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

by Henry James (1843-1916)

Lettres sur les Etats-Unis et le Canada. Par M. G. de Molinari. Paris: Hachette; New York: F. W. Christern, 1876.

GM.1 M. de Molinari, a well-known political and economical writer attached to the Journal des Débats, addressed last summer to that sheet a series of letters descriptive of a rapid tour through the United States. He has just gathered these letters into a volume in which American readers will find a good deal of entertainment and a certain amount of instruction. M. de Molinari, in his capacity of French journalist, is of course lively and witty; but his vivacity is always in excellent taste. He is moreover extremely observant, and he often renders his impressions with much felicity. He had apparently the advantage of coming to America without strong preconceptions in any direction; he was not pledged to find democratic institutions purely delightful, nor had he it on his conscience to lay in a stock of invidious comfort for oppressed Europeans. We have had in America too many observers of each of these categories. M. de Molinari’s conclusions seem disinterested and liberal, especially when we remember that they were addressed to a journal which is not remarkable (save when M. Laboulaye writes in it) for a deferential consideration of American affairs. They are, in the gross, very much the reflections with which sensible Americans themselves point the moral of their contemporary history. M. de Molinari’s weak point appears to have been that he had not time or inclination to look beneath the external surface of American manners, and that he was but scantily acquainted with the language of the people whom he had undertaken to examine. He usually writes his English words faultily – it is startling, for instance, to see a gentleman who has passed three months in America talking of “pilgrims fathers” – and he confesses himself unqualified for conversation. He reproaches us with our ignorance of foreign tongues; but we doubt whether even the American sentiment of the facility of things is likely to produce a volume upon French institutions by a Transatlantic traveller unfamiliar with the language which M. de Molinari writes so well. We hasten to add, however, that the author has made a great many happy guesses, and has been guilty of fewer serious errors than might have been expected. He says somewhere that every people has certainly its quantum of national vanity, but that that of the Americans towers far above all others. Granting the truth of this assertion, we must yet say that we have in this country this symptom of modesty, that we are always rather surprised when an entertaining book is written about us. Addicted as we are to lamenting the absence of “local color” within our borders, we are astonished to see a foreigner find so many salient points and so much characteristic detail.
GM.2 M. de Molinari was present at the opening ceremonies of the Centennial Exhibition, to which he devotes a letter, and he devotes a letter also to the Exhibition itself, by which he seems to have been duly impressed. But we are at a loss to imagine to what class of the population he alludes when he affirms, after observing the multitude at Philadelphia, that the taste for button-hole decorations “is perhaps still more pronounced” among us than in Europe. The only orders we can think of are those of the rosebud and the pink. M. de Molinari has some observations of New York at midsummer, and, considering the circumstances, speaks of this city with extreme kindness. He goes to Coney Island, witnesses the phenomenon of “flirtation” between young persons of opposite sexes, and comments upon it with less imaginative wealth than his countrymen, having a chance at the subject, have sometimes shown. In the train on the way to Baltimore he makes these extremely just reflections:
“One is struck, moreover, with the real politeness of American manners, in spite of the want of ceremony in habits and behavior. All the indications that I am obliged to ask – in what an English, ah heaven! – are given me with perfect courtesy. One perceives immediately that there exists in this country, as a rule, neither an aristocracy nor a populace; one is afflicted nowhere with the exhibition of grossness or bad morals, ... but the absence of refinement and elegance in the manners is not less striking. The contact of the superior class has raised the level of the masses; but perhaps the contact of the masses has, on the other hand, lowered the level of the superior class. Manners form thus a sort of something middling, equally distant from extreme coarseness and extreme refinement.”
GM.4 At Washington, having occasion to apply at the Capitol for two or three Congressional Reports, M. de Molinari is overcome by the matter-of-course way in which the employee presents them to him out of hand, and, without even asking his name, offers to have them made into a parcel free of expense:
“It was impossible to believe! ... We leave at last this hospitable Capitol, in which the arrangements for parliamentary comfort are only surpassed by the politeness of the employees of every order, and the singular desire to be agreeable to the public which they manifest upon every occasion. The world turned upside down!”
GM.6 The author looks into Canada, where he is agreeably impressed with the respectable, if not the particularly brilliant, character of the French population, on whose behalf he makes an appeal to the sympathies of the mother-country – an appeal which, we are afraid, will fall upon perfectly deaf ears. He laments the uninstructed and extremely provincial state of culture of the French Canadians, as compared with their English fellow-citizens, and asks why France should not resume – of course without any political afterthought – a “tutelary part” corresponding, among the French population, to that of England. Why should not the French banks have branches at Quebec, as the English banks have them at Montreal? M. de Molinari repeats these interrogatories when he becomes acquainted with the solid remnant of the French establishment in Louisiana. But we are afraid that he himself gives the answer. “It is certain that we do not suspect the existence of this living branch of the old French root.” The French do not suspect the existence of it, and do not care to do so. We doubt that it is within the power of human ingenuity to quicken their consciousness on this point.
GM.7 M. de Molinari visits Lake George and the “ravishing Hotel Fort William Henry,” and spends a day at Saratoga, where, though at midnight his bed was not made up, nor his boots blacked, he generously pronounces the Grand Union Hotel “a colossal manufactory of comfort and one of the most characteristic creations of American genius.” He makes a rapid visit to the South, and is greatly struck with the desolate appearance of many localities; but he finds the Southern whites very “braves gens,” and lends a favoring – perhaps a too favoring – ear to their version of their sufferings. He reproduces the Southern account of the situation in a long speech, in which slavery is painted in rose-color and the North is very roughly handled; but he adds that he does not find these arguments wholly satisfactory, inasmuch as before the war it used to be unlawful to teach blacks to read and as Northerners were apt to be tarred and feathered. He despairs of the negroes, thinks apparently that there may have been a good deal in slavery after all, and tells a singular tale of Sherman’s army (“which renewed the exploits of the landsknechts and black bands of the Middle Ages”) having “violated the tombs in the cemeteries to rob the dead of the jewels with which it is the pious but imprudent custom to bury them”! With all respect to the propriety of the author’s sympathy for the hard fate of the Southern States, we suspect that the inhabitants in this part of the country “got round” him more successfully than they did elsewhere. We hear of a “delicious miss” at Savannah, who has “eyes as blue as corn-flowers, fine and delicate features, a complexion of dead whiteness, an opulent golden mane, and that indefinable something feminine which is lacking to her Northern sisters, brought up with boys.”
GM.8 Finding the country in the midst of its Presidential campaign, the author of course made many reflections upon American politics. He gives a sufficiently correct account of each of the platforms, but declares that he has no faith in good results coming from either of them:
“I greatly fear that neither Tilden nor Hayes is capable of reforming a state of things which arises from the vicious attitude (l’assiette vicieuse) and the flagrant defects of American institutions. and as neither the politicians nor the passive multitude of the citizens appear to me disposed to seek and recognize the true sources of the evil, the natural course of things can only aggravate this critical situation. Must I say all? I cannot resist the fear that, in the course of a few years, the crisis will terminate, European fashion, in the dictatorship of a ‘General’ who will undertake, with the support of the Republican party, to bring back a certain order into this disorganized democracy.”
GM.10 M. de Molinari repairs to Cambridge in search of a university “libre et libérale,” and finds this ideal realized in Harvard College. He gives of this institution a flattering – we will not say a flattered – portrait. He visits, of course, the Library, “of which the personnel is composed in great part of young misses. Observe that this library is almost for the exclusive use of the students of this University. But the young misses of Cambridge sont des personnes savantes et sages; they have studied Latin, ay, and Greek too, and I am assured that they have no passion for anything but the Catalogue. It is true that this catalogue is a marvel of method and clearness.” And then the author describes the little drawers of the Harvard Library, which, deservedly, are becoming famous the world over. The last pages of M. de Molinari’s volume are devoted to various public institutions in New York and to a summing-up of his impressions. He draws a liberal picture of the great things that have been achieved in America – of the energy and audacity which have built up the material prosperity of the country. As we look at this picture “we are penetrated with admiration; for never has so colossal an effort been accomplished, and never have results so prodigious been obtained by human industry. The levees of the Mississippi alone have exacted more work than the dykes of Holland [we may perhaps question the exactitude of this statement], and the network of railways in the United States is almost as extensive as that of Europe.” But M. de Molinari observes that social and intellectual culture has remained much behind – we make excellent pianos but no musicians – and that political morality is further behind still. Upon our political abuses, upon the unworthy character of our professional politicians, and the scandalous nature of much of our political machinery, he makes all those reflections of which even extreme familiarity has not diminished the pertinence. But in speaking of our political machinery he becomes somewhat fantastical. The fallibility of the spectator who must run as he reads is here amusingly evident. Flag-raisings and torch-light processions have gone to M. de Molinari’s head and disordered his judgment. He regards these frolicsome phenomena as the prime agency in the electoral process, and the chief instrument by which the wicked politicians beguile the easily-bamboozled people into working their will. The gravity with which he unfolds this charge, which forms the last and apparently the principal clause in his indictment of American politics, is really startling:
“The orators at the meetings talk in the midst of garlands of Chinese lanterns, their faces illumined by projections of electric light; the booming of the big drum and the clash of copper, at a rate to rouse the dead, mark time to their speeches. Besides, these orators are well-dressed and polished gentlemen. ... And this is how the American elections have finished by resembling the practical jokes of a carnival or the parade of a company of mountebanks. This is how, to my ineffable stupefaction, I saw the election of the future chief of one of the most powerful and civilized nations of the earth prepared with the same apparatus which serves at fairs to attract the crowds to the Siren of the Tropics or the Albinos of Madagascar.”
GM.12 And he considers that the first lesson to be drawn from “the reverse of the medal of the great republic” is that “it is not sufficient to go to our electoral reunions costumed as Troubadours and Turks to ameliorate seriously the composition of our political class.” Let those whom the shoe pinches take notice, and let the American elector in general take care how he suffers the Troubadours and Turks to twist him around their fingers.

Nation, February 22, 1877

[See also the Atlantic Monthly review]

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