August 5, 2012

Paulding, the Talking Potato, and an impious race

In the early part of the 19th century, the English were particularly harsh critics of the United States. They wrote or spoke out against American customs, American social habits, and American literature. American author James Kirke Paulding was one of many who were disgusted by this criticism and, in response, he wrote a book called John Bull in America; or, The New Munchausen. In his preface, Paulding wrote that the book was a transcription of a manuscript left behind by a visitor to a hotel:

On the fifth day of August, 1824, a rather genteel looking stranger arrived at the Mansion Hotel in the city of Washington, where he inquired for a retired room, and expressed his intention of staying some time. He was dressed in a blue frock, striped vest, and gray pantaloons; was about five feet ten, as is supposed, and had a nose like a potato.

The visitor is, in fact, an English traveler, whose manuscript reveals his untrained observations of America. To him, Americans are "a bundling, gouging, drinking, spitting, impious race, without either morals, literature, religion, or refinement; and that the turbulent spirit of democracy was altogether incompatible with any state of society becoming a civilized nation." In Boston, for example, he makes a claim which any Bostonian would find rather curious:

Religion is, if possible, in a worse state than literature, manners, or morals. There is not a single church in Boston, nor any religious exercises on Sunday, except in a few school rooms, by the methodists and other fanatics. I am assured it is the custom all over New-England, as well as in the states of Newburyport and Pasquotank, to spend the Sabbath like every other day in the week, except that they put on clean clothes, a thing never thought of, even among the most fashionable ladies, except on that occasion.

This traveler, whom Paulding nicknames "The Talking Potato" in his preface, is particularly infected by the anti-American ideas put forward in the Quarterly Review — a British publication which frequently criticized the young United States and its people. Infused with those preconceived notions, The Talking Potato never seems to change his mind about Americans, concluding on the book's final page that they remained "the arrogant, self-sufficient, bundling, gouging, guessing, drinking, dirking, spitting, chewing, pig-stealing, impious genius of democracy, as the Quarterly says." Interestingly enough, Paulding's satirical treatment of anti-American criticism in England added to a burgeoning anti-British sentiment in the United States.

1 comment:

  1. Don't you just hate it when satire backfires? Drat! Can't they just GET it?!