The easy availability of a vast library of books is not the least of the Internet’s many gifts. If you find a reference to some interesting volume published before 1922, you are more than likely to find it among the online collection at Google books. Recently, for example, I happened to see a reference to an account of the Earl of Elgin’s mission to China and Japan in the years 1857-59 by one Laurence Oliphant. It was mentioned in one of the great British literary reviews of the 19th century, and described in such favorable terms as to pique my interest. In searching the author’s name at Google Books, I found not only the work in question, but any number of others attributed to the same author, including descriptions of travel in the southern regions of Russia, describing conditions there in 1852, just before the onset of the Crimean War, Palestine, and of no small interest to myself, as I grew up in Wisconsin, an account of an expedition through Canada to our neighbor state of Minnesota by way of Lake Superior in 1854.
I was pleased to find the book as entertaining and skillfully written as the earlier work about the Far East described in the British review, and highly recommend it to the attention of the interested reader. There are many insightful comments about social, economic, and political conditions in the U.S. at the time. Midwesterners will enjoy the many details and anecdotes about the rough and ready life in Wisconsin and Minnesota at a time when the region was still considered the “far west.”
For example, when Oliphant and his three companions climbed off their steamer at Superior, Wisconsin, they discovered that the only hotel in town was a large barn, which doubled as a carpenter shop and land office. Guests were expected to bring their own shavings to sleep on, should they be lucky enough to find an unoccupied spot. The author gives an interesting account of an expedition with a local realtor to have a look at some promising building lots in the growing metropolis:
…we commenced cutting our way with billhooks through the dense forest, which he called Third Avenue, or the fashionable quarter, until we got to the bed of a rivulet, down which we turned through tangled underwood (by name West Street), until it lost itself in a bog, which was the principal square, upon the other side of which, covered with almost impenetrable bush, was the site of our lots.
Oliphant goes on to describe a harrowing journey with two Canadian voyageurs in a birch bark canoe through swamps and over rapids to the headwaters of the Mississippi, from which they descended to St. Paul, the up and coming capital of the Minnesota territory. They were pleased to find it a great deal more civilized than Superior, with a hotel that was passable, even by European standards. Oliphant recounts that the guests would rush through their evening meal in typical American fashion. The process of digestion, however, was another matter. The men would retire to the front porch, where they would lean back in chairs, criticize the passers-by, and pontificate on the politics of the day at their leisure.
Among the topics of conversation was the issue of slavery, and while latter day Marxists and sentimental writers about “southern heritage” have “proved” that the Civil War was not really about slavery using any number of facile and unconvincing arguments, there was no confusion about the matter at the time, whether among opponents or proponents of slavery or European observers. Oliphant described an exchange on the subject between an eastern Yankee and a scowling Texan, and observed,
Whatever may be the views of Americans upon the great question of slavery, which seems destined, before long, to split the Union, they do not scruple to avow themselves annexationists.
The great question of slavery will lead to an explosion which it is to be hoped will not terminate in a Kilkenny-cat process.
The author and his friends took a river steamboat to Galena, Illinois, a point which was already connected to the rest of the country by rail. Apropos railroads, he notes in passing,
…we have no business to question the engineering performances in a country in which there are already 21,310 miles of railway laid down, or about 2500 miles more than the whole of the rest of the world put together.
The story of Oliphant doesn’t end with travel stories. Strangely enough, this obviously intelligent and articulate writer later went completely off the deep end as an adherent of the then-fashionable “spiritualist” craze. Among the collection of his works available at Google Books, one will also find a remarkable production entitled, “Scientific Religion, or Higher Possibilities of Life and Practice through the Operation of Natural Forces.” Published in 1888, it is full of revelations about “dynaspheric forces, the vital atomic interactions between the living and the dead, the transmutation of material forces by conversion of moral particles, Magnetic Conditions in the Holy Land,” and any number of similar ravings, all of which have so far failed in their author’s evident intent of enlightening future generations.
Those who pique themselves on the supposedly high intelligence of humankind would do well to read such stuff occasionally. Oliphant was a man of no mean intellect, possessed of remarkable insight and powers of analysis in his description of life in the United States of his time, and the political affairs then current. He also published ravings about “spiritual forces” that even a child would laugh at today. Those who consider themselves infallible would do well to recall that they belong to the same species (starting, of course, with me).