Chapter 6 From M. Gustave Lejaune, Of the French Academy, To M. Adolph_ouche, In Paris
Washington, October 5.
I give you my little notes; you must make allowances for haste, for bad inns,
for the perpetual scramble, for ill-humour. Everywhere the same impression—th_latitude of unbalanced democracy intensified by the platitude of the spiri_f commerce. Everything on an immense scale—everything illustrated by million_f examples. My brother-in-law is always busy; he has appointments,
inspections, interviews, disputes. The people, it appears, are incredibl_harp in conversation, in argument; they wait for you in silence at the corne_f the road, and then they suddenly discharge their revolver. If you fall,
they empty your pockets; the only chance is to shoot them first. With that, n_menities, no preliminaries, no manners, no care for the appearance. I wande_bout while my brother is occupied; I lounge along the streets; I stop at th_orners; I look into the shops; je regarde passer les femmes. It's an eas_ountry to see; one sees everything there is; the civilisation is skin deep;
you don't have to dig. This positive, practical, pushing bourgeoisie is alway_bout its business; it lives in the street, in the hotel, in the train; one i_lways in a crowd—there are seventy-five people in the tramway. They sit i_our lap; they stand on your toes; when they wish to pass they simply pus_ou. Everything in silence; they know that silence is golden, and they hav_he worship of gold. When the conductor wishes your fare he gives you a poke,
very serious, without a word. As for the types— but there is only one—they ar_ll variations of the same—the commis-voyageur minus the gaiety. The women ar_ften pretty; you meet the young ones in the streets, in the trains, in searc_f a husband. They look at you frankly, coldly, judicially, to see if you wil_erve; but they don't want what you might think (du moins on me l'assure);
they only want the husband. A Frenchman may mistake; he needs to be sure he i_ight, and I always make sure. They begin at fifteen; the mother sends the_ut; it lasts all day (with an interval for dinner at a pastry-cook's);
sometimes it goes on for ten years. If they haven't found the husband then,
they give it up; they make place for the cadettes, as the number of women i_normous. No salons, no society, no conversation; people don't receive a_ome; the young girls have to look for the husband where they can. It is n_isgrace not to find him—several have never done so. They continue to go abou_nmarried—from the force of habit, from the love of movement, without hopes,
without regret—no imagination, no sensibility, no desire for the convent. W_ave made several journeys—few of less than three hundred miles. Enormou_rains, enormous waggons, with beds and lavatories, and negroes who brush yo_ith a big broom, as if they were grooming a horse. A bounding movement, _oaring noise, a crowd of people who look horribly tired, a boy who passes u_nd down throwing pamphlets and sweetmeats into your lap—that is an America_ourney. There are windows in the waggons—enormous, like everything else; bu_here is nothing to see. The country is a void—no features, no objects, n_etails, nothing to show you that you are in one place more than another.
Aussi, you are not in one place, you are everywhere, anywhere; the train goe_ hundred miles an hour. The cities are all the same; little houses ten fee_igh, or else big ones two hundred; tramways, telegraph-poles, enormous signs,
holes in the pavement, oceans of mud, commis-voyageurs, young ladies lookin_or the husband. On the other hand, no beggars and no cocottes—none, at least,
that you see. A colossal mediocrity, except (my brother-in-law tells me) i_he machinery, which is magnificent. Naturally, no architecture (they mak_ouses of wood and of iron), no art, no literature, no theatre. I have opene_ome of the books; mais ils ne se laissent pas lire. No form, no matter, n_tyle, no general ideas! they seem to be written for children and youn_adies. The most successful (those that they praise most) are the facetious;
they sell in thousands of editions. I have looked into some of the mos_antes; but you need to be forewarned, to know that they are amusing; de_laisanteries de croquemort. They have a novelist with pretensions t_iterature, who writes about the chase for the husband and the adventures o_he rich Americans in our corrupt old Europe, where their primaeval candou_uts the Europeans to shame. C'est proprement ecrit; but it's terribly pale.
What isn't pale is the newspapers—enormous, like everything else (fift_olumns of advertisements), and full of the commerages of a continent. An_uch a tone, grand Dieu! The amenities, the personalities, the recriminations,
are like so many coups de revolver. Headings six inches tall; correspondence_rom places one never heard of; telegrams from Europe about Sarah Bernhardt;
little paragraphs about nothing at all; the menu of the neighbour's dinner;
articles on the European situation a pouffer de rire; all the tripotage o_ocal politics. The reportage is incredible; I am chased up and down by th_nterviewers. The matrimonial infelicities of M. and Madame X. (they give th_ame), tout au long, with every detail—not in six lines, discreetly veiled,
with an art of insinuation, as with us; but with all the facts (or th_ictions), the letters, the dates, the places, the hours. I open a paper a_azard, and I find au beau milieu, a propos of nothing, the announcement—"Mis_usan Green has the longest nose in Western New York." Miss Susan Green (je m_enseigne) is a celebrated authoress; and the Americans have the reputation o_poiling their women. They spoil them a coups de poing. We have seen fe_nteriors (no one speaks French); but if the newspapers give an idea of th_omestic moeurs, the moeurs must be curious. The passport is abolished, bu_hey have printed my signalement in these sheets,— perhaps for the youn_adies who look for the husband. We went one night to the theatre; the piec_as French (they are the only ones), but the acting was American—too American;
we came out in the middle. The want of taste is incredible. An Englishman who_ met tells me that even the language corrupts itself from day to day; a_nglishman ceases to understand. It encourages me to find that I am not th_nly one. There are things every day that one can't describe. Such i_ashington, where we arrived this morning, coming from Philadelphia. M_rother-in-law wishes to see the Bureau of Patents, and on our arrival he wen_o look at his machines, while I walked about the streets and visited th_apitol! The human machine is what interests me most. I don't even care fo_he political—for that's what they call their Government here—"the machine."
It operates very roughly, and some day, evidently, it will explode. It is tru_hat you would never suspect that they have a government; this is th_rincipal seat, but, save for three or four big buildings, most of the_ffreux, it looks like a settlement of negroes. No movement, no officials, n_uthority, no embodiment of the state. Enormous streets, comme toujours, line_ith little red houses where nothing ever passes but the tramway. Th_apitol—a vast structure, false classic, white marble, iron and stucco, whic_as assez grand air—must be seen to be appreciated. The goddess of liberty o_he top, dressed in a bear's skin; their liberty over here is the liberty o_ears. You go into the Capitol as you would into a railway station; you wal_bout as you would in the Palais Royal. No functionaries, no door-keepers, n_fficers, no uniforms, no badges, no restrictions, no authority—nothing but _rowd of shabby people circulating in a labyrinth of spittoons. We are to_uch governed, perhaps, in France; but at least we have a certain incarnatio_f the national conscience, of the national dignity. The dignity is absen_ere, and I am told that the conscience is an abyss. "L'etat c'est moi" even—_ike that better than the spittoons. These implements are architectural,
monumental; they are the only monuments. En somme, the country is interesting,
now that we too have the Republic; it is the biggest illustration, the bigges_arning. It is the last word of democracy, and that word is—flatness. It i_ery big, very rich, and perfectly ugly. A Frenchman couldn't live here; fo_ife with us, after all, at the worst is a sort of appreciation. Here, ther_s nothing to appreciate. As for the people, they are the English MINUS th_onventions. You can fancy what remains. The women, pourtant, ar_ometimes—rather well turned. There was one at Philadelphia—I made he_cquaintance by accident—whom it is probable I shall see again. She is no_ooking for the husband; she has already got one. It was at the hotel; I thin_he husband doesn't matter. A Frenchman, as I have said, may mistake, and h_eeds to be sure he is right. Aussi, I always make sure!