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Foreign Visitors


When Americans of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries traveled abroad, their reason was painfully self-evident: as citizens of a somewhat provincial and isolated nation, they wished to broaden their limited perspective. Typically, a wealthy young American of the period toured "the continent" (there was only one, really, to see) or sometimes traveled around the globe to seek greater sophistication and variety. But what could motivate travelers from foreign cultures to visit the United States, when it was still an emerging nation?

Some visitors, such as Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) in 1882 and Matthew Arnold (1822–1888) the same year, came to the United States as cultural ambassadors, seeking to bring the secret of life (which secret, Wilde finally revealed, was beauty) or sweetness and light (which, Arnold felt, embodied culture) to their English-speaking but otherwise benighted cousins across the Atlantic. Of course, Wilde and Arnold, and other such ambassadors, were also drawn by money—each of their lecture tours spanned months, many dozens of speaking engagements, and thousands of miles of travel, for which they had arranged to be very handsomely compensated, a prerequisite for either gentleman even to consider the arduous trip to the United States, much less the more arduous task of touring it from end to end.

Other visitors came to study America's ongoing political experiment: the practice of running a post-colonial democratic republic. A typical visitor of this stripe might be Domingo Sarmiento (1811–1888), the young Argentinean who would soon serve as president of his country, or Georges Clemenceau (1841–1929), who first visited the United States as a young man, returning to his native France in 1870. After serving as his nation's prime minister during World War I, Clemenceau paid a final visit fifty-two years after leaving the United States. Similarly, James Bryce (1838–1922) visited America close to the beginning and ending points of the 1870 to 1920 period. A student of American political economy who arrived in New York in 1870 at the age of thirty-two, Bryce wrote the classic American Commonwealth in 1888, and in his later years served as Britain's Ambassador to the United States from 1907 through 1913. All such observers could return home with a wealth of firsthand experience with the ways American government functioned.

Not all such observers, however, felt that the American government functioned very well at all. Even those who were impressed with American ideals saw the sordidness and the casual disregard for dignity in electoral politics. Both Bryce and Clemenceau noted that political life in Europe was far more professional and decorous than in the United States. Clemenceau was fascinated and appalled by the holiday-like atmosphere of political rallies, writing that campaigns that "should be a serious and considered act" (Pachter and Wein, p. 173) were anything but sober. Bryce contrasted America's easy mixing of its social classes with the stiffer distinctions made in Victorian England and generally approved of the informality but disapproved of Americans' lack of reverence for its government: for Americans, he wrote in American Commonwealth, the government is not some "ideal moral power, charged with the duty of forming the characters and guiding the lives of its subjects. It is more like a commercial company or perhaps a huge municipality created for the management of certain business" (Pachter and Wein, p. 213). On a national level, such a purely functional role for the government was disturbing, but Bryce felt a far greater cynicism prevailed on the local level, where American state and city governments were notoriously corruptible. "The government of cities is the one conspicuous failure of the United States," he wrote, noting the "extravagance, corruption and mismanagement which mark the administrations of most of the great cities" (Pachter and Wein, p. 216). Because Americans did not look to their government to protect them from economic danger any more than they expected it to protect them from natural disasters, they suffered needlessly when disaster struck: Bryce wrote that the government stood in the face of economic forces as helpless as "the farmer, who sees approaching the tornado which will uproot his crop" (Pachter and Wein, p. 213).


Shortly after the end of the Civil War, Clemenceau noted that it was still permissible, even common, for politicians, particularly Democrats, to insinuate aloud "that a negro is a degenerate gorilla" and resist giving power "to a savage race which can never be civilized, whose intelligence level is barely above that of a beast . . . This is the theme of all the democrats' speeches" (Pachter and Wein, p. 171). The racial divisions present in U.S. culture after the Civil War dismayed many who admired the principles of a class-free society that the United States found impossible to put into practice. White-skinned visitors could plainly see that high-toned phrases like "All men are created equal" were merely phrases, but darker-skinned visitors, such as Edward Blyden (1832–1912) of the West Indies, could do far more than just see the inequalities being practiced. After arriving in New York at the age of seventeen in 1850, Blyden was denied entrance to theological study, as he put it, because of "deep seated prejudice against my race" (Pachter and Wein, p. 159). Discouraged, he soon traveled to the newly independent country of Liberia where he found that blacks could fill "the most dignified stations that white men can fill in" the United States (Pachter and Wein, p. 160). Over the next forty-five years, as Blyden made repeated trips into and out of the United States, he expressed his firm belief that assimilating into a culture so steeped in racism was an impossible goal for American blacks. In 1889 and 1890, after the publication of his 1887 book, Christianity, Islam, and the Negro Race, Blyden toured the United States, advocating the mass migration of African Americans to their ancestral continent, where they might achieve genuine political equality. Criticized and misperceived as a Muslim proselytizer (Blyden never formally converted to Islam), he called on blacks to free themselves from the shackles of recent history, when they had been enslaved in a Christian country, and become citizens of the modern world.

Radical criticism of American principles and practices was the avowed purpose of many visits by foreign ideologues. The Bolshevist writer Maxim Gorky (1868–1936) came to the United States in 1906 to raise funds for the revolutionary movement in Russia, and he was welcomed by Americans opposed to the autocratic tsarist rule that Gorky wanted to remove. Mark Twain (1835–1910) had written an effusive letter, praising Gorky's ideals: "My sympathies are with the Russian revolution, of course. It goes without saying. I hope it will succeed . . . and it is to be hoped that the roused nation, now rising in its strength, will presently put an end to [tsarism] and set up the republic in its place" (Paine, p. 1283). But the plans of Twain, and of William Dean Howells (1837–1920), who had planned to take part in a dinner celebrating Gorky's cause, were derailed when Gorky ran afoul of an American posture even firmer than the one opposing Bolshevism: just before the dinner, a newspaper reported that the woman sharing Gorky's living quarters during his tour of the United States was not his wife, but his mistress. Madame Maria Andreieva, with whom Gorky had cohabited openly in Russia, was far more newsworthy than Gorky's political beliefs, and the coverage splashed all over the front pages concerning the respectable hotels turning away the Russian couple all but obliterated Gorky's cause with scandal. According to Howells's memoir My Mark Twain (1910), acknowledging that there could no resistance to the public's demonizing of Gorky's morals, Twain sarcastically observed "there can be but one wise thing for a visiting stranger to do—find out what the country's customs are and refrain from offending against them" (Paine, p. 1285).

Gorky's plans changed: instead of raising funds by lecturing on the Russian political scene, the playwright and novelist tried to work on essays and fiction in the Adirondack mountains. Before the year was out, however, he and his mistress were deported, resettling finally on the isle of Capri.

Other visitors found American moralizing to be provincial, puritanical, self-serving, and oppressive. H. G. Wells (1866–1946), already well known as the author of The Time Machine (1895) and The War of the Worlds (1898), witnessed firsthand the shabby treatment received by Gorky. Touring the United States himself at the time, Wells interpreted the Gorky incident as a sign of America's small-mindedness and, worse, as a sign of the low esteem in which women were held in the United States. A socialist as well as an advocate of women's rights, Wells wrote that American independence ran roughshod over opposing points of view in general: "America can be hasty, can be obstinately thoughtless and unjust" (The Future in America, p. 169). He had met Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois in 1906 and was deeply concerned about their ability to overcome the "Tragedy of Color" (as he entitled one chapter of his 1908 account The Future in America). The spectacle of a nation calling itself classless and free while systematically oppressing whole classes of its citizens troubled Wells, who described "the noblest thing in life and the least noble, that is to say, Liberty on the one hand, and on the other the base jealousy the individual self-seeker feels towards the common purpose of the State" (The War in the Air, p. 135).

A far more conservative British author, Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936), who lived in Brattleboro, Vermont, from 1892 to 1896, shared with Wells a sense of outrage over America's lingering racial problem: "What will the American do with the negro?" Kipling asked. "The South will not consort with him. . . .The North is every year less and less in need of his services. And he will not disappear. He will continue as a problem. . . . It is not good to be a negro in the land of the free and the home of the brave" (p. 40). Race was the most obvious manifestation of the disjunction of American rhetoric and realities but far from the only one. When Kipling arrived from India in San Francisco in 1889, he bristled at the Americans' ceaseless assertions of equality where deference was called for, noting that

money will not buy you service in the West. When the hotel clerk . . . stoops to attend to your wants he does so whistling or humming or picking his teeth, or pauses to converse with some one he knows. These performances, I gather, are to impress upon you that he is a free man and your equal. (P. 9)


It was not only visitors from Britain who took exception to American manners. True, the rude American style masquerading as an assertion of equality had been noted by Englishmen throughout the century, most notably Charles Dickens (1812–1870), who had lampooned oafish Americans since his first visit in 1842 and in the novel Martin Chuzzlewit (1844). But Wells and Kipling joined not only Dickens but also visitors from around the globe in their dismay at American manners; the future Nobel Prize–winning novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846–1916) observed that American men of the 1870s "do not take off their hats even in private homes, and yet they remove their coats everywhere, even in the presence of ladies or in places where dignity would require otherwise" (Pachter and Wein, p. 182). Like Dickens three decades earlier, Sienkiewicz deplored the "disgusting" and omnipresent chewing tobacco in American mouths: "If you glance at any group of people," he wrote, "you will notice that the majority of men are moving their jaws rhythmically, as though they were some species of ruminating animals" (Pachter and Wein, p. 183). The Argentine statesman Domingo Sarmiento had noticed a few years before Sienkiewicz that "while conversing with you, the Yankee of careful breeding lifts one foot high [and] takes off his shoe in order to caress the foot. . . . Four individuals seated around a marble table will infallibly have their eight feet upon it" (Pachter and Wein, p. 111). Visitors often regaled their readers with accounts of American social barbarities: Sarmiento describes a man, seeing an American smoking a cigar, pluck the cigar from the stranger's mouth, light his own cigar with it, and replace the stranger's cigar "without the good fellow. . . . making any movement other than opening his mouth to receive back the borrowed cigar" (Pachter and Wein, p. 109).

This casual familiarity with one's fellow citizens had a virtue, too, that even these shocked visitors could appreciate. If Americans lacked cultural refinement, they also lacked the rigorous class distinctions measured by that refinement. To Sienkiewicz, manners and knowledge were available only to the European upper classes, whereas in the America he visited "both are certainly more widely diffused" (Pachter and Wein, p. 183). Overfamiliarity was a cheap price to pay for reducing class barriers, and it was this awkward plunge toward classlessness that was striking to many foreign visitors. Compared to the elaborate European rituals in which "gentlemen . . . presented to each other . . . prance about like two monkeys in ardent courtship," Siemkiewicz applauded the informality with which Americans greet each other (Pachter and Wein, p. 177).

Perhaps the least approving of American lapses in upholding cultured traditions was Matthew Arnold, who had compared Americans to philistines badly in need of "cultivation." (To be sure, Arnold had noted that Britain was not by any means free of philistines, though they were far more numerous in the United States.) Writing in "Civilization in The United States" some five years after leaving the United States in 1883, Arnold observed that "Americans . . . deceive themselves, to persuade themselves that they have what they have not, to cover the defects in their civilisation by boasting" (p. 492). Arnold was particularly annoyed by the American assumption that solutions ratified by a majority vote may then dispense with any fine moral or ethical issues, and he warned against the danger of an overly democratic society in which the "glorification of 'the average man,'" prevents the achievement of true distinction.

Arnold also noted much that was ugly in the United States. Kipling felt that the awful pronunciation of English was Americans' well-deserved punishment for having ignored international copyright laws. Having cursed them for "piracy," Kipling wryly regretted, in his 1891 American Notes, the "horror" of now having to hear Americans speak: "They stole books from across the water without paying for 'em, and the snort of delight was fixed in their nostrils forever by a just Providence. That is why they talk a foreign tongue to-day" (pp. 13–14). But Arnold's aesthetic was offended on a more profound level:

Let us take the beautiful first, and consider how far it is present in American civilisation. Evidently this is that civilisation's weak side. There is little to nourish and delight the sense of beauty there. In the long-settled States east of the Alleghanies the landscape in general is not interesting, the climate harsh and in extremes. (Arnold, p. 173)

The subject of Beauty had, of course, already been covered extensively by Oscar Wilde, who toured the United States in 1882. Wilde toured the United States for almost the entire year, arriving on 2 January and leaving on 27 December. Wilde was welcomed to America to speak on the subject of "The Beautiful." Unlike Arnold, who found American newspapers vulgar and sensational, Wilde encouraged them to cooperate with him in inventing a fantastic persona for himself, and both he and the press prospered by this invention. Remarking merely that his trip was uneventful and the ocean "not so majestic as I had expected" (Ellmann, p. 158), he found himself quoted as pronouncing his disdainful disappointment with the ocean in newspaper headlines on both sides of the Atlantic. Also unlike Arnold, Wilde seemed to want to share his aesthetic with America, rather than to impose one on it.

When a reporter challenged Wilde, for example, by pointing to an unsightly grain elevator in New Jersey, asking if something so ugly and purely functional could have aesthetic value, Wilde evaded a direct answer, rather than haranguing the reporter with aesthetic pronouncements from on high. The endless searching after beauty, he explained, had gone on in all previous cultures and would continue in all new ones, an inclusive concept designed to please American ears. "Man is hungry for beauty," he told that reporter, and spent the next year saying much the same to Americans across the continent (Ellmann, p. 159). Wilde's message to a practical country in a great hurry was that its breakneck progress must halt so that Americans might stop to smell the roses—or, in his chosen examples, the lilies and sunflowers. In a technology-mad country, Wilde extolled the virtues of handmade artifacts, explaining through paradox how embracing machine-made objects would retard and not advance the progress of civilization. Like Robert Louis Stevenson, the Scots-born peripatetic writer whose The Silverado Squatters (1883), Across the Plains (1892), and The Amateur Emigrant (1894) closely detailed his affinities with American westerners, Wilde seemed remarkably comfortable out West. He took pleasure in lecturing in places that might seem the most resolute against his cultural mission. In the frontier mining town of Leadville, Colorado, Wilde lectured on Florentine art and the paintings of James Whistler, drank whiskey at the bottom of a silver mine, and regaled the miners with writings of the Renaissance silversmith and autobiographer Benvenuto Cellini. Leadville was America writ small—once Wilde had spoken there on aestheticism "there was no challenge that he failed to take up," noted Wilde's biographer Richard Ellman. "He boasted smilingly to Whistler, 'I have already civilized America—il reste seulement le ciel'" (there remains only heaven) (Ellmann, p. 205). What he proposed, finally, according to Ellman, was a doctrine that was "the most determined and sustained attack upon materialistic vulgarity that America had seen. . . . Wilde presented a theory not only of art but of being, not only a distinguished personality but an antithesis to getting on without regard for the quality of life" that America had never heard before and certainly had not heard from so colorful an advocate of impractical beauty (p. 205).

Criticized by Ambrose Bierce, warmly embraced by Walt Whitman, Wilde's aestheticism aligned with American values most neatly when he met Henry James (1843–1916). Confessing his nostalgia for London, James no doubt expected Wilde's sympathy, but Wilde instead superciliously expressed his astonishment: "You care for places? The world is my home" (Ellmann, p. 179). This approval of rootlessness perhaps explains what Wilde enjoyed about America, and what James enjoyed least about it: the mutability of the American work-in-progress, which offended and puzzled some visitors, also held its most paradoxical appeal for others.

See alsoAmericans Abroad


Primary Works

Arnold, Matthew. "Civilization in the United States." TheNineteenth Century 21, no. 134 (April 1888): 486–496

Arnold, Matthew. Discourses in America. London: Macmillan, 1885.

Belloc, Hilaire. The Contrast. 1924. New York: Arno Press, 1974.

Bennett, Arnold. Your United States: Impressions of a FirstVisit. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1912.

Brooke, Rupert. Letters from America. 1916. With a preface by Henry James. New York: Beaufort Books, 1988.

Bryce, James. The American Commonwealth. New York: Macmillan, 1888.

Kipling, Rudyard. American Notes. 1899. New York: Arno Press, 1974.

Paine, Albert Bigelow, ed. Mark Twain's Letters. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1917.

Pender, Rose. A Lady's Experiences in the Wild West in 1883. With a foreword by A. B. Guthrie Jr. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978.

Russell, William Howard. Hesperothen: Notes from theWest. London: S. Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1882.

Santayana, George. Character & Opinion in the UnitedStates: With Reminiscences of William James and Josiah Royce and Academic Life in America. New York: Scribners, 1920.

Sienkiewicz, Henryk. Portrait of America: Letters. Edited and translated by Charles Morley. New York: Columbia University Press, 1959.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. Across the Plains: With OtherMemories and Essays. London: Chatto & Windus, 1892.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Amateur Emigrant. 1894. With a preface by Fanny Stevenson. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2002.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. From Scotland to Silverado. Edited by James D. Hart Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1966.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Silverado Squatters: SixSelected Chapters. 1883. Delray Beach, Fla.: Levenger Press, 2001.

Webb, Beatrice Potter. American Diary, 1898. 1898. Edited by David A. Shannon. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1963.

Wells, H. G. The Future in America: A Search after Realities. London: Chapman & Hall, 1906.

Wells, H. G. The War in the Air. London: G. Bell and Sons, 1908.

Secondary Works

Athearn, Robert G. Westward the Briton. New York: Scribners, 1953.

Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Gorky, Maxim. The City of the Yellow Devil: Pamphlets,Articles and Letters about America. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1972.

Hasty, Olga Peters, and Susanne Fusso, eds. and trans. America through Russian Eyes, 1874–1926. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988.

Joseph, Franz M., ed. As Others See Us: The United States through Foreign Eyes. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1959.

Mulvey, Christopher. Transatlantic Manners: Social Patterns in Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Travel Literature. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Nevins, Allan. American Social History, as Recorded by British Travellers. New York: A. M. Kelley, 1969.

Pachter, Marc, and Frances Wein. Abroad in America:Visitors to the New Nation, 1776–1914. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1976.

Steven Goldleaf

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