Stranger in a Strange Land

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No, this isn’t about the science fiction novel by Robert Heinlein–jet back 200 years to America as a new nation, when an Englishman visited the former colony to see what he could see. This is Charles W. Janson’s The Stranger in America, first published in 1807.

Janson lived in America from 1793 to 1805, and did not like what he saw, or at least felt that the rise of Jeffersonian democracy was guided by the devil. He lived for some time in Rhode Island, where he failed in business, and traveled in the South, equally hating Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia, where he was defrauded in the Yazoo land scheme. In the Preface is a wonderful and biting critique of American self-love, still prevalent and observable today:

Americans make a point of denying every truth that in any way tends to expose a defective habit, or a national error. They bow before the shrine of adulation, fondly conceiving themselves the merited favorites of heaven; and the United States “a country where triumph the purest principles of legislation which ever adorned civil society; a country in which the human character is already elevated to a superior species of man, compared with the miserable wretches of Europe.

There are so many delicious and snarky quotes in this book, I’ll just have to urge you to come in and read it. What’s also fabulous about our particular copy, is that it is from the collection of William Davis Miller (1887-1959), who was a past President of the Providence Public Library (his papers are at the Rhode Island Historical Society, see http://www.rihs.org/mssinv/Mss629-12.htm). Inside this volume is a letter and an invoice from the bookseller who procured the book for Miller in 1926 (Pickering & Chatto of London, a firm still operating today).

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