Thursday, July 05, 2012

Wilkie Collins loves America

Just after finishing Wednesday's post, I came across a bit that seems worth sharing as an addendum and counter to all the British anti-Americanism I included in that post. Peter Ackroyd, in his brief life of Wilkie Collins, writes of Collins's 1873 tour of America,
[H]e was generally beguiled and charmed by the Americans whom he met. They were frank, cheerful, and free; they did not obey the conventions of Victorian England that Collins himself cordially detested. They lacked the hypocrisy and frigid good manners of the English middle class. They had minor failings, however; they did not hum or whistle; they did not keep dogs; and they never walked anywhere.
Good to know that the American aversion to non-mall walking has been around for more than a century. Collins would surely be pleased by the spread of dog ownership, however, though I don't know that we whistle or hum any more now than we did then.

Collins's approbation stands in contradistinction to what his friend Dickens found in America. Upset by, among other things, the Americans' refusal to legislate and enforce copyrights--and what he saw as their disregard for his losses therefrom--he turned his American Notes for General Circulation into a savage indictment of the whole people. Much of the book's criticism is marred by spleen, and thus rendered not wholly convincing, but the following passage, at least, from the conclusion, describes an American trait that's certainly still with us:
The merits of a broken speculation, or a bankruptcy, or of a successful scoundrel, are not gauged by its or his observance of the golden rule, "Do as you would be done by," but are considered with reference to their smartness. I recollect on both occasions of our passing that ill fated Cairo on the Mississippi, remarking on the bad effects such gross deceits must have when they exploded, in generating a want of confidence abroad, and discouraging foreign investment: but I was given to understand that this was a very smart scheme by which a deal of money had been made: and that its smartest feature was that they forgot these things abroad, in a very short time, and speculated again, as freely as ever.
However, since we're but little removed from Independence Day--as evidenced by periodic explosions outside--I'll let Collins's appreciation be the last word on the subject today. Ackroyd writes,
[H]e had thoroughly enjoyed the experience; he had made new friends and had enjoyed the unaffected admiration of his audiences. "The enthusiasm and kindness are really and truly beyond description," he wrote. "I should be the most ungrateful man living if I had any other than the highest opinion of the American people."
And now to go whistle "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" in Collins's honor.

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