‘Magyar Amerika’: Hungarians in the United States of America, 1831-67, Part Two   Leave a comment

A Concise Comparison of the Works of Bölöni and Nedtvich



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Although Sándor Bölöni Farkas’s work was the most popular of his time, Károly Nendtvich’s Amerikai utam may be considered just as important. However, it was only published once, in 1858, whereas Bölöni’s work was re-published seven times since the first edition of 1834. Nendtvich’s work is more academic and circumspect, less enthusiastic about the States than Bölöni’s, though he still considers their institutions worthy of study, providing a model for other nations. Perhaps the difference is partly due to the very different times in which they were writing. Bölöni was a political idealist in the forefront of the movement for progress which culminated in the Revolution of 1848.

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Nendtvich, writing after the Habsburg reaction and before the Compromise of 1867, was far more of a realist. He had been a supporter of the reform movement in the 1840s, and so emphasised the effect of democracy on the political and economic life of a nation. Just as Bölöni’s work was a product of the romantic age in which he was writing, and contributed to the revolutionary spirit at the time of the political awakening of Hungary, so Nendtvich’s work was a product of a period in Hungarian history in which the ship of state was being carefully crafted by more sober politicians.

Fig . 1: The Tour of ……

006In terms of cityscapes and landscapes, both works give a colourful picture. Both Bölöni and Nendtvich visited the biggest cities on the east coast. Besides New York and Boston, they both saw Cambridge, Lowell, Albany, Buffalo, Pittsburg, Economy, Baltimore, Washington DC, Mount Vernon, Philadelphia and both went north, visiting Niagara Falls. Bölöni spent more time in Canada, visiting some Canadian towns, while Nendtvitch went further west to visit Chicago, Wisconsin, Illinois and Missouri. While Bölöni’s accounts are more broken up with his anecdotes and views on different topics, Nendtvich was careful to describe each city or town according to the same set of criteria. He observed the geometrical planning of the streets, the architecture, the population, the public buildings, economic and intellectual life, schools, universities, newspapers and associations.

Fig. 2: The Tour of…

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Both visitors were amazed by the rapid growth of the American cities. Nendvitch chronicled the recent, rapid growth of the newly-formed cities in Wisconsin, Illinois, Missori and Ohio. They both found Philadelphia to be the most beautiful city in the Union. Together with Boston, it was seen as a centre of culture and science as well as of charitable institutions. In Washington the immense planning of the capitol engaged the attention of both of them. They tboth thought Pittsburg similar to Manchester or Birmingham in Britain. They both regarded Baltimore as one of the biggest commercial centres in the US. Referring to Nendtvich’s introductory notes, Anna Katona has observed how …all Hungarians were struck by the beauty of the scenery in America. Nendtvich, she noted, was less impressed, but he did find Illinois and Pennsylvania particularly attractive.

Law and Order:

Both Bölöni and Nendtvich commented on the lack of a standing army and compulsory military service. Nendtvich observed that the United States did not need to maintain a large army in order to keep the recently acquired territories of Texas, Louisiana and Florida, which had only belonged to the Union for a short time. They also observed that although the number of policemen was limited, there were no more criminals than in European countries. Nendtvich remarked that this was partly due to the religious character of the American people and their commitment to civic order. There was, however, a considerable difference between the American and European practices regarding crime, as the Americans’ main concern was to prevent criminal incidents by promoting public education and that the American penitentiaries aimed to reform criminals by work, instead of humiliating them. Bölöni explained the principles of the Auburn and Pennsylvanian systems in these respects.

Equality and Slavery:

Bölöni found the notion of equality of citizens made him feel like a person reading a fairy tale. Nendtvich also observed the Americans’ indifferent attitude towards titles, which Hungarians found new and unusual. There was also an obvious absence of domestic servants, since no American man or woman would be willing to serve another man. However, they found the contradiction of this principle and practice in the institution of slavery revolting. Bölöni expressed his sorrow about slavery when he reached Maryland where slavery was legal at that time. However, he conceded that the slaves were probably happier in their civilised state, although unfree, than they had been in their primitive state, when they had freedom.

Nendtvich provided a more reasoned excuse for American slavery. First of all, it wasn’t the Americans who had brought black people to America to be slaves; second, those who had employed slaves had originally been Spanish; and third, the European immigrants were completely unfit for working on plantations in so hot a climate. He also believed that black people were not intended to be as intelligent as white people. He mentioned the discrimination he found against the freed slaves he saw in free states, and admitted that Europeans and even Hungarians were no better and perhaps worse, as they discriminated against other Europeans. Later, Nendtvich spoke out against active anti-Semitism in his own country and continent, though he was also against what he saw as the financial and political power of the Jews. This view resulted, later in his life, in him being accused of incitement against the Jews, in 1883, though the charge was later withdrawn.

Despite slavery being a great blemish on the North American Republic, both Bölöni and Nendtvich were impressed by its constitution. Bölöni not only wanted to make his readers understand the meaning of American freedom and equality in their institutions, but also pointed out how the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were indispensible pieces of furniture in all American households. Nendtvich, trying to expand the knowledge of his Hungarian readers, explained how the Ohio constitution guaranteed almost unlimited rights of its citizens and the unmatched self-restraint with which they exercised those rights. In regard to public elections and Presidential elections, while Bölöni provided the most detailed account, Nendtvich called the attention of his Hungarian readers to the lack of drunk people whose presence was usual at public elections in Hungary. Visiting the White House, Bölöni was impressed by the lack of formalities in the President’s retinue, and Nendtvich came to a similar conclusion about the simplicity of Presidential power, which they both regarded as the outcome of a democratic constitution.

Freedom of the Press and Religion:

The other manifestation of democracy was the freedom of the press and the great number of periodical publications. Bölöni had only praise for the American newspapers, though Nendtvich, observing the abundance of newspapers in every town, wondered whether their influence on the American people was entirely benign. He also wrote about the way the Americans edited their newspapers and referred to the numerous advertisements which were indispensable parts of the daily papers as well as the periodicals, as they provided enough money for publication, keeping the price low, making them accessible to all.

Religious freedom was also an important political issue for both travellers. For Bölöni, as an Unitarian, this was an essential part of the notion of freedom he admired in the USA, considering it to be the main message to deliver home to Hungary. Catholicism was in the ascendancy in Hungary under Habsburg rule, so his beliefs had been something of an obstacle to his career. Bölöni was ready to extend his tolerance to the beliefs of those religious sects which Nendvitch considered religious insanity, though the latter was willing to accept the traditional tolerance shown towards dissenting Americans such as the Quakers and, more recently, towards the Mormons. As Anna Katona has pointed out in her essay;

Yet in the American System he found a sure guarantee that none of the insane sects could endanger freedom overseas, thanks to the great Jefferson. 

Despite Thomas Jefferson’s founding principle of religious freedom, there were clashes between the followers of different religions in Cincinnati and elsewhere. Nendvitch emphasised that the Germans’ attitude to religion was completely different from that of the early Dutch and English puritan Americans. In the German states, since the Reformation and before Unification, the dominant religion in each territory and city had been decided by its ruler, with other churches barely tolerated. In spite of the fact that Americans were not forced to practice religion by law, they kept strictly to the rules of their faiths, including the observance of the Sabbath. While Bölöni was pleased to see people going to their chosen places of worship in perfect freedom three times a day every Sunday, Nendtvich emphasised the rather gloomy atmosphere this created and was pleased when he reached Cincinnati and found the air  not quite so stuffy with puritanism.

Economy and Society: 

Nendtvich was more concerned in his writing with the economic life of the States than Bölöni had been a generation earlier. He recognised the symbiotic connection which existed between economic development and the democratic government under which hard-working Americans could establish a comfortable life, such as the one he observed in Cincinnati. He also stressed that although the scholastic standards of American universities were lower than in Europe, the Americans were far better than all other nations in their application of knowledge to practical life. He acknowledged;

The American willingness to probe into new ways, make up his mind quickly, make rapid decisions, to be ready to improve, all qualities lacking in mid-nineteenth century Hungary.

Just as Bölöni’s book is full of observations on the political life of the States, Nendtvich’s work contains an abundance of examples for the rapid economic growth of the country. In most of the cities he visited he did not only mention the most important factories, but also found time to visit them. Of course, many of these would have been established and expanded in the intervening period between the two visits. He was particularly impressed by the conditions he found while visiting Boston, and described the industrial life of Cincinnati as a model for Hungarian industrialists, writing a whole chapter on it. He was less impressed by the speed of industrialisation in some of the recently populated territories, such as Wisconsin.

While the main purpose of Nendtvich’s study was to demonstrate to Hungarians that without the application of the natural sciences to industry no progress was possible, Bölöni had also, earlier, visited the industrial centres of Pittsburg and Lowell. He had observed that Lowell was the most industrial town in New England. They both observed the considerably higher wages and the opportunities that the factory system provided for its workers. Both were also interested in developments in transport and communications such as steam-boats, railroads, etc. Bölöni was deeply impressed by the recently cut Erie Canal, admiring the human skill and effort with which it was constructed. Nendvitch explained the practical management of the horse-drawn omnibus system which he witnessed in New York. Bölöni was fascinated by the American steamboats and he remarked that the Americans surpassed even the British in their application of steam-power. He also gave an account of the first-ever steamboat built in the States. Nendtvich was more scientific in his description of the structure of the boats and, of  course, they were not a novelty to him. Conversely, however, he was also pleased to see the large number of traditional sailing boats on the Hudson. He was sometimes horrified by the poor conditions on board the steamboats, but he also stressed that, during the development of the American cities such as Davenport, the good communications and transport systems in the form of canals and railroads, had had a tremendous effect  on the improvements in trade and industry.

Bölöni also went into raptures about the steam-carriage on the city streets, but believed that carriages running on rails were still the future, even in the cities, just as he had seen in Manchester. This belief was fulfilled by the time of Nendtvich, who doesn’t mention steam-carriages or steam-omnibi. He travelled everywhere either by steamboat or train, and, between Jamesville and Afton, by stage-coach. Of course, the coach had been an invention of the Hungarians, named after the village of Kocs (pronounced with a ch sound) where it had been invented in the fifteenth century, as a large, closed four-wheeled carriage with comfortable suspension, with two or more horses harnessed, driven by a coachman and used to travel long distances, by stages. So, Nendtvich travelled by stage, in a coach, one similarity with contemporary travel in Hungary. He admitted that, although travelling by train was quick, it was definitely less comfortable, because there were always more passengers than the carriages were designed to take.

Manners and Social Life:

Nendtvich gave a thorough picture of the manners and social life at this time, devoting a whole chapter to a description of the Yankees, even describing their physical appearance in less than flattering terms. However, he praised the enterprising spirit and zeal which characterised their everyday life. He agreed with other European travel writers that there were some defects in the manners of the new nation which were difficult to tolerate, such as chewing tobacco, spitting and general bad behaviour at the theatre, but he took issue with some writers, such as Mrs Trollope, who had accused Americans of a universal deficiency in good manners and graceful demeanor, both in men and women…Nendtvich agreed that their eating habits were strange and almost impolite, but was convinced that their quickness had a very practical reason, that of not wasting time on unnecessary trivia during meals, such as conversation, but to spend as much time as was necessary on eating and then get back to work as soon as possible.

One of Nendvitch’s main concerns was to refute the prejudice that Americans were obsessed with money-making and that they were also mean with their money. He remarked on the hypocrisy of these criticisms coming from rich European aristocrats who were ready to lose their inherited fortune in one night of gambling but were afraid of making donations to charity. The favourable attitude of many Americans towards alms-giving had also caught Bölöni’s attention. He remarked that all the institutions in New York were private foundations, something unknown to Hungarians, as well as to most Europeans who, even then, expected every essential public service to be provided by governments, local if not national.

Bölöni was by the generally democratic way of behaviour, observing that the Americans were not accustomed to bowing and were unfamiliar with the niceties of etiquette. He attributed their simple but cordial conduct to their political system. Nendtvich also approved of the egalitarian nature of social intercourse in America and did not miss the snobbery of European etiquette which, by his generation, was unknown to most Americans. Bölöni also wrote about differing concepts of luxury in Europe and America. The first time he realised that this was valued in American homes he felt disappointed, because he found it irreconcilable with the value of simplicity. Both travellers were impressed by the hospitality they received, for both were invited to the homes of only recently acquainted Americans. Nendtvich noticed that, nonetheless, they never invited anyone they didn’t like, so that an invitation was an expression of their appreciation and not given merely out of a sense of duty or politeness.

However, Nendtvich also noted that, while they tolerated any immigrant minority which was willing to obey the existing laws and mores of American life, the established Anglo-Saxon settlers generally hated the Germans, because they often ignored the puritan customs of the areas they moved into, especially by drinking and revelling on Sundays, when the established Americans went to church three times. The Germans in Milwaukee also set up their own theatre, the presence of which was not greatly appreciated by the host population. He disapproved of the conditions of theatres, often the least attractive buildings in the cities.

Nendtvich also mentioned an encounter with a Hungarian immigrant, Toto, whom he met in Madison. He commented that Toto was a good example of complete assimilation into the puritan ethic and ethos of the States. When Bölöni visited there was more of a raw atmosphere of a great diversity of people bursting with energy, living and working, quite literally, in each other’s pockets. This, he observed, was no bad thing for the future unity and progress of the American nation.

Nendtvich also observed that the Americans did not waste time and money on public parties and, if they did hold such events, they were often rather awkward affairs. Although they liked dancing, they were not good at it. He seemed to agree with Mrs Trollope that in matters of taste and learning they are woefully deficient. However, he also wrote that the Americans could not be condemned for these insignificant defects, when they continued to achieve so many significant improvements. Bölöni also mentioned being invited to a ball, but he was more interested in the people attending than the amusements.

Attitudes of/ to women and children:

While Bölöni had earlier mentioned the chivalrous and deferential attitude of American men towards women, despite their apparent egalitarianism in other respects, Nendtvich described the life of American women very thoroughly, including detailed observations on their behaviour and education. He was impressed by the careful attention with which they were approached in every situation. He observed that women had their own nicely furnished parlours in every hotel and even on steamboats, that they were the first to be served at meals, and that they were always offered a seat on a train or omnibus whenever they got on. At the same time, women received higher education in the States at a time when they were still excluded from entering universities in Europe. As a result, they were often far more sophisticated in their conversation, and they never blushed! He was surprised when he noticed that young girls travelled alone, considered far too dangerous in Europe. He explained that this was because every woman and girl naturally assumed that every man was her natural protector.

Nendtvich was also concerned to comment on children in America. By contrast, Bölöni had shown little interest in the lives of women and children in his study. American children, whom Mrs Trollope referred to as little republicans, seemed to Nendtvich to be brought up in a completely different way to their counterparts in Europe. American parents were never impatient with them and were not disturbed by the noise of other children. They also avoided the use of corporal punishment as a means of correction and education. They were not taught to be modest, to be seen but not heard, but, on the contrary, they were encouraged to take first place everywhere. Parents disapproved of prohibitions because they thought they would damage the independence of their children.

The negative results of this relaxed discipline sometimes caught Nendtvich’s eye, especially when he was visiting Harvard University and noticed orange peel and nuts littering the ground everywhere. He disapproved of this degree of looseness but welcomed the overall outcome of this more liberal form of education, that of nurturing young Americans who were confident, independent and unspoiled by their parents. In matters of finance, he contrasted rich European and rich American parents. The European parents would bestow their fortunes in allowances on their children as soon as they came of age, but the Americans would expect their sons, and sometimes their daughters, to work hard in the family business or another business in order to become self-reliant, diligent and useful citizens before settling their full inheritance on them. Otherwise, they argued, their children would quickly lose their fortunes, not knowing how to administer the funds.

Education:

On education, both Bölöni and Nendtvich reached the same conclusion, that elementary schools provided a high standard. They were both impressed by the support given by Americans to their schools and this made them aware of the differences between attitudes to public education in the States, Europe and Hungary. Although Bölöni had visited Harvard University in Cambridge, Nendtvich was more concerned with higher education, never-failing to visit any university in the cities where he stayed. He went to both Harvard and Yale, and also paid visits to medical colleges in St Louis, New York, Cincinnati and Philadelphia. The last of these was called the medical metropolis of the United States. Although he praised the readiness of the Americans to found universities, he stressed their low standard compared with European ones. However, he believed that, in theoretical sciences at least, this was only temporary, as the Americans seemed determined to catch up with the Europeans. In his opinion, they had already overtaken them in practical sciences, which he felt was significant, as he considered the application of the practical sciences to industry as the key to industrial progress. He also set great store by the patriotism of the Americans in believing their country to be the biggest and best in the world. Since their self-confidence was well-founded on the scientific study of their own country, he felt it was a justified world view.

Another indispensible means of popular education, public libraries, came in for analysis in the works of both travellers. Bölöni commented that he never visited any small town in the States which did not possess a public library. Nendtvich wrote about the Astor Library in New York, as well as the libraries in Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Boston. Also, both were impressed by the great number and variety of associations. Nendtvich referred to the Society of Oddfellows in Cincinnati, and both found the Smithsonian and Philadelphian libraries remarkable. The interest in these societies was said to be due to the fact that in the States, public and private interests were easily reconciled. Nendtvich was pleased to see how the Americans were concerned with popularising the theoretical sciences, and both travellers testified to the way in which Washington’s founding principles of an enlightened and educated democracy were being implemented with remarkable results.

Political and Economic ‘Models’?:

It is not surprising that the influence of the democratic model provided by Bölöni’s book was far greater in the period of Hungary’s awakening than that of Nendtvich, which was published only six years after the defeat of the Revolution of 1848-9, when the movement progress and reform was still alive, but muted and truncated. The lack of independence and self-government were severe obstacles for a country in dire need of economic change. Nevertheless, Nendtvich’s book, by emphasising the independence of different states through the Ohio Constitution, by giving examples of rapid economic transformation in the cities of the US and by demonstrating the favourable effects of a democratic constitution regarding religion, the press, institutional life and education, was as important in its time as Bölöni’s. It drew fresh attention to the importance of the American ideas first popularised in Hungary by Bölöni, which had been suppressed by the Habsburg reaction. Besides their common interests in the democratic institutions of the United States, their books also provide us with uniquely Hungarian insights into the mid-nineteenth century lifestyles of American citizens. Being more scientific and less enthusiastic in his method than Bölöni, Nendtvich was not as depressed when leaving America as his forerunner, but pleased to have seen the young country with his own eyes. However, he was just as convinced that this country was, and would be, an example for all the nations of the world to follow. After the historic Compromise of 1867, his work could begin to have practical effects within his own nation.

Hungarians in the Civil War and after, 1862-1867:

Count Béla Szechenyi, the adventurous son of the reformer István, also wrote about his 1862 travels to the US. He praised the role of American women, and the US educational system, but criticised the treatment of African-Americans and Amerindians, as well as complaining that Americans sometimes displayed rude manners.

These petty aristocratic criticisms of American manners and customs which also featured in the works of other Europeans were soon overshadowed by a new perspective on the United States as a country making rapid economic progress, but first it had to go through the crucible of civil war. Many Hungarians actively participated in the American Civil War, almost all on the Union side. Several continued their public service after the war, most notably in the diplomatic corps.

003For example, Hungarian exile and Civil War veteran Philip Figyelmesy was appointed as the US Consul at Demerara (Georgetown), Guyana, in 1865. In February 1866, former Union Army Colonel George Pomutz began a long career as an American diplomatic representative in the Russian Empire, first as US Consul in St Petersburg and then as Consul General. Another exile, Sándor (Alexander) Asbóth, ended the war with the rank of Major General. He was then appointed as the US Minister to Argentina in 1866, where he served until his death from war wounds two years later. At the request of  The Co-ordinating Committee of Hungarian Organisations in North America, Major General Asboth’s remains were exhumed from the English cemetary in Buenos Aires and re-intered in Arlington National Cemetary in 1990. Gyula (Julius) Stahel-Számvald was appointed US Consul at Kanagawa, Japan, in June 1866. He had also served in the Union Army in the Civil War, also rising to the rank of Major General and later receiving the Medal of Honor for heroic conduct during the 1864 Battle of Piedmont. Following his appointment in 1866, he went on to a distinguished and honourable diplomatic career in both Japan and China, exposing corrupt practises in US consulates in Asia.

011Another immigrant who left Hungary in 1864 to serve in the American Civil War was Joseph Pulitzer, who founded the most prestigious journalistic prize in the world, having been born in the small town of Makó. After the War he became a well-known publisher and, in 1892, he offered money to Columbia University to set up the world’s first school of journalism. However, the Graduate School  did not open its doors for another twenty years, after his death. The first Pulitzer prizes were awarded in 1917, in accordance with his wishes.

Select bibliography of secondary sources:

 

Bolgár György (2009), Made in Hungary. Budapest: Kossuth Kiadó.

US Department of State (2007), The United States and Hungary. Washington: Bureau of Public Affairs.

Rozinka Stefánia (1989), Two Hungarians on the United States – Bölöni and Nendtvich. Szeged: Attila József University M.A. Dissertation (unpublished).

Katona Anna (1971), Hungarian Travelogues on the Pre-Civil-War US, in Hungarian Studies in English, V. Debrecen: KLTE.

Katona Anna (1973), Nineteenth Century Hungarian Travelogues on the Post-Civil-War United States in Hungarian Studies in English, VII. Debrecen: KLTE.

Pachter, Marc (ed.) (1976), Abroad in America: Visitors to the New Nation, 1776-1914. Smithsonian Institute: Addison-Wesley.

Jancsó Elemér (1972), Bölöni Farkas Sándor in Irodalomtörténet és időszerűség. Bukarest: Kriterion.

Könnyü László (1975), Xantus János geográfus Amerikában, 1851-1864. St. Louis: Unknown.

Sándor István (1970), Xantus János. Budapest: Magvető.

Sztáray Zoltán (1986), Haraszthy Ágoston, a kaliforniai szőlőkultúra atya. New York: Püski.

Vasváry Ödön (1988), Magyar Amerika. Szeged: Somogyi Könyvtár.

© ChandlerozConsultants, Kecskemét, Hungary, 2013. November 3.

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