December 22, 2008

Conveying Fibs in a Volley of Oaths, Part II

In my previous post, I shared some of the impressions that Dr. Alexander Hamilton had of his fellow Americans as he traveled the Northeast in the 1740s.

One difficulty Hamilton faced was how local customs changed from one area to the next. For example, in Albany, New York, Hamilton found that when he met women, they expected to be kissed in the European style. Hamilton unkindly remarked, “This might almost pass for a penance, for the generality of the women here . . . are remarkably ugly.”

As to language, the good doctor found that he could barely understand many of his fellow colonists. In New York, Hamilton’s innkeeper had this to say about cooking:
As to cuikry, I defaa ony French cuik to ding me, bot a haggis is a dish I wadna tak the trouble to mak. Look ye, gentlemen, there was anes a Frenchman axed his frind to denner. His frind axed him ‘What ha’ ye gotten till eat?’ ‘Four an’ twanty legs of mutton,’ quo’ he, ‘a’ sae differently cuiked that ye winna ken whilk is whilk.’
Wait, I think I get it— No, I really don't.

Other adventures include the time Hamilton met a man with “buttons as large as a turnip,” and the time when Hamilton was napping beneath a willow tree and he had an encounter with a cow: “I was waked by a cow that was eating my handkerchief which I had put under my head. I pursued her for some time before I recovered it.”

So in reading Hamilton’s account, one finds that his fellow eighteenth-century Americans were variously funny, tough, wild, prejudiced, crude, pushy or shy, and rather greedy. For a different perspective, let’s look at what people from other countries thought of early Americans. In 1827, an Englishwoman named Frances Trollope moved to the United States. To document her culture shock, she wrote a book titled Domestic Manners of the Americans.

It was a pretty bad Manners. Trollope could forgive Americans for cursing and spitting all the time. She could have maybe gotten over how smug, preachy, and full of strong opinions they were. And while she was shocked at how avidly they grubbed for money, she could stomach it. But the Englishwoman would not stand for hypocrisy. As she put it:
“You will see them with one hand hoisting the cap of liberty, and with the other flogging their slaves. You will see them one hour lecturing [on] the rights of man, and the next driving from their homes the children of the soil [Native Americans], whom they have bound themselves to protect by the most solemn treaties.”
Ouch. Famed novelist Charles Dickens toured the states not long after Trollope published, and he was struck at how Americans seemed to always view themselves the social equals of anyone, actual merits notwithstanding. In his American Notes for General Circulation (1842), the author (who was renowned for his warm-hearted charity) really let us have it:
“Their demeanour is invariably morose, sullen, clownish, and repulsive. I should think there is not, on the face of the earth, a people so entirely destitute of humour, vivacity or the capacity for enjoyment.”
When an author as renowned for his kindess as Dickens conveys insults in a volley of vituperation, there is only one possible response: Zinger!
My sources are here.

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