First Impressions of American Life


BEGINNING with an account of the westering voyages of the legendary (and real) Irish monk St. Brendan in the 6th century and concluding with the impressions - warm and cool - of recent visitors in the 1980s, this chronologically arranged collection of Old World responses to the New functions almost as an eyewitness-to-history book. ``Abroad in America'' captures the sense of wonder - sometimes admiration, sometimes shock, even horror - felt by foreigners first encountering America, from the earliest voy agers and explorers who dreamt of finding El Dorado or an earthly paradise to the later generations of immigrants seeking ``a land of riches and plenty where all may be happy and free,'' as editor Robert Blow aptly puts it.

The excerpts are arranged in four sections, each preceded by a brief, informative introduction. The first, and shortest, section is a handful of accounts of explorers who preceded Columbus. The second part opens with selections from Columbus's logbook and concludes with a powerful narrative by Gustavus Vassa, an African sold into slavery who eventually attained his freedom and went on to speak out against the evils of the system in his autobiography, published in 1789.

The persistence of the ``peculiar institution'' of slavery into the 19th century, Blow reminds us, placed the young republic in a position similar to that of modern-day South Africa. As Dr. Samuel Johnson memorably demanded, ``Why is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of the Negroes?'' Impressions of ``The New Nation,'' forming the third part of this anthology, range from actress Fanny Kemble's shock at the plight of slaves on the Georgia plantation of her new American husban d to the Marquis de Lafayette's delight at the spirit of brotherhood he finds among citizens, rich and poor, of the new republic.

Where some visitors praise the elegant simplicity of American manners, others find uncouthness. One Englishman visiting in the 1840s delivers what may have been the first but certainly not last of his countrymen's diatribes against the ``evils'' of central heating. And that indefatigable lady, Frances Trollope, treats readers to vividly detailed accounts of American food, clothing, manners, and habits, including the repugnant practice of spitting.

The ``Great Wave'' of immigration is the organizing theme of the last section, taking us from the end of the Civil War until today. We hear from Peter Tchaikovsky, on hand for the opening of Carnegie Hall in 1891, John Maguire on the hard lives of Irish immigrants in 1866, GI brides from Britain amazed at America's postwar abundance, not to mention British actors and writers like Laurence Olivier, Graham Greene, David Niven, and P.G. Wodehouse recounting their adventures in the strange world of Hollywoo d.

Some of the most fascinating entries deal with the Europeans' first impressions of the American Indians, whose language, rites, demeanor, and customs are described in poignant detail. And one of the most charming entries is visiting lecturer Oscar Wilde's advice to Americans eager to improve the level of the arts in their country: ``The conditions of art should be simple. A great deal more depends upon the heart than the head.... Art requires a good healthy atmosphere. The motives for art are still arou nd about us as they were around about the ancients. And the subjects are also easily found.... Nothing is more picturesque and graceful than a man at work. Only idle people are ungraceful. The artist who goes to the children's playground, watches them at their sport, sees the boy stoop to tie his shoe, will find the same themes that engaged the attention of the ancient Greeks.''

Enthusiastic, patronizing, admiring, or sneering, what these writers have in common is the strength of their impressions and the vividness with which they express themselves. Blow has deliberately picked long excerpts, which can provide a more complete picture of what the writer has experienced. An Englishman himself, he gives precedence to English writers, not least because there is no need to lose anything in translating. Unlike everyone else whose words appear in these pages, Blow has never, he conf esses, been to America. ``This does not seem to me to be a disadvantage in an anthologist,'' he remarks. Judging by the excellence of this anthology, one would have to agree.

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