Trollope in America

March 10: The British writer-activist Frances Trollope was born on this day in 1779. Trollope vaulted to celebrity status just after her fifty-third birthday with the publication of her first book, the witty and outspoken Domestic Manners of the Americans. Over the next quarter-century she published well over a hundred other books, most of them in the fiction and travel genres, a handful of them almost as provocative as her first hit. Her Life and Adventures of Jonathan Jefferson Whitlaw (1836) helped to rally support for the Jamaica Act, freeing all slaves in the British colonies, and to inspire Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Several years later, The Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy led to improvements in England's Factory Act. Then another novel, Jessie Phillips (1843) led to the retraction of the Bastardy Clause in the Poor Laws, which had made single mothers solely responsible for illegitimate children.

 

But it was Domestic Manners of the Americans which won Trollope overnight fame and, in the United States, enduring outrage. Unhappily married and financially strapped, Trollope and several of her children had arrived in America in 1827 to join Fanny Wright's utopian experiment in Tennessee, the Nashoba Commune. Nashoba was an immediate failure, but Trollope stayed on for three years, living in Cincinnati and traveling widely. Her experiences left her dubious about America and hopeless about Americans: "I do not like them. I do not like their principles, I do not like their manners, I do not like their opinions." Nor did she like Buffalo, judged "queerest looking" but representative of "all the thousand and one towns I saw in America":

All the buildings have the appearance of having been run up in a hurry, though every thing has an air of great pretension; there are porticos, columns, domes, and colonnades, but all in wood. Every body tells you there, as in all their other new-born towns, and every body believes, that their improvement, and their progression, are more rapid, more wonderful, than the earth ever before witnessed; while to me, the only wonder is, how so many thousands, nay millions of persons, can be found, in the nineteenth century, who can be content so to live.  Surely this country may be said to spread rather than to rise.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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