The subject of Americans abroad has fascinated a number of generations, and the fascination has produced a surprisingly large literature which includes, to begin with, a substantial body of fiction, much of it extremely important. There are dozens of scholarly monographs on every aspect of the subject, to say nothing of easily available primary sources in the form of diaries, memoirs, letters, etc. Most numerous of all are the popular books about Americans in Italy, Americans in Paris, Americans behind the Iron Curtain, and everywhere else.
It is doubtful if Americans abroad are as distinctive as we have long since formed the habit of imagining. The nineteenth-century American innocent in Europe, making shocked reflections on the moral climate, is an image most of us have stored away somewhere, but he might just as easily be British. Although Roger Ascham had once been tutor to Queen Elizabeth, he can sound very much like an early Massachusetts Calvinist: “I was once in Italy myself; but I thank God my abode there was but nine days; and yet I saw in that little time, in one city, more liberty to sin than ever I heard tell of in our noble city of London in nine years.” American millionaires of the early twentieth century may have engaged private decks on ocean liners for their crossings, but their pretensions were not much different from Sir Philip Sidney’s when, traveling on the continent, he carried two complete sets of furniture with him so that the inns he stopped at overnight might be suitably upholstered in velvet and pink brocades. And as everyone knows, the French abroad can be as vulgarly arrogant about their language as the Americans about their money.
Taken all in all, it is doubtful if a more intelligent or sympathetic set of tourists ever started out from any country than the Americans of the last years of the eighteenth century: but since most of them came to Europe on missions of importance, perhaps they cannot be called tourists in a strict sense at all. They had a great deal of faith in their own country, and hadn’t lived in it long enough to feel insecure or defensive. Their provinciality was of the charming, appealing variety. Mr. Dulles quotes a letter written by Abigail Adams from Paris to her sister at home:
The first dance which I saw upon the stage shocked me; the dresses and the beauty of the performers were enchanting; but, no sooner did the dance commence, than I felt my delicacy wounded, and I was ashamed to be seen to look at them. Girls, clothed in the thinnest silk and gauze, with their petticoats short, springing two feet from the floor, poising themselves in the air, with their feet flying, and as perfectly showing their garters and drawers as though no petticoats had been worn, was a sight altogether new to me.
But then, with a liberality Roger Ascham would probably not have shown, Abigail hastened to add …
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