Brit Lit 101: How Crestline got into a Victorian Era best seller

Crestline is not a significantly sizeable place: you can be in and out of town pretty quickly.  This is especially true if you’re on a train.

The significance of a place however, is hardly dependent on its size.

It takes on considerably more significance if the train you’re riding drops you in the middle of town and leaves you there for four hours.

With unanticipated hours to pass, Crestline can become quite significant: especially to a writer who has been sent to America with the expressed intention of searching out the character of the nation.

Then Crestline becomes characteristic of the entire country.

This is exactly what happened in 1861 when the famous English novelist Anthony Trollope wrote about the United States in his two volume classic North America.

The assignment

In the 1800s, authors in England could hit the best-seller list by traveling to the United States and writing impressions of their American cousins.

Charles Dickens made the trip in 1842 and published American Notes to tremendous acclaim and terrific sales.

In 1832 Frances Milton Trollope made the trip and wrote Domestic Manners of the Americans; a book so popular it launched her career as a very successful author.

Within a generation after these two books were written, the character of the US underwent considerable change—enough to precipitate a Civil War—so it was time once again for a British literary figure to cross the ocean for a checkup, and take the temperature of the American relatives.

In 1861 Anthony Trollope’s career as a novelist in London was sagging, but he knew an American travelogue about the nation at Civil War would get his name into the good graces of Britain’s literary critics and, more importantly, sell a lot of books.

So in August, with the battlefield of Bull Run still smoking, he undertook to sail across the Atlantic and take his measure of all things American.

Trollope’s tale of visiting our country in wartime is told in 644 pages: XXXIII chapters with Appendices and no pictures.

Things went tolerably well for him until page 441.

That’s when he got to Crestline.

Putting a name to it

Before continuing it must be noted that the reason Crestline doesn’t show up in the indexes of British Literature is because Trollope spelled it wrong.

He called it Crossline.  It is possible he wasn’t paying attention.  There were some early American editions of North America that did a fact-check and corrected Trollope’s spelling to Crestline; but British publishers never considered the issue to be of much consequence and the error is perpetuated in all new printings.

Maybe Trollope did know the difference between Crestline and Crossline, and in a momentary lapse of critical thinking ‘the name was changed to protect the innocent;’ because he didn’t have a lot of good to say about Crossline.

In all fairness to Crestline it must be pointed out that Mr. Trollope didn’t have a lot of good to say about the whole country.  He did, in fact, write that it was a mistake to give slaves their freedom.  So his opinions can’t be assumed to hold much water.

His opinions however, have sold well in excess of 100,000 copies in the last 150 years.

The layover

Trollope’s itinerary in late 1861 took him from Cincinnati to Baltimore, so he had to change trains in Crestline.

That is exactly the reason why Crestline existed from the beginning: major railroad lines crossed there and people needed a place to change trains.  The village owed its existence to railroads.

Spending unprogrammed hours in Crestline presented certain challenges to the Englishman.  “I saw every home in the place,” but after that was completed, “I was lamentably at a loss for something to do.”

Being a “cultured, erudite and scholarly” man essentially meant that Trollope was addicted to thinking, conversation and entertaining distractions.  The concept of people living without continually ‘doing’ something was astonishing to him.

“An American has the power of seating himself in the close vicinity of a hot stove and feeding in silence on his own thoughts by the hour together.

“It does not fret him to sit there and think and do nothing.  He is by no means an idle man—probably one much given to commercial enterprise.  Idle men out there in the West we may say there are none.

“All who were sitting hour after hour in that circle round the stove of the Crossline Hotel hall—sitting there hour after hour in silence, as I could not sit—were men who earned their bread by labour.  They were farmers, mechanics, storekeepers; there was a lawyer or two, and one clergyman.

“But all of them had a capacity for a prolonged state of doing nothing.

“An Englishman, if he be kept waiting by a train in some forlorn station in which he can find no employment, curses his fate.

“But a Western American gives himself up to “loafing,” and is quite happy.  He balances himself on the back legs of an arm-chair, and remains so, without speaking, drinking or smoking, for an hour at a stretch; and while he is doing so he looks as though he had all he desired.”

End of the interlude

After he had resumed his trip east Trollope assured his readers that he “survived” his delay at Crossline.

If you read the novels that Trollope is famous for, you find from the tone of his writing that he considered himself pretty much above all of his characters…perhaps above us all.

Trollope made his name in the literary world by writing characters from the upper class of his time whose primary difficulty in life was boredom.
Anthony Trollope (1815 – 1882) 

He made it very clear in the pages of North America that it was often rather below his dignity and station in life to have to rub shoulders with all the common folk in the United States.  Riding the train was “plebian.”

Reading about his short tour of Crestline it is easy to infer from his haughty tone that he didn’t think much of our community…until you look more closely.

There is one short comment obscured in the torrent of his words that throws the entire episode, and in fact, the entire book into perspective.

Speaking of the “loafers” in Crestline he said they “had a capacity for a prolonged state of doing nothing, which is to me unintelligible, and which is very much to be envied.”

Anthony Trollope looked down his nose at us, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t wish he could be like us.

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