The Americans

One author describes the desire of Americans in the late 19th Century to emulate English aristocrats, or how they envisiined European aristocrats.

The effects were often striking. In the early 1890's a well-meaning group of Anglophiles called the American Acclimatization Society thought it would be charming if the American fauna included all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare. Their imported thrushes, chaffinches, nightingales and skylarks died out. Their starlings did not--hence the losing battle of many of today's cities against the noise and corrosive feces of flocks of millions of starlings and the near wiping out of several species of native birds whose nesting places starlings take over. A few years earlier the Reverend Endicott Peabody, whose strongly Yankee name belied his education in England, had founded in a Massachusetts township (once wiped out by King Philip's Indians) the famous Groton School patterned as closely as his zeal could manage on the aristocratic public schools of England, cold baths and all. He had recently been ministering to the heathen of Tombstone, Arizona, in its most carefree phase. Even so the reaction seems excessive and had anomalous consequences on his manly young pupils' habits of speech and, because of Groton's instills high prestige, on the atmosphere of the most fashionable Northeastern private preparatory schools for boys. That sort of tutelage was limited of course, to the few whose parents could afford-and whose social status justified admission to-such privileges. Almost immediately however, the scope of Anglicization was immensely widened by the publication in St. Nicholas Magazine (already solidly acknowledged the proper reading for the Quality's children) and then in book form of Little Lord Fauntleroy.

This was the most widely sold work of a popular English woman writer resident in America since girlhood, Mrs. Frances Hodgson Bennett. It tells of the sturdy small son of a charming, hard-up American widow, whose late husband, son and heir of a real English earl, had been disowned by his crusty father for marrying her. Increasing age moves his Lordship, now gouty and crustier than ever, to fetch sturdy, golden-haired Ceddie (for Cedric) back to be educated in England as befits the progenitive heir, courtesy title Lord Fauntleroy. The boy's sturdily sweet disposition wins his lordship around to the point of reconciliation with mama, and everything is awfully hands-across-the-sea. The nub of the story is the success of the boy in making the English feel, in spite of his early Yankee rearing, his innate patrician qualities. The point is probably all the more lovingly made because Mrs. Burnett's rearing had been that of a petty shopkeeper's daughter in the English Midlands.

The worst of it was that little Lord Fauntleroy wore his golden hair in long curls, and the illustrations by Reginald Birch, a mainstay of St. Nicholas, showed him sturdily facing grandfather in a knee-breeched, black velvet suit with a broad white collar. Reynold Birch's drawings of Little Lord Fauntleroy had as much to do as Frances Hodgson Burnett's text with inflicting his image on the American mother--and too often her son. Many American mothers above a certain income level not only took him to their hearts but socially crucified their boy children by putting them into black velvet and never allowing their hair to be cut. For good or ill other immigrant Britons left traces on America between the Civil and the Spanish-American wars: James Redpath, first efficiently to organize the lecture branch of American show business; Alexander Graham Bell; Edward Weston second only to Edison as father of the electric industry . . . But only Mrs. Burnett could claim so deeply to have affected the emotional health of so many American boys.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: May 30, 1998
Last updated: May 30, 1998