Front Page Titles (by Subject) FIRST IMPRESSIONS. - Retrospect of Western Travel, vol. 1
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FIRST IMPRESSIONS. - Harriet Martineau, Retrospect of Western Travel, vol. 1 
Retrospect of Western Travel in Three Vols (London: Saunders and Otley, 1838). Vol. 1.
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Lucretius. lib. v.
The moment of first landing in a foreign city is commonly spoken of as a perfect realization of forlornness. My entrance upon American life was anything but this. The spirits of my companions and myself were in a holiday dance while we were receiving our first impressions: and New York always afterwards bore an air of gaiety to me from the association of the early pleasures of foreign travel.
Apartments had been secured for us at a boarding-house in Broadway, and a hackney-coach was in waiting at the wharf. The moonlight was flickering through the trees of the battery, the insects were buzzing all about us the catydids were grinding, and all the sounds, except human voices, were quite unlike all we had heard for six weeks. One of my companions took the sound of the catydid for a noise in her head, for many hours after coming into their neighbourhood. As we rattled over the stones, I was surprised to find that the street we were in was Broadway:—the lower and narrower end, however: but nothing that I saw, after all I had heard, and the panorama of New York that I had visited in London, disappointed me so much as Broadway. Its length is remarkable; but neither its width, nor the style of its houses. The trees with which it is lined gave it, this first evening, a foreign air.
Our hostess at the boarding-house shook hands with us, and ordered tea. While we waited for it, and within ten minutes after I had crossed the first American threshold, three gentlemen introduced themselves to me, one of whom was the melancholy politician. whom I have mentioned elsewhere* as having forewarned me of the total overthrow of the United States' institutions, which would certainly take place while I was in the country. This gentleman afterwards became a dear and intimate friend: and we found that politics are, perhaps, the only subject on which we entertain irreconcileable differences of opinion. We often amused ourselves with recurring to this our first meeting. This gentleman afforded me an early specimen of the humour which I think one of the chief characteristics of the Americans. In the few minutes during which we were waiting for tea, he dropped some drolleries so new to me, and so intense, that I was perplexed what to do with my laughter.
While we were at tea, a few gentlemen dropped in, and read the newspapers at the long table at which we were seated. One fixed my attention at once. He had the carriage of a soldier, with an uncommonly fine countenance, bearing a general resemblance to the great men of the Revolution with whose portraits the English are most familiar. I think it is not a mere fancy that there is an air common to Washington. Jefferson, and Madison. This gentleman reminded me of them all: and the quietness with which he made his remarks, and his evident high breeding, piqued the curiosity of a stranger. He was General Mason, the father of the young Governor of Michigan, and the most eminent citizen of Detroit. From time to time in my travels. I met various members of his family, whose kindness always made me thankful that accident had placed me in the same house with them at the outset.
In our rooms, we found beds with four posts, looking as if meant to hang gowns and bonnets upon; for there was no tester. The washstand was without tumbler, glass, soap, or brush-tray. The candlestick had no snuffers. There was, however, the luxury, sufficient for the occasion, that every article of furniture stood still in its place; and that the apartment itself did not rock up and down. The first few days after a voyage go far towards making one believe that some things have a quality of stability, however one may be metaphysically convinced that the sea affords a far truer hint of the incessant flux and change which are the law of the universe. If I had rejoiced in the emblem at sea, I now enjoyed the deception on land.
At five in the morning I threw up my sash, to see what I could see. I cannot conceive what travellers mean by saying that there is little that is foreign in the aspect of New York. I beheld nothing at this moment that I could have seen at home, except the sky and the grass of the court-yard. The houses were all neatly and brightly painted, had green outside blinds to every window, and an apparatus for drying linen on the roof. A young lady in black silk, with her neatly dressed, was mopping the steps of one house; and a similar young lady was dusting the parlour of another. A large locust-tree grew in the middle of the court-yard of the house I was in; and under it was a truly American wood-pile. Two negroes were at the pump, and a third was carrying musk-melons.
When the breakfast-bell rang, the long and cross tables in the eating-room were filled in five minutes. The cross table, at which our hostess presided, was occupied by General Mason's family, a party of Spaniards, and ourselves. The long one was filled up with families returning southwards from the Springs; married persons without children, who preferred boarding to housekeeping; and single gentlemen, chiefly merchants. I found this mode of living rather formidable the first day: and not all the good manners that I witnessed at public tables ever reconciled me to it.
From a trunk belonging to a lady of our party having been put on board a wrong ship, we had some immediate shopping to do. and to find a man-tua-maker. We suspected we should soon be detained at home by callers, and therefore determined to transact our business at once, though our luggage had not arrived from the Custom-House, and we were not “dressed for Broadway” as the phrase is.
In the streets. I was in danger of being run down by the fire-engines, so busy were my eyes with the novelties about me. These fire-engines run along the side-pavement, stopping for nobody: and I scarcely ever walked out in New York without seeing one or more out on business, or for an airing. The novelties which amused me were the spruce appearance of all the people; the pervading neatness and brightness, and the business-like air of the children. The carmen were all well dressed, and even two poor boys who were selling matches had clean shirt-collars and whole coats, though they were barefooted. The stocks of goods seemed large and handsome, and we were loss struck with the in-difference of manner, commonly ascribed to American storekeepers, than frequently afterwards. The most unpleasant circumstance was the appearance and manner of the ladies whom we saw in the streets and stores. It was now the end of a very hot summer, and every lady we met looked as if she were emerging from the yellow fever; and the languid unsteady stop betokened the reverse of health.
The heat was somewhat oppressive. We were in the warm dresses we had put on while yet at sea, as our trunks had not made their appearance. Trains of callers came in the afternoon and evening; members of Congress, candidates for State offices, fellow-passengers and their friends, and other friends of our friends; and still we were not “dressed for Broadway.” In the evening, the luggage of my companions was brought up, but not mine. Special orders had been issued from the Custom-House that my baggage should pass without examination; and it was therefore at this moment on board ship. To-night it was too late: next morning it was Sunday, and everything in the hold was under lock and key, and unattainable till Monday. There seemed no hope of my getting out all day, and I was really vexed. I wanted to see the churches, and hear the preaching, and be doing what others were doing; but the heat was plainly too great to be encountered in any gown but a muslin one. A lady boarding in the house happened to hear of the case, and sent her servant to say that she believed her dresses would fit me, and that she should be happy to supply me with a gown and bonnet till my trunks should arrive. I accepted her kind offer without any scruple, feeling that a service like this was just what I should wish to render to any lady under the same circumstances: so I went to church equipped in a morning-gown and second-best bonnet of this neighbourly lady's.
The church that we went to was the Unitarian church in Chambers street. Its regular pastor was absent, and a professional brother from Philadelphia preached. We were most deeply impressed by the devotional part of his service, delivered in a voice which I have certainly never heard equalled for music and volume. His discourse moved us no less. We looked at one another in much delight. I warned my companion not to be too certain that this preaching was all we then felt it to be: we had been six Sundays at sea, and some of the impression might be owing to this being the renewal of the privilege of social worship in a church. I heard much of the same preaching afterwards, however; and I am now of the same opinion that I was this first day,—that it is the most true, simple, and solemn that I ever listened to. The moment the service was over, the minister came down from the pulpit, addressed me as an old friend, and requested me to accept the hospitality of his house when I should visit Philadelphia. Under the emotions of the hour, it was impossible to help giving a glad assent: and in his house I afterwards enjoyed many weeks of an intercourse as intimate as can ever exist between members of the same family. We kept up the most rapid and copious correspondence the whole time I was in America, and he and his wife were my American brother and sister,—the depositories of all those “impressions” on the mind of a stranger about which American society is so anxious.
General Mason introduced me to Governor Cass, then Secretary-at-War; now Ambassador at Paris. Governor Cass is a shrewd, hard-looking man, the very concentration of American caution. He is an accomplished and an honest man; but his dread of committing himself renders both his solid and ornamental good qualities of less value to society than they should be. The State of Michigan, which is under great obligations to him, is proud of her citizen; and it is agreed, I believe, on all hands, that his appointment is more satisfactory and honourable to his country than that of many who have been sent as ministers to foreign courts.
I feel some doubt about giving any account of the public men of the United Stales; I do not mean scruples of conscience; for when a man comes forward in political, or other kind of public life, he makes a present of himself to society at large, and his person, mind, and manners become a legitimate subject of observation and remark. My doubts arise from the want of interest in the English about the great men of America; a want of interest which arises from no fault in either party, I believe; but from the baseness of the newspapers, whose revilings of all persons in turn who fill a public station are so disgusting as to discourage curiosity, and set all friendly interest at defiance. The names of the English political leaders of the day are almost as familiar in the mouths of Americans as of natives, while people in London are asking who Mr. Clay is, and what part of the Union Mr. Calhoun comes from. The deeds of Mr. Clay, and the aspirations of Mr. Calhoun would be at least as interesting in London as the proceedings of French and German statesmen, if they could be fairly placed under observation: but every man of feeling and taste recoils from wading through such a slough of rancour, folly and falsehood as the American newspapers present as the only medium through which the object is to be attained.
Mr. Gallatin's name is, however, everywhere known and welcome. Mr. Gallatin did me the honour of calling on me in New York, having heard that I desired to learn the precise grounds of the quarrel which was agitating the country about the Bank. I was delighted to listen to his full and luminous report of the question; and of many other matters, on which he spoke with a freedom and courtesy which would go far towards making the current of human affairs run smooth, if they were but general. He told me something of the early part of his career, which began in 1787; described his three visits to England, and sketched the character of the reigns of our two last kings, of Louis Philippe, and of President Jackson. He entered upon the philosophy of the Presidentship; exhibited the spirit of the three great divisions of the United States, the north, south, and west; explained the principles on which the letting of land proceeds; described the Germans and other agricultural population of the country, and showed the process by which the aristocratic class rises and is replenished in a democratic republic. While he was talking, I felt as if he was furnishing me with new powers of observation; and when he was gone, I hastened to secure what he had told me, lest its novelty and abundance should deceive my memory. I believe Mr. Gallatin was at this time seventy-two: but he did not appear so old. He is tall, and looks dig nified and courteous. He is a native of Switzerland, and speaks with a very slight foreign accent, but with a flow and liveliness which are delightful.
I was assured, at the outset, that the late abolition riots in New York were the work of the Irish immigrants, who feared the increase of a free black population, as likely to interfere with their monopoly of certain kinds of labour. This I afterwards found to be untrue. Some Irish may have joined in “the row,” but the mischief originated with natives. It is remarkable that I heard no more of abolition for many weeks; I think not till I was about leaving Philadelphia.
We obtained some “impressions” of the environs of New York, to add to those we had of the city itself, by going to spend an evening at Mr. King's, at High Wood, two miles beyond Hoboken, on the New Jersey side of the river. The frame cottages, with their thatched verandahs, struck me as very pretty. I could not say much for the beauty of the corn, whose plants, long since stripped of their cobs, were standing yellow and dry, and fast hastening to decay. There were ridges of grey rock, interspersed with woods which still flourished in their summer greenness. Above all, was a sunset which, if seen in England, would persuade the nation that the end of the world was come. The whole arch of the sky appeared lined with conflagration. It seemed strange to see the wagon-driver talking with his bullocks, and the old Dutch dame spinning in the stoup, as quietly as if that scarlet sky had been of its usual summer blue.
I was shown, on the way, the spot where Hamilton received his death wound from Colonel Burr. It was once made a qualification for office that the candidate should never have fought a duel. Duelling is an institution not to be reached by such a provision as this. No man under provocation to fight would refrain from fear of disqualifying himself for office hereafter; and the operation of the restriction was accordingly found to be this; that duels were as frequent as ever, and that desirable candidates were excluded. The provision was got rid of on the plea that promissory oaths are bad in principle. The cure of duelling, as of every other encroachment of passion and selfishness on such higher principles as, being passive, cannot be embodied in acts, must be the natural result of the improved moral condition of the individual or of society. No one believes that the legal penalties of duelling have had much effect in stopping the practice; and it is an injury to society to choose, out of the ample range of penalties, disqualification for social duty as one.
The view from Mr. King's garden at High Wood is beautiful. From one opening, a reach of twelve miles of the Hudson is commanded,—from the Narrows upwards. A soft red light was resting on the waters, the last tinge from the late flaming sky, The dark sloops moored below were thus rendered visible, while the twilight shrouded the rocks. Opposite, there was a flare in the woods, from a glass-house; and the lights of the city twinkled afar off, reflected in the waters.
One of the first impressions of a foreigner in New York is of the extreme insolence and vulgarity of certain young Englishmen, who thus make themselves very conspicuous. Well-mannered Englishmen are scarcely distinguishable from the natives, and thus escape observation; while every commercial traveller who sneers at republicanism all day long, and every impertinent boy, leaving home for the first time, with no understanding or sympathy for anything but what he has been accustomed to see at home, obtrudes himself upon the notice, and challenges the congeniality of such countrymen and countrywomen as he can contrive to put himself in the way of. I was annoyed this evening, on my return home, by a very complete specimen of the last-mentioned order of travellers.
Need I say, after thus detailing the little incidents which followed my landing in America, that my first impressions of the country were highly agreeable?
Society in America, vol. i., p. 10