I wasted an hour this morning reading Margot Asquith’s book of observations on America. Unfortunately, it bypassed my spreadsheet that tracks how I found out about the book, so I don’t know what terrible source recommended it. I imagine it was something along the lines of “the voice of an extraordinary and strong woman,” because that part is definitely true. Margot was the wife of Britain’s prime minister H.H. Asquith, and had a popular autobiography that preceded her arrival in America.
It gets off to a promising start, with her railing against traveling, calling most travelers uninteresting. “I like what I have thought out for myself better than what I discover [traveling]; and conclusions arrived at after careful reflection are more enlarging than what is pointed out to you by inquisitive spectators…. there is a difference between curiosity and interest, and I regret to say I am not curious.”
Her boat docks in New York and she’s beset by reporters, her first experience of having to answer the question that would drive her mad, “what did she think about flappers?” She exhaustedly gives a speech that night and it does not go over well, a woman in the balcony saying she’d had enough and storming out. She gets better and is a rousing success in Boston, and even meets an intelligent reporter she names “Bruce” because she forgot to get his name:
He said he did not know what had happened to the spirit of his fellow-countrymen. Whether it was from temporary restlessness–following the chaos of present conditions–or from a native and ingrained lack of reflection, but that jazz, hustle and headlines were killing the soul of the American people.
My main beef with her is her sharp sexism, preferring the company of men and viciously writing up the women reporters she encounters. “When the female reporters begin by saying to me: ‘What, Mrs. Asquith, do you think, with your close acquaintance with the many trends of the working of a woman’s mind, of the modern probability etc., etc.,’ I am reminded of Sir Walter Raleigh’s excellent phrase, ‘Stumbling upwards into vacuity.’ One of these eager ladies, checking her more intelligent male companions, said: ‘Is it true that you are indifferent to the opinion of any living person?'” (Emphasis mine)
She visits Philadelphia and is pissed that they don’t applaud during her speech. She meets President Harding in DC. She sees Detroit and Chicago (<--"most intelligent audience since Boston"), Pittsburgh, Rochester, Toronto, Montreal, Niagara Falls, Ottawa, Syracuse, Buffalo, St. Louis, Kansas City, Omaha. Finally back to New York, she says "I have not been to San Francisco, but if I were an American I would live in New York City. St. Louis, Syracuse, Omaha, Washington, are more beautiful because of their environment; but there is a life in the air, and a general atmosphere of gaity and movement which I find infinitely stimulating in New York." Throughout her travels, she complained that the trains were inferior to England, and was tired of being asked "what do you think of us?" by everyone she met. "Have any of us heard an English man or woman ask a foreigner what he thought of us? Or if they were silly enough to do so, who would be interested in the reply?" Even in 1922, America was known for its violence: "In spite of true generosity and kindliness, I was aware of an undercurrent of illiberalism and violence which amazed me." Someone reading the 1922 first edition in 2014 marked up the book in pen to voice their complaint about her use of the n-word, saying that it was in such common usage in the north that she just used it without knowing better.