on 06/14/2012 by valerio in Senza categoria, Comments (0)

Oscar Wilde – The American Invasion

(Court and Society Review, March 23, 1887.)

A terrible danger is hanging over the Americans in London.  Their future and their reputation this season depend entirely on the success of Buffalo Bill and Mrs. Brown-Potter.  The former is certain to draw; for English people are far more interested in American barbarism than they are in American civilisation.  When they sight Sandy Hook they look to their rifles and ammunition; and, after dining once at Delmonico’s, start off for Colorado or California, for Montana or the Yellow Stone Park.  Rocky Mountains charm them more than riotous millionaires; they have been known to prefer buffaloes to Boston.  Why should they not?  The cities of America are inexpressibly tedious.  The Bostonians take their learning too sadly; culture with them is an accomplishment rather than an atmosphere; their ‘Hub,’ as they call it, is the paradise of prigs.  Chicago is a sort of monster-shop, full of bustle and bores.  Political life at Washington is like political life in a suburban vestry.  Baltimore is amusing for a week, but Philadelphia is dreadfully provincial; and though one can dine in New York one could not dwell there.  Better the Far West with its grizzly bears and its untamed cow-boys, its free open-air life and its free open-air manners, its boundless prairie and its boundless mendacity!  This is what Buffalo Bill is going to bring to London; and we have no doubt that London will fully appreciate his show.

With regard to Mrs. Brown-Potter, as acting is no longer considered absolutely essential for success on the English stage, there is really no reason why the pretty bright-eyed lady who charmed us all last June by her merry laugh and her nonchalant ways, should not—to borrow an expression from her native language—make a big boom and paint the town red.  We sincerely hope she will; for, on the whole, the American invasion has done English society a great deal of good.  American women are bright, clever, and wonderfully cosmopolitan.  Their patriotic feelings are limited to an admiration for Niagara and a regret for the Elevated Railway; and, unlike the men, they never bore us with Bunkers Hill.  They take their dresses from Paris and their manners from Piccadilly, and wear both charmingly.  They have a quaint pertness, a delightful conceit, a native self-assertion.  They insist on being paid compliments and have almost succeeded in making Englishmen eloquent.  For our aristocracy they have an ardent admiration; they adore titles and are a permanent blow to Republican principles.  In the art of amusing men they are adepts, both by nature and education, and can actually tell a story without forgetting the point—an accomplishment that is extremely rare among the women of other countries.  It is true that they lack repose and that their voices are somewhat harsh and strident when they land first at Liverpool; but after a time one gets to love these pretty whirlwinds in petticoats that sweep so recklessly through society and are so agitating to all duchesses who have daughters.  There is something fascinating in their funny, exaggerated gestures and their petulant way of tossing the head.  Their eyes have no magic nor mystery in them, but they challenge us for combat; and when we engage we are always worsted.  Their lips seem made for laughter and yet they never grimace.  As for their voices, they soon get them into tune.  Some of them have been known to acquire a fashionable drawl in two seasons; and after they have been presented to Royalty they all roll their R’s as vigorously as a young equerry or an old lady-in-waiting.  Still, they never really lose their accent; it keeps peeping out here and there, and when they chatter together they are like a bevy of peacocks.  Nothing is more amusing than to watch two American girls greeting each other in a drawing-room or in the Row.  They are like children with their shrill staccato cries of wonder, their odd little exclamations.  Their conversation sounds like a series of exploding crackers; they are exquisitely incoherent and use a sort of primitive, emotional language.  After five minutes they are left beautifully breathless and look at each other half in amusement and half in affection.  If a stolid young Englishman is fortunate enough to be introduced to them he is amazed at their extraordinary vivacity, their electric quickness of repartee, their inexhaustible store of curious catchwords.  He never really understands them, for their thoughts flutter about with the sweet irresponsibility of butterflies; but he is pleased and amused and feels as if he were in an aviary.  On the whole, American girls have a wonderful charm and, perhaps, the chief secret of their charm is that they never talk seriously except about amusements.  They have, however, one grave fault—their mothers.  Dreary as were those old Pilgrim Fathers who left our shores more than two centuries ago to found a New England beyond seas, the Pilgrim Mothers who have returned to us in the nineteenth century are drearier still.

Here and there, of course, there are exceptions, but as a class they are either dull, dowdy or dyspeptic.  It is only fair to the rising generation of America to state that they are not to blame for this.  Indeed, they spare no pains at all to bring up their parents properly and to give them a suitable, if somewhat late, education.  From its earliest years every American child spends most of its time in correcting the faults of its father and mother; and no one who has had the opportunity of watching an American family on the deck of an Atlantic steamer, or in the refined seclusion of a New York boarding-house, can fail to have been struck by this characteristic of their civilisation.  In America the young are always ready to give to those who are older than themselves the full benefits of their inexperience.  A boy of only eleven or twelve years of age will firmly but kindly point out to his father his defects of manner or temper; will never weary of warning him against extravagance, idleness, late hours, unpunctuality, and the other temptations to which the aged are so particularly exposed; and sometimes, should he fancy that he is monopolising too much of the conversation at dinner, will remind him, across the table, of the new child’s adage, ‘Parents should be seen, not heard.’  Nor does any mistaken idea of kindness prevent the little American girl from censuring her mother whenever it is necessary.  Often, indeed, feeling that a rebuke conveyed in the presence of others is more truly efficacious than one merely whispered in the quiet of the nursery, she will call the attention of perfect strangers to her mother’s general untidiness, her want of intellectual Boston conversation, immoderate love of iced water and green corn, stinginess in the matter of candy, ignorance of the usages of the best Baltimore society, bodily ailments and the like.  In fact, it may be truly said that no American child is ever blind to the deficiencies of its parents, no matter how much it may love them.

Yet, somehow, this educational system has not been so successful as it deserved.  In many cases, no doubt, the material with which the children had to deal was crude and incapable of real development; but the fact remains that the American mother is a tedious person.  The American father is better, for he is never seen in London.  He passes his life entirely in Wall Street and communicates with his family once a month by means of a telegram in cipher.  The mother, however, is always with us, and, lacking the quick imitative faculty of the younger generation, remains uninteresting and provincial to the last.  In spite of her, however, the American girl is always welcome.  She brightens our dull dinner parties for us and makes life go pleasantly by for a season.  In the race for coronets she often carries off the prize; but, once she has gained the victory, she is generous and forgives her English rivals everything, even their beauty.

Warned by the example of her mother that American women do not grow old gracefully, she tries not to grow old at all and often succeeds.  She has exquisite feet and hands, is always bien chaussée et bien gantée and can talk brilliantly upon any subject, provided that she knows nothing about it.

Her sense of humour keeps her from the tragedy of a grande passion, and, as there is neither romance nor humility in her love, she makes an excellent wife.  What her ultimate influence on English life will be it is difficult to estimate at present; but there can be no doubt that, of all the factors that have contributed to the social revolution of London, there are few more important, and none more delightful, than the American Invasion.

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