t must be stated at the outset that Anthony Trollope is a reasonable man. On this the critics agree. Henry James noted Trollope's good sense, his clear vision, and his absence of bias (Hall, The Trollope Critics, 3). Others expound upon Trollope's almost photographic realism, his adherence to the facts, his extraordinary powers of observation. He does not exaggerate and is not given to excesses of sentiment, as is Dickens; Trollope does not manipulate with satire or tragedy; he has none of the melodrama of the Brontës — there are no madwomen in the attics of Barchester. Thus if one were to entrust a Victorian writer with the task of penning an impartial account of America at the time, Trollope might very well be the man.
He was well qualified for the task. He visited the United States no fewer than five times, with an extended visit of nine months during the early 1860s with the express purpose of creating a travelogue, which evolved into his book North America. He slept under coats in tents and he slept on trains, he trudged through muddy battlefields and desolate wastelands of sand, he went to schools, hospitals, lunatic asylums, historical societies, institutes for the deaf and dumb, waterworks, places of worship, and places of commerce. He did his work in a meticulous manner.
With such an abundance of research and his natural bent for realism, we may presume that Trollope furnishes us with a rigorously correct and balanced tally sheet of America. Although he had hoped to be more charitable than his mother in her bristling and abusive Domestic Manners of the Americans, Anthony Trollope is much too conscientious a reporter to winnow out the disagreeable and select only the favorable facts. So one would assume that he gives us both sides of the story, and that America is treated, in effect, rather like one of his own characters: not wholly good or bad, but mixed. In actuality, his opinion is affected by certain deeply entrenched attitudes that may be said to impair an equitable assessment.
First, however, the equitable assessment. Trollope observes that we are an enormously enterprising people. Whereas in England a few planks of wood are fastened together for a foot passage, in America a suspension bridge half a mile long would be erected. His admiration for our engineering ability is withdrawn, though, as regards our channeling of bulk wheat through warehouses without benefit of the sack. Trollope noted that in England, one was not accustomed to see wheat traveling in such a "plebeian" manner. Wheat there is "aristocratic," and travels in its own private carriage (North America, 168).
He concedes that we are intelligent. Reading is all the rage in the United States — why, even the servant girls and porters read newspapers — and lectures appear to be more popular than concerts or the theater. But at one such lecture, Trollope found that the speaker "did not give expression to a single thought." Our lectures, he concludes, are just a form of studiousness without the labor of study (North America, 225).
Our scenery and cityscapes, as well, tend to get mixed reviews. The Rhine, in his words, is nothing to the Upper Mississippi, but our lakes are "uncouth" (North America, 119). Minnehaha means "laughing water," but the name is more imposing than the fall (149). The White Mountains are splendid and our forests positively primeval, but Washington D.C. is a failure, and none who have not been to Cairo, Illinois can understand the extreme agony produced by the threat of a prolonged sojourn in that city (410).
America is a land of prosperity where want is almost unknown, but Trollope little wants the meat that "swims in grease" and does not wax effusive about our squirrel soup and prairie chickens, either (490). The Liquor Laws insure that there is nothing to drink in Portland. Of our hotels: well, they may be huge, and they do have piped-in hot and cold water, but they are inhospitable and uncomfortable. Nobody relaxes and reads in the grand public rooms, and you cannot linger at table, because a waiter stands over you and drives you on. The English Inns are much more friendly. One can sit for hours with one's tea, one's fire, and one's book in a good, old, cozy English Inn.
It is in his unbounded allegiance to things English that fissures begin to appear in Trollope's faŤade as reliable narrator of America, and one suspects that he is not all that impartial after all. An innocent remark such as the one grand fault of our railways is that "they admit but one class" (32) takes on ominous overtones, in this reader's mind, of social hierarchy and class snobbery. Sadleir reminds us that Trollope was "blatantly English," and his vision has the limitation of rank and background congenial to his taste. He is the chronicler of upper-class England, with a well-bred man's aversion to ugly realities (Trollope: A Commentary, 362).
Trollope's tendentiousness manifests itself in his account of the American women he encounters in our streetcars. These women in their overbearing crinolines are vulgar, offensive, and impudent. They think the world owes them everything but they owe it nothing in return. Women of the same class in London, Trollope writes, are humble. "They show by their gesture that they hardly think themselves good enough to sit by us; they apologise for their presence" (North America, 211).
Oh dear. Not exactly democratic, that. Rather un-American. Jaundiced, even. Perhaps the Scribe of the Squirearchy presents us with a skewed perspective after all.
But Trollope was a reasonable man. . . .
Completely lacking in bias. . . .
Even Henry James thought so.
Admittedly, Trollope was something of a reactionary when it came to the liberation of the ladies, so one can understand that the imperious American woman was anathema to him. Why, look at Miss Doctor Olivia Q. Fleabody from Vermont, the women's rights advocate in Trollope's Is He Popenjoy? She wore trousers and had a strong nasal twang, and, well, the name Fleabody says it all.
Steeped in the traditions of the shires as he was, perhaps Trollope's view is understandable. But his opinions about other aspects of American life can be more shrill, and, indeed, prejudiced and insubstantial. He actually felt that American babies would benefit from a whipping and that they would be much happier ingesting good English bread and milk, instead of the American beefsteak they makes them so cranky and contentious.
The American character in general suffers in his hands. The figures in the novels are all too often mendacious. They not only lie: they cheat. Melmotte in The Way We Live Now, reputed to be the son of a New York coiner, is the embodiment of the corrosive American quest for gold. A swindler on a grand scale, he plots to dupe dukes and impoverish peers with specious speculations and promises of wealth. The ability to "lie square," referred to in The Landleaguers, is a decidedly American trait (7). The rule of commerce in the American West is that men enter the marketplace prepared to cheat and be cheated (North America, 150). Gone are the notions of probity and rectitude that are the very bedrock of the English gentry, and in their place are trickery and greed.
One would think that the nobler aspects of American democracy would engender approbation in Trollope, but they do not. "I dislike above all things the tyranny of democracy," Trollope declares (Hall, 192). He gives ample illustration in the novels. Gotobed, for example, in The American Senator, is portrayed as irritating, offensive, and unlikable. He defends poor Goarly, the underling whose wheat is being destroyed by Lord Rufford's pheasants (Lord Rufford being one of the hunting set whose horses run roughshod over the local farmers' crops), but the general feeling is that Goarly ought to be hanged, and that, more strongly, "no American should under any circumstances be allowed to put his foot upon British soil" (The American Senator, 155). Says Gotobed, "I endeavored to protect a poor man against a rich man, and that in this country [England] is cause of offense." The fact is, low-class Goarly is perceived as disreputable, squalid, and entirely unworthy of equality anyway. In his unsparing treatment of Goarly, Trollope locates himself with what Sadleir describes as the typical well-to-do mid-Victorian who was indifferent to class suffering and had little use for lofty ideals (4). Trollope is, indeed, almost dismissive in the summary segment on the American senator; the main business of the book is actually the courtship of the gentry.
Democracy takes on an even darker cast in Trollope's The Landleaguers. America is to blame, in this account, for the social unrest in Ireland. Irish agitators for Home Rule have been trained and financed by American demagogues. Irish tenants get their heads filled with notions of egalitarianism: why should they not own their own land, as the Americans do? The American spirit of rebellion spells doom for both peasant and patrician. Characters take the law in their own hands, ruthlessly gunning down those who oppose them, as if they are in the wilds of the American west itself.
Upheaval, in Trollope's mind, is a dangerous thing, and Trollope used America as a symbol for the rubbish pile where all the uncivilized reformers were heaped (Kincaid, The Novels of Anthony Trollope, 56).
Aside from a few delightful and plucky heroines in the novels, the American character is not to the taste of a gentleman like Trollope. Yes, Americans are liars, and furthermore, they do not talk. He tried repeatedly to engage his fellow travelers in conversation, but they refused to engage. The people in the west were particularly frustrating. An American frontier man could sit for hours in front of a stove, feeding on his own thoughts. Men drink standing at bars, saying nothing. People do not care to speak to anyone "unless something is to be gained" (North America, 152). Conversation, it must be remembered, is of premium importance in Trollope's fiction: characters are defined by their talk, and everyone functions as part of a social set. There is no place for the rugged American loner in a novel by Anthony Trollope.
And so, for all of our ideals and intelligence and enterprise, America is too much the antithesis of England to be perceived disinterestedly by the inventor of Barsetshire. In spite of his fastidious fact-finding and his insistence upon exactitude, Trollope's view is colored by the Crown. With jingoistic pride, he writes that "I hold it higher to be a bad Englishman, as I am, than a good American, as I am not" (Snow, Trollope: His Life and Art, 177).
Can we forgive him?
- Dickens's Impressions of the Mississippi valley at Cairo, Illinois, the original of "Eden" in Martin Chuzzlewit
- The American Plates, Parts Seven and Nine, for the Monthly Numbers of Martin Chuzzlewit: Appearance Versus Reality, Expectation Versus Fulfillment.
- Charles Dickens's "Philadelphia, and its Solitary Prison," Ch. 7 in American Notes (1842)
Hall, N. John. The Trollope Critics. Totowa, NJ: Barnes and Noble, 1981.
Kincaid, James R. The Novels of Anthony Trollope. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977.
Letwin, Shirley Robin. The Gentleman in Trollope: Individuality and Moral Conduct. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.
Sadleir, Michael. Trollope: A Commentary. London: Constable, 1927.
Skilton, David. Anthony Trollope and his Contemporaries. London: Longman, 1972.
Smalley, Donald, Ed. Trollope: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969.
Snow, C.P. Trollope: His Life and Art. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1975.
Stebbins, Lucy Poate and Richard Poate Stebbins. The Trollopes. New York: Columbia University Press, 1945.
Trollope, Anthony. An Autobiography. London: The Folio Society, 1999.
Trollope, Anthony. Is He Popenjoy? London: The Folio Society, 1998.
Trollope, Anthony. North America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1951.
Trollope, Anthony. The American Senator. London: The Folio Society, 1994.
Trollope, Anthony. The Landleaguers. London: The Folio Society, 1995.
Trollope, Anthony. The Way We Live Now. London: Penguin Books, 1993.
Last modified 6 October 2007.