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Trollope on a Yankee Steamboat

      My first complaint would be against the great heat of the cabins. The Americans as a rule live in an atmosphere which is almost unbearable to an Englishman. To this cause, I am convinced, is to be attributed their thin faces, their pale skins, their unenergetic temperament,—unenergetic as regards physical motion,—and their early old age. The winters are long and cold in America, and mechanical ingenuity is far extended. These two facts together have created a system of stoves, hot-air pipes, steam chambers, and heating apparatus so extensive that from autumn till the end of spring all inhabited rooms are filled with the atmosphere of a hot oven. An Englishman fancies that he is to be baked, and for a while finds it almost impossible to exist in the air prepared for him. How the heat is engendered on board the river steamers I do not know, but it is engendered to so great a degree that the sitting-cabins are unendurable. The patient is therefore driven out at all hours into the outside balconies of the boat, or on to the top roof,—for it is a roof rather than a deck,—and there as he passes through the air at the rate of twenty miles an hour, finds himself chilled to the very bones. That is my first complaint. But as the boats are made for Americans, and as Americans like hot air, I do not put it forward with any idea that a change ought to be effected.
      My second complaint is equally unreasonable, and is quite as incapable of a remedy as the first. Nine-tenths of the travellers carry children with them. They are not tourists engaged on pleasure excursions, but men and women intent on the business of life. They are moving up and down, looking for fortune, and in search of new homes. Of course they carry with them all their household goods. Do not let any critic say that I grudge these young travellers their right to locomotion. Neither their right to locomotion is grudged by me, nor any of those privileges which are accorded in America to the rising generation. The habits of their country and the choice of their parents give to them full dominion over all hours and over all places, and it would ill become a foreigner to make such habits and such choice a ground of serious complaint. But nevertheless the uncontrolled energies of twenty children round one's legs do not convey comfort or happiness, when the passing events are producing noise and storm rather than peace and sunshine. I must protest that American babies are an unhappy race. They eat and drink just as they please; they are never punished; they are never banished, snubbed, and kept in the background as children are kept with us; and yet they are wretched and uncomfortable.
      My heart has bled for them as I have heard them squalling by the hour together in agonies of discontent and dyspepsia. Can it be, I wonder, that children are happier when they are made to obey orders and are sent to bed at six o’clock than when allowed to regulate their own conduct; that bread and milk is more favorable to laughter and soft childish ways than beefsteaks and pickles three times a day; that an occasional whipping, even, will conduce to rosy cheeks? It is an idea which I should never dare to broach to an American mother, but I must confess that after my travels on the western continent my opinions have a tendency in that direction. Beefsteaks and pickles certainly produce smart little men and women. Let that be taken for granted. But rosy laughter and winning childish ways are, I fancy, the produce of bread and milk.
      But there was a third reason why travelling on these boats was not as pleasant as I had expected. I could not get my fellow-travellers to talk to me. It must be understood that our fellow-travellers were not generally of that class which we Englishmen, in our pride, designate as gentlemen and ladies. They were people, as I have said, in search of new homes and new fortunes. But I protest that as such they would have been in those parts much more agreeable as companions to me than any gentlemen or any ladies, if only they would have talked to me. I do not accuse them of any incivility. If addressed, they answered me. If application was made by me for any special information, trouble was taken to give it me. But I found no aptitude, no wish for conversation; nay, even a disinclination to converse. In the western States I do not think that I was ever addressed first by an American sitting next to me at table. Indeed I never held any conversation at a public table in the West. I have sat in the same room with men for hours, and have not had a word spoken to me. I have done my very best to break through this ice, and have always failed. A western American man is not a talking man. He will sit for hours over a stove with his cigar in his mouth, and his hat over his eyes, chewing the cud of reflection. A dozen will sit together in the same way, and there shall not be a dozen words spoken between them in an hour. With the women one's chance of conversation is still worse. It seemed as though the cares of the world had been too much for them, and that all talking excepting as to business,—demands for instance on the servants for pickles for their children,—had gone by the board. They were generally hard, dry, and melancholy. I am speaking of course of aged females,—from five and twenty perhaps to thirty, who had long since given up the amusements and levities of life. I very soon abandoned any attempt at drawing a word from these ancient mothers of families; but not the less did I ponder in my mind over the circumstances of their lives. Had things gone with them so sadly, was the struggle for independence so hard, that all the softness of existence had been trodden out of them? In the cities too it was much the same. It seemed to me that a future mother of a family in those parts had left all laughter behind her when she put out her finger for the wedding ring.
      For these reasons I must say that life on board these steam-boats was not as pleasant as I had hoped to find it, but for our discomfort in this respect we found great atonement in the scenery through which we passed. I protest that of all the river scenery that I know, that of the Upper Mississippi is by far the finest and the most continued. One thinks of course of the Rhine; but, according to my idea of beauty, the Rhine is nothing to the Upper Mississippi. For miles upon miles, for hundreds of miles, the course of the river runs through low hills, which are there called bluffs. These bluffs rise in every imaginable form, looking sometimes like large straggling unwieldy castles, and then throwing themselves into sloping lawns which stretch back away from the river till the eye is lost in their twists and turnings. Landscape beauty, as I take it, consists mainly in four attributes: in water, in broken land, in scattered timber,—timber scattered as opposed to continuous forest timber,—and in the accident of colour. In all these particulars the banks of the Upper Mississippi can hardly be beaten. There are no high mountains; but high mountains themselves are grand rather than beautiful. There are no high mountains, but there is a succession of hills which group themselves for ever without monotony. It is perhaps the ever-variegated forms of these bluffs which chiefly constitute the wonderful loveliness of this river. The idea constantly occurs that some point on every hillside would form the most charming site ever yet chosen for a noble residence. I have passed up and down rivers clothed to the edge with continuous forest. This at first is grand enough, but the eye and feeling soon become weary. Here the trees are scattered so that the eye passes through them, and ever and again a long lawn sweeps back into the country, and up the steep side of a hill, making the traveller long to stay there and linger through the oaks, and climb the bluffs, and lie about on the bold but easy summits. The boat, however, steams quickly up against the current, and the happy valleys are left behind, one quickly after another. The river is very various in its breadth, and is constantly divided by islands. It is never so broad that the beauty of the banks is lost in the distance or injured by it. It is rapid, but has not the beautifully bright colour of some European rivers,—of the Rhine for instance, and the Rhone. But what is wanting in the colour of the water is more than compensated by the wonderful hues and lustre of the shores. We visited the river in October, and I must presume that they who seek it solely for the sake of scenery should go there in that month. It was not only that the foliage of the trees was bright with every imaginable colour, but that the grass was bronzed, and that the rocks were golden. And this beauty did not last only for a while and then cease. On the Rhine there are lovely spots and special morsels of scenery with which the traveller becomes duly enraptured. But on the Upper Mississippi there are no special morsels. The position of the sun in the heavens will, as it always does, make much difference in the degree of beauty. The hour before and the half-hour after sunset are always the loveliest for such scenes. But of the shores themselves one may declare that they are lovely throughout those 400 miles which run immediately south from St. Paul.

– Anthony Trollope, from North America (1862). Some thirty years prior to Trollope’s travels that afforded him the above observations, his mother, Frances, had taken his two sisters to live in Tennessee, during which time she noted that Americans “consume an extraordinary quantity of bacon. Ham and beefsteaks appear morning, noon, and night. In eating, they mix things together with the strangest incongruity imaginable.” Trollope published 47 novels, among them the series of six set in the fictional town of Barsetshire, and died at the age of 67 in 1882.

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