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Chapter 30: our criticism of foreign visitors

Few things seem more unreasonable than the demand we habitually make on foreign visitors that they should know something of American geography, because we know something of European geography. It seems unreasonable that we should even be surprised that they expect, as they often do, to see the Rocky Mountains from New York Harbor. It is as if a son who has removed far from his old home should expect his father to find his way about a newly built house in Omaha, merely because he himself remembers every nook and corner of the old house in East Belchertown. How much do we ourselves know about any part of the continent, new or old, which we have never visited? How many American citizens could draw, off-hand, a recognizable sketch-map showing the relative positions of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland? [201] How many know whether Guatemala and Yucatan adjoin each other, and which is north or south of the other? It is safe to say not one in a thousand. Nay, how many Eastern citizens even know the relative positions on the map of Wyoming, Idaho, and Arizona, or can state without much reflection the comparative sizes of New York and Nevada? At an examination of teachers in a New England city, scarcely one could be found who knew where Cape Malabar was; some were wholly ignorant, others thought it must be in the East Indies, whereas it is in reality the southeastern point of Massachusetts. If we ourselves are thus easily perplexed by questions in our own national geography, can we reasonably expect a visitor from the Thames or the Tweed to know more?

The things which add interest to special localities are either their ancestral associations or their connection with great names or their works of art, including buildings. Of the last we have as yet but few to show; in that respect we still go to Europe, if only as Robinson Crusoe went to his wreck, to bring away what we can find. Even the World's Fair at Chicago did not, as was expected, draw shoals of foreigners to visit it. Then, of course, the [202] ancestral ties run all in the other direction; no European crosses the Atlantic to visit the tomb of his great-grandfather. But not only do we go to Europe for that pious aim: the fifty-six thousand Christian Endeavorers who lately visited Boston spent a large part of their time in the old cemeteries; they might be seen in all directions taking duplicate charcoal impressions of the tombstones of John Hancock and Paul Revere and Franklin's parents and the somewhat mythical Mother Goose. The historic impulse, unlike the star of empire, takes its way eastward; we go back to the regions our fathers deserted, precisely because they deserted them. The feeling of our newer States towards the older ones is like that of the inhabitants of those older States towards Europe, a mingling of filial affection and jealousy. In the popular Chicago tale of Sweet Clover a young girl says, sadly, “I wonder if I shall ever go East; to New York, Boston, Philadelphia, I should like them to be something beside names to me-but what an idea!” This is essentially the feeling with which other Americans look towards Europe.

It is when the ties of literary association begin to form that older and newer communities come to be more on an equality. We go [203] to England to hear Shakespeare's lark sing at heaven's gate; and Thomas Hughes came to America to hear Lowell's bobolink. These ties again are formed very slowly, and the colonial spirit still lingers so much among us that a very little English reputation goes farther in the United States than a much higher American fame in England. Yet here we are sometimes startled with the discovery that we are also interesting to our elder cousins, as well as our elder cousins to us. Twenty-five years ago the present writer, visiting Europe for the first time, began with the city of Cork, and stood delighted before the humble sign “Fishamble Lane,” because it recalled the song whose burden was,

Misthress Judy McCarthy of Fishamble Lane.” On mentioning this a day or two after, in London, to that fine old Irish abolitionist, the late Richard D. Webb, he received it with sympathy, and said that he felt just so when he first saw the sign “Madison Square” in New York and thought of Miss Flora McFlimsey. It was pleasant to find that we too had some small poetic associations to be exported, so that we could restore the balance of trade.

It is a pity that we should now be beginning [204] to complain of our foreign visitors, not for knowing too little about us, but for knowing too much. Thus Madame Blanc, whose book on The Condition of Women in the United States justly criticises American women as knowing little of the history of any country except England and America, has been herself reproved for the amount and variety of knowledge which she has crowded into these brief essays. We have probably never had such good criticisms of national ways and manners from any foreign woman, and it goes without saying that to do these things better than any woman is to do them better than any man. She has keenly pointed out faults as well as she has recognized merits; she does not applaud the architecture and decoration of the Woman's Building at Chicago, and fearlessly points out that “manner is far less important than matter in America, even in the eyes of those who call themselves artists.” Yet she is spoken of by some leading journals as if she were a mere commonplace gossip, without earnestness or purpose; as if her visit to this country were not the culmination of a long series of services rendered to us, through the greatest of the world's reviews, in the translation of American authors and the elucidation [205] of our social system. We still show national weakness in our over-sensitiveness. Probably all Europe cannot afford any one better fitted than Madame Blanc to discuss precisely those aspects of American life which she touches. And when we consider that it is only a few years since Mr. Philbrick, our Educational Commissioner at the Paris Exposition of 1878, complained that he had never yet found a Frenchman who could be convinced that any American woman had ever studied Greek, we ought to be grateful to the French woman who has at last spoken with knowledge.


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