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Saunterings - Misapprehensions Corrected Post by :jamesc96 Category :Nonfictions Author :Charles Dudley Warner Date :May 2012 Read :2881

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Saunterings - Misapprehensions Corrected

I should not like to ask an indulgent and idle public to saunter about with me under a misapprehension. It would be more agreeable to invite it to go nowhere than somewhere; for almost every one has been somewhere, and has written about it. The only compromise I can suggest is, that we shall go somewhere, and not learn anything about it. The instinct of the public against any thing like information in a volume of this kind is perfectly justifiable; and the reader will perhaps discover that this is illy adapted for a text-book in schools, or for the use of competitive candidates in the civil-service examinations.

Years ago, people used to saunter over the Atlantic, and spend weeks in filling journals with their monotonous emotions. That is all changed now, and there is a misapprehension that the Atlantic has been practically subdued; but no one ever gets beyond the "rolling forties" without having this impression corrected.

I confess to have been deceived about this Atlantic, the roughest and windiest of oceans. If you look at it on the map, it does n't appear to be much, and, indeed, it is spoken of as a ferry. What with the eight and nine days' passages over it, and the laying of the cable, which annihilates distance, I had the impression that its tedious three thousand and odd miles had been, somehow, partly done away with; but they are all there. When one has sailed a thousand miles due east and finds that he is then nowhere in particular, but is still out, pitching about on an uneasy sea, under an inconstant sky, and that a thousand miles more will not make any perceptible change, he begins to have some conception of the unconquerable ocean. Columbus rises in my estimation.

I was feeling uncomfortable that nothing had been done for the memory of Christopher Columbus, when I heard some months ago that thirty-seven guns had been fired off for him in Boston. It is to be hoped that they were some satisfaction to him. They were discharged by countrymen of his, who are justly proud that he should have been able, after a search of only a few weeks, to find a land where the hand-organ had never been heard. The Italians, as a people, have not profited much by this discovery; not so much, indeed, as the Spaniards, who got a reputation by it which even now gilds their decay. That Columbus was born in Genoa entitles the Italians to celebrate the great achievement of his life; though why they should discharge exactly thirty-seven guns I do not know. Columbus did not discover the United States: that we partly found ourselves, and partly bought, and gouged the Mexicans out of. He did not even appear to know that there was a continent here. He discovered the West Indies, which he thought were the East; and ten guns would be enough for them. It is probable that he did open the way to the discovery of the New World. If he had waited, however, somebody else would have discovered it,--perhaps some Englishman; and then we might have been spared all the old French and Spanish wars. Columbus let the Spaniards into the New World; and their civilization has uniformly been a curse to it. If he had brought Italians, who neither at that time showed, nor since have shown, much inclination to come, we should have had the opera, and made it a paying institution by this time. Columbus was evidently a person who liked to sail about, and did n't care much for consequences.

Perhaps it is not an open question whether Columbus did a good thing in first coming over here, one that we ought to celebrate with salutes and dinners. The Indians never thanked him, for one party. The Africans had small ground to be gratified for the market he opened for them. Here are two continents that had no use for him. He led Spain into a dance of great expectations, which ended in her gorgeous ruin. He introduced tobacco into Europe, and laid the foundation for more tracts and nervous diseases than the Romans had in a thousand years. He introduced the potato into Ireland indirectly; and that caused such a rapid increase of population, that the great famine was the result, and an enormous emigration to New York--hence Tweed and the constituency of the Ring. Columbus is really responsible for New York. He is responsible for our whole tremendous experiment of democracy, open to all comers, the best three in five to win. We cannot yet tell how it is coming out, what with the foreigners and the communists and the women. On our great stage we are playing a piece of mingled tragedy and comedy, with what denouement we cannot yet say. If it comes out well, we ought to erect a monument to Christopher as high as the one at Washington expects to be; and we presume it is well to fire a salute occasionally to keep the ancient mariner in mind while we are trying our great experiment. And this reminds me that he ought to have had a naval salute.

There is something almost heroic in the idea of firing off guns for a man who has been stone-dead for about four centuries. It must have had a lively and festive sound in Boston, when the meaning of the salute was explained. No one could hear those great guns without a quicker beating of the heart in gratitude to the great discoverer who had made Boston possible. We are trying to "realize" to ourselves the importance of the 12th of October as an anniversary of our potential existence. If any one wants to see how vivid is the gratitude to Columbus, let him start out among our business-houses with a subscription-paper to raise money for powder to be exploded in his honor. And yet Columbus was a well-meaning man; and if he did not discover a perfect continent, he found the only one that was left.

Columbus made voyaging on the Atlantic popular, and is responsible for much of the delusion concerning it. Its great practical use in this fast age is to give one an idea of distance and of monotony.

I have listened in my time with more or less pleasure to very rollicking songs about the sea, the flashing brine, the spray and the tempest's roar, the wet sheet and the flowing sea, a life on the ocean wave, and all the rest of it. To paraphrase a land proverb, let me write the songs of the sea, and I care not who goes to sea and sings 'em. A square yard of solid ground is worth miles of the pitching, turbulent stuff. Its inability to stand still for one second is the plague of it. To lie on deck when the sun shines, and swing up and down, while the waves run hither and thither and toss their white caps, is all well enough to lie in your narrow berth and roll from side to side all night long; to walk uphill to your state-room door, and, when you get there, find you have got to the bottom of the hill, and opening the door is like lifting up a trap-door in the floor; to deliberately start for some object, and, before you know it, to be flung against it like a bag of sand; to attempt to sit down on your sofa, and find you are sitting up; to slip and slide and grasp at everything within reach, and to meet everybody leaning and walking on a slant, as if a heavy wind were blowing, and the laws of gravitation were reversed; to lie in your berth, and hear all the dishes on the cabin-table go sousing off against the wall in a general smash; to sit at table holding your soup-plate with one hand, and watching for a chance to put your spoon in when it comes high tide on your side of the dish; to vigilantly watch, the lurch of the heavy dishes while holding your glass and your plate and your knife and fork, and not to notice it when Brown, who sits next you, gets the whole swash of the gravy from the roast-beef dish on his light-colored pantaloons, and see the look of dismay that only Brown can assume on such an occasion; to see Mrs. Brown advance to the table, suddenly stop and hesitate, two waiters rush at her, with whom she struggles wildly, only to go down in a heap with them in the opposite corner; to see her partially recover, but only to shoot back again through her state-room door, and be seen no more;--all this is quite pleasant and refreshing if you are tired of land, but you get quite enough of it in a couple of weeks. You become, in time, even a little tired of the Jew who goes about wishing "he vas a veek older;" and the eccentric man, who looks at no one, and streaks about the cabin and on deck, without any purpose, and plays shuffle-board alone, always beating himself, and goes on the deck occasionally through the sky-light instead of by the cabin door, washes himself at the salt-water pump, and won't sleep in his state-room, saying he is n't used to sleeping in a bed,--as if the hard narrow, uneasy shelf of a berth was anything like a bed!--and you have heard at last pretty nearly all about the officers, and their twenty and thirty years of sea-life, and every ocean and port on the habitable globe where they have been. There comes a day when you are quite ready for land, and the scream of the "gull" is a welcome sound.

Even the sailors lose the vivacity of the first of the voyage. The first two or three days we had their quaint and half-doleful singing in chorus as they pulled at the ropes: now they are satisfied with short ha-ho's, and uncadenced grunts. It used to be that the leader sang, in ever-varying lines of nonsense, and the chorus struck in with fine effect, like this:

"I wish I was in Liverpool town. Handy-pan, handy O!
O captain! where 'd you ship your crew Handy-pan, handy O!
Oh! pull away, my bully crew, Handy-pan, handy O!"

There are verses enough of this sort to reach across the Atlantic; and they are not the worst thing about it either, or the most tedious. One learns to respect this ocean, but not to love it; and he leaves it with mingled feelings about Columbus.

And now, having crossed it,--a fact that cannot be concealed,--let us not be under the misapprehension that we are set to any task other than that of sauntering where it pleases us.

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