The debasement of the European mind

A populist US senator meets an Italian organ-grinder in Rome in 1859.

Two young American men are acting as cicerones for two older compatriots in an association they have called The Dodge Club:

Because our principle is to dodge all humbugs and swindles, which make travelling so expensive generally. We have gained much experience already, and hope to gain more. One of my friends is a doctor from Philadelphia, Doctor Snakeroot, and the other is Senator Jones from Massachusetts. Neither the Doctor nor the Senator understand a word of any language but the American.

The Canadian writer, James De Mille, published his The Dodge Club; or Italy in 1859 in Harper’s after the Civil War, when Europe and America’s poor were migrating westwards but the wealthy still took their holidays to the east:

HARMONY ON THE PINCIAN HILL.-MUSIC HATH CHARMS. –AMERICAN MELODIES.–THE GLORY, THE POWER, AND THE BEAUTY OF YANKEE DOODLE, AND THE MERCENARY SOUL OF AN ITALLAN ORGAN-GRINDER.
The Senator loved the Pincian Hill, for there he saw what he loved best; more than ruins, more than churches, more than pictures and statues, more than music. He saw man and human nature.
He had a smile for all; of superiority for the bloated aristocrat; of friendliness for the humble, yet perchance worthy mendicant. He longed every day more and more to be able to talk the language of the people.
On one occasion the Club was walking on the Pincian Hill, when suddenly they were arrested by familiar sounds which came from some place not very far away. It was a barrel-organ; a soft and musical organ; but it was playing “Sweet Home.”
“A Yankee tune,” said the Senator. “Let us go and patronize domestic manufacture. That is my idee of political economy.”
Reaching the spot they saw a pale, intellectual-looking Italian working away at his instrument.
“It’s not bad, though that there may not be the highest kind of musical instrument.”
“No,” said Buttons; “but I wonder that you, an elder of a church, can stand here and listen to it.”
“Why, what has the church to do with a barrel-organ?”
“Don’t you believe the Bible?”
“Of course,” said the Senator, looking mystified.
“Don’t you know what it says on the subject?”
“What the Bible says? Why no, of course not. It says nothing.”
“I beg your pardon. It says, ‘The sound of the grinding is low.’ See Ecclesiastes, twelfth, fourth.”
The Senator looked mystified, but said nothing. But suddenly the organ-grinder struck up another tune.
“Well, I do declare,” cried the Senator, delighted, “if it isn’t another domestic melody!”
It was “Independence Day.”
“Why, it warms my heart,” he said, as a flush spread over his fine countenance.
The organ-grinder received any quantity of baiocchi, which so encouraged him that he tried another—“Old Virginny.”
“That’s better yet,” said the Senator. “But how on airth did this man manage to get hold of these tunes?”
Then came others. They were all American: “Old Folks at Home,” “Nelly Bly,” “Suwannee Ribber,” “Jordan,” “Dan Tucker,” “Jim Crow.”
The Senator was certainly most demonstrative, but all the others were equally affected.
Those native airs; the dashing, the reckless, the roaringly-humorous, the obstreperously jolly—they show one part of the many-sided American character.
Not yet has justice been done to the nigger song. It is not a nigger song. It is an American melody. Leaving out those which have been stolen from Italian Operas, how many there are which are truly American in their extravagance, their broad humor, their glorious and uproarious jollity! The words are trash. The melodies are every thing.
These melodies touched the hearts of the listeners. American life rose before them as they listened. American life—free, boundless, exuberant, broadly-developing, self-asserting, gaining its characteristics from the boundless extent of its home – a continental life of limitless variety. As mournful as the Scotch; as reckless as the Irish; as solemnly patriotic as the English.
“Listen!” cried the Senator, in wild excitement.
It was “Hail Columbia.”
“The Pincian Hill,” said the Senator, with deep solemnity, “is glorified from this time forth and for evermore. It has gained a new charm. The Voice of Freedom hath made itself heard!”
The others, though less demonstrative, were no less delighted. Then came another, better yet. “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“There!” cried the Senator, “is our true national anthem—the commemoration of national triumph; the grand upsoaring of the victorious American Eagle as it wings its everlasting flight through the blue empyrean away up to the eternal stars!”
He burst into tears; the others respected his emotion.
Then he wiped his eyes and looked ashamed of himself—quite uselessly—for it is a mistake to suppose that tears are unmanly. Unmanly! The manliest of men may sometimes shed tears out of his very manhood.
At last there arose a magic strain that produced an effect to which the former was nothing. It was “Yankee Doodle!”
The Senator did not speak. He could not find words. He turned his eyes first upon one, and then another of his companions; eyes beaming with joy and triumph—eyes that showed emotion arising straight from a patriot’s heart —eyes which seemed to say: Is there any sound on earth or above the earth that call equal this?
Yankee Doodle has never received justice. It is a tune without words. What are the recognized words? Nonsense unutterable—the sneer of a British officer. But the tune!—ah, that is quite another thing!
The tune was from the very first taken to the national heart, and has never ceased to be cherished there. The Republic has grown to be a very different thing from that weak beginning, but its national air is as popular as ever. The people do not merely love it. They glory in it. And yet apologies are sometimes made for it. By whom? By the soulless dilettante. The people know better:—the farmers, the mechanics, the fishermen, the dry-goods clerks, the news-boys, the railway stokers, the butchers, the bakers, the candlestick-makers, the tinkers, the tailors, the soldiers, the sailors. Why? Because this music has a voice of its own, more expressive than words; the language of the soul, which speaks forth in certain melodies which form an utterance of unutterable passion.
The name was perhaps given in ridicule. It was accepted with pride. The air is rash, reckless, gay, triumphant, noisy, boisterous, careless, heedless, rampant, raging, roaring, rattle-brainish, devil-may-care-ish, plague-take-the-hindmost-ish; but! solemn, stern, hopeful, resolute, fierce, menacing, strong, cantankerous (cantankerous is entirely an American idea), bold, daring—
Words fail.
Yankee Doodle has not yet received its Doo!
The Senator had smiled, laughed, sighed, wept, gone through many variations of feeling. He had thrown baiocchi till his pockets were exhausted, and then handed forth silver. He had shaken hands with all his companions ten times over. They themselves went not quite as far in feeling as he, but yet to a certain extent they went in.
And yet Americans are thought to be practical, and not ideal. Yet here was a true American who was intoxicated—drunk? By what? By sound, notes, harmony. By music.
“Buttons,” said he, as the music ceased and the Italian prepares to make his bow and quit the scene, “I must make that gentleman’s acquaintance.”
Buttons walked up to the organ-grinder.
“Be my interpreter,” said the Senator. “Introduce me.”
“What’s your name?” asked Buttons.
“Maffeo Cloto.”
“From where?”
“Urbino.”
“Were you ever in America?”
“No, Signore.”
“What does he say?” asked the Senator, impatiently.
“He says his name is Mr. Cloto, and he was never in America.”
“How did you get these tunes?”
“Out of my organ,” said the Italian, grinning.
“Of course; but how did you happen to get an organ with such tunes?”
“I bought it.”
“Oh yes; but how did you happen to buy one with these tunes?”
“For you illustrious American Signore. You all like to hear them.”
“Do you know any thing about the tunes?” “Signore?”
“Do you know what the words are?”
“Oh no. I am an Italian.”
“I suppose you make money out of them.”
“I make more in a day with these than I could in a week with other tunes.”
“You lay up money, I suppose.”
“Oh yes. In two years I will retire and let my younger brother play here.”
“These tunes?”
“Yes, Signore.”
“To Americans?”
“Yes, Signore.”
“What is it all?” asked the Senator.
“He says that he finds he makes money by playing American tunes to Americans.”
“Hm,” said the Senator, with some displeasure; “and he has no soul then to see-the beauty, the sentiment, the grandeur of his vocation!”
“Not a bit-he only goes in for money.”
The Senator turned away in disgust. “Yankee Doodle,” he murmured, “ought of itself to have a refining and converting influence on the European mind; but it is too debased-yes-yes-too debased.”

Maybe we are doomed, maybe we aren’t, and the oligarchy’s bots will get us anyway. I fear that my monkey is not of flesh and blood.

Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, founded on piracy, is in it’s way almost as enjoyable on the American West as Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rio Bravo, which we of course watched over Christmas. Check out Over the Plains to Colorado from the same year, 1867, as de Mille’s piece.


Conversation

  1. “The manliest of men may sometimes shed tears out of his very manhood” – I must admit, I didn’t expect that twist in the narrative.

    Happy new year!

  2. The organ-grinder’s clumsy dismantling of the American’s enchantment is something a bit more stupid than I’d have expected from a wily Italian, but an interesting story anyway.

    Happy New Year from me too.

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