If I am truly drawn to a book, I will return to it again and again. Sometimes I reread it cover-to-cover, but just as often I’ll seek out a chapter or two, a salient passage or opening line, or a magnificent closing like the final four paragraphs of The Great Gatsby. As a writer, I believe it imperative to reacquaint myself with proven works of excellence as I seek to heighten my own craft sense. Of course, as a discerning lover of prose I also find these books to be, very simply, satisfying reads.
And while many of my favorites tend toward novels and short story collections, this is by no means the rule. At my home are several bookcases dedicated exclusively to works of non-fiction—memoirs, biographies, essay collections, and histories. As a matter of fact, I pulled one of these volumes off the shelf just this week to reread: Star-Spangled Eden by James C. Simmons.
Star-Spangled Eden, published by Carroll and Graf in 2000, is a compendium of essays about various prominent British citizens, some of them writers, who traveled in the United States during the period between 1827 and 1882. It has been a while since I last read Simmons’ book, but after only a few pages I am reminded of the many reasons why it has stayed with me. Chief among these are its subject matter and style. Simmons, whose academic and professional credentials include a doctorate in nineteenth-century British literature and experience as both a historian and a travel writer, is perfectly positioned to have authored a work of this type. Each of the eight essays are diligently researched, yet presented as wholly accessible narratives that both entertain and inform.
Three of the essays appeal to me especially, so it is not surprising that these are the ones I reread most often. The first, “Frances Trollope: America’s Nemesis,” tells the story of an idealistic, upper-middle-class woman whose financial security dissipates due to her barrister husband’s poor planning and a cantankerous manner that drives away his law clients. In late 1827, with few realistic options left for her in England, Trollope accepts the invitation of Frances Wright, an unmarried social reformer, to accompany her across the Atlantic to Nashoba, a utopian commune that Wright administers in the backwoods of Tennessee. Arriving at the experimental community in January, 1828, after a long and uncomfortable journey by steamboat and carriage, Trollope is mortified to discover that the settlement and its primitive accommodations are far from what she had envisioned. Disillusioned, she soon moves to Cincinnati, which proves to be only a slight improvement in her estimation. There, she finds fault with many aspects of American life, including public sanitation; table manners; the general air of familiarity and impudence that she senses among classes of people she considers inferior; and, notably, the ubiquitous nineteenth-century American habit of spitting—especially the spitting of tobacco juice.
As it turns out, the erstwhile idealist who had ventured to the new world with lofty hopes and an untested belief in the American experiment quickly transforms into one of its most prolific critics. Upon returning to England in 1830, she sets about penning an account of her travels. The resulting book, Domestic Manners of the Americans, is published two years later in her home country, and garners both praise and financial gain. Readers in the United States, however, react to the book with thin-skinned enmity, and the name Frances Trollope is anathematized. In Simmons’ words, “no English citizen since George III” was so roundly denounced. One American, the manager of a traveling novelty show, even crafts a grotesque effigy of Trollope, who he insists had been “sent over to the United States by the British lords to write libels against the free-born Americans.”
In an essay subtitled, “The Great Quarrel with America,” James C. Simmons relates the experience of another traveling literary celebrity who, in 1842, also incites the ire of many in the United States: none other than Charles Dickens. Over the course of an eighteen-week tour that takes him from the east coast to the beginnings of the Great Plains, Dickens, like Trollope before him, loses his earlier sense of wonder over, and hope for, the young democratic republic and former British possession. Formerly disillusioned with the rigidity and class barriers in his native country of England, he soon longs to return home. His political fervor is tempered. And, again like Trollope, he is also greatly disappointed over what he considers the uncouth manners and social behavior of Americans as a whole. At one point in his travels, he writes about the land he is visiting, and even hints at what appears to be a realization of his own naiveté: “I tremble for a Radical coming here, unless he is a Radical on principle, by reason and reflection. I fear that if he were anything else, he would return home a Tory.” Author Simmons offers up an explanation for Dickens’ rapid change of heart, asserting that the young writer was
…totally encapsulated in his egotism, unable to see America with the eyes of an immigrant, settler, or visionary. He rarely broke out of his English provincialism …. [and] had no appreciation of America as a vigorously expanding nation. He saw most Americans as crude, boastful, utilitarian, and wasteful, without even understanding that these qualities suggested the temporary phase of an immature society, uncertain of its values and often retreating into arrogance to conceal its own uncertainties.
But this is not all that troubles young Dickens during his stay. Shortly after beginning his tour, he becomes aware of the widespread selling of cheap, pirated versions of his stories and novels—copies for which he has only received a paltry £50 in compensation. And whenever he complains about this state of affairs, his protests are met with indignation. During this time of economic decline in America, citizens afford little sympathy to a foreign author who complains over not being paid for the sale of his own works. Moreover, he finds that the politicians are loath to address this issue by moving the country into the community of nations signed on to protect international copyright. Their constituents, after all, include book printers and magazine publishers, who were participating in the scam; or, in Simmons’ words: “few politicians were prepared to alienate the 200,000 Americans” employed in the trade. Consequently, Dickens journeys west with this metaphorical fiscal thorn in his side, and it darkens his mood considerably.
My hands-down favorite of the essays in Star Spangled Eden is subtitled, “Wilde in the American Streets,” and it chronicles the Irish playwright Oscar Wilde’s celebrated coast-to-coast lecture tour of the United States in 1882. Unlike the literary giant Charles Dickens, Wilde, at this point in his life and career, is not yet known for his written works. Instead, his celebrity is rooted in his proven abilities as a public speaker and his reputation as the outspoken authority on all things beautiful. And while this de-facto status as spokesperson of the British Aesthetics movement precedes his arrival at the port of New York, Wilde’s original reason for coming is somewhat less impressive. As it turns out, he has been booked by the managers of a theatrical firm to lecture in advance of the Gilbert and Sullivan opera, Patience, which is scheduled to tour the United States, and which, incidentally, also lampoons Aestheticism. Its primary character, a “fleshy,” flower-worshiping—and decidedly unmanly—poet by the name of Reginald Bunthorne, is actually an overplayed imitation of Wilde himself.
But as the reader finds through Simmons’ telling, the irony of this is hardly lost on Wilde. In fact, he accepts the parodying of his personality and lifestyle with admirable pluck, and over the course of his tour, he wows and charms his American audience to the extent that, when Patience finally does play in the United States, poor Reginald Bunthorne is looked upon as a mere two-dimensional character who doesn’t even approach in vivacity the very real, fiercely individualistic Irish aesthete.
What is more, in the company of his American hosts, Wilde’s comportment stands in sharp contrast to the snooty, disapproving air of his predecessors, Dickens and Frances Trollope. To be sure, Wilde notes some of the cultural differences between Britain and the United States, including the habit of tobacco spitting (in one famous comment, he hilariously characterizes the American public as embodying “one long expectoration”). But he also participates in that same culture as an equal. Wilde dispenses witticisms galore to reporters hungry for quotes, and he good-naturedly endures all comers, regardless of social status. During his westward swing, the sturdy fellow even earns the respect of grizzled miners and hard-edged gamblers, largely by drinking them under the table and out-sharping them at cards. They even flock to his lectures. In short, Wilde becomes one of the boys out west, an unlikely accomplishment for a man who canvasses the land extolling the virtues of domestic arts and the majesty of the lily.
If I were asked to compile a list of people—dead or alive—with whom I would love to spend an hour or two, Oscar Wilde would rate among my foremost choices. But I have never yet been asked; and since Wilde died in 1900, my only viable access to this eccentric fellow is through his work and the biographical pieces written about him.
And for me, the most important and influential of these secondary sources has been James C. Simmons’ essay in Star-Spangled Eden. Thanks largely to the author’s topical research abilities, his respect for the discipline of social history, and, most importantly, his knack for delivering a compelling story, Simmons’ dissertation on the impressions of British travelers to nineteenth-century America has earned its place in my personal corpus of books that matter.