Tuesday, February 24, 2004

At least two or three of you may be interested in this book called Europe Revised by Irvin S. Cobb. (It's another of those Gutenberg texts with the whole book; you've got to scroll down through the crap to get to the text. It's not very long, 150 pages or so.)

Cobb was an American author active maybe 1900-1920 or so; all I recall reading by him are a couple of short stories that show up in anthologies of the time. He managed to make it over in the spring or early summer of 1914 for two months (he went to England, France, Germany, Austria, and Italy) and wrote this semi-ripoff of Innocents Abroad. Cobb does mention Twain in his text; apparently a scam that tourist guides of the time used was to announce themselves as having been Twain's guide. In fact, it seems like half the book is devoted to the author complaining about how the Europeans were cheating him.

The book's worth reading for the other half, though. It shows how a fairly cultured and well-bread American saw Europe in the months right before the Great War. Note Cobb's chapter about how laughable European soldiers seemed in their dress uniforms. Very soon all those soldiers were to become dead. As always, the book probably tells you more about Irvin S. Cobb and the fairly cultured and well-bred American society of his times than it does about Europe. One thing that stands out is Cobb's nonchalant racism. Another is how rich America was then compared with Europe. Cobb does a lot of complaining about European backwardness without striking on the answer why: because they were poor. This is probably why Cobb felt so victimized by the constant badgering for tips; to poor people any American traveling in Europe is rich.

Something else that stands out is the innocence of the book. Cobb is still in the pre-Great War thought mode--politics and economics and the like are something far away, so the Place de la Concorde in Paris is the site of the greatest tragedy in history for him, and he spends a chapter imagining the feelings of the dead at Pompeii. Something a whole hell of a lot bigger was coming very soon and Cobb completely misses it. Not a word about international tensions or imperial conflicts or arms races.

Finally, note all the generalizations and cliches made about Americans and Brits and Germans and French and so on. Much the same stereotypes existed then as now. In fact, in Cobb's book, you'll be more surprised to find a stereotype you've never heard of before than to find a stereotype that is already well-known to you.

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