4/15/13 - america in 1889: uncouth and for sale

In today's selection -- when famed British author Rudyard Kipling first traveled to America in 1889, he landed in San Francisco and soon concluded that Americans were vulgar and uncouth. And with Britain having not yet transitioned to a democratic government, he examined American democracy and found it a sham -- with the city instead under the thumb of corrupt local political party bosses. (However, the longer he stayed, the more admiration he developed for Americans):

"[Kipling] decided more or less on landing that San Francisco and its inhabitants, however exciting in some respects, were essentially uncouth and provincial. 'They spit even as in the time of Dickens,' he told Aunt Georgie after three days, 'and their speech is not sweet to listen to -- 'specially the women's.' In his [writings], he transformed the spittoon into an icon of local vulgarity:

In a vast marble-paved hall under the glare of an electric light sat forty or fifty men; and for their use and amusement were provided spittoons of infinite capacity and generous gape. Most of the men wore frock-coats and top-hats, -- the things that we in [British] India put on at a wedding breakfast if we possessed them, -- but they all spat. They spat on principle. The spittoons were on the staircases, in each bedroom -- yea, and in chambers even more sacred than these. They chased one into retirement, but they blossomed in chiefest splendour round the Bar, and they were all used, every reeking one of 'em.

"Nor were San Franciscans much more prepossessing when they used their mouths to speak:

They delude themselves into the belief that they talk English, -- the English -- and I have already been pitied for speaking with 'an English accent.' The man who pitied me spoke, so far as I was concerned, the language of thieves. And they all do ... Again and again I loitered at the heels of a couple of resplendent beings, only to overhear, when I expected the level voice of culture, the staccato 'Sez he', 'Sez I,' that is the mark of the white servant-girl all the world over.

"[Kipling] even claimed that 'the American has no language', that instead 'he is dialect, slang, provincialism, accent, and so forth'. ...

"No sooner had he stepped off the boat [in San Francisco] than he witnessed the stabbing of a Chinaman. A sortie to a gambling den in Chinatown produced a dead Mexican, shot before his eyes over a poker game. In another equally unverifiable episode, a 'bunco-steerer' (card-sharp) tried -- unsuccessfully of course -- to get him drunk and fleece him." ...

"There was also his predictable refusal to be deceived by the 'freedom' of American democracy, which he presented as merely a sham, sustained by corruption and self-interest. The two political parties were equally beneath contempt: 'Sometimes he [the Democrat] says one thing and sometimes another, in order to contradict the Republican, who is always contradicting himself.' And, at his most aggressively English, [Kipling] poured scorn on the way the democratic process was perpetually at the mercy of the largest cheque-book:

Boss Buckley, by tact and deep knowledge of the seamy side of the city, won himself a following of voters. He sought no office himself, or rarely: but as his following increased he sold their services to the highest bidder, himself taking toll of the revenues of every office. He controlled the Democratic party in the city of San Francisco. The people appoint their own judges. Boss Buckley's people appointed judges. These judges naturally were Boss Buckley's property. "


Harry Ricketts


Rudyard Kipling, A Life


Carroll & Graf/Da Capo


Copyright 1999 by Harry Ricketts


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