Bigotry against foreigners was rampant in nineteenth-century America, buttressed by patriotic or racial ideas about geography, ethnography, and sociohistorical process. These ideas made it easy to rank foreigners upon a global hierarchical scale, with white U.S citizens and the United States itself stationed at its apex. According to the notion known as American "exceptionalism," the geographical locale of the New World endowed the Republic with a special status and mission. In the seventeenth century the Pilgrims had escaped the tyranny and corruption of the Old World, crossed the Atlantic, and founded a new, uniquely free society, an "empire for liberty" as Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) phrased it a century and a half later. In its nineteenth-century guise, the sentimental view of the United States was as a bastion of liberty rationalized expansionism. In 1845 the newspaper editor John Louis O'Sullivan termed this imperative the country's "Manifest Destiny," the divinely sanctioned engulfing of territory up to, and perhaps even beyond, the western Pacific shore.
Anti-foreigner sentiment was also based on ethno-graphical categories widely accepted in a white scientific community that reached from southern physicians who wished to justify slavery to naturalists at Harvard. The most popular, now notorious, text of this group, Josiah Nott and George Gliddon's 1854 Types of Mankind, divided the globe and its inhabitants into racial types and privileged Western Europeans or Anglo-Saxons. Another component was the deeply ingrained, pervasive concept of inevitable universal historical progress. The Caucasian race—best represented by its incarnation in the United States—with God's aid had reached the most advanced stage of civilization, after passing through previous "savage" or "barbaric" stages, and was dutifully obliged to pull up those cultural groups or races—aboriginal peoples in Africa or the Pacific Islands, for example—that otherwise would stagnate in their own benightedness.
Fourth-of-July speeches, magazine articles, history textbooks, and travel narratives disseminated these nationally chauvinistic ideas to a receptive U.S. populace. But perhaps the strongest shaping influence came from geography primers, especially those of Peter Parley, the pseudonym of the Boston author and publisher Samuel Goodrich (1793–1860). The Peter Parley series and Goodrich's other textbooks typically mix patriotism and Christian paternalism and continually seesaw between the claimed superiority of U.S. culture and the apparent crudity or deformity of virtually all non-U.S cultures. In Manners and Customs of the Principal Nations of the Globe (1845), Goodrich reflects upon the supposed tendency of countries with hot climates to produce indolent citizens:
Let a person turn round an artificial globe, and mark the countries within the tropics, and observe that there is not one among them all where the spirit of liberty, the light of learning, the love of industry, the voice of piety, or the arts of refined life, pervade society—and he may then bless Providence that his lot is cast in the chill regions of the Pilgrims. (Pp. 8–11)
Goodrich, to his credit, preferred sociological (however fuzzily adduced) assessment and resisted raw racist ideologies. In fact, at times his grade-school primers could even undercut their own biased simplifications. In Peter Parley's Tales about the Islands in the Pacific Ocean (1837) he asserts that the nomadic hunters of New Guinea appear "to be very savage and brutal," but then immediately adds that "the truth is we know but very little about them. . . . Perhaps, after all, if . . . [we] knew these people better, their character would appear different" (pp. 100–101).
In the 1860s textbooks written by professional, academic geographers began to replace Goodrich's juvenile-pedagogical ones, and yet these works, drawing upon the racist ethnographical science in Types of Mankind and kindred works, devised hierarchical systems that often outlined racial types more firmly and ethnocentrically than those used in the 1840s or 1850s. Arnold Henry Guyot (1807–1884), a Princeton professor, includes in his 1866 Physical Geography a section on "The White Race the Normal or Typical Race," with an accompanying picture depicting the latter "in unrivalled works of the ancient sculptures," and with the text confirming that a "comparison of the different tribes and races of men, reveals the fact of a gradual modification of types, on every side of the central or [Caucasian] highest race, until by insensible degrees, the lowest or most degraded forms of humanity are reached" (quoted in Elson, p. 67). The nonhierarchical, nonracist appreciation of all cultures—which would accord each an intrinsic merit and a complete, holistic development—was not to gain scientific credence until the early years of the twentieth century, in the writings of the U.S. anthropologist Franz Boas (1858–1942), and even then jingoism and anti-immigrant sentiments continued, in the popular mind, to reinforce stereotypes.
THE EUROPEAN WORLD
Patriotic self-regard largely explains the tendency to stereotype foreigners, but insecurity played a role as well. National anxiety about the stability of Protestant, republican culture—especially in the face of massive Irish Catholic immigration in the 1840s and 1850s—induced wholesale xenophobia against all non-Protestant foreigners. There was a widespread anticlerical literature defaming Catholicism and its adherents, often in the form of melodramatic captivity narratives in which an innocent American is made the victim of Spanish priest-craft. The dungeon in Edgar Allan Poe's (1809–1849) famous short story "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1842), for instance, happens to be in Seville, and unknown and unseen agents of the Spanish Inquisition persecute the tale's protagonist. Behind Poe's story are more salacious potboiler novels that depicted the Catholic world as guileful and corrupt. Such lurid sensationalism seems intended for lowbrow audiences, but even more polished and circumspect authors such as James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851) and Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864)—in The Bravo (1831) and The Marble Faun (1860), respectively—envisioned Venice and Rome as urban labyrinths given over to conspiratorial plotting. This anti-Catholicism, however, ultimately had less to do with sectarian bias than with an ongoing worry about the New World's vulnerability to the perceived decadent luxury, artifice, or despotism of the Old World. Hawthorne's sister-in-law, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (1804–1894), was a well-known New England pedagogue who wrote that her textbooks were designed to instruct young Americans "how to dispose the elements of a new world into a truly Christian order" so that the United States would not revert to those types of flawed "institutions, that, with their death-in-life, cumber Asia and Africa, and even Europe," nor "act to-day principles which have rendered desert, and strewed with ruins, regions the most favored on the globe" (p. ii).
The most prolific writer about foreign lands and peoples was Bayard Taylor (1825–1878). Largely forgotten, he was hailed in his own time as the "Great American Traveler." Antebellum readers eagerly followed his footsteps through areas far from the United States: the Middle East, India, Central Africa, Spain, Greece, Sweden, and Russia. Taylor could write with nuance and perception, but a text such as a Visit to India, China, and Japan, in the Year 1853 (1855) betrays an apparent knee-jerk reaction against cultural difference: the "only taste which the Chinese exhibit to any degree, is a love of the monstrous. That sentiment of harmony, which throbbed like a musical rhythm through the life of the Greeks, never looked out of their oblique eyes. . . . [They] admire whatever is distorted or unnatural" (pp. 352–353). Taylor's works sold well to a literate middle-class audience, curious about the world's diversity, but diversity was orchestrated to privilege the ethnicity, religion, and political values of the U.S (mainly Anglo-Saxon) white reader. In Taylor's most famous travel text, Eldorado; or, Adventures in the Path of Empire (1850), Protestant and western-northern European cultures get to lord it over southern ones, via an image of a colossal, dominant mountain:
Rising from the level of the sea and the perpetual summer of the tropics, with an unbroken line to the height of eighteen thousand feet, it stands singly above the other ranges with its spotless crown of snow, as some giant, white-haired Northern king might stand among a host of the weak, effeminate sybarites of the South. Orizaba [in Mexico] dwells alone in my memory, as the only perfect type of mountain to be found on the Earth. (2:189)
Given a perceived shared Anglo-Saxon racial and cultural identity, feelings about Britain were ambivalent. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) in his English Traits (1856) likens Britain to an aged, staid, and conventional parent in contrast to his own seemingly more energetic and youthful country. Meditating on the British aristocracy, Emerson comments that it "shocks republican nerves" and that "England, an old exhausted island, must one day be contented, like other parents, to be strong only in her children" (5:275).
The obverse side to this celebration of American youthfulness was nervousness that the United States did not match up to the glories of European culture. Washington Irving (1783–1859), Cooper, and Hawthorne all waxed nostalgic when musing on Old World sophistication, layered history, and artistic polish. Hawthorne chose Italy as the setting for his 1860 novel The Marble Faun not only to exploit his audience's interest in the forbidden spaces and rituals of Catholicism but also because he was genuinely attracted to European cultural richness. In the novel's preface, he writes that no "author, without a trial, can conceive of the difficulty of writing a Romance about a country [the United States] where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong" (p. 854). Irving reveled in the exotic mystique of old Moorish Spain in his The Alhambra (1832), and in his The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon (1819–1820) he fondly depicts Westminster Abbey and other venerable English architectural monuments and scenes. Although Irving at times lightly satirizes British custom, the Sketch Book manifests a transatlantic, Anglo-American sensibility and cosmopolitanism, which later would be fully aesthetically realized in the turn-of-the century novels of Henry James (1843–1916), such as The Wings of the Dove (1902) and The Ambassadors (1903).
The rise of a highly literate middle-class tourist culture was also catered to by a number of texts written by women. Caroline Matilda Kirkland's (1801–1864) travel book Holidays Abroad; or, Europe from the West (1849) responds to the lavish artistic thrills to be found in Italy and other European locales. The enticement of a rich antiquity and fear of its Catholic context or associations leads Kirkland, however, to scrupulous restraint. She praises St. Peter's Basilica in Rome as being "sumptuous" but adds that "soul it had none to me" (1:286–287). Margaret Fuller (1810–1850), a New England transcendentalist lumi-nary and friend of Emerson, reporting on the scenes of 1840s revolutionary Italy for the New-York Daily Tribune, more astutely saw European sights as being indispensable to historic consciousness: the "thinking American" is a "man who . . . does not wish one seed from the Past to be lost" (p. 411).
THE MIDDLE EAST
Europe was the Old World, but the old Old World, and the original home of Christianity, was the Levant, that is, the Middle East or Holy Land. The geography and history of the Holy Land allured both Bible-reading citizens in the United States and citizens more interested in exotic entertainments. Popular travel writers and novelists—George William Curtis (1824–1892) in Nile Notes of a Howadji (1851) and its sequel The Howadji in Syria (1852) as well as Maturin Murray Ballou (1820–1895) in The Circassian Slave; or, The Sultan's Favorite (1851), for example—titillated the public with romanticized images of a sensual, mysterious Orient. "Damascus is a dream of beauty as you approach it," Curtis wrote in The Howadji in Syria, but "the secret charm of that beauty, when you are within the walls, is discovered only by penetrating deeper and farther into its exquisite courts, and gardens, and interiors, as you must strip away the veils and clumsy outer robes to behold the beauty of the Circassian or Georgian slave" (p. 12). Other contemporary works moralized on what seemed to be the result of despotic rule and indulgence. John Ross Browne (1817–1875) in Yusef; or, The Journey of the Frangi (1853), for instance, described the harem as a scene "of absolute servitude, and disgusting sensuality" (p. 145). Mark Twain (1835–1910) devoted a large section of his satiric The Innocents Abroad (1869) to his trip to the Levant, a region which he mocked as being stalled in time: "They never invent anything, never learn anything" (p. 318).
The most renowned U.S. writer who reported on the scenes and sites of the Holy Land was John Lloyd Stephens (1805–1852). He traveled incognito (and at some personal risk) through the arid and sublime lands of the Old and New Testaments, and the memoir of his arduous experience—Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petræa, and the Holy Land (1837)—became an overnight hit. For Stephens and other writers (including Herman Melville [1819–1891] in his ethical-metaphysical epic poem Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land ), the Levant seemed a hostile, devastated terrain—with the desolate Dead Sea at its center—but also a landscape eerily filled with biblically resonant holy shrines and sites. The latter were forbidden objects of devotional fascination for U.S. Protestants, whose official theology emphasized more abstract, nonphysical forms of religious attachment and focus. Even as they stare intently at the Levant's palpable religious memorials and relics, Stephens and other contemporary U.S. travelers condemn them.
THE OTHER AMERICAS
Stephens's celebrity status was heightened when he published Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan (1841) and its sequel Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843). These narratives mix the adventure of unearthing ancient, hitherto unseen monuments (unseen by white northern eyes, that is) with scorn for the revolutionary political turmoil of the time. Stephens often viewed Mexican or Central American indigenes with contempt, but he was obsessed by the Spanish conquistadors who had overrun and appropriated their ancestral lands. His feelings are kindred to those of Julia Ward Howe (1819–1910), who wrote in her travel memoir A Trip to Cuba (1860) that the "race" of the Spanish rulers has "suffer[ed] and degenerate[d] under the influence of the warm climate" (p. 26). Other works—historical romances such as William Gilmore Simms's (1806–1870) The Damsel of Darien (1839)—tantalized Victorian American prudery with forbidden cross-racial sexual relations. In William Hickling Prescott's (1796–1859) massive History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843), vulgar sensationalism, but not melodrama, is avoided when the history of the Spanish Conquest is figured as a clash between the iron-willed Hernan Cortés and the melancholic, soft-spoken Aztec leader Montezuma.
These works about Mexico and other Latin American regions were popular in part because of the U.S. audience's prurient regard for Catholicism and alternative New World narratives, but also because the lands south of the border attracted the nation's territorial ambitions. A best-selling novelist of the period, George Lippard (1822–1854), in Legends of Mexico (1847) and 'Bel of Praire Eden: A Romance of Mexico (1848), exploited the nation's expansive interests in Mexico. Although his novels were at times sympathetic to indigenous people who fought against despotic Spaniards, they remained essentially jingoistic in tone.
Foreign lands often became the site for a sort of soft pornography. Herman Melville knowingly highlights the antebellum audience's desire for fleshy exotica when, in Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846), his fictionalized account of his stay on the Marquesan island of Nukuheva, he invites the reader to imagine South Sea isles: "What strange visions of outlandish things does the very name [of the Marquesas] spirit up! Naked houris—cannibal banquets—groves of cocoa-nut . . . sunny valleys planted with bread-fruit trees—carved canoes dancing on the flashing blue waters—savage woodlands guarded by horrible idols—heathenish rites and human sacrifices" (p. 5). This, though, is a bit of self-conscious, tongue-in-cheek pandering, and in fact Typee foregrounds for the attentive reader the limits and hazards of stereotypic depictions.
In Typee, Melville excoriates evangelical-minded Christians who saw in the native mostly only a subject for conversion. Hawaii was the focal point for the U.S. missionary movement in the Pacific, what the Reverend Henry T. Cheever (1814–1897) in his popular Life in the Sandwich Islands (1851) called the "religious Protestant Heart of the great Ocean" (p. 3). The average U.S. citizen, consequently, would regard the world of the Pacific Islands as an arena for heroic missionaries overthrowing licentiousness, and part of the appeal of Melville's first novel was exactly its scandalous affront to orthodoxy and apparent relishing of native sensuality. Melville, however, refuses to make the natives consistently knowable as either brutal savages or gay-hearted, sexually liberated innocents. The two perspectives cancel each other out, and Melville thereby leaves the reader to ponder the precarious, unstable means of understanding foreignness in the first place.
AFRICA AND THE CARIBBEAN
Of all the major regions or continents addressed thus far, Africa was the one about which the least was known, and yet it also, along with the Caribbean, figured intensely in debates over slavery. Southerners often justified slavery as a fortunate escape from an Africa depicted as a primitive, abject realm. One of the most influential apologetic, proslavery texts was William J. Grayson's (1788–1863) The Hireling and the Slave (1856):
In this new home [of the U.S. south], whate'er the negro's fate—
More blessed his life than in his native state!
No mummeries dupe, no Fetich charms affright,
No rites obscene diffuse their moral blight;
Idolatries, more hateful than the grave,
With human sacrifice, no more enslave . . .
(Sundquist, p. 247)
Such derogatory views were countered in abolitionist literature. Sarah J. Hale (1788–1879) in her antislavery novel Liberia; or, Mr. Peyton's Experiments (1853) chronicles the efforts of a group of liberated slaves to build farms and civic communities in Liberia, the African colony founded by expatriate U.S. and British diasporic Africans in the 1840s. Hale, however, still wants to uplift Africa through the hands of Christianized black immigrants rather than recognizing the merits of the native population.
More radical thinkers appalled by racism and slavery emphasized stronger positive images of Africa and its varied people as well as the island sites of the African Diaspora. The bloody 1791 revolt in nearby St. Domingo shocked many U.S., and especially southern, citizens, but some abolitionists endorsed black violence as a political necessity along freedom's road. John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892), for example, wrote verses praising the Haitian revolutionary Touissant-Louverture (c. 1743–1803) as a strong patriot of liberty who deserved history's encomiums:
Dark Haytien! for the time shall come,
Yea, even now is nigh,
When, everywhere, thy name shall be
Redeemed from color's infamy
The most well-known African American asserting the dignity of Caribbean and African cultures was Martin R. Delany (1812–1885), who in a series of texts—from The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States (1852) to his novel Blake; or, The Huts of America (1859–1862)—advocated the need to found a strong black nation. In his late monograph Principia of Ethnology: The Origin of Races and Color (1879), Delany countered the biased view of the geography primers cited earlier: "So far from [being] stupefying and depressing, as popularly taught in our schoolbooks [the African] climate and inhalations of the aroma and odors with which the atmosphere is impregnated, are exciting causes, favorable to intellectual development" (p. 61).
The white-written literary text most highly regarded today as subtly expressing the complexity of the African-Caribbean New World scene is Melville's "Benito Cereno" (1856), a fact-based novella that recounts the story of a revolt on a slave ship, bringing into collision the perspectives of an adroit, cagey African insurrectionist leader, a willfully naive American captain, and a Spanish commander, whose loss of his slave ship to those he would enslave symbolizes an emasculation of Spanish Old World imperial power. It is a New World story purposely constructed to show how the "new" world was deeply shadowed by the histories of the past and the burdens of accumulated inequalities.
U.S. citizens during the antebellum period lauded themselves for their democracy, energy, and moral progressiveness, a triad of virtues all in contrast to the seeming failings of realms and peoples elsewhere: the despotic and effete old European world; the stagnant Levant; the barbaric, heathenish continent of Africa; the sensual and savage islands of the Pacific; and the racially mixed, politically convulsive countries of Latin America. Such distorting stereotypes were culturally powerful because they simultaneously focused both fears and desires, as in the example of Hawthorne's The Marble Faun, which depicts Rome's labyrinthine complexity as at once alluring and repulsive. The dissenting views of Melville, Delany, and other critical literary artists and political thinkers are crucial reminders that during a past era of national pomp and self-congratulation no absolute commonality of attitude prevailed. The best imaginative and empathic writers of the age saw beyond the patriotic seduction of New World exceptionalism as they engaged, in travelogues and novels, the surrounding multitudinous world.
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Bruce A. Harvey
"Foreigners." American History Through Literature 1820-1870. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 25, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/foreigners
"Foreigners." American History Through Literature 1820-1870. . Retrieved April 25, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/foreigners
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