s father, preached. In a variation of the good cop-bad cop routine, another preacher then took over and in a “coaxing affectionate tone,” urged those who wanted to be saved to come forward and take their seat on the “anxious bench” where they could pray for salvation. The preaching and hymn singing got mostly women, particularly adolescent girls, to come forward. Here’s Trollope’s description:

Young girls arose, and sat down, and rose again; and then the pews opened, and several came tottering out, their hands clasped, their heads hanging on their bosoms, and every limb trembling, and still the hymn went on; but as the poor creatures approached the rail their sobs and groans became audible. They seated themselves on the “anxious benches”; the hymn ceased, and two of the three priests [sic] walked down from the tribune, and going, one to the right, and the other to the left, began whispering to the poor tremblers seated there. These whispers were inaudible to us, but the sobs and groans increased to a frightful excess. Young creatures, with features pale and distorted, fell on their knees on the pavement, and soon sunk forward on their faces; the most violent cries and shrieks followed, while from time to time a voice was heard in convulsive accents, exclaiming, “Oh Lord !” “Oh Lord Jesus !” “Help me, Jesus !” and the like.

Trollope melodramatically described it as “a frightful sight to behold innocent young creatures, in the gay morning of existence, thus seized upon, horror-struck, and rendered feeble and enervated for ever. One young girl, apparently not more than fourteen, was supported in the arms of another some years older; her face was pale as death; her eyes wide open, and perfectly devoid of meaning; her chin and bosom wet with slaver; she had every appearance of idiotism.” Trollope’s opinion of revivals was, “I confess that I think the coarsest comedy ever written would be a less detestable exhibition for the eyes of youth and innocence than such a scene.”

Camp Meeting 

As “detestable” as she found the church revival, Trollope was to witness a much larger camp meeting in the woods that she thought was even worse. Instead of a score of hysterical females finding Jesus and shouting “Glory!” there were hundreds of them, “uttering howlings and groans, so terrible that I shall never cease to shudder when I recall them.” She pointed out that, “Many of these wretched creatures were beautiful young females” whom the preachers moved among, “at once exciting and soothing their agonies,” and, “with insidious lips,” breathing into their ears “consolations that tinged the pale cheeks with red.” Exhorted by the preacher to come forward and be saved, they fell on their knees and became convulsive and were soon all “lying on the ground in an indescribable confusion of heads and legs. . . . But how am I to describe the sounds that proceeded from this strange mass of human beings? I know no words which can convey an idea of it. Hysterical sobbing, convulsive groans, shrieks and screams the most appalling burst forth on all sides. I felt sick with horror.” For her, this was not the American dream; it was the American nightmare. Was the United States a product of the Age of Reason or the Age of Superstition?

The morning after the camp meeting, at breakfast, “I marked,” she wrote, “many a fair but pale face, that I recognised as a demoniac of the night, simpering beside a swain, to whom she carefully administered hot coffee and eggs. The preaching saint [the preachers] and the howling sinner [the young females] seemed alike to relish this mode of recruiting their strength.” The camp meeting Trollope described is like the gathering of the ungodly in the woods outside Salem in Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown.” The morning after participating in the witches gathering, the remorseful young Goodman Brown is surprised to see those he had seen (or dreamed he had seen) behaving like devils the night before, going about their business in the village as if they were innocent as lambs. The no-longer-young Goodman Brown went to his grave a complete Calvinist, convinced of the innate depravity of everybody, trusting nobody.

Having witnessed Americans not only at their most unmannerly but also at their most unchastely Lady Chatterly, Mrs. Trollope did not despair. She did not improve her family’s finances in America, but she did when she returned to England and wrote Domestic Manners of the Americans. Catering to the prejudices of the English, and exaggerating the boorish manners and the religious fanaticism of Americans, Domestic Manners became a best-seller. It was her first book, but far from her last. She went on to publish over a hundred books, both non-fiction and fiction, including an anti-slavery novel that may have influenced Harriet Beecher Stowe to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Two of her sons, Thomas and Anthony Trollope, went on to become successful writers. Anthony became one of England’s most popular novelists, and millions of Americans have watched dramatizations of his novels on PBS television.

Whatever her faults and however much Americans might rightfully feel she did them dirt, Mrs. Trollope was a resourceful woman who overcame all kinds of obstacles. As a baronet, her husband had been born with many advantages, but everything he touched turn to failure and he squandered his inheritance on ill-advised attempts at farming after he had failed as a lawyer. “His life as I knew it,”  his son Anthony wrote, “was one long tragedy.”  Mrs. Trollope didn’t let her husband’s problems stop her. When he had to flee England to escape debtor’s prison, she and her children accompanied him to Belgium, where she supported the whole family through her writing while nursing her ill husband and the two of her children who had tuberculosis. (Four of her six children would eventually die of the disease.) She was both nurse and writer. “The doctor's vials and the ink-pot held equal places in my mother's rooms,”  her son Anthony wrote in his autobiography. She proved so successful as an author that, following her husband’s death, she was able to spend the last twenty years of her life in sunny Italy, far from gloomy Great Britain and even father from Cincinnati. “She continued writing up until 1856, when she was seventy-six years old,”  Anthony wrote, “and had at that time produced 114 volumes, of which the first was not produced until she was fifty.”

Portsmouth, Ahoy! 

Mrs. Trollope never visited Portsmouth, but she may have at least glanced at it when she and her children left Cincinnati and steamed up the Ohio River on the first leg of their long journey back to England. Could she look in that crystal ball, she would have seen Portsmouth grow, from a rinky-dink fuel stop between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, to become a bustling industrialized city of over fifty-thousand, but she could have seen too, after the Second World War and globalization, how it gradually shrank into a corrupt, chronically depressed, pork-dependent town of drug dealers, prostitutes, and rich white trash, but she would also have seen concerned citizens battling against the rich white trash and getting rid of the incompetent and corrupt politicians and electing Portsmouth’s first woman mayor . . .

Whoa! Wait a minute! I’m getting ahead of myself, probably way ahead of myself, if not dreaming. As Mark Twain showed, river towns have more than their share of vices, and Portsmouth is no exception. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was Cincinnati. Mrs. Trollope had a long way to go when she steamed past Portsmouth and so do we. But she set an example we should follow and not conclude despairingly, as young Goodman Brown did, that you can't beat the devil. Life is irony. The example of the prejudiced, anti-American, anti-democratic English woman reminds us that we need to focus on the American dream, not the American nightmare, need to keep our eye upon the donut, not the hole, and upon the eagle, not the spittoon.

A clever caricature of Trollope as a brawny
 pipe-smoking backwoods woman.