Text: Edgar Allan Poe, Critical Notices, Southern Literary Messenger, Vol. II, no. 2, February 1836, 2:192-195


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[page 192, column ?:]

AMERICAN IN ENGLAND.

The American in England. By the Author of “A Year in Spain.” 2 vols. New York. Harper and Brothers.

Lieutenant Slidell’s very excellent book, “A Year in Spain,” was in some danger of being overlooked by his countrymen when a benignant star directed Murray’s attention to its merits. Fate and Regent Street prevailed. Cockney octavos carried the day. A man is nothing if not hot-pressed; and the clever young writer who was cut dead in his Yankee-land habiliments, met with bows innumerable in the gala dress of a London imprimatur. The “Year in Spain” well deserved the popularity thus inauspiciously attained. It was the work of a man of genius; and passing through several editions, prepared the public attention for any subsequent production of its author. As regards “The American in England,” we have not only read it with deep interest from beginning to end, but have been at the trouble of seeking out and perusing a great variety of critical dicta concerning it. Nearly all of these are in its favor, and we are happy in being able to concur heartily with the popular voice — if indeed these dicta be its echoes.

We have somewhere said-or we should have somewhere said-that the old adage about “Truth in a well” (we mean the adage in its modern and improper — not in its antique and proper acceptation) should be swallowed cum grano salis at times. To be profound is not always to be sensible. The depth of an argument is not, necessarily, its wisdom — this depth lying where Truth is sought more often than where she is found. As the touches of a painting which, to minute inspection, are ‘confusion worse confounded’ will not fail to start boldly out to the cursory glance of a connoisseur — or as a star may be seen more distinctly in a sidelong survey than in any direct gaze however penetrating and in. [page 193:] tense — so there are, not unfrequently, times and methods, in which, and by means of which, a richer philosophy may be gathered on the surface of things than can be drawn up, even with great labor, e profundis. It appears to us that Mr. Slidell has written a wiser book than his neighbors merely by not disdaining to write a more superficial one.

The work is dedicated to John Duer, Esq. The Preface is a very sensible and a sufficiently well-written performance, in which the Lieutenant while “begging, at the outset, to be acquitted of any injurious prejudices” still pleads guilty to “that ardent patriotism which is the common attribute of Americans, a feeling of nationality inherited with the laws, the language, and the manners of the country from which we derive our origin, and which is sanctioned not less by the comparison of the blessings we enjoy with those of other lands, than by the promptings of good feeling, and the dictates of good taste.” It is in the body of the book, however, that we must seek, and where we shall most assuredly find, strong indications of a genius not the less rich, rare, and altogether estimable for the simplicity of its modus operandi.

Commencing with his embarkation at New York, our author succeeds, at once, in rivetting the attention of his readers by a succession of minute details. But there is this vast difference between the details of Mr. Slidell, and the details of many of his contemporaries. They — the many — impressed, apparently, with the belief that mere minuteness is sufficient to constitute force, and that to be accurate is, of necessity, to be verisimilar — have not hesitated in putting in upon their canvass all the actual lines which might be discovered in their subject. This Mr. Slidell has known better than to do. He has felt that the apparent, not the real, is the province of a painter — and that to give (speaking technically) the idea of any desired object, the toning down, or the utter neglect of certain portions of that object is absolutely necessary to the proper bringing out of other portions — portions by whose sole instrumentality the idea of the object is afforded. With a fine eye then for the picturesque, and with that strong sense of propriety which is inseparable from true genius, our American has crossed the water, dallied a week in London, and given us, as the result of his observations, a few masterly sketches, with all the spirit, vigor, raciness and illusion of a panorama.

Very rarely have we seen any thing of the kind superior to the “American in England.” The interest begins with the beginning of the book, and abides with us, unabated, to the end. From the scenes in the Yankee harbor, to the departure of the traveller from England, his arrival in France, and installment among the comforts of the Hotel Quillacq, all is terse, nervous, brilliant and original. The review of the ship’s company, in the initial chapter of the book is exceedingly entertaining. The last character thus introduced is so peculiarly sketched that we must copy what the author says about him. It will serve to exemplify some of our own prior remarks.

“Let me not forget to make honorable mention of the white-headed little raggamuffin who was working his passage, and who, in this capacity, had the decks to sweep, ropes to haul, chickens and pigs to feed, the cow to milk, and the dishes to wash, as well as all other jobs to do that belonged to no one in particular. As a proof of good will, he had chopped off the tails of a dandy, [column 2:] velvet-collared, blue coat, with the cook’s axe, the very first day out. This was performed at the windlass-bits, in full conclave of the crew, and I suspected at the suggestion of a roguish man-of-war-’s-man, a shipmate of mine. The tails were cut just below the pocket flaps, which gave them a sort of razee look, and, in conjunction with the velvet collar, made the oddest appearance in the world, as hie would creel), stern first, out of the long-boat after milking the cow. Blow high or blow low, the poor boy had no time to be sea-sick. Some times he would get adrift in the lee scuppers and roll over in the water, keeping fast hold of the plates he was carying [[carrying]] to the galley.”

Some incidents at sea — such as the narrow escape from running down a brig, and the imminent danger incurred by an English pilot — are told with all the gusto of a seaman. Among other fine passages we may particularize an account of British sailors on shore at Portsmouth — of a family group on board a steamer — of the appearance of the Kentish coast — of the dangers of the Thames-of the Dover coach-of some groups in a London coffee-room — of a stand of hackney-coaches — of St. James’ Park — of a midnight scene in the streets — of the Strand — of Temple-Bar-of St. Paul’s and the view from the summit — of Rothschild — of Barclay and Perkins’ Brewery — of the Thames’ Tunnel — of the Tower of the Zoological Gardens — of Robert Owen — of the habits of retired citizens — and of the rural tastes of English men. A parallel between Regent Street and Broadway brings the two thoroughfares with singular distinctness to the eye of the mind-and in the way of animated and vivid description we can, at this moment, remember nothing in the whole range of fact or fiction much superior to the Lieutenant’s narrative of his midnight entrance into London. Indeed we can almost pardon a contemporary for speaking of this picture as sublime. A small portion of it we copy — but no just idea of its total effect can be thus gathered — an effect depending in a great measure upon the gradual manner in which it is brought about.

“I know nothing more exhilirating [[exhilarating]] than to be suddenly ushered in the night into a populous quarter of a great city. My recollection readily conjures up the impressions made upon me under similar circumstances in entering Paris, Madrid, Brussels, Milan, or gay and lively Naples. The lower classes, with their good humor, their quaint drollery and sprightliness, there offer the most agreeable objects of contemplation. Here, however, there was in the corresponding classes nothing pleasing, or even picturesque. All seemed in search of food, of the means of intemperance, and of gratifying low and brutal passions. The idea of amusement had evidently no place. The streets swarmed with abandoned women, filthy in their dress, open, brutal, and indecent in their advances. In the places of the guitar, the serenade, the musical cries of chesnut-women, lemonade-sellers, and watermen, the sounds here were harsh and grating: uttered in words ill pronounced and nasally prolonged, or in an unintelligible and discordant slang which I no longer recognized as belonging to my own language. In the place of skilful musicians performing the favorite airs of Mozart or Rossini, or the witty colloquies of the sententious Punchinello, the poor were invited, in the nasal twang of clamorous mountebanks to amuse themselves by a sight of the latest cases of seduction, murder, suicide, and hanging, represented in the shadows of the camera obseura. The dark masses of dwelling-houses had a confined, narrow, gloomy, and lugubrious aspect. They were of brick, without window-sills of marble or other colored stone; unpainted, and unenlivened by blinds. They were closely shut, and the glimpses of cheerfulness and domestic comfort [page 194:] exhibited in our streets were here unseen. All the shops were open to the weather: Many of them having the whole front removed, and gas-lights blazing and streaming like great torches, rather than with the puny and flickering illumination seen in ours. The articles were completely exposed to view at the side of the street; clothing, provisions, crockery, hardware; whatever is necessary to the wants of man. The druggists, with their variegated vases, as with us, cast the Iris hues of their nauseous mixtures into the street. Sellers of cheap goods exposed them in the windows, with their price labelled. The butchers hung out beef, pork, sausages, and enormous coarse sheep, in a nearly whole state, with sometimes the price affixed to the inferior portions, in order that the poor might judge whether the price they had received for their day’s labor, would compass a meal of meat; or whether they should seek a diet more suited to their means, of a neighboring potato merchant: or whether to turn in despair, as many of the most wretched seemed to do, to accept the flattering invitation of the magnificent gin-palace at the corner. It was the most splendid building in the neighborhood; built with some little architectural elegance, whose effect was magnified by the unadorned character and gloomy air of the surrounding edifices. A beautiful gas-light, in a richly ornamented lamp, stood as an inviting beacon, visible in many diverging directions. The windows were glazed with costly plate-glass, bearing inscribed, in illuminated letters, the words-gin at threepence-generous wines hot-spiced; — and the door surrounded by stained panes of rich dye, having rosettes, bunches of grapes, and gay devices.”

There are some few niaiseries in the work before us, which, although insufficient to affect its character as a whole, yet constitute a weak point in what otherwise is beautiful, and cause us to regret sincerely, the accidents which have admitted them. We may mention, in especial, the too frequent introduction of the monosyllable “how,” in such sentences as “they told how” — “it was related how” — “I was informed how,” &c. Mr. Slidell will find, upon self-scrutiny, that he has fallen into this habit through the sin of imitation. The Lieutenant, too, suffers his work to savor far too strongly of the ship, and lets slip him no opportunity of thrusting upon the public attention the fact of his particular vocation — insisting, indeed, upon this matter with a pertinacity even ludicrous — a pertinacity which will be exemplified in the following passage:

“Unaccustomed as I had been in the larger vessels, in which I had sailed of late, to be thus unceremoniously boarded on the hallowed region of the quarter-deck, this seemed to me quite a superfluous piece of impertinence. The remains of my sentiment were at once washed away, and not minding a little honest saltwater, I betook myself forthwith to the substantial comfortings of the repast, which I found smoking on the cabin table. Dinner was over: tea and conversation had followed; the evening was already far advanced, and I began to yield to the sleepy sensation which the familiar roll of the sea inspired. Before turning in I ascended to the companionway to breathe the fresh air, and see what progress we were making. Familiar as I was with the sight of ships in every possible situation, I was much struck with the beauty of the scene.”

Again. Although the author evinces, in theory, a very laudable contempt for that silly vanity so often inducing men to blazon forth their intimacy with the distinguished; and although, in the volumes now before us, he more than once directs the arrows of his satire at the infirmity — still he is found not altogether free from it himself; and, in one especial instance, is even awkwarkdly [[awkwardly]] uneasy, lest we should remain ignorant of his acquaintance with Washington Irving. “I thought,” [column 2:] quoth the Lieutenant, when there was no necessity for thinking about any such matter, “I thought of the’spectral box-coats’ of my inimitable friend Geoffrey Crayon; and would have given the world in that moment of despondency, for one of his quiet unwritten jokes, or one friendly pressure of his hand.”

Upon Mr. Slidell’s mechanical style we cannot bring ourselves to look with favor. Indeed while running over, with some astonishment, a few of his singularly ill-constructed sentences, we begin to think that the sentiments expressed in the conclusion of his Preface are not, as we at first suspected, merely the common cant of the literateur, and that his book is actually, as he represents it to be, “the result of an up-hill journey,” and “a work which lie regards with a feeling of aversion.” What else than great tedium and utter weariness with his labor, could have induced our author to trust such passages as the following to the critical eye of the public?

“The absence of intellectual and moral culture, in occupations which rendered it unnecessary for those who worked only to administer food to themselves and profit or luxury to the class of masters, could only account for the absence of forehead, of the ornamental parts of that face which was moulded after a divine model.”

We perused this sentence more than once before we could fathom its meaning. Mr. Slidell wishes to say, that narrowness of forehead in the rabble is giving to want of mental exercise — they being laborers not thinkers. But from the words of our author we are led to conclude that some occupations (certainly very strange ones) rendered it unnecessary for those who worked, to administer food to themselves — that is, to eat. The pronoun “it,” however, will be found, upon examination, to refer to “moral culture.” The repetition of the word “only” is also disagreeable, and the entire passage is overloaded with verbiage. A rigid scrutiny will show that all essential portions of the intended idea are embodied in the lines Italicised. In the original sentence are fifty-four words — in our own eighteen — or precisely one third. It follows, that if all the Lieutenant’s sentences had been abridged in a similar manner — a process which would have redounded greatly to their advantage — we might have been spared much trouble, and the public much time, trouble, and expense — the “American in England” making its appearance in a duodecimo of one hundred and ninety-two pages, rather than in two octavos of five hundred and seventy-six.

At page 122, vol. I, we have what follows.

“My situation here was uncomfortable enough; if I were softly cushioned on one side, this only tended, by the contrast, to increase the obduracy of a small iron rod, which served as a parapet to protect me from falling off the precipice, over which I hung toppling, and against which I was forced with a pressure proportioned to the circumstances of my being compressed into a space somewhat narrower than myself; the seat having doubtless been contrived to accommodate five men, and there being no greater anatomical mistake than to suppose there would be more room because four of them were women.”

‘If I were,’ in this sentence, is not English — but there are few persons who will believe that “if “ does not in all instances require the subjunctive. In the words “a small iron rod which served as a parapet to protect me from falling off the precipice over which hung, and against which I was forced,” &c. let us say nothing of the injudicious [page 195:] use of the word parapet as applied to a small iron rod. Passing over this, it is evident, that the second relative pronoun “which,” has for its antecedent, in strict syntactical arrangement, the same noun as the first relative pronoun “which” — that is to say, it has the word “precipice” for its antecedent. The sentence would thus imply that Mr. Slidell was forced against the precipice. But the actual meaning (at which we arrive by guessing) is, that Mr. Slidell was forced against the iron rod. In the words “I was forced with a pressure proportioned to the circumstances of my being compressed into a space,” &c. let us again be indulgent, and say as little as possible of the tautology in “pressure” and “compressed.” But we ask where are the circumstances spoken of? There is only one circumstance — the circumstance of being compressed. In the conclusion of the passage where the Lieutenant speaks of “a seat having doubtless been contrived to accommodate five men, and there being no greater anatomical mistake than to suppose there would be more room because four of them were women,” it is quite unnecessary to point out the “bull egregious” — a bull which could have been readily avoided by the simple substitute of “persons “ for “men.”

We must be pardoned for copying yet another sentence. We will do so with the single remark that it is one of the most ludicrously ill-arranged, and altogether ungainly pieces of composition which it has ever been our ill fortune to encounter.

“I was not long in discovering that the different personages scattered about the room in such an unsocial and misanthropic manner, instead of being collected about the same board, as in France or my own country, and in the spirit of good fellowship and of boon companions relieving each other of their mutual ennuis, though they did not speak a word to each other, by which they might hereafter be compromised and socially ruined, by discovering that they had made the acquaintance of an individual several grades below them in the scale of rank, or haply as disagreeably undeceived by the abstraction of a pocket-book, still kept up a certain interchange of sentiment, by occasional glances and mutual observation.”

Such passages as the foregoing may be discovered passim in “ The American in England.” Yet we have heard Mr. Slidell’s English called equal to the English of Mr. Irving — than which nothing can be more improbable. The Lieutenant’s book is an excellent book — but then it is excellent in spite of its style. So great are the triumphs of genius!

 


Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - SLM, 1836] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Criticial Notices (February 1836)