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Worldly Ways and Byways (chapter 38)

2006-07-09 20:40

  CHAPTER    38 - A Conquest of Europe

  THE most important event in modern history is the discovery of  Europe by the Americans. Before it, the peoples of the Old World lived  happy and contented in their own countries, practising the patriarchal  virtues handed down to them from generations of forebears, ignoring alike  the vices and benefits of modern civilization, as understood on this side of  the Atlantic. The simple-minded Europeans remained at home, satisfied  with the rank in life where they had been born, and innocent of the ways  of the new world.

  These peoples were, on the whole, not so much to be pitied, for they  had many pleasing crafts and arts unknown to the invaders, which had  enabled them to decorate their capitals with taste in a rude way; nothing  really great like the lofty buildings and elevated railway structures,  executed in American cities, but interesting as showing what an ingenious  race, deprived of the secrets of modern science, could accomplish.

  The more aesthetic of the newcomers even affected to admire the  antiquated places of worship and residences they visited abroad, pointing  out to their compatriots that in many cases marble, bronze and other old- fashioned materials had been so cleverly treated as to look almost like the  superior cast-iron employed at home, and that some of the old paintings,  preserved with veneration in the museums, had nearly the brilliancy of  modern chromos. As their authors had, however, neglected to use a  process lending itself to rapid reproduction, they were of no practical  value. In other ways, the continental races, when discovered, were sadly  behind the times. In business, they ignored the use of “corners,” that  backbone of American trade, and their ideas of advertising were but little  in advance of those known among the ancient Greeks.

  The discovery of Europe by the Americans was made about     , at  which date the first bands of adventurers crossed the seas in search of  amusement. The reports these pioneers brought back of the NAIVETE,  politeness, and gullibility of the natives, and the cheapness of existence in

  their cities, caused a general exodus from the western to the eastern  hemisphere. Most of the Americans who had used up their credit at home  and those whose incomes were insufficient for their wants, immediately  migrated to these happy hunting grounds, where life was inexpensive and  credit unlimited.

  The first arrivals enjoyed for some twenty years unique opportunities.  They were able to live in splendor for a pittance that would barely have  kept them in necessaries on their own side of the Atlantic, and to pick up  valuable specimens of native handiwork for nominal sums. In those happy  days, to belong to the invading race was a sufficient passport to the good  graces of the Europeans, who asked no other guarantees before trading  with the newcomers, but flocked around them, offering their services and  their primitive manufactures, convinced that Americans were all wealthy.

  Alas! History ever repeats itself. As Mexicans and Peruvians, after  receiving their conquerors with confidence and enthusiasm, came to rue  the day they had opened their arms to strangers, so the European peoples,  before a quarter of a century was over, realized that the hordes from across  the sea who were over-running their lands, raising prices, crowding the  native students out of the schools, and finally attempting to force an  entrance into society, had little to recommend them or justify their  presence except money. Even in this some of the intruders were  unsatisfactory. Those who had been received into the “bosom” of hotels  often forgot to settle before departing. The continental women who had  provided the wives of discoverers with the raiment of the country (a  luxury greatly affected by those ladies) found, to their disgust, that their  new customers were often unable or unwilling to offer any remuneration.

  In consequence of these and many other disillusions, Americans began  to be called the “Destroyers,” especially when it became known that  nothing was too heavy or too bulky to be carried away by the invaders,  who tore the insides from the native houses, the paintings from the walls,  the statues from the temples, and transported this booty across the seas,  much in the same way as the Romans had plundered Greece. Elaborate  furniture seemed especially to attract the new arrivals, who acquired vast  quantities of it.

  Here, however, the wily natives (who were beginning to appreciate  their own belongings) had revenge. Immense quantities of worthless  imitations were secretly manufactured and sold to the travellers at  fabulous prices. The same artifice was used with paintings, said to be by  great masters, and with imitations of old stuffs and bric- a-brac, which the  ignorant and arrogant invaders pretended to appreciate and collect.

  Previous to our arrival there had been an invasion of the Continent by  the English about the year     . One of their historians, called Thackeray,  gives an amusing account of this in the opening CHAPTER s of his “Shabby  Genteel Story.” That event, however, was unimportant in comparison with  the great American movement, although both were characterized by the  same total disregard of the feelings and prejudices of indigenous  populations. The English then walked about the continental churches  during divine service, gazing at the pictures and consulting their guidebooks as unconcernedly as our compatriots do to-day. They also crowded  into theatres and concert halls, and afterwards wrote to the newspapers  complaining of the bad atmosphere of those primitive establishments and  of the long ENTR'ACTES.

  As long as the invaders confined themselves to such trifles, the patient  foreigners submitted to their overbearing and uncouth ways because of the  supposed benefit to trade. The natives even went so far as to build hotels  for the accommodation and delight of the invaders, abandoning whole  quarters to their guests.

  There was, however, a point at which complacency stopped. The older  civilizations had formed among themselves restricted and exclusive  societies, to which access was almost impossible to strangers. These  sanctuaries tempted the immigrants, who offered their fairest virgins and  much treasure for the privilege of admission. The indigenous aristocrats,  who were mostly poor, yielded to these offers and a few Americans  succeeded in forcing an entrance. But the old nobility soon became  frightened at the number and vulgarity of the invaders, and withdrew  severely into their shells, refusing to accept any further bribes either in the  form of females or finance.

  From this moment dates the humiliation of the discoverers. All their

  booty and plunder seemed worthless in comparison with the Elysian  delights they imagined were concealed behind the closed doors of those  holy places, visions of which tortured the women from the western  hemisphere and prevented their taking any pleasure in other victories. To  be received into those inner circles became their chief ambition. With this  end in view they dressed themselves in expensive costumes, took the  trouble to learn the “lingo” spoken in the country, went to the extremity of  copying the ways of the native women by painting their faces, and in one  or two cases imitated the laxity of their morals.

  In spite of these concessions, our women were not received with  enthusiasm. On the contrary, the very name of an American became a  byword and an abomination in every continental city. This prejudice  against us abroad is hardly to be wondered at on reflecting what we have  done to acquire it. The agents chosen by our government to treat  diplomatically with the conquered nations, owe their selection to political  motives rather than to their tact or fitness. In the large majority of cases  men are sent over who know little either of the habits or languages  prevailing in Europe.

  The worst elements always follow in the wake of discovery. Our  settlements abroad gradually became the abode of the compromised, the  divorced, the socially and financially bankrupt.

  Within the last decade we have found a way to revenge the slights put  upon us, especially those offered to Americans in the capital of Gaul.  Having for the moment no playwrights of our own, the men who concoct  dramas, comedies, and burlesques for our stage find, instead of wearying  themselves in trying to produce original matter, that it is much simpler to  adapt from French writers. This has been carried to such a length that  entire French plays are now produced in New York signed by American  names.

  The great French playwrights can protect themselves by taking out  American copyright, but if one of them omits this formality, the  “conquerors” immediately seize upon his work and translate it, omitting  intentionally all mention of the real author on their programmes. This  season a play was produced of which the first act was taken from Guy de

  Maupassant, the second and third “adapted” from Sardou, with episodes  introduced from other authors to brighten the mixture. The piece thus  patched together is signed by a well-known Anglo-Saxon name, and  accepted by our moral public, although the original of the first act was  stopped by the Parisian police as too immoral for that gay capital.

  Of what use would it be to “discover” a new continent unless the  explorers were to reap some such benefits? Let us take every advantage  that our proud position gives us, plundering the foreign authors, making  penal settlements of their capitals, and ignoring their foolish customs and  prejudices when we travel among them! In this way shall we effectually  impress on the inferior races across the Atlantic the greatness of the  American nation.

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