|Lincoln/Net||Prairie Fire||Illinois During the Civil War||Illinois During the Gilded Age||Mark Twain's Mississippi||Back to Digitization Projects||Contact Us|
Dicey, Edward. Six Months in the Federal States, Vol. II . London: MacMillan and Co., 1863. [format: book], [genre: travelogue]. Permission: Newberry Library
"THE oldest house in all Boston, built MDCLVI." This was the notice over a mercer's shop in Washington Street, which caught my eye in entering Boston. The shop was one of those little wooden pill-box houses you see about seaport towns at home, which might as well have been built yesterday or a thousand years ago. In itself it contained nothing noticeable; but what rendered it remarkable was that, in this new world, age should be considered any recommendation. It is, I think, Swift who suggests that in an ideal State, all citizens who attained to the age of sixty should be removed as public nuisances. Throughout the West there is a like feeling with reference to inanimate objects. If an hotel is old, travellers cease to frequent it; if a house is old, the owner begins to rebuild it; if a tree is old, it is cut down at once. It is not that the Americans have no reverence for antiquity; but that, settlers in a new hemisphere, they bear with them, unconsciously perhaps, the traditions of the old. Methuselah would not
have attached much value to an heirloom bequeathed by his great grandson to his great-great grandson; and, in like manner, the Americans, whose language and whose race is that of Hengist and Horsa, can hardly consider it a point of great interest, whether a building is two, or twenty, or two hundred years old. In fact, the feeling of Americans towards England is a mixed and often a contradictory one. An American is almost always offended if you tell him that America is very like England. He has a conviction not altogether I think an absurd one that his country ought to have a separate individuality, which makes the idea of his nation being the copy of another almost repugnant. At the same time he has an opposite conviction, which I would not gainsay, that, equally with the native-born Englishman, he is the descendant of the England of Shakespeare, and Hampden and Bacon. It is this conflicting state of sentiment which causes half the difficulties between England and America. America is at once proud of England and jealous of her; and I see little prospect of a state of stable equilibrium in the matter of friendship between the two countries, till America has got what she is fast getting, a literature and a history and a past of her own.
This, however, is rather a roundabout manner of coming to the conclusion I wish to draw from my observation of the mercer's shop in Washington Street, Boston, which proclaimed its antiquity as a recommendation
to the public. Here, in New England, alone perhaps in all America, is such an inscription possible. Coming, as I did, to Massachusetts from the Far West, my prevailing feeling was, all along, that I had got back to an Old World civilization. Having reversed the ordinary route of European travellers having made Boston my terminus, and not my starting-point I was perhaps more struck with the oldness of New England than with the characteristics which belonged to it as a portion of the New World. Montalembert said once, that when he was weary of despotism, he came across the Channel to take a bath of freedom. So, if I were settled in the Western World, I should come to New England from time to time, to take a bath of antiquity. Old and new are relative terms, and the change is as great in coming from Chicago to Boston as it is in passing from England to Massachusetts. Be the cause what it may, I felt, and felt pleasantly, that I was getting home. One must have wandered, as I did for months, through new cities and new States and new locations, to know the pleasure of coming back to a country where there is something older than oneself. The olive-leaf which the dove brought back to the ark was welcome as a token of the older world rising above the dull level of the flood; and so this one inscription of a building that dates from two centuries ago was welcome as a memory of the past to one who was well-nigh weary of the promises of the future.
But, indeed, it needed no Western training to find Boston pleasant in the month of June. After six weeks' residence there, I was unable to discover on what plan the city was built, if, which I doubt, it was ever built on any plan at all. The very names of the streets are good English names, which tell you something about their several histories nothing about their relative location. There is no such address in Boston as "No. 1000A Street, between 100 and 101Z Street." The street cars do not take you, as elsewhere in America, to Pekin, Peru, Paris, Constantinople, and Jerusalem; but to old-fashioned English suburbs Cambridge and Charlestown, and Roxbury and Watertown. So State Street it used to be King Street Fremont, Beacon, Leveret, Mount Vernon, and a hundred other streets, run in and out of each other at all kinds of angles, up and down all kinds of slopes, in a perfect chaos of disorder. Somehow or other you always keep coming upon the sea in all sorts of unexpected places; and, whichever way you strike out, you always get back to Washington Street. This is all that I could learn as to the topography of Boston. But even though you do lose your way, it is pleasanter to an ill-regulated European mind to go wrong in Boston than to go right in St. Louis or Chicago.
There is even a pleasure (I make the confession with a sense of humiliation) in being received at an hotel where the waiters wear white neckties and are pompous
as well as civil. There are no mammoth hotels, no rows of commercial palaces, no stores of gigantic height, resplendent with marble facings; but, on the other hand, there are streets upon streets of solemn, cosy Dutch-brick houses, looking as though a dozen generations had been born within their walls and carried out from behind their doors. Before each house there are little patches of grass-plot gardens hemmed in by iron railings of substantial respectability. At the corners of the streets, perched in the most inconvenient localities, there are old stone-built churches which must have heard our King Georges prayed for on many a Sunday. There is a State-house with a yellow gilt dome of the Brighton Pavilion order of architecture, which it could have entered into the head of none but an English architect to conceive. In quaint nooks, right in the city's heart, stand old-fashioned English graveyards, looking as if they had been brought over from the city in the days while city trees still were green; and, in the very centre of Boston, there is a fine old park full of ups and downs, and turf and knots of trees, which must have been the especial charge of the King's forester, whose house you can still have pointed out to you not far from the city.
Putting aside the dreary six months' winter of ice and snow, I would choose Boston for my dwelling-place in the States. The town itself is so bright and clean, so full of life without bustle; and then the
suburbs are such pleasant places. Bunker's Hill, I own candidly, I did not go to. Talking of Bunker's Hill monument, there is a story told in Boston which is worth repeating. An English nobleman, who visited America not long ago, was taken to see the stock sight of Boston. "It was here, my lord," said his American guide, "that Warren fell." "Dear me!" replied the peer, staring at the monument in blissful ignorance of who Warren was, "I hope he did not hurt himself." Let me add, that during my stay at Boston, I learnt two facts about the battle of Bunker's Hill, of which, to judge from myself, I think the English public are completely ignorant. The first is, that the battle was fought on the same day as the battle of Quatre-Bras. The second is, that it ended in a British victory, though a victory of the Cannae kind. On learning this, I felt absolved from the necessity of visiting the monument.
The truth is, there are so many pretty places about Boston, that it is hard to choose among them. On every line by which you enter the city, you pass for miles by hundreds and thousands of pleasant country-houses, sometimes grouped together in villages, sometimes in knots of two or three, sometimes standing alone in their own gardens. There is no superstition in New England about the neighbourhood of trees being unwholesome, and in the early summer the houses are almost buried beneath the green shade of the over-hanging
foliage. Out of the city itself the houses, with few exceptions, are built of wood. Stone is more plentiful there than timber; in fact, the whole State of Massachusetts is little more than a great granite boulder covered over with a thin layer of scanty soil. Wood, however, is preferred for house-building, partly because a wooden house requires less labour in construction, and labour is expensive and far from plentiful, partly because wooden dwellings dry more quickly, and are more habitable than stone ones. To show how scanty skilled labour is still in New England, I may mention that some friends of mine, who live a few miles from Boston, wanting in last May to have a store-closet fitted up with shelves, sent for the only carpenter within reach. The man was quite willing to undertake the job, but could not find time to fix it up till the following August; and so it being Hobson's choice, my friends had to wait till he was disengaged.
It can only be the high price of labour which hinders Massachusetts from being a very poor country. I have never seen fields elsewhere at once so picturesque and so barren. They are very small for the most part, sometimes surrounded with stone fences built up laboriously, at others divided off by hedge-rows reminding me of Leicestershire, rich in stones beyond description, and bearing the meagrest of crops. Great masses of rock rise up in their midst, and the ploughs seem to have turned up three handfuls of stones to
one of earth. The system of agriculture, I should say, was very primitive, but painstaking. Indeed, the life of New England farmers is no easy one. They rise early, work hard, and toil year after year with bare returns for their labours. Why a man is a farmer in Massachusetts, or, for that matter, anywhere, is a mystery. I can only account for it by the, to me, unintelligible passion for the possession of land. The farms in the country districts have many of them remained in the same family from the earliest days of the colony. Property, as in almost all parts of America, is divided equally by custom not by law. Any man is at perfect liberty to make whatever disposition of his estate he thinks fit. As a rule, the eldest son of a New England farmer takes the farm, mortgages it deeply, to pay off his brothers' and sisters' shares in the estate, and then toils on, throughout his life perhaps, to clear off the incumbrances which eat up his scanty profits. Whenever the struggle becomes too hard, the great West is always open to give the settler a new start in life under kindlier auspices, and therefore real poverty is almost unknown in New England. As long, however, as the Massachusetts yeoman can make both ends meet in any way, he prefers to drag on his life at home.
Yet with all this, I saw nowhere the trace of poverty. I drove for miles along the pleasant country-roads, with their broad roadside strips of turf and their English hedge-rows; I passed through villages without end;
and yet I never saw a cottage about which there was the unmistakeable stamp of want. It is true that white paint conceals a good deal of dirt, but still I saw no single cottage in which I should think it a hardship to have to live. Most of them had gardens, where wild vines and honeysuckles and roses were trained carefully. Through the windows you could see sofas, and rocking-chairs, and books, and lamps all signs evidencing some degree of wealth, or at least of comfort. The poorest cottages were always those of the raw Irish emigrants, but still there was hardly one of them which was not a palace compared with the cottage of an ordinary English labourer, to say nothing of Ireland. It is curious, by the way, that there is a great deal of the old English prejudice against the Irish in New England. Intermarriages between the poor Irish and the poor New Englanders are almost unheard of, and it is a most unusual occurrence for an Irishman to be elected to any office in the State. However, the Irish make and, what is more, save money; and for the most part lose both race and language and religion in the third generation. The German element seems to be very small. A German name over a shop-door is a rare sight in the New England villages, and the names that catch a traveller's eye are good old English ones, such as Hurst, Bassett, College, Thompson, and Packard.
Of all country houses I have been in, some I know of near Boston seem to me about the pleasantest. There
is no style, and very little pretension of any kind about them. There are none but women-servants, and but few of them. There are no luxurious carriages, and if you want riding-horses you must hire them. There is no display of plate or liveries; and you dine at two o'clock, and do not dress for dinner. Possibly for this cause you are all the more comfortable. At any rate, you have everything that, to my mind, a country house ought to have. There are pleasant gardens and shady walks, warm rooms and large old grates, easy chairs without number, portraits of English ancestors who lived and died before America was ever heard of, good libraries, and excellent cookery. Added to all this, you are in an English atmosphere very welcome to an Englishman. You find English books about you, read English newspapers, and are talked to with English talk. The latest English criticisms, the gossip of the English book-world, the passing incidents of English life, "Essays and Reviews," and the Kennedy law case, are topics about which your hosts know as much, and perhaps care more, than you do yourself. Indeed, it often struck me that my Boston friends knew more about England than they did about America. I say this in no depreciation of their patriotism. It may seem strange to English critics who are wont to assume, as a self-evident axiom, that America is a hateful country, and that the system of American Government is repulsive to every educated and refined mind to discover, as they
would do by a short residence at Boston, that men of genius and men of letters men whose names are known and honoured wherever the English language is read feel as proud of their own country and as proud of their own institutions as if they had been Englishmen. I do not say, that the feeling towards England is more friendly in Boston than elsewhere in the States; perhaps it is even less so. The community of feeling, and sentiment, and literature, between New and Old England has caused the New Englanders to feel more bitterly than other Americans what they consider, justly or unjustly, the sins of England towards the Union; but, in spite of themselves, the old love for England still crops out, in the almost touching cordiality with which an Englishman is welcomed here. Just as the artist world of Europe, willingly or unwillingly, turns to Italy as the home of Art, so the mind, and culture, and genius of America turns, and will turn for many long years yet, to the mother-country as the home of her language, and history, and literature. That this should be so is an honour to England, and, like all honours, it entails a responsibility.
Dicey, Edward. Six Months in the Federal States, Vol. II . London: MacMillan and Co., 1863. [format: book], [genre: travelogue]. Permission: Newberry Library
Persistent link to this document: http://lincoln.lib.niu.edu/file.php?file=dicey2.html