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Chapter 38: A Conquest of Europe

THE most important event in modern history is the discovery of Europe by the Americans. Before it, the peoples of the Old World lived happy and contented in their own countries, practising the patriarchal virtues handed down to them from generations of forebears, ignoring alike the vices and benefits of modern civilization, as understood on this side of the Atlantic. The simple-minded Europeans remained at home, satisfied with the rank in life where they had been born, and innocent of the ways of the new world.

These peoples were, on the whole, not so much to be pitied, for they had many pleasing crafts and arts unknown to the invaders, which had enabled them to decorate their capitals with taste in a rude way; nothing really great like the lofty buildings and elevated railway structures, executed in American cities, but interesting as showing what an ingenious race, deprived of the secrets of modern science, could accomplish.

The more aesthetic of the newcomers even affected to admire the antiquated places of worship and residences they visited abroad, pointing out to their compatriots that in many cases marble, bronze and other old-fashioned materials had been so cleverly treated as to look almost like the superior cast-iron employed at home, and that some of the old paintings, preserved with veneration in the museums, had nearly the brilliancy of modern chromos. As their authors had, however, neglected to use a process lending itself to rapid reproduction, they were of no practical value. In other ways, the continental races, when discovered, were sadly behind the times. In business, they ignored the use of "corners," that backbone of American trade, and their ideas of advertising were but little in advance of those known among the ancient Greeks.

The discovery of Europe by the Americans was made about 1850, at which date the first bands of adventurers crossed the seas in search of amusement. The reports these pioneers brought back of the NAIVETE, politeness, and gullibility of the natives, and the cheapness of existence in their cities, caused a general exodus from the western to the eastern hemisphere. Most of the Americans who had used up their credit at home and those whose incomes were insufficient for their wants, immediately migrated to these happy hunting grounds, where life was inexpensive and credit unlimited.

The first arrivals enjoyed for some twenty years unique opportunities. They were able to live in splendor for a pittance that would barely have kept them in necessaries on their own side of the Atlantic, and to pick up valuable specimens of native handiwork for nominal sums. In those happy days, to belong to the invading race was a sufficient passport to the good graces of the Europeans, who asked no other guarantees before trading with the newcomers, but flocked around them, offering their services and their primitive manufactures, convinced that Americans were all wealthy.

Alas! History ever repeats itself. As Mexicans and Peruvians, after receiving their conquerors with confidence and enthusiasm, came to rue the day they had opened their arms to strangers, so the European peoples, before a quarter of a century was over, realized that the hordes from across the sea who were over-running their lands, raising prices, crowding the native students out of the schools, and finally attempting to force an entrance into society, had little to recommend them or justify their presence except money. Even in this some of the intruders were unsatisfactory. Those who had been received into the "bosom" of hotels often forgot to settle before departing. The continental women who had provided the wives of discoverers with the raiment of the country (a luxury greatly affected by those ladies) found, to their disgust, that their new customers were often unable or unwilling to offer any remuneration.

In consequence of these and many other disillusions, Americans began to be called the "Destroyers," especially when it became known that nothing was too heavy or too bulky to be carried away by the invaders, who tore the insides from the native houses, the paintings from the walls, the statues from the temples, and transported this booty across the seas, much in the same way as the Romans had plundered Greece. Elaborate furniture seemed especially to attract the new arrivals, who acquired vast quantities of it.

Here, however, the wily natives (who were beginning to appreciate their own belongings) had revenge. Immense quantities of worthless imitations were secretly manufactured and sold to the travellers at fabulous prices. The same artifice was used with paintings, said to be by great masters, and with imitations of old stuffs and bric- a-brac, which the ignorant and arrogant invaders pretended to appreciate and collect.

Previous to our arrival there had been an invasion of the Continent by the English about the year 1812. One of their historians, called Thackeray, gives an amusing account of this in the opening chapters of his "Shabby Genteel Story." That event, however, was unimportant in comparison with the great American movement, although both were characterized by the same total disregard of the feelings and prejudices of indigenous populations. The English then walked about the continental churches during divine service, gazing at the pictures and consulting their guide-books as unconcernedly as our compatriots do to-day. They also crowded into theatres and concert halls, and afterwards wrote to the newspapers complaining of the bad atmosphere of those primitive establishments and of the long ENTR'ACTES.

As long as the invaders confined themselves to such trifles, the patient foreigners submitted to their overbearing and uncouth ways because of the supposed benefit to trade. The natives even went so far as to build hotels for the accommodation and delight of the invaders, abandoning whole quarters to their guests.

There was, however, a point at which complacency stopped. The older civilizations had formed among themselves restricted and exclusive societies, to which access was almost impossible to strangers. These sanctuaries tempted the immigrants, who offered their fairest virgins and much treasure for the privilege of admission. The indigenous aristocrats, who were mostly poor, yielded to these offers and a few Americans succeeded in forcing an entrance. But the old nobility soon became frightened at the number and vulgarity of the invaders, and withdrew severely into their shells, refusing to accept any further bribes either in the form of females or finance.

From this moment dates the humiliation of the discoverers. All their booty and plunder seemed worthless in comparison with the Elysian delights they imagined were concealed behind the closed doors of those holy places, visions of which tortured the women from the western hemisphere and prevented their taking any pleasure in other victories. To be received into those inner circles became their chief ambition. With this end in view they dressed themselves in expensive costumes, took the trouble to learn the "lingo" spoken in the country, went to the extremity of copying the ways of the native women by painting their faces, and in one or two cases imitated the laxity of their morals.

In spite of these concessions, our women were not received with enthusiasm. On the contrary, the very name of an American became a byword and an abomination in every continental city. This prejudice against us abroad is hardly to be wondered at on reflecting what we have done to acquire it. The agents chosen by our government to treat diplomatically with the conquered nations, owe their selection to political motives rather than to their tact or fitness. In the large majority of cases men are sent over who know little either of the habits or languages prevailing in Europe.

The worst elements always follow in the wake of discovery. Our settlements abroad gradually became the abode of the compromised, the divorced, the socially and financially bankrupt.

Within the last decade we have found a way to revenge the slights put upon us, especially those offered to Americans in the capital of Gaul. Having for the moment no playwrights of our own, the men who concoct dramas, comedies, and burlesques for our stage find, instead of wearying themselves in trying to produce original matter, that it is much simpler to adapt from French writers. This has been carried to such a length that entire French plays are now produced in New York signed by American names.

The great French playwrights can protect themselves by taking out American copyright, but if one of them omits this formality, the "conquerors" immediately seize upon his work and translate it, omitting intentionally all mention of the real author on their programmes. This season a play was produced of which the first act was taken from Guy de Maupassant, the second and third "adapted" from Sardou, with episodes introduced from other authors to brighten the mixture. The piece thus patched together is signed by a well-known Anglo-Saxon name, and accepted by our moral public, although the original of the first act was stopped by the Parisian police as too immoral for that gay capital.

Of what use would it be to "discover" a new continent unless the explorers were to reap some such benefits? Let us take every advantage that our proud position gives us, plundering the foreign authors, making penal settlements of their capitals, and ignoring their foolish customs and prejudices when we travel among them! In this way shall we effectually impress on the inferior races across the Atlantic the greatness of the American nation.

Eliot Gregory