Current LiteratureThe Illustrated London News, vol. 46, no. 1301, p. 142.
February 11, 1865
My Diary in America in the Midst of War. By G. A. Sala. (Tinsley.) Mr. Sala's peculiar powers appear to the greatest possible advantage in these two volumes; and the consequence is that there has not been published for many a long day a book more full of entertainment and amusement. His keen faculty of observation had full scope; his talent for minute description was taxed to its utmost; his ability to place both persons and things in the most striking light was freely exercised; his intimate acquaintance with popular taste had a chance of showing itself; his brilliant colouring had a fine opening for application; his appreciation of humour did him excellent service; his capacious memory or his punctual notification supplied him with copious stores of anecdote; and his epigrammatic style of writing gave a pungent flavour to the sentences which flowed from his pen. It must be remembered, however, that the greater part of that which is contained in his two volumes was written in the form of letters to a newspaper which has, perhaps, the largest circulation of all daily publications in England, if not in the world. The remembrance of this fact will enable the reader to understand not only why Mr. Sala frequently speaks of himself as "the subscriber," but also why he should have been accused by the Americans (particularly those of extreme Northern principles) of misrepresentation. For it is plain that he must have given ready ear to what would be likely to amuse and to gratify his readers and to increase the circulation of the paper for which he had undertaken his pilgrimage; and how well Mr. Sala fulfilled his objects, let those many admirers testify who purchased the Daily Telegraph simply for the pleasure to be derived from his letters. Now, experience will tell you that there is nothing so delightful as to have pointed out to you the mote in your neighbour's eye; and in this respect Mr. Sala has been a most conscientious as well as humorous showman. He would, of course, have scouted the idea of putting upon paper what he had neither seen nor heard; but he would naturally repeat not only what he saw but what he heard that was likely from its grotesqueness to convulse with laughter, from its folly to put upon good terms with themselves, and from its horribility to interest as well as shock his readers. In fact, the "chiel" who "taks notes" in a foreign country nearly always does so in the spirit of a censor. Hence the charge against Mr. Sala of misrepresentation, by which is probably meant an unconsciously, perhaps, partial, but still a partial, representation. A man who spends but a year in a large country cannot gain an insight into its interior economy; he gets but the public--which is usually the worse--view of it; and Mr. Sala, so far as we can discover, does not seem to have penetrated far, if at all, into American private society. Nathaniel Hawthorne, who lived amongst us in time of peace far longer than Mr. Sala lived amongst the Americans in time of war, found occasion to apply the lash to us; and, though he did not lay it on with the rigour displayed by Mr. Sala, even Nathaniel Hawthorne has been accused of misrepresentation. However, that the Americans are not so black as they have (not by Mr. Sala) been painted is proved by the fact that Mr. Sala, in spite of his "misrepresentation," was not subjected to the American amenities of cowhiding, tar-and-feathering, or gratuitous riding upon a rail. He bit them hard, and they winced; but they took no ruffianly vengeance such as they are reported to be in the habit of taking. One is pained at Mr. Sala's views on the negro question; but, on the whole, one is inclined to look upon his picture as a faithful representation of matters as they appeared to a writer who was far from a "Northern sympathiser," who was on the look out for literary capital, and who was expected to make of his capital the most that he possibly could. Mr. Sala was, of course, dependent to a considerable extent upon hearsay, but it will be profitable in the interest of truth to compare what he says at p. 361 and. at p. 377, vol. ii, with what has been written about Sherman's barbarity in driving out the inhabitants from Atlanta and about the composition of the Northern armies. We read, with respect to the former, "all the inhabitants who were able fled from before the dreaded Yankees," from which one would infer that there was no great hardship in removing those who would have gone had they been able, and that Hood's letter to Sherman was mere "tabu talk;" and with respect to the latter, "the best blood, the best bone, the best sinew, of the Northern States have already been offered up to this Moloch. There is scarcely a Unionist family--from that of the millionaire merchant to that of the petty farmer and store-keeper--which has not sent a son, a brother, and often even a father and bread-winner to the war;" from which one would infer that the Northern armies are not entirely, or even principally, composed of "Irish and German mercenaries." It is true that Sherman's reply to Hood does not quite bear out the inference we have said might be drawn, so that Mr. Sala's account may not be literally correct; but as regards the composition of the Union armies, Mr. Sala is as likely to be well informed as any other "special correspondent" or "commissioner," and it is desirable, whatever one's individual sympathies may be, that truth should not be sacrificed to prejudice and passion.