Sunday, April 17, 2011

Why Do the Wrong People Travel?

What do Lars von Trier, Franz Kafka and Mrs. Favell Lee Mortimer have in common? All three are Europeans who created works with a strongly slanted view of the United States without ever visiting here.

There are von Trier's didactic takes on America in the films Dancer in the Dark and Dogville. Kafka's surreal Amerika has been a favorite of mine since childhood.

Only this week have I discovered Mrs. Mortimer, an "Evangelical author of educational books for children". And, boy, did Mrs. Mortimer have her opinions. Though she rarely left her home, she wrote extensively through a very opinionated lens about the many countries of the world that are compiled in the book The Clumsiest People in the World: Mrs. Mortimer's Bad-Tempered Guide to the Victorian World.

Here's what she has to say about the U.S.:

"America is never spoken of in the Bible. One only savages lived in America; now there are very few savages, and a great many civilized people. Yet there is room for a great many more --for there are fewer people in America, in proportion to its size, than in any other quarter of the globe..."

And her views on China
"China is a heathen country; yet it is not a savage country, for the people are quiet, and orderly and industrious."

On Rome:
"Rome is the capital of Italy and once it was the capital of the world. It was a wicked city then, full of idols and cruelty -- and it is a wicked city now. Here the Pope lives. He is the chief of the priests of the Catholic religion."

Racism and bigotry are never a laughing matter, but Mrs. Mortimer's amazingly misinformed words are hard not to read without being just a little bit amused. It is a bit frightening that this woman was respected and well read in her day, and it probably speaks volumes about attitudes that were handed down from the Victorian era to the present.

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At 6:40 AM, Blogger Gary said...

Mrs. Mortimer was probably great fun at a party when she let her hair, and her guard, down. I'm sure she secretly loved to cavort with the savages and heathens and her guilt led her to her writing table. Fun gal!

BTW - I love the title of this post. I can hear Elaine Stritch belting it out now.


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