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George Orwell > Riding Down The Bangor > Essay

Riding Down The Bangor

Essay


The reappearance of HELEN'S BABIES, in its day one of the most popular
books in the world--within the British Empire alone it was pirated by
twenty different publishing firms, the author receiving a total profit of
40 from a sale of some hundreds of thousands or millions of copies--will
ring a bell in any literate person over thirty-five. Not that the present
edition is an altogether satisfactory one. It is a cheap little book with
rather unsuitable illustrations, various American dialect words appear to
have been cut out of it, and the sequel, OTHER PEOPLE'S CHILDREN, which
was often bound up with it in earlier editions, is missing. Still, it is
pleasant to see HELEN'S BABIES in print again. It had become almost a
rarity in recent years, and it is one of the best of the little library
of American books on which people born at about the turn of the century
were brought up.

The books one reads in childhood, and perhaps most of all the bad and
good bad books, create in one's mind a sort of false map of the world, a
series of fabulous countries into which one can retreat at odd moments
throughout the rest of life, and which in some cases can even survive a
visit to the real countries which they are supposed to represent. The
pampas, the Amazon, the coral islands of the Pacific, Russia, land of
birch-tree and samovar, Transylvania with its boyars and vampires, the
China of Guy Boothby, the Paris of du Maurier--one could continue the list
for a long time. But one other imaginary country that I acquired early in
life was called America. If I pause on the word "America", and,
deliberately putting aside the existing reality, call up my childhood
vision of it, I see two pictures--composite pictures, of course, from
which I am omitting a good deal of the detail.

One is of a boy sitting in a whitewashed stone schoolroom. He wears
braces and has patches on his shirt, and if it is summer he is
barefooted. In the corner of the school room there is a bucket of
drinking water with a dipper. The boy lives in a farm-house, also of
stone and also whitewashed, which has a mortgage on it. He aspires to be
President, and is expected to keep the woodpile full. Somewhere in the
background of the picture, but completely dominating it, is a huge black
Bible. The other picture is of a tall, angular man, with a shapeless hat
pulled down over his eyes, leaning against a wooden paling and whittling
at a stick. His lower jaw moves slowly but ceaselessly. At very long
intervals he emits some piece of wisdom such as "A woman is the orneriest
critter there is, 'ceptin' a mule", or "When you don't know a thing to
do, don't do a thing"; but more often it is a jet of tobacco juice that
issues from the gap in his front teeth. Between them those two pictures
summed up my earliest impression of America. And of the two, the
first--which, I suppose, represented New England, the other representing
the South--had the stronger hold upon me.

The books from which these pictures were derived included, of course,
books which it is still possible to take seriously, such as TOM SAWYER
and UNCLE TOM'S CABIN, but the most richly American flavour was to be
found in minor works which are now almost forgotten. I wonder, for
instance, if anyone still reads REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM, which
remained a popular favourite long enough to be filmed with Mary Pickford
in the leading part. Or how about the "Katy" books by Susan Coolidge
(WHAT KATY DID AT SCHOOL, etc), which, although girls' books and
therefore "soppy", had the fascination of foreignness? Louisa M. Alcott's
LITTLE WOMEN and GOOD WIVES are, I suppose, still flickeringly in print,
and certainly they still have their devotees. As a child I loved both of
them, though I was less pleased by the third of the trilogy, LITTLE MEN.
That model school where the worst punishment was to have to whack the
schoolmaster, on "this hurts me more than it hurts you" principles, was
rather difficult to swallow.

HELEN'S BABIES belonged in much the same world as LITTLE WOMEN, and must
have been published round about the same date. Then there were Artemus
Ward, Bret Harte, and various songs, hymns and ballads, besides poems
dealing with the civil war, such as "Barbara Fritchie" ("Shoot if you
must this old grey head, But spare your country's flag,' she said") and
"Little Gifford of Tennessee". There were other books so obscure that it
hardly seems worth mentioning them, and magazine stories of which I
remember nothing except that the old homestead always seemed to have a
mortgage on it. There was also BEAUTIFUL JOE, the American reply to BLACK
BEAUTY, of which you might just possibly pick up a copy in a sixpenny
box. All the books I have mentioned were written well before 1900, but
something of the special American flavour lingered on into this century
in, for instance, the Buster Brown coloured supplements, and even in
Booth Tarkington's "Penrod" stories, which will have been written round
about 1910. Perhaps there was even a tinge of it in Ernest Thompson
Seton's animal books (WILD ANIMALS I HAVE KNOWN, etc), which have now
fallen from favour but which drew tears from the pre-1914 child as surely
as MISUNDERSTOOD had done from the children of a generation earlier.

Somewhat later my picture of nineteenth-century America was given greater
precision by a song which is still fairly well known and which can be
found (I think) in the SCOTTISH STUDENTS' SONG BOOK. As usual in these
bookless days I cannot get hold of a copy, and I must quote fragments
from memory. It begins:

Riding down from Bangor
On an Eastern train,
Bronzed with weeks of hunting
In the woods of Maine
Quite extensive whiskers,
Beard, moustache as well
Sat a student fellow,
Tall and slim and swell.

Presently an aged couple and a "village maiden", described as "beautiful,
petite", get into the carriage. Quantities of cinders are flying about,
and before long the student fellow gets one in his eye: the village
maiden extracts it for him, to the scandal of the aged couple. Soon after
this the train shoots into a long tunnel, "black as Egypt's night". When
it emerges into the daylight again the maiden is covered with blushes,
and the cause of her confusion is revealed when

There suddenly appeared
A tiny little ear-ring
In that horrid student's beard!

I do not know the date of the song, but the primitiveness of the train
(no lights in the carriage, and a cinder in one's eye a normal accident)
suggests that it belongs well back in the nineteenth century.

What connects this song with books like HELEN'S BABIES is first of all a
sort of sweet innocence--the climax, the thing you are supposed to be
slightly shocked at, is an episode with which any modern piece of
naughty-naughty would START--and, secondly, a faint vulgarity of language
mixed up with a certain cultural pretentiousness. HELEN'S BABIES is
intended as a humorous, even a farcical book, but it is haunted all the
way through by words like "tasteful" and "ladylike", and it is funny
chiefly because its tiny disasters happen against a background of
conscious gentility. "Handsome, intelligent, composed, tastefully
dressed, without a suspicion of the flirt or the languid woman of fashion
about her, she awakened to the utmost my every admiring sentiment"--thus
is the heroine described, figuring elsewhere as "erect, fresh, neat,
composed, bright-eyed, fairfaced, smiling and observant". One gets
beautiful glimpses of a now-vanished world in such remarks as: "I believe
you arranged the floral decorations at St Zephaniah's Fair last winter,
Mr Burton? 'Twas the most tasteful display of the season." But in spite
of the occasional use of "'twas" and other archaisms--"parlour" for
sitting-room, "chamber" for bedroom, "real" as an adverb, and so
forth--the book does not "date" very markedly, and many of its admirers
imagine it to have been written round about 1900. Actually it was written
in 1875, a fact which one might infer from internal evidence, since the
hero, aged twenty-eight, is a veteran of the civil war.

The book is very short and the story is a simple one. A young bachelor is
prevailed on by his sister to look after her house and her two sons, aged
five and three, while she and her husband go on a fortnight's holiday.
The children drive him almost mad by an endless succession of such acts
as falling into ponds, swallowing poison, throwing keys down wells,
cutting themselves with razors, and the like, but also facilitate his
engagement to "a charming girl, whom, for about a year, I had been
adoring from afar". These events take place in an outer suburb of New
York, in a society which now seems astonishingly sedate, formal,
domesticated and, according to current conceptions, un-American. Every
action is governed by etiquette. To pass a carriage full of ladies when
your hat is crooked is an ordeal; to recognise an acquaintance in church
is ill-bred; to become engaged after a ten days' courtship is a severe
social lapse. We are accustomed to thinking of American society as more
crude, adventurous and, in a cultural sense, democratic than our own, and
from writers like Mark Twain, Whitman and Bret Harte, not to mention the
cowboy and Red Indian stories of the weekly papers, one draws a picture
of a wild anarchic world peopled by eccentrics and desperadoes who have
no traditions and no attachment to one place. That aspect of
nineteenth-century America did of course exist, but in the more populous
eastern States a society similar to Jane Austen's seems to have survived
longer than it did in England. And it is hard not to feel that it was a
better kind of society than that which arose from the sudden
industrialisation of the later part of the century. The people in HELEN'S
BABIES or LITTLE WOMEN may be mildly ridiculous, but they are
uncorrupted. They have something that is perhaps best described as
integrity, or good morale, founded partly on an unthinking piety. It is a
matter of course that everyone attends church on Sunday morning and says
grace before meals and prayers at bedtime: to amuse the children one
tells them Bible stories, and if they ask for a song it is probably
"Glory, glory Hallelujah". Perhaps it is also a sign of spiritual health
in the light literature of this period that death is mentioned freely.
"Baby Phil", the brother of Budge and Toddie, has died shortly before
HELEN'S BABIES opens, and there are various tear-jerking references to
his "tiny coffin". A modern writer attempting a story of this kind would
have kept coffins out of it

English children are still americanised by way of the films, but it would
no longer be generally claimed that American books are the best ones for
children. Who, without misgivings, would bring up a child on the coloured
"comics" in which sinister professors manufacture atomic bombs in
underground laboratories while Superman whizzes through the clouds, the
machine-gun bullets bouncing off his chest like peas, and platinum
blondes are raped, or very nearly, by steel robots and fifty-foot
dinosaurs? It is a far cry from Superman to the Bible and the woodpile.
The earlier children's books, or books readable by children, had not only
innocence but a sort of native gaiety, a buoyant, carefree feeling, which
was the product, presumably, of the unheard-of freedom and security which
nineteenth-century America enjoyed. That is the connecting link between
books so seemingly far apart as LITTLE WOMEN and LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI.
The society described in the one is subdued, bookish and home-loving,
while the other tells of a crazy world of bandits, gold mines, duels,
drunkenness and gambling hells: but in both one can detect an underlying
confidence in the future, a sense of freedom and opportunity.

Nineteenth-century America was a rich, empty country which lay outside
the main stream of world events, and in which the twin nightmares that
beset nearly every modern man, the nightmare of unemployment and the
nightmare of State interference, had hardly come into being. There were
social distinctions, more marked than those of today, and there was
poverty (in LITTLE WOMEN, it will be remembered, the family is at one
time so hard up that one of the girls sells her hair to the barber), but
there was not, as there is now, an all-prevailing sense of helplessness.
There was room for everybody, and if you worked hard you could be certain
of a living--could even be certain of growing rich: this was generally
believed, and for the greater part of the population it was even broadly
true. In other words, the civilisation of nineteenth-century America was
capitalist civilisation at its best. Soon after the civil war the
inevitable deterioration started. But for some decades, at least, life in
America was much better fun than life in Europe--there was more happening,
more colour, more variety, more opportunity--and the books and songs of
that period had a sort of bloom, a childlike quality. Hence, I think, the
popularity of HELEN'S BABIES and other "light" literature, which made it
normal for the English child of thirty or forty years ago to grow up with
a theoretical knowledge of racoons, woodchucks, chipmunks, gophers,
hickory trees, water-melons and other unfamiliar fragments of the
American scene.















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