Saturday, July 14, 2012

Book Review: A Frenchman in Lincoln's America

My interolocutor RMB bought me books for Christmas, because RMB is the best.  The Library of America Collected Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass and a two-volume work I'd never heard of before, Huit Mois en Amerique by Ernest Duvergier de Hauranne, published in English as A Frenchman in Lincoln's America. At the simplest level, it is a Frenchman's travellogue of America in 1864 and 1865.  More ambitiously, it was an attempt by its 22-year-old author to update Tocqueville's Democracy in America by showing America 30 years later and in the middle of its civil war.

To cut to the chase, A Frenchman in Lincoln's America is a very good book.  Not an all-time great like Democracy in America, but a well-written and well-thought-out portrait of America during the war.  In general, it is more of a travellogue than Democracy in America; it is organized like a journal, and follows the author day to day across the US and Canada.  This organization makes it less overtly philosophical/sociological and yet more vivid than Democracy in America -- de Hauranne has plenty of broad-brush mini-essays about the American character, but they are interspersed with detailed observations of what New York or Cincinatti or Boston or the mountains of Vermont or the oil fields of Pennsylvania are like.

In general the author's broad statements about the American character are well thought out and insightful, but they follow Tocqueville and other thinkers closely enough that they don't seem greatly impressive or particularly original.  When the author gets more specific and talks about the war, however, his insights become more valuable.  His analyses are good, but after 150 years of research and perspective contemporary historians can say more about what was going on than de Hauranne was able to glean from the Newspapers and talking to people.  But his thoughts are incredibly valuable for another reason -- they show what was apparent to an intelligent but uncommitted observer in 1864 and 1865.  Both the centrality of slavery and white supremacy to the war and the ubiquity of white supremacy in America were obvious to de Huaranne, which further hammers home just how much the causes of the war and the American view of race were in the open.  Moreover, in his reaction to war news de Hauranne offers an excellent picture of how the war looked to people in the North, far from the front lines or the decision making in Washington.

But the most delightful thing about the book is its ability to paint a picture of America as the author saw it.  The beauties of American's forests and mountains are rendered vividly; Hauranne has both a keen interest in and a keen eye for natural beauty.  There are passages where he describes Tulip Trees and bald cypresses so vividly that you instantly know what he's talking about, even though he doesn't know the name of the trees.  And in his description of  his travels the reader can grasp the immenseness and emptiness of the American landscape, even in places that were no longer the frontier.

His depictions of cities are just as good -- they are colourful, exactly rendered and wonderfully opinionated.  We learn that New York is an oppressive hell-hole and that Cincinnatti was then the most beautiful city in the country; his description of Baltimore's geography is so exact that it could have been made from a topographical map.  The width of the streets, the sorts of houses and trees along them, all of these interest de Hauranne and he relates it all with enough detail to pain the picture, and enough economy to avoid dragging down the book with minutia.

Here is is description of Balitmore, taken from his perch atop the Washington Monument in the Mount Vernon neighbourhood:
The red houses of the city extended into the distance in the south; they seem to be built on the steps of a great amphitheatre all along the range of low hills that borders the Chesapeake.  Here and there the line of hills is broken by steep valleys down the sides of which the houses and streets seem to be tumbling.  A hundred church-towers, steeples, belfries and turrets, their size enlarged by the evening mist, thrust their gray or brown needles upward against an undulating background.
To my left lay the harbor with its forest of bristling masts and the white expanse of the bay closed in by distant promontories.  Straight ahead of me was the Patapsco River where thin black lines [of barges] were moving, unrolling behind them slender ribbons of smoke.  On my right were hills and fields covered with snow and with black silhouettes along the edges, but keeping, even on this cold evening, an air of grace and gaiety.  This is half of the panorama of Baltimore.  To the north the houses were less numerous, and one could see where streets ended or else continued as long, straight lines through suburbs yet to be finished.  A small stream meandered through the bottom of a curving valley.  Factories, smoking chimneys and the long brick-colored roofs of warehouses and workshops bore witness to an industry that was once thriving but is now stifled by competition of the enterprising Yankees who are held in such contempt in Baltimore, perhaps because they are such rivals.
(He goes on to describe in detail Baltimore's houses and people, from a less lofty vantage point.)

It is a portrait of the city that is instantly recognizable to anyone who has visited, and transports you back to a time when the vast stretches of rowhouses surrounding downtown had yet to be built, let alone abandoned.  Not all of his descriptions are this long or as neatly laid out, but they share a descriptive power, whether he is describing the clean streets of Boston or the muddy desolation of the Petersburg trenches.

De Hauranne also shows a vivid picture of the  people he meets; both the individuals like Charles Sumner, Abraham Lincoln and David Farragut, and the general sorts of Americans that he sees -- industrious, sober Yankees, busy and gauche New Yorkers, crude and gigantic westerners from St Paul and Chicago.

Moreover, what emerges is an indellible portrait of De Hauranne himself -- an intelligent, bookish young man, a bit of a nature lover, somewhat fastidious and rather introverted, though interested in people.  And for all of its insights, and detailed portraits of an America long gone, this is one of the greatest charms of the book - to hear a human voice relating it all so vividly, as though he were writing you a letter home, sending it through 150 years.

I gladly recommend it to anyone who wonders what America and Americans were like during the War.

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