Plus ça change…

Three years before publication of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America in 1835, Frances Trollope, mother of Anthony (then not yet twenty), saw her Domestic Manners of the Americans reach print. It’s a delightful book, though not particularly kind to the people of the young republic. Nonetheless, Mrs. Trollope had quite the eye, and wit to match.

Some of the things she noted are as true of American attitudes today as they were 180 years ago. In the words of John Cawelti, she “was stupefied by the pride that leading Americans took in the fact that they were self-taught and self-made, which, as she acidly remarked, meant to her only that they were badly taught and badly made.” We still have a strong distrust for “experts” (today, “university professors”), many of us believing we can figure almost anything out for ourselves–though we are often willing to make exceptions (the “experts” we agree with, we trust).

Here’s one delightful passage:

For the great part of this day we had the good fortune to have a gentleman and his daughter for our fellow-travellers, who were extremely intelligent and agreeable; but I nearly got myself into a scrape by venturing to remark upon a phrase used by the gentleman, and which had met me at every corner from the time I first entered the country. We had been talking of pictures, and I had endeavoured to adhere to the rule I had laid down for myself, of saying very little, where I could say nothing agreeable. At length he named an American artist, with whose works I was very familiar, and after having declared him equal to Lawrence (judging by his portrait of West, now at New York), he added, “and what is more, madam, he is perfectly self-taught.”

I prudently took a few moments before I answered; for the equalling our immortal Lawrence to a most vile dauber stuck in my throat; I could not say Amen; so for some time I said nothing; but, at last, I remarked on the frequency with which I had heard this phrase of self-taught used, not as an apology, but as positive praise.

“Well, madam, can there be a higher praise?”

“Certainly not, if spoken of the individual merits of a person, without the means of instruction, but I do not understand it when applied as praise to his works.”

“Not understand it, madam? Is it not attributing genius to the author, and what is teaching compared to that?”

I do not wish to repeat all my own bons mots in praise of study, and on the disadvantages of profound ignorance, but I would, willingly, if I could, give an idea of the mixed indignation and contempt expressed by our companion at the idea that study was necessary to the formation of taste, and to the development of genius. At last, however, he closed the discussion thus,—”There is no use in disputing a point that is already settled, madam; the best judges declare that Mr. H—g’s portraits are equal to that of Lawrence.”

“Who is it who has passed this judgement, sir?”

“The men of taste of America, madam.”

I then asked him, if he thought it was going to rain?

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