Almost always the case, I have read about travelers coming to America with bold dreams and meager resources and always succeeding in attaining the great American dream. Didn’t all of our immigrant ancestors valiantly do it?
In the 1896 book “The Amateur Emigrant,” author Robert Louis Stevenson poses a different thesis, one that isn’t heard a lot and would certainly be unpopular in many circles. As he looked around the ship that was carrying people from all kinds of countries to America, he described most of them as “drunks” and in other unkind words.
“We were a company of the rejected,” he wrote. “The drunken, the incompetent, the weak, the prodigal, all who had been unable to prevail against circumstances in one land, were now fleeing pitifully to another, and though one or two might still succeed, all had already failed.”
Stevenson noted that, while the travelers were excited about the opportunity of the new land, many of them were still bringing with them their problematic baggage, the problems, such as the joy of drink, that had rendered failure for them in the old world. Seriously, when have you ever heard that notion?
“As far as I saw, drink, idleness, and incompetency were the three great causes of emigration, and for all of them, and drink first and foremost, this trick of getting transported overseas appears to me the silliest means of cure,” Stevenson wrote.
Stevenson wrote about the diverse group of passengers singing, dancing, debating, and letting children run about the ship without fears that they’d fall over the rails into the ocean. He also wrote that “Grumbling is the traveler’s pastime.” The food was bad and “steerage” was squalid with an “atrocious” stench and “people worming themselves into their clothes in the twilight of the bunks.” Stowaways were found and put to work to pay for their transportation by the ship’s crew, sick people got little assistance, and there were a few deaths along the way.
Stevenson kept notes like a journalist, knowing he wanted to eventually write a book about his American journey. He described one man as imagining him “in Congress with his mouth full of bombast and sawder.” He quoted one man’s view of matrimony as “God made ‘em and the devil he mixed ‘em.”
In hearing the arguments among travelers, Stevenson noted that “a narrow and pinching way of life not only exaggerates to a man the importance of material conditions, but indirectly, by denying him the necessary books and leisure, keeps his mind ignorant of larger thoughts.” Stevenson wondered, “Can it be that the Puritan school, by divorcing a man from nature, by thinning out his instincts, and setting a stamp of its disapproval on whole fields of human activity and interest, leads at last directly to material greed?” Nature is a good guide in life, Stevenson wrote, adding that the love of simple pleasures is a virtue.
“For many years, America was to me a sort of promised land,” he wrote. “Westward the march of empire holds its way, the race is for the moment to the young…what is to be yet lies beyond the flight of our imaginations.”
When Stevenson arrived in New York, “spying for things foreign,” it rained “with patient fury.” He was so wet that he said no fire could have dried his shoes, socks, and trousers. When he arrived at the train station, ready to begin his trip across America, he and other travelers “stood like sheep…and the porters charged among us like so many maddened sheep-dogs, and I believe that these men were no longer answerable for their acts.”
Stevenson didn’t know American etiquette and wondered if he should offer a tip to a waiter. He was told, “Never.” He noted that “The names of the States and Territories themselves form a chorus of sweet and most romantic vocables: Delaware, Ohio, Indiana, Florida, Dakota, Iowa, Wyoming, Minnesota, and the Carolinas; there are few poems with nobler music for the ear: a songful, tuneful land; and if a new Homer shall arise from the Western continent, his verse will be enriched, his pages sing spontaneously, with the names of the states and cities that would strike the fancy in a business circular.”
His references to Wyoming and to Homer were interesting to me, as I was born in Wyoming, and my Turkish trip schedules time in Izmir, the home of philosopher Homer.
Continuing on his journey, Stevenson described Chicago as a great and gloomy city and when he stepped down the platform to it, he was like “a man in a dream.”
Westward bound, his train crossed the wide Missouri River to Omaha. Stevenson became ill and stayed sickly for the rest of the train ride, describing Nebraska as “infinity.” In crossing Wyoming, there was not a tree. He saw sagebrush, fleeting antelope, and few signs of human life. “Except for the air, which was light and stimulating, there was not one good circumstance in that God-forsaken land.”
He continued to suffer ill health, was exhausted and “poisoned in some wayside eating-house.” Stevenson wrote. “The evening we left Laramie, I felt sick outright. That was a night which I shall not readily forget.” He noted, “Mile upon mile, and not a tree, a bird, or a river.”
He defended “negroes” he met earlier and the Chinese, who were targets of discrimination in the western states. In a chapter he titled “Despised Races,” he criticized “the eviction of the Cherokees, the extortion of Indian agents, the outrages of the wicked, the ill-faith of all,” describing it as “injustice and indignity.”
And yet Stevenson survived his journey. His trip and book ends with the line, “…The city of San Francisco and the bay of gold and corn were lit from end to end with summer daylight.”
I put down the book and struggled to my feet, numb as they were, and walked down the airplane aisle to the restroom, more for my legs than bladder.
If Robert Louis Stevenson could make his long, harsh journey and still be poetic and literary about it, then I could handle a plane ride or two or actually nine, as the itinerary required. I heartily prepared to enjoy my journey to Turkey, my first Asian country, and then to Seattle and into Canada.