Journals 5.4 – A Frenchman in America by Max O’Rell (Part 4)

The following is a continuation of my essay on A Frenchman in America.  For the previous parts, please see the earlier entries from 17th, 21st and 25th July 2015.


Niagara Falls, painted by William Morris Hunt in 1878, 12 years before O’Rell’s visit.

Visiting the New York Stock Exchange, O’Rell was amazed by the ‘rowdyism’ on display amongst the traders, leading him to wonder whether he had mistakenly been taken to ‘the playground of a madhouse, at the time when all the most desperate lunatics are let loose.’

A more pleasant destination was a girl’s school, at which O’Rell had been asked to give a speech. He was impressed by the level of discipline amongst the ‘self-possessed, self-confident, dignified, respectful, law-abiding’ girls.

The pupils were ordered by the head-mistress, in each case, to gather in the large room. There they arrived, two by two, to the sound of a march played on the piano by one of the under-mistresses. When they had all reached their respective places, two chords were struck on the instrument, and they all sat down with the precision of the best drilled Prussian regiment.

Throughout the journal, O’Rell made frequent references to the impressive school system in America, and its results in terms of educated women in society. He observed that ‘men and women receive practically the same education, and this of course enlarges the circle of conversation between the sexes.’ Although he visited a girl’s school, many of the schools in America were mixed, which he considered led to a greater equality in adulthood, and less awkward social conversations between men and women. This was something quite unfamiliar to O’Rell, as it was very different to the school system in France.

In England, boys and girls meet and play together; in America and Canada, they sit side by side on the same benches at school, not only as children of tender age, but at College and in the Universities. They get accustomed to each other’s company; they see nothing strange in being in contact with one another, and this naturally tends to reduce the interest or curiosity one sex takes in the other. But in France they are apart, and the ball-room is the only place where they can meet when they have attained the age of twenty!

This difference had consequences, according to O’Rell. In France men and women could seldom ‘forget that one is a man and the other a women’ when conversing. More significantly, the attitude of men towards women was very different. In England or Germany ‘the man thinks himself a much superior being to the woman’, but in America ‘a woman looks down upon a man with a certain amount of contempt’. O’Rell offered an explanation with the following insightful comment:

Have I found the solution at last? Does it begin at school? In American schools, boys and girls, from the age of five, follow the same path to learning, and sit side by side on the same benches. Moreover, the girls prove themselves capable of keeping pace with the boys. Is it not possible that those girls, as they watched the performances of the boys in the study, learned to say, “Is that all?” While the young lords of creation, as they have looked on at what “those girls” can do, have been fain to exclaim: “Who would have thought it!” And does not this explain the two attitudes: the great respect of men for women, and the mild contempt of women for men?

The American men were far too busy to notice the ‘contempt’ of the women. They had to trace their ancestry. Failing that, they had to invent it. According to a friend of O’Rell, a ‘typical personage to be met with in the States’ was one who visited a second-hand picture-dealer and ordered ‘a complete set of ancestors’.

A New York friend who called on me this morning, and with whom I had a chat on this subject, assured me that there is now such a demand in the States for pedigrees, heraldic insignia, mottoes, and coronets, that it has created a new industry. He also informed me that almost every American city has a college of heraldry, which will provide unbroken lines of ancestors, and make to order a new line of forefathers “of the most approved pattern, with suitable arms, etc.”

Perhaps the desire for an ancestry was some kind of compensation for the youth of the nation, with fewer than 300 years of history at the time of O’Rell’s tour. Although he was keen to point out that there are ‘two kinds of men, those that are gentlemen, and those that are not’, and that this applied to America just as much as anywhere else, O’Rell did attempt to characterise a typical American.

Nations are like individuals: when they are young, they have the qualities and the defects of children. The characteristic trait of childhood is curiosity. It is also that of the American. I have never been in Australia, but I should expect to find this trait in the Australian.

O’Rell was all too familiar with a more negative view of the typical American. His own mother expressed astonishment when he told her of his idea to go to the States for a lecture tour, finding it difficult to understand why he would want to go there, and asking what language they speak! Later he wrote from England to tell her he had decided to go.

Her answer was full of gentle reproaches, and of sorrow at seeing that she had lost all her influence over her son. She signed herself “always your loving mother,” and indulged in a postscript. Madame de Sévigné said that the gist of a woman’s letter was to be found in the postscript. My mother’s was this :

“P.S. — I shall not tell any one in the town that you have gone to America.”

Continuing his tour, O’Rell visited the Niagara Falls, and found it ‘most thrilling to stand within touching distance of that great torrent of water”. He remembered a previous visit, during which the ‘water was frozen under the falls, and a natural bridge, formed by the ice, was being used by venturesome people to cross the Niagara River on.’ Since 1829 when the ‘Yankee Leaper’ Sam Patch successfully jumped into the Niagara River (which he did once too many times, dying in another attempt on Friday 13th November 1829) going over the falls had been a preoccupation for daring individuals wanting to make a name for themselves. The popular belief (including Wikipedia) is that Annie Edson Taylor was the first person to survive a trip over Niagara falls in a barrel, in 1901. Bearing in mind that it is flatly contradicted in O’Rell’s journal, which was published in 1891, she was in fact unlikely to have been the first:

It appears that it is quite a feasible thing to run the rapids in a barrel. Girls have done it, and it may become the fashionable sport for American girls in the near future. It has been safely accomplished plenty of times by young fellows up for an exciting day’s sport.

At Cleveland Station, O’Rell met a man who was a close match to his idea of a stereotypical American. In several of his books, he refers to this man as ‘Jonathan’, the English equivalent being ‘John Bull’. This ‘Jonathan’ was a character who might have appeared in cartoons abroad making fun of America, with his ‘long imperial beard, a razor-blade-shaped nose, small keen eyes, and high prominent cheek-bones, the whole smoking the traditional cigar’. The man struck up a conversation.

He offered me a cigar, told me his name — I mean his three names — what he did, how much he earned, where he lived, how many children he had; he read me a poem of his own composition, invited me to go and see him, and entertained me for three hours and a half, telling me the history of his life, etc. Indeed, it was Jonathan.

It transpired that ‘Jonathan’ had been in the audience at the Boston lecture. After lecturing in Pittsburgh, O’Rell happened to meet another fellow traveller on the train back to New York. This man was extremely complementary about O’Rell’s lecture, but not for the reasons he was expecting.

“I never enjoyed myself so much in my life,” he said. I grasped his hand.

“I am glad,” I replied, “that my humble effort pleased you so much. Nothing is more gratifying to a lecturer than to know he has afforded pleasure to his audience.”

“Yes,” he said, “it gave me immense pleasure. You see, I am engaged to be married to a girl in town. All her family went to your show, and I had the girl at home all to myself. Oh! I had such a good time! Thank you so much! Do lecture here again soon.”

Another typical ‘Jonathan’ called on O’Rell later in his travels, when he was packing for a journey to Minneapolis. The porter brought his card, and said that he was ‘most anxious’ to speak to O’Rell. Although he was in a hurry to leave to catch his train, he consented to a quick meeting.

The gentleman entered the room, saluted me, shook hands, and said “ I hope I am not intruding.”

“Well,” said I, “I must ask you not to detain me long, because I am off in a few minutes.”

“I understand, sir, that some time ago you were engaged in teaching the French language in one of the great public schools of England.”

“I was, sir,” I replied.

“Well, I have a son whom I wish to speak French properly, and I have come to ask for your views on the subject. In other words, will you be good enough to tell me what are the best methods for teaching this language? Only excuse me, I am very deaf.”

He pulled out of his back pocket two yards of gutta-percha tube, and, applying one end to his ear and placing the other against my mouth, he said, “Go ahead.”

“Really?” I shouted through the tube. “Now please shut your eyes; nothing is better for increasing the power of hearing,”

The man shut his eyes and turned his head sideways, so as to have the listening ear in front of me. I took my valise and ran to the elevator as fast as I could. That man may still be waiting for aught I know and care.

Aha, expecting the article to conclude today?  A Frenchman in America has proven to be far too interesting to confine to the usual four-parter, so we press on with the essay in a few days, in which O’Rell has to stop himself from killing a railway conductor.  I welcome comments and suggestions for the blog.

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in 19th Century, Education, History, Journals, Travel, USA and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Journals 5.4 – A Frenchman in America by Max O’Rell (Part 4)

  1. I am glad that you introduced me to Max O’Rell, I am enjoying his book.

    Liked by 1 person

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