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Book Review


From: "Across America," Literary World (July 1874): 21-22.

Across America. By James Fowler Rusling. 1902.

Many books descriptive of the overland journey from the Atlantic to the Pacific have been written; but of them all we know of none that is more useful and instructive than this volume. It is not the work of a practised writer; but its author is evidently intelligent, observing, and possessed of sound judgment. He gives his readers a very clear idea of the regions he visited - their topographical and meteorological characteristics, and agricultural and mineral resources. In fine, he tells about them just what an intending immigrant would desire to know, so far as hat can be done in a rapid narrative of personal experience. He writes like a practical man accustomed to look beneath the surface of things, curious about opportunities and capabilities, and an ardent friend of material and moral progress. We are specially glad to notice in his book the evidences of an earnest desire for the social and intellectual improvement of those who have peopled the new countries through which he journeyed. He is not an enthusiast or a bigot, but evidently one who fully understands how essential to good government and individual as well as national prosperity are the influences, at once stimulating and restraining, of sound moral principle.

The author made his journey under orders from the Secretary of War, to inspect the affairs of the Quartermaster's Department of the army on the Pacific coast, in 1866, and travelled most of the distance from Fort Riley, Kansas, to the Columbia River, in stage-coaches. The narrative of his progress is readable, though by no means brilliant, and is remarkable for its freedom from affection; he rarely seems to aim at undue effect, and seldom indulges in the due writing which tempts and tries many travellers. Of the principal points of interest which marked his journey he gives brief but very satisfactory accounts, dealing with their present and future rather than with their past, and conveying a distinct and, so far as we can judge, just impression of their condition at the time of his observation. His portraiture of the Indians, as represented but the various tribes which he encountered, seems to be singularly faithful, and dictated but a sincere wish to tell the truth about this interesting but misrepresented people. He views them with that "horse-sense" which is often mentioned in his book, and his conclusions well deserve the attention of philanthropists and all thoughtful readers. He is very cautious in his statements; but it is safe to say that he has abandoned forever the poetical and popular idea of the "noble red man." No writer, we think, has ever written more intelligently and pointedly about the Mormons, though it is evident that he cherished fixed opinions about this people before he visited them. He awards them full credit for their good qualities and for their material achievements; but he finds in their system of society very dangerous elements, and in their religious policy, intolerable evil. His interview with Brigham Young and other dignitaries enlightens the reader as to Mormanism more effectually than a volume written by an ordinary observer could do; and his report of the revelations by a high Federal official - probably a United States judge - contains some statements that are simply astounding. In view of the fact that Mormon affairs have lately engaged the attention of Congress, his candid and minute statements as to Mormon practices and spirit have a special value. Writing about Denver, he makes this reference to a good man whose memory is tenderly cherished in New England: -

"Her Episcopal Bishop (Randall) we found scouring the country with all the earnestness and zeal of an old-time missionary or Methodist itinerant. Band and gown, stole and chasuble, and other ritualistic millenary (sir) he affected but little; but he preached Christ and Him crucified with a tenderness and power that touched all hearts, and Colorado already had come to love and honor him. 'Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you,' was his text in as sound and appropriate discourse the Sabbath we were in Denver, as we had heard in a long time. Every sentence struck home, like a rapier or a bullet, at some sin most prevalent in Colorado, and Denver might well 'make a note of it.' Subsequently we heard of him in the mines and among the mountains, preaching in quartz-mills, and by the road-side, - wherever he could gather a handful of hearers, - always engaged in the Master's work and always leaving a deep impression behind him."

The author tells much about Gen. Sherman, whose companion he was during a party of his journey, and many anecdotes of that eccentric officer. Farther on we find a kingly reference to the late Gen. Steele, with a report of that general's testimony to Grant's deserts in the Vicksburg campaign. A very interesting sketch of Kit Carson points out some of his noble qualities, and seems to justify Gen. Sherman's remark about him, "Why, his integrity is perfect." Commenting upon the frightful profanity of teamsters on the plains, the author says: -

"An old army friend used often to parade a pet theory of his, that a man could not associate much with horses without directly deteriorating. 'The horse,' he would say, 'may gain largely, but it will only be at the expense of the man. Our cavalry and artillery officers always were the wickedest men in the service, and all because of their equine associations. The animals, indeed, became almost human; but in the same proportion the men became animals!' I always thought him about half-right; but if this be true as to lutimacy with horses, what must be the effect oof men of long and constant associations with mules and oxen!"

The theory advanced by "and old army friend" is certainly specious, but it is not wholly true. The effect of equine intimacy on men depends mainly on the circumstances under which the intimacy exists. In the army, on the plains, and on the race-course, the absence of conventional restraints encourage immorality; but it is absurd to stigmatize horses as a cause of evil tendencies for which they are in fact only a convenience. It is not the horse that debases man; bit is the use that man puts him to. We might cite the fact that the clergymen of a certain denomination are proverbially lovers of horses; but the point seems to demand no further argument.

The closing chapter of the book is crowded with instructive facts about Oregon and California. These words about the climates of the two States are interesting: -

"The year before at Fort Vancouver [which is in Washington Territory, very near Oregon] they had had one hundred and twenty consecutive days of rain, in one year, without counting the intervening showers; and they said it wasn't much of a year for rain, either.' Another year, they didn't see the sun there for eighty days together, without reckoning the occasional fogs. No wonder the Oregonians are called 'web-feet.' They do say, the children there are all born web-footed, like ducks and geese, so as to paddle about, and thus get along well in that amphibious region. Perhaps this is rather strong, even for Darwinism; but I can safely vouch for Oregon's all-sufficing rains and fogs, whatever their effects on the species."

"At sunrise [in San Francisco, in May] it would be hot, even sultry, and you would see persons dressed in white linen. By nine or ten A.M., the wind would rise, - a raw, damp wind, sometimes with fog, sweeping in from the Pacific, - and in the evening you would see ladies going to the opera with full winter furs on ... The truth seemed to be that for hardy persons the climate was excellent, the air bracing and stimulating, - but invalids were better off in the interior."

Although Col. Rusling is guilty of writing "sort of half awoke," "considerable of a traveller," was as capital a shot as he was rare and penman," etc., he has made a useful and entertaining book. No more faithful panorama of the Trans-Mississippi country and the Pacific States, as these regions were in 1866, has ever been painted.


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