Atlantic Monthly Review (1877)
of Gustave de Molinari’s
Letters on the United States and Canada (1876)


Lettres sur les États-Unis et le Canada. Addressées au Journal des Débats à l’Occasion de l’Exposition Universelle de Philadelphie, par M. G. de Molinari. Paris: Hachette. 1876.

GM.1 The reader, if a person of active intelligence, has probably already made the swift generalization that no Frenchman is able to see clearly or describe fairly a foreign land, and that Philarète Chasles, who always boasted of his knowledge of England, was as clever as the best. [Online editor’s note: the review immediately preceding this one had been of Philarète Chasles’ Memoirs. – RTL] But here is a book about this country which destroys any such hasty conclusion. M. de Molinari has collected in a volume the letters he wrote hence to the Journal des Débats between the end of June and the beginning of October of last year, and it would not be easy to name a more accurate report upon this country by any stranger; and his success is the more astonishing in view of his apparently slight knowledge of the language. He was a most busy traveler; his stay was a brief one, but he did not waste a day; the summer, it will be remembered, was very hot, but, not deterred by his sufferings in Philadelphia and New York, after a brief trip to Niagara and through Canada to Saratoga, he set sail for Charleston, visited also Savannah, Augusta, Atlanta, Mobile, and New Orleans, went up the Mississippi to St. Louis, thence made his way to Chicago and back to New York again through Cincinnati and Philadelphia, starting for home after a hasty visit to Boston. Now a book like De Tocqueville’s cannot be written after a trip of this sort, but it is surprising how good a book can be written when the right man takes the journey, and puts in his letters home only what he sees, without venom and without flattery, and what he hears from trustworthy people. M. de Molinari has a very pleasant humor which keeps him safe from the black pessimism that seizes so many travelers after they have had to put up with discomforts, and he records inconveniences without deducing from them the hopeless degradation of all Americans. For instance, in recounting his stay at one of the huge hotels in Saratoga, after speaking about the dancing he saw, “gentlemen and ladies dancing without gloves,” he goes to his room, No. 1315, and finds his bed not made, and the next morning his boots not blacked. “Is this an accidental omission or a widespread vengeance of the negro servants upon the white race?” And then he laughs at all the splendors of the hotel, with two miles of parlors, ten acres of carpets, etc., and such neglect of duty as he had suffered from. But he is far from confining himself to these trivial, superficial matters, and yet he does not neglect them any more than he does the hot duel between gargling oil and sozodont, which pursued him from one end of our land to another and gave him a good deal of amusement.
GM.2 He gives considerable space to comments on our widespread habit of bragging, our tremendous conceit, those vices which are so continually denounced by an unwelcome minority. In summing up, after singing the glories of our material successes, he says, “However, there is another side to this splendid medal. While devoting their unequaled energy, perhaps too exclusively, to creating the material of civilization, the Americans have neglected or have given only cool attention to those arts and sciences which have for their object the cultivation of man and the wise government of society. American literature is excessively poor, and especially during the last few years has produced very few works of science or of imagination which deserve to be mentioned. The fine arts have only begun to be cultivated; excellent pianos are made in the United States, but no artists are found there. The material of instruction is beyond reproach; the schools are large, well warmed and ventilated, the desks and chairs of the scholars are of the best sort, but the courses of instruction are simply copied from ours, and the only noteworthy improvement in late years is the teaching of Greek to girls. ... The increase of private schools along-side of the free public schools does not prove that the public instruction in the United States deserves absolutely all the extravagant eulogy given them in the platforms of the political parties and in public speeches.” A more serious evil, he goes on to say, is the indifference of the public to the proper management of politics. He enumerates our sufferings from professional politicians who have the elections almost entirely in their own hands. “Every American, black or white, is an elector, and all important offices are filled by election. Only, the elections are made by the politicians and for themselves; and such is the power of their organization that the mass of voters in their hands is like a flock of sheep in the hands of their shepherd. It is necessary to vote for the candidates whom they chose in their conventions, or to lose one’s vote.”
GM.3 He shows how excessively our money is squandered by those who assume to take charge of it, and concludes thus: “The schooling the Americans are making at their own expense merely proves, in my opinion, that republican institutions admit corruption like everything else in this world; perhaps, too, that absolute democracy is not the last word of the wisdom of nations. Nevertheless I shall not go so far, and from the singular sight I saw I shall simply draw two conclusions which seem to be of a kind that may be accepted by moderate men of all parties: first, that it will not be sufficient to go to election meetings, disguised as troubadours or Turks, in order to improve seriously our politicians; secondly, that if there is much to admire and even imitate in the United States, there is also something to be neglected.”
GM.4 Those who object to this author’s strictures will find plenty of amusing descriptions of the different cities he visited. We regret we have not space to quote some of the things he said about Boston, which was one of the last places he visited. He certainly gives in a few pages some of the more striking traits of the city.

Atlantic Monthly 39, no. 234 (April 1877), pp. 508-9
[author unknown]



[See also Henry James’ review]




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